Like most things in life, Irish music ain't what it used to be. While traditional folk music remains a cherished art form, Celtic-tinged music has broadened over the years into a variety of contemporary sounds and styles.
Following are the must-have albums by Irish bands or solo artists in the categories of traditional folk, fiddle, punk-tinged rock, new age and pop:
* The Chieftains, "Long Black Veil" (RCA Victor, 1995): Fronted by charming piper Paddy Moloney, the Chieftains are the undisputed masters of traditional Irish folk music. This CD is particularly noteworthy because the Chieftains not only attempted a mainstream pop crossover but also succeeded. This recording features Sting, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Sinead O' Connor, Ry Cooder, Mark Knopfler--heck, even Tom Jones. But rather than mold themselves to fit the style of these guests, the Chieftains inspire the opposite to unfold: The popsters sound quite natural singing within a Celtic framework. Bravo!
* Natalie MacMaster, "My Roots are Showing" (Rounder Records, 2000): The niece of influential Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, the dynamic Natalie MacMaster--only in her mid-20s--is known for infusing traditional fiddle music with modern, exploratory textures. But she sounds more natural playing this splendid collection of traditional reels, marches, strathspeys and jigs. "A Glencoe Dance Set," the closing track featuring Uncle Buddy, is simply dazzling.
* The Pogues, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" (Island Records, 1987): Inspired by the Clash and fronted by talented but self-destructive singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan, this rowdy band of Irish and British rogues mixes strains of folk music with the politically charged fury of punk rock on a brilliant, ambitious collection of whiskey-soaked tunes. Is there a sweeter, sadder ballad than "Fairytale of New York," a glorious duet with pop-folk singer Kirsty MacColl that captures all of the band's street-smarts and tenderness?
* Clannad, "Anam" (Atlantic, 1992): Fans of Loreena McKennitt and Enya (a one-time Clannad member) will also enjoy this ethereal, soothing, highly produced quintet that formed in Northwest Ireland 30 years ago when the Brennan family--Maire (vocals, harp), Ciaran (vocals, multi-instrumentalist) and Pol (guitar, percussion, flute)--started playing at their father's tavern with uncles Padraig (guitar, mandolin) and Noel Duggan (guitar, vocals). Highlights (on this domestic version only) include a duet with U2's Bono titled "In a Lifetime" and the moody, cinematic "Harry's Game."
* The Saw Doctors, "Sing a Powerful Song" (Paradigm Records, 1997): With influences as diverse as Stiff Little Fingers, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys, this melodic, harmony-laden pop band from County Galway serves up plenty of yummy ear candy. This heartfelt, jovial, 17-track compilation is the remedy for homogenized, spiritless rock. --JOHN ROOS