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2012 REVIEW: TOP 50 ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

"Were there even 50 Scottish albums released in 2012?" That has pretty much been the response every time I've mentioned that I've been assembling a list of favourites for an end-of-year feature.

There were, of course, a lot more than 50 new albums released, across all genres, by musicians hailing from or based in Scotland. Getting the long list to around 70 was a challenge; whittling it down to a final 50 was damn near impossible.

One of the key words in the paragraph above is "favourites". This isn't a roll call of the "best" albums of the year; the opinions of fellow critics haven't been called in to give the final result a wider significance. It's a list that by its very nature reflects not only my own tastes, but the areas where for professional reasons I spend most of my listening time. And so here is my particular Top 50 in some sort of ascending order. Someone else would arrange them differently; others could potentially include 50 different albums. If that isn't evidence that music made in Scotland is at the top of its game, then I don't know what is.

50. Tango In The Attic

Sellotape (Domicile Crocodiles)

The second album by the Glenrothes quintet features an angular post-pop/math-rock hybrid that plays party games with each song's rhythms but never loses sight of a bouncy tune.

49. Tamara Schlesinger

The Procession (Tantrum)

Picking up funding from Creative Scotland, the Six Day Riot singer returned to her native Glasgow to loop and harmonise her voice, adding subtle instrumentation to rather nice New Age effect.

48. Lightships

Electric Cables (Geographic)

Inevitably there's a shimmer of Teenage Fanclub to this project from the Bellshill band's bassist, Gerard Love. Sunny, timeless pop that stands on its own two feet.

47. The Douglas Firs

The Furious Sound (Armellodie)

As atmospherically dark as you'd expect from any album based on the 1590 East Lothian witch trials, The Furious Sound is a compelling concoction of incantatory vocals and near-tribal percussion.

46. French Wives

Dream Of The Inbetween (Electric Honey)

At the more mainstream end of the Scottish indie-folk boom, French Wives thrive on stadium-sized songs that filter the legacy of Deacon Blue through the hipper ensemble sound of Arcade Fire.

45. Anderson McGinty Webster Ward & Fisher

Anderson McGinty Webster Ward & Fisher (Two Thumbs)

This first effort from the Dundonian collective is a veritable showcase for the songwriting skills of the first three of its members.

44. Sucioperro

Fused (Medals For Everyone)

Releases from Crusades and Flood Of Red proved that Scottish rock is in healthy shape beyond Biffy Clyro or Twin Atlantic. This latest release from the Ayrshire trio roared and punched above its weight.

43. Love & Money

The Devil's Debt (Vertical)

Deacon Blue made an excellent return with ironically-named The Hipsters, but it was James Grant's fellow 1980s outfit who proved they've still got it with this lush, romantic offering.

42. Treacherous Orchestra

Origins (Navigator)

It's quite a feat, but the 11-piece folk supergroup manage to match the exuberance of their live performances on this studio debut. As groovy as our traditional music gets.

41. Cancel The Astronauts

Animal Love Match (Riley Records)

Following their own quirky route along a classic Peel-style indie path, Edinburgh's Cancel The Astronauts are local masters of the three-minute pop song.

40. Mairi Morrison and Alasdair Roberts

Urstan (Drag City)

The Gaelic tradition walks down the aisle with the new wyrd folk movement, accompanied by an often jazzy rhythm section, resulting in an unexpectedly happy union.

39. The View

Cheeky For A Reason (Cooking Vinyl)

Fourth album from my favourite Dundee lads, and there's still no indication that Kyle Falconer and Kieren Webster are in danger of losing their songwriting swagger.

38. Owen McAulay

Time (Sans-Culottes)

Like Simon Kempston and Tom Baird, the man from Smackvan is one of our very best singer-songwriters, even if he has some way to go before he'll be a household name. A beautifully melancholic piece of work.

37. State Broadcasters

Ghosts We Must Carry (Olive Grove)

Just when you think there's no space for another indie-folk band, along come State Broadcasters, borrowing from others but, with Kittiwake and Where I Belong, also writing instant classics of their own.

36. Kassidy

One Man Army (Mercury)

Album number two from the Glasgow quartet offers a more polished production sound and heftier rock licks than debut Hope St. Hooks aplenty, though. Nice New Age effect.

35. Trapped Mice

Winter Sun (Armellodie)

Ian Tilling's eccentric vocal delivery won't be to everyone's taste, but it's the cornerstone upon which the rich textures of this arty-leaning Edinburgh indie-folk troupe's songs are built.

34. Jesus H Foxx

Endless Knocking (Song, By Toad)

If Lou Reed made a leftfield chamber-pop album with splashes of afrobeat ... well, it would be an admittedly awful conceit. But in an ideal world, it might be as joyously uncategorisable as this.

33. The Birthday Suit

A Conversation Well Rehearsed (Sing It Alone)

Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones continues to demonstrate a wonderful feel for melody no matter how noisy his surroundings. Fast-forward indie-rock with tight harmonic bite.

32. Iain Morrison

To The Horizon, Sir (Peatfire)

By recording this in Vermont, Morrison took one step away from the folk tradition of his earlier album, Trust The Sea To Guide Me, and one step closer to an Americana style of songwriting.

31. Snowgoose

Harmony Springs (Open Hearth)

Anna Sheard's voice harks back to the golden days of 1960s folk music – an era that's backed up by certain arrangements – but the glorious songs bear the mark of principal writer Jim McCulloch.

30. PAWS

Cokefloat! (FatCat)

A particularly Scottish strain of fuzzed-up pop folds into the grunge distortion of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr on a notable debut released by the ever-so-cool Brighton label FatCat.

29. The Open Day Rotation

Toxic Good Toxic Bad (Karma Kids)

One of the delights of the year was the knowing that former Astrid frontman Willie Campbell was going from strength to strength, outstripping an army of Scottish guitar bands with these heady harmonies.

28. Hector Bizerk

Drums.Rap.Yes. (Self-Released)

Audrey Tait is the drums. Louie Deadlife is the rap. The stripped-back manifesto of their self-released debut is the yes, yes, yes.

27. Holy Mountain

Earth Measures (Chemikal Underground)

Rock of the old school, with riffs as big as Everest and rhythm switches that would wrongfoot Metallica. And there's only three of them.

26. Rachel Sermanni

Under Mountains (Middle Of Nowhere)

Even as acoustic jazz arrangements on certain songs pull this lovely debut away from its folk singer-songwriter roots, it's clear that Sermanni has a voice and talent far beyond her tender years.

25. Tom Bancroft: Trio Red

First Hello To Last Goodbye (Interrupto)

Another cracker from the creative hub that is Pathhead in Midlothian, as drummer Bancroft lays down the rhythmic ground rules for pianist Tom Cawley and bassist Per Zanussi.

24. Trembling Bells & Bonnie Prince Billy

The Marble Downs (Honest Jon's)

A determined eccentric in his own right, Kentucky's Will Oldham proves the perfect duetting partner for Lavinia Blackwall on olde-style folk songs, with subjects ranging from incest to impotence.

23. Errors

Have Some Faith In Magic (Rock Action)

Scotland's kings of instrumental electro-rock released two albums this year (New Relics was the other), but it's here that their vast walls of sound and propulsive rhythms beat the 1980s at their own game.

22. Various

Whatever Gets You Through The Night (Biphonic)

A cross-artform exercise at the Arches brought together Scotland's best indie musicians, writers and theatre-makers. It led to this superb album with Withered Hand, Eugene Kelly, and others.

21. Konrad Wiszniewski & Euan Stevenson

New Focus (Whirlwind)

Built outwards from Stan Getz's 1961 album Focus, this inventive project fuses jazz quartet, string ensemble and concert harp into something unique but gorgeously accessible.

20. Malcolm Middleton/Human Don't Be Angry

Human Don't Be Angry (Chemikal Underground)

The former Arab Strapper goes to town with his guitar effects pedals, but there's nothing cold about the end result. The repetitive patterns are compelling, the tunes strangely uplifting.

19. Meursault

Something For The Weakened (Song, By Toad)

With the expressive hush-to-a-bellow of Neil Pennycook's voice as its core instrument, the latest album from this most arty of Edinburgh's indie bands is their most emotionally resonant work yet.

18. The Twilight Sad

No One Can Ever Know (FatCat)

Guitars take a back seat to synths on an album that places the icy chill of early 1980s electronica next to pounding beats, with James Graham once more in the role of apocalyptic preacher.

17. Olympic Swimmers

No Flags Will Fly (GreenWhiteViolet)

Wallow in a post-rock setting that leaves space for hints of Celtic colours on the likes of Bricks Of Our Building among the soft guitars, the warm embrace of Susan Smillie's voice and the peppery rhythm section.

16. Martin Creed

Love To You (Moshi Moshi)

Conceptual punk-pop from the Turner Prize-winning artist, it's like an exhibition of catchy, witty wee miniatures, but hung on an album's running order instead of on a gallery wall.

15. The Leg

An Eagle To Saturn (Song, By Toad)

The cello growls, the banjo twangs, the vocals become a post-punk mantra, tunes step forward then step back: it's a glorious heap of sound that's weirdly fun and often infectious.

14. RM Hubbert

Thirteen Lost And Found (Chemikal Underground)

With helpers such as Aidan Moffat and Emma Pollock, Hubby's second solo release had to have a more expanded sound, yet it's when it's one man and his guitar that you feel the emotion in every note.

13. Turning Plates

Escapism (Kittiwake)

This year also saw notable releases in EP form by Frightened Rabbit, King Creosote and Miniature Dinosaurs; this six-track, 27-minute release, however, has more epic beauty and textural richness than the vast majority of 2012's albums.

12. We Are The Physics

Your Friend, The Atom (DIY Records)

High-speed, sci-fi-themed lunacy that will tickle fans of Devo, Sparks and Art Brut, this pours the hyperactive energy of the Glasgow band's live shows into album form.

11. Kim Edgar

The Ornate Lie (Quietly Fantastic)

One of Scotland's most underrated songwriters confirms her status as our very own Tori Amos with a set of originals (and one song from her work with The Burns Unit) painted in the dramatic and tender colours her piano offers

10. Chris Devotion And The Expectations

Amalgamation & Capital (Armellodie)

Is that The Gaslight Anthem? The Ramones? The Damned? Elvis Costello? It's all rolled into one boisterous punk posse, swaggering through the streets looking for a good time.

9. Django Django

Django Djanjo (Because)

With roots stretching back to Edinburgh College of Art, the foursome show stylistic and blood links to The Beta Band (drummer David Maclean is brother of John) with a set built on shuffling rhythms and rainbow tones.

8. The Unwinding Hours

Afterlives (Chemikal Underground)

Scotland knows about conjuring euphoria from a post-rock guitar sound and on the exhilarating follow-up to their blissful debut, the band that rose from Aerogramme's ashes deliver it in spades.

7. James Yorkston

I Was A Cat From A Book (Domino)

Ten years after his debut, Moving Up Country, James Yorkston released what could well be his best yet. There's variety, but nothing touches the heart as keenly as The Fire And The Flames.

6. Miaoux Miaoux

Light Of The North (Chemikal Underground)

Debut album as music buff's mixtape: from house to rave to indie-dance crossover, Julian Corrie turns every style he touches to aural gold on a release that brims with pop-fuelled confidence.

5. Jo Mango

Murmuration (Olive Grove)

As Jo Mango's fragile voice expires on closing track Cordelia, you know your ears have been graced by the most beautiful thing you'll hear all year. Odd combinations of instruments unite as the melodies wander down unexpected paths.

4. Stanley Odd

Reject (Circular)

Rapper Solareye must be the result of a one-night-stand between Eminem and Iain MacWhirter: his lyrical analysis of the independence debate is intelligent, insightful and witty. The Edinburgh collective raises hip hop's game, speaking with the voice of a generation.

3. Admiral Fallow

Tree Bursts In Snow (Nettwerk)

Bookending their big year with gigs at Glasgow's ABC and Barrowland, Admiral Fallow stepped up to the plate with album number two. It was punchy and commercial (Guest Of The Government, The Paper Trench); it was heartfelt and emotionally incisive (Old Fools, Oh Oscar). Louis Abbott's lyrics assumed heftier universal themes, while the songs' arrangements made an uncommon quality of the clarinet and flute at their disposal.

2 Lau

Race The Loser

(Reveal)

It's folk music, but not as we know it: the freedom of jazz improvisation, the tight spaces of classical chamber music and the experimental edge of electronica are all key elements within the contours of Lau's compositions. And yet the rootsy melodies and protest lyrics of the folk scene have their place here too. This is the place where tradition meets technology and points the way to an art-form's future.

1. Karine Polwart

Traces (Hegri)

No other album I heard in 2012 quite ticks all the boxes like Karine Polwart's Traces. The tunes are beautiful, the words heartfelt and honest; the production (by The Unwinding Hours' Iain Cook) brilliantly uses subtle post-rock arrangements to carry folk music into thrilling open spaces.

It takes a stance on global issues (the references to the Occupy movement in King Of Birds) but also touches me on an entirely personal level (Tinsel Show rekindles childhood memories of watching the flames of the petrochemical plant in Grangemouth from my grandparents' window). Traces is as complete a work of art as I've encountered this year.

"I wanted to make something that was more cinematic in feel, that was really coherent," explains Polwart. "When I look back at what I've done before, my albums have all had the feel of a compilation, where there have been so many different styles jostling for position. This time I wanted to have enough material so that the songs all felt like they were meant to be recorded together."

In the four years between Traces and 2008's This Earthly Spell, Polwart has not only spent time as a member of supergroup The Burns Unit, but has also taken a distance-learning songwriting course at Berklee College in Boston. Both tasks, she believes, have sharpened her skills as musician and lyricist.

"Whenever I was asked about my songs previously, I was always at great pains to say that they weren't about myself," she admits. "I didn't want to be one of those singer-songwriters who was just emptying their head of whatever their latest heartache was. This time I'm happier to say things are actually about me. Tinsel Show and Salter's Road and Strange News are deeply personal songs."

The album opens, however, with Cover Your Eyes, a song inspired by You've Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter's documentary about Donald Trump's golf course development in Aberdeenshire. Subsequently, Polwart allowed the song to be used over the film's end credits.

"Although it's really quiet, as soon as I recorded it, I knew it was the one I wanted to open the album with," she says. "It creeps up on you. And I love the immediacy of starting with 'I was Farrah Fawcett ...' – there's no preamble. I guess I feel glad to have made something that's a quiet political statement; I'm not sure that bashing people over the head with stuff is particularly effective most of the time."

At the core of the songs is the trio Polwart forms with her guitarist brother Steven and accordionist/singer Inge Thomson, although on record and at special live concerts the sound has swollen to include more percussion and production textures.

"It's great to have an album that has tons of stuff on it," Polwart admits, "so many orchestrated, instrumental layers. But actually, when it boils down to the three of us, it still sounds like the same songs. It doesn't feel like the smaller line-ups have holes in them; it feels like the bigger ones have an extra lush aspect to them. On previous albums, when things were stripped down, the songs were maybe a bit lacking. To be honest, I think that's probably because a lot of the songs were just not as good. I'm much happier with Traces, musically, lyrically, production-wise."

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