Without a doubt 2018 was a year of exceptional albums from start to finish, from such as The Gracious Losers, Starry Skies, Modern Studies, The Scottish Enlightenment, Carla J. Easton, L-Space, Kirsty Law, C.S. Buchan & Friends, Roberts/Skuse/McGuinness, Zoe Bestel, Kathryn Joseph, Aidan Moffat and R.M Hubbert, Vive La Rose, Errant Boy, and many more (some of which have tracks which feature below). Here’s hoping for a similar high quality return in 2019.
But before we get ahead of ourselves – if you can fit in one more ‘Best Of The Year’ list, small but perfectly formed, this is our annual choice of the 10 best songs reviewed on these pages over the last 12 months. As ever, it’s a list which focuses on individual tracks, but if you like what you hear you should investigate further as most of them are to be found on equally awesome albums or EPs.
That’s enough preamble – here’s the countdown, listed in order of their date of release, and what we thought about them at the time, with a few relevant updates…
Carla J. Easton has made music as a member of Teen Canteen, under the name of Ette, and on multiple other collaborations. In 2018 she released the album Impossible Stuff under her own name which made it clear that no matter the moniker it is business as usual as Easton continues to prove she is incapable of making music which is anything other than magical. Exhibit A is ‘Lights In The Dark’, and it is a moody and mature slice of electro pop which shows others just how this sort of thing should be done. Carla J. Easton deserves to reach the widest audience possible and this could be the song to do just that. Take a listen and see if you agree:
Regular readers will know that our love for all things L-Space knows no bounds. They are a band who make music that is utterly current yet out of time – a place where classic electronic pop meets the future. Their sound is as much influenced by movie soundtracks as other bands, lending it an epic, expansive feel which makes them stand out from the crowd. With each new release they give a glimpse of what is promising to be a wonderful bigger picture in the shape of their first album, Kipple Arcade.
The single ‘Suneaters’ is the perfect example of this. Sci-fi dream pop at its finest, while it stands alone as a great single, when added to what has gone before, and what is to come, it only confirms L-Space as a band to see us through dark days. I’m a believer:
Another band who continue to live up to and surpass their early promise are Half Formed Things. ‘February’ is the first single from their album To Live In The Flicker and if ever a song fitted the times it’s surely this one, especially when you view the accompanying video from Unfolded Collective. Urgent and irresistible from the very start, it’s driven by drums, chiming guitars and an infectious piano loop before the vocal harmonies bring a warmth and emotion which catches you unaware. It’s a multi-layered sound which gives up more each time you listen, with an ebb and flow in a manner similar to Doves or Radiohead. This is ‘February’ and, without wanting to give away any spoilers, stay till the very end:
While we are talking about SWH! favourites, next up – of course it’s Modern Studies. They returned with new music in the intriguing and deceptively complex shape of ‘Mud And Flame’, taken from their album Welcome Strangers. For those who fell for their previous record, Swell To Great, the wait for something new has been well worth it. Strings, vocal harmonies, and traditional, and not so traditional, instruments interweave to produce music which manages to be both melancholy yet heartening, harmonious yet with a sense of dissonance.
Nothing makes the point better than the vocal harmonies of Emily Scott and Rob St John, whose voices work so well together they almost become one – almost, but not quite. Harmonious duality – that’s the phrase which kept coming to mind with every listen of ‘Mud & Flame’, not just with the vocals but with the music as a whole. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Modern Studies continue to get the balance right:
Errant Boy’s last single ‘Means’ was one of SWH!’s Tracks Of My Year for 2017, and confirmed they are one of the finest bands around. Continuing to fly the flag for the indie purist, their latest single, ‘We Like You’ (from the equally excellent album Memory Fractures) visits Brassneck era The Wedding Present, The Close Lobsters, The Monochrome Set, The Orchids – in fact many bands with a definite article to their name. Errant Boy’s music sparkles and shines like few others can manage, understanding that when it comes to great indie-pop less is almost always more:
Zoe Bestel’s album Transcience has rarely been off the SWH! turntable since it’s release. It’s a collection of songs which are aching in their beauty and fragility, yet there is a core strength and assuredness which makes you feel, if just while the record plays, that everything really is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Musically, there are similarities with Stina Nordenstam, Emiliana Torrini, early Laura Veirs and late period Kate Bush, but Zoe Bestel is as original as they come, and as comfortable in her music as she is breathing. There is no artifice in evidence, just songs where the key is life. From Transcience, this is ‘Grey Skies’, and it makes all the above points, and more, better than I could ever manage:
Cloth are a recent signing to Last Night From Glasgow, and, as any fule kno, that’s quickly become a guarantee of quality. ‘Demo Love’ is their debut single and boy, is it a touch of class. From the opening chords (which can’t help but put you in mind of The Pixies’ ‘Debaser’), there are ethereal vocals, chiming guitars, riffs which reminded me of Johnny before he went electronic, and a quiet/loud dynamic perfect for a shoegaze shuffle. This is indie music for the ages, evoking, among others, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, Mazzy Star and The Sundays. You’ll find your own touchpoints, but if you, like me, think there are few finer things in life than a great indie-pop record then ‘Demo Love’ could just be your song of the summer.
It’s never easy to follow-up a success, and that’s what Kathryn Joseph was faced with after her SAY Award winning record bones you have thrown me and blood I’ve spilled. It was a record which shook Scottish music and to say it mattered to many is an understatement. Of course she’s been busy, among other things collaborating with R.M. Hubbert and working on the excellent Out Lines album Conflats, but her next solo record has been eagerly awaited.
That wait is over as From When I Wake The Want Is is now with us, and it’s been well worth it. Joseph’s music achieves the perfect balance between fragility and strength, and it makes the listener reflect on their own, and that is a rare achievement. There’s emotional truth and honesty, and a depth of feeling, which provokes a reaction that is visceral, and almost physical. It’s similar to the reaction I have reading Jenni Fagan‘s poetry, or Helen McClory‘s prose. Kathryn Joseph is one of those musicians who comes along all too rarely and she should be celebrated and she should be cherished. From the album this is the title track, ‘From When I Wake The Want Is’:
If Hairband are not the best live band in Scotland at the moment, then they are so close as to require a photo finish. With a self-titled debut EP out on Monorail Records they prove that their inimitable sound works just as well recorded. It is a sublime record – funky indie-pop which is tight yet loose, and harmonious in every sense of the word. Their obvious musicianship is worn lightly, and this is clearly a band having the time of their lives playing together. Put simply, Hairband make the world a better place to be. From Hairband, this is ‘Flying’:
One of the best albums of 2018 was Be Kind by Starry Skies, a musical collective collected from bands such as Sister John, The Sweetheart Revue, Tenement and Temple, The Gracious Losers, among others, and led by Warren McIntyre, a man who lives and breathes music. It is a wonderful record without a duff track on it, but one in particular became an anthem for 2018.
That song is ‘Be Kind’ and it now has a video to accompany it. Defying the times, and against all odds, this has been a year where themes of love, peace and harmony, kindness and care – for yourself and others – seem to make a welcome comeback, at least among the beautiful people who listen to the Starry Skies, and who read and follow SWH!. You want proof? Just look back at the music featured above and in these reviews over the past year and you’ll see I’m right. Sit back, make yourself comfortable, and listen to ‘Be Kind’. It’s a mantra for a better life:
A fine selection, we hope you agree. We’ll be back in the new year with more reviews of the best new music Scotland has to offer…