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In many ways, the sound of Irish music is as distinct as the country’s signature brogue. In Ireland’s folk music, instruments such as the tin whistle, uilleann pipes, and banjo, are used to create winsome soundscapes, while singers are tasked with carrying melodies and lyrics that date back centuries.
“You go down to the tune, it’s like an interior journey. That’s why a lot of the musicians keep their eyes closed while they’re playing,” says Mick Moloney, a musician and Irish musicologist who teaches at NYU.
The more traditional version of Irish singing is called sean-nós, or “old style,” which is often done acapella and sung in Gaelic.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a renaissance of folk artists, who offered both novel interpretations of classic songs and brought this type of Irish music into the mainstream folk scene that was popular worldwide. Acts like The Dubliners shared both wry humor and poignant harmonies in their work, and made nimble, guitar-heavy arrangements that are still played today. Groups such as The Dubliners launched the solo careers of artists like Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew, while also influencing The Pogues, who merged the folk sound into Celtic punk in the ’80s and ’90s.
All the while, Irish music was spreading and mixing with other regional sounds in what Moloney calls the “Irish diaspora.” As the popular music landscape changed, Irish artists emerged in myriad genres. U2 has been a stadium-packing force since the release of their breakthrough album War, while Sinéad O’Connor scored a massive global hit in the form of 1990’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
The 21st century has been a time of diversification in the world of Irish music, with more women rising to prominence, as well as Black Irish artists and artists with African-Irish ancestry. Some of the country’s most cutting edge modern music includes innovators in hip-hop like Hare Squead and Denise Chaila, post-punk acts like Girl Band and FONTAINES D.C., and boundary pushing pop acts like Róisín Murphy.
“Listening to contemporary Irish music, you feel those barriers between classical and pop, punk and alternative, indie and traditional music, breaking down almost daily,” says Moloney. “Having said that, the core values of traditional music are still found in the style and in the instruments used.
Lists of hundreds of songs would need to be assembled to capture the breadth of both Irish traditional music history, and the nation’s forays into other genres, but these 32 Irish songs will give you a sense of how the country’s bread-and-butter sound has developed in the last 100 years.
Many of the famous tracks on this list are popular in pubs and as drinking songs (such as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s “The Jug of Punch” or “Lots of Drops of Brandy” by The Chieftains), while others are more tender love songs that are perfect for weddings. And yes, there’s a song or two on here about whiskey, as well.