SAY Award Shortlist 2020

So we’ve reached the shortlist stage of the Scottish Album of the Year Award, and it’s pretty clear that the judges are favouring newer artists. That’s fine by me. While the range of genres is narrower than past years – no folk or jazz – this shortlist does feel of the moment. Of the ten albums chosen, seven are debuts, and the other three are by artists shortlisted for the first time. Previous winners Anna Meredith and Sacred Paws were longlisted, but miss out on the top ten. No doubt there will be some tabloid grousing about Lewis Capaldi being snubbed, but with his clutch of Brit Awards and a Grammy, the Whitburn warbler is doing just fine. Many would have expected Capaldi to win the public vote, but that’s gone to Callum Easter, whose woozy psychedelia and bluesy confessionals offer a warm hug amidst the pandemic.

In the latest episode of The Braw and The Brave podcast, SAY campaign manager Hilary Goodfellow offers an insight into the origins, ethos and workings of the award, and discusses how it’s adapted to the global pandemic. It’s well worth a listen. For Goodfellow, the award is very much about celebrating and supporting the arts, something she feels is more important than ever. SAY is no substitute for proper infrastructural funding or direct support for artists, but it does bring a welcome boost in terms of publicity and finance, albeit to a select few. A number of musicians I’ve spoken to dislike what the see as the beauty contest aspect of SAY. Music shouldn’t be a competition, after all. But if we are going to have awards, then it’s worth asking how they could offer greater support to artists, labels and venues the year round, whether it’s through commissioning projects or sponsoring events.

But on to the shortlisted albums. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll know that I’m rather fond of Comfort’s Not Passing. Given the duo’s urgent vocals and wild electronics, comparisons will be made to industrial music, but their main inspiration is hip-hop, as became clear when they supported the brilliant underground rap duo Armand Hammer in Glasgow last year: “Yo Comfort, we want to sample your shit!” proclaimed Elucid, clearly recognising the value of the band’s freaky sonics and righteous lyricism. Comfort may well be too raw to take the top prize, but for them to win would be a boon for Scotland’s experimental underground and a necessary corrective to the transphobia that has infected parts of Scottish culture and society.

As Nova, aka Shaheeda Sinckler, told Bella’s Arusa Qureshi, being long listed for SAY gives her “a little bit of imposter syndrome”. “I don’t really feel like I represent that whole pocket of music in Scotland,” she says, “I feel like there should be maybe at least one other artist.” She’s right of course, but Re-Up is a great showcase for the Scottish hip-hop scene, with Sinckler spitting over grime, trap and lo-fi hip-hop tracks produced by local producers including Kami-o and Lucky Me affiliate Inkke. She’d be a deserving winner, but whatever the outcome, Sinckler is clearly has a bright future ahead of her. Her lockdown single ‘Status Quo’ takes aim at the global political impasse via melodic rapping, while her next project is a collaboration with $1000 Wallet, producer of Re-Up standout ’30 Mins’.

Bossy Love might be seen as a little too pop for SAY, but Me & U has plenty of character. Amandah Wilkinson and John Bailie Jr put some neat twists on pop and r ’n b trends, from the lo-fi guitar intro of ‘Muscle’ to the wobbly synths of ‘Girlfriend’. Wilkinson’s vocals bring an emotional charge, while her duet with Babe’s Gerard Black on ‘Foreign Lover’ is a gleeful nod to 80s synth pop.

Erland Cooper’s Sule Skerry occupies a space between contemporary classical, post-rock and electronica. It’ll do well with fans of Max Richter, as well as the directors of wilderness documentaries, but I find its middlebrow mistiness a total snooze. Declan Welsh and the Decadent West have a knack for witty videos, but their music is standard issue post-Arctic Monkeys indie, with lumpen grooves and the occasional burst of Pixies-like clamour. According to the SAY website, The Ninth Wave’s “electrifying sonic style… can’t fully be likened to anyone who’s come before”. The problem is, it can. While there’s a contemporary sheen to the production, the group’s bombastic take on ‘80s goth struggles to reach beyond pastiche. When the likes of Leeds’ Guttersnipe are pushing guitar music into strange new territory, this kind of shiny retromania just isn’t good enough. Blanck Mass’s Animated Violence Mild is equally grandiose, with elements of Benjamin John Power’s recent soundtrack work coming through in the dramatic hooks and intricate sound design, but by drawing on techno, hip-hop and noise, it’s bracingly contemporary.

With Callum Easter winning the popular vote, the coast is clear for Cloth and SHHE to lead the indie field. While both sound quite different, there’s a spare and dreamy quality to their music that slots neatly into the alternative mainstream of Pitchfork and BBC 6 Music. With their breathy vocals and taut guitar and drum rhythms, Cloth bear a resemblance to 2010 Mercury Prize winners The XX, but the sonic palette is wider. Rachael and Paul Swinton’s guitars can recall Mogwai at their most delicate – more surprising is their penchant for chiming natural harmonics, a technique borrowed from jazz fusion legend Jaco Pastorious. SHHE aka Su Shaw leans more towards electronics – she’s just dropped a remix project featuring the likes of Tommy Perman and Alva Noto – but her songwriting will appeal to fans of 2015 SAY Winner Kathryn Joseph. The relative lack of big names means this year’s SAY Award feels wide open. The smart money is on Cloth or SHHE, but the judges may surprise us yet with a left field choice like Nova or Comfort. Keep Scotland weird!

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  1. kb says:

    Really enjoyed this article. I had not even heard of any of the musicians before (apart from Lewis Capaldi) so was a good intro to new music for my ears. Loved some of it, loathed other tracks, but that’s what it’s all about! Thanks.

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