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The Scottish albums of 2013

I groaned out loud when the Barclaycard Mercury Prize shortlist was announced in September.

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It wasn't just that there were no Scottish acts on it - although that in itself felt like a glaring omission - it was the fact that so many predictable names seemed to be there simply because they always are, and that their latest albums were by no means their best.

All the more reason to continue with a Top 50 Scottish albums of the year countdown in the Sunday Herald. This has been another stellar year for music made in Scotland or by Scottish musicians living away from their home turf.

Of course, the nearer we get to that referendum date next September, the more I could be accused of having a political agenda for even suggesting there's legitimacy in compiling an albums list that defines itself, to a great extent, on clearly drawn national boundaries. This isn't propaganda, however, it's a genuine - and sometimes emotional, instinctive and undefinable - reaction to music that's made closer to home.

As a journalist working in Scotland, I'm exposed to more home-grown material than my colleagues elsewhere - but that means I'm in a stronger position to judge Scottish output against its international competitors. Time and time again, it's the boys and girls from down the road who are demonstrably better at making music that actually means something.

What I hear on these records are bands on major labels trying to break away from conventional formulas, and bands on tiny independents imbuing their experimental work with a strong sense of melody. I hear artists making music that values emotional impact over financial reward; that's written from the heart and not by an up-for-hire team of producers who flit from studio to studio in the hope of fashioning a track that can be plugged on a prime-time TV talent show.

The NME puts Arctic Monkeys' AM at the top of its list, followed by a good mix of big sellers and quality indie that leaves hipper-than-thou obscurity to the blogs; the only Scots to feature, however, are Chvrches (23).

Q is simultaneously more mainstream and more open to Scottish artists, making space for Franz Ferdinand (28), Boards of Canada (25), Biffy Clyro (20) and Steve Mason (13) but also fancying Arctic Monkeys for the top spot. Clearly anything on Chemikal Underground or Olive Grove or Armellodie Records - Scottish, not London labels, in other words - doesn't get noticed south of the Border.

The list that runs across the pages of the Sunday Herald today might concern itself with a smaller geographical patch than the two mentioned above but, creatively, it casts its net far wider. I'd challenge other lists to contain as much depth and diversity as the one here, or to range as extensively across the generations, as wiser old heads from decades past have this year re-entered the ring to take on the up-and-comers (who, I'm sure, would happily claim the old guard as role-model inspiration).

The end result - encompassing jazz, classical, rock, folk, indie, synth-pop, rap, Americana, the lo-fi singer-songwriter and straight-down-the-line pop - is a clear indication of just how robust one small nation's musical culture can be in the space of a single year. Can any other country of Scotland's size boast this?

Perhaps, in the lead-up to the independence referendum, international eyes will scrutinise Scotland that bit more keenly. Perhaps a portion of that gaze will fall upon our music, and how that music plays a key role in our national identity.

These days, we're chilling to Boards of Canada and raising our arms in the air to Chvrches ... banging our heads to Biffy Clyro, soaking up the precision of Dunedin Consort's Bach and joining Edwyn Collins in a hymn to simply being alive. I'll take a new national anthem from that lot any day.

50 Capercaillie

At The Heart Of It All (Cadiz)

Celebrating their 30th year as a band, Capercaillie continue to breathe life into Gaelic culture. Joined by guests including Julie Fowlis and Kathleen MacInnes, this album is a traditional folk festival in its own right.

49 Boards Of Canada

Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)

With a sound as elusive and enigmatic as the men who make it, the latest from Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin - following an eight-year gap - is, despite the title, wrapped up in analogue synths, samples and breakbeats.

48 Dante

Wake (Stitch)

Poised thrillingly between indie-rock and indie-folk, the distorted guitars and traditional instruments played by this five-piece refuse to be boxed in by genre. The roots go deep but the attitude is right here, right now.

47 Scott McWatt

A Ceist Ama (scottmcwatt.bandcamp.com)

Boldly structured as a 12-song journey through a calendar year, this set burns with political fire yet boasts pop melodies not heard since the glory days of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Scott McWatt is a singer-songwriter to watch.

46 The Pastels

Slow Summits (Domino)

The first studio album since 1997's Illumination from Stephen McRobbie and pals settles into an international pop groove full of laid-back strings and Bacharach trumpets, with hardly a jangly guitar or anorak in sight.

45 There Will Be Fireworks

The Dark, Dark Bright (Comets & Cartwheels)

Twin Atlantic, Glasvegas, Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad… TW BF can reference them individually or condense them into a simmering volcano of taut vocals and shattering guitar attacks. Explosive stuff.

44 Breabach

Urlar (Breabach Records)

The notes flow like whisky, the soloists step forward and shine, but what's most notable here is how tight the five-piece Breabach have become as a band: the passion of a present generation for their traditional past.

43 Craig Alan Hughes

Silhouettes & Photographs (Aardvark)

There is still something rough and unformed about this solo album from the frontman of Edinburgh indie band Callel, but sometimes you have just got to stand up and applaud the arrival of a natural-born songwriter.

42 Saint Max And The Fanatics

Saint Max Is Missing And The Fanatics Are Dead (Armellodie)

The list of influences on this debut by teenager Max Syed-Tollan is not what you'd expect: Dexys, Elvis Costello and others in a ska-punk-indie hybrid. Plenty of swagger and style.

41 Cuddly Shark

The Road To Ugly (Armellodie)

It's all about the energy on the second album from this boisterous trio: plenty of American post-punk punch stuffed into the music and a big splash of Glaswegian humour in the lyrics and with an aggressive delivery.

40 Steve Mason

Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time (Double Six/Domino)

There's a state-of-the-nation address embedded here but it's as idiosyncratic as you'd expect from the man from King Biscuit Time and The Beta Band. When 'proper' songs break through the dub, it's glorious.

39 Alasdair Roberts

A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)

Sailing closer to the psychedelic folk music of the late 1960s - and somehow taking original and traditional material to a more timeless place in the process - this is the sound of one of the most distinctive voices in Scottish folk music.

38 Laki Mera

Turn All Memory To White Noise (Just)

The follow-up to the debut album The Proximity Effect washes over the listener, Laura Donnelly's voice to the fore, Andrea Gobbi and Keir Long's synths floating close behind. Scottish trip-hop caught in a collective sigh.

37 Edwyn Collins

Understated (AED)

"I feel alive and I feel reborn," sings the former Orange Juice frontman on Forsooth, and that defiant but grateful joie de vie threads through an album that features some of the best pop songs Collins has ever written.

36 Randolph's Leap

Real Anymore (Olive Grove)

This seven-track mini-album of shaggy dog stories and rib-tickling rhyming couplets gives "twee-pop" a good name. There's some splendid song-writing beneath the façade too, and decent oomph from the horn section.

35 The Leg

Oozing A Crepuscular Light (Song, By Toad)

On release I called one song (25 Hats) "insectoid cabaret … mocked by the laughter of its descending cello scale". I'm still not 100% sure what that means, but somehow it fits the sound made by Edinburgh's Dadaist princes.

34 Southern Tenant Folk Union

Hello Cold Goodbye Sun (Johnny Rock)

A prog-rock haze drifts across this fifth album by the east-coast band, although in essence they will always make music with roots going deep into a folk tradition with (five-string banjo at the ready) country leanings.

33 Three Blind Wolves

Sing Hallelujah For The Old Machine (Instinctive Raccoon)

There's proper rocking to be had on this full-length debut by the Glasgow quartet - and by that I mean something that swings like The Band did back in the day, but with the volume set above health and safety levels.

32 Monoganon

F A M I L Y (Lost Map)

The first album released on the Lost Map label after this summer's Fence Records split adds a rock backbone to a woozily psychedelic body. If this is the direction nu-folk is taking, then why don't we all hitch a ride?

31 Thirty Pounds Of Bone

I Cannot Sing You Here But For Songs Of Where (Armellodie)

Shetland-born Johny Lamb re-writes the rules of the folk genre, making music that feels generations old and yet entirely new, layering ambient noise over everything from Veesik song to fireside singalong.

30 Man Without Machines

The Kreuzberg Press (Man vs Man)

This year I've taken somewhat of a shine to quite a few bands who prefer their electro-pop with a splash of post-punk. Every song on this Dundee quartet's debut album could stand up as a single, the tunes really are that good.

29 This Silent Forest

Indivision (Never Make Friends)

Among an astonishing array of debut albums released by Scottish acts in 2013, the slow-burn epics and stadium-sized anthems of This Silent Forest leave a special impression, marked by the force and feeling of Graeme Macdonald's voice.

28 KT Tunstall

Invisible Empire/ Crescent Moon (Virgin)

Overcoming umpteen personal-life traumas and shrugging off industry attempts to transform her into a rock chick, KT Tunstall goes back to her roots as a singer-songwriter with her best album since her debut.

27

Mogwai

Les Revenants (Rock Action)

The French television drama that screened here as The Returned was graced by music that offers something much more fulfilling and less fragmented than the usual soundtrack album. Features a beautiful cello, too.

26 Sparrow And The Workshop

Murderopolis (Song, By Toad)

Moving away from the folksy country noir of earlier releases in favour of a harder rock dimension, the Edinburgh-based trio jump labels and deliver their best, most cohesive album to date.

25 Dunedin Consort

Six Brandenburg Concertos (Linn)

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort tackle one of the classical repertoire's giants for their first all-instrumental recording for Linn. The result is up there with the world's best: as precise in Butt's reading as it is in the label's production.

24 Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire

Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire

One of the great songwriters of contemporary Scotland makes a full-band debut with his regular six-piece outfit. This means he can now aim big - we're often in territory belonging to Springsteen and The Killers.

23 Texas

The Conversation (PIAS)

With one eye looking down a nostalgic road at Roy Orbison and the other staring the perfect-pop world of today firmly in the face, The Conversation is Texas's punchiest set of songs since the early days.

22 Collar Up

Ghosts (Permwhale)

With vocals buried in reverb and cascading pianos high up in the mix, this isn't the easiest album to get your head around. Beneath the surface, however, lies a truly impressive work of art with lyrics that sting.

21 Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

In The Spirit Of Duke (Spartacus)

It's one thing to have an ensemble that can convincingly adapt the legendary arrangements of the Duke Ellington orchestra; it's another to have soloists who are also up to scratch so conveniently at your beck and call.

20 RM Hubbert

Breaks & Bones (Chemikal Underground)

Hubby follows his SAY Award-winning Thirteen Lost & Found with an even more personal record that sees him supplying his own vocals on a scattering of tracks. His flamenco punk guitar playing remains unequalled.

19 Travis

Where You Stand (Red Telephone Box)

Week in week out, I've got to listen to the biggest-selling albums out there, so I'll grab at a good melody when it comes along. Fran Healy and Dougie Payne, however, only write great melodies, and this is a masterclass in pop.

18 Franz Ferdinand

Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action (Domino)

If there's a back-to-basics vibe surrounding Franz Ferdinand's fourth album then that was clearly the correct route to take: this follow-up to the disappointing Tonight relights the dancefloor fire of the early days.

17 Conquering Animal Sound

On Floating Bodies (Chemikal Underground)

Once you get beyond the obvious Bjork comparisons thrown up by Anneke Kampman's vocal style, you'll discover a diamond-edged set of songs whose glittering melodies slowly thaw the instrumental ice.

16 Woodenbox

End Game (Olive Grove)

If Calexico shopped on Byres Road … if Ennio Morricone soundtracked Taggart … if Elvis Costello fancied bit of mariachi trumpet … then Woodenbox's second album would still be better than all of them put together.

15 Glasvegas

Later ... When The TV Turns To Static (GoWow/BMG)

The introduction of Swedish drummer Jonna Lofgren to the Glasvegas line-up gives this third album a much more dynamic engine, over which James Allan's character tales regain their emotionally devastating edge.

14 Quickbeam

Quickbeam (Comets & Cartwheels)

Ruth Campbell's cello is a key ingredient here: it helps establish the chamber mood of the sparse arrangements, feeds the measured pace of the songs and complements the evocative imagery of the lyrics.

13 eagleowl

This Silent Year (Lost Map)

There are those among us who thought we'd witness world peace before an eagleowl album. Thank heavens we lived that long because this chamber-folk-indie-rock hybrid is a thing of sustained beauty.

12 Brass Jaw

Minted (Keywork)

Jazz without a rhythm section; indeed, jazz confined to a four-piece horn section … and yet, within these strictures, Brass Jaw create such freedom of movement that the end result takes your breath away.

11 Hector Bizerk

Nobody Seen Nothing

(www.hectorbizerk.com)

With Audrey's snappy drums giving the counterpunch to Louie's smart raps, this is a sharper album all round than last year's debut. The sound is expanded, the social observations more fervent and focused.

10 Wynntown Marshalls

The Long Haul (Wynntown Recordings)

In my opinion, the best Americana band not actually from North America hail from our own capital city. It's hard to believe this was recorded in an Edinburgh loft, not in a bourbon-soaked booth out west.

9 Ross Ainslie

Wide Open (Great White)

Ross Ainslie's duet album with Jarlath Henderson, Air-Fix, doubtlessly deserves space on this list too but, for me, it's pipped by his solo effort, which contains the most thrilling pipe music I've ever heard. Virtuoso stuff.

8 The Pictish Trail

Secret Soundz Vol 2 (Lost Map)

When he's not shaping the future of Scottish nu-folk from a caravan on Eigg, via Fence and (latterly) Lost Map Records labels, Johnny Lynch weaves a magical sense of feeling into his own psychedelic fare. Breezy tunes with dark clouds on the horizon.

7 Kid Canaveral

Now That You Are A Dancer (Lost Map)

The follow-up to Shouting At Wildlife plants a flag on the peak of contemporary Scottish indie-pop. The tunes are massive, the rhythms euphoric, the lyrics nip at your ears - a brilliant headlong rush of an album.

6 Biffy Clyro

Opposites (14th Floor/Warner Bros)

The fact that the Ayrshire trio now exist on a world-class platform was obvious when they played my gig of the year at the SECC in April. Singalong anthems, mathematically intricate riffs and, yes, bagpipes, make for an adventurous mix.

5 Steven Osborne

Pictures From An Exhibition etc (Hyperion)

It's not just technical expertise that singles out Osborne's performance of the piano arrangement of Mussorgsky's masterpiece but the vivid impressionistic reading he brings to each segment. One of the key classical releases from anywhere this year.

4 Adam Stafford

Imaginary Walls Collapse (Song, By Toad)

With his own body as his main instrument, Falkirk's Adam Stafford builds alt-pop gems from loops, pedals and effects. Each song has its own distinctive atmosphere, where technology is but a tool and melody reigns supreme.

3 Frightened Rabbit

Pedestrian Verse (Atlantic)

Pressure was on Selkirk's finest to deliver on their first major label album, and they did, entering the charts at No 9. The record does not compromise on the bleakness of Scott Hutchison's world view but reaches out to wider audiences through terrific new songs.

2 Rick Redbeard

No Selfish Heart (Chemikal Underground)

There's an emphatic nod to the late Bert Jansch on this solo effort from Phantom Band frontman Rick Anthony. At other times Anthony's voice reminds me of Bill Callahan, with more smirr than Smog to his intonation and folk-rooted songs. A flawless set.

1 Chvrches

The Bones Of What You Believe

(Virgin/Goodbye)

THE RULES

How do I define a Scottish album? It's something produced either by musicians based in Scotland or by Scottish musicians based elsewhere, and it has to have been released - by major, indie or DIY means - in 2013 between January 1 and December 31.

Within that broad parameter, of course, comes all the personal stuff: after spending decades as an arts journalist, I reckon I can listen with a more objective head than most, but this selection - and its countdown order - is obviously skewed by subjective taste. Not only that: there have been certain albums that, in my professional capacity, simply haven't come my way, others that I've just overlooked purely by human error.

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