Jul 8, 2014

The Heretic by Lucas Bale

I've been a long time reader of the excellent outdoor blog by Andrew Mazibrada, The Journeyman Traveller. Over the last year or so Andrew has transitioned into professional writing and, under the pen name Lucas Bale, on Monday 7th July he launched his debut science fiction novel, The Heretic. As a subscriber to his mailing list I received a copy of the book a couple of weeks in advance of the official launch and really enjoyed reading it, tearing through the book in just a few days. I've subsequently purchased the book (the introductory price is just 99p on Amazon for the Kindle edition) and added my review, reprinted here.

Lucas Bale's debut novel is a pacy sci-fi thriller set on a quiet outer rim planet in a grim future where humanity has been decimated and the remaining scattered few are controlled by the powerful Magistratus. The arrival of a freighter with a cargo of smuggled medicine starts off a chain of events that seems destined to re-kindle humanity's belief in an old idea - that of freedom.

Anyone familiar with Joss Whedon's brilliant 'Firefly' will recognise several of the elements at play here - the freighter pilot with a penchant for illicit cargo and his own skewed moral compass, an ageing freighter that is a character in itself, a Preacher figure with a less than devout past, outer planets with local leaders a law unto themselves. Far from being derivative though, Bale weaves these elements into his own rich world and delivers a fast paced story set against a much more grandiose mythology of his own devising, rooted in some of the problems we face today. The Beyond The Wall series promises to tell this story in full.

The Heretic is beautifully written, the winter-gripped planet of Herse coming to life in a beautiful, often brutal way. His characters are fully realised, drawing us into their struggles as they seek to make sense of an existence suddenly upended. Bale builds his world convincingly, with the future technologies believable and without gimmicks, though it is perhaps his naturalistic descriptions of the forests and mountains of Herse where he is at his most atmospheric and best. There is a sense of wonder here, of looking up at the night sky and seeing beyond the stars.

An excellent debut novel - I look forward to more in this series.

I can highly recommend this book, particularly for fans of the genre, and encourage you to try out the first chapter or dive straight in whilst the price is low! All the myriad purchasing options are detailed on the book's official page.

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I'm @nickbramhll on Twitter, @nickbramhall on App.net and +NickBramhall on Google+ if you'd like to get in contact.

Feb 27, 2014

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014

Over the last couple of years I have had several complete misses and, luckily, seen a couple of weaker displays of the Aurora Borealis from north east Scotland. I was still waiting for the true storm event, like those that happened back in 2003 and 2004 during the last solar maximum (which I saw from Durham). Therefore it was with a certain amount of scepticism that I viewed the amber alert from Aurora Watch UK waiting on my phone for me after we came out of the cinema on Thursday evening. After dinner though I had a quick look on Twitter and the place had gone mad with images streaming in from all over the British Isles: from Scotland, north-east England, Northern Ireland and in Wales. Will Gater even posted a shot from just off the M4! We quickly got ready and were heading west, hopeful of seeing something given all the positive sightings.

Usually out beyond the final houses of the village of Echt the sky noticeably darkens, the car head beams pushing outward against a deeper, truer sort of darkness than the orangey skies closer to Aberdeen. But on Thursday night something was different: the sky wasn't darker, it was brighter. As our eyes grew accustomed to it we could see the whole western and northwestern sky shimmering with an ethereal light. There was a yelp of delight as a red beam sprang up directly above us through the trees. It was hard to keep even one eye on the road as we wound slowly up the hill past Midmar kirk pulling into the parking spot at the crest with a rush of tyres on gravel. We almost fell out of the car in our excitement, laughing with delight at the incredible sight that greeted us.

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014

The sky was incredible. To the west a broad red ray rose into the sky whilst to the north curtains of greens and yellows punctuated by diagonal streaks shimmered in an ever-changing pattern. In the north east more rays rose into a hazy red.

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

At one point a meteor streaked westward behind the bands of light. The whole experience was magical and we watched in awe as pulses of light raced silently overhead. In the north a more uniform green arc appeared and through it came ripples and waves as energy filled the sky above us.

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

Aurora Borealis, 27th February 2014, Aberdeenshire

By 11pm the display had faded in brightness, though the occassional ray still appeared in the northern sky. We reluctantly called it a night, driving back to the city with the hazy green arc in the north a reminder of the spectacle we had been lucky enough to witness.

Aurora Borealis I

Aurora Borealis II

All photos taken with a 17-40mm lens at 17mm, f/4 on a Canon 450D, ISO 800, 20 second exposures.

I'm @nickbramhll on Twitter, @nickbramhall on App.net and +NickBramhall on Google+ if you'd like to get in contact.

The Bones Of What You Believe by CHVRCHES

Always, we can sing, we can make time
Old songs, flood and flame, you could be mine
But you got to show me, both knees, skin and bone
Clothe me, throw me, move me

CHVRCHES at The Garage, Aberdeen, April 2013

Early in the year, or perhaps even late last year, I heard a couple of their songs getting radio play and a little bit of exposure on blogs, then saw them at the Garage in Aberdeen in April. Whilst ostensibly a new band, CHVRCHES have Scottish indie credentials stretching back years and though they played one of the shortest headline sets I've ever seen, there was no doubt that every single song was an extraordinary electro-pop gem full of the musical passion felt by each of its contributors. I came home with their 10" Recover EP under my sleeve and played it to death, waiting for the album to come out. It came out, and it was magnificent, and then suddenly they were EVERYWHERE. And watching them live you fall in love all over again. And listening to them whilst walking home from town, all over again. And in the library tapping out this blog post, all over again! This is an album that cannot fail to put a smile on your face.

Visit their website

If You Wait by London Grammar

And all foundation that we made
Built to last, they disintegrate
And when your house begins to rust
Oh it’s just, metal and dust

It's fantastic that 2013 produced a debut album from not just one female-fronted electro trio, but two! And where CHVRCHES is upbeat and rapacious, London Grammar have captured that 2am groove with a series of smouldering tracks set around Hannah Reid's heart-achingly beautiful and other-worldly voice. Definitely the first album I've bought on the Ministry of Sound label, and although they are hip and trendy and of the moment this feels like a timeless album that could, in years to come, stand up against the likes of Portishead. A confident debut that belies the fact they wrote and released their first song together just a year ago.

The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars

You're like a mirror, reflecting me
Takes one to know one, so take it from me

After an acrimonious split that came mid-tour last year we were still treated to new album this year; The Civil Wars certainly live up to their name. With incredible production and songs that smoulder with the lingering tension of a relationship gone south the album better demonstrates the duo's range than their debut Barton Hollow. The vocals are utterly heart-wrenching at times and the musicianship rises to meet the lofty heights that Williams and White reach when they meet each other in the midst of a song like Same Old Same Old. It's a dark, tense album that opens up more with every listen.

Inform - Educate - Entertain by Public Service Broadcasting

Two very small men cutting steps in the roof of the world

An album guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I've capered around the kitchen listening to this whilst cooking food on a Saturday night (waiting for Craig Charles on 6Music, of course). Taking sound clips from old BBC recordings and crafting them into wonderfully fresh, modern sounding songs the album is full of moments of utter delight. You might expect that the concept would become tiresome after a while, but except the slightly stressful sound of Signal30, this is an album that more than holds its own on repeat listens.

Quickbeam by Quickbeam

lover, when you crossed the sea for me, I cried

Quickbeam Poster Outside Peacock Gallery, November 2013

I had the pleasure of hearing Quickbeam for the first time at an open mic night at Cellar 35 in Aberdeen a few summers ago. Via a mutual friend I heard a few of their early performances as they developed from a quiet two piece into a three piece with the introduction of a cellist. Their songs were soft and folksy but even then it was clear that they had a unique sound and talent. After keeping us happy in Aberdeen for a while they headed to Glasgow for bigger and better things, and there they attracted Creative Scotland funding to assist with the recording of their debut album. The band expanded again, adding a drummer to the line up. The album came out on Comets & Cartwheels in June 2013 and has rarely left my listening pile since. The original elements are still there - the atmospheric vocals, the beautifully effective guitar - but the bigger band has brought a more developed and fleshed out sound. Their songcraft is excellent; wonderfully melancholic songs filled with the misty atmosphere of a Scottish glen, and they reach for the atmospheric heights of the best post-rock at moments, bringing welcome moments of noise to complement and contrast the more intimate songs.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

Holy Fire by Foals

It was just a dream,
The most beautiful place I've seen.
The white caps and the pines,
Ripped our nations in the sea.

Far more accessible than their previous albums, Holy Fire is laden with catchy guitar hooks and singalong melodies which contrast nicely with its heavier moments. The edgy math-rock remains in places but the overall intent is directed much more at filling large venues and this was more than evident in their electric performance at Glastonbury during the summer. The songs are brilliant layered creations which build and draw you into an ever expanding aural experience. Astonishingly good whether on the stereo, on headphones or driving through the Highlands in the car.

No Selfish Heart by Rick Redbeard

Through the mask I can see your eyes
There are no tears falling

I could have felt mildly irritated that a side project might be delaying the release of the much anticipated third album from The Phantom Band. However, it's hard to feel in any way aggrieved when their frontman, Rick Redbeard, has put together something so lovely. I bought this on vinyl and its opener, Clocks fades into light out of the soft crackle and pop of the needle traversing the first, quiet grooves. The album is a wave of heartfelt moments and Rick's wavering, fragile voice backed with spartan but atmospheric arrangements. The songs tackle the universal themes of love and heartbreak and fractured relationships. This is perfect music for those long, dark winter nights where the warmth of the analogue recording suffuses everything in a comfortable glow.

Buy it from Chemical Underground

Antiphon by Midlake

Winter came and I was old and alone
Time set’s gone under the mad skirts
Onward further to a land unknown
With only hope of the sea’s ago

It's always been clear that Midlake inhabit a slightly different universe to the rest of us. This was emphasised when singer and songwriter Tim Smith left the band part way through the process of recording the fourth album. Antiphon emerged as a response to the loss of Smith. The album is beautifully produced, taking some of the best folksy aspects of The Courage of Others, whilst dialling back up some of the rockier elements of Van Occupanther and its instrumentation is sublime. Its weakest side is the lyrics. Where Smith's were offbeat and other worldly, these lyrics are just plain strange, and mostly indecipherable. The album does have a number of highlights though including the fabulous melodies on Provider and the thrumming middle eight of Corruption.

The Dark, Dark Bright by There Will Be Fireworks

Their second album, released on Comets & Cartwheels came late in the year but has risen quickly to the top of my listening pile. Whilst I enjoyed the first album I thought it suffered from a slightly drab production that failed to do their sound justice. This has definitely been addressed on the new album and it allows their songcraft to shine. They retain their post-rock stylings but have diversified into more introspective territories. Nevertheless for me it is on pounding tracks like South Street that they really reach their potential and the album soars.

Buy it from Avalanche in Edinburgh and support local music shops!

Until The Colours Run by Lanterns On The Lake

it’s getting hard to breathe round here, to think round here
and we’ve been sold a thousand lies this year
we just want the quiet life
but they won’t stop until they see us in the ground

Lanterns On The Lake, Tunnels, Aberdeen, 2013

A brilliant second album from atmospheric, post-rocky Newcastle band. Not a million miles from their debut but Until The Colours Run manages to be simply better in just about every way. Hazel Wilde now takes charge of vocal duties and the music is warmer, the overall tone a little more melancholy. There are catchy hooks and stunning melody lines, and the lyrics are dark and brooding; songs very much of our time. Seeing them live in November crystallised this new album for me and I've had many happy listens to it since then.

Music in 2013

I'm @nickbramhll on Twitter, @nickbramhall on App.net and +NickBramhall on Google+ if you'd like to get in contact.

Nov 26, 2013

The Hunt for Comet ISON

My alarm went off at 5am and I roused myself from a warm bed. Downstairs the stove had long died out. I pulled on my warm winter layers and, loaded up with a camera, tripod and binoculars, stepped out in to a deep cold night. Over the hill above the cottage shone the Moon and Jupiter whilst a star speckled sky stretched from west to east and north to south. A few faint patches of cloud drifted slowly through high up on a chilling wind but for the most part it was clear.

Comet Lovejoy R1

I headed down to the stony beach by Loch Linnhe and enjoyed the cold views out across the loch to the distant lights of Ballachulish and the dark, skulking shapes of the Glencoe hills. With the binoculars I scanned the sky above me and soon picked out the fuzzy spot of green light that marked Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy’s position close to the constellation of Ursa Major. With the 50mm lens on my camera I took a series of photos that I could later stack and crop to create a pleasing image of this comet which has recently developed a stunning filamentary tail.

Comet Lovejoy R1

It was still too early for a chance of seeing Comet ISON so I headed back to the house and got out the 80mm telescope to have a sweep around the sky, examining a few objects including the Moon, Comet Lovejoy, the Double Cluster and Jupiter.

Stars over Ballachulish

After another brief warm up inside I saw that the bright star Spica in Virgo would soon be above the horizon and so headed back down to the lochside. As dawn approached a little cloud had appeared on the eastern horizon. I scanned the eastern horizon and continued to take photos but unfortunately I fear that the mountains may have been obscuring the potential views of ISON. Although Spica rose and was easily visible I didn’t see Mercury and eventually the approach of the sun washed out all detail in the sky.

Aurora Borealis 30th October 2013

Earlier in the week news came rippling through the astronomy-blogosphere that the sun was cooking up a storm and the debris from a couple of Coronal Mass Ejections were heading for Earth. The first of these impacted on Wednesday night, 30th Octtober 2013, and after enjoying the final night of the 2013 Adventure Film Festival I grabbed some warm clothes and the camera and headed out to Midmar in Aberdeenshire.

Orion and the skies of Winter

On arrival on the hilltop it was breezy but the stars shone out overhead, a sky filled with a thousand pinpoints of light. To the north the distinctive green glow of the Aurora Borealis was clear to see and I soon had the camera set-up, capturing the ethereal light as it flickered and pulsed.

Aurora Borealis 30th October 2013

As it was a schoolnight I didn't stay too long and it was clear from the photos that I only caught the tail end of the main display but still I was pleased to pick up some beams and the hint of some red colouring once I had processed the photos.

Aurora beyond the pines

Another CME was due to hit the next evening (Halloween) but in the end it produced far less activity than the event on the 30th.

Oct 28, 2013

Edinburgh

Sunset over Aberdeen

In the aftermath of a stormy Friday we took off for Edinburgh, arriving late in the evening for drinks in our apartment just off the Royal Mile.

Princes Street Gardens, Autumn

After a delicious breakfast at the Southern Cross cafe we headed down to the National Gallery to catch the minibus out to the Modern Art Museum located a short distance away from the city centre towards Leith.

Staircase in the Dean Gallery

Witches & Wicked Bodies

The Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition was incredible with a fascinating collection of engravings and paintings from the likes of Goya, Durer, Blake and Rego, as well as original copies of famous texts on witches and witch hunting, including Daemonologie by King James VI (later James I of the unified kingdoms).

Gormley outside Modern One

We popped across the road to Modern One where we had soup and scones for lunch followed by a wander through the Louise Bourgeois exhibition and then around the lakes before catching the bus back into the city centre.

Museum of Modern Art

We took in Rodin's The Kiss at the National Gallery as well as some old favourites amongst its excellent collection.

Rodin

We wandered around the Grassmarket and called in briefly at Avalanche records before making our way back to the apartment to prepare for a fabulous meal at Angels with Bagpipes.

Edinburgh Castle from below

Avalanche Records

On Sunday morning after a pancake breakfast we headed along to the National Museum of Scotland. The main attraction on this occasion was the fascinating exhibition on Mary, Queen of Scots, which presented some interesting artefacts and fleshed out a lot of her story for me. After that we wandered around, taking a visit up to the roof terrace for the panoramic views of Old Town and through the natural history area.

Exhibition posters in the National Museum

Edinburgh Old Town Panorama

After a pub lunch on the Royal Mile we headed down the steps to Waverley to catch our train home. It was a pleasant journey home, delayed only slightly by a donkey on the line somewhere in Fife.

Leaving Edinburgh

Oct 10, 2013

Ardnamurchan, Mull and Iona

Loch Earn

The trip started off promisingly, with a pleasant lunch at the teashop at Comrie Croft with views out over the Perthshire hills. The fantastic drive west was broken by a stop in Glencoe and a break for coffee and scones (with lashings of homemade jam) at Crafts and Things in Ballachulish before we headed around to catch the Corran ferry across to Ardgour. The waters of Loch Linnhe were a dark blue-grey whilst the mountains marched away into a distant hazy line. The light was fabulous and photos were taken as we waited for the ferry to cross back to our side.

Loch Linnhe from Corran

Earlier in the year I’d crossed to Ardgour and driven a short way north to start my Cona Glen backpacking trip.This time we turned south and followed the winding coast road as the evening sunlight sparkled off the loch. The weather darkened as we crossed the high ground and then dropped down to Strontian at the end of Loch Sunart. Then it was along the twisty-turny road through ancient oakwoods along to Resipol and our accommodation for the weekend, Rockpool House.

We spent the evening watching the dramatic weather sweep down the loch as well as looking out for Rita, the local otter. Then it was downstairs for an amazing meal of scallop chowder, venison stew and sticky toffee pudding accompanied by wine.

Loch Fyne coming into Lochaline

The Saturday started promisingly with low cloud clearing off the hills beyond Loch Sunart. After a delicious breakfast we made our way across the hills to Lochaline and took the ferry across to Fishnish on the Island of Mull. The light was spectacular as crepuscular rays broke through the clouds to light up the Sound and the hills of Mull. We glided across the water and then made our way across Mull the road snaking its way across the interior between big, cloud-wreathed clouds and with views down lonely glens and across lochs.

Mull

Eventually we wound our way down the Ross of Mull, the sun breaking out from behind the clouds, and it was under blue skies that we arrived at Fhionnport to catch the Iona ferry.

Staffa Ferry at Fionnphort

There was a pleasant bustle around the place but it wasn't too busy. First the ferry to Staffa departed and then the Iona ferry returned from the island to take us the short journey across the strait to the island itself.

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We followed the narrow coast road through the village and then crossed west to the Machair and then down to the pale sands of the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. From here the next significant landfall westward is Canada. We spent time exploring the beach and rockpools and gazing out across the crystal clear waters.

Feathered Sands, Iona

We returned to the east of the island by a different route, dropping back down into the village near the ruins of the nunnery before making our way along to the Abbey, first of all taking time to visit the grave of John Smith, the former Labour party leader.

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The rebuilt abbey is managed by Historic Scotland stands on the same site as the original monastery founded by St Columba in 563. We wandered around the abbey itself and the impressive little museum which houses great carved crosses and samples of illustrated manuscripts. It is believed that the Book of Kells was largely produced on Iona before being taken across to Ireland for safekeeping from Viking raids.

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The weather had closed in and rain fell as we made our way back to the ferry (after tea in a very grumpy little tea room near the abbey) for the crossing back to Mull. The drive back across Mull was accompanied by breaks in the cloud, Highland Cows and cascading light which stayed with us as we crossed back to Lochaline.

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Approaching Lochaline

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Back at Rockpool House the weather truly closed in and as wind and rain swept down from the west we enjoyed another excellent dinner.

Loch Sunart

The next day was the long drive back to Aberdeen. Rather than returning via Corran we drove around the peninusla, crossing through Moidart and then to Glenuig and Lochaline.

Loch Moidart

The Sound of Arisaig

This eventually brought us to Glenfinnan where the rain cleared away and we enjoyed views of Loch Shiel and a wander around the museum before heading out to climb up the Glenfinnan memorial itself.

Glenfinnan Memorial and Loch Shiel

Loch Shiel from the Glenfinnan Memorial

The drive back was pleasant in increasing sunshine. Lunch in Fort William was hot and sunny and then we drove back across via Loch Laggan and Aviemore to arrive back in Aberdeen after a great time on the west coast.

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See more of my photos here and my Dad's photos here.

Jun 24, 2013

Crathes Gardens

Crathes castle and gardens is a favourite haunt of ours. Just a short drive west of Aberdeen it offers a walled gardens, extensive grounds and woodlands to wander through which can easily take up a full day.

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We got there early enough to almost have the gardens to ourselves. In mid-June the gardens are at their luxuriant best with colour everywhere and flowers spilling across paths.

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We wandered the lanes and byways, visited the greenhouses and enjoyed the delightful feeling of the day warming up, the rain drops evaporating from leaves and stems and the world coming alive with bees and butterflies.

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As the gardens got busier we wandered through the castle grounds back to the car for a picnic lunch looking out over fields of rippling wheat.

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We finished off the day with a walk through one of the woodland trails, following it along the course of several burns and then back along the fields to the castle. On a strong breeze clouds raced through a blue skies over green fields. It was the zenith of springtime in Aberdeenshire.

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Apr 10, 2013

Southbound; Easter by Rail

Saltburn Pier

A happy closeness of events meant that our usual journey back down to North Yorkshire was extended to encompass attending one of my friend's wedding near Norwich. We decided to do the whole trip by train.

Saltburn Pier

The morning of Easter Sunday saw us taking a trip down to Saltburn where I flew my kite on the beach, we ate chips, and then we strolled back through the gardens before driving home for an afternoon of Easter egg hunting.

Sculpture Court, V&A

To join the two weekends together we booked a few nights in London, journeying down by train and staying in a Kensington hotel, just down the road from the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I used the first sunny afternoon to make my first visit to the V&A since I saw an exhibition of Leonardo's sketches. I returned to the hotel by way of Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall. The hotel turned out to have a fabulous view to the west where a constant stream of lights showed the approach to Heathrow.

West from the 18th Floor

The next day we took the tube into central London, heading to the Courtauld Gallery to see the small but equisite Picasso exhibition. Then it was across the Thames to the Tate Modern for the impressive Lichtenstein retrospective. We returned to the hotel via St Paul's and a tube ride back across the capital.

Becoming Picasso

Lichtenstein

St Paul's Cathedral with Blossom

With Leslie working I had a day to explore London myself. I chose to visit the Royal Academy, the Science Museum (really enjoying the Turing exhbition including my first sight of an Enigma machine) and then another trip around the V&A.

Enigma Machines at the Science Museum

On the final morning in London we went to the British Museum to see the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exbition. A truly astonishing collection of artefacts slightly ruined by the crowd and the tiny placards.

British Musuem

Then we caught the train through to Norwich for the wedding which was lovely. On the Sunday we had a free day to recover and overcame our hangovers with a stroll by the river and a pub lunch.

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Adam & Eve, Norwich

In the evening I went out with Tommy to try and hear the elusive boom of the Bittern in one of the local broads. We didn't have any luck with the Bittern but did enjoy some of the local wildlife, as well as the local brew on the way home.

Cockshoot Broad

The next morning we went round the cathedral before catching our train back north. With changes at Peterbrough and York we eventually got back to Aberdeen after a 9 hour journey.

Norwich Cathedral Nave Roof

Cathedral Cloister

Dec 31, 2012

Favourite Albums of 2012

With perhaps the exception of The Shins 2012 seemed to lack any real major album releases. Nontheless it was a year that produced an excellent crop of albums from artists both established and new. I bought 76 albums and these are the ten that slowly drifted their way to top of my listening pile.

1. Sun by Cat Power

Sun by Cat Power

Cat Power hit the news for less than cheerful reasons when it turned out she had to cancel a tour because of bankruptcy. It kick-started an interesting discussion about indie artists and money-making in the digital era, a discussion that will only become more important in 2013 as high street shops waver on the brink. Meanwhile, Sun is a quite remarkable album combining infectious electronica with Chan Marshall’s worldly-wise lyricism. A number of the songs have a quite infectious groove but these are countered by some poignant, slow-burning eulogies to the human spirit. Marshall’s soulful voice and almost world-weary tone at times serves as a great counterpoint to the more upbeat instrumentation.

2. Tree Bursts In Snow by Admiral Fallow

Tree Bursts In Snow

Admiral Fallow’s second album is far more accessible and poppy then their 2009 debut album. It’s a mature work demonstrating the wide range of influences and styles that take Admiral Fallow from arena-scale anthems to more measured and subtle songs. Harnessing their boy-girl vocalists and confident musicianship their is a lot to enjoy on this album. The biggest disappointment for me was that I missed them playing in Aberdeen.

3. No Flags Will Fly by Olympic Swimmers

No Flags Will Fly by Olympic Swimmers

Combining two of my favourite things - Scottish female vocals and post-rock - could really only result in something decent and Olympic Swimmers’ debut certainly proves the theory. Seeing them supporting the Unwinding Hours really sealed this album for me. There is no sign of holding back on this, their debut album, and they have put together an excellent set of songs with few little filler.

4. Hello Cruel World by Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World by Gretchen Peters

Lyrical flair and sublime production make this alt-country album a thing of joy. Though there are plenty of wonderful moments on the album, the standout track is the free form poetry of Idlewild which is achingly beautiful and bears repeat listenings to fully appreciate all the nuances.

5. Port of Morrow by The Shins

Port of Morrow by The Shins

Though there have been side-projects, it feels like a long wait since the last Shins album. Thankfully, and despite a reasonable amount of hype, the wait was worth it and Port of Morrow is a triumphant return to form for James Mercer and the new-look Shins. Beautifully produced the album is a collection of songs which on the surface appear quite simple pop songs, but of course contain the depth and lyrical playfulness we have come to associate with Mercer. Simple Song is one of the most beautiful tunes to come out in 2012 and the rest of the album follows suit with sing-out-loud choruses and upbeat pop melodies.

6. Animal Joy by Shearwater

Animal Joy by Shearwater

Though I find it hard to believe that Shearwater will ever surpass Rooks I nevertheless really enjoyed this, their latest offering. More consistent than Archipelago it offers a diverse range of songs from the frenetic energy of the opener all the way to more considered reflective moments. As ever with Shearwater the production is faultless.

7. Break It Yourself by Andrew Bird

Break It Yourself

A delight of an album, full of wonderful melodies and instruments, that really only opens up after a few listens. I have found this album to be perfect music for the Highlands, whether driving across for a day hillwalking or lying back in my tent watching the clouds brood over a lonely loch. Andrew’s lyrics are sublime (”here we go mistaking clouds for mountains”) and the off-kilter musicianship makes for a joyous and uplifting experience.

8. Affric by Duncan Chisholm

Affric by Duncan Chisholm

Instrumental albums don’t usually interest me that much but this one was introduced to me by Mike Harding on the BBC Radio 2 Acoustic and Folk radio show (now taken over by Mark Radcliffe). This album completes a trilogy of albums inspired by Scottish glens. I usually find it less easy to connect to songs without any lyrics, but the interplay between fiddle and the backing musicians works to create some fabulously atmospheric tracks full of meaning and place. The music constantly shifts from melancholic to playful and back, echoing the light on a distant mountain and the waters playing in a tumbling burn. It is truly a delight and has become a firm favourite for relaxed listening late into the evening.

9. The Romantics by Inlet Sound

The Romantics by Inlet Sound

In a year that Mumford and Sons became bigger than ever, and Of Monsters and Men brought their perculiar Icelandic twist to festivalcore, there were others taking a similar but subtler approach to pop-folk music. Toronto-based Inlet Sound have produced a confident and mature debut album that, though clearly fitting into the same groove as those previously mentioned folk-rock giants, provides something fresh and less ecumbered by high-profile spotlights and the soundtrack to a summer of sport. I love this album for its ability to go between bounding enthusiasm and winsome lyricism. The musicianship and production is superb and I think this is a band with a huge future potential.

—> Listen to Inlet Sound on Bandcamp

10. The Haunted Man by Bat for Lashes

The Haunted Man by Bat for Lashes

This album really gets under my skin. It kind of serves as an echo to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake from 2011, with plenty of pastoral imagery layered on top of contemporary commentary. I love the vocal sound and the music is a step forward from her previous album.

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