Common Thread: Underrated Albums from Irish Performers and Bands (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

There certainly has been no shortage of successful acts to come out of Ireland: U2, Van Morrison, Enya, or Sinead O’Connor might immediately spring to your mind as pop/rock artists from the Emerald Isle. Or maybe when you think “Irish music,” the very first thing that pops into your head is the heavily Celtic-oriented sound of such acts as the legendary folk outfit The Chieftains or punk outfit Dropkick Murphys, the latter of whom aren’t technically Irish at all – the band actually hails from Massachusetts – but whose brand of Celtic punk is inescapable at pubs all over the world on St. Patrick’s Day. But not all of the Irish acts who have reached the Top 40 on these shores are quite so obviously Irish, and you may be surprised to learn that, say, The Script (“Breakeven,” “For the First Time,” “Nothing,” “Hall of Fame”) hail from that country or that several of the many teen-pop acts who sprouted up during the late ‘90s do as well, including B*Witched (“C’est La Vie”), Samantha Mumba (“Gotta Tell You”), and Westlife (“Swear It Again.”) In honor of it being St. Patrick’s Day – coincidentally the birthday of both the Great Albums Podcast’s own columnist and lifelong record collector Jeff Fiedler, who put this list together, and his father, who introduced Jeff to quite a sizable number of the memorable albums showcased in his columns over the past year, this piece included – we’ve decided to showcase, in chronological order, a baker’s dozen of just some of the most underrated (on American shores, at least) albums to be released by Irish pop and rock acts (many of them little known to - or sadly long forgotten by - American audiences) from the ‘70s through the present day, beginning with …   

Back to Front, Gilbert O’Sullivan (1972, MAM)

For a brief period in the early ‘70s, O’Sullivan was a regular fixture on the American charts. His very first U.S. hit ended up being his biggest – the heavily Paul McCartney-esque “Alone Again (Naturally),” which sat at the top of the charts for six weeks – but he’d go on to write even better songs, and he never made a finer full-length than this, his second LP. A true album piece and one that even opens up with a brief but clever intro featuring O’Sullivan gleefully singing, “The name of this album is Back to Front,” the album is overflowing with lovely and catchy melodies that get lodged in your head after just one listen, especially those on “In My Hole,” “I Hope You’ll Stay,” “But I’m Not,” “The Golden Rule,” and the Top 40 hit “Out of the Question.” But the album’s unquestionable highlight – and its biggest hit – is
“Clair,” an ode to his manager’s youngest daughter, who he would frequently babysit, that stopped just one spot shy of reaching Number One. The lyric pulls off the difficult feat of being adorable without being sappy, and the melody is arguably the prettiest that O’Sullivan ever penned. Sadly, the song only rarely pops up on FM radio these days and it’s consequently become one of the most delightful lost 45s of the early ‘70s for pop buffs. O’Sullivan would continue to craft some fine singles in the ensuing years – 1974’s pounding, electric-piano-driven “Get Down” is especially recommended – but if you’re going to have just one studio album of his, this is the one to own.

Bad Reputation, Thin Lizzy (1978, Mercury)

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that classic-rock stations on American shores are completely unaware of this criminally underrated band, led by the late Phil Lynott – you’re almost certainly familiar with the band’s biggest (and, sadly, lone Top 40) American hit, “The Boys Are Back in Town” – but it’s a bit puzzling why they never play anything of the band’s but “The Boys Are Back in Town.” If you’re a classic-rock buff, you’ve likely picked up that single’s parent album, Jailbreak, at some point. But do yourself a favor and explore the rest of the band’s catalog, too, because their entire ‘70s output is pretty rock-solid, and this disc in particular (helmed by former David Bowie producer Tony Visconti and featuring guest spots from former Apple recording artist Mary Hopkin and Supertramp saxophonist John Helliwell) is only ever-so-slightly inferior to Jailbreak, and why “Dancing in the Moonlight” (vaguely reminiscent of a more danceable version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night”) failed to become a hit in this country, I have absolutely no idea. “That Woman’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” “Soldiers of Fortune,” and the title cut are all standouts as well. Once you’ve picked this one up, you may also want to check out 1980’s Black Rose: A Rock Legend, which is nearly just as underrated and is also the band’s first studio album to feature legendary guitarist Gary Moore as a full-time member. 

The Fine Art of Surfacing, The Boomtown Rats (1979, Columbia)

It tends not to get rated nearly as highly by critics as its immediate predecessor, A Tonic for the Troops, but this might actually be the more interesting album of the two, if only because the band (which sadly never had more than a cult following in this country and failed to get much mainstream exposure) has broadened their sound quite a bit here and has moved beyond the shadings of punk that dominated the band’s earlier singles like “She’s So Modern,” “Like Clockwork,” and “Rat Trap” to branch into more new-wave-oriented territory. The album is best known for the highly-theatrical, almost-show-tune-like piano ballad “I Don’t Like Mondays,” the most controversial song the band ever made (it’s about, of all things, a real-life San Diego teenager who went on a shooting spree) that’s also perversely the catchiest single they ever recorded and became their only Hot 100 entry in the U.S.. But there are plenty of other songs here that are nearly every bit as entertaining, namely “Diamond Smiles,” which nearly could pass as a lost Bruce-and-the-E-Street-Band song (just listen to the instrumental vamp-out if you don’t hear the resemblance), the infectious “Keep It Up” (easily one of the band’s catchiest non-singles), “Someone’s Looking at You,” “Nothing Happens Today,” and the acoustic rocker “When the Night Comes.”

The Getaway, Chris DeBurgh (1982, A&M)

Technically born in Argentina but of Irish parentage, this dramatic, oft-theatrical singer-songwriter has always had a hard time attaining the same chart success in the U.S. as he’s had pretty much everywhere else around the world, but he did come just one spot shy of topping the Hot 100 with just his second Top 40 hit, the hypnotic, atmospheric ballad “The Lady in Red” (reportedly one of the late Princess Diana’s favorite records) from the 1986 album Into the Light. But DeBurgh’s finest full-length arguably arrived several years earlier, in the form of The Getaway, which both boasts more hooks and feels more distinctly like an album piece. If you only know DeBurgh for the balladry of “The Lady in Red,” you might be surprised by this album’s opening cut, “Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” which is his only other Top 40 entry in this country and boasts an entirely different kind of sound, one that’s more rock-oriented and considerably more upbeat. Whereas some of DeBurgh’s other albums feel a bit more front-loaded, quite a few of this album’s highlights pop up on the second side, most notably “Ship to Shore” and “All the Love I Have Inside.” 

This Is the Sea, The Waterboys (1985, Island; reissued in 1986 on Chrysalis)

Though none of the band’s founding members are actually Irish by birth, this Mike Scott-led band was so influenced by Celtic music that it would eventually relocate to the Emerald Isle and bring a sizable number of ever-rotating (the band has been through countless personnel changes over the years) Irish players into their fold and record some of the most traditional-sounding Irish folk ever captured on record by a pop band. [They’d sadly never score a Top 40 hit on American shores, but original member Karl Wallinger would later do so on his own as the leader of World Party, achieving that feat with the single “Ship of Fools” before drifting into cult status and scoring a run of alternative-radio hits with the likes of “Way Down Now,” “Put the Message in the Box,” and “Thank You World.”] Their next outing, the folk-flavored Fisherman’s Blues, bears a much heavier Irish influence, but it’s this album that remains the band’s artistic masterpiece. The title cut, “The Pan Within,” “Spirit,” and “Don’t Bang the Drum” are standouts, but there is not a single bad cut on here, and you are especially missing out if you haven’t at least heard the song “The Whole of the Moon,” one of the most criminally overlooked and goosebump-inducing singles in all of ‘80s rock and a song you’d swear had to have been in New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander’s record collection during his late teens.

Feargal Sharkey, Feargal Sharkey (1985, A&M)

Though they never came anywhere close to scoring a hit in the U.S., you’ll find no shortage of music critics out there who have written fawning reviews of the first three albums from The Undertones, and for good reason: the albums – particularly their self-titled debut – are must-hears for any punk or new-wave fan. However, those same critics tend to completely overlook lead singer Feargal Sharkey’s subsequent solo career, which got off to a strong start with this appealing self-titled outing, produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. Sure, it’s distinctly more commercial than his work with the Undertones, but it’s all very tasteful, and he benefits from the assistance of some great talents. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench pens the great, brass-heavy “You Little Thief,” while the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde offers up the equally strong “Made for Measure.” But the best cut here arguably comes from Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee, who pens the album’s instantly-catchy opening cut, “A Good Heart” (written about her breakup from Tench, who, in response, wrote “You Little Thief” about her; the songs are fittingly and ironically placed side-by-side in the album sequencing), which landed Sharkey onto the Hot 100 for the very first time but sadly still stopped well shy of reaching the Top 40. [Fun trivia: between his departure from the Undertones and the release of this solo debut, Sharkey served as one-half of the short-lived synth-pop duo The Assembly, rounded out by former Yaz keyboardist/songwriter and future Erasure co-founder Vince Clarke.]