Fortunately, I didn't have to look too hard to hear great music this year. This list contains a couple of great comeback records, entries from bands I'd never heard of one year ago, a fairly international flavour (seven nations represented), and you can even dance to some of it.
TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2011
10. Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will"
In the past few years, Mogwai envisioned themselves as a post-rock Sabbath and worked overtime to make the label stick. In 2011, they seem to have given up that dream, but whereas most directionless bands get stuck in a downward spiral toward eternal mediocrity, Mogwai were able to fall back into the myriad of styles they used to do so well. The result was a record that sounded like a career-in-review retrospective (not unlike Orbital's "Blue Album" in that respect), and an album that nearly deserved to make this list on the basis of its title and "George Square Thatcher Death Party" alone.
9. Surgeon, "Breaking the Frame"
Surgeon's tracks made up the best parts of Mike Huckaby's somewhat disappointing 20th Anniversary Mix for Tresor. Maurizio and Robert Hood best represent Tresor's past, but Surgeon captures their present and future better than anyone -- cavernous, grim, and punishing techno music.
8. Tim Hecker, "Ravedeath, 1972"
Tim Hecker's records might all sound the same, but he's one of the few artists who can turn his predictability into a badge of quality and reliability. And remember, Hecker is always at his best when he's at his harshest. This music was never meant to be too relaxed or too pretty.
7. I Break Horses, "Hearts"
I Break Horses aren't afraid of a few loud guitars and effects that resemble melting the tape as you're playing it back, which is what makes them a much better band than your average twee faux-shoegazers. This album would have finished higher if it wasn't for its Verve-like inconsistency in the second half.
6. Modeselektor, "Monkeytown"
There's no genre of electronic music that these guys won't touch, and they don't seem to be getting bored of trying out as many as possible. And it bears repeating that more artists should be making albums in the spirit of Orbital's bleepy genre-melting classic "Snivilisation".
5. Death In Vegas, "Trans-Love Energies"
Death In Vegas appear to be getting better as their music gets less and less commercial-sounding. They even took seven years off to really make people forget about them, helping to ensure that their newest album wouldn't sell. The big loser is Richard Fearless' bank account. The winners are fans of: obscure krautrock, scuzz rock, Martin Hannett's productions, and Cabaret Voltaire c. 1989-1990.
4. The Caretaker, "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World"
See, the simplest ideas really are the best ideas. How hard can it be to loop a few melodies from old ballroom 78's, add some hiss and static, pitch them down a bit, and call it an album?
3. Wolves In the Throne Room, "Celestial Lineage"
I don't even know how to describe this one, but who knew that psychedelic West Coast operatic black metal could be so good? The gloriously fuzzy guitars may only be the icing on the cake.
2. PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake"
It's probably safe to say that this is the best WWI concept album ever made, and should remain so for the forseeable future. PJ Harvey took her talent for writing "character" songs to a new level in a wholly unexpected direction, and her voice has never sounded this good.
1. M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"
Let's review how M83 and Spiritualized have followed the same career path over their first four albums. We'll need to ignore that M83's eponymous album was their debut, although I suppose we could still include it if we took the second half of S3's "Recurring" to be Spiritualized's debut album. But not right now.
"Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts", "Lazer Guided Melodies". Still hailed as their best album by those who still see this as being the embodiment of a "signature" style that they never bettered. Contains some of their most beloved songs that remained live staples for years even though the original recordings didn't fit with the evolving style of the band ("Run Into Flowers", "0078h"/"Shine a Light", "Take Your Time"). The last album where they could really be considered a band, rather than a group of musicians backing up a visionary frontman.
"Before the Dawn Heals Us"/"Pure Phase". The transition album. Not quite what they once were (when their former bandmates were around), not yet what they would become, but somewhere at the midway point in the redefinition process. Mostly instrumental, but with a few standout vocal tracks.
"Saturdays = Youth"/"Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space". A merging of dormant genres (shameless 80's fanboyism, free jazz and psychedelic skronk) with the music they were already known for, finally, the vision is complete and only their respective frontmen could have seen it coming. The vocals are emerging from the background and becoming more front and centre. Yet another album-of-the-year quality release, their combination of consistency and excellence can no longer be ignored.
"Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"/"Let It Come Down". The vocals, which used to be shyly emoted from somewhere deep in the mix, have taken on the role of a lead instrument. You could always sing along to their music, but never like this. Just when you thought they couldn't get more maximal, they did it.
Where do M83 go from here? Maybe they'll continue on like Spiritualized, scale back their music as a reaction to the dense and heavy sound of "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming", and begin their slow retreat from the head of the pack. Nobody can keep releasing albums this good forever, can they? In my pantheon, Orbital released three straight classics, as did Spiritualized, but nobody has ever released four in a row, not at this level.