Scotland’s Top 60: The Best Bands from North of the Border (40-31)
by Thomas Blake
40. Lucky Luke
Many of the bands on this list seem to have courted anonymity, some more actively than others. For some, obscurity is a goal, but for Lucky Luke it is more of a by-product of happenstance. Their debut album, Patrick the Survivor, came out in 2005 and was widely acclaimed by the few reviewers who heard it. Boasting a classic but shambling folk-rock sound mingled with typical Scottish DIY indie (Fairport Vaselines?) and held together by the distinctive drumming of Alex Neilson (the hardest-working avant-jazz-folk percussionist in Glasgow). A second album, Travelling for a Living, was recorded soon after. If anything, the songs were even stronger, with co-singer Lucy Sweet’s voice more prominent and poppy melodies higher on the agenda. But by the time it was released the band, due to a combination of bad luck, better opportunities and and babies, no longer existed. They left behind two of the best albums you’ve never heard of. Maybe Unlucky Luke would have been a more fitting name.
39. The Blue Nile
The Blue Nile could never be accused of rushing their work. They came together in 1981 – a year before the Falklands war, a year before this writer was born – and since then they have released only four LPs. It’s an approach that has paid off – they have, if anything, improved with age. The China Crisis-style synth pieces have been replaced by intelligent, sometimes maudlin pop songs with acoustic guitar, minimal piano or filmic strings. The Tom Waits-on-cough-mixture delivery of songs like Family Life or the almost Tindersticks-esque Soon – both from third album Peace At Last – are particular highlights.
38. The Furrow Collective
Though not 100% Scottish, the Furrow Collective (Rachel Newton, Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts) warrant a place on this list if only for their exemplary treatment of Scottish songs like Skippin’ Barfit Through the Heather. Their spare, beautifully rendered versions of mostly traditional pieces feel at once modern and ancient. Their only album so far, At Our Next Meeting, came out earlier this year and is consistently superb.
37. Isobel Campbell
Campbell left Belle and Sebastian in 2002 and recorded two albums under the Gentle Waves moniker, before reverting to her own name. Her solo output is endearingly fragile and often beautiful, drawing on French pop, Latin jazz and the kind of folk practised by Donovan. In recent years she has become better-known for her collaborations, including three solid albums with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan.
36. Dick Gaughan
Dick Gaughan is a good old fashioned folk singer in the angry socialist mould. His strong suits are the power (and distinct Scottishness) of his voice and his amazingly dexterous guitar playing. He taught himself to play aged seven and, living in a Scottish-Irish family, imbibed a range of influences. In what must be one of the most unlikely career choices on this list, he is now a pretty handy web designer.
Yet another entry for Alex Neilson, and maybe not the last. Scatter’s opus The Mountain Announces somehow weaves together discordant drones, percussive freakouts, onieric spoken-word narratives and weird, witchy renditions of traditional folk songs. Singer Hanna Tuulikki is at her elemental best on a busy, lysergic version of the Scottish epic The Dowie Dens of Yarrow.
34. The Jesus and Mary Chain
This is gonna upset a few people. The Mary Chain not making the top twenty. I mean, they’re legends, indie-rock heroes. I’ll be honest: I never really got the appeal until recently. I had Just Like Honey on 7-inch. I played it a couple of times. I thought it sounded a bit of a mess, so I forgot about it for a few years. Then I heard it again (I think it was at the end of Lost In Translation, something else I didn’t get the first time round) and something clicked. I don’t know what it was. Maybe the extra wax in my ears. Since then I’ve been on a slow but relatively rewarding trawl through their back catalogue. And yeah, I have to admit, they frequently sound as cool as fuck, despite the shitty drum machine sound on Darklands.
Robert Smith, Siouxie Sioux and Morrissey have all written songs about Billy Mackenzie, the lead singer of the Associates, who killed himself in 1997. He possessed one of the most distinctive voices in the 1980s music and, together with multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine (who would later work with the Cocteau Twins and help kickstart Belle and Sebastian’s first album) recorded three of the finest, flounciest off-kilter pop records of the decade.
32. Shelagh McDonald
Marketed Britain’s answer to Joni Mitchell, McDonald is one of music’s great lost talents. After two excellent albums in the early 1970s she completely disappeared and was found years later living in a tent, with a ruined voice, having apparently suffered a debilitating acid trip. She appears to have recovered, and has resumed recording, albeit tentatively.
31. Stephanie Hladowski
Stephanie Hladowski has one of the best and most interesting voices on the current folk scene, but it his her choice of material and her arrangement of that material that really sets her apart. Her eerie, drone-backed reading of Willy O’Winsbury is every bit as accomplished and expressive as the wonderful Anne Briggs version, while The Wild Wild Berry, her collaborative album with guitarist C. Joynes, has a dark and uncanny magic.