The Skinny's Top 5 Scottish Albums of 2016

Feature by Music Team | 01 Dec 2016
  • Anna Meredith

Sterling efforts from Frank, Bey et al aside, there were some truly wonderful records made by the fair hearts of Scotland this year. As voted by our Music team, here's the five best Scottish albums of 2016...

#5 Law Holt – City

Law Holt is a modern day flâneur, an R'n'B pop diva who in 2016 created exquisitely soulful soundscapes on her debut solo LP City to match the joy and alienation of living and loving in a contemporary metropolis.

Holt describes her music as “a noisy, analogue reflection of my mental state on a given day. I write and record quickly so an LP or EP of mine captures in its entirety one of those intermittent crises life throws at me. (It’s about) love and loss. Feeling lucky in a doomed society which considers kindness to be a weakness. All of our stances and postures and outbursts are a bad mask for our individual weaknesses. My music lurks somewhere between the two.”

Multifaceted and multi-talented, Holt’s voice lights City in an array of shades, often snapping flawlessly between deep, raspy tones, bluesy Billie Holiday echoes and light as a feather pop vocals. On the immaculate Just Another Break Up Song, Holt stacks her own varied vocal stylings one atop another to glorious effect. Her creative process is at once cloistered and yet inexorably caught up with Edinburgh, as she explains: “I write and record in the Soulpunk studio in Leith. The rest of the world vanishes when I'm down there. I have my own secret rituals. I can write and record multiple tracks in a day... By running the writing and recording processes so closely together the whole thing feels like a purge or a ceremony.

“The music I make is all I have,” she says, “so I am intensely proud and protective of it.” Rightly so, too: Law Holt is unquestionably one of the most exciting artists working in Scotland today. [Rachel Bowles]

#4 Honeyblood – Babes Never Die

As Stina Tweeddale explained ahead of Honeyblood's latest album's release, Babes Never Die is the product of a refocused energy that reflects the duo's new writing partnership: “Musically, we wanted it to have more of an urgency. The first album was very shoegazey, and quite dreamy. We wanted to be attacking and quite high-octane. Lots of drums."

The resultant second album is a super-charged ride through the fuzzy riffs, spiky lyrics and those aforementioned kick-ass drums. Babes Never Die wears its anthemic mantra on its sleeve, with the duo sounding notably more formidable than 2014's self-titled debut.

When asked about their own personal album highlights, Stina choses the "truthful" Cruel, which she describes as "a pretty chill song – until the end. I wrote (it) all in one go. I texted my manager and I was like, 'Oh, I've written a slow song,' and he got the demo and he was like, 'That's not a slow song. Do you even know what a slow song is?!'"

As for Love is a Disease, their self-proclaimed "favourite" track on the album, Tweeddale explains: "The reason we love it so much is because it was the turning point." Drummer Cat Myers adds with a laugh, "That's when bass became a thing... and yeah, the rest of it just followed suit from there."

Titles like Sea Hearts, Love is a Disease and Ready For the Magic reflect both Honeyblood's self-assured mentality, and the endearing honesty of Tweeddale's lyrics. And with a newfound penchant for drums and bass, Babes Never Die has the perfect power-pop soundtrack for a narrative focused on strong, brave, take-no-prisoners women. [Claire Francis]

#3 Teenage Fanclub – Here 

'You’ve been living in a bad dream baby, I know.' Norman Blake could well be addressing all of us with this line from The Darkest Part of the Night, given the perpetual nightmare 2016’s turned out to be. Though it’s been a long six years in the making, Here couldn’t have come at a better time.

In this year of sorrow and uncertainty, Teenage Fanclub did us all a favour by putting out a characteristically warm and high quality record full of soothing reassurances that we’re going to pull through. The former track, definitely the album’s catchiest, is an instant pick-me-up of pillowy strings and sunshine harmonies topped off with a guitar solo that doffs its cap to Neil Young. 

Then there’s I Have Nothing More to Say, which finds bassist Gerard Love indulging his more psychedelic tendencies, making for what’s probably the prettiest four minutes of hypnagogic pop on wax this year.

Importantly, Here doesn’t shy away from modern life’s definitive struggles ('I don’t hear much fanfare for the common man these days,' sings Raymond McGinley on Hold On) but neither does it surrender to them. Instead, it looks for solace in simple things – in love, in nature, in jangly guitars – and finds the spirit to keep on. [Andrew Gordon]

#2 Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack

Frightened Rabbit have long been seasoned purveyors of drama and emotional turmoil – on the evidence of a whirlwind and often turbulent 2016, little’s changed for the Selkirk quintet. Their fifth LP, Painting of a Panic Attack, met with rave reviews back in April, not least for the way in which it eschewed the bombastic grandstanding of its predecessor, Pedestrian Verse, in favour of a sparser, darker approach masterminded by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who assumed production duties.

The band have toured extensively since, but hit a major bump in the road back in August; frontman Scott Hutchison declared the group finished during a drunken Twitter rant – mercifully reversing his position the following day – and his younger brother Grant, the band’s drummer, took a short break from live commitments after intra-band relationships became frayed.

Ahead of a winter UK tour, guitarist Andy Monaghan assured us that the future of Frightened Rabbit is secure. “We were just saying, whilst we were over in America, what a nice year we’ve had. We make mistakes but we go through those experiences together, and we can spot the signs if somebody’s burned out, or needs a break to think about what it is they want out of the band, or their life. We want to keep things moving next year and start demoing for a new record. I just want to carry on working with these guys I love making tunes with.” [Joe Goggins]

#1 Anna Meredith – Varmints 

"Fashioned from curious beats, classical motifs, and the odd bit of tuba," began an early, unpromising draft of a review unearthed from a discarded notebook, "Varmints represents slippery pop channelling Erasure, channelling Russians by Sting – only good," which even at the time felt like a wilfully inadequate summation of this record’s charms.

Anna Meredith may be more au fait with writing for, and working with string ensembles or full orchestra, frequently introducing a contemporaneous electronic element to reframe the medium, but her debut dip in the waters of pop feels as delightful now as it did back then.

Not that the album represents a deliberate compartmentalisation between different genres. “There’s a reliance upon tonality and certain rhythmic, structural things that are common to both classical music and pop,” Meredith told The Skinny when we caught up with her in the summer. 

“I use the same sort of harmonies and rhythms across what I write. You can listen to a big symphonic work and it’s got loads of things that you might enjoy in pop or a dance a track; they’re probably there in the classical repertoire – you just have to look for them in a slightly different way.” Which itself works as a method of describing the sly yet playful intelligence Varmints exudes across tracks both vocal-led and instrumental.

It’s in the exploitation of space between the on-beat and the off, layering tracks such as Scrimshaw and opener Nautilus with a sense of subversion. It’s in the vaguely retro, electro-pop hues behind Something Helpful or Last Rose; in the full-on immediacy of lead single Taken – not to mention mid-point song Dowager (which does, to be fair, sound a little like Russians by Sting – only good).

Varmints remains as joyful as it is erudite, complex but never a show-off, and quite beyond classification. We’re very lucky to have it. [Duncan Harman]