Benjamin Kuettel

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Talons' 2016 Favorites

This was a difficult list to rank given all the good stuff that came out this year. RIP to musical legends who've passed in 2016 including David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, and Greg Lake. If you feel like it comment your favs of the year.
1Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Skeleton Tree

Skeleton Tree is a captivating, heart-rending meditation from a true artist coming to terms with the most horrific tragedy a person can experience. Many of the tracks in Skeleton Tree see Cave paint bizarre, beautiful pictures of lost loves in much the same way as predecessor Push The Sky Away did. Continuing from where it left off, the instrumentation is largely based on dissonant string arrangements and unsettling ambience. The bare bones playing provides appropriate musical terrain for Cave to exorcise his demons, giving a tense feeling over the listening experience. This is due largely to the vulnerable, and sometimes even quivering vocal performance by Cave. Skeleton Tree is meant to be a record for everyone, a naked, honest depiction of true grief in musical form. This is as much a sorrowful exploration as a loving sendoff for his fans, but more importantly, for himself.
A Moon Shaped Pool

After the half-decade since The King of Limbs, Radiohead are back again. They shift their musical focus once more in favor of moody atmospheres and engaging compositions with spacey vibes throughout. The instrumentation includes strings and less emphasis on electronics, recalling the warm yet melancholy qualities of In Rainbows. Despite largely being a downtempo, more ambient affair, there are driving guitars with tense builds like in album highlight “Ful Stop.” This is among the best on A Moon Shaped Pool along with “Daydreaming,” “True Love Waits,” “Present Tense,” and “Decks Dark.” Sure to be divisive among fans like many recent releases, this takes many listens to fully sink in; A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s most quiet and subtle offering yet. When you give it a chance, it becomes clear that this is counted among the best music of the year.

The atmosphere of Japanese folklore comes alive through Alcest’s vision in the euphoric odyssey of Kodama. While Shelter was an enjoyable diversion from the band's sound, Kodama sees Alcest once again emphasizing sweeping post-rock atmospheres colliding with intense metal soundscapes. “Je Suis D’ailleurs,” “Untouched” and the heavenly title track in particular further the band’s spiritual qualities, with multicolored waterfalls of sound hearkening to the dizzying atmospheres of magnum opus Écailles de Lune. Kodama rivals Neige's greatest creation for his most focused and cinematic effort yet. He is still going his own way to outstanding effect, casting aside genre labels and harnessing a more sophisticated sound than the typical dynamic motifs one hears in the genre of "blackgaze." The band keeps to their dreamy, yet abstract and complex musical explorations they have always excelled in. Kodama once again proves that Alcest are still making music at the peak of their potential.
4David Bowie

After his passing, I went through David Bowie’s back catalogue before checking this one out, having only heard his most famous songs and seen some movie performances of his. Suffice it to say I was stunned with the forward thinking musical ideas of Station to Station, Low, Heroes, and others. After being exposed to the highly emotional and praising reception to his final record, I was finally ready to give it a listen. It was certainly different to what I was expecting, and was especially impressed with the title track, Lazarus, and the final two songs. Much like Skeleton Tree, there’s a lot of melancholy and character to Blackstar, with a beautiful sense of catharsis at the end.

I discovered The Blue in a large record store while visiting Italy shortly after it came out in 2007, soon becoming a favorite metal act of mine. The years went by without a new record, and I could see that this underrated band wasn’t going to gain many fans if they remained quiet. Well early this year they announced new material, a few months later releasing the single “Umana” and blowing away familiar and new listeners alike. Ursa overall is a more patient record than its predecessor The Blue, with less emphasis on genre bending. “Australis,” “Umana,” “Agathae,” and “Fin” are counted with the best songs they ever wrote, lending Ursa to the triumphant feel it exudes for much of the running time. The fluid atmospheres recall bands like Opeth and Katatonia, while sounding just as original. With a masterful command of structure and compelling songwriting ideas, Ursa is among the finest melodic metal records in recent years.

After a lengthy eight years of inactivity, Coldworld returns with one of the best metal albums of the year. Autumn features a plethora of added instrumentation and melodic vocals not heard before from the one-man black metal project. It's reminiscent of last year's Autumn Eternal by Panopticon in a lot of ways, even featuring folk instrumentation and female vocals. This makes for a noticeable departure from Coldworld's rawer debut, with Autumn embodying a full range of sounds for a more polished, superior offering that even has moments of optimism, particularly within the post-rock influenced "Womb of Emptiness" and the folkish "The Wind and the Leaves." Coldworld have once again released a masterful modern metal record, one that was well worth the nearly decade long wait.
Everything and Nothing

The latest from Hammock has more elements of fuzzy shoegazing, uplifting guitars, and percussion than their more traditionally ambient releases. However, much of the album’s focus lies in fuzzy shoegazing and uplifting guitars. The aural beauty of Oblivion Hymns is retained; only this time they’ve added a rock band. The airy melodies mesh with the dreamy atmospheres seamlessly throughout, with “Dissonance” and “She Was in the Field Counting Stars” sharing similar themes of bittersweet longing, with male and female vocals interplaying gorgeously. Forays into dream pop like “Glassy Blue,” “…Beautiful Again,” and the uplifting title track are just some of the album highlights. Everything and Nothing might be the duo’s most diverse offering, and their most refreshing in years. Hammock continue to evolve in refreshing displays of mournful, yet also uplifting explorations, always making the voyage unexpected and sincere.
The Glowing Man

Meditative and hypnotic, The Glowing Man possesses even less traditional song structures than the band's previous efforts. It contains more serene soundscapes than To Be Kind like the album opener, with no bangers in the form of "Oxygen" to be found. Some nods toward their gothic past take the form of the shorter tracks like Finally, Peace, while longer epics require the listener's full patience to completely absorb. It bears a few too many similarities to To Be Kind, but The Glowing Man stands as a fantastic outing nonetheless, and one of the highlights of the year.

Ulver's latest is one that convalesces together elements of psychedelic rock, drone, and ambience into a pulsing, organic entity. It's almost too easy to get lost in the beautiful soundscapes, as well as the dark, trancing noise that permeates the mind. The hypnotic qualities Ulver have explored in the past are brought to the forefront here, revealing the band's masterful use of haunting and emotionally engaging atmospheres.
Terminal Redux

I grew up on many kinds of music, thrash metal one of the most essential. For almost a decade now I’ve been jamming with friends, first with Rock Band and Guitar Hero, then on to real instruments. By high school we were able to alternate between guitar, bass, and drums at our choosing, while all belting out the powerful vocals of legends like Megadeth and Slayer. Despite college consuming much of our lives over the past four years, we’re still able to keep playing together when back in our home town. Thrash metal has largely stagnated since the mid 1990s, with Vektor being the only real saviors. This album blew me away when I first pressed play, and showing it to those friends who I continue to play with over the summer really brought back the power and fun of what metal can be. While not perfect, Terminal Redux is among the most important metal albums of the decade for pushing the genre forward with new and innovative ideas.

Naturalistic vibes and explorative songwriting galore, Sorceress emphasizes adventure above all else. It manifests a warm, yet occult atmosphere, particularly within the gorgeous "Sorceress 2" and colorful "The Wilde Flowers." The unpredictable qualities of Watershed and Heritage are certainly intact, especially regarding the instrumentation; don't be surprised when a rollicking progressive metal jam fully transforms into beautiful musical passages of acoustic guitar pluckings and ethereal mellotrons. There are unfortunately some bland lyrics similar to the weaker moments of Pale Communion, but vocals are improved with Akerfeldt giving his best performance in a decade. While Sorceress may be too disjointed or tranquil for some, Opeth nevertheless continue developing their new musical styles triumphantly.
12Yndi Halda
Under Summer

After ten years, Yndi Halda return with a beautiful debut album perfect for the month of summer. While some musical passages might go on longer than they need to, the build-ups are handled well, crescendoing into gorgeous soundscapes and bursts of energy. There just enough vocals to add color without overpowering the instrumental focus. Overall they are used rarely and effectively, especially adding to the beauty of the album’s first few minutes. Violins and other strings give a classical feel reminiscent of Sigur Ros. While not quite reaching the heights of Enjoy Eternal Bliss from a decade before, Under Summer can be counted among the essential post-rock albums of the year.
The Fall of Hearts

Katatonia have achieved legendary status in the realm of Swedish heavy metal, with an evolution not dissimilar to English counterparts Anathema and Paradise Lost. One element that has remained intact throughout their various transformations is their masterful use of atmosphere, even if the compositional component has been largely streamlined by now. The Fall of Hearts is thankfully a largely adventurous offering, more so than anything the band have recorded in many years; bold musical explorations are abound while keeping with the doom and gloom that makes up the marrow of Katatonia’s sound. Dreary, melodic guitar riffs and melodies transform beautifully over Jonas Renkse’s sorrowful vocals throughout album highlights like “Serein,” “Serac,” “Decima,” and “Residual.” The Fall of Hearts is the band’s most sonically expansive release in over a decade, further establishing Katatonia as masters of their craft, always achieving, changing, and exploring.

I’m a sucker for this kind of atmospheric music, and I love when albums like this really take their time. Wistful rarely ever drags, and develops beautifully throughout. The angelic vocal layers are a huge strength, making for a meditative listening experience despite some of the bombast. Neige from Alcest is behind the instrumentation, lending this to feel almost like a companion album to his band. Highly recommended for fans of Alcest, and of atmospheric music in general.
Eye of the Soundscape

Riverside emerge from the ashes of tragedy with a double-album of instrumental explorations: some old, some new. Past successes "Rapid Eye Movement" and "Rainbow Box" are treated with remixes, and arguably surpass the originals. Ambient bonus tracks of the previous two albums are included as well. As if all of this content wasn't enough for a tantalizing compilation, four new tracks are also present. Two of them, "Where The River Flows" and the title track, bookend the album, all four comprised of atmospheric textures with a notable absence of progressive rock or metal flourishes. The minimal showcasing of guitars here will surprise many fans, but Piotr Grudzinski is still honored, just in a different way than one would assume. His contributions possess a subtle, dreamy quality that recalls the more thoughtful Riverside compositions. All in all, this serves as a fitting, loving sendoff for Grudzinski, as well as an intriguing reminder of their ever-shifting musical qualities.
16The Jezabels

I stumbled on Prisoner a few years ago, and considered The Jezabels among the better indie bands of the time. Synthia is their best record yet, with subtle touches from all kinds of musical styles like dance and electronica providing interesting results behind the anthemic indie rock sound. This certainly is a gripping listen, with a lot of dimensions to it including vulnerability, love, loss, and triumph. It’s not quite as straightforward as the band’s previous two, and feels more urgent overall. Everything comes together and feels strange yet beautiful, with moments of irony lending to the personality the band have shown to possess. Synthia shows an alternative band continuing to grow into themselves, delivering an impassioned exercise in social issues, heartbreak, and naked emotion.
17Explosions in the Sky
The Wilderness

The Wilderness signifies important changes for Explosions in the Sky: most notably, a more expansive instrumental palette and a willingness to fearlessly explore new sonic terrain. The band utilizes shorter track lengths as well, lending to a more easily digestible listening experience while taking their sound into bold new directions. Their musical style welcomes emphases of low end and electronica throughout. "Disintegration Anxiety" has stunning bass guitar and "Tangle Formations" is a moment of meditative beauty. "Landing Cliffs" is the real highlight however, being one of the most blissful songs of the year. These qualities and more make The Wilderness a reassuring response to those who thought Explosions were perhaps becoming too comfortable repeating past successes. This is truly a diverse and heady post-rock release that should not be missed by fans of the genre.
Fires Within Fires

Fires Within Fires takes on a more purposeful feel than previous Neurosis albums, being the shortest and most easily digestible from them in many years. This demands a close listen more than anything else, as the subtleties in each track flicker by quickly. Tempos are largely increased here, making for a refreshing groove feel present in many of the heavier moments. The songwriting is top notch as always, feeling massive in scope and is consistently engrossing, with enough new tricks to keep it interesting. Faster songs and a willingness to further explore their calmer odysseys make for their most rewarding release in over a decade. “Reach” is their best song in 10 years.
19Steven Wilson
4 1/2

A mini-album companion to Hand. Cannot Erase. from last year. Mellotrons and keys swirl into the mix frequently, culminating the album’s first four songs into a warmly engaging experience wholly worthwhile to those who connected to the haunting and tragic themes of H.C.E. 4 ½ continues what made H.C.E. such a worthwhile and emotional album in the best of ways. Anyone curious to hear more meditations in that vein, as well as experience a couple new experimentations, will find much of value in this brief, miniature LP. So soon after the release of his strongest solo outing, Wilson proves once again that he continues to consistently have plenty to offer those who are willing to immerse themselves into his melancholic, psychedelic musical world.
20Kayo Dot
Plastic House on Base of Sky

Kayo Dot take the sci-fi aspects of Coffins on Io and turns them up to 11. Flurrying keyboards and frantic vocals are a near constant throughout, drawing on the styles of Coffins… while taking them to frenetic heights. The band members paint a surreal picture through abstract, mind-altering sounds of the future. The music here is dense and unrelentingly dynamic, with no real reprieve until the beautiful outro track. Avant-garde and electronic musical styles, along with the lyrics, conjure forth strange imagery of a decrepit, alien future with electrifying energy and incredible musicianship. Each listen yields fresh discoveries, particularly with the role of guitars subtlely adding to the screaming walls of sound the album at times descends into. To reveal all the album’s secrets would lessen its impact, and a full listen of the esoteric Plastic House on Base of Sky will show how rewarding Kayo Dot can be, as evolved and mesmerizing as always.

Deftones keep getting better and better, with Gore expertly infusing their crushing metal with tranquil, blissful soundscapes. The instrumental performances here are among the finest aspects of the record. Every band member shines on Gore, with vocalist Chino Moreno’s contributions and Stephen Carpenter’s guitars being the highlights. The sheer variety of the guitars exhibits how well Deftones marry together so many contrasting elements. Tracks like “Hearts/Wires” and “Pittura Infamante” will transition from beautifully melodic guitars to heavy riffing with the grace and subtlety that few bands like this can achieve. Gore is Deftones further pushing their sound in a more melodic and rewarding direction. They’re still taking chances and experimenting wildly, further cementing the group as among the best metal bands still making music.

One of the better blackgaze albums I’ve heard, with hardly any actual black metal elements at all. The music is actually fairly triumphant and bombastic throughout. It seems strange to compare this to Rush, but they’re a good example of hard-hitting music that can sound, well, happy and upbeat without getting cheesy. It’s a fine line to ride, but select bands can do it, and the results are always fascinating. Luckily Astronoid have the songwriting chops to back up such genre-bending decisions as combining thrash metal, dream pop, and whatever else this is. I’d say that in a way, this album is fun if nothing else, and is a great example of metal music for people who don’t like metal. Most blackgaze fans would dig this, as sort of resembles Melting Sun by Lantlos if the tempos were three times faster with catchier sensibilities.
To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere

This might not be among their best, but this is Thrice delivering some solidly catchy songs. Unfortunately some potential is lost in generic moments of tracks like “Stay With Me,” “Wake Up,” and “Blood on the Sand,” particularly in the choruses. There are a few highlights here worth giving multiple listens to, like “Death From Above,” "The Long Defeat"/"Seneca," and “Hurricane.” To Be Everywhere is to be Nowhere sounds like a move towards the mainstream, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the post-hardcore influences of the past are practically nonexistent here. Strong tracks like the aforementioned highlights, as well as “The Window” and “Salt and Shadow” mean the band are still pumping out high quality music with topical lyrics, emotional resonance, and instrumental prowess.
City Sun Eater In The River Of Light

I had never heard of this band before until randomly clicking on Atari’s review for this. From what I understand, they’ve been releasing music on a heavy basis for years. I haven’t heard anything by them before, but this is definitely one of the best indie records of the year in my opinion. There’s psychedelia, personality, and varied instrumentation aplenty to keep things interesting. It’s different enough from other bands that make it very replayable as well, with the music serving a variety of functions, be it a cookout, study music, or a drive through the sweltering desert.
End Codes

One of the more experimental rock albums on this list. Astronauts are an underappreciated indie band that deserves more attention, and will probably make it big some day. Their second album, End Codes, has a very gentle feel to many of the compositions, but the quirky songwriting is enough to stand out from the rest. While being quirky, much of this band’s music is subtle and restrained. Very much their own sound, the band does a great job of making thoughtful and poignant music while not getting too melancholic, which suits them.
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