A Year of Extremes: 2020 in Scottish Music

We take a look back on one of the most tumultuous years Scotland's music scene has ever faced, and celebrate five of the best albums to come out of it

Feature by Tony Inglis | 09 Dec 2020
  • SAY Award

When did you lose your mind this year? For me, it was around early September and these three words: “wet ass Biffy”. Americans got the Gal Gadot Imagine video, and we got three Ayrshire blokes having the point sail spectacularly over their heads. There’s something quintessentially 2020 about Biffy Clyro’s reimagining – no, desecration – of Cardi B's WAP. Just an all-round, tone deaf disaster. This isn’t brought up lightly, but rather to demonstrate the depraved lows Scottish music managed to hit before we talk about the (mostly) good stuff. It’s been a year of extremes, and not much of what has happened drops between the pylons of delightful and exceptionally shit.

It’s tempting to map the year out chronologically, but that results in something that resembles sliding down a water chute into a pool of piranhas. There isn't much to celebrate right now, so let’s instead start with the country’s music scene’s valiant attempts to celebrate itself. The SAY Award went ahead, and the run up to its end of October showcase was a chance for levity and a bit of pride. The longlist was one of the most diverse, glass ceiling-smashing set of nominees in the award's history, featuring artists new and old, voices and perspectives oft heard and those that should be heard more.

After technical issues caused most of the prerecorded event – which included live performances from the likes of Happy Spendy and Kapil Seshasayee, and acceptance speeches from the ten longlisted acts – to be postponed until three days after the winner was crowned, rewatching the video announcing the winner now is an interesting exercise. Devoid of tension and suspense, the prerecorded call with NOVA, real name Shaheeda Sinckler, ends up in… a flub, her manager Sofya Staune forced to repeat to her exactly what’s happened – that she’s won. The moment totally deflated. This is not a criticism – if anything, it’s incredibly apt! This entire year has been like letting air out of a balloon, the IRL manifestation of “technical difficulties” – of course one of the most important moments in Scottish music’s calendar should turn out like this. It’s simply a working hazard at the moment; empty halls and bare stages, silent audience members sitting at the other end of computer screens.

Ultimately what’s important about this experience is the music. The SAY Award cash prize is a life-changing amount of money for an artist like NOVA. Her album RE-UP is a somewhat under-the-radar winner, striking a blow against gatekeepers and the Spotify algorithm. Soon after, she told The Skinny: “I’m sure it will turn some heads towards these factions [the rap and grassroots artists] of Scottish music, and spark curiosity in places that used to be in the dark, whether that is in Scotland or beyond.” Whatever you think of the album that bagged the award, the whole enterprise – as well as efforts from other awards bodies like the SAMAs, and words in The Skinny’s very own pages – shines a light on several communities of artists who are creatively flexible and adventurous and, whether or not they should need to, grafting for their future. If your long, lonely nights haven’t been sated by boundary-splitting music from the acts in the adjacent Scottish albums of the year list, then surely you have found something to love in old favourites – Mogwai, Arab Strap, Teenage Fanclub – making their returns. For that, we can be thankful.

The pandemic, Brexit and the importance of community

At the start of the year, The Skinny was bringing good news about the push for equality, inclusivity and accessibility in live music and festivals. Not long after, that became a moot point. In one article, a source told us: “Closing venues for a few weeks could be a disaster.” That was in March.

The untold damage the pandemic has wreaked on the entertainment industry likely can’t be fully measured until this is all over. But it’s not like artists, venue owners, sound engineers, promoters – anyone with ties to the live music scene – had nothing else worrying to contend with. The looming threat to livelihoods posed by 2021's changes in touring regulations for the EU thanks to Brexit have been compounded by forced closures to performance spaces and cancelled bookings, delays to creative work and, more menacingly, an at-best bungled, at worst negligent package of support for the arts and culture by the UK government. Their response amounted to something like “get a real job”, not realising it seems that many independent artists already work multiple jobs (many of which have also been threatened in their own way by the pandemic) to support their music careers.

Lucky then that musicians in Scotland have such a solid community of supporters – peers, fans, media outlets, even when they are all also in crisis mode – to rally round and offer something to help, from myriad fundraisers to a nimbleness and flexibility to reimagine multiday festivals for an online setting. Free Love’s Third Ear yoga and sound experience was a balm for the soul in troubled times; Cryptic’s Sonic Bites series showed that approaches to online performance could be innovative and thoughtful. Some artists, amazingly, even managed to take time in such a period of uncertainty to show up for social causes, either through share of ticket prices or via record sales.

Pop Mutations went online and put 40 per cent of proceeds towards the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. The Tiny Changes initiative put on a series of livestreamed shows, raising money and providing a platform for artists to destigmatise conversations around mental health. Space was created for radio platforms like Clyde Built, EHFM and Radio Buena Vida to sprout up and grow. None of this is necessarily enough; much more remains to be done. But it warms the heart, and it is something. The long awkward silences in a bedroom recorded live set were worth it – a sign of survival. When Optimo put on a set at SWG3 – socially distanced and well-precautioned – there was a glimmer of hope. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Tackling the Scottish music scene's toxic past

With downing tools comes time for reflection. Unfortunate that it took a pandemic then for the scene to face up to its own shortcomings. This year Scottish music has been reckoning with its history of abuse, harassment, discrimination and all manner of manipulative and coercive behaviours subjected on womxn by toxic, unaccountable men. In August, The Skinny wrote about two organisations – the Glasgow Accountability Network and Scottish Women Inventing Music (SWIM) – and the work they're doing to give victims a voice and a sense of justice.

Since then, The BIT Collective has been raising awareness of inequality and instances of assault and abuse within the folk and trad scene, while the Protection of Women in the Arts (POWA) initiative was launched in November. A creative project founded by Siobhan Wilson and Ashley Stein (Fistymuffs), it's centred around providing a welcoming outlet for survivors to talk about their experiences of sexism in the arts. The work of these groups is essential, but their goals only come to fruition if perpetrators begin to take responsibility for their actions and for those who usually stand idly by – in venues, in scenes – to understand those toxic behaviours and question and call them out. If this year has been disrupted by problems outwith our control, let’s at least go into the next one taking control of a problem that we have the power to change. 

The Skinny’s Scottish Albums of the Year

[25 Jan, self-released]
It makes sense that Shaheeda Sinckler’s satisfyingly crunchy and succinct collection of lo-fi raps has been a hit with The Skinny’s writers after also being awarded Scottish Album of the Year. Its popularity with big heads in the know is a win for underground music everywhere and will surely shine a light on Scotland’s simmering hip-hop and grime scene.

Still House Plants – Fast Edit
[14 Aug, Bison Records]
Most descriptions of the Glasgow School of Art-established trio’s latest album focus on its success as a subversive deconstruction of the classic indie rock combo, and rightly so. But many also ignore its base pleasures. The songs lope, each with a mind of its own. Throw open tenement windows on a crisp, sunny morning and allow them to wander around.

Carla J. Easton – WEIRDO
[28 Aug, Olive Grove Records]
WEIRDO is the most enjoyable slap in the face. Dropping at the end of perhaps the worst summer for actually doing things in our lifetimes, Carla J. Easton’s oversaturated maximalist pop wanted to grab you by the collar, drag you into the final dying embers of the sun and demand that you have a good time.

Callum Easter – Green Door Sessions
[21 Aug, Moshi Moshi Records]
Callum Easter’s one-take reimagining of older material can be at once moody and playful. It is also stark: populated by little more than droning accordion, drum machines, mournful piano and his soulful, sorrowful voice. One imagines his vocals here being captured against the backdrop of puddles dribbling into Argyle Street drains.

Erland Cooper – Hether Blether
[29 May, PHASES]
Musically and thematically expansive, this final instalment in Erland Cooper’s trilogy of retreats to his native Orkney is about as close to island hopping as any of us have come this year. Contemporary classical mixed with field recordings and snatches of conversation make for a transportive listen.