In spite of the problems, NI musicians rallied and put on some brilliant shows in 2021
Songwriters and players have gifted us a lot in 2021. Local music has been a rescue, a sustainer and the sweetest relief. So, a fitting tribute in December would be to make an extra payback to those artists and return some of that love.
Below, I’ve listed some of the outstanding acts. Even in the most challenging of times, they have delivered the tunes, played the shows (when possible) and dealt with the messy logistics of pressing plants, late schedules and tours that have crashed and fallen repeatedly.
Every artist I’ve met this year has a story about stress and tough finances. Organisations such as Help Musicians UK and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have stepped in to provide emergency support.
They have worked hard to patch together damaged spirits and depleted reserves. Meantime, the music community has also rallied and put out so much unselfish energy.
Hannah Peel provided a soundtrack to the first half of the year with the magnificent Fir Wave album. It was about the healing potential of music and the electronic rhythms that might accent the process. It was the best tonic, your accompaniment to lockdown walks and the restorative power of spring. Quite rightly, it was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.
Saint Sister also received their dues when the album, Where I Should End, won the NI Music Prize. The voices of Gemma and Morgan were perfectly matched and they revealed new aspects of fun, storytelling and political thought. Karaoke Song was the sound of an act escaping every kind of category.
Dani Larkin was the most exciting outlier of 2021. She timed her releases to coincide with the Celtic calendar and when all of the parts fitted together on the record, Notes for a Maiden Warrior, the overall vision was revealed. She was singing about Irish archetypes and blood rites and then relating the landscape to her own feelings of displacement and passion.
Bicep took another triumphant lap with the Isles record. A few detractors felt that the seamless rhythms were destined for the dinner party, but that ignored the deep reserves of a song like Atlas and the duo’s skill with samples and mood. Even if you don’t know Bicep, the tune Apricots has surrounded you like the greatest dream state.
Leo Miyagee reminded us that hip hop is an arrival point for so many diverse voices and talents. His record OG Kung Fu III is like an action movie instalment, full of gritty Belfast interludes and revealing drama.
Joshua Burnside is a major songwriting talent and when he returned to the Ulster Sports Club for a three-night residency in November, the skill and charisma seemed more plentiful than air itself. He embraces Irish trad and African groove and mesmeric yarns. Josh is one big song away from major acclaim, but for now, he’s our terrific secret.
TRU also apply themselves to the older song traditions. They relate to the work songs of Donegal and the Hebrides, but they also reach into new places. The album No Fixed Abode was worth repeated visits, a mix of flute, ancestral voices and digital effects.
New Pagans were surely the most intense guitar band of the year. Loud and squalling like the Pixies and Nirvana and also informed by the presence of Lindsey McDowall, an intellectual firestorm. Their evening show at the Stendhal Festival in July was a stunning array of righteous rage, distortion and the many great album songs from The Seed, the Vessel the Roots and All.
Stendhal Festival tested the return of live music in June and then followed with magnificent nights in July and August. We missed festival culture, camping rough and the chance to see the likes of Ash, Duke Special and And So I Watch You From Afar in their actual wild habitat.
The easy way to reward these acts is to buy the records. Belfast has Starr Records, Dragon Records and Sound Advice. Derry has Abbazappa and Cool Discs. In Omagh there’s Boneyard Records, while Bangor has Bending Sound and Choons.
Another huge gift for the music fan is a pre-order for next year’s Stendhal Festival — an actual license to be enthralled.
Streaming services have an abusive relationship with songwriters, but Bandcamp is a chance to pass on financial gratitude to the music-makers and to order up their merchandise — one of the life-savers in the current music model.
This was the year when we paid our respects to the music agent Steve Strange — a force of nature so immense that his departure seemed especially abrupt. We also lost the musician Joe Cassidy, displaced from Belfast to Chicago, but still admired by many of us. His work as Butterfly Child is a beautiful legacy and there will be gleaming, posthumous works to console us in the coming years.
In the last days of 2021, it was also established, after 46 years, that three members of The Miami Showband had been murdered at the side of the road by a combination of paramilitaries and state agents.
Even though we had suspected the truth, it was still a shock to hear that musicians were somehow regarded as “legitimate” targets by people who were entrusted to save us. The tenacity of the surviving band members — Stephen Travers and Des McAlea — has brought out the truth and we grieve again for Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty.