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Picking the best of all the great Irish music CDs released in 2013

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Thomas Johnston (left) and John Rafferty.
Thomas Johnston (left) and John Rafferty.

This was a year of name changes, tempo changes and music business changes. Many of the artists on this annual “best of” list are independent, which means there is no record company supporting them.

Now more than ever, I urge you to support these artists by filling the stockings of those music fans on your list with CDs and tickets to live shows. This was indeed a year for a bumper crop of great tunes, and here are our picks for the very best of them. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Empire Circus: Empire Circus
The band formerly known as Stand used the departure of their drummer as an excuse to re-brand and re-tool their sound into a happy, dance-y mish mosh of crunchy guitar riffs and soaring synth melodies.

Producer-engineer-mixer Bryce Goggin (Ramones, the Morning Glories) adds some delectable sonic surprises to the mix.  “Everything Amounts to Nothing” is a sweet slice of eighties bubblegum pop that is pure summer fizz.

Storyman: Storyman
Looks like this was the year to change names.  Mayo folk duo Mick Lynch and Kevin May ditched the name Guggenheim Grotto and emerged as Storyman. They took to PledgeMusic for fan funding, invested in a band and had fun with studio trickery.

“This Time Round” paints a bright musical canvas using many palettes. Songs like “Here Is My Cup” and “Electric Life” have the kind of classic synthy alt-rock cool you’d find on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack back in the 1980s.

Tara O’Grady: A Celt in the Cotton Club
O’Grady makes a sassy, fizzy cocktail of bossa ‘n’ blues that’s perfect for a spring garden brunch or a romantic evening. She accomplishes this by retooling the classic melodies of the most popular Irish parlor songs into a martini mixer, shakes and stirs the life out of it, and pours out something unique and delightful.

“Black Is the Color” is a sexy bossa nova tango that bounces on a summer breeze. “Go Lassie Go” is a jumpin’ jivin’ saxophone-laden ditty atop the purr of an upright acoustic bass. “Too Ra Loo Ra” has a closing time feel, with O’Grady’s torchy delivery couched by a lazy snare beat and lingering blues chord structure.

John Rafferty: Lucky
This Brooklyn native is the outer borough cousin of another tortured Irish tunesmith, Bruce Springsteen, with the songs from Lucky reminiscent of Nebraska, the Boss’s stark acoustic masterpiece.

A lonesome harmonica riff starts off Lucky as Rafferty paints an urban picture about a run-in with the police. “Cop in the subway stuck an eye in my cup/he said pour it out Paddy I’ve seen enough,” Rafferty sings on “St. Patrick’s Day,” a tune whose chorus “watch me chase the snakes away/I can think of something to say/raise your glass to St. Patrick’s Day” makes it a perfect addition to jukeboxes in Irish pubs worldwide.
For more information on Rafferty, visit www.brooklynraff.com.

The Rend Collective: Campfire Songs
This Northern Ireland group rides the wave of popular Appalachian roots music that includes the like of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, but for a higher purpose. “Lord, we open up our hearts to you. We let down our walls/sing my soul, Llewellyn chants on the infectious “Come On,” the opener for Campfire Songs.

The foot-stomping joy provides the percussion that drives a melody that is impossible to get out of your head. “It’s time to look up,” they sing in the chorus. Even a jaundiced eye like mine got misty at the prospect.

“You Bled” has great lines like, “you gave your beauty for my ugliness” that is vague enough to double as both a praise of God and a love song to someone here on earth. It calls to mind the uncanny lyrical ability of Bono, who paints in vague and specifics with the same brushstroke.
Check them out on www.rendcollective.com

Thomas Johnston: Highway Signs and Highway Lines
A fantastic creator of Irish American folk music, Johnston is a courageous storyteller who is unafraid to lay his soul bare on songs like “Grasping for Answers.” He sings, “I have a woman’s love; I have another woman’s scorn/I had the opportunity to watch my child be born/He’s now a young man with dreams/He has a vision that is so grand/He knows I’ll always be there to lend him a hand.”

Highway Lines has gentle brushstrokes of bluesy guitar licks, introspective songwriting and gentle delivery, making it a perfect easy listening companion of Irish tunes on a Sunday morning as you repent for sins at the pub the night before.

To hear the album, visit www.cdbaby.com/cd/thomasjohnston.

Damien Dempsey: Almighty Love
I’m willing to wager that Irish history will be told 50 years from now using Damo’s music today. Since Seize the Day in 2004, when he warned about Celtic Tiger greed, Dempsey has been chronicling Irish life with a reporter’s eye for detail, and he continues the trend on Almighty Love.

“Canadian Geese” is a metaphor for the young Irish fleeing their homeland to escape the ravages of a battered economy, singing “in my mind I up and join them and we glide out of Ireland’s eye.” Dempsey’s brand of folk can be tender or forceful on the turn of a dime, making him one of Ireland’s greatest live folk singers working today.

Clannad: Nádúr
Nádúr (pronounced ned-dur), is the Gaelic word for nature and the title of Clannad’s new disc.  It’s a fitting title as the album sees the family band – siblings Moya, Ciarán and Pól Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Padraig Duggan – back together on record as the full original line-up for the first time since the 1989 album Past Present.

“Turas Domhsa chon na Galldachd” is classic Clannad — ethereal Gaelic poetry sung in otherworldly harmonies, a muted bagpipe in the distance providing that extra tingle to the spine.

While the past is referenced in the new music, Clannad wisely chose not to dwell on it.

On “The Fishing Blues,” southern fried harmonica bounces along with acoustic strumming and a playful bass line that makes a Southern Comfort cocktail just that.

Barleyjuice: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
As the name would imply, the songs on this album are as about as dainty as a charging bull. The band has finally cracked that mythical code of producing an album that sounds exactly like their legendary live shows!

“Parish Jig” is the kind of track you’d put on before raping and pillaging a virgin island for her buried treasure. In a vocal delivery that can be best described as coming to after a long hangover and drooling on the pillow through each syllable, Brewer shouts, “Heave away this plastic Mary/for the truth shall be named and the rest shall remain in the dear old Catholic guilt” as a means to cranking up the raucous ditty called “Catholic Guilt.”

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