There are people who would scoff at kneeling on the floor in a packed music venue, probably thinking it was a gimmicky way of interacting with the crowd. As I looked around Whelan’s upstairs venue however, I couldn’t help but beam at the sudden expanse of empty headspace as everyone in the audience followed the lead of the person in front and lowered themselves good-naturedly, all eyes on the band, not a sheepish expression to be found… not yet anyway. Those were to follow the next morning: this was just the warm-up. Guilty Optics and C!ties had spent the last few weeks working their way around the country, gigging a split 7” single released through the Limerick record label Out On A Limb before rolling into Dublin for the final leg of the tour. The venue was heaving to BATS by the time I arrived at 9pm but there was still a whole gig and an aftershow party in someone’s front room to come. Spirits were high in the air and low in the glass as we drank and smiled and splashed out on shots at the bar to bolster against unfathomable November cold. Nights like that, full of skilled musicians, new tunes, engaging listeners and dancing strangers send tiny surges of energy through me. They provide me with a national identity I can be proud of – the Ireland I know is not a place of economics or politics but art and culture and it brings a great reward to live here now, during this period of great creative wealth. And they’re not rare: this is what I do every weekend as music fan in Dublin.
Name-dropping is disconcerting, but so many people contributed to the high standard of music in 2010. I could spend a thousand words to commend the bands, record labels, promoters, photographers and producers, the great people who went out and spent money to support what they enjoyed, all the souls who create the links that mesh together into such a shimmering, strong creative fabric. Then I’d have to mention the sound engineers and stage techs, guys who drive the vans and make tea, the artwork designers and film makers, the enthusiastic radio, television and media personalities who all spend hours every day thinking up new ways to push, promote and do justice to the music in their charge. The list goes ever on but what made this year special was that people seemed to stop talking over one another. They began to communicate, realised they had a lot in common and wanted to know more. Although the quality of new albums was exceedingly high, the increased awareness and support of local music coupled with the lower overheads of digital sharing and free promotional tools of the Internet gave a secure vantage point from which everyone could see and hear the best Irish bands.
To look back, hindsight is 19/20. We only want to remember the good times but it’s important that we don’t forget the less fortunate. Recession took a terrible toll and it was a sore blow to lose the dear, familiar music store we knew as Road Records in July. Its website is gone but like an old friend or family member, faint traces and memories remain everywhere. Road is by no means a special case amongst businesses that have suffered from the crunch but it was painful to see it go as the owners, Dave and Julie, were amongst the most supportive figures of independent Irish music. Other record stores have also suffered as digital music trends overtook physical sales but one of the more heartening stories was the return of Plugd Records in Cork which reopened on new premises after an uncertain closure. However, that was pretty much as bad as things got. One of the nicest things about music from Ireland in 2010 was the dearth of bad news.
It’s been a long year yet it flew past in song-length fits, bursts of 40-odd minute albums and hour-long live sets, hundreds of them weaving together into a multi-coloured tartan calendar of genres and styles that individually, could be tacked to cities all over the world but are happening all in one place: Ireland. For me personally, it’s been richly rewarding as a music writer, never once finding myself at a loss for something fresh and exciting to share with my readers. Over two hundred new albums were released by Irish artists this year and a breathtaking number of those are top-rate. Groom’s fourth album Marriage struck the perfect balance between imaginative whimsy, The Redneck Manifesto returned from a long hiatus with gloriously warm new songs in Friendship and Adebisi Shank avoided the second-album curse by realising their full potential in a brand-new fashion that was soon dubbed ‘rainbow rock’. New names sprang up of course; The Cast of Cheers are perhaps the most well-known breakthrough act of the year on the back of their free album Chariot, James Vincent McMorrow found a legion of new fans while Hipster Youth, Meljoann,
Solar Bears and Strands brought explorative twists to the electronic realm with their individually tailored brands. These are just a handful of impressive offerings from the full-length releases – there is barely enough room to cover everything, like Villagers and Two Door Cinema Club who exploded into mainstream popularity or the ones who finally released brilliant records after a very long wait, such as Cap Pas Cap, Nouveaunoise, Melodica Deathship and The Dinah Brand.
Videos and photographs, EPs and single tracks, records and downloads, the radio sessions, television shows, festivals and showcases, exhilarating live performances and extensive success have made this the best year of Irish music many have ever known. Seeing so many new people enjoying themselves was especially satisfying, particularly the new young music fans out at gigs…they make the best carriers to spread word. The sheer expanse of what Ireland offered musically in 2010 has been well above anything we’ve seen before – for every rock band with a weighty legacy that Ireland can claim from the past fifty years there are ten new bands today making far better music. If that sounds like a tall tale, well, even the most supportive patrons of new music are struggling to explain how or why that has happened now. What matters is that Ireland’s new musical culture was embraced and finally treated with the respect it deserved. Even abroad, interest was highly attuned to what was happening amongst bands here.
Music websites like Altered Zones, The Fader, Pitchfork and the Quietus all kept ears cocked in our direction and even newspapers such as The Guardian and Telegraph ran features and profiles on our local bands. There’s been a paradigm shift in the perception of what Irish music is; the old guard of traditional rock is crumbling rapidly and the cheap facade of boy band pop has slipped. The landscape that can be seen beyond the debris is still mysterious but in place of misty glens there are sweaty, energetic crowds, real indie-rock drifts through the air instead of grieving wails, oversized gold dressing-room stars of nondescript celebrities have shrunk out of sight, leaving a bright gleam on the horizon as a new dawn rises.
Nay McArdle has spent the last five years exploring the bands and venues of Ireland, writing and photographing along the way. Her daily music blog Harmless Noise just passed its first anniversary. She has two children, two cats and great taste in bad films.