The 20 Best Scottish Albums Of The 21st Century
The past two decades have drastically altered Scottish life at an intimate level.
When the Millennium dawned the country was only just learning to grapple with self-governance, attempting to escape the harsh Thatcherite shadow of de-industrialisation by embracing the future.
Since then, the question of Scottish identity and what it means for the nation's future has been blown wide open, resulting in the nation-wide debate that erupted around the 2014 independence referendum.
The fault lines remain, and these are most obviously visible in Scottish arts, in the way that a fresh generation of creative minds have pursued new endeavours.
With St Andrews Day - November 30th - upon us once more, and with Clash as a title having deep Scottish roots, we decided to compile our favourite 20 Caledonian albums from the past 20 years.
There's no order of preference - that's another, longer, probably more fraught conversation - but what's most obvious is the sheer range of creativity, the way is moves from genre to genre while still embracing something uniquely Scottish.
Which is your favourite? Join the debate on Twitter.
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Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
'The Midnight Organ Fight' isn't a heartbreak album in the traditional sense; the end of the relationship burns throughout, but the pain is granted through Scott's own actions, his regrets sparked by his own actions. It’s here that the crux of the album can be found, a nexus of blame, punishment, and – eventually – growth that fuels some of the band’s finest work.
Despite the protestations of ‘Heads Roll Off’ – “Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name / How come one man got so much fame?” - Scott's conception of sin remains obliquely Christian, in that curiously self-punishing Church Of Scotland manner; he believes in the necessity of punishment, the wearing of the cross, but also that suffering may bring about redemption, that knowledge through pain has a beatific edge.
Everywhere a form of lapsed puritanism peers through the cracks, a rigid Protestant dogma that lingers like faded adverts on the gable ends of old tenements. Like Baudelaire he relishes the pleasures of the flesh, but still builds his concept of sin on Christian terms. He is forever conflicted between the urge towards self-destruction and a lingering desperate need for self-preservation. It’s the pain that passeth understanding. (Robin Murray)
Find the full article HERE.
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Hudson Mohawke – Butter
From its technicolour, self-consciously online artwork to its carefree flickers of R&B (no melancholy pitched down sampling here), when Butter arrived in 2009 - into a music scene dominated by dubstep that was either comically self-serious or gratingly absurd - it was clear Hudson Mohawke had come to set a new generation of producers free.
Following on from a trio of neck-snapping EPs, on Butter HudMo melted genres together with anarchic glee, giving British dance music a second ‘Wot Do U Call It?’ moment. Astral-projecting jazz whirled around trip-hop, G-Funk, breakbeat, pop and hardcore (and even - whisper it - flashes of nu-rave) into ‘Wonky’ – more a descriptor than a sound, more a feeling than a genre.
Along with fellow Glaswegian Rustie, HudMo spat out short, sharp hits of ketamine-laced ephemera ('Butter' runs to 18 tracks, many barely two minutes), that baffled, bemused and thrilled in equal measure. Three years later he was producing for Kanye West. (Alex McFadyen)
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Young Fathers – DEAD!
Scotland’s hip-hop scene has often gone unrecognised, even in its homeland. ‘Dead!’ was the album that saw the Edinburgh-based trio Young Fathers conjure up a globalised reimagination of hip-hop, drawing heavily on their interlocking personal histories, whilst paying homage to electronica and leftfield pop royalty Massive Attack. Tracks like ‘No Way’ feature a dystopian take on the bagpipes –sonically empowering it’s sound with an injection of all things electronic.
Instrumentals aside, it is the trio’s delivery of immense vocals and rapping that is the highlight of the album. They flaunt their ability throughout, with dexterous delivery of sweet falsetto, all the way to a raw-throated bark – all backed up with delightfully pungent pop hooks. This was the album where Young Fathers brilliantly yielded their own take on hip-hop, that felt so wonderfully unique. All done when no one was paying attention - they certainly are now. (Josh Crowe)
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Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells – Everything’s Getting Older
Aidan Moffat set his singular lyricism against Scottish jazz hero Bill Wells’ arrangement on his first of their two records together. The eye’s trained microscopically on middling age, the changing pains and spider veins of time’s proven ability to come for us all. Moffat inhabits his stories like skin. Temptation as old flames fail to catch fire; a reformed caner rekindles his alchemic touch with “a spirited attempt to forget who he was”, life gone to “shopping lists and school runs/ Citalopram and Cbeebies”.
‘The Copper Top’ a wake song from the pub closest to the crematorium, its once-bright copper roof now victim to verdigris. That sense of humour’s as ripe as it ever was (We vomit last night’s fun/ Clinging onto toilet seats, and clinging onto youth.”) though the ‘Greatest Story’ here ends with a happy family. Advice from the (r)aging bulls? “Life is finite. Look after your teeth, and try not to hurt anyone.” (Marianne Gallagher)
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Teenage Fanclub – Howdy!
Released in Autumn 2000, ‘Howdy!’ is one of the most honest, humble and sincere Scottish guitar albums ever made. Recorded at Rockfield Studios, it stands the true test of time with its sense of ease and freeflow of harmonies, showing the Glasgow band on a clear, stylistic path. With zero levels of distortion, pretendence or rock and roll cliches, the twelve classic songs display the band’s songwriting mastery and ability to arrange music with no flaws.
A genuinely collaborative effort, songwriting credits are distributed with evenness, and together they contribute to an unforgettable, mesmerising blend of voices. Echoing the likes of Big Star, The Byrds and The Hollies in places, Teenage Fanclub make their very own mark on music with songs such as ‘I Need Direction’, ‘Accidental Life’, ‘Dumb Dumb Dumb’ etc. and inject their distinct northern British take on these groups. (Susan Hansen)
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Boards Of Canada – Geogaddi
“We’re not trying to accurately pastiche the past, it’s about inventing a past that didn’t really happen.”
“Some of what we do takes much more than two or three listens before we realise we’re addicted to even a simple chord progression or melody. And part of the way we get our music to work is by living with our own tracks for a while before releasing them.”
“I think it’s funny really. It was always going to happen. We do put a lot of details in there that you might not expect people to pick up on. But the listeners always get it. There are some occasions when it would probably be best to just kick back and feel the music instead if analysing it.”
Find the full interview HERE.
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Adam Stafford – Fire Behind The Curtain
Adam Stafford is a master at creating humbling music out of just his guitar and an array of effects pedals. The way he layers and builds his loops live is incredible. The tension and emotion are built from a few notes here, a chord there and a squeal of feedback.
On his fifth album ‘Fire Behind The Curtain’ Stafford went one step further and surpassed everything in his back catalogue. He created an instrumental neo-classical album by channeling his personal troubles with mental health. What ‘Fire Behind The Curtain’ does better than his previous work is lay his music bare.
Stafford’s lyrics are usually astute and filled with a dark pathos that makes you smile and cry in equal measure. Here they are been replaced with captivating melodies and exquisite loops. ‘Fire Behind The Curtain’ is an album that once enter its labyrinthine corridors you’re lost until the needle hits the run-out groove. (Nick Roseblade)
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CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe
Just when you think you’ve heard all a genre has to offer, Google-savvy Glaswegians CHVRCHES prove that there’s life remaining in synthpop, a movement that’s seemed turgid and devoid of inspiration for at least half a decade.
Not only do CHVRCHES revive the sound, they push it forward, with wave upon wave of shimmering synths, more hooks than an angling shop and a songwriting acumen that belies the group’s relative infancy.
Hype is often a media construct without substance, but ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’ is an exceptionally strong debut where every track is a potential single. Come pray at the altar of CHVRCHES. (Joe Rivers)
Find the original review HERE.
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Auntie Flo – Radio Highlife
Inspired by years of travel in search of global sounds, this project moulds culture and experience into a warm, coherent and always uplifting body of work. The record offers brief snapshots into different pockets of the world through field recordings and skits from locals. One moment we groove through Cuba, the next we dance in Cape Town.
Rooted in percussive expression and tribal energy, 'Radio Highlife' is a joyous whistle stop tour through Planet Earth. (Angus McKeon)
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Biffy Clyro – Puzzle
You know Biffy Clyro, I know Biffy Clyro, your granny living in the Outer Hebrides knows Biffy Clyro... I get it. But it’s easy to forget now how fresh and exciting the trio sounded on this, their breakthrough record.
Written in the wake of the death of singer Simon Neal’s mother, songs live ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’ and ‘Folding Stars’ still pack a hell of an emotional gut-punch all these years later, and singing them along with fifty thousand other voices is just an incomparable sensation. (Josh Gray)
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Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Just another brilliantly-named instalment in the Glasgow quartet’s run of big, dynamic post-rock records, or their greatest release since the seminal ‘Come On Die Young’?
With the unstoppable build of ‘Rano Pano’, the throbbing krautrock of ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ and the lush soundscapes of ‘Music For A Forgotten Future’, it certainly stands as a creative high-water mark for an insanely creative band. (Josh Gray)
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Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country
Camera Obscura’s first two records were promising but parochial, and it wasn’t until album number three that they truly found their mojo.
On the appropriately named 'Let’s Get Out of This Country', the Glaswegian indie-poppers cast their net wider and reaped the rewards. We’re treated to slick pop efforts like the rambunctious title track (“What does the city have to offer me? / Everyone says it’s the bee’s knees”) and, one of the greatest response songs of all-time, 'Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken'.
Elsewhere, there are cuts that pack a real emotional punch, like the swooning 'Country Mile' and 'Razzle Dazzle Rose', which rides along on warm brass to provide an ideal album closer. As fresh today as it was then, 'Let’s Get Out of This Country' deservedly took this bunch of unassuming Scots into the big league. (Joe Rivers)
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Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress
'Until Dear Catastrophe Waitress', Belle & Sebastian had a reputation of being indie milquetoasts who eschewed live gigs and lived in their heads. However, on this, their sixth studio album, they teamed up with producer Trevor Horn and ushered in the second phase of their career.
Gently strummed guitars and plaintive piano were swapped for keyboards, brass and strings, as Horn added studio shine to elevate the pop melodies that had always been lurking in the group’s songs. The lyrical themes may have stayed the same – it was still stolen glances between boys and girls too sensitive and bookish to navigate the modern world – but there’s an addictive, radio-friendly gloss to Top 40 hits like ‘Step Into My Office, Baby’ and ‘I’m A Cuckoo’.
Released back in 2003, Belle & Sebastian have never been the same since. (Joe Rivers)
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Anna Meredith – Varmints
“I think you have to write something quite transparent, because if you want something to build up but you change it around too much then you don't have anything for people to go with you with. If that makes sense. Nothing to grab on to, so that you can build up with. If you keep chopping from fast to slow, or changing time signatures, then there's nothing to follow the momentum with.”
“I think it had to be quite bitty. Normally with a project I'll just focus on one single thing and then blitz it, get it done, and move on to something else. Not very good at multi-tasking with writing. But with this, because it was such an important thing for me I wanted it to stand up for itself, not have any filler tracks. I wanted everything to feel strong and have lots of character. I did want to get it right.”
Find the interview HERE.
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Erland Cooper – Sule Skerry
‘Sule Skerry’ was the second album in a triptych by composer and multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper, a series lovingly evoking the topography and culture of his native Orkney. The series began with 2018’s ‘Solan Goose’ and concluded with this year’s ‘Hether Blether’, each individual instalment shining a spotlight on a different aspect of island life and Cooper’s fastidious approach to recording and arranging.
Comprising field recordings made on Orkney, augmented by strings, tape loops, electronics, vocals, poetry and a diverse set of collaborators, ‘Sule Skerry’ was a concept album with naturalistic focus on the ebb, flow, power and violence of the North Sea. The most surprising of all the delicate pieces on ‘Sule Skerry’ is ‘First Of The Tide’, which opens with a gently pulsing Moog sequence from Cornwall-based synth wizard Benge (Wrangler, John Foxx & The Maths, Blancmange).
Over the course of this short, journeying statement, the dextrous Cooper nudges this piece imperceptibly from a plaintive synthscape to a classical reflection of the same motif, brilliantly augmented by haunting operatic vocals and a poignant denouement of waves gently lapping the shore. (Mat Smith)
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Idlewild - The Remote Part
After making their name in the UK with the frantic indie of ‘Hope Is Important’ and ‘100 Broken Windows’, Idlewild aimed for global domination with their third full-length, ‘The Remote Part’.
With songs as huge as ‘You Held The World In Your Arms’ and American English, stadium tours with Pearl Jam and Coldplay duly followed. International stardom never quite came to fruition, with subsequent records often following frontman Roddy Woomble's folk leanings rather than anthemic rock.
But 'The Remote Part' remains an exceptional record, a perfect blend of huge choruses and introspective poeticism, never bettered than on timeless closer In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction, featuring none other than Scottish poetry royalty Edwin Morgan himself. (David Weaver)
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Kathryn Joseph - Bones You Have Thrown Me
It's rare for an artist to release their debut album after turning 40; it's even rarer for a debut album to be so utterly compelling and enrapturing. An achingly honest and bare album, both emotionally and sonically - the squeaks of the piano pedal and the taps of strings are just as proudly displayed as Joseph's lines about grief and heartbreak.
Marcus Mackay's naturalistic production and subtle instrumentation allow the songs to breathe, but most importantly they allow Joseph's incredible voice to tell the listeners her stories of beauty and sadness.
The songs are often simple - Phillip Glass-esque minor key piano leading the fragile vibrato of Joseph's voice - but the effect of the album as a whole is anything but; an immersive and breathtaking introduction to one of Scotland's finest artists. (David Weaver)
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Proc Fiskal – Insular
Grime? That’s just a London thing, right? Wrong... and I’m not just talking Bugzy Malone and Lady Leshurr.
Way up in Edinburgh electro-savvy wunderkind Joe Powers has been taking the ball passed by OG grime DJs such as Preditah and running with it, splicing the genre’s core Gameboy-like sound with snatches of everyday life in sampled form to create something wholly his own. (Josh Gray)
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Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better
Sure, their debut made people sit up and pay attention, but does it have anything to match the bugged-out ska of ‘Outsiders’, the dreamy Beatles-esque sigh of ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On’, the high-kicking cabaret of ‘What You Meant’? Indie? Absolutely. Landfill? Nae chance. (Josh Gray)
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Rustie – Glass Swords
Elastic basslines rub up against walls of distortion, schizophrenic scatters of percussion and city-flattening beats on this incredibly accomplished debut from Russell Whyte.
As sonically inventive as it is direct, ‘Glass Swords’ can hold its head up high in a way not many dance albums released in the peak dubstep era can. (Josh Gray)
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