The end is nigh! Well, the end of 2021 at least. Hopefully 2022 will be kinder to artists than the last few years have been. Despite all of the sleepless night rescheduling events, the musicians of Ireland have somehow still managed to deliver a wonderful array of music for our listening pleasure. Here are some of our favourites.

For Those I Love – For Those I Love

This is an incredibly powerful and poignant exploration and validation of male friendship. Spurred on by the grief of losing his best friend Paul Curran to suicide, David Balfe has constructed a stunning, cinematic tribute, weaving childhood memories both good and bad with voice-notes and anecdotes from young adulthood, reminiscing about nights out and moments of unbridled joy, sorrow and disbelief on the terraces at Shelbourne games.

Every once in a while an album comes along which is a barometer of the national mood on a subject and the visceral reaction to this album is testament to the fact that far too many people in Ireland have their own Paul Curran.

Suicide is an issue that is simultaneously acknowledged but brushed under the carpet in this country. Balfe’s love and grief are palpable throughout and this album will act as a salve for those left behind for many years to come.

Villagers – Fever Dreams

Mr. Consistent himself does it again. Conor O’Brien’s engrossing run of albums - which no other Irish artist has been able to match this century - continues with 'Fever Dreams'. The record finds O’Brien and an assortment of friends exploring woozy psychedelic soundscapes, experimenting with pitch shifted vocals and jazz on a collection of tracks which simultaneously pay homage to the high romance of ’60s pop and jazz while also earnestly reaching forwards.

So Simpatico shimmers like a Sistine Chapel of sound across its seven minutes as it slowly builds into an opulent burst of colour – as if Harry Nilsson has run amuck with a harpsichord – culminating in the joyous life affirming refrain of “So simpatico, you are the one for me” before letting the saxophone gleefully run riot.

Despite the sweeping nature of much of the material, O’Brien is careful not to overplay his hand and isn’t afraid to rely on simple motifs or allow his bandmates to shine. Momentarily relies on a simple piano riff and showcases the vocals of the new villager in town; Jess Kav, whose silky vocals are a welcome addition throughout ‘Fever Dreams’.

Kojaque – Town’s Dead

Perhaps the most prophetic album title of 2021, 'Town’s Dead' is a concept album of sorts.

Set on New Year’s Eve, Kojaque’s friends, including comedian Darren Conway, fight about whether to go to town or go to a house party if they can find one.

Meanwhile, Kojaque gets the brush off from his girlfriend who is played by the undisputed queen of Irish hip-hop Biig Piig. Kojaque then descends into drug fuelled paranoia, questioning his manhood and place in the world. This brings him on a journey which sees him considering the major milestones of his life to date as well as lamenting the housing crisis, the brain drain and the hotelification of Dublin.

The title track samples Gilla Band’s Going Nowhere to great effect and the album also features wonderfully effective guest appearances from Celia Tiab and Irish hip-hop OG Maverick Sabre as well as sensational sax lines from Ryan Hargadon. 'Town’s Dead' is brimming with sorrow and self-deprecating wit and is easily one of the best Irish albums of 2021.

Orla Gartland – Woman On The Internet

Irish pop exile Orla Gartland has always done things her own way. Whether it be creating an army of Patreon subscribers to sustain herself, or jumping ship from the Dublin music scene where she was viewed as a hot prospect into the relative obscurity of being yet another singer songwriter in London.

It is completely in keeping with this tendency to eschew the tried-and-tested route that Gartland releases her debut album aged 26, some nine years after her debut single Devil On My Shoulder.

Musically, Gartland reels you in with hook-laden indie tracks such as Zombie! – one of the best Irish pop singles of the year – and spacious and emotive ballads such as Do You Mind? built around acoustic guitar, piano and Gartland’s ability to weave moments of magic in the corners.

With tracks like these and the infectious You’re Not Special, Babe it’s little wonder that the likes of BTS are lining up to co-write with Orla Gartland.

Soda Blonde – Small Talk

Repackaging yourself and carrying on when a band splits is one of the hardest endeavours in the music business. But that’s exactly what Soda Blonde did in the face of the break-up of Little Green Cars. The absence of Stevie Appleby seemingly freeing Faye O’Rourke to become the frontwoman she was always destined to become.

‘Small Talk’ is a career-high moment for all involved. Freed from all expectations the quartet dived headfirst into a mature ‘80s-tinged pop sound centred around O’Rourke’s self-deprecating stories.

These starkly personal observations on life, love, power, jealousy and starting over are riveting and delivered with plenty of wit and pathos.

In many ways ‘Small Talk’ is a love-letter and an understanding nod to those in their ‘30s who have less agency and control over their own lives than their parents did at the same age. O’Rourke has more sense than to offer solutions, realising that acknowledgment of the situation is enough for now.

Saint Sister – Where I Should End

Recently crowned winners of the Northern Ireland Music Prize, Derry duo Saint Sister’s second album ‘Where I should End’ solidified their position at the vanguard of artists reimagining the ancient, ethereal sounds of Ireland in an exhilaratingly contemporary way.

Lisa Hannigan joins Saint Sister to great effect on the mournful breakup ballad The Place That I Work; the simple droning yet airy palette of songs such as this and Manchester Air showcase their ability to meld these ancient forms with modern concerns with ease.

Karaoke Song unfurls a new playful side to the duo as they go full pop for one of the finest Irish songs of 2021. This is pushed furthermore on the album’s closing track Any Dreams? which introduces dance elements to the mix. It is testament to Saint Sister’s ability to conjure such engaging soundscapes that the disparate elements of this album never come close to feeling misaligned.

HousePlants – Dry Goods

One of the best things about the pandemic is that it has afforded musicians the opportunity to bring forwards lots of passion projects that have been on the backburner or get together with friends they’ve always wanted to work with.

One of the best examples of this is Houseplants, an unexpected Irish supergroup of sorts which sees electronic producer Daithi joining forces with Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan – a combination which we first saw on the track Take The Wheel from Daithi’s 2019 album ‘L.O.S.S.’.

‘Dry Goods’ sees the duo exploring where they could take that initial collaboration and the results are engrossing. Daithi’s spacious electro soundscapes the perfect foil for Noonan’s trademark blitzkrieg of observational lyrics.

With tracks such as Companero, Window Pane and What’s With All The Pine, Houseplants are primed to become the perfect 2am festival band to get blissed out to and dance the night away.

Bicep – Isles

Having been designed to bring the party to your house during the pandemic Northern Ireland’s Bicep more than succeeded with their second album ‘Isles’. The London-based duo have racked up over 78 million streams since the album was released last January going straight to No.2 in the UK charts, while the success of singles such as Atlas and Apricots earned them Brit nominations for Best New Artist and Best British Group.

And it’s easy to see why, ‘Isles’ brings forth the full power of the duo’s 12 years together DJing and producing to create a multi-faceted blissful swirl of sounds perfect to get the blood pumping in your kitchen disco or to drift away in bed to.

John Francis Flynn - I Would Not Live Always

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Lankum, John Francis Flynn is the latest act to breathe credibility into that most maligned and mistreated genres, traditional Irish music.

‘I Would Not Live Always’ is a beautifully rendered ramble around the darker edges of life. John Francis Flynn’s granite voice - almost as big as the man himself - decants dank, guttural wisdom across a gutsy selection of traditional outings.

Clearly, Flynn isn’t afraid to take chances as illustrated by the album’s centrepiece, the astounding three-part Bring Me Home which clocks in at a combined 11-and-a-half minutes. Nor is he afraid to eschew the new, utilising loops via a Tascam tape machine culminating in the duelling whistles of Chaney’s Tape Dream.

'I Would Not Live Always 'is as bracing and surprising as a dip in the sea on St. Stephen’s Day

Mick Flannery & Susan O'Neill - In The Game

The long-awaited collaborative album from Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill is the perfect marriage of their individual musical visions. Often with such collaborations there is a clear leader and sidekick relationship but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

‘In The Game’ showcases the talents of Flannery and O’Neill in equal measure with both seemingly dipping the lead role for the benefit of the source material. A classy collection of piano led soul-tinged country ballads ornamented throughout by fine string arrangements.

With tracks of the quality of Play With The Mind and Baby Talk it’s easy to see how the duo caught the attention of Phoebe Bridgers for whom they opened for in America earlier this year.