Five classic albums to appreciate on St. Patrick’s Day
This St. Patrick’s Day, there is no need to listen to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” by The Dropkick Murphys 47 times in someone’s backyard. These five albums, ranging from traditional Irish music to Celtic punk and rock, will immerse listeners in Irish culture, while providing an access point to the world of Irish music for those who want to hear more.
1. The Dubliners — “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” (1967)
“A Drop of the Hard Stuff,” the Dubliners’ first studio album, followed a handful of live albums and five years of circulation in the London and Dublin folk scenes. While The Chieftains’ breakout album was entirely instrumental, the Dubliners mainly owed their distinctive style to Ronnie Drew’s vocals, on full display in the a cappella track “Limerick Rake.”
Luke Kelly showboats on the banjo in such tracks as “The Fairmoye Lasses & Sporting Paddy,” “The Galway Races” and “Colonel Fraser & O’Rourke’s Reel.” His vocals, more suited for the ballad, feature on “The Black Velvet Band.” The band’s reverent but jovial handling of the album’s suite of difficult traditional songs solidifies its place in Irish history.
2. The Chieftains — “The Chieftains 4” (1973)
Sporting a daunting discography, The Chieftains were one of the first bands to bring international recognition to traditional Irish music in the 1960s and released their most recent album in 2012. “The Chieftains 4” marked an early turning point for the band, allowing them to hit their stride with a more intense sound and the addition of harpist Derek Bell. Respect for Irish music and the desire to preserve its tradition ring out from every track on this seminal album.
A clean, lively sound permeates the entire recording, owing mainly to the use of flute and tin whistle underscored by fiddle and the traditional uilleann pipe, an instrument similar to the bagpipes. Every song on the album is as tight as the one before, but “Mná na hÉireann,” featured in the Stanley Kubrick film “Barry Lyndon,” proves particularly haunting.
3. Planxty — “Planxty” (1973)
Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn issued a new wave of traditional Irish music with “Planxty,” a highly energetic album of fast-paced Celtic classics. Moore popularized both the bodhrán, an Irish frame drum previously used in The Chieftains’ recordings, and the bouzouki, a traditionally Turkish string instrument. “Planxty” reflects a supergroup of multi-instrumentalists trained in the Irish folk tradition.
The high spirits of “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” blend into an even more breathtaking uilleann pipe intermission, and “Si Bheag, Si Mhor” fully flexes the band’s instrumental skill. From these tracks, to deeply sorrowful ballads like “The West Coast of Clare” and “Only Our Rivers,” to rebellious fighting songs like “Follow Me Up To Carlow,” the album explores a wide range of emotions in the context of Ireland’s vitality despite historical oppression.
4. The Pogues — “Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash” (1985)
In The Pogues’ 1984 release, “Red Roses for Me,” frontman Shane MacGowan’s Celtic punk struggles with adolescence; traditional covers collide with punk songs, sometimes roughly combining to form anthemic drinking songs. In 1985’s “Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash,” Celtic punk grows up. MacGowan’s exceptional lyricism produces such new Irish classics as “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” and “The Old Main Drag,” songs that betray the composer’s scholarly attention to Irish and Irish Diaspora culture with their appositeness.
Dissenting from his wild and raucous persona, MacGowan collects songs for the album like a historian, preserving and composing folk songs about American, British and Australian tradition to augment the Irish ones. Rather than splintering the album, the similarities in theme and tone among these songs tie the work together with unpretentious but penetrating truths about human nature.
Other highlights include bassist Cait O’Riordan’s vocals in “I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday” and one of MacGowan’s greatest lyrical feats, “A Pair of Brown Eyes.”
5. Black 47 — “Fire of Freedom” (1993)
Best described as a series of hilarious and endearing vignettes about life as an Irish American living in New York, “Fire of Freedom” is an extremely clever and surprisingly cutting album. Frontman Larry Kirwan weaves the album around three iterations of the song “Livin’ in America,” progressively telling the story of an imperfect working class couple that the listener can not help but root for despite their misadventures. In between, he sprinkles in cheeky bangers like “Maria’s Wedding” and “Funky Ceili.”
Serious subject matter balances out the quirky surface of the album with songs like “Black 47,” a disturbing song about the Irish Potato Famine, and “Fanatic Heart,” which examines the costs of fighting for one’s beliefs in the context of a protest at an annual Protestant celebration in Northern Ireland. These songs serve as a counterpoint to the other tracks about the humerous mishaps of life in America, elucidating themes about human resilience and the sacrifices of ancestors. Kirwan’s abilities as a storyteller emerge as his scenes add up to a stunning study of Irish American culture that is much greater than the sum of its parts.