Sometimes, a year rockets by so fast, it seems impossible to parse it down to minute musical moments. So went 2010. Justin Bieber continued his immaculately coiffed scaling of the charts. So did Lady Gaga, until she passed critical mass and embedded herself in the zeitgeist of snarky talk-show monologues. Kanye West and Taylor Swift both came out swinging, creatively, but not at each other. And all four artists exhibited a startling staying power that likely will fuel their careers through this new decade.
The year’s inescapable pop phenomenon, though, was guy-girl duos. Perhaps inspired by forebears such as the White Stripes and the Ting Tings, bare-bones teams seemed to spring up overnight, including Kisses, Little Fish, Sleigh Bells and Best Coast. Almost all had engines firing on primitive rock ’n’ roll, proving (or reiterating, actually) the adage that you don’t need a stageful of musicians and a stack of ear-splitting Marshalls to really tear a joint up.
Mostly, however, the biggest surprise was the return of great meat-and-potatoes rock — the kind you thought you’d only hear on Bruce Springsteen’s vital “Darkness on the Edge of Town” anthology “The Promise.”
You might have missed some of these albums; they weren’t exactly Top 40 staples, but they’re worth a listen. In reverse order, this writer’s Top 10:
10. Audra Mae, “The Happiest Lamb” (SideOneDummy) One of the best alt-country efforts of the year, the album is the kind you rarely hear from Hallmark-card-cheesy Nashville these days. One listen to this Los Angeles lass’ stunning originals like “Lightning in a Bottle” and you’ll be hooked.
9. Tom Jones, “Praise and Blame” (Lost Highway) Yes, this is the same record mentioned in a sneering e-mail by a U.K. label executive. But the husky-voiced longtime growler teaming up with producer Ethan Johns for nothing but rafter-raising gospel — both old and original — is jaw-droppingly good.
8. Robyn, “Body Talk” (Konichiwa/Interscope) Stockholm may be ice-cold in the winter. But dance-punk diva Robyn practically melted it this year with this red-hot anthology of three separate EPs. She’s catapulted the once-predictable genre into a whole new hyper-inventive dimension.
7. Vampire Weekend, “Contra” (Beggars) You’ve probably delighted to the jazz-filigreed joys of this sophomore set and not even known it, every time its infectious “Holiday” single plays during those car commercials this season. The brainy Ezra Koenig and company prove they’ve got staying power.
6. Best Coast, “Crazy For You” (Mexican Summer/Wichita) Can you actually reinvent frothy surf-pop in the new millennium? Bethany Cosentino gives it all she’s got in this sunny, beach-ball-bouncy take on the genre, in odes to pot-smoking, absent boyfriends and just couch-surfing in general. Slackerdom never sounded so uplifting. The band is scheduled to play the Regency Ballroom with Wavves in a Noise Pop festival event on Feb. 26.
5. Sleigh Bells, “Treats” (N.E.E.T. Recordings) This guy-girl duo deconstructs a pop song from the inside out, rivets a new erector-set cyborg out of it, then blasts it back with amps cranked to 11. No joke, and it’s all while never losing its Spector-era, girl-group charm.
4. Kevin Welch, “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road) It’s been eight years since this lope-drawled troubadour felt the urge to make a solo album. But he’s back in fine hickory-smoked form on this remarkable loved-and-lost set.
3. Foxy Shazam, “Foxy Shazam” (Warner Bros.) Remember everything you once loved about Styx/Kiss/Queen arena rock? This outlandish Ohio outfit still has it, in spades. Try, if you dare, to resist the insanely catchy hooks of “Unstoppable,” “Oh Lord” and “Wanna-Be Angel.”
2. Against Me!, “White Crosses” (Sire) Veteran Florida punker Tom Gabel wanted to make the most definitive statement of his career. By tapping into in his inner Springsteen, reliving his tortured past and hiring Butch Vig to produce it, he succeeded in grand rock ’n’ roll style. The band is slated to plays Slim’s in San Francisco on Feb. 1.
1. The Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang” (SideOneDummy) This is it — the most memorable record of the year. A la his peer Gabel, bandleader Brian Fallon conjured his own inner Springsteen for this gritty slugfest, which bounds gleefully from style to style while never losing its snotty, streetwise edge.