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Hunting for hidden gems

Self-released albums were king in 2012.

By John KeheStaff writer / December 20, 2012

Anaïs Mitchell

Courtesy of Jay Sansone

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Good news, music lovers! If the astounding variety of exciting new music that was self-released in 2012 is any indication, the demise of the big record companies has left behind a shimmering silver lining. Without the pressure to score the next big hit single, this DIY generation is suddenly on fire with unfettered creativity. Here is a rundown of some recent gems you might have missed.

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Anaïs Mitchell is a captivating singer/songwriter from Vermont, whose 2012 album "Young Man in America" won the kind of unanimous critical superlatives rarely seen. Ms. Mitchell's little-girl voice belies the depth of her talent, and her songs and stories will touch your heart and stir your soul.

Montreal's Patrick Watson creates echo-laden musical cinema­scapes, his angelic falsetto vocals narrating the unfolding scenes, painting vivid aural pictures. "Adventures in Your Own Backyard" will draw you into its cotton-candy web.

A fellow traveler on the high lonesome road is Michigan native Lord Huron. His perfectly named "Lonesome Dreams" album layers chiming guitars and reverb-drenched vocals over vast landscapes where Mr. Huron seems destined to wander forever.

Everybody in roots music is talking about the amazing debut by 24-year-old Oklahoman John Fullbright, "From the Ground Up," and comparing him to big names like John Prine and Merle Haggard. His songwriting shows maturity far exceeding his tender age, and his guitar and piano chops are none too shabby either.

One of my favorite finds this year is Austin popster Ben Kweller, who has been around for a good while but finally delivered on his early promise with an outstanding collection of timeless pop/rockers on "Go Fly a Kite."

Other pop that sizzles: The life-affirming, completely adorable Regina Spektor, in"What We Saw from the Cheap Seats," demonstrates her wisecracking truth-telling to be in radiant bloom.

Also worth a listen: From Scotland, Django Django's eponymous debut has an "electronica meets Beach Boys" vibe. Charming Mexican singer/songwriter Carla Mor­rison's "Dejenme Llorar" ("Let Me Cry") offers one of the most intimate, affecting albums of 2012, in any language. In "Rest," Michael Kiwanuka – an Englishman born to Nigerian parents – oozes old-school 1970s soul that breathes the same rarefied air as Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield. The big time may be only one hit away.

Where can you find these artists as well as your own gems? NPR.org/music, KCRW.com, pastemagazine.com, pitchfork.com, Pandora (app), and Spotify (paid app).

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