At some point during the reign of Malcolm III (1058-1093), it is believed that the ritual slaughter of animals to ensure there was enough meat for winter was moved to November 30th and earmarked as a celebration in honour of the patron Saint Andrew. However, today we will be celebrating tunes not chops by looking at the best alternative music that Scotland has to offer.
Tom Waits once said that “a gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.” Seeing as though many would say the same for the howl and screech of bagpipes, we have stuck to the kaleidoscopic alternative world that Scotland has offered up over the years.
From the ethereal tones of the timeless Cocteau Twins to the dancefloor flooding gems of Primal Scream we have curated an all-encompassing snapshot of one of the most artistic regions that the world has to offer. What’s more, we have even wrapped the whole smorgasbord up in a tasty playlist at the bottom of the piece.
The ten best Scottish bands of all time:
Mogwai are one of the most influential rock bands of the last 30 years. Formed by Stuart Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch in 1995, their career has gone from strength to strength.
Post-rock masters, who blend their work with space rock and electronica, they took the baton from the likes of Sonic Youth and MBV and have had a huge impact on 21st-century guitar music, including Bloc Party. The 21st Century post-rock boom is in part thanks to the efforts of Mogwai.
The definitive Scottish punk band, not only are Skids are massive band within the context of Scottish music, but in alternative music as a whole. Formed in Dunfermline in 1977, they were the first act that showcased the brilliance of the late songwriter and guitar hero, Stuart Adamson, who went on to form Big Country.
A huge influence on U2, Green Day and The Manic Street Preachers, without the massive impact of Skids, music would look very different. They fused punk with the anthemic and were way ahead of any punk band south of the border.
A cornerstone of the Glasgow scene, The Pastels are credited with giving Scottish rock the confidence to flourish, independent of major label backing. Another C86 staple, The Pastel’s blend of jangle-pop with post-punk, can be heard vicariously in almost every indie band today, including The 1975.
Yo La Tengo, Primal Scream and even Kurt Cobain cited them as heroes, and it says it all. They’re so legendary that in 2015, celebrated Danish beer company Mikkeller made a beer honouring their career entitled ‘Pastelism’.
Alt/power-pop heroes, Teenage Fanclub have a penchant for penning an anthem that has endeared them to fans since they first broke onto the scene in the early ’90s. Emerging from the Glasgow chapter of the hallowed C86 scene, Teenage Fanclub soundtracked Scottish existence in the ’90s, and their Eagles style set up has made them one of the most consistently surprising bands Scotland has to offer, with everyone chipping in for songwriting.
In many ways, a Scottish alternative to Oasis, Teenage Fanclub’s music is some of the most stirring Britain has ever produced. They offer up an anthemic sound that colours working-class life with the sort of wry smile for which Britain is known.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
Perhaps the most influential Scottish band of all time, The Jesus and Mary Chain, are indie royalty and were the vanguard of the scene when it first exploded in the mid-’80s. With a sullen vibe, they brought The Velvet Underground back for good.
Formed by songwriting partners and brothers William and Jim Reid, The Jesus and Mary Chain have influenced almost everybody with something interesting to say in the creative fields. Who can forget that iconic scene at the end of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation when the reverb-drenched toms of ‘Just Like Honey’ come crashing in?
With ‘The First Big Weekend’, Arab Strap concocted a track that seemed akin to a lovechild of Mark Corrigan and Dee Dee from Limmy Show on a post-work bender. This sort of narrative appeal is something that runs throughout their work. In the process, they craft raw literary music that seems quintessentially Scottish.
It is the sort of music that leaves a horrible taste if it is delivered without sincerity in some sort of faux ‘grim up north’ pretend realism, but fortunately, Arab Strap forgo this in favour of something natural.
Boards of Canada
There are many folks out there who will have a long-held understanding that Boards of Canada were naturally Canadian shattered by their inclusion on this list. Aside from the red herring of their name, the band are an outfit that usually aims to avoid surprises opting instead to conjure the sort of unspooling rhythmic tranquillity that Graham Coxon was referring to when he told us: “I like the idea of music being contemplative and very rhythmic, to serve as a vehicle to a sort of trance.”
Boards of Canada are a kindly band, the sort that have completely forgone the notion of air time on the radio in favour of serving up a benevolent musical brew to quench the thirst of those in search of something a little more spiritual. However, far from being bland, their sound offers a serving of sonic exploration that is content with not being showy and unlocking things all the same.
The timeless bopping appeal of Orange Juice is best summed up by mega-fan Bob Mortimer who sums up his view of mortality by how many listens he has of the banality-eviscerating boon that is Rip It Up left. He even recalled the first night he witnessed them, telling the Evening Express: “One night, we went to see an up-and-coming indie band called Orange Juice. They didn’t arrive on stage until well after midnight and most of the punters had left, but (his student friend) Ben and I stuck it out and we were treated to perhaps the best gig that I have ever seen.”
He continued: “Music comes and goes, shines and fades as you get older. But the Orange Juice album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever has never left me or faded from my view. It has been a regular, uplifting companion for almost 40 years.” A lot of fans would agree. New wave has occasionally seemed kitsch after the fact, but there is enough sincerity to the energetic buzz of Orange Juice that the dust has never settled.
The Cocteau Twins are one of the most enigmatic acts in music. For a start, the uninitiated would never guess that they were from a small town in Scotland. That being said, their sui generis style is one that makes them hard to pin down in any sense, let alone geographically, but the dreaminess of the French Riviera would sooner spring to mind than hilly industrialism of Grangemouth.
Prince once remarked: “You can’t understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs, but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state.” With ‘Essence’ that dream sounds like the product of a thousand year’s worth of sleep, and dredges depths beyond comprehension that prompted Iain Banks to write: “The music machine played away – far away – and when I started to understand the lyrics of a Cocteau Twins song, I knew I was wrecked.”
Emerging from the murky shadow of the almost American-esque sedated sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain, came the drummer Bobby Gillespie in search of something a little more thumping. With Primal Scream he coloured his shoegaze roots with the upbeat fusion coming out of the Madchester explosion and curated something that he could proudly call his own.
Above all else, Primal Scream are a band who have the tunes. From the rattling dancefloor anthem of ‘Loaded’ to the raucous roadtrip sound of ‘Country Girl’, few bands have to swathe of hits for all occasions that the Scream can offer in their scintillating live sets. And it is this rousing ability that many heroes have commented on, “It was one of the first to set off an explosion in our heads,” Daft Punk’s Guy Manuel said of Screamadelica’s influence to Melody Maker. Meanwhile, Mark Ronson noted: “‘Loaded’ is one of those ‘change your life’ type songs…It made me start listening to guitar music because Screamadelica proved that so-called indie bands were capable of so much more.”