Scotland’s Top 60: The Best Bands from North of the Border (20-11)
by Thomas Blake
20. Aztec Camera
One of the few bands of the 1980s to have successfully crossed over into pop stardom without sacrificing their tunes or their credibility, Aztec Camera basically consisted of Roddy Frame and a sizeable and ever-changing carousel of transient supporting musicians. Frame was (and remains) a seriously good songwriter, capable of extracting emotion from a biting lyric, Spanish-inflected guitar solo or bouncy chorus. The band achieved huge and deserved hits with Oblivious and Somewhere In My Heart, but many of the album tracks were just as good.
19. Primal Scream
Bobby Gillespie and co would probably made it on to this list if they had never recorded another song after Velocity Girl. Originally the B-side of 1986 single Crystal Crescent, it is probably the best song ever under one and a half minutes, and a highlight of the wonderful C86 comp. As it stands, they’ve made some pretty decent stuff since. 1987 debut LP Sonic Flower Groove was typical of its period – psychy, jangly pop. Everyone knows Screamadelica, a touchstone of its era. Give Out But Don’t Give Up is basically a tribute to early-70s Stones, but a brilliantly executed one, with barely a bad track on it. Later albums were harder-edged, but often patchier.
18. Teenage Fanclub
The Fannies are one of the most consistently underrated bands of the last twenty-five years. The classic sextet of albums from Bandwagonesque (1991) to Howdy! (2000) is a frankly incredible run that takes in everything from melodic britpop to shoegaze to Crazy Horse-inspired guitar jams. What’s more, they have managed to keep their core membership (Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love) happy by sharing out songwriting duties on a democratic basis, and all three are equally capable of producing moments of brilliance.
17. Bert Jansch
Jansch was perhaps the most influential folk guitarist of the 1960s. To this day, hordes of troubadours attempt to ape his style, and most of them fuck it up. Artists as diverse as Jimmy Page, Johnny Marr and Paul Simon have spoken of him almost as a spiritual leader. Much of his most recognisable material was recorded with London-based folk-rock scene-setters Pentangle or from his vaunted 1960s solo albums, which gave us songs like Blackwaterside, Angie and Needle of Death, some of his best work came later and he continued to record and perform high-quality material until his death in 2011.
Imagine the Incredible String Band having a snow-orgy with Björk. And then John Cage turns up dressed as a polar bear and spikes the green tea with mushrooms. Just imagine it. Nalle formed in Glasgow in 2004 to fill the just that kind of Arctic pagan psych-folk shaped niche in the city’s otherwise wide-ranging music scene. Hanna Tuulikki (singer with Two Wings, who are also featured on this list) sang, drew pictures and played kantele and flute. She was joined by viola player Aby Vulliamy and Chris Hladowski (brother of Stephanie, also featured) on bouzouki and clarinet, amongst other things. They were one of the most ambitious acts to emerge from what was by its very nature an ambitious scene, and the length and looseness of arrangement of their songs does not always make for easy listening, but their work is never less than memorable.
15. Orange Juice
Along with Josef K, Orange Juice provided the majority of the output for the groundbreaking and now legendary Postcard Records. They thrived on a combination of an overarching post-punk aesthetic and the chirpy, jangly and almost amateur indie-pop sound that Scotland became famed for. Add to this a rhythm section that draws from afro-funk, a subtle, melodious use of synths and a Velvet Underground approach to chord changes and you get one of the most exciting and recognisable bands of the era. Frontman Edwyn Collins went on to have a successful and acclaimed solo career.
14. James Yorkston
Yorkston is one of the most underrated singer-songwriters around. While consistently attracting critical admiration and big-name fans and collaborators (KT Tunstall appears as a guest on his latest album) he has never quite received the popular attention he deserves. This is perhaps due in part to the sheer cleverness of his writing. The level of detail in multi-layered narrative songs like When the Haar Rolls In requires an investment of time and thought that many casual listeners are not prepared to make. Queen of Spain is a lepidopterist’s love song, while Guy Fawkes’ Signature presupposes presupposes some historical knowledge, albeit only a little. But anyone with an attention span will, given time, come to see Yorkston’s attains a rare and beautiful state: it is heartbreaking but never sentimental. And with When the Haar Rolls In, he has created the greatest hangover album ever.
13. John Martyn
Although he was born in England and died in Ireland, Martyn’s father was Scottish and he spent his formative years in Glasgow, where he learned his trade from Hamish Imlach, one of the godfathers of Scottish folk. Possessed of a unique voice and a distinctive guitar style, he created in 1973 one of the most critically lauded albums of all time, Solid Air, which combined folk, jazz and blues in ways never heard before. But it did not stop there. 1977’s One World practically invented trip-hop (a brave move when punk was in the ascendency) and Grace and Danger from 1980 is one of the most beautiful, brutal break-up albums you are ever likely to hear (despite having Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals.
12. The Vaselines
Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly’s lubed-up lo-fi indie was something of a late arrival on the Edinburgh scene, but they made up for it with two EPs and one incredible album – Dum-Dum – between 1987 and 1989. They called it a day soon after, but got back together on various occasions, releasing Sex with an X, their second LP, for Sub Pop in 2011. It was like they had never been away. Musically, they represent the missing link between the Velvets and the Moldy Peaches, but they’re more likely to be remembered as the band Nirvana covered (their own cover of Nirvana’s Lithium is a class above the original, in my opinion). They’re not everyone’s cup of tea. I once played the fantastic You Think You’re A Man with my dad in the room, and he seriously thought they were a joke band, conceived with the intention of discovering how bad music can get. But with the knowledge that my dad’s favourite bands are Ten Years After and Paramore, you realise that that is something of a compliment.
11. The Beta Band
To this day, the Beta Band’s reputation rests heavily, if not solely, on the three early EPs they released in the late nineties (collated as The Three EPs in 1998). Created at a time of upheaval – founder member Gordon Anderson had to leave the band due to ill health – the EPs showcased some of the most exciting, eclectic and groundbreaking new music to emerge from the UK for a decade. As if Britpop had never happened, they concentrated on lengthy, dubby, loopy folk jams with an emphasis on electronic playfulness. The eagerly awaited debut LP followed quickly – perhaps too quickly – and was immediately panned, not just by critics but by the band themselves, who practically disowned the record which, although bursting with ideas, lacked direction and cohesion. They never quite recovered, despite one or two mind-bogglingly good singles. Second album Hot Shots II was well-received but lacked the experimental joie de vivre of the early stuff, and three years later Heroes To Zeroes summed up in its title how this self-deprecating bunch felt about their career trajectory. But for a while, in those early days, they were the future of British music.