This is not a top ten. I'm not ranking them or anything. I'm really pretty slow about getting hipped to new music every year, but here are a dozen or so that I have been digging throughout 2011. Buy all of these.
1. CAVE - Neverendless
More tight motorik grooves from Chicago's best krautrock enthusiasts. The first and last songs are my favorite ones on here. I'll defer to the wonderful review in the Chicago Reader from a couple months back, since I can't write a better one.
CAVE on Drag City
On the rise
2. Peaking Lights - 936
This album just feels good to listen to (especially in the summer, or when you're trying to pretend it's warm). I first saw Peaking Lights at Bitchpork a couple of summers ago, and have been digging them ever since. This is probably the album from 2011 I have played the most. Repetitive, bouncy dub basslines with psyched-out, homemade synths and pretty words. If that doesn't sound like much then you don't know what you're missing.
3. Death Grips - Exmilitary
I'm not gonna pretend to be some connoisseur of rap music, but this mixtape is pretty sick. You've got rhythmic extraordinaire Zach Hill making fucked up beats for MC Ride to spit all over. The ridiculousness is turned all the way up for the whole set, and it is pretty damn intense. Critics are all saying this is hardcore punk pretending to be rap, which I guess isn't too inaccurate. If Black Flag samples are cool to you, or if you enjoy lyrics about being fucked up on DMT and listening to Sonic Youth, you should probably get this. I put up my own link but it appears to be free from Death Grips' website. Here's a video:
4. The Psychic Paramount - II
Holy christ, what an album this is. Like the CAVE album above, the song titles are pretty much indecipherable, and the emphasis is on the extremely tight instrumentation. Besides liking some bands such as Tortoise, I have no idea what the term 'post-rock' is supposed to mean, but it has apparently been applied to the Psychic Paramount. Regardless of what you take away from that description, know that these dudes most certainly know how to rock. II is noisy, psychedelic, incredibly rhythmic (the songs were composed on drums), and easily one of my favorite albums of 2011.
5. Pink Reason - Shit in the Garden
Pink Reason songs often sound like they're recorded on the comedown from a heroin binge (see the excellent Winona 7" for prime examples). And that's cool. But this year Kevin De Broux (sometime member of Psychedelic Horseshit) put out something bigger. Shit in the Garden definitely sounds more produced than most of Pink Reason's previous work, but not in a bad way. Just sounds like Mr. De Broux spent more time putting this one together. There's electronic glitch-beats, soaring pop anthems, swirling psych-punk guitar, banjo, and equal doses of bitter and sweet throughout. This album reminded me of some of Egor Letov's early '90s stuff (Egor who, you ask? I'll post later), which makes sense since Kevin lived in Siberia for a couple of years in the '90s (and is compiling info for a book on Soviet-era Russian punk while touring Eastern Europe). Listen, this record is really good.
6. The Spits - V
If I tried to write too much about the Spits, it would come off as unnecessary intellectualizing. For those who don't know, the Spits are a punk band. They play punk music and they play it well. If you dig the Ramones and Misfits, then there's nothing not to like here. Seriously, just look at the cover art.
7. Matana Roberts - Coin Coin, Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres
What we have here is a brilliant (free-?) jazz concept album about an 18th-century slave who manages to get herself freed, and all of the agonizing shit that happens prior to that. It ends on a hopeful note but I won't spoil anything, since I can't tell it as good as Matana. The playing is good, and runs the gamut from bouncy swing 1920s jazz to cosmic free jazz with prepared guitar, but the thing everyone will really like about this record is Roberts' fierce storytelling vocals. This record is punk as fuck, and my stupid review can't possibly do it justice.
8. Tom Waits - Bad as Me
He's still good. Overall, I'm not really familiar with Tom Waits' recent stuff, but my dad burned me a a copy of this CD so I've been digging it. It's a mix of Beefheartian blues free-kouts, soulful laments, and rocking the fuck out. There's even an aside of 'Auld Lang Syne,' just in time for your depressing plod into the New Year. My favorite song on here is almost definitely the Iraqistan-vet dirge 'Hell Broke Luce.' My god, it's Tom Waits, why are you still reading this? Just get it.
9. Dirty Beaches - Badlands
This, I believe, is Taiwanese-Canadian Alex Zhang Hungtai's first proper record as Dirty Beaches, although he did release some instrumental stuff under the name. Badlands is a minimal, lo-fi, washed-out perversion of 1950s rockabilly. Songs of isolation, empty highways, and dirt, coming out sounding like Alan Vega singing for Les Rallizes Dénudés (the song 'A Hundred Highways' is, in fact, just like Rallizes' 'Night of the Assassins'). What's that, a Suicide reference AND Rallizes? It must be good...
10. Iceage - New Brigade
Basically everyone ever thinks this record is amazing. With that kind of hype, one must wonder: is it actually good? As far as I can tell, it is very good. Iceage sound a bit like Wire playing hardcore, or like if Jay Reatard was from Denmark instead of Memphis. I was so pissed to have missed their Chicago date this past summer (Raw Nerve was opening, I believe), because they're supposed to be even better live. In any case this sub-25 minute post-punk blast is something you probably have already, but check it out if you haven't. New Brigade has been confusingly in and out of print all year (selling like fucking hotcakes, man), so I just posted an insound link for those of you cool enough to buy it.
BONUS: Great EPs and 7"s of 2011
1. Cülo - Toxic Vision
Cülo never fails to impress, and this is probably my favorite record they've put out so far (that new split with Tenement is pretty tight, though). I guess 'Brain Cavity' and the titular track are my favorites, but it's sort of pointless to pick because it's a short record and all the songs are great. It has been many a morning these past few months that Toxic Vision was the thing that got me out of bed to bike to class. Some of the best hardcore Chicagoland has to offer.
2. Broken Water - Peripheral Star
Broken Water are a spaciously-noisy post-punk band from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (Olympia? Portland? I forget), and this EP was their follow-up to 2010's Whet, which was also great. Peripheral Star is a winning combination of pop brilliance and punk aggression with male-female vocals and Sonic Youth sheets of noise. 'Stop Means Stop' is straight-up riot grrrl. The last song is sung in Japanese, so that's pretty cool.
Peripheral Star on Perennial Death (scroll down a little)
3. Poor Choice - Teenage Love is Beautiful
Hardcore that's not too (read: unlistenably) hardcore and punk that is plenty punk. All the songs except for the title track are less than one minute, and cover such topics as hating work, playing D&D, and being at house shows (or so I think; the lyrics are rather unintelligible). The music itself is just perfectly executed, and the bass throws mud and shit all over the place. I regularly listen to this on repeat; if you play it 6 times it makes for a great LP.
4. Tyvek - Time Change
Tyvek sounding like Tyvek in three quick garagey punk bursts. As usual, the fidelity is fucked and the instruments are trashed. This was a 7" from their tour of Europe or something. In any case it burns as well as any other Tyvek release.
5. The Outs - We Are the Outs
This is one that I posted earlier in the year, but if you didn't get it then you should get it now.