2016 IN REVIEW: Bitter Sweet Symphonies’ Favourite Albums of the Year

Once again we’re reaching another culmination of sorts, the last 12 months have been testing and life-changing in many ways but equally it has been a great year for new releases and fresh exciting talent, with the likes of Black Foxxes making a storming entrance with a groundbreaking debut record, assuring all that British rock still has its bite. Other landmark moments include Savages’ second album, Lady Gaga’s return to music, and Francis and the Lights’ visual spectacular featuring Kayne West and Bon Iver. But for now, we reflect on a few of the triumphs that particularly stood out in our minds as memorable pieces of artistry, in our favourite albums of 2016 long list.

All selections were compiled by Tom Saunders (TS) and Charlotte Holroyd (CH).

FEWS ‘Means’

Swedish/American four piece FEWS rally a rousing call on debut long-player ‘Means’, one so impressive that it has seen them garnering early support from Pixies (joining the American band for a huge set of dates around the UK and Europe) and playing the hottest festivals around. The post-punk group prepare fighting rhythms that occupy the darkest points of the psyche, subject matter lingers around ideas of human existence, the passing of time and youthful experience.

Highlights come from the Foals-esque ‘Drinking Games’ which leads with mathy promises and filters into surging impulses; the motorik Strokes-inflected romper ‘100 Goosebumps’; ‘Queen’ reveals obsession in a starkly romantic daze of taut guitars, sharply-cut bass and steady drums but it’s the restless motion of ’10 Things’ that is brilliantly inspired and wholly addicting. In what could have easily become systematic and lifeless, FEWS have found energy and jubilance, this withstands any mechanical tedium and instead follows through on their riotous left-field agenda. ‘Means’ is highly accomplished and devilishly sumptuous, FEWS have done good. CH

Green Day ‘Revolution Radio’

Green Day could have gone two ways with ‘Revolution Radio’. They could have released a half-arsed, more-filler-than-killer collection of fifteen or so songs and sat back, content with two decades’ worth of well-received music. On the flip side, they could have released something with a purpose, something to say and energy. Luckily, they chose the latter.

The album is bursting with classic ‘modern’ Green Day (anything from 2004 onwards) that would sit comfortably alongside some of ‘American Idiot’ and ‘21st Century Breakdown’’s best songs. The choruses are huge and the guitars are even huger. ‘Still Breathing’ ticks every box and bursts out the stereo with sheer brute force, and ‘Outlaws’ fills the power ballad slot. ‘Bang Bang’ and the title track find the band firmly back in the political saddle, something very much absent from 2012’s rather underwhelming ‘Uno! Dos! Tré!’ trilogy. ‘Somewhere Now’ and ‘Forever Now’ are condensed reincarnations of the mini rock operas that were the foundations of ‘American Idiot’, while closer ‘Ordinary Lies’ sees Billie Joe’s own take on ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

This a solid return to form with songs and a sound that gets straight to the point, and for all its seriousness, it’s just downright fun and deserves to be played loud. TS

Biffy Clyro ‘Ellipsis’

The release of a new Biffy Clyro album is always an event, and like many we rushed to hear the fruits of their recent comeback. The Scottish trio continue change perceptions and move sound walls on their seventh record, ‘Ellipsis’ proves that as time goes on and the band’s career develops, it is as equally important now more than ever that they find a reason to experiment, to progress, to let that imagination run wild – all in the name of forward-thinking. Acknowledging their attitude towards unpredictably, ‘Ellipsis’ indeed retained a thoughtful and surprising collection of influences and sounds, making the record a head-turner for the die-hard’s and a bridging gap for the newbies.

Whilst the release caused a marmite sensation for some, its no lie that the genre-blending and forward lean towards the mainstream is a bitter pill to take but in the hands of Biffy, I think they pulled it off. ‘Ellipsis’ unquestionably still has lots to offer and celebrate, from the heavier edged electro stomp of ‘Friends and Enemies’; sharp-tonuged fuzz monster ‘Animal Style’ to the ominously off-balance country swing of ‘Small Wishes’ and the broken-but-healing acoustic ballad ‘Medicine’. The tracks on ‘Ellipsis’ together form a disparate quilt of past influences and contemporary inspirations, though the majority reside in the pop/rock category, (notably ‘Howl’/’Flammable’/’Don’t Won’t Can’t’) there are flashes of Biffy’s furious sparking personality presiding over tracks like ‘On A Bang’ and ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’. Both bolster a rage of conviction, for those who favour the earlier offerings of ‘Infinity Land’ and ‘The Vertigo of Bliss’, these will satisfy that craving. CH

Radiohead ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

The announcement of a new Radiohead album earlier this year sent the music world into a frenzied panic. True to form, nothing previous had been mentioned. No studio updates. All old social media posts disappeared.

The band’s ninth studio album (or ‘LP9’ as it is frequently referred to) ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is a generally downbeat affair. ‘Burn the Witch’ stabs through the speakers with the London Contemporary Orchestra plucking at their violins with guitar plectrums as Thom Yorke instils fear from the off (“This is a low flying panic attack / We know where you live”). ‘Daydreaming’ is gloriously ambient and is the first of many tracks that lyrically refer to Yorke’s 2015 separation from his partner of twenty-three years (“It’s too late / The damage is done”).

The album ends on the perfect showstopper as fans are finally treated to a studio recording of ‘True Love Waits’, a live staple since the mid-90s. Despite several of these songs having been around in some form or another for years, these recordings treat them as new material. Whether this is the end of the road or simply a pit stop, it’s a fantastic release that sits snugly in the collection. TS

King Charles ‘Gamble For A Rose’

After releasing debut album ‘Loveblood’, which saw the young songwriter catapulted into stardom, one might think, well how can King Charles (aka. Charles Costa) follow up such success? Easy. By stripping back to basics. With Marcus Mumford at his right hand on production duties and some musician friends assisting on backing vocals and additional playing (including Costa’s sister Wednesday and ex-Noah and the Whale band members).

Bereft of this partnership, ‘Gamble For A Rose’ could easily have taken on a whole other form – one that wouldn’t have given justice to the brave originality of Costa’s songwriting. But thankfully the record that exists provides ground for his biggest triumph yet. The album explores themes of love, adoration, longing and the passage of time in a way that could only be told through the eyes and the heart of a man who see’s the world and our relationships with each other in wide-eyed wonderment, but with a resounding depth that comes from the pains of heartbreak and struggle. 

‘Gamble For A Rose’ is elegant while remaining tempestuous with raw emotion; holding a fury of romantic allure, playful wordplay and the strength to cope with remarkable loss in it’s grasp. This is King Charles as his truest artistic self – wise, passionate, resolute. CH

Jamie T ‘Trick’

In 2014, Jamie T officially came back after a five-year silence, which he broke with ‘Carry On the Grudge’. Just shy of two years later he released ‘Trick’ in September this year. Considering he reportedly had around 120 songs written for ‘Carry On…’ it would be acceptable to worry that we would just get some lukewarm scraps delivered on a dirty plate and called an album. It is, however, a triumph.

Album opener ‘Tinfoil Boy’ creeps in with haunting verses before suddenly veering left into some kind of dubstep-rock waters on the chorus. The happy-go-not-so-lucky foot-tapper ‘Dragon Bones’ (“Upside down, inside out / If I had a gun I’d blow my brains out”) harks back to the sounds of 2009’s ‘Chaka Demus’, while ‘Tescoland’ and ‘Robin Hood’ could easily be album tracks on The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ with very little imagination required. This is combatted by the old school rap-heavy influence that shoves its way to the front on tracks ‘Drone Strike’, ‘Police Tapes’ and ‘Solomon Eagle’.

‘Trick’ is a culmination of every sound and style of production that Jamie T has touched on over nearly a decade condensed into twelve well-paced and varied tracks, and solid songwriting still remains at the core of it all. On ‘Sign of the Times’ Jamie confesses, “I wish I’d been a little more exceptional”, but he certainly hasn’t let any of us down so far. TS

Phia ‘The Ocean Of Everything’

Art-pop singer/songwriter Phia (aka. Sophia Exiner) saw the release of her highly-anticipated debut album this year, a collection of stories that draw on personal lived experience and the power that a memory can possess while pondering alternative life paths. The record breathes light, harmony and colour through deep self-reflection, interesting layers of instrumentation, off-pop imagination and unparalleled originality.

Catchy vocal loops, programmed beats from a casio, choral beauty from an African kalimba, infectious lyrical hooks; the list goes on. ‘The Ocean of Everything’ contains a plethora of sonic and visual stimuli that recalls the experimental sound of tUnE-yArDs. It’s an enormous feat for any independent artist to pull off releasing their first album, and I’m glad that her persistence has paid off because her efforts are truly inspiring. It’s true that D-I-Y culture still remains one of the most significant starting pillars in the industry today. As for highlights on ‘The Ocean of Everything’, there are too many. Listen to the whole record, it will brighten up your life in more ways than one. CH

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’

‘Skeleton Tree’ is the sixteenth studio album from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and was released alongside a film (‘One More Time With Feeling’) about the making of the album as well as the recovery period after the tragic death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, who fell from a cliff in mid-2015. Both the album and film radiate loss, heartbreak and despair, and leave the listener/viewer feeling helpless, for Cave, if not for them.

Musically, it’s a continuation of 2013’s ‘Push the Sky Away’, with very raw vocals and percussion that often find themselves swimming (or rather drowning) in an ocean of blurred harmony and sound. While the songs were written prior to his son’s death, Cave mentioned lyrics were often ad-libbed in the studio; it’s hard to listen to lyrics such as “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field” without feeling that this is one of those. ‘I Need You’ boasts one of his strongest melodies to date: “I saw you standing there in the supermarket”, he observes, before pining “Just breathe / I need you” over and over. This is an album full of whispers and beauty but also the sound of a man who’s lost everything. While Nick Cave is perhaps most well known for his use of characters in his songs, there are no facades here and nothing is fiction. Like he says, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone. TS

Billie Marten ‘Writing Of Blues and Yellows’

The career of Yorkshire-born Billie Marten, leading up to the release of this year’s debut album, has been one of growth and nurture. Upon unveiling ‘Writing of Blues and Yellows’ Marten was met by critical acclaim and lauded with comparisons to her heroes John Martyn and Nick Drake. It is certain that ‘Writing of Blues and Yellows’ is a remarkable first opening for albeit, any artist, but equally for Marten alone. She’s a courageous songwriter; her arrangements stark and sumptuous, perceptive and far-reaching yet her words remain eminently beautiful and pure. Seeking to uncover self truths, her voice is resonant and strong, holding with it a greater understanding of a world that may sometimes appear daunting or foolhardy. 

Speckled with natural imagery, anchored by melancholy acoustics and raised by Marten’s natural curiosity, the song’s on ‘Writing of Blues and Yellows’ paint not just a mood or a sonic palette but a landscape, one as evocative as Marten’s home. Still, the album isn’t one of ease or simplicity, this much is true of compelling works, Marten instigates nuance and drives a thrilling spark throughout. Avoiding what possibly could have been a lifeless let-down without any clear direction, and instead producing a record of great sacrifice and sublime beauty. Stand out ‘Teeth’, a raw piano ballad on the surface but beneath its burrows are layers of complex emotion which surround universal ‘doubts on love.’ Natural ambience filters through the recording, birdsong sets sail Marten’s fragile and fraught state, unwinding the sorrow she sings of whilst clearing a space for healing contemplation.

Alternatively, the acapella hum of ‘It’s A Fine Day’ provides lo-fi relief and a hint of optimism as we reach the end point of proceedings. Early singles like ‘Milk & Honey’ and ‘Heavy Weather’ bulk out the record in new unfounded ways and further out love affair. CH

Bon Iver ’22, A Million’

There are a handful of artists who can create a huge stir simply by breathing. Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) is one such artist, and this was proven when he announced in 2015 that Bon Iver would be starting its ‘third cycle’.

Bon Iver’s music has become progressively more computerised and edited with each release, moving further away from the solitary acoustic shed-folk of his breakthrough debut ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. His latest, ’22, A Million’ almost completely submerges itself in this heavily processed pool, although it feels more like it’s drowning rather than doing front crawl. The dense production is as much a part of the music as every other element and as a result this comes across as a collection of pieces rather than complete songs.

The album’s opening tracks are prime examples of this, while ‘715 – CREEKS’ is impossible to hear without connecting it to older track ‘Woods’. ’29 #Strafford APTS’ provides some aural respite, with a gentle acoustic guitar and a relatively (by comparison) unprocessed vocal. “A womb / An empty robe / Enough / You’re rolling up / You’re holding it / You’re fabric now” he ascends in his almost indecipherable manner. Other highlights include the gorgeous ‘8 (circle)’ and ’33 “GOD”’.

At a time when a lot of stale music is absorbing most of the attention, Bon Iver manages to cut through with wonderful originality and intensity. TS

Drowners ‘On Desire’

NYC post-punk outfit Drowners confidently put a full-stop to the notion of the ‘difficult’ second album with sophomore long-player ‘On Desire’. The record, in fact, is a taut development on the band’s signature kinetic indie rock and the lyrical equivalent of ‘Post-It note’ realness. 

Gone is the hurry of the two-minute sharp-shooters that bulked out the debut release, in their place are the stories which follow – moving past the first attraction of the big city and making way for the remnants of the night before as they flood straight back into view as a sobering recollection. The messy parts, the ugly emotions, the difficult goodbyes all flesh out the subject matter. See ‘Trust the Tension’, torn between the stability of single life and the emotional merry-go-round that relationships wield, the rhythm echoes this dichotomy teetering on the brink between raucous obedience and measured meltdown. Sing-a-long inducing ‘Another Go’ is the one last hurrah to win back an ex, ‘Pick Up the Pace’ proudly introduces the band’s newfound fascination with synths in vivid form.

Whereas opener ‘Troublemaker’ unravels a doomed encounter, and takes operations towards the mile-a-minute suspense of the first record, it isn’t surprising then that this is the only track to appear on ‘On Desire’ that cuts under the three-minute mark. CH

Kings of Leon ‘Walls’

After 2013’s disappointing ‘Mechanical Bull’, it seemed like Kings of Leon might have lost their touch. However, their new album WALLS should make it onto this list if just for ‘Waste A Moment’: the thundering bass, smoothly rugged guitars, pushing drums and euphoric chorus all remind everyone why they continue to pack out stadiums worldwide.

Across the album, there is a satisfying range of sounds that seem to be a culmination of everywhere they’ve previously visited sonically. ‘Reverend’ and ‘Conversation Piece’ channel the style that was plastered all over ‘Only By the Night’ with half time choruses and watery lead guitar lines. The title track closer fully embraces their country-rock influence but feels rather uninspired both musically and lyrically (“I can’t get there on my own / You can’t leave me here alone”). That being said, this is a fine collection.

‘WALLS’ is exactly the album that Kings of Leon needed to release at this stage in their career. Sure, it isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does affirm their ability for being one of the best bands in the world for releasing arena-sized rock albums, and that they can be brilliant at it when they choose to be. TS

Roo Panes ‘Paperweights’

Roo Panes practises elegance and subtlety on ‘Paperweights’, his classical arrangements bolster a strength of might – unhurried and resolutely confident – resulting in a graceful blending of engaging purity and slow-burn. Panes’ refinement is not merely just a tool to create natural ambience but a way of drawing his audience into the constructs, the song’s standing precise and calmly stark build an intimacy of mutual connection between the two, and join both in a universal understanding.

His voice is sublime; measured and vastly engulfing, moving through the chasms of intonation and articulation, his baritone swells tracing out a path that is matched by a growing crescendo of tonality. But Panes is not alone, the players on the record provide gracious backing and steadfast grounding for his words to fall on. Equally all the musicians featured are at the top of their game, painting a wildly vivid landscape of feeling. From the strength of just the singles, Panes justifies this sophomore record as his most defined and complex work yet. Even the lesser-known album tracks are magnificent, ‘Summer Thunder’ and ‘Vanished into Everything’ specifically, both capture nuance within Panes’ folk pop presentation. The latter waltzes through lingering memories: “You’re all around me since you vanished into everything”, richly sewn with delicate finger-picked guitar and patchworks of violin and cello.

This is an album that enchants  – a fire is stoked patiently and caringly so that the kindling will never lose its spark. CH

Blossoms ‘Blossoms’

After a handful of solid EPs, Stockport heroes Blossoms released their debut album in August this year. Containing several already-released songs, this album is the band’s nod to the synth-y 80’s and the jangly 90’s. Like their indie rock peers Catfish And The Bottlemen and Wolf Alice, they have gone from being ones to watch out for and simply just ones to watch.

Smash hit ‘Charlemagne’ will get itself into your head for days at a time, and ‘Getaway’ is a slice of pulsing indie-pop. ‘My Favourite Room’ is somewhere between ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ and ‘Half The World Away’ and is the lighter-in-the-air moment on the album. ‘Blown Rose’ (one of the pre-album singles) boasts one of the band’s strongest songs with a less immediate chorus than some others and keeps you coming back for more until it sinks its teeth in (“The stately homes of England / How beautiful they stand / Lately it’s a lonely love I know / Blown rose, go”). 

After several listens, even the weaker songs reveal themselves as hidden gems that have simply been overshadowed by the big hits and it becomes obvious that there is very little filler here. With this album, Blossoms have proved themselves to be a passive-aggressive force within the indie rock field and they only show signs of, erm, blossoming as 2017 kicks in. TS

Matthew and the Atlas ‘Temple’

“Sometimes I need the dark / So I can see the light”, these words mark the crux of Matthew Hegarty’s plea on the elegantly poignant follow up to 2014’s stunning debut, ‘Other Rivers’. 

‘Temple’ is a different kind of beast; defining a new rhythm for the band, it holds a new sense of purpose, a strength of character that moves further beyond the starkly sumptuous indie folk of their former work. Hegarty while writing ‘Temple’ was inspired by personal events in his own life (namely the birth of his first child) this has infused his storytelling in a much more profound way, seeing him sidestep a touch away from the dark truths of his frontier tales. To look inwards at the self, and furthermore to human nature, but also outwards at the natural world, a thrilling grasp of hopeful candour, unsettling dread and vulnerable sensitivity is nurtured.

Hegarty’s deep winding coo moves between hushed serenity (‘Old Master’ / ‘Can You See’), passionate might (‘Mirrors’ / ‘On A Midnight Street’) and decisive foreboding (‘Glacier’ / ‘Graveyard Parade’), each song bares its own resonance, its own alchemy – all are as equally important to the whole. ‘Temple’ needs to be experienced in this format to achieve maximum impact. Matthew and the Atlas have created a world of their own on ‘Temple’ – one that enthrals and stops the clock for a moment – an album that towers high with intense promise and delivers. A must for the record collection. CH

Angel Olsen ‘My Woman’

Angel Olsen has gone from strength to strength, and this album really showcases her brilliant vocal and songwriting talents. Throughout, the production is raw and lo-fi but still wonderfully full-bodied; it is completely a band effort rather than a solo one in this instance.

‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ embodies everything about the album: lyrics that read as a poetic stream of consciousness (“I ain’t giving up tonight / Even if you walk around / As though you think you’re right / At your worst you still believe / It’s worth the fight”), driving drums, blistering guitars and passion. Oh, the passion.

‘Never Be Mine’ has a beautifully Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ feel to it in almost every way, bar Olsen’s lyrical theme of confessing that the subject won’t be hers. ‘Those Were The Days’ sounds exactly how you’d imagine. “See how you’re laughing with those you don’t know as well / I hear you saying I’m the one but I wish I could tell / Funny how time can make you realise and realise / And then realise”, Olsen whispers over a backing that is the definition of sonic nostalgia. This album is confident yet restrained, original yet familiar and welcoming. Above all though, it’s staggeringly good. TS

Palace ‘So Long Forever’

London band Palace govern fluidity and vigour in equal measure, holding tension close enough to balance out the mellow slouch of their arrangements and allowing for a blending of texture to spring forward. Maccabees-esque ‘Fire in the Sky’ remains equally sumptuous and languorous with its breezy reverb-soaked guitars, bold sturdy drum beat, and emotive vocal delivery as it holds out for a reconciliation. Alternatively on opener ‘Break the Silence’, a hunger soars through each lyric, each instrumental turn and proves to be one of the album’s finest moments. Through its urgent plea to “tame this animal”, energised rhythm and passionate croon from their singer, ‘Break the Silence’ is a mighty leap into album territory.

Other highlights appear in the form of well-known favourite ‘Bitter’, a Wu Lyf-toned epic brisk with atmospheric nuance, compelling lyrics and tantalising dynamics. ‘It’s Over’ tries to quell the feeling of finality in a comfy Hozier-styled blues jam. Whilst ‘Have Faith’ picks up the pace, spinning the wheels in melodic gloss and kicking out some beautiful stand-out riffs before sinking deep into a lagoon-like chorus that begs for courage. “Please be brave”, we are told over and over, and it’s hard not to take heed when the request feels unquestionably earnest. CH

PJ Harvey ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’

This was the first release from cult icon PJ Harvey since her Mercury-winning 2011 album ‘Let England Shake’. The album was recorded in sessions in front of invited audiences at Somerset House and this really comes across in the sound: the first two tracks (and several others) ‘The Community of Hope’ and ‘The Ministry of Defence’ both boast group chants for choruses (the former also having an outro that simply repeats “They’re gonna build a Walmart here”) and overall the album achieves a real ‘live band’ feel.

‘The Wheel’ is straight up toe-tapping groove rock, while ‘The Orange Monkey’ is more mellow but equally as infectious. The album is full of great instrumentation and percussion, with saxophones and heavy often dominating the mix more than the likes of guitars.

Once again, PJ Harvey has confirmed her importance (and prominence) in the music world by continually producing original, forward-thinking music that refuses to be pigeonholed with its eclectic sounds of rock, blues, jazz and world music merging so wonderfully. TS

White Lies ‘Friends’

The fourth record from White Lies brings along a kick of disco, a brave fragility and surges of towering sing-a-long’s. What the trio tested previously on their last album ‘Big TV’, is brought into full view with ‘Friends’ – an unbridled vision for progression. The focus still lies on the band’s emotive songwriting but instead of drawing bleak darkened soundscapes that linger on the loss and pain of their misfortunes, sunny instrumentals and inventive production techniques are carried to the fore, prompting a drive to better the situation which resonates throughout this long-player.

This new lease of life fuels tracks like ‘Hold Back Your Love’, a synth dance romp that relishes the ability to feel everything, good and bad. Alternatively ‘Swing’, centralises on an off-kilter rhythm, grooving and moping heavy over its five minute span allowing Jack Laurence-Brown’s exquisite percussive grounding to lighten Harry McVeigh’s solemn melancholy. Before switching gears completely on ‘Right Place’ and steering optimism without abandonment, fermenting this change of heart and welcoming a new perspective. The words, “It feels like the right place…and it’s the right time” have never felt more true, White Lies have found a new beat and from the reaction they’ve been receiving towards to the new material, we all feel it too. Almost ten years in, and still going strong. CH

Frightened Rabbit ‘Painting Of A Panic Attack’

Forming way back in 2003, heartfelt Scottish rockers Frightened Rabbit are still going strong and don’t sound aged in the slightest. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, ‘Painting Of A Panic Attack’ is a sensitive indie-rock dream. 

The album is an atmospheric affair. ‘Get Out’ has a chorus built for stadiums with its massive drum stabs and reverb-drenched guitars. With an album of this title, it’s hardly surprising that the lyrical themes are somewhat cynical on their outlook of life: “My love you should know / The best of me left hours ago so / Shove it right into my mouth and let me smoulder” insists Scott Hutchison on ‘I Wish I Was Sober’, while ‘Still Want To Be There’ tries to find optimism in the darkest times, “The perfect place may never exist, may never exist / The perfect time might be years and years away / But I still want to be here.”

At fifteen tracks, it’s a long listen and is not designed for those who want to feel uplifted by the aftermath. There is however, genuine passion and great songwriting here which at the very least deserves your attention. TS

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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