"I HAVE a confession to make,” Tracey Thorn writes in her 2015 book Naked at the Albert Hall. “When I listen to bands, I only really hear the singer.”

Thorn, owner of one of the great English voices, a dolorous, grown-up thing, is surely speaking for many of us here. When we hear a record for the first time, latching onto the vocal is often how we navigate its unfamiliarity. And, for some of us, it remains the principal attraction, the comforting human mark in the music

There are so many reasons to love a voice; for its elegance (Sinatra) for its warmth (Ella), for its beauty (Smokey, Dusty), for its range (Bjork, Beth Gibbons), its power (Aretha) or its character (Jarvis Cocker and Tom Waits spring to mind).

Sometimes it’s what some might consider its imperfections (think of Sarah Cracknell, Stuart Staples, or Nico) that snags when more technically perfect singers can slide by without notice. It would be foolish to argue, for example, that Annie Lennox isn’t one of the greatest singers Scotland has produced. And, certainly, she has made some records that I love (early and late Eurythmics by preference). And yet, when I think of her singing, I think of the way she sang the word “bliss” on There Must Be an Angel (Playing with my Heart), distorting it into something that sounds like “blee-ee-ee-ss”. And I can’t help but be irked by that affectation.

Others, of course, will love her voice for that very reason.

What follows, then, is a diversionary slide up the scales of Scotland’s best voices, or the ones that hooked attention. My attention, to be clear. (It should go without saying, this is not so much the best, whatever the headline says, as favourite, of course.)

Behind each one of these voices there are half a dozen more who could easily qualify. But this is today’s choice.

Barbara Dickson

A few years ago, I went to see Barbara Dickson sing in Dunfermline. Free tickets. I’d grown up watching her sing on The Two Ronnies, on Top of the Pops, on Saturday evening light entertainment shows all through the 1970s. She was so familiar as to be almost invisible – or inaudible – to me. But here she was in person, stripped of the dated production and Radio 2 arrangements and it was quickly clear what should always have been obvious. She has the most beautiful voice, pure yet full of character.

Hearing her sing MacCrimmons’s Lament unaccompanied that night was what opened my ears. A goosebumps moment. Dickson has a voice so good that you don’t mind hearing her sing Who Knows Where the Time Goes rather than Sandy Denny. Yes, that good.

Read More: Barbara Dickson on returning to Scotland

John Martyn

Does John Martyn even qualify? Born in Surrey, died in Ireland, after all. But as his biographer Graeme Thomson pointed out in these pages last year, “Martyn was formed in Glasgow.”

Martyn studied at Shawlands Academy, was a familiar face on the Glasgow folk scene, and even had Hamish Imlach as his mentor. Scottish enough, then, surely?

And why wouldn’t you want to claim him? Martyn was a more-than-talented guitarist, but it’s the voice you fall in love with - the lazy beauty of it and its owner’s suspicion of that very beauty.

When he sang, he stretched and slurred the words, pulling them out of shape. His was a voice constantly at play, sliding from a growl into a creamy croon with throwaway ease. He sang like he was constantly close-miked, whether in the studio or not. The result has an intimacy that makes it feel like he’s singing to you alone.

Read More: Graeme Thomson on John Martyn

Billy MacKenzie

I love Billy MacKenzie’s voice because it owes nothing to rock and roll. There is no blues in it. That doesn’t mean it’s not blue, though.

What does it have, then? Operatic grandeur, a wildness and something more, a deep melancholy. If only he had lived long enough to tackle the great American song book.

It is a voice that has a note of surrender in it. You can hear it on the title track of the vilified album Perhaps, the ill-fated follow-up to the magisterial Sulk. When he sings, “Just call me lonely, it kind of suits me,” it’s hard not to react. You can hear the cheeky performative pleasure in the voice, but you can hear the pain too. Billy sang like he was grinning, as if he were asking us to join him in laughing at the giddy pleasure of the voice, the agility and range of it, the possibilities it offered. And yet that voice was anchored in something sad and dark, as if, somehow, this soaring, hiccupping, gleeful thing wasn’t enough in itself. I guess, in the end, that proved to be the case.

Read More: Alan Rankine on Billy MacKenzie

Elizabeth Fraser

Start with All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun. It’s a bootleg duet that’s been available on the internet for years now, an unfinished song made by Elizabeth Fraser with her then partner Jeff Buckley. You can even hear her laughter at the beginning.

Fraser has said in the past that she wishes it weren’t out there because it was never finished. But there doesn’t sound much wrong with it, to be honest. It’s a lovely, warm merging of two beautiful voices.

Even so, though, there are moments in the song where Fraser’s vocals just soar up and away. Like she’s just been letting Buckley keep pace with her up until then. The ease with which she moves ahead of him, even in a song in which she is more reined in than usual, is remarkable.

So is the fact that Fraser should emerge at roughly the same time as MacKenzie. Both had voices that demanded pop music expand to encompass them.

Fraser could be more constrained when needed (as she is on Massive Attack’s Teardrop, to potent effect), but it was Fraser’s melisma on those Cocteau Twins records and on This Mortal Coil’s take on, Song to the Siren, written by Tim Buckley (Jeff’s dad), that prompted one journalist to announce that Fraser’s was “the voice of God”. God should be so lucky.

Jimmy Somerville

And then Bronski Beat came along. There is no more immediately recognisable voice in Scottish pop than Jimmy Somerville’s. It represented – because he was outspoken at a time when others were too scared to be – gay pride at a time when homophobia was rife in public life (the media were as guilty as everyone else, maybe more so). All these years later to listen to Bronski Beat and The Communards is to hear the joy and pain of that time in the light, high, grain of his voice. Plus, he’s Scotland’s greatest gift to that greatest of genres, disco.

Paul Buchanan

When I first moved to Scotland in the early 1980s Glasgow was reinventing itself. The No Mean City cliche was breaking down. Postcard Records and Bill Forsyth were offering a different sound and vision of the place. The grittiness of Maggie Bell and Frankie Miller was no longer in fashion. Hard men were out. Suddenly, soft lads were in. No wonder I felt at home when I visited.

That notion of male sensitivity reached its apotheosis in the music of The Blue Nile. In albums A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats, the band painted a picture of Glasgow as a romantic cityscape; a place of broken hearts, not heads.

The soundtrack of the eighties new man, you might say, if you wanted to dismiss it. But then you’d hear Paul Buchanan’s voice and your dismissal fell apart. His voice has this ache to it and when it breaks (as it does when he sings “I’m tired of crying on the stairs,” on Downtown Lights) … Well, if you’re not moved, what’s wrong with you?

Read More: Paul Buchanan on Hats

Dot Allison

I don’t know why I am telling you any of this …” Listen, some voices just connect. From the first time she first emerged fronting Glasgow’s euphoric, Andrew Weatherall-endorsed, dance outfit One Dove, to her curious, wayward solo career, Dot Allison’s high, breathy vocals have been a pleasure. The words I want to use – narcotic, erotic – aren’t quite right, though you can hear both if you listen. There’s an airy, rapturous quality to her register that might be too evanescent for some. But it’s the way that her vocals hover on an edge between their pleasures and their limitations that is so compelling.

Read More: Dot Allison talks to the Herald Magazine in 2002

King Creosote

It’s the yearn of it, isn’t it? The softness, that almost-lachrymose phrasing, its welcoming openness, that heartachey way it keeps dropping away (and yet there is this lovely sustain to it, too.) And then there’s the very Fifeness of it.

As is evident on his 2007 album Bombshell (my favourite), Kenny Anderson’s voice is perfect for laments and love songs. The fact that my late wife loved Kenny’s singing means I hear his songs as both now.

Read More: Nicola Meighan speaks to King Cresote

Tracyanne Campbell

Another soft lad choice. As the voice of Camera Obscura, Tracyanne Campbell stands here for a whole strand of Weegie pop; bookish, compassionate, not afraid of a tune. Her singing voice is warm, friendly, conversational, indie in the best way. And I love its sweet, unshowy, Scottishness.

Read More: Tracyanne Campbell on life after Camera Obscura

Kathryn Joseph

Last chance. And I’ve still not mentioned Shelagh McDonald, Brian Connolly, Angela McCluskey, Thomas Leer, Messrs Frame and Collins, Paul Quinn, Clare Grogan or Jerry Burns. (Why wasn’t she huge? Why isn’t she huge?)

And then there’s Emma Pollock, Karine Polwart, Rick Anthony, Frank Reader (Eddi, too, for that matter), Johnny Lynch (aka Pictish Trail), Scott Hutchison and David Scott of The Pearlfishers. Who to choose?

In the end it must be Kathryn Joseph. Set aside the back story, with its shadows of depression and tragedy, and just listen. Is there a more expressive singer in the UK, never mind Scotland, right now? Her voice is made up of gravel and air, all sharp edges and billowing embrace. And then there’s the thrill of that almost ovine trill she breaks into sometimes. Joseph has a voice that can’t be mistaken for anyone else. That makes her as unique as Billy MacKenzie or Elizabeth Fraser. She’s worthy of such company.

Read More: Kathryn Joseph on coming out of the dark