Alan Morrison picks his Festive 50

It doesn't really matter which side you took during the great indyref debate of 2014. One thing that almost everyone can agree on is that, in Scotland, culture makes up a big chunk of what any of us considers to be national identity - and music makes up a big chunk of that cultural identity too.

This was the reason I first compiled a Top 50 Scottish Albums of the Year in 2012 - along with a certain frustration with the insistence of the London-based media (magazines, broadcasters, newspapers, blogs) to more or less ignore any Scottish act not on a London-based record label. Things haven't improved down south in 2014: the longlist for the BBC's Sound of 2015 poll, for example, doesn't include a single Scottish band or musician - and a glance through the names on the next few pages here proves that this ongoing dismissal is narrow-minded nonsense.

This, after all, was the year Young Fathers did the 'double' with two different albums: the SAY Award for Tape Two and the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for Dead. It was the year Paolo Nutini returned to No 1 in the UK Album Charts with Caustic Love, while Mogwai and Twin Atlantic broke the Top 10 with Nina Nesbitt not far behind at No 11. It was the year Calvin Harris was named by Forbes magazine as the world's highest-paid DJ. And such is the sheer quality of work being produced by musicians in Scotland or Scots anywhere else (the parameters for my particular list) that not all of the artists mentioned above made my final cut.

Three years in, this is the toughest it has been to create a final 50. My initial longlist contained 120 albums, and I could easily compile a completely different set of 50 Scottish records from 2014 that I really like; those mentioned here, then, are the ones I really love. Remember: this is a personal exercise, not a poll of my Herald and Sunday Herald colleagues, not a wider net gathering in readers' favourites.

To that end it's skewed by personal taste even as it attempts to embrace all genres (as a pointer, my favourite non-Scottish albums were by St Vincent, The War On Drugs, Future Islands, Damon Albarn, FKA Twigs); and there will doubtless be other eligible albums that accidentally passed me by. However, as far as I'm aware, only one that would have made the list - The Winter Of 88 by Seafieldroad - arrived at my desk too late to be considered.

So, what broad-brushstroke thoughts have emerged from my year-long listening? When it came to the political aspect of indyref, with a few notable pop and rock exceptions, it was the hip hop and folk acts who stepped forward to be counted with their musical output - these have, after all, been the more socially conscious genres down the decades.

Then there's the fact that male singer-songwriters feature rather predominantly on the list. Again, that may be down to personal taste and listening patterns. But I when I hear Passenger or Ben Howard or Ed Sheeran, and see them filling massive concert halls and winning prestigious awards, I turn instead to songs such as Pauper's Dough by King Creosote, Two Travel by Beerjacket, Horseshoe by Withered Hand, Four Creatures by Dan Lyth, Feathers Are Falling by James Yorkston and Kerry Bheil Thu Cluinntinn by Willie Campbell and think, damn, were all of these really written and released in the same country in the same year?

Ultimately, though, this list just scratches the surface of what's going on in the Scottish music scene. Because of the rules, it doesn't include magnificent EPs by Hector Bizerk, Tuff Love and Jo Mango, or the series of showcase compilations put together by Bar Bloc. But it does recognise the spread of labels through which Scottish music operates - indies such as Chemikal Underground and Olive Grove, majors such as Atlantic and Decca, self-run DIY jobs and Bandcamp downloads. There's ambition, craft and quality at every level in this small nation with a huge musical reach



Green Language (Warp)

The sharpened claws of the aptly named Raptor tear through the speakers, proving that Glaswegian producer Russell Whyte has lost none of his edge since 2011 debut Glass Swords, despite expanding into new genres.


Grant Campbell

The Spark (Crooked Mouth)

Here's a voice like cask-aged bourbon - rich and warm in tone, poured into a chipped-edged America shot-glass that once belonged to Kris Kristofferson. Never Give Up is a classic bar-stool anthem in the making.


Bronto Skylift

Date With A Ghoul (

The gruesome twosome batter and howl through a series of back-to-basics riffs sledgehammered into songs that may have throttled any sign of melody at birth. But it's electrifying stuff: hardcore as musical catharsis.



I Am An Island (A Modern Way)

The debut disc from the Kilmarnock quartet mixes new versions of set favourites with new material, all of them big on anthemic power and bigger still on dense vocal harmonies. Ayrshire rock has found its new Biffy.


Edinburgh Quartet

Visions Of A November Spring (Delphian)

The emotional delicacy of For Sonny - written by James MacMillan as a memorial for a friend's grandson - is the poignant heart of this album, which gathers together a handful of string quartet works by the Scottish composer.


The Jellyman's Daughter

The Jellyman's Daughter (

Bluesy Americana from a duo who are Scotland's answer to The Civil Wars. Graham Coe's cello can set a rhythm like a train rolling over the tracks or sound like an Appalachian fiddle coming down from the mountains.


The Vaselines

V For Vaselines (Rosary)

Only their third studio album in an on/off 28-year career, but Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee haven't lost their knack for knocking out the sort of pop hooks that, back in the day, caught the ear of Kurt Cobain.

43 Call To Mind

The Winter Is White (Olive Grove)

Here's a band who are in no rush to create spectacular soundscapes. Imagine early Genesis redone by Sigur Ros, with an indie-rock band beneath and post-rock guitars sitting icily on top. A song like Breathe could be Coldplay in a better universe.


Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

Culloden Moor Suite (Spartacus)

Tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins wrote this evocative suite, inspired by the bloody battlefield back in 1961. Here he joins the SNJO for a big-band arrangement that's passionate and fiery, haunting and contemplative by turns.


Blue Rose Code

The Ballads Of Peckham Rye (Ronachan Songs)

The pedal steel guitar that opens this album is more streets of Laredo than streets of London. Country stylings recur, peppered by a jazz trumpet here, some bluesy folk there, and a nod to John Martyn throughout.


Chris Devotion & The Expectations

Break Out (Armellodie)

Imagine a repeat of a particularly good Top Of The Pops from 1979 - Squeeze, Costello, Springsteen are all on - that, years later, inspires a bunch who've just bought their first Replacements records. Rock'n'roll is in their veins.


Mike Vass

In The Wake Of Neil Gunn (Unroofed)

Taking the titular novelist's 1937 sailing trip along the west coast as inspiration, violinist Mike Vass's composition blurs boundaries between folk and chamber music, as oboe and flute float gently above music rippled by electronic tinkering.


Algernon Doll

Omphalic (Struggletown)

Across three albums, Ewan Grant has steadily been leaving his wispy singer-songwriter origins behind for music that's rooted in grunge and the Sub Pop label. That said, fine writing remain beneath these layers of distortion and chorus effects.


Calum Stewart & Heikki Bourgault

Hunter's Moon (CH/2)

A piper/flautist from Moray; a guitarist from Brittany. Together they're a true duet who create a Celtic music that spans Scottish and Breton traditions. The melody of Another Winter is one of the most beautiful of the year.


The Son(s)

The Things I Love Are Not At Home (Olive Grove)

Another sublime psychedelic-folk gem from the most enigmatic man on the Scottish music scene, whose vocals match the wounded beauty of Robert Wyatt. Listen out, and you might here horns, flamenco guitar, even a theramin.


The Hazey Janes

Language Of Faint Theory (Armellodie)

So many styles, all mastered by the same foursome from Dundee. It's quite an achievement when an album can glide so effortlessly from pure country to euphorically harmonised indie pop to laidback west-coast folk-rock.


Loki with Becci Wallace

G.I.M.P. - Government Issue Protest Music (Black Lantern)

Arguably the most ambitious album to come out of Scotland in 2014 - an operatic soapbox polemic that rips open our indyref year by setting its main concerns in a dystopian future. Loki thinks well outside the hip hop box.


Jonnie Common

Trapped In Amber (Song, By Toad)

Half sung, half spoken, but the full thing when it comes to DIY electro-slacker cool: these songs and snatches are pinpricked by humour but buoyed up by great tunes and bags of quirky personality. Put Shark on your playlist of the year.


We Were Promised Jetpacks

Unravelling (FatCat)

There's a hint of label mates The Twilight Sad about the latest from Edinburgh quartet We Were Promised Jetpacks. The rock contours are still in place, but the pacing is more mid-tempo, the crescendos more explosive.


Simple Minds

Big Music (Caroline International)

Jim Kerr and crew pick up from where New Gold Dream left off, with one eye on a bank of 1980s synths and the other on the dancefloor. But with Chvrches' Iain Cook helping out, it's as much about now as nostalgia.


Machines In Heaven

bordersbreakdown (Hotgem)

Leading the new wave of Scottish electro bands, pushed to the fore by a bold splash of post-rock guitar, Machines In Heaven are equal parts style and substance. You don't need vocals or choruses when your understanding of pop is as assured as this.


The Last Battle

Lay Your Burden Down (

There's a real sense of development on this second album from the Edinburgh band, as they take a Scottish indie-folk template set up by King Creosote and Admiral Fallow but add pop-leaning quirks very much of their own making.


RM Hubbert

Ampersand Extras (Chemikal Underground)

Essentially a collection of tracks that were left off the flamenco-punk guitarist's last three albums - but so much more than that. It's a perfectly programmed entity in itself that balances solo performances with intriguing collaborations.


Nicola Benedetti

Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy (Decca)

Her rendition of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy is concert-hall pristine, of course, and only a couple of the Scottish standards are guilty of tourist-advert romanticism. But it's when she's in session with the folkies that Benedetti's fiddle really catches fire.


Bang Dirty

Tri Polar (Zambian Astronaut)

Stuart Jackson, MOG and Adam Holmes pool talents on a superbly produced hip-hop album that has as much soul as street smarts. Not the place you'd expect to find one of the most unexpectedly affecting love songs of the year, but She is that very track.


Julie Fowlis

Gach Sgeul (Machair)

Having completed a Masters Degree in Gaelic Culture, Julie Fowlis returns to her home island of North Uist and delves into a rich heritage of work songs, lullabies, dances and mouth music. Nothing academic about the end result, though.


John Knox Sex Club

Oh Wow Must Be The Devil (Instinctive Racoon)

At just under 29 minutes, it's the shortest entry here, hanging between EP and album but, to be honest, the sheer unruly vitality of opening track Minotaur had me at hello. And that's before post-rock, alt-folk work song Hard Days arrived…


Konrad Wiszniewski

Illuminate (Konwiz)

As a massive fan of John Coltrane, I'm surely drawn in to Konrad Wiszniewski's latest album by the lightning speed of his fingers on both tenor and soprano sax. But there's substance beneath the fireworks on a fine and varied set.


The Twilight Sad

Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave (FatCat)

Electro pulses, tactile walls of noise, a fraction of folk music glimpsed in a melody line: The Twilight Sad have distilled everything that was good about all their previous albums into one unit, with added pop nous.


Felix Champion

This Lateral Life (Bloc+)

A blistering debut from a major new talent. Guitar riffs with the multi-note intricacy of scales take flight while vocals scream and harmonise and interlock with rigid control. Post-punk, alt-rock, hardcore - there's a whole history contained here.


Ewan McLennan

Stories Still Untold (Fellside)

Not only does Ewan McLennan keep the flame of social conscience burning in traditional folk music, he's also a virtuosic guitar player. Here, the epic storytelling of The Ballad Of Amy Nielson brings to the surface another of history's hidden lives.


Owl John

Owl John (Atlantic)

From the slacker blues of Hate Music to the earworm chorus of Los Angeles Be Kind, Scott Hutchison's solo offshoot is recognisably the work of Frightened Rabbit's frontman, but mined from an alt-rock than the indie-folk day job.


Randolph's Leap

Clumsy Knot (Lost Map)

The witty wordplay and twee self-deprecation are still there, but the first "proper" album from Randolph's Leap reveals some bittersweet sentiments and a certain melancholy beneath the sheen - proof that Adam Ross is maturing as a songwriter.



Youth Culture Forever (FatCat)

No difficulty with this second album: Josh Swinney's drums are a veritable powerhouse and Ryan Drever's bass rock-solid but hyperactive, while singer/guitarist Phillip Taylor's songs are bigger, more tuneful, more expansive.


Rachel Newton

Changeling (Shadowside)

The recorded version of Rachel Newton's New Voices commission for Celtic Connections pits bright trad instrumentals against lovely Gaelic songs, binding them together with a folktale concept, and bringing an indie edge to the role of the harp.


Turning Plates

The Shouting Cave (

There's real ambition in the painstaking craft and composition of the music on show here: every individual note on string or brass matters as much as the band instruments that makes up soundscapes that rival Sigur Ros.


James Yorkston

The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society (Domino)

A lovely, intimate album from the East Neuk maestro, who's on top of his writing game here. Collaborators such as KT Tunstall flesh out a set of songs that are mostly stripped back to essentials.


Second Hand Marching Band

A Hurricane, A Thunderstorm (

You want horns and glockenspiel worked into a Scottish indie-folk environment? It's here but not in a wishy-washy way: this is an ensemble effort (the band can number 17 members at times) that's as exuberant as a street party.


Paolo Nutini

Caustic Love (Atlantic)

The soul boy kept at bay on earlier albums finally comes to the fore here and, I've got to admit, rubs shoulders with James Brown, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Paisley's finest deserved the chart smash and festival headline status that followed.


The Phantom Band

Strange Friend (Chemikal Underground)

Beneath the psychedelic artwork lurks an album that has its bleepy synths and its funky prog moments too. But Rick Anthony's voice seems more confident of its folk roots, and that raises The Phantom Band to a plateau of their own.


Willie Campbell

Dalma (Ceol's Craic)

Gaelic indie pop with guitars that glisten like rock pools on a Lewis beach and a voice that soars to a clear blue sky - the former Astrid singer breaks the genre mould with music and poetic lyrics that are beautiful in any language.


Young Fathers

Dead (Big Dada)

The surprise winner of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize is perhaps as unquantifiable as any music currently being made anywhere on the planet. There's hip hop, soul, African beats and so much more in a hugely thrilling concoction.



Darling Darkness (

For ten years now, teacher-by-day/musician-by-night Peter Kelly has been performing as Beerjacket, and he has never written a better album. A footstomp beat, a guitar, a voice backed by a light female harmony, and tune after tune after tune.


Karen Cargill

Lieder: Alma & Gustav Mahler (Linn)

Scotland's opera superstar mines incredible depth of emotion from these songs, as her mezzo-soprano range is sensitively matched by Simon Lepper's piano accompaniment. Nice to hear Alma Mahler's lesser-known works get an outing, too.



Honeyblood (FatCat)

An astonishingly assured debut from the guitar-voice/drums duo that sets a no-nonsense feminist agenda against a hybrid of grunge, shoegaze and classic girl band harmonies. Hard to believe they were unsigned on the T Break stage only a year ago.


Dan Lyth & The Euphrates

Benthic Lines (Armellodie)

A genuine labour of love - years in the making and recorded with singleminded artistic persistence in various outdoor locations - that repays the listener's close attention. Whispers of Radiohead float through music that's both intimately precise and emotionally expansive.


King Creosote

From Scotland With Love (Domino)

Divorced from the images it accompanies in Virginia Heath's archive-footage film, Kenny Anderson's latest full-band album completely stands up for itself - never sentimental, always personal, with some of the best songs of his long career.



Rave Tapes (Rock Action)

There are a shades of Mogwai's haunting soundtrack for French TV drama The Returned in the sparse, more measured spaces of their latest. Elsewhere, analogue synths create new textures that are less explosive than before but just as impactful.


Stanley Odd

A Thing Brand New (A Modern Way)

Lyrically, it's the album that nails not only indyref Scotland but 2014 in its wider political and social dimensions. Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, home-grown austerity, drone attacks in the Middle East- Solareye's searing words hidden inside explosive pop bombs.


Withered Hand

New Gods

(Fortuna POP!)

You may have missed this fact, but it's true nonetheless: Withered Hand's second album, New Gods, sold more copies than Babel by Mumford & Sons. Well, it did for one week only - the week of its release in early March - when it sneaked into the official UK albums chart at a spot just ahead of Marcus and his faux-folk troupe. A small victory but a vital one, I believe.

Dan Willson, the man who is Withered Hand, quickly puts this in perspective. "The charts are an ephemeral thing," he insists. "It's weird, an anomaly. It's like it poked its head up and then went back to being a well-kept secret."

New Gods hasn't been pouring from your radio or spilling off the supermarket shelves this year, but that won't matter in the long run. It's an album that has legs, a slow-burner, a future classic built on songs that hark back to the best singer-songwriters of the 1970s but with a bit of 1980s indie jangle on top. It is pop music that has depth and meaning.

"Sometimes, when you listen back to music from your youth, you wonder why you liked it," says Willson, a native of Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire who relocated to Edinburgh 18 years ago. "You remember the rush from it but you can't connect with the lyrics. I think because I started writing songs quite late - being already 30, you're not writing about shagging and drinking as much - maybe I come at it from a slightly different angle.

"In my life, New Gods is a magical thing. It's like a talisman. There's so much hope in that record - and not hope to be on Jools Holland, or any of that bulls***. It was the hope of making a good piece of work. I knew in the studio, when we were listening back to rough mixes, that it was about as close as I've ever dreamt of getting to the conception in my mind of what I wanted my songs to sound like."

Willson is not a boastful chap; quite the opposite, he's rather shy and self-deprecating. But he's completely right when he talks about the quality of the songs on this album. Every single one of them stands up on its own two feet, as poetically reflective lyrics and gorgeous pop melodies combine to make an emotionally open, optimistic, overcoming-the-odds statement that speaks across the generations.

When we last met over a pint, a few weeks before the album's release, he was sorting out his visa for a jaunt with full band to the South By South West festival in Austin, Texas. This is where he was when he scored that Mumford-conquering chart placing, which is perhaps why he insists on playing it down. But the US trip did provide one other surreal sense of achievement when he spotted his own album in an iconic location.

"We were in New York to play a show, and we popped into the Rough Trade store in Brooklyn to buy records. And we were like 'No way!' because the album wasn't meant to be out but it was already on their listening post - and recommended. So we ended up listening to it, thinking, 'Yeah, sounds good…'"

Although 2014 brought with it another short American tour and a scattering of full-band dates on home soil, including a biggest-yet London date at The Scala, Willson regularly gigs in solo format - and that's when the merit of his songwriting really reveals itself. He's still booking his concerts and tours himself, still ostensibly a one-man operation taking short breaks away from dad duty. Personally, I reckon this DIY aspect makes the creation of such a full-sounding album all the more impressive.

"I think there are too many songs - too much of everything - in the world, so unless you think you're going to add something, don't do it," is the Thought For The Day that Willson offers when we meet again in Edinburgh to toast New Gods' success as the Sunday Herald's No 1 Scottish Album of 2014.

"I know that pop music is just meant to be … pop music. But those songs are still very meaningful to me. I could have those lyrics tattooed on my body, that's the real thing. But because they have spangly guitars on them, and some woo-woos, to the casual listener it's like an indie pop record. And that's what most people are: casual listeners. That's fine - maybe it's us who are freaky because we put a lot of store into music. So it might take a while for people to realise some of those songs have real substance, because it wasn't just 'Let's try to make a hit record'."

Willson does admit, though, that the audiences he draws to gigs aren't the ones he expects, even if they do span all ages and walks of life.

"At first I was like, 'Why are the audiences older than me?' I thought it was going to be hip kids because I thought that's what I was still," he laughs. "Sometimes I'm very aware that what I'm doing is not what I think I'm doing; there's a disconnect. I look up and see a sea of 40- and 50-year-old people. When you speak to them, you discover they're people who really liked music but thought they'd gone off it. Invariably there are few things [in my songs] that remind them of why they liked music.

"It's such a broad audience, albeit they've somehow stumbled across my stuff, and it's always a surprise that it can touch all these different people under no banner. Families come to the shows because the parents are into it and they bring their teenagers because it's one of the rare musical overlaps that they have. And that's lovely."