2021 IN REVIEW: Bitter Sweet Symphonies’ Albums of the Year

It has been a big year for the album, pivotal, you might even say. World records have been set, historic numbers have been sold and creativity has been high. Not only have we experienced new works from some of the globe’s most prevalent stars (including Adele, ABBA, Billie Eilish and Coldplay) but there has been a gobsmacking amount of exhilarating sounds created by marvellous new talent, we see you: Arlo Parks, Olivia Rodrigo, Celeste, Joy Crookes, Sam Fender… the list goes on.

But maybe nothing else has quite equalled the impact that the fruition of Taylor Swift’s first two re-records of previous studio albums, Red and Fearless, have impressed on the industry and the music consuming public. In an attempt to reclaim ownership of her old music, Swift has begun her campaign to re-record every one of her first six studio albums, it’s fairly rare that artists do this (or at least, to this extent) but this is significant, and it sends a message. Music rights and ownership is a huge talking point, and for an artist of Swift’s standing to speak up and fight for equity, it really progresses the conversation, and potentially, shifts the needle in a positive direction. Yes to that.

Anyway, back to the business at hand. The Bitter Sweet Symphonies team presents their Albums of the Year, a collection of independent and alternative releases that spoke to us throughout 2021. Please enjoy – and let us know in the comments your favourites too.

Album selections and reviews by Chiara Strazzulla, Charlotte Holroyd, Callum Mitchell-Simon and Paul Cook.

Shame  Drunk Tank Pink

This second offering from London punks Shame pushes the boundaries of what their sound has been thus far to deliver what is, to me, the stand-out album of 2021. Drunk Tank Pink preserves all the things that made the band’s debut record great, but compounded with a much greater level of daring which is in turn supported by a much greater maturity of sound.

It might seem stereotypical to speak of growth when addressing a second album, but there is no better term to describe what Shame are doing here, taking the things that have always made them good – the boldness of the vocals, the ability to tap into the unmistakable vein of energy of classic punk, the high-adrenaline tunes that seem meant to fill a live venue – and adding a whole new layer of depth. This certainly comes through in a newfound complexity of sound: there is a different quality of confidence in the way the band is now playing around with longer tracks (some of the longest are, in fact, also some of the strongest in this album), often changing-pace mid-song, experimenting more with jangling guitars and jarring transitions, throwing in bits of blues, hardcore, and New Wave, and even spoken word. But there is also an emotional depth in this record, which sounds in parts almost intimate and in others remarkably powerful, making it personal and relatable at the same time, an album which can be listened to in a quiet room as well as danced along to in a crowded club. It is, too, an album that commands the listener’s attention.

Although more than one track has definite single potential, there is no obvious ‘instant single’ here (perhaps possibly to the exception of Water In The Well, which is somehow the ‘most Shame’ song in this record, cheeky and brazen and supported by the backbone of a full-bodied guitar riff). Instead, there is a series of songs which are at their best when listened to organically and in the sequence that they’re meant to be in, with a clear mid-point that allows the listener to catch their breath before plunging into the second half of the record.

It is, lastly, a record that plants seeds, in which we can see the band experimenting with even more new ideas, toying with dissonance and evoking old classics at the same time. The first five tracks on this record are the powerhouse of pure energy we know Shame to be capable of (and that we love them for), but the track that stuck with me here, is closing piece ‘Station Wagon,’ with its intense and vaguely haunting atmosphere and its underbelly of raw emotion.

Chiara Strazzulla

LICE  WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear

I have a particular love of musical enterprises that evade categorisation, as well as ones bold enough to attempt to do something new and unexpected. Both categories apply to WASTELAND, an album in which LICE – a band I can only describe as one of the most riotous experimental outfits which have emerged in the UK in recent years – avoid the usual tiptoeing which often plagues debuts and instead jump right in, with bold ideas and a way of realising them which flirts with both genius and madness.

We might be in the midst of a bit of a revival of the concept album, with many of the most interesting bands on the UK scene taking another look at that idea and using it to their advantage, but this album takes the idea and runs with it to its extreme consequences, incorporating a true worldbuilding, a narrative element, and a multimedia one to an extent that I had not seen since Bowie’s Outside (which may well be one of its ancestors in terms of sound, what with the fascination both have with industrial atmospheres and unusual noises). It would almost be a rock opera, if place of pride was not clearly given to its unique musical voice, which is what truly lingers in the memory after the record is over.

There is nothing else that sounds like this album, due in part to the use of a remarkable contraption called an Intonarumori – a ‘noisemaking machine’ – conceptualised in the work of Luigi Russolo, of the Italian Futurist art movement, and built by the band to infuse the record with a completely different quality of sound which runs through all the tracks and resurfaces here and there to take centre stage. It is not something that was matured in isolation, either, rather the result of much of the experimentation LICE have done in the past both in the studio and on stage, here evolving (or, in places, devolving) into a sound that is harder, more industrial, more metallic and relentless, but also broader, dreamier in places, open to smooth guitars and even the jangling chords of country rock.

It is an album that tells a story, and which demands an immersive experience, where all tracks work best if they are taken as parts of a whole, pieces of a jigsaw which create a bright and complex image, with undertones that range from the political to a reflection on art itself, to the simple joy of making bold, fresh, new music. It is hard to isolate a track in this sense, but the one I keep returning to, and which I feel works especially well even in a vacuum, is ‘Imposter,’ a high-powered post-punk ride with a charmingly demented streak.

Chiara Strazzulla

Strange Bones  England Screams

It’s hard to read the title of this debut by Blackpool’s Strange Bones and not immediately think of the Sex Pistols and their Anarchy in the UK, and harder still not to wonder whether this is deliberate quoting. If not in their sound, which both in its complexity and in the suggestions it chooses to play with has little to do with the old glories of the earliest UK punk, there is something of the Pistols in the way that Strange Bones have always been very political in a cutting, in-your-face way.

There’s plenty of that here, too, an abundance of clever lyrics and the kind of confrontational attitude which keeps the punk spirit very much alive throughout this record. In spite of the title, there is not a lot of screaming to be found in the album, although this does not detract from the impact of frontman Bobby Bentham’s vocals; his electric stage presence is one of the things that make Strange Bones’ live shows memorable – if not infamous – and that energy translates in a vocal delivery that carries more than one track with the sheer impact of its raw delivery.

Elsewhere there’s some playing with other ways of using voice, too, from distortion to rapping to something that has a fleeting spoken-word quality (and a brilliant interplay with guest artists too, with Bob Vylan and PAV4N, of Foreign Beggars, offering outstanding contributions to tracks Menace and Dogma respectively). As strong and passionately delivered as the content of the lyrics is, though, it is complemented by a musical experimentation which is intensely creative and fuelled by the atmosphere of grassroots punk venues and that of the rave scene. The result is tightly balanced between hardcore punk and electronica, most often drawing from both at the same time to create a sound that is distinctively contemporary, very much one of the expressions of what the voice of alternative music in the near future may sound like.

It is this whirlpool of heavy beats and scratchy distortions that powers the frenzied energy at this band’s live shows, and this translates well into the studio, in spite of some sections of the album coming across ever so slightly overproduced. Crank up the volume, though, and you’ll come across a powerful record with a clear-cut message and a definite bite to it. If you’re looking for an entry point into the madness, title track ‘England Screams’ will easily provide you with one.

Chiara Strazzulla

Black Midi  Cavalcade

This is another band which is known for its high-energy live outings, and another second album infused with a level of confidence which was not yet all there in the first (strong as that first album also was). Cavalcade is a demanding record, which even from its first beats makes it very clear that it is going to be so; a record, also, which keeps faith to its title, both in the breadth of its ambitions and in the scope of sounds it’s embracing, and also, lastly, in the steadily racing pace it takes down to its almost solemn last track.

There is no stopping once inside this album, which commands the listener’s attention through changes in chords, in rhythm, in tone, even jarring in places, flirting deliberately with dissonance and with irregular structures, and almost, in a way, deliberately challenging all the reassuring rules given to us by the pop hits in the charts. The seeds of much of this were already present in Black Midi’s previous work, but it is hard not to notice the much higher level of accomplishment this methodical madness has reached here, which in turn enables the band to lean much more heavily into those tracks which are meant to pack a hard punch, and on the other hand to indulge in a mellower, almost soothing mood (albeit always underlain by a hint of restlessness, quite possibly the commanding vibe in this record) in those tracks which require a more immersive pace.

For a record that is doing so much and all at once, the level of finesse with which it all is done is even more stunning: there is the feeling that in the stunningly complex tapestry that is the structure of most songs in this album, not a single element is ever out of place or dropped haphazardly. There’s something of an orchestral flair not only in the use of such a broad range of instruments, but also in the way that the tracks are laid out, a welcome lack of fear in convincingly selling a songwriting so rich in places that it’s almost baroque. The finely honed vocals and the ability to skip seamlessly through influences ranging from almost-metal to experimental jazz do the rest, making Cavalcade a unique listening experience and one not to be missed.

Every track in this record is a microcosm onto itself, and almost every one is worth being singled out; if you’re new to the brilliance of Black Midi, for a first taste of the one-of-a-kind thing that is this record, opening track ‘John L’ serves as both an introduction and a challenge, as well as a harbinger of what is to come.

Chiara Strazzulla

Black Country, New Road  For The First Time

A quick look at the charts these days may easily reveal a depressing truth: we live, in a sense, in the age of jingles – tracks that assume a short attention span for their audience, and one that has to be fed constantly with high-powered stimuli to be kept going. In light of this, even more so one must applaud the boldness of a band that will release a debut record which has, as a centrepiece, a track weighing in at almost ten minutes (and what a track it is, too: more on it later).

Black Country, New Road – this is immediately apparent – play by no rules. The eclectic London seven-piece operate in places more like a collective than a band, and this harmony of voices and ideas is ever-present in the record, echoing through a series of tracks which take their time both in terms of sheer duration (ten minutes they might not all be, but closer ‘Opus’ stands at a notable eight, and all other tracks, too, use all the space they need to build up the many layers of their sound, intertwine their many voices, and come to a coherent whole) and in terms of constructing and delivering a meaning which is often challenging. Challenging, too, in a welcome way, as more and more music intends to be soothing: while post-punk is clearly a completely inadequate description for what this band and this record is doing, one of the foundational elements of the post-punk spirit is very much alive here in the way that almost all tracks attempt to and succeed in pushing the listener to stand within and confront an uncomfortable space.

They do so in spite (and even through) a sound that is soothing as much as it is daunting, and in places even playful; there’s bluesy saxophones in there and charming strings, a choral effort which weaves many small details into a series of tracks which reject simplicity in favour of effectiveness. The glue holding it all together, as well as the narrator guiding the listener into what is an experience as much as a record, is represented by Isaac Wood’s vocals: expressive, subtly satirical, with the smallest hint of self-deprecation both in contents and delivery, they help provide the band with one of the most charismatic voices in this corner of the music scene.

For The First Time is an undoubtedly bold debut, and successful precisely by virtue of its boldness. It does what it wants, and does it well because it does it with abandon. If you want to fully experience the dizziness and immersion that this record brings, you have to face the beast that is ‘Sunglasses,’ a song that is in itself both central section and beating heart of this record, and almost, seen from the right angle, a manifesto for what this band is doing.

Chiara Strazzulla

Flyte This is Really Going to Hurt

It could be said that a heartbreak record is almost like a rites of passage that all artists must tread. The act is sacred. The journey, singular, yet also strangely universal. Heartbreak is what concerns Flyte’s sophomore long-player, aptly titled, This is Really Going to Hurt.

Written during a tumultuous time in the band’s history, the story that this record tells is wracked with heady emotion, vulnerability, catharsis and the smallest touch of sarcasm (see ‘I’ve Got A Girl’). The context and content is anything but light, though, like with all art that explores our own humanity and stares down uncomfortable truths, This is Really Going to Hurt offers its own interesting insights into one of the parts of life that is so complex and multi-faceted, and the way it does this is so eloquently profound that it’s hard to attach a comparison or associate its peer.

What’s really satisfying about this record is that it tells its story linearly, it begins in the thick of the breakup and moves through stages of grief to reach a hefty release before feeling out some kind of internalised existential clarity and hope. The majority of the songs tackle the fallout from a long term romantic relationship, but amongst all of that there is a further twinge of sadness, in that the loss of a comrade, this being the first record which Flyte has released as a trio. In a way this unbinding of the band possibly freed their approach to this second record and allowed them to fully go all in, thematically and musically, without the shackles or demands of expectation, because of the circumstances which surrounded them at the time of making this record. But that’s just a theory.

At the end of the day, it’s an album that reminds us of why we try in love, because these moments mean something to us. Connection is fundamental, the key to our existence, and that’s the actuality of this record: it’s an honouring of what two people can make together, the big feelings and the extent of how far we’ll go to make it work. But alas, not everything works out. And that’s why we have breakup records to comfort us in our times of need.

Charlotte Holroyd

Billie Marten Flora Fauna

Living is hard, to be happy or to reach some form of contentment, takes much work. It can often feel like we live in a world where people are competing rather than collaborating, and the negativity of it all can be overwhelming, it takes its toll on the soul. But for its ills, existence can also be beautiful. And this is one of the takeaways of Flora Fauna, the third studio album by Billie Marten.

It’s a different breed of growth that Marten expresses on Flora Fauna, it’s artistically unlike anything else she has released before and also physically charmed by a newfound liberation of personal progression. A stunning evolution in both sound and character. It’s what we live to create for ourselves. And Marten articulates this growth with such delight that it is nothing but a joy to devour, ‘Garden of Eden’ especially, delivers us here.

Flora Fauna doesn’t rely so much on warmly acoustics, yet it does glance there from time to time, but louder, brasher electric is more preferential here. ‘Human Replacement’ is a perfect example of these bolder tones, a song directed at the treatment of women after dark. Concerned by the fear all girls have to carry of what might happen when walking home alone, based on the stories we’ve heard, our own experiences and a terrible history of news headlines illustrating exactly why those fears are so very real, ‘Human Replacement’ is an eagerly vital piece of work that pushes forward Marten’s insistence to speak out on issues affecting society today.

‘Liquid Love’ is proud, which isn’t a shade we’ve seen a great deal of in Marten’s work previously, it’s a marvellous turn and a step further into this openly courageous world we now reside in, in Flora Fauna. Other songs explore self-worth (‘Ruin,’) the way we love (‘Heaven’) and the hecticness of our modern world (‘Pigeon’). And there’s ‘Walnut,’ which sounds like it could have fallen off of a Nick Cave album. It’s all very thoughtful.

To me, Flora Fauna is the questions and searching’s of a person done with following the blueprint, but now ready to trust their own perspective and learnings. To embrace this awareness of who they are and accept that for what it is. It’s a notion we can all relate to, especially after the past two years we’ve experienced.

Charlotte Holroyd

Gretta Ray Begin To Look Around

Begin To Look Around is quintessentially a coming of age for Gretta Ray, the Melbourne-based singer songwriter’s debut album rip roars through a tidal wave of emotion in fifteen tracks. And it’s breathtaking in every sense.

Along the way there are nods to Ray’s roots (see ‘Bigger Than Me’ for one), carefully placed and only distinguishable if you know where to look and what to look for. It’s smart. Possibly another of those hints to Ray’s deep admiration for Taylor Swift, and equally alike, does Ray compel with her magnificent songwriting and exceptional artistic vision. Truly a rare breed, this artist is. The world that Ray has created with Begin To Look Around is powerful to behold, for a debut you can’t imagine a more refined or assured compilation of sonic, visual and creative ideas. It really is astoundingly comprehensive: the themes, concepts, sounds and techniques are of an advanced class, and they further confirm why Gretta Ray is the real deal. Far from a singer with a bit of potential, but a fully-fledged superstar in the making.

Emboldened and enhanced through a vibrant pop filter, Ray’s production choices have graduated to a place more daring, and her lyrics have become sharper, which has informed the way for this album: telling intimate stories, cinematically. Her collaborators throughout this project further reinforce Ray’s’ ability to make astute decisions about her own art. And the sequencing of this album makes an even stronger case as to why BTLA is exceptionally crafted.

As it goes, sometimes we have to lose it all to find ourselves – and for an album that deeply investigates the experience of falling for someone, losing oneself in that, to discovering cracks in the framework and the chaos that comes with that, to the eventual unwinding of the relationship and subsequent stages of loss, confusion, loneliness, healing and greater understanding. It’s a lot to tackle on a debut album, and to top it off Ray approaches this milestone with a complete overhaul of image, sound and style, credit where credit’s due. In the end, it’s all growth.

Charlotte Holroyd

iris Love and Other Disasters

No words can fully summarise the work of iris, the Norwegian artist captures more than a literal feeling with her music, it goes beyond the surface and into deeply profound places. Love and Other Disasters is much more than an average body of work, it affects in a different way: the different moods it carries transforms a heart along the journey, the construction of this piece transcends traditional structure, as it is far from the standard song, song, interlude, song, we traditionally hear on a pop or alternative record. This body of work seems to have an affect like no other. It is unique.

It also flows a bit like life; continuous, linear, intricate, searching, nuanced and emotionally minded. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. The combination of music, voice and humanity connects on a deeper, trusting level more so than most forms of art ever achieve – and it somehow also sounds magnificently bright, larger than life, like a fantasy, and Love and Other Disasters embodies these elements so effortlessly. Produced by Askjell Solstrand, also known for their work with AURORA and Sigrid, Solstrand is the perfect partner in this, his skill set in bringing out the beauty in the gossamer and the stylised contributes so much to this album’s identity that it would be hard to picture it any other way, because it had to be this way.

The album is very layered and also very stripped in places, the transitions between songs are seamless and makes the whole thing sound as one. It is a praising of the album format in every way. And did we mention, this is a debut album. Woah. Excellence is achievable, people. Even though the soundscapes and production is heavily electronic, it all sounds handmade. And that’s again where working with the right people comes in, one can tell that the team of collaborators surrounding this project offered a safe place for iris to fully express herself, complete and unembellished, and for it to be material of this raw nature it really had to be so. In times like these, it really does seem like the universe is listening.

Charlotte Holroyd

Biffy Clyro The Myth of the Happily Ever After

Part response, part continuation, 2021’s The Myth of the Happily Ever After is considered a sister record to 2020’s A Celebration of Endings. While similar tones are visible in both, this 2021 release is a completely fresh break in intention and creation. Concerned with the human experience and our treatment of each other, Myth… is one of Biffy Clyro’s most assured, most confident, most realised works to date. Thematically it is a part continuation in sound and lyrics of what Biffy Clyro set out to say with A Celebration of Endings, but Myth… goes further and speaks to the time in between these releases: of the pandemic, our time apart, the loss of identity, loss of purpose, and also touches on bigger questions of the existential and philosophical kind. It’s deep. And heavy. Filled with joy. Melody. Meaning. And it’s just really beautiful. Who knew Biffy Clyro could elevate their music to an even higher place than we’ve already seen, but they have. It is humbling to bear witness.

Myth… is remarkably balanced by its different postures and perspectives, it can move between sweet sentiment, pointed fury and vicious assertion in by turns, then it deconstructs life in a way we’ve never heard Biffy Clyro articulate till now – these are some of Simon Neil’s most powerful lyrics in a career abundant with great musings and poetry, it is always astounding when an artist continues to thrill and surprise this far into a career. That’s true artistry for you. Unforeseen, pure as day magic.

Sonically, this album takes what Biffy Clyro is best at and obscures it to make something totally refreshing and writhing alive, again reinforcing this adventurous spirit and creative renaissance. But it could also be read as an awakening, or a reset, maybe. After this great pause maybe a reset was, or is, in order. If we envision A Celebration of Endings as act one: the emotional reckoning/climax of everything that had led the band up to this point, then Myth… as act two: the wiser, tempering mind of a people that has been through the wars and now has the awareness and conviction to confront the darkest ills they’ve experienced, and is ready to move forward with love and compassion into this next phase. This, reveals a profound healing of spirit and soul taking place.

Myth… explores a lot, and is a very interesting album because it does just that. And we look forward to continuing to explore this album and its predecessor in a live format, because it’s still far too early to call it a day on this era.

Charlotte Holroyd

Caoilfhionn Rose Truly

Caoilfhionn Rose really hit her stride on her sophomore LP, Truly, released back in April. Subtly suffusing elements of folk, jazz, ambient and electronica, hers is a sound that is instantly accessible and recognisable, yet at the same time otherworldly and completely impossible to pigeonhole. There’s a quality to the album that’s hard to pinpoint, the effortless way in which it shifts in style and mood, free to experiment yet confident in its form. First-rate production and musicianship from Rose herself and her collaborators elevates this album from start to finish, and is anchored by Rose’s vocals, again containing a fascinating duality of strength and fragility.

Callum Mitchell-Simon

Chloe Foy Where Shall We Begin

Chloe Foy’s debut LP, Where Shall We Begin is a clear labour of love, impeccably crafted from start to finish. Foy’s rich and expansive vocals carry and ground each of these numbers, subtly shifting throughout to give each song its own unique identity. It’s constantly engaging, you truly never hear the same song twice throughout the duration of the album. There’s a naturally empathetic quality to her work, a level of vulnerability and honesty that endears and draws the listener in, fully investing you from start to finish. Lyrically these songs are immaculate; there’s a sense of patience, thoughtfulness, and consideration of the emotional weight that each word, each note, carries with it. 

Callum Mitchell-Simon

Natalie McCool Memory Girl

Liverpool’s Natalie McCool built up to her third LP, Memory Girl, with a string of career-best releases, but it’s fair to say that all ten songs on the album could be singles in their own right, each of them possessing a world of personality into themselves. McCool’s intuition in crafting a note-perfect pop song is unparalleled, and Memory Girl finds her as an artist at the top of their game, committed to her sound but never static. McCool often takes the less conventional route, preferring a left-field approach, and in their pacing and form, these ten tracks together stand as a testament to the album as an enduring art form.

Callum Mitchell-Simon

She Drew The Gun Behave Myself

Centred around singer-guitarist Louisa Roach, Wirral’s She Drew The Gun blazed a trail on their third LP, building on the momentum of their previous two releases. As ever, it’s a breathlessly inventive journey, with modern psychedelic experimentations giving backing to mile-a-minute lyrics, rattling off as a frenzied state of the nation address, as if Roach is running out of time, everything to prove. Yet it’s in the softer, more reflective numbers, such as album highlight ‘Diamonds in Our Eyes’, that we see the most significant development as an outfit, an emotional vulnerability that uncovers new depths and a range that will ensure them longevity in the years to come.

Callum Mitchell-Simon

The Staves Good Woman

The Staveley-Taylor sisters took another great leap forward artistically with this year’s Good Woman LP. It followed an extended absence from the group, following the unexpected death of their mother, a significant influence on their development. Lyrically, they are more profound than ever; musically, willing to take more risks, with a much heavier production on many of the numbers than on previous releases. On moments such as ‘Nothing’s Gonna Happen’ however, where they strip things right back to their roots, their signature three-part harmonies remain the main event, and when they’re in full flow, they remain untouchable, unparalleled.

Callum Mitchell-Simon

girl in red If I Could Make it Go Quiet

If your 2021 has been, by turns, anxious, hopeful and a swirl of emotional confusion, then this could be the album for you.

It’s a searingly honest debut from Marie Ulven who, as girl in red, encapsulates a Generation Z world view of relationships and sexuality.

In a refreshingly compact 33 minutes spread across 11 songs, Ulven spares nothing – not least herself – from her often coruscating gaze and confessional lyrics.

Stylistically there may be a little too much going on at times, despite the fact that the album has very few production credits, but Ulven handles pop-punk on songs like ‘You Stupid Bitch’ as deftly as she does mainstream electronica on ‘I’ll Call You Mine.’

The album already represents a major progression from her early lo-fi recordings and the world could be about to fall at her feet.

Paul Cook

Spud CannonGood Kids Make Bad Apples

It’s been six months since I reviewed the album ahead of its summer release and nothing in the intervening period has changed my impression at the time that I’d still love it come the end of the year.

Hence its appearance on my end of the year list!

It’s like that friend who always guarantees a night out will be a lot of fun. A bit rowdy, a little raucous, not afraid of the dancefloor, and ready with an arm round the shoulder when you need it.

Good Kids Make Bad Apples stretches its nine songs to a little less than 25 minutes of perfectly presented indie pop, ranging from the relaxed ‘Lovely’ with its brass-boosted closing moments to the urgent New Wave tropes of ‘P.O.T.A.T.O.’ Plus, songs with spellings are always welcome.

This Poughkeepsie quintet clearly have a sharp eye – and ear – for a hook and a memorable chorus that you can only hope will get them a breakout.

Paul Cook

Novelty Island How Are You Coping With This Century?

If I’m hearing correctly, album opener – the beautifully wistful ‘This Bird’ – contains “double-decker dodecahedron” amongst its lyrics. Already you’re thinking smart, playful and inventive – and that’s before you get to the music.

Effectively a vehicle for Liverpool songwriter/producer Tom McConnell, Novelty Island’s How Are You Coping… is a wonderful collection of songs on an album that fits together like a well-cut jigsaw – each piece adding something extra and vital to the whole picture.

There’s a three-song run of ‘Ladybird,’ ‘Jangleheart’ and ‘Blackcurrant Sky’ which clearly demonstrates the talent at work here. ‘Ladybird’’s gorgeous simplicity and ‘Blackcurrant Sky’’s druggy surrealism contrast with the hooks and harmonies that make ‘Jangleheart’ so perfect.

The album closes with ‘Yes,’ a song that if Tom turned up at Noel Gallagher’s gaff and said, ‘This is for your old band’s comeback album,’ I think he’d snatch his hand off.

Paul Cook

Squid Bright Green Field

One you very definitely wouldn’t file under Easy Listening, but the rewards for taking on the challenge of Squid’s album are many and varied.

There’s no safe option here. This is a band playing with confidence, and from that stems an ability to keep the listener guessing as to where each song, and the album as a whole, might go next.

For example, the frankly unsettling ‘Boy Racers’ that plays out like one of those psychological horror films where everything takes a terrifying turn around about the midpoint just when you thought everything was going to be OK.

Then there’s the explosive chaos of ‘2010’ and the propulsive krautrock leanings of ‘Pamphlets’ to highlight just two other tracks from a stunning collection.

You hear a variety of styles blended together with elements of jazz and punk that brought to mind the experimentalism of seminal late ‘70s outfit, The Pop Group.

Paul Cook

Dry Cleaning New Long Leg

The echoes of the past are never far away across the ten songs that make up this album, and the influences sound like they are from the heavyweight end of post-punk, especially Gang of Four, PiL and Joy Division.

But this is far from a lazy retread of that era’s finest moments. It’s an album that not only invites comparison with some legendary names, but also deserves to sit alongside their work.

There’s an interesting and compelling detachment between what’s going on musically and the spoken narration of Florence Shaw – using lyrics which range from the bizarre to the jarringly mundane.

The musicians, Tom Dowse on guitar, Lewis Maynard (bass) and drummer Nick Buxton mesh beautifully, perhaps heard to best effect on the title track and ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’ but, honestly, you would be hard pushed to call out the album’s strongest songs as there’s not a weak moment amongst them.

Paul Cook

Stream the entire catalogue of music featured, via BSS’ Albums of the Year 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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