2016 SAY Awards: The joy of judging new music

Chvrches

Chvrches

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While mourning the loss of some worthy contenders, Fiona Shepherd marvels at a SAY shortlist where the winner – veteran or newcomer – is too close to call

The runners and riders in contention for the fifth annual Scottish Album of the Year Award were announced on Thursday evening and, yet again, it’s a shortlist to take heart in. No ten albums can really sum up a year in Scottish music but if you want a taste of where things stand in contemporary composition, electro pop, folk balladry, indie inventiveness and club culture, the 2016 SAY shortlist is an incisive primer.

C Duncan

C Duncan

Inevitably, in halving the contenders from the original batch of 20 nominated albums, the list loses some of its diversity and we must bid a tearful farewell to classical ensemble the Dunedin Consort, indie dance veterans Primal Scream, former shortlisters Admiral Fallow, Django Django and Hector Bizerk, previously longlisted Miaoux Miaoux, international DJ of mystery Hudson Mohawke, Hebridean composer Iain Morrison and the sweet strains of Jarlath Henderson and Rachel Sermanni, while celebrating the rich selection of albums going forward, the majority released on independent labels, many of which are based around Scotland.

FFS are worthy winners of the public vote for a place in the top ten, and perhaps not a surprising choice, given the sheer joy dispensed by this collaboration between Glasgow’s sharp pop operators Franz Ferdinand and their musical godfathers Sparks. Their self-titled album was a gloriously catchy meeting of art pop minds – irreverent, energetic and suitably eccentric. Panel and public have yet to converge on the SAY Award, the erroneous thinking being that the well-known acts who generally scoop the public vote don’t need the exposure or money that goes with winning. The question being asked of the judges, however, is which of the ten albums is the best of the year.

One can imagine that Chvrches ran FFS close in the audience poll, being one of the most successful Scottish musical exports of recent years. The synth pop trio were nominated two years ago for their debut The Bones Of What You Believe. Follow-up Every Open Eye is bolder and better, a brazen pop album of big tunes delivered lightly but burrowing deep.

Young Fathers are the other big hitters, being previous winners of not just the SAY Award but also the UK-wide Mercury Music Prize. The Edinburgh trio were also nominated last year for their full-length debut Dead, and are included here for its equally audacious follow-up White Men Are Black Men Too, an intoxicating potion of soul, electronica, pop and hip-hop which has found them avid fans in Massive Attack. Why do they keep turning up on these award lists? Because they are peerless.

Young Fathers. Picture: John Devlin

Young Fathers. Picture: John Devlin

Other folk bands may be available, but Lau are often the chosen ones, lauded for their progressive, sometimes electronica-enhanced blend of guitar, fiddle, accordion and Kris Drever’s dolorous voice. The Bell That Never Rang is six songs strong but dominated by the epic title track, featuring the Elysian Quartet on strings, which was commissioned by Celtic Connections to celebrate the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason is also no stranger to the SAY Awards, having lost out to Young Fathers with his brilliant Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time. Follow-up Meet The Humans is less ambitious as a collection but revisits some of Mason’s personal and political themes, wrapped up in gorgeous, hypnotic pastoral indie finery.

Like Mason, Emma Pollock has been an influential figure in Scottish music for the past 20 years. Her latest solo album, In Search Of Harperfield, feels pretty special, being both musically intelligent and lyrically moving. Even without having the slightest clue about the tastes of the judging panel nor the progress of their opinions – and that unpredictability is one of the beauties of the award – Pollock still feels like a strong contender to take the top prize.

One of the other beauties of SAY – and I’m speaking as a former judge – is the opportunity it affords to new artists. Admittedly, your album needs to have been heard and loved by a sufficient number of SAY’s 100 nominators, drawn from all walks of Scottish musical life, to make the longlist of 20 albums, but once there it has as much chance of recognition as the more established names, as the joy in judging is being introduced to music you would not otherwise have been exposed to.

Auntie Flo

Auntie Flo

This is good news for the handful of debutantes on the shortlist. DJ/producer Graeme Clark actually has considerable form behind him, including making the SAY longlist previously as one half of duo 6th Borough Project. Love That Will Not Die is, however, his debut as The Revenge and is a thoroughly tasty dish of deep house grooves, with a dash of Donna Summer sultriness courtesy of a guest appearance by disco legends Sister Sledge.

Glasgow-bred, London-based producer Auntie Flo is cut from similar cloth, and has already received SAY recognition for his mini-album, Future Rhythm Machine. Theory Of Flo expands on its heady mix of house music and Afro-Latin influences, with guest vocals from Ghanaian singer Anbulay and Noisettes frontwoman Shingai Shoniwa.

C Duncan’s ravishing Architect arrived fully formed last summer, and received deserved exposure as a Mercury Music Prize nominee a matter of months later. Not bad for a £50 home recording by a completely unknown artist. Duncan is classically trained but his ecstatic devotional hymns owe more to the symphonic pop of The Beach Boys or Belle and Sebastian and the choral folk of Fleet Foxes.

Fellow composer Anna Meredith also moves gracefully between musical worlds. Her background is in contemporary classical – she is a former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – but she brings her skills to bear on the playful world of electronica for her debut album. Varmints is so called because she couldn’t shake off these elemental tunes. It’s definitely a collection to get under the skin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Meredith and Duncan were the last two standing this year, duking it out over their analogue armoury. But then, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was surprised.

SAY ALBUM SHORTLIST

Auntie Flo, Theory Of Flo

C Duncan, Architect

Chvrches, Every Open Eye

FFS, FFS (public vote winner)

Lau, The Bell That Never Rang

Steve Mason, Meet The Humans

Anna Meredith, Varmints

Emma Pollock, In Search Of Harperfield

The Revenge, Love That Will Not Die

Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too

• The SAY Award ceremony takes place at Paisley Town Hall on 29 June

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