Gillian Welch, "The Harrow and the Harvest"
Gillian Welch battled a monster case of writer's block during the creation of "The Harrow and the Harvest," an album that took eight years to finish. When it finally hit stores in June, the record felt like the re-emergence of summer after a long, hard winter, filled to the brim with warm folk songs about country life and broken hearts. Miss Welch sings each song in her familiar Appalachian drawl, while David Rawlings, her musical partner since 1996, supports her melodies with intricate guitar lines steeped in country, bluegrass and old-school mountain music.
The Damnwells, "No One Listens to the Band Anymore"
Partially funded by the band's own fans, this gem of an album finds the Damnwells dabbling in alt-country and heartland rock 'n' roll. Frontman Alex Dezen sings in a gorgeously scratched voice that's equal parts Paul Westerberg and Paul McCartney, and his melodies take their cues from the same artists, evoking 1980s alternative rock one minute and classic pop the next.
Blind Pilot, "We Are The Tide"
Already popular in their native Portland, Blind Pilot courted a national audience with this collection of lush pop songs. Come for the harmony-heavy vocals; stay for the orchestral arrangements, which utilize everything from pump organ to vibraphone.
The Civil Wars, "Barton Hollow"
Armed with little more than a guitar and two gorgeous voices, the Civil Wars began the year as an underground Americana duo and wound up touring alongside Adele, earning a handful of Grammy nominations along the way. Bandmates Joy Williams and John Paul White toured relentlessly, earning new fans with each show, but it was "Barton Hollow" — the pair's brilliant, heartbreaking debut, filled with the best vocal harmonies this side of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand" — that set the ball in motion.
Pistol Annies, "Hell on Heels"
Miranda Lambert's latest solo album, "Four the Record," may have attracted more attention, but it was this under-the-radar release — recorded by Miss Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe — that stole the show. Sounding like a revamped Dixie Chicks, the Pistol Annies fill their debut album with hillbilly sass and country-girl charm, singing smitten love songs about "The Boys from the South" one minute and eviscerating their no-good husbands the next. In a genre filled with G-rated country starlets and wanna-be cowboys, these girls are a breath of fresh air. "Somebody had to set a bad example," they sing during one of the album's rowdier songs. Too true.
Black Keys, "El Camino"
Like a louder, tighter version of their last album, "El Camino" mixes the Black Keys' blues-rock foundation with glam, soul and vintage R&B. Given its December release date, don't be surprised if this album hangs around for most of 2012.
Abigail Washburn, "City of Refuge"
If you had to locate Abigail Washburn's "City of Refuge" on a map, it would occupy the place where bluegrass, pop and world music all intersect. A bilingual banjo player with a large following in China, Miss Washburn has always blended the lines between cultures and genres. The biggest appeal on this sophomore solo album isn't her boundary-crossing, though. It's the songs themselves, which blend the rustic and the refined into one cohesive package.
The Head and the Heart, self-titled
Recorded by a group of young Seattleites, this debut album focuses on simple, honest Americana songs about growing up and leaving home. There are no guitar solos. Instead, the band creates its rootsy sound with piano, violin and thickly stacked harmonies, breathing new life into a genre that's been around for ages.
Noel Gallagher, "Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds"
Noel Gallagher may not have been Oasis' lead singer, but he was the brains behind the band's biggest songs. On this solo album, he scales back his former band's loud, propulsive crunch and highlights the clever pop hooks that have always lurked beneath the surface of his songs. He sings pretty great, too.
Let's take a minute to thank the worthless guy who broke Adele's heart. Rejected, she turned to her own music for solace, resulting in one of the best breakup albums of the 21st century. "21" cycles through all the emotions associated with a messy split — anger, defiance, melancholy, regret — and rolls them into 11 killer soul songs, all of which serve as a showcase for Adele's booming, supersized voice.