Battle of the bands: The top 30 Irish pop songs of all time
Some of Ireland’s most legendary music acts fight it out to make it into John Meagher’s list of the greatest Irish pop songs ever recorded
Back in April, to celebrate Record Store Day, I offered my 30 best Irish albums ever for the edification of Day & Night readers. The huge reaction — positive, negative, somewhere in between — suggested an unquenchable appetite for such lists.
Now, perhaps even more foolhardily, I present the 30 best Irish songs ever — the singles or album tracks that have stood the test of time and continue to resonate.
30 That Day
There are singer-songwriters and there is Conor O’Brien. This is the moment when he lived up to all to the considerable hype: great vocals and clever arrangements, it’s both avant-garde and populist.
The Cranberries (1993)
Dolores O’Riordan went on to commit all sorts of crimes against music and the English language, but her singing is first-rate in a gorgeous little song that owes much to The Cocteau Twins and The Sundays.
28 Falling Slowly
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (2006)
A stirring ballad that builds from humble beginnings into a rousing finale. Hansard and Irglova were lovers when it was recorded and the interplay of their vocals is quite something.
27 After All
The Frank And Walters (1992)
Superior indie from a band who perfected the art of the three-minute pop tune. This goofy love song revels in guitar riffs and harmonies that are utterly life-affirming.
26 I’m Hardly Ever Wrong
The Would Be’s (1990)
A quite stunning debut from a band barely out of their teens. Great vocals from Julie O’Donnell, and perfect arrangements too.
Morrissey loved them — what a shame they’ve been practically forgotten.
25 New Year’s Day
The Edge’s guitar still sounds immense — a clarion call every bit as important as Bono’s memorable delivery. Larry and Adam’s rhythm section is awe-inspiring. The sound of a band hitting the stratosphere.
Gavin Friday (1995)
He may have spent the bulk of his career in the shadow of his friend Bono, but the Dubliner was touched by brilliance when this came out. Gorgeous and sumptuously produced, Friday’s tender vocals have never been better.
23 Eve, The Apple of My Eye
Bell X1 (2003)
Impassioned and romantic, with a wonderfully rousing coda, this is Bell X1 at their best. Paul Noonan wears his heart on his sleeve and he sings as though his life depends on it.
22 Paper House
Lisa Hannigan (2011)
The preeminent Irish female singer of her generation: the heartache is laid on thick in a beautiful, tender song that looks back at happier times. Hannigan’s lyrics are akin to poetry, the strings sublime.
21 Endless Art
A House (1991)
One has to admire the chutzpah of Dave Couse to shoe-horn the names of 100 key art figures into this marvellously arresting, singular song — although he was rightly chided for neglecting to include a single woman.
20 Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello (Petrol)
Something Happens (1990)
Dark lyrics about alcoholism aside, it remains one of the most euphoric up-tempo songs an Irish act has ever released — with a chorus so insidiously catchy I want to hear it again just typing these words.
19 Birthday Girl
Cathal Coughlan’s band weren’t noted for their radio-friendly concessions, but this enigmatic song from their creative peak is an obvious exception. The giddy sax solo at the end is a delight.
18 Rat Trap
Boomtown Rats (1978)
Bob Geldof has always had a lot to say, but the Dubliner’s words have rarely carried as much weight in song as they do here: a treatise on the hard life and broken dreams in his native city. A stunning collision of punk and pop.
17 Dearg Doom
One of the great guitar riffs ever committed to tape, and boasting the sort of muscular musicality that made Horslips one of the most enduring Irish bands of the 1970s, its power hasn’t abated after 40 years.
David Kitt (2003)
One day, the Dubliner’s superb songwriting gifts will be properly acknowledged. This sublime eight-minute meditation on the fleeting nature of happiness and the passage of time is as haunting as it is lovely.
15 Old Town
Phil Lynott (1982)
Take away the glorious bombast of Thin Lizzy and you have this sweet gem. Flitting from regretful to joyous — and replete with that super brass section — if this song doesn’t find a way to your heart, you can have my condolences.
14 Girl From Mars
Short, sharp stabs of attack have long been Ash’s stock in trade and Tim Wheeler and friends truly excel here. Great guitars. Judicious production and a breathless vocal delivery. What’s not to like?
13 We Don’t Need Nobody Else
Whipping Boy (1995)
Bruising and bruised, this brutally honest song lays bare relationship woes and domestic violence like few others: Fearghal McKee’s razor- sharp songwriting in all its dark glory.
12 Alternative Ulster
Stiff Little Fingers (1978)
Most of the island’s best punk bands came from north of the border, and this stunning single offered something of an escape manifesto for those stuck in the Troubles. A captivating exercise in brevity.
11 The Oldest Mind
“Celebrate what it is to be young,” sings Richie “Jape” Egan over and over again on this pulsating slice of electro-pop: a simple statement on intent amid some thrillingly textured arrangements.
10 Hot For You
The Blades (1980)
Clocking in at two minutes 17 seconds, the superb debut single from one of the great Irish bands of their era offers more giddy delights in its scant run-time than many bands do in a life-time. An uber-catchy statement of intent.
9 Fisherman’s Blues
The Waterboys (1988)
Steve Wickham is from Dublin, so pipe down anyone who questions the inclusion of this song. His fiddle playing is astonishing and helps elevate Mike Scott’s rousing, raggle-taggle tune far beyond the ordinary.
Sinead O’Connor (1987)
Named after a West African ethnic group, this is the song that introduced Sinead O’Connor to the world. The arrangements and production are machine-tooled for radio and her voice is, quite simply, stunning.
7 This Is
Aslan never again came close to matching this sensational debut, but that shouldn’t detract from a song that’s built for stadium appreciation and has so much to say about life on the margins.
6 A Rainy Night In Soho
The Pogues (1986)
The glory of Shane MacGowan’s superb songwriting writ large: evocative, rousing and — once heard — never forgotten. Elvis Costello’s production on this song on the original is exceptional, although several versions were released.
A song that has lost its potency through over-exposure, but try to listen to it with fresh ears and its utopian ideals ring through loud and clear. Bono’s single greatest moment? Most likely.
4 Cyprus Avenue
Van Morrison (1968)
The centrepiece of the Belfast man’s game-changing Astral Weeks album. A song about unrequited love, its complex arrangements only serve to accentuate its enduring legacy.
3 The Boys Are Back In Town
Thin Lizzy (1976)
The defining moment from Phil Lynott and friends: a cast-iron guitar riff, and a chorus big enough to last forever, this is an anthem to put smiles on faces and springs in feet.
2 Into The Mystic
Van Morrison (1970)
Van was at the height of his creative talents while still in his early 20s and this evergreen masterpiece managed to fuse his avant-garde tendencies with an intuitive understanding of mass appeal.
And at Number 1 ...
The Undertones (1978)
An obvious choice? Maybe. But there’s a reason why The Undertones seminal sub-three minuter continues to hold its grip. I’ve probably heard Teenage Kicks a thousand times — and it still sounds like the definitive punk-pop song.
The late BBC DJ John Peel reportedly cried when he first heard it — it’s very rare that true perfection comes along. This is the benchmark: every single second should be cherished.