TO say, as many have, that this year’s SAY Award shortlist was the best in the award’s five-year history, is no small beer. From bringing the vulnerable beauty of 2015 winner Kathryn Joseph to a wider audience to recognising true one-offs such as Young Fathers (2014) and Anna Meredith (2016), the shortlist has been pretty reliable in reflecting the cream of Scottish contemporary music.

But from the blissful electronica of Konx-om-Pax's Caramel to the kick-ass sass of Honeyblood's Babes Never Die, these ten albums are of such a standard the judges had a considerable task in choosing Sacred Paws's Strike A Match as the winner at last week's ceremony in Paisley.

“I thought I didn't like Scottish music,” remarked a doom-metal-loving associate with a semi-ironic grin, “and even I think it's a great list.”

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The shortlist may not feature doom metal but that'll come with time. Enthusing about the high-sheen liveliness of Vukovi's debut album – one of the twenty albums on the SAY Award's longlist – a veteran musician friend gave special commendation to the record's production team. For too long, he said, A&R teams from outside the country had a particular idea about what music from Scotland should sound like. Sometimes people believed them, too.

“People would find my music online and they would call me up,” said Alistair Merrick, the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter of sixpeopleaway. “When they found out I was a guy in his room in Falkirk and not a punk band from an American city, they lost interest.”

“It was like Scottish music had to sound a particular way, kind of a bit drunk and sorry for itself. That's why I was delighted to hear the Vukovi record; it was great that they had the confidence to say: 'These are big tunes, let's make them sound big and clear.'”

The pull of the award seems to be creating a virtuous cycle. No artist worth their salt is inspired to create for the odd moment of gong-waving glory but most – like Sacred Paws - will tell you that recognition matters. The Award, with a remit to strengthen the industry here in Scotland as well as acting as an international champion, tells artists that they matter, that what they do isn't some luxurious added extra but part of a cultural life which offers considerable benefits.

Earlier this year, David Byrne – once a guy (okay, toddler) in his room in Dumbarton – responded to Trump's plan to eliminate $741 million federal funding for the public arts by citing a recent study which found the sector generated $135.2 billion for the national economy, an incredible return on investment. Aside from those bottom-line benefits, Byrne told the crowd at New York's City Hall, studies have also shown a quantitative relationship between cultural resources and lower incidences of ill health, crime and low educational attainment, especially in less wealthy areas.

In its fifth anniversary year, the SAY Award has certainly come of age. In a time of continued austerity, where the sword has often fallen heavily on the arts, we think that's a reason to celebrate and value it.

We thought it worthwhile to revisit those nine other shortlisters, many of which were featured in The National over the year.

C Duncan: The Midnight Sun (FatCat Records)
The follow-up to 2015’s Mercury and SAY Award-nominated Architect, The Midnight Sun sees the heavenly-voiced Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate embrace a more electronic direction. Thematically inspired by early 1960s sci-fi series The Twilight Zone and largely conceived in the hours of darkness, it’s just as meticulous as its predecessor, and richer still.

We said: “There in the title track, and beneath the nocturnal lull of Jupiter or the fuggy fantasia of Like You Do there’s an ominous undertow.”

Read our interview with C Duncan at bit.ly/CduncanMidnight

c-duncan.co.uk

Ela Orleans: Circles of Upper And Lower Hell (Night School Records)

The National:
The seventh album by the Polish-born composer and multi-instrumentalist under her own name (Ela Orleans, above) is a grand, two-disc opus out on Glasgow’s Night School Records. A strong contender for the prize, it’s a weighty, mournful and hugely captivating album loosely based on Dante’s Inferno.

Read our recent feature with Night School Records’ master Michael Kasparis on working with Ela Orleans at bit.ly/NightSchoolMK

Hear Ela Orleans’s recentl playlist for The National’s magazine partners Bella Caledonia at bit.ly/ElaBellaPlaylist

elaorleans.com

Honeyblood: Babes Never Die (Fat Cat Records)

The National:
Cat Myers and Stina Tweedale (l-r, above) excel on second album, a twirled candy cane of raw riffs and feral pop. The cover image of the album features one of the girl gang to capture the pair in the video to the spark-flying lead single Ready For The Magic.

We said: “It’s the perfect image for Babes Never Die, a phrase which Tweedale has tattooed on her ribs; a war cry of sorts and a statement of resilience and belief.”

Read our interview with Tweedale at bit.ly/HoneybloodBabes honeyblood.co.uk

Konx-om-Pax: Caramel (Planet Mu)
Four years in the making, the second album by Konx-om-Pax, the Aleister Crowley-influenced handle animator and graphic designer Tom Scholefield makes his electronica under, is a joyful love letter of sorts to the rave era he only experienced as a child. Scotland-born, Berlin-based Scholefield told one interviewer making Caramel was “almost a therapy ... an attempt to be aggressively positive.”

Listen at soundcloud.com/konx-om-pax

Meursault: I Will Kill Again (Song, By Toad)
One of two outfits on Matthew Young’s Song, By Toad label to feature in the closing stages of the SAY Award (the other being longlisters Modern Studies), Meursault is helmed by songwriter Neil Pennycook. Dispensing with the bluster of some previous work, it shows a musician learning to embrace his idiosyncracies, and is his strongest release so far.

We said: “I Will Kill Again is an elegant, restrained collection, it’s sorrows and joys kept in check by sparse instrumentation and a wry, sometimes pointed sense of humour.”

Read our interview with Pennycook at bit.ly/MeursaultNeil www.iammeursault.com

Mogwai: Atomic (Rock Action Records)
Just as Mark Cousins’ documentary on the nuclear age shows the obscene misuse of atomic science in warfare, the film, to which Atomic is the reworked soundtrack, also reminds us of its modern miracles, such as the MRI scanner. And throughout their two decades, you’d be hard pressed to find a band who could better express the doomy awe of a mushroom cloud or the glimpses of hope found in the worst of horrors. Every Country’s Sun, their first album since 2014’s Rave Tapes, is due out on September 1, followed by a tour which will see the titans supported by SAY Award winners and lablemates Sacred Paws.

Mogwai and Sacred Paws play the SSE Hydro, Glasgow on December 16.
www.mogwai.co.uk

Pictish Trail: Future Echoes (Lost Map Records)

The National:
Winner of the public vote to be on the shortlist, Future Echoes came to fruition after a challenging time for Pictish Trail aka Johnny Lynch, the Eigg-based musician, Lost Map Records labelmaster and curator of the Howlin’ Fling festival. Described by Lynch (above) in our recent magazine as “a pop album dealing with closure, and finding hope” anyone who’s ever lost a loved one can take comfort from it, and there’s dancing too.

We said: “Clean and direct, with Lynch’s enigmatic vocals up front and centre, its light-touch grooves and catchy hooks belie a lyrical focus on the looping cycle of loss and new beginnings.”

Read our full feature at bit.ly/PictishNational
Lost Map’s Howlin’ Fling takes place over the weekend of July 28 and 29, Isle of Eigg, sold out.
Pictish Trail plays Edinburgh’s Summerhall on August 24.

Lostmap.com​

Rachel Newton: Here’s My Heart Come Take It (Shadowside)
In demand on the folk circuit for her haunted voice and elegant harp playing, Newton’s knack for recasting antique ballads from the Gaelic and English language traditions has seen her earn praise for her three solo albums to date. This, the most recent, firmly establishes her as gifted translator whose work retains the strange pull of her choices.

Rachel Newton plays as part of The Shee at Mull of Kintyre Festival on August 19.
Tickets: www.mokfest.com

www.rachelnewtonmusic.com

RM Hubbert: Telling The Trees (Chemikal Underground Records)
Guitarist RM Hubbert won the SAY Award in 2013 with Thirteen Lost & Found, a collaborative record which saw the much-liked musician mostly work with friends. For this album, collaborators less familiar to him were chosen and given free reign. The results are unexpected, fizz with emotion and texture, and are often highly accessible too.

Hubby plays a co-headline show with Emma Pollock as part of Paisley Spree on Sunday 15 October, 7.30pm, £14, £12 concs. Tickets from bit.ly/EmmaHubby

rmhubbert.com

Sacred Paws: Strike A Match (Rock Action Records)
The deserved winner of the SAY Award, the Afro-pop inspired debut by guitarist Rachel Aggs and drummer Eilidh Rodgers bounces with an energy and resilience that’s almost political given some of the subject matter. Though living in Glasgow and London respectively, their vocal interplay and tight dynamics show them to be a blissful musical match.

'You have to make your own way in music': read our full interview with Rachel and Eilidh on forming Sacred Paws, finding confidence in music and the significance of a mid-1990s Tom Hanks movie.

Strike A Match is out now on Rock Action Records.
Sacred Paws and Ride support Mogwai at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow on December 16, 6.30pm, £36.90 plus booking fee.
www.facebook.com/sacredpawsband