The one thing that many of us had to fall back on this year was music. With no gigs, open mics or song cycles to attend, many of us depended on live stream gigs in the first lockdown. It wasn’t long before we all got a little bit sick of your local busker doing a Facebook livestream from his bedroom in his mother’s house (throwing some shade at myself there lol).

Thankfully, the quality of releases this year was unreal. In March I was one of the judges of the 2019 Choice Prize – an honour, but a difficult task, attempting to narrow down a substantial list of quality albums to just ten and then decide with ten other judges the best of the bunch. I am utterly relieved that I don’t have that responsibility this year.

The reason I’ve written up a Top 30 is simply because there were too many incredible albums this year that would have been an injustice to omit. A disclaimer, this list is one person’s opinion on a given day. If I had listened to these albums again last week, the list may be different. I’ve used the Choice Prize long list to put this together, so anything that qualifies for the Choice Prize qualifies here. The reason I say that is that a couple of mixtapes have been included.

Here’s numbers 30 – 16

30. Eve BelleInbetween Moments (Rubyworks)

Eve Belle had a busy year in 2020 between her involvement with Irish Women in Harmony and the release of her debut record. The Donegal artist’s debut probably went slightly under the radar this year but that doesn’t take away from its quality. Traditional songwriting elevated by masterful pop production, these songs would sound equally as endearing on just an acoustic guitar.

29. Aoife Nessa FrancesLand of No Junction (Ba Da Bing Records)

From start to finish, Aoife Nessa Frances’ debut feels a bit like a boat journey, a gentle bobble across a calm sea. Although rooted in folk, Land of No Junction reveals many layers throughout revealing elements of the artist’s previous career in shoegaze outfit Princess. As a single piece of work, Frances’ voice shines through as a melodic power surrounded by mellow ‘70s-esque instrumentation.

28. The OcelotsStarted to Wonder (Self-release)

Cult heroes on the folk scene in Ireland, The Ocelots have received unprecedented praise from their peers for their songwriting abilities. The Wexican twins are maestros of the close harmony and gently strummed acoustic guitar. Started to Wonder sounds like it could have been recorded in some forest in the wilds of the south-east. Equally as powerful as it is humble, The Ocelot’s debut resonates like a campfire’s warmth in the woods.

27. FinnianUnder the Influence (Blackmountain Records)

Dundalk’s Finnian Kelleher has one of the rawest voices in the country. Armed with his acoustic guitar and years of busking experience, Finnian has compiled an album of pure folk soul. Recorded in Blackmountain Studios, Under the Influence is an album full of pain and beauty in equal measure expertly articulated through groovy beats, funky basslines and charging Hammond organ. 

26. Peter VogelaarInner Creatures (Self-release)

Peter Vogelaar, as well as being one of Ireland’s most accomplished session musicians, has expertly demonstrated his intimate production quality on Inner Creatures. Featuring cameos from Deaf Joe, Katie Kim and Cat Dowling amongst others, the record totally transports you into a world of experimental, electronic escapism. Stole featuring Ken Lally is the best house track released in 2020.

25. Emma LangfordSowing Acorns (Self-release)

Limerick’s Emma Langford is one of Ireland’s most recognised folk voices at this stage. Sowing Acorns reveals a deeper understanding from Langford of the craft of songwriting. The record meanders through a range of tones and tempos. While He Came From The Sea and The Winding Way Down To Kells Bay are pure folk, curveballs such as Birdsong and Goodbye Hawaii demonstrate Langford’s versatility.

24. Bleeding Heart PigeonsStir (Hlym Records)

Back-to-back Limerick acts as Bleeding Heart Pigeons’ sophomore comes in at 24. The highly acclaimed Stir is reminiscent of new wave with a post-punk edge. Its vulnerabilities are reflected through its soundscapes. It absolutely would not have been out of place in the 80s. The kind of album that gets better with every listen.

23. Matt McGinnLessons of War (Self-release)

Released towards the very start of the year, Lessons of War is a masterful reflection on the effects of warfare across the world. McGinn’s ability to create a totally different sound to his 2018 album The End of the Common Man demonstrates the remarkability of his love for creating music. His trademark ability to write a hard-hitting protest song is a constant however. Bubblegum is one of the most heartbreakingly gorgeous songs penned in Ireland in the last five years.

22. One Morning in AugustOne Morning in August (Self-release)

Dad rock made a superb comeback in 2020 and leading the line are One Morning in August. The success of John Phelan and Stephen Byrne’s debut album this year earned them a deal with Cork based FIFA Records. The self-titled record is one of the most considered and measured bodies of work released this year. Every note, chord and lyric are perfectly complimentary of the record as a whole. An incredibly aurally satisfying 36 minutes and 4 seconds.

21. JyellowL2020 D|vision (Self-release)

The much-anticipated release from JyellowL is a long listen coming in at an hour and two minutes but its length is understandable – JyellowL is a man with a lot to say. It’s been my opinion for some time that Jean-Luc Uddoh has the best flow in the country. He’s fiery and fearless in his lyrics and that is what makes 2020 D|vision such an important record. It feels like a duty to listen to JyellowL, a duty you should be more than happy to fulfil.

20. Paddy HannaThe Hill (Strange Brew)

Hanna’s style is not for the casual listener – constantly experimenting and pushing himself to new extremes along with producer, Girl Band’s Daniel Fox. The Hill is his third record and is yet again, a totally different aural experience. Swapping out the strings from his last record Frankly, I Mutate for more vocal harmonies and coos, The Hill is littered with Italian motifs and synths.

19. Bitch FalconStaring at Clocks (Small Pond)

Bitch Falcon are a band that represent the very soul of music. Staring at Clocks floats somewhere between post-punk and something a bit heavier than shoegaze with Fitzpatrick’s vocals to the fore, constantly weaving a melody line that could be reproduced in a number of other genres. The passion that Bitch Falcon bring to their live shows shines through in the record making this album one of the most honest releases of the year.

18. ArboristA Northern View (Rollercoaster)

Arborist’s 2016 debut Home Burial was a phenomenal record that in hindsight, only showed the Belfast man’s promise as an artist. A Northern View takes Mark McCambridge to the next level. Although not a million miles from Home Burial in terms of production, McCambridge’s ambition is much clearer on this record. His lyrics throughout are bold and honest, and his voice is sweet and delicate. Spoken-word track Taxi represents his willingness to experiment with the art of storytelling through music. There’s a masterpiece in him yet.

17. Brigid Mae PowerHead Above The Water (Fire)

While Brigid Mae Power’s songwriting remains rooted in folk melodies and vocal style, Head Above the Water has a much broader sound to her previous releases. The record’s honesty is reflected in both lyric and music. Semi-autobiographical, Power sings of the compromise of love and the female experience. Accompanied by Hammond organs, Hawaiian guitars and cautious drumming, Power’s vulnerability is laid bare. The kind of record that you feel compelled to give the sleeve a hug while you listen.

16. SilverbacksFad (Central Tones)

Throw everything you think you knew about punk out the window and listen to Silverbacks. Beautifully giving the middle finger to over exaggerated reverb and distortion, Messiah-complex preachiness and 57-piece drum kits, Fad is the punk version of punk. The Dublin five-piece rely on tidy, jazz-like drumming, the cleanest electric guitar effects and the tightest bass riffs to sing about “politicians in denim” and how “the DJ won’t play The Boys Are Back in Town”. Silverback’s debut suggests a whole lifetime of ridiculously exciting tunes to come.