When I say the word Scotland, what do you think of? Take a few seconds. Answer honestly.
I hope you’re thinking of the stunning scenery, the hills and lochs, the fields of thistles and the cattle that make English cows look dull as a day in detention. I know you’ll think of kilts and haggis. You bloody love your stereotypes. And maybe you’ll think of home, or that holiday cottage from the Christmas you watched snow turn to ice as it dripped from the drainpipe.
But are you thinking of music? Witty lyricism and songs of brutal honesty, innovative trip/hip-hop that takes home music’s biggest prizes, or stadium tours in support of 80’s icons, peddling your own special brand of misery rock? No?
When I think of Scotland, music is the first thing on my mind. I think of some of my favourite bands. I think of magical musicians pushing boundaries and showing the rest of the world how it’s done. The music coming out of Scotland over the last decade or so is often poignant, thought-provoking, and important. Below are just a few examples:
Scotland lost its brightest musical star in May 2018. But I’ve talked endlessly about how Scott Hutchison’s death affected me, including in this episode of the Picky Bastards Podcast, so I’m not going to do that here. Instead I’ll talk about how Scott, and his bandmates in Frightened Rabbit and Mastersystem, produced music that pushed emotional boundaries and asked its listeners to ponder their mental health and that of those around them.
Frightened Rabbit, from The Greys to Painting of a Panic Attack, put mental health at the centre of their music. Listeners can’t miss it. This has resulted in a fanbase that are open and honest when talking about their struggles, and extremely supportive of others when they share their own. Music has always been powerful, but in the hands of Scott Hutchison it became even more special; a tool that created a community, a set of songs that make you feel less alone, a reminder that even darkness can be spellbindingly beautiful in the right hands.
Mastersytem’s Dance Music, my album of 2018, was no less extraordinary. But it was darker still. Frightened Rabbit tackle depression with messages of hope and community, whereas Mastersystem are more about acceptance. Songs like Teething, Waste of Daylight, and Bird is Bored of Flying, see Scott put his feelings on the table and force you to sit down and consume. It’s savage. But it’s also extremely important. In an era when suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, and while Scotland has the highest suicide rate in the UK, here is a man who makes you confront these issues. All while listening to music of the highest order.
Young Fathers are the pride of Scotland for different reasons and are also probably the least prototypical Scottish band you could think of. Often described as a hip-hop outfit, this term seems at times completely accurate and, at others, to sell short the versatility of a band that can’t be pigeonholed.
Fellow Picky Bastard, Nick, picked their latest record, Cocoa Sugar, as his favourite album of 2018. It’s easy to see why. On the surface, it’s an album of absolute bangers. But if you like to go a little deeper, you’ll find another Scottish band that is rife with meaning. Their intentions might be more obscure than the bands mentioned above, but there are endless musings on identity, race, and otherness in songs such as ‘Border Girl,’ ‘Tremolo’, and, on the previous album, ‘Shame’ and their standout track ‘Old Rock n Roll.’
A band made up of one first generation and one second generation immigrant and one Edinburgh native, they are the masters of picking apart bigotry and political evils all while making you want to shake your hips and shift your shoulders. They’re the perfect example of the urgency and dynamism in the current Scottish music scene.
The Twilight Sad
If my intention is to show the versatility in Scotland’s musical output, then I couldn’t have found a stronger juxtaposition than Young Fathers and The Twilight Sad. From danceable pop with hip-hop, R&B, and dub influences we go to an 80s tinged, post-punk, folk-inspired, misery rock. But there are points of comparison.
Like Young Fathers, The Twilight Sad have released a string of albums that show a desire to keep things fresh. To only write when you’ve got something to say. And to keep your identity at the core of the music you create.
Scotland is absolutely central to The Twilight Sad. Singer James Graham proudly places his accent at the forefront of the songs and their lyrics are littered with phrases that are known only in their homeland.
A band with a strong cult following, they went to new heights in the last couple of years after supporting The Cure on a world tour. Fans are fed up of hearing about this, though. Because The Twilight Sad have been putting out emotive, powerful, and dark delights since their debut in 2007, long before Robert Smith became a fan.
They released their latest album, It Won’t Be Like This All the Time, in January of this year, scoring a number one in the vinyl chart and the Scottish chart and a top twenty placing in the overall charts. We’ll be discussing this album in the next episode of the Picky Bastards Podcast, so I won’t say too much about it now. Other than to say that its success so far seems to be representative of the upwards trajectory of Scottish music in general.
We’re setting word counts here on the Picky Bastards website, so I’ll have to stop at some point. But there are several handfuls of bands and artists that could have been included here. Last year alone saw stunning albums from Kathryn Joseph, Aidan Moffet, Fatherson, and more. So do yourselves a favour and get some Scotland in your ears. There can be very few countries with such an impressive output in the last decade.
Words by Fran Slater.