Cult Listening: 12 Scottish Records for the Discerning Fresher

Thought you knew Scottish music? Your CHVRCHES playlist is not enough – here's 12 must-have records for the discerning fresher

Feature by Ally Brown | 15 Sep 2014

Music is one of the things this country does best, so it’s not enough to just recognise 500 Miles, Take Me Out and The Mother We Share. Here’s 12 albums you should seek out with haste, and plenty of follow-up recommendations too, that will hopefully prompt a full-on love affair with contemporary Scottish music, or at least allow you to blag your way through a party chat with a muso. It’s by no means comprehensive – don’t be silly – but it’s a damn good start.

Orange Juice – The Glasgow School (2005)

You’ll know Rip It Up as one of the funkiest of early-80s guitar-pop anthems, but Domino’s compilation The Glasgow School focuses on the wonderful early years of Orange Juice, where you can hear them connect the dots from jangling surf-rock to chiming pop-punk. Their influence on Scottish music extends much further – you can hear the imprints of their experiments in Belle & Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand and Django Django, while their contemporaries on the Postcard label, Josef K, should also be investigated.

Cocteau Twins – Treasure (1984)

There’s no mistaking the sound of the Cocteau Twins, a band so influential they virtually define the term 'dream pop. That’s because their ethereal sound, all smudged by cotton wool until its fine lines are obscured, is topped by the distinctively indistinct voice of Elizabeth Fraser, so perfectly high, drifting lyricless among the clouds, like a feverish Kate Bush singing in tongues. Treasure is probably their finest collection, though Heaven or Las Vegas (1990) includes their best-known song, the title track.

Belle & Sebastian – Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (2005)

Belle & Seb are the kind of band who inspire life-altering love in their biggest fans, and merely transient tears, awe and happiness in the rest of us. Second album If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) is often said to be their best; third record The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998) bizarrely won a BRIT Award; latest release Write About Love (2010) proved they hadn’t lost their touch; but perhaps the best place to start is Push Barman, an extraordinary collection of singles and B-sides that showcases their varied styles and touching lyrics over a period of years. After exploring the band's discography, local disciples Camera Obscura and Butcher Boy deserve investigation too.

Idlewild – 100 Broken Windows (2000)

As far as Scottish indie-rock goes, 100 Broken Windows has few peers; indeed The Skinny's readers ranked it the best Scottish album of the first decade of this millenium, of all genres, a few years ago. After the promising punky debut Hope Is Important, Windows represented a developmental leap forward: from scrappy teens learning their trade to educated young adults mastering it; next came The Remote Part, which landed them on Top of the Pops and briefly, in the mainstream as Scotland’s biggest rock band. As usual, the prelude was better.

The Beta Band – The 3 EPs (1998)

It’s by now a tedious cliche, and often an outright PR lie, to say of a band that they effortlessly mix different styles to create their own, but listening to The Beta Band in 1998 was like an exercise in style-spotting and a revelation of the dreary conservatism of everything else. Scotland’s most impressive Beta disciples are The Phantom Band, whose three studio albums are among the best this country’s produced in the last five years. But Beta singer Steve Mason is still active and still producing brilliant and diverse music, as King Biscuit Time, Black Affair, and as himself: last year’s album Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time was one of the finest he’s ever made.

Mogwai – Happy Songs For Happy People (2003)

Mogwai are one of the touchstones of the genre known as post-rock, and certainly Scotland’s best representatives of the style. With little singing, few lyrics and unusual rhythm, Mogwai focus instead on dynamics of noise, moving between gentle and heavy sections over several minutes in long songs. Arguably more impressive live than on record, still several of their releases are essential, particularly 2003’s ironically named Happy Songs.

Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)

Frightened Rabbit have been one of Scotland’s biggest success stories in recent years, building from the solid but little-heralded debut Sing The Greys (2006) to now touring worldwide and releasing fourth record Pedestrian Verse (2013) on major label Atlantic. The catalyst to this success was undoubtedly The Midnight Organ Fight, which earned the group fans worldwide thanks to the open-hearted songwriting of Scott Hutchison. Without exciting anyone stylistically, The Midnight Organ Fight’s personal and witty lyrics connected with just about everyone who listened to them.

The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007)

The Twilight Sad came from nowhere: they’d earned fully deserved rave reviews for debut LP Fourteen Autumns and toured the US before coming home to find their domestic audience had expanded beyond just friends and family. It’s still an inspiring record, featuring towering, howling guitars that express the rage within James Graham’s adolescent inner-self, while his vocals cryptically hint at the reasons, fair and unfair, for the fallout. Still active, and tremendous live, The Twilight Sad’s mix of anger and vulnerability make them one of Scotland’s most exciting bands. Their fourth LP, Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, is due for release this autumn.

Boards of Canada – Geogaddi (2002)

Like Mogwai, Boards of Canada are internationally known as kings of their genre: though in this case it’s not so easy to name. Boards of Canada’s style is to blend snippets of sound from hundreds of sources, including recorded nature and computer-made beats, into warm, evocative collages, rarely with propulsion or explicit themes. Their ambient, dream-like sound sequences aren’t for everyone or for every occasion, but when they work, as they frequently do on Geogaddi, they’re inspirational.

Arab Strap – The Week Never Starts Around Here (1995)

Choosing a favourite Arab Strap record is like picking a favourite child: it’s both impossible and misses the point. They’re all great, and it’s more important to hear Arab Strap than to hear any specific Arab Strap. They are, or were, inimitable: Aidan Moffat’s lyrics, honest to the point of a cringe or a tear, funny beyond the point of a laugh, and Malcolm Middleton’s deft and versatile musical accompaniment, could never be replicated by anyone else. There’s true personality in every one of their songs; no pretension, no abstraction, just the true, sticky, imperfect reality.

Hudson Mohawke – Butter (2009)

Now producing for Kanye and signed to his label, Butter was Hudson Mohawke’s astonishingly creative debut on Warp. It’s as gaudy and bright as its cover suggests, a party record for kids running about on Irn Bru and teacakes, all neon and lasers and, in the brush, scratching, skipping beats and soul samples. It’s the standout release so far from the LuckyMe collective, a group of Glasgow-based electro producers who are gradually becoming more influential on hip-hop: HudMo’s mate Rustie produces for Danny Brown.

Young Fathers – Dead (2014)

Edinburgh has never been a fertile soil for developing rappers, which makes the emergence and success of Young Fathers extra special. Initially a party-rap trio with natty dance moves, Young Fathers’ ambition has escalated way beyond that point now, evidenced by Scottish Album of the Year winner Tape Two (2013) and official debut full-length Dead, both released by one of the most consistent and innovative record labels in hip-hop, Anticon. Dead is dirty and claustrophobic, like a Tricky record, but with plenty shards of light in the choruses and the fun and creative vocal interplays. If this is the sound of Scottish hip-hop, it’s no longer the punchline to any joke.

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