Scotland’s Top 60: The Best Bands from North of the Border (30-21)

by Thomas Blake

30. Al Stewart

Regarded as a bit of a cheesy pop-folk relic by many, Al Stewart released a run of six albums in the 1970s that was a match for practically anyone else at the time. His lyrical range was enviably large – there are songs about soft fruit, Basque separatism and Nostradamus – and his songs packed an emotional punch. The earlier stuff was patchier, but contained a few examples of sparkling, literate, Donovanesque folk-rock.


29. Ivor Cutler

Glasgow’s Ivor Cutler will be remembered mainly as raconteur, poet and humourist, but his songwriting was just as sharp as his spoken word output. Collaborations with the Beatles and Robert Wyatt gave him some mainstream exposure. He kept ivory cutlery in his home as a visual pun on his name, and one of his many mottoes was ‘never knowingly understood.’ He continued to perform into his eighties, and died in 2006.


28. Arab Strap

If you read the NME you will be aware that Arab Strap are good at two things: being Scottish and being miserable. They are guilty on both counts, but there is so much more to them than that. Their stories of awful nightclubs, shit sex and variable quality narcotics are told with deadpan humour and backed up by spare, atmospheric indie rock (and occasionally some dark, dancey synths). A writer of genuine talent, lyricist Aidan Moffat is the author of a children’s book and records under the not very child-friendly name L. Pierre. Instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton has released a number of solo albums and nearly had a Christmas number one in 2007.


27. Jean Redpath

Jean Redpath, who died of cancer in Arizona just nine days prior to this piece being written, was one of the most accomplished voices in the Scottish folk scene. As much a teacher as a singer, she brought a wealth of traditional material to the attention of the American folk singers of the 1960s when she pitched up in Greenwich Village, meeting the likes of Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. She also taught university courses in Scottish song and became something of a feminist icon by performing rarely heard songs by Scottish female singers.


26. Camera Obscura

John Peel favourites Camera Obscura came from the same Glasgow scene as bands like Arab Strap and Belle and Sebastian (whose drummer Richard Colburn once had a stint with them). Their blend of folky indie with sixties girl-group sunniness gives them a brighter disposition than their contemporaries (despite some brave attempts at melancholy) and are capable at their best of moments of pristine pop loveliness.


25. The Shop Assistants

Welcome to the jangle! The Shop Assistants were at the forefront of the Edinburgh indie scene in the 1980s, and were better than anyone at the mixture of sweetness and spikiness, post-punk attitude and pretty songwriting that the genre demanded. And it matters not one bit that all their songs sound like they were recorded on a cheap Argos dictaphone.


24. Isla Cameron

Better known as an actress, Isla Cameron was one of the most uncompromising of the traditional Scottish singers of the 50s and 60s. Her vocal delivery (ever so slightly detached, ethereal), her choice of material (murder ballads, ghostly tales) and her arrangements (often just for voice, sometimes admitting a droning bagpipe) made her an unwitting progenitor of the acid folk movement. She gave up singing in the mid 1960s and died in 1980, in a domestic accident.


23. Black Flowers

Drummer Alex Neilson assembled Black Flowers in 2009, bringing together Alasdair Roberts, Lavinia Blackwall and Michael Flower. The best kind of folk-rock supergroup – visceral, varied, incredibly talented – they released one five-track album, I Grew From a Stone to a Statue, which was drone-heavy, full of distorted guitar, psych-rock organ and wailing vocals. A balls-out cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Calvary Cross was a highlight.


22. Jeannie Robertson

When you type Jeannie Robertson’s name into Youtube it sends you instead to the work of one Jeanne Robertson. Do not click on anything by this woman; it is horrible. Jeannie on the other hand was one of the most important figures in the resurgence of Scottish traditional music in the early part of the twentieth century. Coming from a travelling family of fruit pickers she was able to learn songs from all over the country, drawing attention from song collectors Hamish Henderson and Alan Lomax. She remained on the fringes of the music scene throughout her life, recording only sporadically until her death in 1975.


21. The Pastels

The Pastels are one of the longest-running and most influential of the indie bands to emerge from Glasgow at the start of the 1980s.  They had already been around for five years when C86 made them a household name (in really cool households), and they’re still going today. Eschewing both the ‘twee’ and ‘shambling’ labels, they were, at times, both twee and shambling, in the best kind of way. They were a band of distinct phases (due in part to line-up changes) but, unusually, all of their phases so far have been excellent.