The best albums of 2012 all come loaded with emotion. Taylor Swift offered heartache, while Carrie Underwood' served up revenge on her newest release. Zac Brown Band sang freedom, while Lee Brice found himself somewhere between guilt and gratitude. All four of these artists can find their new releases on this list of the Best Albums of 2012, but none of them check in at No. 1.

While sales figures were considered in making up this list of the year's best albums, more consideration was given to artistic merit and staff and reader opinions. Artists who took chances were rewarded, and no one took a bigger risk than the group at No. 1, who dropped their longtime producer before recording the year's most perfect project.

Scroll through this list of the year's top recordings, then offer your opinions in the comments section below. Remember, an album must have been released after Jan. 1, 2012 to qualify for this Best Albums of 2012 list.

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    'Night Train'

    Jason Aldean

    Jason Aldean's supercharged fifth project is already knocking on platinum's door just a few weeks after its release. Songs like 'Take a Little Ride' and 'The Only Way I Know' -- the shoo-in winner for future Vocal Event of the Year awards -- are highlights, but more pensive offerings like 'Talk' and 'Drink One for Me' are among his better ballads. It's a very level project that has found friends with many country music fans.

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    Zac Brown Band

    The third studio release from Zac Brown Band continues the group's trend of pushing the boundaries of country music beyond points any other artist would dream of. There is an R&B song and a reggae track that don't pretend to be country, and then there are a few all-out bluegrass jams. The result is 50 fun-filled minutes with some of the best musicians in country music. A few songs may stretch the sound too far, but there is more than one song from this entry on the Best Albums of 2012 list that will become a hit on radio. 

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    'Hard 2 Love'

    Lee Brice

    In some ways, 'Hard 2 Love' is a love note and apology to Lee Brice's son and wife-to-be. It's an intensely personal collection of songs that relies on vivid lyrics and clouds of emotion. Brice delivers with 'A Woman Like You' and 'I Drive Your Truck' and a half a dozen others that find him bravely exposing his heart.

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    'Love and Theft'

    Love and Theft

    Country storytelling with pop production land Love and Theft's 2012 album on the list of the year's best. The now-duo crafted tight, easy-to-fall-for love songs, including two with ready-made pickup lines that won't get you slapped. Their self-titled is quite possibly the most surprising album of 2012.

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    'Welcome to the Fishbowl'

    Kenny Chesney

    Kenny Chesney's most introspective album to date gets better with time. A few of the songs that felt like yawners after a listen or two suddenly make more sense when played at just the right moment. 'Welcome to the Fishbowl' is not a summertime party album, but Chesney has plenty of those in his catalog. Expect at least one song from this album on the Best Albums of 2012 list to be nominated for major awards both this year and next. 

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    'Up All Night'

    Kip Moore

    Kip Moore's debut album is the only one from a new artist on this Best Albums of 2012 list. The 'Somethin' 'Bout a Truck' singer reveals himself as a Bruce Springsteen of the country music genre, both in sound and style. His songs are honest reflections of his gypsy life and the loves he's lost over the years. There are at least two songs on 'Up All Night' every bit as good as the platinum-selling single.

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    Dierks Bentley

    Dierks Bentley's 'Home' is his return to mainstream country after a detour to bluegrass. It's one of the most complete albums of the year, and feels more like a well-planned project than a collection of cool songs. Perhaps more than anyone else in Nashville, Bentley is an artist -- not just a singer. He proves it on every song with this surefire entry to the Best Albums of 2012 list.

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    'Blown Away'

    Carrie Underwood

    Unless she were to go hip-hop, Carrie Underwood's natural talents were destined to land her a spot on the best albums of 2012 list. 'Blown Away' is the best collection of songs she's ever cut, and Underwood reveals herself to be as good a songwriter as she is singer. Four albums in, and it certainly doesn't seem like this singer's career has peaked.

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    Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift's 'Red' lived up to all the hype. While there are a few flat spots, something that is bound to happen on any album as thick with original ideas as the singer's fourth studio album. 'Begin Again' is her first country hit from the 2012 release, but the most satisfying songs lean more folk. 'Sad Beautiful Tragic' is a nearly five-minute swoon that captivates from the very first brooding note. Conversely, 'Stay Stay Stay' is like Superman ice cream, laced with skittles and sprinkles, and the 'All Too Well' lyrics had fans tweeting up a storm. The sign of a good album is its staying power, meaning it still sounds good after putting it down for a few weeks. 'Red' passes that test.

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    Little Big Town

    Little Big Town assembled their most consistent collection of songs for 'Tornado,' a wide-ranging, powerful project that features the summer anthem 'Pontoon' and the stormy revenge single, 'Tornado.' In between, all four members go for the throats of each emotion they're trying to convey. Never does a song sound forced or insincere. 'Your Side of the Bed' will leave you wondering about the state of Karen and Jimi's marriage (they're fine), and 'Can't Go Back' will have you calling Mom or Dad just to say "I love you." There's no filler on this career record from the quartet.

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