In what was a quite incredible year for Scottish music, against all the odds, we have managed to whittle our favourite releases down to a manageable and appropriate 20. Not all are albums, there’s a few EPs in there as well, but we’re all friends here so let’s not quibble.
We hope you find something below to pique your interest, and if you do then please purchase directly from the artist or their record labels (all the linked titles will take you where you want to go) because the world, which is difficult enough as it is, would be intolerable without music and those who make it.
As is suggested in one of the reviews below, there is a contract between musicians and those who listen to them, and we music lovers have to keep our side of the bargain or it just won’t work.
Olive Grove Records’ Archipelago EPs have been among the most eagerly awaited and celebrated releases over the last couple of years, and March saw Volumes 5, with Circle Meets Dot (Jo Mango & A. Wesley Chung) and 6 with Henry & Fleetwood (Martin John Henry & Gillian Fleetwood), and showed once again that Olive Grove not only know how to bring the right people together, but how to bring the best out of them – a marvellous musical matchmaker!
An album of haunting and enchanting folk/blues, with a hint of jazz, Avocet have made an album which seems to belong to another age – most notably the British folk tradition of the ’60s and ’70s. Built mainly around the strings of clarsach, double bass, and acoustic guitar, and Iona Zajac’s ethereal vocals, Lend Your Garden is reminiscent of the sort of weird and wonderful soundtrack from a childhood which is most likely misremembered, as though a dream.
Released on the always excellent Gerry Loves Records label, Jane Blanchard’s Still Again made an immediate impact, bringing to mind some of my favourite records from over the years, the early music of PJ Harvey, Red House Painters, and Liz Phair being just three who spring to mind. The music moves from quiet to loud and back again, offering a restless and unpredictable backing to the evocative vocals and affecting lyrics.
Arriving right at the end of the year, Burd Ellen’s Says The Never Beyond is the perfect soundtrack for any festive period, but particularly this one. Marrying Christian carols with more traditional folk and pagan winter songs, these dark and haunting tunes have a strange and unsettling aura which fits the year all too well. An instant classic, and destined to be a firm favourite for many, many years.
I could have picked a number Scottish jazz albums or EPs in this list, but corto. alto have been so prolific and creative over the last 12 months and before that it has to be acknowledged, so we will. Their Live from 435 releases began in October last year, and Volume 5 was released in September of this one, and every volume is worth your attention. The release of the 435 vinyl works as an excellent taster, but only tells part of the story. Among the most inventive and inclusive bands around, they make music unlike anyone else – corto. alto surprise and delight every single time.
Releasing records either with bands or solo since 2009, Erland Cooper has created a body of work, over the last few years especially, which is as impressive as it is immersive. Hether Blether once again uses the natural world, this time collaborating with a fine coterie of musicians, writers, and artists to transport you not only to another place, but what feels like another time. If you are looking to escape, this is the perfect place to begin.
It feels like this is the album Carla Easton has been working towards from the beginning as it exhibits aspects of everything she’s released to date, and all the influences she has accumulated along the way, turning them up several notches. My favourite pop music has unexpected twists and turns, and carries bitter sweet overtones with it, and this has both in spades. Weirdo proudly proclaims Carla J. Easton’s musical manifesto. It’s a record which refuses to be ignored.
This year’s favourite new discovery was Happy Spendy’s You’re Doing Okay, which was just one highlight of many from Lost Map Records this year. You’re Doing Okay is a record which is intensely personal but which will evoke empathy in every single person who hears it – if it doesn’t, then I would worry. The songs draw you in and give you a reassuring hug, suggesting that no matter what, things are going to be OK. A best friend of an album.
Undoubtably one of the defining releases of 2020, LNFG’s Isolation Sessions was quickly conceived and constructed to help raise money for record stores and music venues who had to close during lockdown. With the label’s artists covering each others songs, it was a great idea for a great cause. Listening to it months later what is clear is that it is also a record that endures, one which presents the chosen songs in often radically different ways. A triumph of mind, spirit, and soul.
Jill O’Sullivan’s name on a record or live line-up has long been an indicator of quality, from founding Sparrow and the Workshop and BDY PRTS, to working with Fruit Tree Foundation, James Yorkston, Broken Chanter, Alex Rex, and too many others to name here. Her debut release as Jill Lorean is Not Your First and as statements go it makes a striking first impression. It’s rock red in tooth and claw – fresh, fervent, and fantastic.
Regular readers will know that Modern Studies are a favourite band of SWH!, and their latest album didn’t disappoint. From the first track ‘Photograph’, and the appearance of Emily Scott and Rob St John’s harmonies, you can relax as you are with old friends, the sort who never let you down. If there is an unwritten contract between musicians and their listeners then Modern Studies always keep their part of the bargain. The record I turned to most this year to help ease my mind.
If there was ever going to be a ‘sure thing’ in terms of an album I was going to love this year this was it as the admiration for Mt Doubt round our way knows no bounds. It all sounds so simple when you write it down, but with soulful, melodic, and mesmerising, songs, all beautifully played, and with Leo Bargery’s plaintive vocals working in harmony with Annie Booth’s, Mt Doubt create musical magic which is rare.
Their first album in five years, Pale Fire were determined to make it count releasing an album of whip-smart and literate indie pop songs that reference James Kelman and John Cassavettes, and I’m sure there are many others I’ve missed. That’s one of Husbands‘ glories – it gives up something new with each listen. With a bold and beautiful production by Jamie Savage backing melancholy tunes and the poetry of the lyrics, this is a record which is very special indeed.
Another album released near the end of the year, The Saccharine Underground brought some classy pop with a twist and immediately felt like a firm favourite. A blend of Scott Walker, Jarvis Cocker, and Franz Ferdinand, Peter Cat makes music which is all his own. His sardonic and wry look at the world is just what we need right now. Smart in every sense of the word, Peter Cat puts a smile on your face but leaves you with much more.
2020 was the year that SWH! got excited about Scottish hip hop beyond the better known names, and the album which is the perfect place to start if you want to do similar is No Justice No Peace. Alongside well-kent names such as Solareye, Steg G, and Loki, were new-to-SWH! musicians such as Wurd Jenkins, Bigg Taj, Empress, Kryptik, Jackal Trades and many more. It’s an area of Scottish music which should be better known and praised, and we’re looking forward to further exploration and adventures in 2021.
Following on from their arresting debut Harmony Springs, The Making of You is an exceptional collection of songs, each of which work individually but only really make complete sense as a whole. Anna Sheard’s voice is a thing of beauty which musical partner Jim McCulloch presents to full effect, and when you learn who else is involved in the recording – including members of Belle & Sebastian, The Pearlfishers, and Teenage Fanclub – then you begin to realise just why we love these songs so much. A thing of beauty and a joy forever.
The most welcome release of the year was The Son(s)’ The Creatures We Were Before We Were Ghosts which saw one of the bands who mean the most to SWH! return with a fantastic album, one which not only met expectations but easily exceeded them. If you know The Son(s) you’ll understand just what that means. If you don’t, prepare to meet your new favourite band. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
One of the classiest releases of the year, Starry Skies Do It With Love is a collection of timeless and classic pop songs which reflect the ideology and convictions of lead Starry Sky, Warren McIntyre. A man whose wish is to make the world a better place, he doesn’t just want to write, release, and play songs (although all of those are in his very bones), he wants to spread the word and share the love. He means it, man.
Incorporating the natural world into your music is not a new thing, but few have done it as beautifully or artfully as Jenny Sturgeon has with The Living Mountain. Inspired by Nan Shepherd’s book of the same name, it examines the relationship humans could have, and should have, with the natural world, and how the two are intrinsically linked. The perfect soundtrack to your winter walks and beyond, it helps bring perspective at a time we need it most.
If I had to pick an album of the year, if I had to…, then I think it would be Andrew Wasylyk’s Fugitive Lights And Themes of Consolation. It takes you places you never dreamt of – the soundtrack to a film yet to be made. To quote Roddy Frame; it is deep, and wide, and tall. It’ll take you back to your past, and make you look to the future, right here, right now. For an album to do all this and more is something very special indeed. Resistance is not only futile, but pointless.
You can listen to Ali and guest Richard Bull on the recent That Was The Year That Was: The Best Of 2020 Podcasts – Music… discussing the year’s music.