Scottish Album of the Year Awards - Front runners

Mogwai have acquired new admirers with their entry into the Scottish album of the year. Picture: Getty
Mogwai have acquired new admirers with their entry into the Scottish album of the year. Picture: Getty
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THIS year’s SAY could be won by any of the nominees, says Fiona Shepherd

MUSIC’S not a competition, yeah, and award ceremonies aren’t very rock’n’roll. right? But I love me a bit of the Scottish Album of the Year Awards. This year’s winner will be crowned – ie handed a cheque for £20,000 and required to make a brief, bumbling speech – on Thursday, and the winning album piped through the Barrowland PA. If Boards of Canada are the victors, that’s going to make for a very mellow conclusion to festivities.

But unlike the Mercury Music Prize – now such a recognised industry brand that bookies can accurately predict the winner before any shortlist has even been announced (see Alt-J, 2012) – the SAY Award in its third year could be anyone’s game. From previous experience on the judging panel, I can confirm that it is all about the music and that the result will be entirely dependent on the tastes and passions of the ten individuals who are judging this year’s contenders.

Given that all the classical, folk and jazz nominations dropped off the list after the first round of voting, it is all the more impressive that the 2014 shortlist is still such a diverse affair, encompassing hip-hop to indie pop to epic rock, via ambient electronica and flamenco-inspired guitar, produced by debutantes and hardened veterans alike. The runners and riders are as follows:

Biffy Clyro: Opposites (14th Floor)

The people’s choice. To no one’s great surprise, Biffy gained their place on the shortlist via the public vote, reflecting their status as Scotland’s biggest and most passionately championed rock band. Opposites is a suitably ambitious double album from the Ayrshire trio, its two discs ostensibly representing the dark and the light of Simon Neil’s lyrics, many of which are concerned with working through strains in relationships, not least within the band.

Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)

Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin stoked anticipation for their first ambient opus in seven years with a cryptic ad campaign, then practically crashed the internet with its live Youtube premiere. Once the dust had settled, Tomorrow’s Harvest emerged as Boards business as usual – a stately hour-long instrumental soundtrack recorded in the relative isolation of their Hexagon Sun studio and influenced by the film scores of John Carpenter and Paul Wicker Man Giovanni.

Chvrches: The Bones Of What You Believe (Virgin)

From the delighted welcome given to Chvrches’ debut, you might think that no one had ever heard an electro pop album before – though certainly, it was virgin territory for the three band members, who all hailed from an indie and alternative rock background. The combination of their direct poppy tunes, bright 80s-influenced synth arrangements and Lauren Mayberry’s girlish vocal proved a big hit at home and especially in the US where they have done a power of touring.

Edwyn Collins: Understated (AED)

Despite its title, Understated tackles head-on the effects of the stroke which nearly ended Edwyn Collins’ life in 2005. His conclusion? Take pleasure in the simple things and look on the bright side while acknowledging life’s challenges. Longtime fans of the former Orange Juice frontman will feel instantly at home with his marvellous melodies and sassy, freewheeling arrangements. A (northern) soulful life manual which brims with vitality.

Hector Bizerk: Nobody Seen Nothing (self-released)

The second album by Glaswegian hip-hop band Hector Bizerk benefits from the addition of a keyboard player and bassist to their line-up, but the focus is still on Audrey Tait’s taut drumming and rapper Louie Bhoy’s eloquent precision lyrics addressing a range of social ills, calling ignorance and intolerance to account and allowing for chinks of wit to shine through his targeted flow.

Mogwai: Les Revenants (Rock Action)

Mogwai’s maturation continues apace with this absorbing soundtrack to the French television series Les Revenants (The Returned) which brilliantly captured the unsettling atmosphere of the show and the eerie beauty of its Alpine setting. Crucially, though, the music is just as affecting without the visuals. Some of their hardcore fans may mourn the absence of their patented quiet/loud aesthetic but new admirers have queued up to praise this accomplished work.

RM Hubbert: Breaks & Bone (Chemikal Underground)

Hubbert scooped last year’s SAY Award for Thirteen Lost & Found. Its follow-up Breaks & Bone – the last of his self-styled Ampersand Trilogy – is a similarly downbeat distillation of his dexterous guitar picking and dark lyrical matter but this time the vocals, when applied, are all his own on a number of candid and cathartic songs about his struggle with depression and the loss of both his parents.

Steve Mason: Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time (Double Six)

Much was made of the political nature of this second Steve Mason album at the time of its release, inspired as it was by Mason’s proximity to the London riots of 2011 and his need to speak up in the absence of comment or engagement from his musical peers. But Monkey Minds mainly wrestles with personal politics and human development, weaving brief instrumental or spoken word interludes around nine songs to create a cohesive yet diverse suite of music, crowned with Mason’s careworn voice.

The Pastels: Slow Summits (Domino)

You wait sixteen years for a new Pastels album…and then they release one with no great fanfare. You could never accuse these Glasgow indie legends of vaulting ambition. Slow Summits wears its lengthy gestation lightly, creating an airy summery soundtrack with flute, trumpet, strings and percussion, recalling the wistful levity of 60s kitchen sink film soundtracks and the work of a certain Bill Wells, who won the inaugural SAY Award with Aidan Moffat two years ago.

Young Fathers: Tape Two (Anticon)

Phase two of Young Fathers’ glorious comeback came hot on the heels of, naturally, Tape One. The teenage Edinburgh hip-hop trio, touted on their formation by the likes of NME and BBC Introducing, are now all grown up and chastened by a couple of years of false starts and frustrated ambitions. Their claustrophobic feelings spill out on Tape Two in the shape of spare, soulful ballads and percussive jams; often, all they need is a voice and a beat to create shivers.