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2012 REVIEW: MUSIC

I began working on the shortlist for what would become my Top 50 Scottish Albums of 2012 on the same day Alistair Darling gave a bizarre speech in which he claimed that if Scotland became an independent nation, British music would "no longer be our music".

His words, part of the John P Mackintosh Lecture on November 9, caused me to pause.

Assuming his definition of "British music" effectively meant "English music", I asked myself if I instinctively felt closer to The Beatles, Plan B and Blur than I did to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Buena Vista Social Club. Well, actually, Mr Darling, I feel a personal connection to specific elements within them all. That's just me, and it's not going to change overnight depending on how a political vote swings. Surely music – that most abstract of the arts, the one that hits on an emotional level before any intellectual inquiry can begin to take place – is a universal entity that by its nature shows no respect for national borders?

Then again, does that mean I'm wasting my time creating an end-of-year feature built upon an inventory of personal favourites with geographical ground rules? Has some sort of misguided patriotism unconsciously caused me to favour local acts over their international "betters"? Is this approach even wise, given the hoo-hah that's blown around over the past few weeks about nationality within the Scottish arts community?

Actually, the more I've gone back to listen to the albums produced over the past 12 months by musicians born or working in Scotland, the more I've been convinced that, at this particular point in time, Scotland is making music that stands shoulder to shoulder with anything produced anywhere else in the world – and often stands taller.

I realise my take on this is partly down to what I'm exposed to on a day-to-day professional basis. I work in Scotland so I'm sent – and buy, and see live – more music, particularly on independent labels, that's local in origin. If I lived in Berlin or Barcelona or Portland or Austin, perhaps I'd think that these places were at the centre of a musical renaissance. But Scotland is my speciality, and what I hear from this country – in its artistic breadth and emotional depth – is demonstrably experiencing its own wee golden age.

Not that you'd know this from reading the national music press. NME included only Django Django's Mercury-nominated debut on its end-of-year list; Q magazine favoured it too, but also added Emeli Sande's million-selling Our Version Of Events to its unranked selection. Uncut, showing its trademark retro taste, placed Electric Cables by Lightships at No 38 and Paul Buchanan's solo effort Mid Air at No 14. Two of those mentioned above don't even make my Top 50.

While I'll concede it's the job of these publications to cast a wider net, I refuse to accept that Spector's Enjoy It While It Lasts, Mumford & Sons' Babel or Neil Young's Americana – which feature respectively on the NME, Q and Uncut lists – are better than any of the albums on my final roll call. It's not that Scottish music is lagging behind its peers, but that the UK media's supposed finger-on-the-pulse is being held back by the London-bound nature of its hand. I've heard the albums they're praising; have they actually bothered to listen to the albums that made my cut?

For three years in a row my absolute favourite album of the year has been Scottish (in 2010 it was The Unwinding Hours' debut and last year In The Pit Of The Stomach by We Were Promised Jetpacks). It's not that I don't get the same buzz from albums from elsewhere. This year I loved the post-college rock of Shearwater's Animal Joy and Wintersleep's Hello Hum, the 21st-century trip hop of Delilah's From The Roots Up, the shuddering euphoria of Crystal Castles' III, and the veteran wit and wisdom of Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas. But when you look all the way across the musical styles in Scotland, it's hard not to agree that something special is happening.

I don't believe it's the wider social and political debate in the lead-up to a referendum that's necessarily focusing the minds of our musicians. There could instead be something more intangible in the blood. I can often hear an experimental willingness to push back boundaries in the Scottish music of recent years, but not at the expense of melody and audience intimacy. I also hear lyrics that have a strong narrative drive or poetic bent. Regardless of genre, perhaps there are old Celtic roots in some of that.

There's also the fact that a more collaborative environment exists here. You'll see members of one band playing with or taking on production duties for another. If competition exists – and it does – it's more a case of looking over someone's shoulder and rising to the challenge, not trying to crush the opposition in a dog-eat-dog industry.

As physical sales have dwindled, bands have had to shift their attention to live performances in order to make ends meet. I can hear the result of this in the increased musicianship of studio recordings, as well as a certain awareness that each and every release has to strive harder to earn a purchase from the fans. While that's true across the world, in Scotland we now have a scene that's filled with great musicians who really can perform, not manufactured acts who pull up short as soon as they step outside the studio.

The point is that while I'm sure several countries boast a band that sounds a bit like Frightened Rabbit or a bit like Biffy Clyro, what they don't have is Frightened Rabbit and Biffy Clyro. Scotland is home to people who lead their musical field. And that's why I don't think 2012 is a flash in the pan, a unique convergence, a fluke for Scottish albums. After all, what does 2013 have to offer? In the first five weeks we'll have new releases from both Frightened Rabbit and Biffy Clyro. This might just be the beginning -

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