Snarky, jaded types may grumble that no real quality new music came out in 2010, but those cynics are just wrong. 2010 was actually the killer kickoff to a sonically rich new decade, with a slew of cool upstart indie acts and a few promising pop newbies as well.
And so, to silence all doubters, here are the year's alphabetically assembled brightest breakouts...
Best Coast - Bethany Cosentino was hands-down the coolest indie chick of 2010, and her album Crazy For You--with its Spectorian girl-group harmonies, crushed-out lyrics, and odes to Cali sunshine--seemed like something one of the Beach Boys' granddaughters might record. This California girl subsequently landed on many critics' best-of lists, and indie boys from coast to coast dreamed that she was crooning her sunny unrequited-love anthem "Boyfriend" just for them. Sadly for those guys, Bethany was already one-half of 2010's indie it-couple, with Wavves leader Nathan Williams.
Broken Bells - The pairing of James Mercer, long-faced frontman for the mopey indie band the Shins, and Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley/Gorillaz fame, didn't seem like it would work on paper. But screw paper! On record, this unlikely meeting of the minds and MIDIs made for one of the finest albums of the year. Maybe Natalie Portman got it wrong in Garden State--maybe Broken Bells are actually the band that will change your life.
Bruno Mars - In an age of Auto-Tune, Bruno was pop's great bright hope in 2010. A man who could do it all--add soul to Travie McCoy and B.o.B. songs, co-write great tunes for other stars ("Right Round" by Flo Rida, "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan, "F*** You" by Cee Lo) while still saving enough awesome material for his own debut album, actually sing and play live--this charismatic former Michael Jackson impersonator seemed like the most likely successor to MJ's throne. No wonder he was nominated for a whopping seven Grammys this year.
The Drums - Synthpoppers Elkand (formerly Goat Explosion) were one of the great under-the-radar indie bands of the mid-2000s, and this year ex-Elkland/Goat Explosion founders Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham triumphantly returned with a new Brooklyn-based buzz band, the Drums, and finally enjoyed the fame and acclaim that unjustly eluded their former project. Soon they were one of THE most promising new bands of 2010, receiving fawning accolades in the U.K., where they won an NME Award for Best New Band, toured with Florence & The Machine and Kings Of Leon, and collaborated with Mark Ronson. British music mag NME in fact declared the Drums "New York's official coolest new band...the most contagiously energetic NYC band of the past 10 years," indicating that the Drums just may follow in the Converse'd footsteps of the last gang of NYC indie darlings to break big in Britain before doing so in America: The Strokes, who basically were the NME posterboys circa 2000/2001. Luckily, like the Strokes back in the day, the Drums definitely lived up to their hype.
Dum Dum Girls - Hurray for more cool California girls! In a year when vapid pop fembots ruled the charts, it was great to see real women making real music, almost hearkening back to the '90s heyday of bands like Lush, Elastica, Throwing Muses, and the Breeders, or the early IRS Records days of the pre-makeover Go-Go's and Bangles. There was nothing dum about the Dum Dum Girls' smart pop in 2010.
Fitz & The Tantrums - A supercool Motown-style combo in the Mark Ronson/Sharon Jones/mid-period-ABC vein (imagine if Amy Winehouse was blonde, male, and sane, and that's Fitz), this L.A. retro-soul band broke out in a big way in 2010, touring with Sharon Jones and Maroon 5 and performing on the Internet show hosted by Fitz's idol Daryl Hall, "Live At Daryl's House." The group's first full-length release, Pickin' Up The Pieces, reached number 20 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, and in 2011 we hope to feel a lot more heat from them.
Free Energy - Christopher Walken once immortally cried out for "more cowbell!" in a Blue Oyster Cult-themed "Saturday Night Live" skit, and Free Energy--aka Philadelphia's modern-day, indie-rock answer to the Sweathogs--heeded the call on Stuck On Nothing, a cowbell-laden slab of unabashedly Rick Springfieldian powerpop. The album, quite charmingly if not conveniently, was available on cassette, and even featured rainbow-bedecked cover art that '70s kidz certainly would've recreated in scented Papermate ink on the denim covers of their Trapper Keepers back in the day. Whether Free Energy were dead serious or tongue-cheeked in their pursuit of retro-riffic fast times, the end result was a fun find that sounded totally rad blasting out of car speakers this past summer--whether those speakers belonged to a Camaro convertible or, say, a Prius.
Games - Games--Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) and Joel Ford (of Tigercity)--seemed obsessed with bringing the 1980s into 2010, and they pretty much accomplished that mission, by using analog synths, lo-fi drum machines, and old-skool production techniques to create their vinyl-only debut EP, That We Can Play. The result was funky-fresh electric boogaloo that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a "Miami Vice" soundtrack or at a Detroit house party circa 1984, yet was still incredibly future-shockingly modern. Let the Games begin!
How To Dress Well - With a boastful stage name like How To Dress Well, the artist also known Tom Krell better be one cool cat. And indeed he is. But rest assured, this experimental one-man indie-soul project isn't all style and no substance. HTDW in fact cites such artistic inspirations and influences as surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, philosopher Immanuel Kant, and musical acts ranging from The-Dream to Einsturzende Neubauten to '90s R&B lotharios like Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat. Additionally, his day job in research involves translating a book of "post-Kantian philosophy" in Cologne, Germany (where he resides when he's not in trendy Brooklyn), and he's currently studying for his Ph.D. Not too shabby. With an impressive dossier like that--not to mention his eerie falsetto that the Village Voice likened to "Maxwell on Xanax"--How To Dress Well is clearly a man of style, a modern-day Renaissance man of sorts. And his debut album Love Remains was one of the most fashionable indie releases of the year.
MNDR - MNDR, aka Amanda Warner and Peter Wade, first came to widespread attention when Amanda sang on uberproducer Mark Ronson's "Bang Bang Bang" single alongside rap legend Q-Tip (and very much held her own). But the electropop duo, set to release their debut album in early 2011, will soon be making a name for themselves. And since they even recorded one of their songs, "Fade To Black," in the Simlish language of The Sims video game, we expect them to have seriously international, multicultural appeal.
Mumford & Sons - Most of 2010's crop of NME-endorsed British buzz bands created a racket with electric guitars and techno keyboards, but Mumford & Sons generated just as loud a buzz with such lo-fi instruments as mandolin, accordion, banjo, dobro, double-bass...and hardly any drums. The instrument-swapping London folk-rockers actually have more in common with legendary Americana acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds, or even with modern-day U.S. buzz band the Fleet Foxes, than with other newbie British acts...although the Sons' rustic, harmony-laden sound is most definitely their own. And it is a sound that easily translated and connected with tastemakers in America, as they racked up multiple Grammy nominations this year, including Best New Artist.
Nicki Minaj - Say what you will about hip-hop's most polarizing princess, but darling Nicki was was a superstar before her debut album Pink Friday even came out, thanks to her many memorable collabos with Ludacris, Lil' Wayne, Usher, Trey Songz, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, will.i.am, Gucci Mane, and countless others. A woman with at least five different rap alter egos and a personality big enough to encompass all of them, it's no wonder her Pink Friday disc debuted at number two on the Billboard chart when it came out in November 2010 (the second-highest sales week for a female hip-hop artist, after Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation). This woman was simply unstoppable in 2010.
Sleigh Bells - These Brooklyn pop experimentalists (former Poison The Well member Derek Miller and former teen group singer Alexis Krauss) were the breakout stars of 2009's CMJ Music Festival, and after signing to M.I.A.'s record label N.E.E.T., they released their acclaimed debut album, Treats, in 2010. And it was a treat indeed, even if the band's abrasive sound belied their sweet-sounding moniker. Bursting with shouty cheerleaders-on-PCP choruses, lo-fi distortion, tape hiss, punchy and crunchy guitars, cheapo sound effects, pummeling stadium-rock drumbeats, and just plenty of noize, noize, noize, this album was one of the most fun, ferocious party-rawk debuts of the year.
Tame Impala - It was 2010, but somehow neo-psychedelic Aussies thought it was 1969. This was for the best, as their fuzzed-out and far-out debut disc, Innerspeaker, with its Nuggety nods to Hendrix and Floyd, picked up where fellow retro-rock Australians Wolfmother left off. Mixed by Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev soundman Dave Fridmann, who definitely didn't skimp on the reverb or riffage, Innerspeaker was immaculately time-capsuled psychotropic rock, yet somehow it sounded incredibly of the moment in 2010, thanks to its timeless tunefulness.
Twin Shadow - One of the most interestingly pedigreed artists on this list, chillwaver Twin Shadow, aka one-man-band George Lewis Jr., was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in rural Florida, and did time writing music for a dance company and singing in a punk band before coming to the attention of Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor--who produced Twin Shadow's debut album, Forget, and released it on his misleadingly named label, Terrible Records. Forget was not terrible at all; on the contrary, with its Morrissey-esque crooning paired with canned '80s-funk beatz, it was one of 2010's most delightful and original releases. Expect to hear a lot more about this guy in 2011.
VV Brown - Remember that classic song line about the superwoman who could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan? Well, British soul singer VV Brown is sort of the modern-day, indie-diva equivalent of such a multi-tasking goddess. She pens stellar songs not only for herself but for many other artists; she authors comic books; she runs a cool vintage clothing website; and she's even a professional model. And despite her hectic schedule, she always looked fabulous throughout 2010 while promoting her acclaimed debut disc, the supremely soulful Travelling Like The Light. VV Brown is a true star.
Warpaint - Hurray, even more cool California girls! Really, Katy Perry wishes she could be as cool as these Wairpainted ladies of L.A., whose heavy, atmospheric art-rock made them one of THE buzz bands of the year--especially in Britain, where they were nominated for the BBC's "Sound Of 2011" poll and landed on the coveted cover of NME. With a dense guitar sound owing a huge debt to mid-'90s sludge and shoegaze, it makes sense that they've already worked with both former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, who mixed their debut EP, and electronic auteur Andrew Weatherall (Beth Orton, Primal Scream, Bjork, Siouxsie, the Orb, New Order, Manic Street Preachers, MBV), who produced their critically fawned-over first full-length album, The Fool. If this is what the '90s revival is going to sound like, then we're all for it. Bring it on.