Even better than the real thing: 11 Irish Icons that aren’t U2

Anyone that’s ever been to Ireland knows that music isn’t just part of their cultural heritage, but also an inescapable part of everyday life, a social way of relating to and engaging with one another in the present day – whether it’s the live traditional music down at the local bar, the radio that’s constantly playing in the kitchen, or the spontaneous family sing-alongs that break out just for ‘the craic’.

So it makes sense that, just like its people, the music of the Emerald Isle has made many a trip over the world and the seven seas and beyond to find a niche. Yet it was only a few decades ago that it seemed like Irish music rarely strayed outside trad or show covers bands. Sure, shamrockers Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats had the odd hit — as did The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers and those smelly old Pogues. But lest we forget, there seemed to be a time not too long ago when Ireland seemed to be most famous for winning the Eurovision song contest with nauseating regularity and a succession of soppy, saccharine ballads… before Dustin The Turkey fell foul of the 2008 final at least.

Oh, we got a wild one here.

While there was once the feeling that the general scope of Irish music left something to be desired, the new Ireland of the 21st century has become one of the most multicultural forward-thinking places — where the gay son of an Indian became Taoiseach. All of that would have been unthinkable up to pretty recently.

Likewise, Emerald artists have been bursting at the seams with their multifaceted sonic diversity. From Tebi Rex and Jafaris spearheading the thriving “Paddy rap” hip-hop scene to beloved elder statespeople like Ash and Enya still putting it out there, there’s a little something for everyone once you dip your gaily painted toe in the water. Like the illustrious icons in this list, compiled to celebrate that bastion of international gaiety, St. Patrick’s Day: 24 hours when everyone is Irish and a lot of people get annoying, not least my sister-in-law, who at least is actually from Dublin. Me? I just lived in County Kilburn for 15 years. 

So let‘s talk about this parade. What is this march that everyone‘s banging on about it? And do they have music? We sent our roving reporter Ali G over to politely ask the question.

In normal pre-plagued times, March 17 became an excuse to wear green and drink to excess, often to the strains of the greatest hits of Ireland’s preachiest band, U2. Guinness tastes just fine with Beautiful Day and Where The Streets Have No Name (especially if it’s the Pet Shop Boys version), but those four sanctimonious munchkins aren’t the only Irish musicians worth blaring on the Blarney Stone jukebox.

Ahead, we celebrate 11 working Emerald Isle artists whose tunes will go down smooth today, tomorrow, and any day of the year. These ‘solo’ acts may not have the commercial profile or critical cachet of Bono’s boys, but they’re here, they’re dear, get over it. If you like what you hear, move away from the pint glass and seek out some more. Paddy would have wanted it that way.

CATHAL COUGHLAN

Though he doesn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (“Beltane and Samhain are more to my taste,” he tells me) I couldn’t fail to spotlight the frontman of two of the most disaffected Irish rock bands of the past four decades. Cork’s Cathal Coughlan stands alone in the pantheon of disgruntled Irish shruggers. A genius cage rattler — caustic, funny, surreal — Coughlan’s anger-loaded lyrics helped brighten up the UK indie scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, firstly at the helm of errant popsters Microdisney and latterly with the harder-edged Fatima Mansions.

Celebrating its clever, ascerbic angst-rock, The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, Microdisney’s third LP was chosen as the recipient of the inaugural IMRO/NCH Trailblazer Award in 2018, a gong which celebrates seminal albums by iconic Irish acts. Awash with Sean O’Hagan’s incredibly crafted melodies, the follow up, 1987’s Lenny Kaye-produced Crooked Mile, is also routinely praised as one of the greatest to ever come out of Ireland and contains the ironic jangle-funk classic Give Me All Of Your Clothes.

Just as good was the lead single from 1988’s 39 Minutes: Singer’s Hampstead Home was an hilarious, thinly veiled attack on the business that created the fake public personas of people like Virgin labelmate and cash cow Boy George; in other words a lyrical tirade against the mentality of celebrities who complain about privacy then invite the press around to talk about their houses, purely to show off their wealth, then snort a load of drugs when they’ve gone. Precisely what O’Dowd was doing in NW3 at the time — “He only had planned lines to say/ but he said them in a witty and stylish way,” sneered Cathal indignantly, mocking the wannabe Wildeisms of the tent-wearing star.

The band would implode during a London charity gig supporting David Bowie that same year. Coughlan’s decision to employ a spot of cranial self-abuse by head-butting his microphone won him few new fans, though it did alert me to his raging wayward brilliance. (For the record, he now tells me he’s “thoroughly embarrassed” by his antics that night, which caused Bowie to be more than a little “paranoid when he saw me behind him.) 

Having carved out a reputation as one of indie’s most challenging and erudite lyricists, Cathal did it all again in the ’90s with post-punk five-piece Fatima Mansions. In many ways they were even wilder and weirder — at least creatively — as underscored by transcendental onslaughts such as Chemical Cosh and the coruscating confection Angel’s Delight, both from the group’s sophomore set, 1990’s Viva Dead Ponies. Fourth and final album, 1994’s Lost In The Former West, included the single Nite Flights, a surprisingly faithful version of Scott Walker’s edgy classic that put the Irish troubadour’s rich velvety baritone to good use and the archetypal iron fist in a velvet glove. (The vocal comparisons to his hero Walker continue with 2021’s stunning solo single Song of Co-Aklan, Curesque chords and all.)

The Mansions were put on permanent hold due to what would prove to be a long-drawn out legal battle with Coughlan’s US record label, Radioactive. However, through a sequence of subsequent solo albums over the past 20 years — as well as projects that could easily fall into avant-art categories in the areas of theatre and spoken word — Coughlan has steered clear of placing himself and his music in a corner. After all, this is a man who dressed up as Liberace and released a pair of parodic albums with Irish comedian Sean Hughes as the side project Bubonique, which is French for bubonic, as in plague, pandemic. Perhaps he was on to something. 

DAMIEN RICE & LISA HANNIGAN

We probably all know by now that Co Meath’s Lisa Hannigan was at one time a strategic music assistant to Damien Rice and that the partnership dissolved abruptly, leaving both artists to forge their own paths. Of course, no one knows more than Damien how there have been many critically lauded (and hyped) singer-songwriters over the years that have quickly turned from snow to slush overnight, and like his former foil, he’s been almost too quiet of late: releasing nothing since his third solo album My Favourite Faded Fantasy, a 2014 chart-topper helmed by Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin. 

A decade earlier, Rice had launched his music career with the hard-hitting ‘90s indie outfit Juniper, who released a couple of singles which did moderately well on Irish radio. After label shenanigans sunk the band, he scrounged up enough money to record a demo, which he sent to producer/James Bond film composer David Arnold (who also happens to be his cousin). Suitably impressed, Arnold set up a mobile studio for Rice to make a record. His first single, The Blower’s Daughter, was a top 20 hit when it appeared in 2001, and he released the O LP the following year, hitting the UK top 10 and earning four-times platinum status. It was arguably the most overplayed Irish album of the early noughties; Cannonball even had the unsavoury distinction of becoming an X Factor winner’s song. Nonetheless, time has been kind to the Dubliner’s debut, which has managed to retain a sense of intimacy despite its ubiquity.

Rice released his sophomore set, 9, in 2006. The album hit number one in Ireland, top 5 in Britain, and became his first record to reach the US Billboard Top 40. After heavy touring, Rice pulled back a bit, and it’s now seven years since he made a record, though he’s still touring… when restrictions allow. Of course, with minimal strings and rhythmic accompaniment, this gentle folkie’s songs are so hushed to be almost inaudible at Paddy’s Day parties. Yet they’re perfect for the morning after, when you’re gathering up empties, feeling a little empty yourself. Suffice to say that if all the malarkey about Rice’s creative and performing sensitivities can be ignored, he remains a most excruciatingly honest songwriter. Delicate remains featherlike, while Hannigan’s star turn on the tremulous I Remember still exhilarates almost 20 years on.

Another one who’s been quiet of late, what we wouldn’t have been aware of prior to the release of Hannigan’s debut solo album – the ear-pleasing raw intimacy of 2008’s Sea Sew – was the breadth of her talent, but her songs have, virtually uniquely, managed to stay fresh. With her lush and raspy voice, in the last decade she’s built up her brand courtesy of support slots with the likes of Jason Mraz and soundtrack play on television über-hit Grey’s Anatomy. Over the course of her three studio albums, Hannigan has deepened her folk sound. While See Saw was primarily a stripped-back folk-pop record, when sophomore set Passenger arrived in 2011 it was noticeable how she’d picked up these folk-pop threads and made her songs much richer with the help of a fuller backing band.

Five years later, At Swim (produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner), found Lisa once again expanding pleasingly on her folk sound, one that’s sullen, string- and piano-heavy and sprawls out just enough to include light touches of electronic element. It’s been another five years since that studio album, but 2019’s Live In Dublin release – a collaboration with contemporary classical orchestra Stargaze – illustrated the might of her songwriting prowess. Whether it’s an acoustic backdrop or an orchestral one, Hannigan’s songs sound potent in any setting. Journeys (both emotional and actual) are a recurring theme in her work, and her musical journey is certainly the one to watch. Damien who?

GAVIN FRIDAY

More so than any other performer associated even tangentially with the lineage of goth, your man Friday has evolved aesthetically to a level far beyond the white-face-and-candles shtick of his contemporaries. Inspired by David Bowie and a deep love of the absurd, Friday’s angst found boisterous expression as the driving force behind androgynous Dublin weirdos the Virgin Prunes in 1978. Part art-heavy improv, part noise, all provocation, the proto-punk Prunes were one of Ireland’s most ambitious, challenging, and (often) difficult bands, one of whom, original guitarist Dik Evans, is the Edge’s brother, and the other, fellow vocalist Guggi, Bono’s oldest childhood chum. The Prunes released two albums — …If I Die, I Die (1982) and The Moon Looked Down And Laughed (1986) — that made the UK indie charts and remain very much of their time, though the latter effort, produced by Soft Cell’s Dave Ball, allowed Friday to explore his predilection for the theatrical and the conceptual.

After leaving the band, he abandoned the music business to paint for a bit, returning to the fray after teaming up with pianist Maurice Roycroft (whom he renamed the Man Seezer). The duo’s 1989 debut, Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, found him making unexpected moves into a modern-day cabaret style, albeit with all the Brechtian Bowie-isms of his vocal delivery intact. 1992’s Adam ’N’ Eve was a less compelling follow-up which found him addressing his sharp-tongued ruined romanticisms with less avant-garde and more standard-issue modern rock sounds. 

Friday returned to a more cabaret-ish mode on 1995’s Shag Tobacco, a dance-influenced Tim Simenon team-up of which he remains especially proud. A distillation of all the elements of music that had informed him up to that time, it features a bona-fide classic single, Angel, which he later contributed to the Romeo And Juliet soundtrack, and The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing, which also closed out Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat biopic, featuring Bowie’s star turn as Andy Warhol. Gavin’s done plenty of other film work, too — much of it in collaboration with Seezer. Credits include In America and Breakfast on Pluto. He’s also collaborated with his longtime pal Bono — who some feel lifted his more theatrical trappings from Friday — contributing three tracks for 1993’s Daniel Day-Lewis movie In The Name Of The Father, the title track bagging an Oscar nomination. This direction culminated in 1997 with a full score for the film The Boxer.

Ballygall-raised Friday explored his strongly republican Christian Brothers upbringing on his most recent studio album, 2011’s catholic. Even though it’s a nod to the culture and mindset that played a major role in his personal and artistic development, the lower case ‘c’, the rebel Friday said, was a deliberate reclamation of the word’s Greek origins from the Roman Catholic church, to emphasise its original meaning: universal, for every man, with wide sympathies. There hasn’t been a great deal of work since then, save for the Scott Walkerish Atonalism, an obscure industrial jazz album he made in 2017 with French duo Atonalist. Though he says he is in the final throes of completing an as-yet-untitled project with former collaborator, Dave Ball. To paraphrase one of his greatest lyrics, he is the visionary art in Ball’s pop party.

HOZIER

The son of a County Wicklow blues musician, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Hozier-Byrne joined his first band at 15, gravitating toward R&B, soul, gospel, and, of course, earthy bluesy folk rock. Citing James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, and community choral singing among his influences, Hozier rose to global attention in 2013 when his single Take Me to Church ripped its way through the establishment, first on YouTube and Reddit, then the charts. It was Spotify’s most played song of 2014, with over 87 million streams – a count which has now reached well over one billion.

As powerful as it is heart-wrenching, the track directly addressed the discrimination and persecution of gays in the Catholic Church and the wider world. It was a stunning tour de force. For me, it‘s easily the single of the 2010s, and one which catapulted Hozier into a major-label contract for his eponymous debut, gaining platinum certifications in 11 countries, a 2015 Grammy nomination for Song of the Year, as well as praise from Annie Lennox, who performed a magnificent mash-up with her fellow Celt at the ceremony.

I’m wary of using a tired, cliched old ‘New Dylan’ tag, but through crafting thoughtful, uncompromising recordings, Hozier spreads messages of human rights, moral leadership, love, heartbreak, homophobia, social issues, drug abuse, domestic abuse, politics and even climate change, often performed solo or with the aid of a single drummer. His second full-length album Wasteland, Baby! debuted at number one in the US upon its release; and also topped the charts in Ireland and debuted at six in the UK. If its reception is anything to go by, then we’re sure we’ll be hearing his soulful strain of indie blues-rock for quite some time to come, keeping Ireland in its rightfully prominent place on the musical map of the world.

NADINE COYLE

Well, this may ruffle a few feathers. Women are still grievously under-represented in Irish music so, love them or hate them, I’m including arguably the least likeable but most talented member of Girls Aloud. Work it, girl.

Fiery tempered Derry-born Nadine followed in Cheryl Cole’s footsteps to become the second member of the hugely popular girl group to launch a solo career. Though it’s fair to say that without the celebrity status that comes with marrying a footballer — then a millionaire — then a member of One Direction — Coyle has been rather less successful than Cole.

Nadine began singing at an early age and, encouraged by her parents, recorded a demo tape that she sent to Boyzone manager Louis Walsh. In 2001, she auditioned for the Irish tv version of Popstars, where she landed a place in the short-lived band Six. She was replaced when it was discovered that she had lied about her age on camera and was only 16. Encouraged by Mayo-born Walsh to try out for a 2002 iteration of the show in Britain, The Rivals, that November, the newly formed Girls Aloud were born, scoring an instant chart-topper with Sound of the Underground, beating the show’s other creation, One True Voice (remember them? No, didn’t think so). 

With a succession of brilliantly crafted Xenomania-produced records (Biology, Call The Shots for instance) dominated by Nadine’s show-stopping mezzo-soprano vocals, the quintet went on to become the UK’s biggest-selling girl group of the 21st century, scoring 20 consecutive top 10 hits, two No.1 albums and winning Best British Single (the sixties-styled Spectorish The Promise) at the Brits (I was there. Get me), finally calling it a day in 2013.

Coyle made her first solo appearance in 2010 when she performed at a TV tribute show to Stephen Gately. Debut album, the somewhat bombastic Insatiable, was released later that year, reaching No.20 in Eire and 47 in the UK. 2018’s Nadine EP reunited her with Xenomania, as did a couple of pop banger singles, none of them troubling the charts. She also ran a pub restaurant called Nadine’s Irish Mist in California’s Orange County, which received rave reviews when it opened in time for Saint Patrick’s Day 2009, but is now back living in Ulster to raise her daughter Anaíya.

NEIL HANNON

Before he was an international pop swashbuckler, Neil Hannon was a shy young man from Fermanagh with a naff haircut and a knack for elaborate chamber pop. He could do big ideas too, with his luxuriant and mischievous third record telling the story of a young couple spending a day at the seaside. When it reached for the big moments it was simply extraordinary. The Summerhouse, for instance, is a song about youthful nostalgia written by a precocious 23-year-old. What a vortex of feeling it plunged you into. He may have reached his half-century but Hannon’s still a bit young to be described as an “elder statesman” of Irish music. Though his legacy is already evident.

As the founder and only ever-present member of his band The Divine Comedy, the Derry-born musician’s career has spanned three decades, but it’s not just the critical praise that makes him a significant figure – it’s his trademark velvety baritone, his infamous dry wit, and a panache that’s evident both on record and live. Hannon is simply one of the cleverest songwriters Ireland has produced, and his name will be uttered alongside such greats as his hero Scott Walker, long after he’s gone. 

After gaining significant acclaim with 1994’s heart-baring Promenade (and didn’t he look the spit of a young Mark Hollis in his Talk Talk days on the cover?), for the follow-up Hannon donned an ironic smoking jacket and wagged his eyebrows mischievously. Casanova is witty and whimsical and at times Hannon goes a little overboard cosplaying a Britpop Hugh Hefner. Yet its high-points are glorious and as full of emotion as anything he would do (Frog Princess). Plus it gave us Songs of Love, aka the theme from Father Ted, and the his first hit in Britain, the Carry On innuendo of Something For The Weekend.

Twelfth and most recent album, 2019’s Office Politics, was a curious fusion indebted to eighties new wave acts like Adam Ant, Blondie and Siouxsie. It made ninth place in Ireland but did better across the water, becoming Hannon’s highest charting studio set in Britain, its No.5 peak only bested by the act’s A Secret History… The Best of the Divine Comedy, one of my most favoured compilation albums. The limited edition bonus disc version featuring quirky reinterpretations of chestnuts from Kraftwerk, Talk Talk and David Bowie certainly fetches a pretty penny. Check out the swinging swagger of his song for the BBC’s Doctor Who series too, Love Don’t Roam, which was a rare aberration released under his own name. Cos he was never being boring.

REJJIE SNOW

Hailing from the same Drumcondra mean streets as Bertie Ahern, Rejjie Snow has blazed a kind of stop start trail in Ireland’s burgeoning hip hop scene. From a young age he gravitated to what he calls the “weirdness” of N.E.R.D. production and the sharp snarl of Tyler, The Creator. Later, he blew up on social media as a teenager with warped cuts like 2012’s Meddling Loops and a slew of acclaimed mixtapes. Since then, Snow has been simmering on low heat with occasional bursts of fire. 2013’s confident debut EP Rejovich peaked at No.1 on the iTunes hip-hop chart, and the video for his official first 45 racked up half a million views in its first week. In 2016, he was signed to 300-affiliated imprint Honeymoon, and later upstreamed to the main label.

After years of teasing, in 2018 he made his real arrival with the dazzling debut, Dear Annie. The album was the prog-pop hip-hop concept record Ireland hadn’t realised it needed. The sometime graffiti artist used his colour-saturated canvas as it unfolded as a sprawling sonic mural, amid a kaleidoscope of beats and basslines. Flagrantly un-PC and old school in its influences, the album sees Snow incorporate several styles with grace and wit throughout as he raps about key moments in his twenty-something life. Musically, the tracks bounce from smooth ‘70s funk/r’n’ b, ‘80s soul slow jams, to groove-infused shoegaze and lissom pop. With a keen eye to the future, it also includes his breezy Kaytranada-assisted standout, Egyptian Luvr, as well as, more unexpectedly, a couple of tracks in French that sound like they’re haunted by the boozy shadow of Serge Gainsbourg (indeed, both Mon Amour and Désolé feature guest vocals from female singers who sound remarkably like Jane Birkin).

You could call Dear Annie the first major Irish hip-hop album, but as he decided to flee the nest and try his hand at being a soft-voiced Brooklyn seducer, it seems more accurate to say it’s a solid debut by a rapper whose nationality seems beside the point – which is pretty obviously what it intends to be. Rejjie stepped it up further in 2020 as he hooked up with masked maestro MF DOOM and Cam O’bi, for the psychedelic noir single Cookie Chips. Madcap and menacing, it’s Snow in a sugar-coated nutshell. In addition, he’s collaborated with Joey Bada$$, toured with Madonna (poor sod) and Kendrick Lamar and sometimes wears eye-shadow in tribute to David Bowie. (For the record, he’s also a massive fan of the resolutely rockist George Michael and Queen too).

RÓISÍN MURPHY

Wondering what the music in that funny sloth dancing on a mattress telly advert is? Don’t be shy, it’s Pure Pleasure Seeker by now defunct dance duo Moloko. When they cracked the charts in 1999 with the club classic Sing It Back many assumptions were made about the female singer. Not least that she was just the pretty vocal vehicle for some button-pushing producer, and a Limey one at that. But Wicklow-born Róisín Murphy has proved herself to be not only an exceptional and eccentric songwriter, but something of an all-compassing musical chameleon. 

Going on to build a wonderfully unruly and individualist solo career, her post-modern take on ornate glam-pop pushes through disco house, latin and trip-hop to the darker ends of electronica. Zig-zagging synth-pop melodies and captivating emotive bangers are cornerstones of her cutting-edge contemporary pop sound. Whatever the genre bending she’s always worn her influences (early Eurythmics, Portishead) on her sleeve, not to mention some pretty outré haute couture costumes. Indeed, when I caught her concert at London’s Koko club in 2007 she dipped into a hanging rail full of outlandish garments between every single song. Beat that Lady Gaga. (Funnily enough, it’s claimed that Róisín believes Gaga openly stole her avant-garde aesthetics, according to our girl’s Twitter.

Either way, that year’s Overpowered shrugged off the ‘formerly of Moloko’ baggage in glorious fashion. Stuffed with pulsing glitter ball gems, the ambition, style and vision of this album is still awe-inspiring. From the steely title track to the shoulder-shimmying Let Me Know, Murphy set the bar for experimental disco-pop bangers, and was nominated for Eire’s Choice Music Prize. Like Gaga, it’s Róisín’s distinctive powerhouse voice that elevates her above less innovative contemporaries. As Roisin Machine, 2020‘s fifth solo LP, amply demonstrates, from heartbroken whisper to diva holler, she’s the 21st-century Dusty Springfield in a tight sweater leaving a generation of young wannabes nipping at her disco-dancing heels. Come on!

SINÉAD O’CONNOR

Known to condemn authority figures, start feuds, and, on occasion, make some truly outstanding records, Sinéad O’Connor is basically the female precursor to Kanye West. Sinéad burst onto the music scene in the late eighties with her shaved head, formidable vocal talent, and absolutely no qualms in saying exactly what she thinks.

Regularly cropping up on lists of the “Greatest Songs of All Time”, everyone and their aunt knows her for Nothing Compares 2 U, her devastatingly powerful and emotional Prince reinterpretation from 1990. With it she achieved international success, and hit the top spot in ten countries – including the US – making her the only Irish female ever to do so. 

She was a noted alt-rocker before that fluke hit, though, and she’s made gobs of great music in the quarter-century since. She’s also had the guts to talk openly about her struggles with depression, earning the right to call her most recent album I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. It was a ferocious record, as uncompromising and heartfelt as O’Connor itself. Her career may have been dotted with more than its fair share of controversy over the years, but her haunting “supernatural” voice and impressive range does all the talking when it comes to her impressive musical legacy. Irish rock has no better female icon than her.

SUSIE BLUE

Once touted, predictably, as Ulster’s sassier answer to her friend indie rocker SOAK, twenty-something Susie Blue has emerged as one of Ireland’s brightest new talents in recent years. An early learner musically, Susie’s rock fan father Tony bought her a guitar when she was seven, teaching her to play her first song, Sloop John B by The Beach Boys. Once the family relocated to Derry her musical education began in earnest, and the nascent performer found herself delving into songwriting. She found the process enlightening and restorative, and used it as an outlet to vent her troubles, express her doubts and fears, anger and pain.

Kicking off in 2013 with Stripped Bare and Bits & Buttons — a pair of lo-fi EP releases recorded in her bedroom – the strident strong-willingness in Susie’s songs are strongly influenced by classic female artists like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. Initially playing solo, the rechristened Blue was joined by a succession of musicians who’ve added a sonic ambience to her dreamy, shoegaze sound. But it was in 2018 that Northern Ireland’s new Queen of Queer really rose prominence, with the full release of her debut album Didn’t Mean To Care, an intimate collection of songs made up of rousing, euphoric anthems with hooky synthpop melodies and thoughtful lyrics which document her teenage years.

Inspired by her fledgling relationships with women, the album explores the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence, which are often rocked further by the process of coming out. Much loved gay indie gem People Like Us is a soaring, affecting moment which encapsulates Susie’s approach to modern life expressed through her distinctive yearning vocals (sounding not unlike The Cranberries’ dearly departed Dolores O’Riordan at times). The title track is also a firm favourite, sweet and coquettish yet gutsy, with an illuminating video to boot. In an aesthetic of pastels and bubblegum colours that match the pop feel of the tune, it presents a tale of misfits causing chaos in the name of fun. For a video that’s great craic, the often melancholic lyrics make more sense at the reveal.

The blistering nineties retro and heartwarming sentiment of the She Is single followed in 2019. Just last week, she uploaded her latest release to Spotify: Boys Boys Boys isn’t an ironic cover of Sabrina’s busty poolside romp but an impassioned “super personal” quartet of tracks that detail the hardships, highs, loves and losses belonging both to the artist and those around her. Most powerful of all is the recent single, Daughter, which reflects on the recent passing of her mother and the advice she’d given her offspring when she came out, with many of the lyrics being actual quotes from Sally, such as “Who gives a fuck if you’re gay, you should be proud…” Mum would indeed be proud at the thoughtful, helpful and positive way Susie Blue’s making an impact. You’ll care, for sure.

VAN MORRISON

U2 aside, ‘Van the Man’ is currently the only Irish solo artist to be inducted into the admittedly worthless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, brilliantly stubborn to the last, became the first living inductee not to attend his own ceremony. Nevertheless, he’s up there with Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder as one of pop’s all-time great chameleons and innovators. He’s been a garage rocker, a folkie, a soul man, but in the swinging Sixties he made his name as the frontman of Belfast’s rhythm and blues rockers Them — known for rousing garage rock staples like Gloria and Here Comes The Night, both later covered by Bowie.

Embarking on a solo career in 1966, the self-styled Celtic Soul brother was awarded with a pair of top ten hits in the US with Brown Eyed Girl and Domino. In Britain, where he’s primarily known as a critically acclaimed albums artist (Astral Weeks, Tupelo Honey, Moondance) his only single to make the top twenty was an iffy duet with that roller skating closet Cliff Richard. Nevertheless, he received a Brit Award in 1994 for his Outstanding Contribution To Music and in 2016 a knighthood for services to the entertainment industry and tourism in Northern Ireland.

Having turned 75, Van Morrison is well past retirement age. He could easily hang up his saxophone and spend his days shaking his fist at various grievances. Instead, as 2019’s Three Chords And The Truth proved, he remains a force to be reckoned with and just as pertinent as his old mucker, Dylan. Forthcoming 42nd (count ‘em!) studio set Latest Record Project: Volume 1 includes Why Are You On Facebook?, an anti social media diatribe that continues where he left off with his protest songs against lockdowns last year. It’s idiosyncratic subject matter like that that have helped to establish Van as one of the most expressive musicians in modern music, inspiring several almost as legendary artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, plus several of the other entries on this list, which has now come to its Celtic conclusion. 

By the way, mine‘s a black velvet. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Steve Pafford

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