Before the Christmas break I took a look at the best Irish albums of the decade, and there was an abundance of great music to choose from. The same held true for this side of the Atlantic.
Listed below are the best things that landed in our mailbags from Irish American bands.
All of these artists work tirelessly on the road and are our best hope at keeping Irish culture alive in an era of digital downloads and declining pub attendance.
Make a New Year’s resolution and see every one of these bands in the next 12 months. It will show bar owners here in the States that Irish rock can still pack ‘em in!
Prodigals: Needs Must When the Devil Drives
“I do have certain very specific feelings connected with that album,” says Prodigals leader Gregory Grene when asked to reflect on Needs Must, the band’s album from 2003.
“This album was recorded immediately following two seminal events in my life -- one was the passing of my father, and the other was the birth of my daughter.”
There were also another set of lineup changes in store for the band that bled into the recording process. Singer Colm O’Brien added a hoarse and gritty barroom feel to the tidy soda bread soul of the band -- if Grene was the jig, O’Brien was the punk in this jig punk outfit at the time.
“We just found out that Colm was going to be leaving the band, to have his own lovely kid, and that lent a poignant resonance to the recording as well,” Grene said.
He didn’t leave before contributing to some Prodigals classics, including “Uncle Arthur,” a drunken sing-along to founder of the famous Guinness brewery, and “Ball of Alcohol,” a ferocious rave-up in which he screams, “I can’t get drunk enough.”
To find out where the Prodigals play next, log onto www.prodigals.com.
Enter the Haggis: Casualties of Retail
From the metallic stomp of “Music Box” to the Appalachian hayseed of “Another Round,” this Canadian Scotch-Irish outfit touches on a dizzying array of textures to achieve a modern Celtic classic on this disc.
Fiddles howl like lost souls moaning for a spare prayer, while the band’s pristine harmonies, especially on the prog-rock instrumentals “Congress” and “Martha Stuart,” come shining through.
They slow things down briefly for an introspective “She Moved Through the Fair,” giving the listener a much needed break from the ferocity.
“We were definitely pretty proud of what we'd done at the time and were excited to get it to the fans,” singer Trevor Lewington says.
“That being said, after listening to the same songs everyday for a month straight, you're happy for some time away from the music. Shortly after the album was released it was clearly a fan favorite, and tracks such as ‘Gasoline,’ ‘Down With the Ship’ and ‘Congress’ stood out as hits for the band.”
Enter the Haggis also gives back to the Celtic community by putting out Rootstomp compilations that offer a showcase to lesser known Celtic bands. Check them out on enterthehaggis.com.
Dropkick Murphys: Blackout
Like most Irish punk outfits, Dropkick Murphys (pictured above) toiled away for years in the shadow of the Pogues. By the time they released Blackout in 2003, they had fashioned those influences into one loud, raucous, chaotic mix that stood in its own genre.
“So you say you fell in love and you're gonna get married/raise yourself a family, how simple life can be/somewhere it all went wrong and your plans just fell apart/and you ain't got the heart to finish what you started,” screams lead singer Al Barr on the albums opener, “Walk Away.” The track shoots sparks with shooting guitars and thundering drums as Barr lends an angry voice to “the ones that you loved and left behind.”
Dropkick Murphys honor the ancient art of storytelling with some wicked covers of traditional classics. “Fields of Athenry” plays up the Irish defiance in the face of starvation and famine, while “Black Velvet Band” is a hopped up jig of molten lava.
If this band is not in the jukebox of your Irish bar, you are well advised to find another Irish bar! To hear samples of Blackout, check out dropkickmurphys.com.
Black 47: Trouble in the Land
BLACK 47 became the musical soundtrack of Irish America in the nineties. With a recent wave of Irish immigrants flooding into New York during the late eighties, a hunger for home drove a new musical genre in the bars of Bainbridge Avenue.
Black 47 rose to stardom by combining Irish melodies with gritty hip hop beats, caustic raps about British rule and driving riffs swept off the floor at CBGBs.
By 2000, the band had seen fame come and go. Their MTV fifteen minutes of fame had come and gone, founding member Chris Byrne was about to depart, and lead singer Larry Kirwan was running out of gas.
The band used that angst to create the gritty Trouble in the Land in 2000. As was the band’s trademark, they touched on a dizzying array of musical influences.
“Those Saints” was a Mardi Gras parade, “Desperate” was a swaying reggae cocktail, and “I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave” was an injection of snarling punk energy.
Their Irishness is front and center on “Bodhrans on the Brain,” a hilarious rocker about Kirwan’s beat crazy girlfriend that gets wooed by a bodrhan maker. “More power to your elbow!” the girlfriend shouts when Kirwan can’t keep up the pace.
“We were experimenting melding jazz, gospel, funk and other genres with revved up Irish rock-trad,” says Kirwan.
“There was a general what the hell feeling of stretching out, seeing what would happen before the bloody boulder dropped. The highs for me was melding the hip-hop, New Orleans jazz, and Irish trad influences in ‘Those Saints,’ and capturing the biographical ache of the two ballads, ‘Falling Off the Edge of America,’ and ‘Tramps Heartbreak.’
“The latter was about my grandfather who had raised me. He had been an imposing figure and to assert myself I had to cut myself free and leave him behind. There’s always a price to pay for that, and it’s summed up well in that song.”
Trouble sounds like a greatest hits Black 47 album, encapsulating everything that makes them great. Check them out on black47.com.
Pierce Turner: 3 Minute World
This is an orchestral pop masterpiece, plain and simple. We may all argue over what albums deserve to be on a list like this, but no one will argue that Turner is one of the most original voices on this list or any other, for that matter.
A record obsessed with time, Turner vacillates with measuring it and reflecting on how it slips through the fingers like sand. Time is everywhere -- the ticking of clock parts provides percussion and the chimes providing cymbal crashes.
A dreamy merry-go-round melody induces drowsiness on “You Won’t Mind” as Turner lazily mourns the fact that he has missed his train.
“I’m a busy man/I’m up to my eyes but I remain calm/have you seen the time/honest to goodness how the days fly by/I have to find a pair of socks I could live with plus a t-shirt that’s cleaner than the one I wore to bed,” he sings on “Busy Man” as whimsical strings and chimes float in the background.
It’s surreal and cinematic stuff, like a musical concoction made by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Check him out at pierceturner.com.