A transitional year: Scottish music in 2021

We take a closer look at the past year in Scotland's music scene, celebrate our favourite Scottish releases of 2021 and pay tribute to those we've lost

Feature by Tony Inglis | 08 Dec 2021
  • Mogwai at the SAY Award

The last gig reviewed by The Skinny before lockdown locked in – at least, the last gig that wasn’t Callum Easter under a bridge – signed off: “Here’s to the next one – whenever it is.” How special it is to begin a look back on Scotland’s musical year 2021 knowing that the next one eventually arrived, and many more since. We were there for Kathryn Joseph’s set at the Edinburgh International Festival in August – how apt that a Scottish artist who can deliver such gravitas should be the first act to grace the magazine’s online ‘live music’ section in 17 months.

“The drizzle dancing around the edges of the outdoor pavilion we're in is the most perfect backdrop, making for a wholly overwhelming moment, music and weather colliding so exquisitely it's hard to put into words,” we wrote. “The fact it’s the first gig back for many in attendance just adds to the mood which hangs heavy in the air, like a tear duct on the verge of bursting. The first round of applause, cheers and whoops that soar around the enormous polytunnel hit hard.”

Readers of The Skinny many times over will hopefully have felt that same rush of emotion, whether it’s in a dark, cramped, sweaty basement or as mud squelches on to the soles of shoes through the grass at a festival. Even being in the depths of The Boogie Bar at TRNSMT in Glasgow Green felt like a gift… sometimes. From Jupiter Rising to The Great Western, the return of festivals, and live music in general, warrants a collective sigh of relief after such an uncertain time. The field as it presents itself has been tricky to navigate for organisers, promoters and artists alike.

It’s important to note too that some of you may be reading all this with a sense of trepidation. Not everyone has been able – or has wanted – to make it back to a gig. Even with the rigorous and innovative planning many festivals committed to undertaking, as reported by The Skinny back in June, it remains true that the bulk of responsibility not to put other people’s health at risk sits currently with individuals through mask-wearing, regular testing and vaccine passports. For those who are uncertain or vulnerable, it may be a while yet until there’s a level of comfort around returning to venues, and ultimately that is up to control over the pandemic more than anything promoters and organisers can feasibly do.

But doesn’t it feel good to shout about your favourite band announcing a Scottish date on their tour, to see your calendar fill up and your Monzo balance dwindle? It feels like not even a day goes by without another potential ticket-purchasing scenario presenting itself. For venues that will be a lifeline, even with schemes and organisations like the Music Venue Trust having been there to advocate for small concert spaces through the pandemic.

Of course, the feeling that the world is circling a plughole can’t be fully dispelled these days, as one positive is negated by something else utterly terrible. Brexit leaves Scottish acts – musicians from all over the UK – in a state of flux, with touring likely to be considerably affected by its constantly evolving – and excruciating – impact. It's a widely-reported issue, but one that remains seemingly of little concern to the majority of people outside the music and creative industries.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, Scottish music continued to make strides in 2021. The country’s most outstanding new releases have been a mix of the fresh and vibrant and old heads. Nowhere is this juxtaposition greater exemplified than in The Skinnys Scottish albums of the year list. The grandiose chamber pop of Hamish Hawk’s Heavy Elevator sits at the top, but below, super young artists like Eliza Shaddad and Lizzie Reid sit next to elder statesmen Arab Strap and Teenage Fanclub, true heavyweights. TAAHLIAH represents an exciting future for the sound of Scottish music. Her Ayrshire-hailing hyperpop rave graced TRNSMT (yes, the highlight of the aforementioned Boogie Bar!) and she is leading a cohort of women and non-binary artists, from AiiTee to Hen Hoose, who have thrived recently.

Contrastingly, long-time institution Mogwai released As the Love Continues, to acclaim, to a UK number one, a Mercury Prize nomination, and a SAY Award win. It seemed something of a transitional year for the award (mirroring the year in music itself), and so a legacy act receiving the main gong alongside a new prize – The Sound of Young Scotland, awarded to LVRA – specifically designed to highlight the future of Scottish music perhaps leaves scope for the award to extend itself in 2022.

For example, Scotland’s excellent and burgeoning experimental music scene is rarely represented. Take Kay Logan, a producer and musician who has worked under numerous names and guises and with multiple varied acts, who creates constantly hard-to-pin-down music. Perhaps too late for end of year lists to catch, she released the album Here In My Scheme, Here It Ends on Lost Map with Kieran Thomas, Romeo Taylor and Billy Gaughan as Herbert Powell, their playful, misdirecting cult art-rock group. Possibly apocryphal stories revolve around their existence, but what is factually accurate is that this record is the perfect crossover between Scotland’s weird underground and something more accessible. It would be good to see those from that community given their due.

One of Scottish music’s undersung communities did get greater exposure in 2021. Scottish rap and hip-hop have been belting at the door to be taken seriously for years. Through the likes of young artists, such as Nova and Bemz, and the inaugural Scottish hip-hop and grime music conference HANG, it’s finally garnering wider appreciation.

Launched by the Scottish Alternative Music Awards (which themselves will have happened by the time you read this), the event wasn’t just about pushing genres that are prevalent and yet unheralded in Scotland, but also to showcase the diversity of collectively-minded Scottish musical talent. As Sami Omar, founder of Scottish grime platform Up2Stndrd, told The Skinny back in July: “We like to promote multicultural dominance in Scotland so it’s all about that and using hip-hop and grime as a language to break those barriers.” It’s only a start, but to those coming to the scene anew, it will be less of a surprise that there are artists making rap music in Aberdeen and Dundee.

An end of year round-up perhaps should end on a positive note. But it seems fitting to make it a moment of remembrance as, amid the vast tragedy of the pandemic, Scottish music endured more personal tragedies. Just last month came the sudden news of the death of Beldina Odenyo Onassis, known by her stage name Heir of the Cursed. Condolences rolled in across social media for Odenyo Onassis, an established name in the scene, but one that still had much to continue to do within it.

The latter description can also be applied to the loss of SOPHIE, back at the beginning of 2021. Much has already been written about her passing, including an elegant tribute in these pages. SOPHIE was a titan of music, and the fact she hailed from Scottish shores – even if a degree of mystery was central to her appeal – is something we should be hugely grateful for. Her influence and legacy will be felt across music as other artists come and go. It's heartbreaking to lose two such talented and beloved music makers and performers. It's a significant testament that their mark upon Scotland’s music will be remembered.