2017 IN REVIEW: Bitter Sweet Symphonies’ Albums of the Year

It’s time again that we reflect back on the past year, while 2017 has been divisive for many reasons; there have been crucial moments for growth and celebration. The chart-topping firsts of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘American Dream’ and The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ told us that perseverance still holds its merit, streaming services are proving successful, vinyl sales are continuing to increase, and the Gallaghers, despite their personal differences, still make great contributions to music.

But it’s the distinct glare of frightful events, untimely passings, political upheaval and the unscrupulous actions of some that may indeed overshadow the good. 2017 has been tough, and without music by our side we’re certain that we would be looking at a different landscape. It’s been a year like no other, with ground-shaking reality there to re-affirm the fragility of our own existence, thus bestowing even greater significance to the works of those that broaden our understanding and lift our spirits – it is more vital than ever that we speak our truths, and mean it.

Below you will find just a few of the triumphs that particularly stood out to us as memorable pieces of artistry, in our favourite albums of 2017 long list.

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

Nadine Shah – ‘Holiday Destination

A Nadine Shah album is never introverted – the latest and third record from the British singer-songwriter establishes a decisive dialogue discussing pressing issues that are affecting today’s world.

The title, ‘Holiday Destination,’ again honours Shah’s elegant but darkly turns of phrase, it is within this understood conviction that Shah is most triumphant and progressive – never loosening grip or relevance, Shah is a strong figure and possibly the best voice to level the playing field in 2017. For what the lyrical discourse brazenly effuses, the instrumentals continue and heighten through barbed bars of post-punk; the guitars are prickly and always on-edge, rasping sax further intensifies this nervous energy (‘Out the Way’), yet it’s the percussion that offers some solace – a rhythmic attraction on songs like, ‘Evil’ and ‘2016’.

Shah’s lead vocal also provides some great standout moments; although forever baring a deeply emphatic delivery, it’s with tracks like ‘Mother Fighter’ where Shah’s smoky timbre turns revelrous and vibrant, ‘Jolly Sailor’ lingers a bustling calm to her words, and the title track faces Shah off against Shah in a sparring match of exhilarating pace. Albums like ‘Holiday Destination’ are so important in moving the wider conversation forward; Shah is considered in her approach yet there are flashes here and there which lend the odd spontaneous flair – assuring a listener that Shah is unlikely to ever be an artist that will stick to any pre-established rules. CH

Laura Marling Semper Femina

The three-time Mercury Award nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire has returned with her most realised and defined album so far in the form of ‘Semper Femina,’ the title itself coming from a Virgil poem and translates to ‘always a woman’. The music is open and inviting but also holds an invisible hand up to the listener to say, ‘stop there’. ‘Soothing’ snakes around with organic percussion and seductive, dark basslines as Marling whispers, “Oh my hopeless wanderer / You can’t come in / You don’t live here anymore.” Blake Mills’ production creates some spine-tingling guitar moments on tracks such as ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Next Time,’ while Marling’s lyrics are open and free-flowing: “She keeps a pen behind her ear / In case she’s got something she really needs to say” she sings on Wild Fire.

She saves the best for last though, with the gorgeous ‘Nothing, Not Nearly.’ The combination of a slack-stringed acoustic and fuzzy slide guitar is wonderful, while for the final time Marling’s voice climbs alongside her wistful lyrics: “Once it gone it’s gone / Love waits for no one.” It’s a strong sentiment to end a strong collection of songs. TS

Luke Sital-Singh – ‘Time is a Riddle

As an early release of 2017, Luke Sital-Singh’s second album proved to be an instant standout. ‘Time is a Riddle’ is Sital-Singh’s departure from the major labels glare; in response the record propels an unwinding to the imposed bindings and a loosening of creative freedoms, even Sital-Singh could be loosely quoted on the change of scenery: “Oh my god, I’m standing naked […] Oh it’s hard to be myself anymore, now I’ve changed.” [Taken from ‘Oh My God’]

Sumptuously delivered and whole-heartedly expressed, the songs are never lacking personal meaning yet Sital-Singh leaves enough ambiguity to allow open space for one’s own interpretation to form. From the heavy syncopation of the title track to the reverb cathedrals of ‘Cynic,’ Sital-Singh moves towards expansion on this record – the latter poised in a fluctuating state of Sigur-Rós-marries-Ben-Howard atmospherics, as Sital-Singh embraces a more intimate uncovering than ever before.

Time may be a puzzle, for us all, but Sital-Singh uses his hours well; this is the work of a musician at his most impassioned and fully-functioning best. We must praise Sital-Singh for delving into these depths of the internal and the external for his art, for our consumption. For the connection between artist, listener, and art starts with acceptance and reciprocation, before it can further transcend into something greater than itself. ‘Time is a Riddle’ – a classic waiting in the wings. CH

The National – ‘Sleep Well Beast

Moody indie darlings The National have only been getting bigger with each release, and ‘Sleep Well Beast’ continues that trend, being their first UK Number One album. It creeps in with ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ before the pounding drums and ringing guitars of ‘Day I Die’ make for an instant live favourite. ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ boasts a huge chorus that sees Matt Berninger at the very top of his vocal range, while raging tantrum ‘Turtleneck’ is as rough and ready as the band have ever sounded.

At a basic level, Matt’s lyrics explore the desperation of not understanding your own relationship: ‘Empire Line’ (“I’ve been trying to see where you’re going / But you’re so hard to follow”), ‘Born to Beg’ (“If your heart was in it / I’d stay a minute / I’m dying to be taken apart / I was born to beg for you”) and ‘Guilty Party’ (“I say your name / I say I’m sorry / I know it’s not working / I’m no holiday”) are all heart-wrenching pieces voiced by a man who constantly thinks he is not good enough.

Even for The National this a downbeat affair (with a few exceptions), but ‘Sleep Well Beast’ finds them in fresh sonic territory and armed with a collection of songs that at the very least rival their previous efforts. TS

Toothless – ‘The Pace of the Passing

As the debut solo project from Bombay Bicycle Club’s bassist Ed Nash, Toothless presented an opportunity to widen the field for the musician’s already distinct musical vocabulary – delving into sonic expanses unexplored and discovering signature approaches to songwriting.

Whilst wildly varied as individuals, the ten tracks form a united collaboration centred by Nash’s compelling vocal narratives and fragrant pop-led indie rock. ‘The Pace of the Passing’ digs into life in the contemporary world through grand thematics and idiosyncratic intimate detail, focussing attention on fraying relationships, aging, and the search for deeper understanding.

This is a body of work that sets its own parallel, moving to and fro throughout the soundscape entangles euphoria to the ethereal, self-aware to the expansive, and familiar to the risk-taking: Nash doesn’t tackle this alone though, bringing in featured guests including The Staves and Marika Hackman – there’s never a dull moment. CH

Julien Baker – ‘Turn Out the Lights

You’d be hard pushed to find a statement more powerful with such few components than Julien Baker’s latest release, the follow up to her acclaimed debut ‘Sprained Ankle’. It’s brilliant from start to finish – the dynamics of Baker’s voice and arrangements range from eerily quiet to almost overwhelmingly dense, with Baker sounding on the verge of a breakdown throughout (and in turn making the listener feel the same). From the first full track ‘Appointments’ (“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / And I know that it’s not / But I have to believe that it is”) to the closer ‘Claws in Your Back’ (“I think I can love the sickness you made / ‘Cause I take it all back / I change my mind / I want it to stay”), ‘Turn Out the Lights’ is a brutal lesson in honesty and acceptance.

If you’re in the mood for a night of deep reflection and a bottle of red, this might just be the perfect soundtrack. TS

Sivu – ‘Sweet Sweet Silent

For a record which places operatic soprano beside squirmy patchwork instrumentals, and distressing personal revelations next to hushed woozy soundscapes, Sivu’s (aka. James Page) ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’ confirms compelling progressions are much more attractive than time-worn clichés.

In part, a record that is as much concerned with Page’s recent diagnosis of Ménière’s disease (an inner ear condition, of which the symptoms include hearing loss and tinnitus) as it is also a body of work that documents other life changes; of learning to trust one’s own instinctual competency and allowing change to invigorate new outcomes.

Consistently tender and beguiling, it’s within the subtleties that we uncover the most satisfying discoveries –the truly absorbing aspects of the record come to life in spectacular form, particularly in tracks like ‘Drastic Change,’ a quavering ’70s jam-out of roaming psychedelics and counter-melodies. Whereas in opposition to the grandeur of ‘Drastic Change’ follows ‘My Moon River,’ the album’s most graceful and gorgeous ode to a loved one. ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’ is a strapping show of artistic integrity from the singer-songwriter – and we hope, not the last. CH

The Shins – ‘Heartworms

The Shins’ (aka James Mercer) first album in five years shows that they’re still in the driving seat when it comes to writing memorable, thoughtful pop songs. ‘Name for You’ is as catchy as anything Mercer has written to date, while ‘Mildenhall’ is a lovely song about Mercer’s childhood years and his introduction to music, backed by an acoustic guitar and warm synths (“I started messing with my dad’s guitar / And that’s how we get to where we are now”). In fact, synths seem to be Mercer’s go-to instrument on ‘Heartworms.’ ‘So Now What,’ which had previously been used in Shins-head Zach Braff’s 2014 film ‘Wish I Was Here,’ has been re-recorded and is another highlight here with its reverb-soaked vocals and strangely optimistic lyrics (“You still think I am strong / But I admit that I was wrong / So now what? / I guess we’ll just begin again / I hope you know you’re my best friend”).

Overall, ‘Heartworms’ is an upbeat, comforting affair that further proves James Mercer’s consistent knack for penning great songs. It’s that simple. TS

Charlie Cunningham – ‘Lines

Seville influenced Cunningham’s style profusely, invigorating Andalusian culture to the very heart of his musical language.

Cunningham’s first full-length body of work brings swathes of texture and folktronica escapism; through its twelve tracks the artist deftly expresses the fortitude of human nature and the ambiguity of perspective. His closely recorded vocals linger ambiently on ‘How Much’ and turn to a magnetic rhythmic croon on ‘Breather,’ catching the purity of Cunningham’s talent at its most visceral.

The sonic landscape constantly evolves as a postcard of artistic design, bucolic and transforming Cunningham crafts an intimate space both controlled and vastly out of reach. It’s energising and demanding at once, speaking to the inner self – a solitary listen is recommended. ‘Lines’ is a record of great beauty and great depth but also of great unknowns – as misty and amorphous as its cover artwork. Nonetheless an essential record. CH

Flyte – ‘The Loved Ones

‘The Loved Ones’ is not only one of the year’s best albums but arguably one of the best debuts of recent times. Opener ‘Faithless’ sets the tone for the rest of the album: subdued verses coupled with soaring choruses, rich harmonies and lovely arrangements. ‘Cathy Come Home’ is wonderfully 1967 with its ever-changing time signatures and a chorus melody and lyric that would make Macca proud (“Cathy come home for supper / Cathy he doesn’t love you / Cathy we know you’re a dreamer / Your Daddy’s bad back, he needs you”). ‘Victoria Falls’ and ‘Little White Lies’ are other notable highlights.

The modesty in the album is refreshing: every song has been edited over and over until it’s as lean as it can be, and while the band plays to their strengths throughout they’re never flashy. ‘Archie, Marry Me’ is a gorgeous acapella finale and seals Flyte as one of the UK’s most sonically engaging bands right now. TS

San Cisco – ‘The Water

On their third long-player, Fremantle’s San Cisco escape into the glittering ‘70s for an indie pop flirtation in woozy tropics.

As their most concise work to date, the album focuses efforts on the band’s strengths: easily accessible lyrics that speak of twenty-something experience set to grooving rhythms and everlasting melodies. The only difference this time, and it’s a major one, the band actually move towards a mature articulation of self-reflection and personal awareness – with this grasp of versatility, San Cisco command their longevity.

Particular emphasis on the dynamic shifts runs through opener ‘The Kids are Cool’ and title track ‘The Water,’ where they examine the impact of major success at a young age and how it will affect a life. On the whole, it’s a leap forward in experimentalist visioning but always forever sunny – San Cisco deliver sparkle pop for a generation that is divided by the allure of retro and the vividness of the contemporary. CH

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – ‘Lotta Sea Lice

It was a dream come true when these two indie chillers announced a collaboration, and the results are all everyone could have hoped for. Leading single ‘Over Everything’ sums up the vibe perfectly with Barnett and Vile exchanging verses, their voices overlapping and harmonising in a way that only they could. They cover each other’s songs: Barnett’s ‘Out of the Woodwork’ (which has been given the Kurt title treatment and renamed ‘Outta the Woodwork’) and Vile’s ‘Peeping Tomboy,’ and both are highlights. ‘Continental Breakfast’ is a sunny, chilled out affair (“I cherish my intercontinental friendships / We talk it over continental breakfast / In a hotel in East Bumble-wherever / Somewhere on the sphere / Around here”).

For anyone familiar with both artists, this is exactly what you’d expect and want. For anyone not, if you’re a fan of playful lyrics and feel-good but thoughtful music, you need to check this out. TS

Trampolene – ‘Swansea to Hornsey

Confidently abrasive, both in construction and ideology, Trampolene’s debut full-length delivers everything we hoped that it would.

The Welsh exports have always promised that Trampolene could be anything, right from the start, and going into ‘Swansea to Hornsey’ we meet each of those different personas, through the bristling bars of Jack Jones’ spoken rhyme (‘Artwork of Youth’), infectiously volatile power riff-rock (‘Alcohol Kiss’ and ‘Dreams so rich, Life so poor’) and the wisely-wisdom of thoughtful ballads (‘The Gangway’).

Central to the album’s core principals are Jones’ pertinent lyrics, politically and socially aware and all so very intimate; Trampolene is a band of purpose – smoke screens and fancy gimmickry isn’t necessary, here truth and grit prevails as life on the edge is lived, cherished and accepted. This is an album that encourages focus, not as a blatant dictator but as a consideration, in all who pays it a listen. For some it might transform, for others simply inform; but unequivocally ‘Swansea to Hornsey’ is powerful. CH

The War on Drugs – ‘A Deeper Understanding

The modern-day torch carrier for epic Americana rock Adam Granduciel returns with another stunning collection of songs from The War on Drugs. It’s the next stage on from 2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream,’ with fuzzier guitars, bigger drums and an even more inward-looking view of the world. Opener ‘Up All Night’ showcases a more electronic approach to some of the sounds, whilst 11-minute ‘Thinking of a Place’ is an epic piece in its own right. ‘Pain’ is one of the more confessional moments on the album (“I’ve been pulling on a wire, but it just won’t break / I’ve been turning up the dial, but I hear no sound”), sound-tracked by swirling guitars and steady drums. ‘Nothing to Find’ thunders along despite more despairing lyrics: “I keep moving through the edge of now / Here comes a feeling I can’t stop / Emotionless and bored.

The War on Drugs’ music is so full and so emotional that you can’t help but be drawn in. While the usual comparisons to Springsteen and Petty do make sense, Granduciel is so good in his own right that, like them, he stands alone and avoids sounding derivative at every turn. TS

Peter Oren – ‘Anthropocene

Arriving late in the year was Peter Oren’s sophomore record ‘Anthropocene,’ a collection that tackles real world concerns of environmental degradation, cataclysm by committee, and general unease, told through stark Americana and rugged croons of voice.

Oren’s subject is bleak but crucial – a warning to a world that might see its own hand in its demise – this glaring blame placed on mankind remains sour to the taste throughout, but Oren never loses hope that we can change our future. Particular note must be taken of tracks like, ‘Throw Down’ – a call to action of scintillating guitar solos, thrilling voice and hard truths. ‘New Gardens’ uplifts with a sweetly guitar ostinato, as a pastoral ode to heritage and community – reminding us of the vitals in life; whereas the title track steers heavenly string orchestration through overwhelming fears of finality: “How will we escape this Hell?,” Oren meanders over, searching for the illusive answer to that pivotal question.

‘Anthropocene’ is an album which holds great weight (and great personal frankness); Oren has provided a soundtrack of noir-folk that is both desperately persuasive and pleasingly stunning. Not just an important voice but a vital spotlight. CH

Kevin Morby – ‘City Music

Kevin Morby’s ‘City Music’ is the follow up to 2016’s ‘Singing Saw’ – the man is clearly on a roll at the moment. The album opener ‘Come to Me Now’ could easily be off a sixties compilation album with its delicately brushed drums, lush instrumentation and spacious vocal. ‘Crybaby’ picks up the pace with electric guitars and full drum kit, and ‘1234’ goes one further as a direct tribute to the Ramones both musically and lyrically (“Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy / They were all my friends, and they died”).

‘City Music’ couldn’t be a more appropriate title for the album: one can just imagine walking through streets surrounded by skyscrapers with this playing through headphones as the perfect soundtrack. It serves as both great background music (sitting in with a glass of wine with the album playing on the turntable is one such situation) but is also full of lush lyrical and musical details should you wish to pay attention to them – the same could be said of many albums by artists that Morby is often (and arguably too strongly) compared to, such as Dylan and Cohen. The wonderfully simple ‘Night Time’ is so soothing (complete with background hum), while ‘Downtown’s Lights’ is a great way to wind down the album.

It seems criminal that a writer of Morby’s calibre isn’t attracting a wider audience (yet), but the idea of him being something of a hidden gem is also highly appealing and maybe even makes the whole album sound a little bit more comforting on those city nights. TS

Johanna Glaza – ‘Wind Sculptures

With the grandiosity of Kate Bush and the intensity of Joanna Newsom, Lithuanian-born Johanna Glaza delivers an album of luminous character and surprising originality.

Glaza’s voice is scintillatingly perceptive, singularly emotive and rollickingly dexterous, if not also wildly rugged and fascinatingly hallucinatory; often pitched at a higher register but at times dropping down to full voice for a darker, more beguiling outcome – Glaza forever maintains control of her aural instrument. The bewitching appeal is certain – Glaza carries a rare eccentricity, which rather than translating as forceful is a true depicter of the musician’s multi-faceted personality and ever-expanding talent.

Highlights include lullabaic ‘Arctic’ – even just for its charming ukulele inclusion; ‘Desires’ with its playful vocal melodies, shape-shifting from closely-dense harmonies to an ethereally light lead vocal – it’s a beautifully intimate affair. ‘Don’t Fall Don’t Break,’ as the final track, stresses two strong emotions: melancholy and torture. At first eerily serene, gentle strokes on the ivories deliver a passable melody that covets an imbalance of greater significance, midway through the agonising reveals itself in a severe transformation, where harrowing crashes hit the piano keys like thunder emphasising the emotional turmoil depicted by Glaza’s lyrics. This is the most moving track on the record and an interesting lasting note to culminate on.

A debut record which focuses intently on the unexpected and the meticulous, whilst content to follow certain stylistic demands ‘Wind Sculptures’ doesn’t try to be anything but itself – marvellously thrilling. CH

Blaenavon – ‘That’s Your Lot

Blaenavon have really made their mark this year with the release of their debut album ‘That’s Your Lot.’ Named after their Welsh hometown, the trio offer up thoughtful and passionate rock that provides a refreshing maturity from such a young band.

Opener ‘Take Care’ showcases the band’s ability for both creating space and letting loose when the right moments arise; by the song’s closing chorus everyone is playing at full capacity before finally dropping back down to just guitar and vocals for the song’s final line (“Take care of yourself”).

Songs like ‘My Bark Is Your Bite’ take influence from noughties post-rock acts such as Interpol and Editors with wide-panned guitar lines, steady bass and furious chorus drums, while ‘Alice Come Home’ marries slow, sparse verses with explosive choruses.

‘That’s Your Lot’ would be an impressive effort at any point in a band’s catalogue, but for a debut this is seriously good and shows serious promise for the band’s future. TS

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – ‘Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Few artists arrive with certified musical credentials yet when we speak of Lukas Nelson, we find there’s no way of forgetting the significant facts; Nelson and his band have toured with Neil Young as the singer-songwriter’s backing band and also joined Young in the studio for his ‘Monsanto Years’ album; pop icon Lady Gaga and quirky harmonizers Lucius feature on the new record; oh and yes, his father is Willie Nelson. 2017’s offering arrives self-titled and signals Nelson striving to carve out his own musical identity – the style, of which, he describes as “cosmic country soul.”

The record takes in gospel-soul and heavy rock influences, yet we’re never too far away from a country flourish. This is music that is felt; running wild and oh-so alive, both in the hushed moments and the blurry, rampaging electric numbers. ‘Forget about Georgia’ is an eight-minute stirring sensation that takes the album to near spiritual spaces, with sprawling guitar and southern romanticism, whilst lyrically ticking the box for wistful nostalgia and bittersweet embrace. Opener ‘Set Me Down on a Cloud’ postures bracing gospel-rock and somehow makes the genre-blending work; expansive choruses are soundtracked by choir-like revelries of voice, and an outro of bluesy magnitude increasingly becomes denser with detail as a fierce guitar solo takes hold. Nelson also isn’t a writer afraid to think a little deeper, as closer ‘If I Started Over’ croons philosophical meanderings to a simple piano melody and atmospheric pedal steel.

Overall the album meshes many genres together, while this technique may be distracting for some, it also allows Nelson room to experiment and fully showcase his and the band’s talents. For an album release in 2017, the music which Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real has crafted is quite perfectly suited to today’s culture – available to dive in and dive out but also easily-accessible enough to enjoy the full sitting. CH

Scott Matthews – ‘Home, Pt. 2

‘Home, Pt. 2’ is the fifth studio album from West Midland folk darling Scott Matthews. This album treats us to thirteen lushly produced tracks with delicate acoustic guitars, intimate vocals and lavish instrumentation.

Musically, ‘The Rush’ is reminiscent of Dylan or Springsteen’s later work with its bluesy harmonica intro, while ‘Where I Long to Be’ is lathered in tabla and sitar and Matthews takes the listener away from any worries with his reflective lyrics: “A faraway place I can stay / Feel the meadow grass between our toes / Hear the wind’s whispered reply / I tell myself I won’t waste my life.” ‘Two Entwined,’ ‘The Lantern Flower’ and ‘Home & Dry’ are other notable highlights, with the latter featuring some wonderful fingerpicking on the acoustic guitar.

This album is a collection of wonderfully diverse songs but also showcasing Matthews’ distinctive sound as both a singer and writer. TS

Catch up on all the albums featured in our End of Year round-up via this handy Spotify playlist:

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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