This past year further stretched the boundaries of Irish music. The artists on this list run the gamut from chart-topping pop to folk to the diddly-diddly you know and love.
I’m publishing this best of 2011 list early in the hopes that some of these worthy artworks will make their way into stockings hung by the chimneys with care by that special Irish music fan in your life. My very best to you and yours for a Happy Christmas!
Beannacht’s Gra na Firinne (Love of Truth):
This gets my vote for rookie of the year! Beannacht’s songs are intricate acoustic folk tapestries that envelope Deirdre Forrest’s warm vocals. “Your love of truth is all that you need, your love of truth will set you free,” the duo sings on the chorus of the title track, an album standout. To order Beannacht’s Gra Na Firinne or to hear samples of the music, log onto http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/beannacht.
Lisa Hannigan’s Passenger:
This is a brilliant swirl of the folk, the jazz and good ol’ fashioned Irish storytelling, giving the listener a most satisfying ride! On most of Passenger, the violin of Lucy Wilkins provides that perfect extra smidgen of ache to the longing vocals.
Like great jazz singers, Hannigan’s aching phrasing becomes yet another instrument on the mix. The hushed composure in her vocal delivery falls in line with the brushed drums that start “Paper House” before raising to match the ache of the fiddle chorus at the end of the song.
Seamus Kelleher’s Another Side of Town:
The guitarist left his comfort zone of Blackthorn, a legendary Irish American outfit that consistently sold out venues throughout the Philadelphia area, in order to pursue a solo career.
His first album, Four Cups of Coffee, landed on this column’s best of list a few years ago. His new disc, Another Side of Town, is equally impressive.
Kelleher, a native of Salthill, Co. Galway, has turned in performances with Blackthorn steeped in the blues, a side effect of a lifelong obsession with the legendary blues great Rory Gallagher. The folksy acoustic picking that anchors the title track on Another Side of Town sets an agenda that something different is in the air. For more information, log into www.seamusk.com.
Moya Brennan’s Harps and Voices:
This is a gorgeous collection of songs driven by the brilliant harp work of Cormac DeBarra, a member of Brennan’s touring band and a much-sought after producer and player that has worked with the likes of Ashley Davis.
The intoxicating combination of Brennan’s ethereal voice and phrasing with the rich tones of an Irish harp is sheer joy. “She Moved Through the Fair” and “The Streets of Derry” are just some of the gorgeous songs on Harps and Voices.
This is not just a fantastic CD, it’s also an educational movement and celebration that Brennan has spread to Ireland. She and DeBarra recently hosted a workshop and invited the public to Donegal to partake in lessons and collaborations with harpists and vocalists.
Jameson’s Revenge’s While Yer Up:
This traditional band of hooligans breaks the mold of traditional Irish music. That is by design, according to singer and vocalist John Walsh.
“The way we were going about it was to create Irish music for the rest of us,” he explains. “We are not purists. It’s not like we don’t get along with everyone, but it’s just that we feel the traditional music players don’t like when you mess with the formula that is set in stone.”
The collection begins innocently enough, with “The Durty Konway/Hogan’s Hill,” a feisty workout of acoustic instruments that sounds suspiciously like a trad ditty.
The bodhran work of percussionist Brian McCarthy takes some refreshingly funky turns on tracks like “The I-Hop” as Andrew McCarrick layers sweet flutes and whistles on the beat like syrup on a pancake.
The woodwinds add a Jethro Tull drama to the mix, turning this traditional reel on its ear.
“Mama’s Porch” has the sweet hayseed charm of a slow dance at the barn, and though “The Golden Shower” title makes your mind make a beeline to the gutter, the tune has the sweetness of morning dew.
It’s that irreverent play on words and sounds that makes While Yer Up such a winner.
Gavin Friday’s Catholic:
Country heartache, Bowie-synths, sci-fi swirls, epic strings, trance, and chilly Germanic rhythms run through an album that is a glorious study in contradiction.
“Able,” the album opener, has a crisp eighties pop sheen that you’d hear on a Psychedelic Furs album, while “Song That Hurts” has a lazy, acoustic cabaret feel underneath the singer’s cracked falsetto. The lyrics are equally gorgeous.
“I want to be able to hold my own/to breathe without drowning/to find a home,” he whispers on “Able,” a song that brings the man out of the dark and into the sunlight of bold survival in 4:46.
George Murphy’s The Ballad of Archie Thompson:
The bar scene in Dublin has produced a number of bright folk stars, but there are so many wannabe balladeers trying to cross the pond through my mailbag that this reviewer sometimes feels like he’s swimming in the poop to find the pony.
Yet every once in a while a young Irish singer makes it all worthwhile. From the first note out of his mouth George Murphy gives the listener an instant connection to Liam Clancy, Luke Kelly and the best balladeers of our culture.
It’s the ragged, desolate quality in his voice on the traditional ditty “Peggy Gordon” that tells you you’re onto something truly special. He puts a lump in your throat and a knot in your rib cage as he sings, “I'm so in love I can't deny it/My heart lies smothered in my breast/It's not for you to let the world know it/A troubled mind can know no rest,” and digs himself out of “the lonesome valley.”
The Waterboys’ An Appointment With Mr. Yeats:
Mike Scott revisits the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Do you need to know anything else?
“The Hosting of the Shee” starts off the collection with a watery piano that fades in and slams into a wave of guitars that is the musical equivalent of a churning Irish Sea.
A soulful electric piano rolls under “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” a poem that Christy Moore and others have also put to song.
Scott is accompanied by Dublin singer Katie Kim, who adds an ethereal, Wiccan vibe that blends perfectly with Scott’s mystical phrasings.
Album of the Year
The Script’s Science and Faith:
The sophomore slump is one of the oldest cliches in the music business, and there would be a better than even chance that the Script might be a flash in the pan instead of the “next big thing.”
In 2011, the Script made an album that is both worthy of their hype and better than the first album that brought on the fame in the first place.
“You Won’t Feel a Thing” is an exuberant rocker that hints at the tough core that lurks underneath the pretty faces of O’Donoghue, Mark Sheehan and Glen Power.
“For the First Time” follows the script of a typical Script hit sonically, but the lyrics go deeper quickly. Is this just another love song, or is the band describing what it was like to return home from Ireland after a wildly successful year that saw their country fall into a deep financial hole at the same time?
This is the level of maturity in songwriting that makes this disc such a winner. Pop music with a brain that rules the charts and is not just for teenyboppers -- imagine that!