Tig Notaro

In the past, a stand-up comic basically had one career path: Build up some solid minutes on the club circuit, get yourself on late night TV, and hope that somebody with a check book comes calling with a sitcom deal or an HBO special. But while technology seems to be crushing a lot of other entertainment universes, it’s allowing more and more comedians to thrive thanks to podcasting, self-released albums, crowdsourced tours, easily-produced web series, and more opportunities for singular voices on risk-taking cable networks.

No matter where you like to get your yuks, it was a great year for comedy—and for pushing the envelope of what stand-up comedy could be. The albums below represent a small cross-section of the greatness that flowed from the minds of some of the most brilliant creators in entertainment today, and each one takes a wholly unique approach to the craft.

1) Tig Notaro, Live

Notaro’s Job-like narrative has been well documented, but Live (as in “Live Forever,” not Live At Red Rocks) works just as well even if you’re not intimately aware of Notaro’s health struggles. That’s how powerful and honest it is: Over the course of a half hour, she lays out her story with equal parts clinical pragmatism (her genuine insistence that the audience take probiotics whenever they are put on antibiotics) and “Can you believe this?” wonder. Notaro’s dry, deadpan style makes for quite a tightrope walk, as it’s always hard to tell whether or not she’s going to laugh or cry. The audience doesn’t know either, and that what makes Live a brilliant, thrilling listening experience. And despite all the doom and gloom, it’s also fantastically funny, like when a technician asks her what her secret to being skinny is, and she gives the gallows reply, “Oh, I’m dying.” It’s a testament to both the style and the substance of one of the best performances by anyone in any venue in 2012.

2) Paul F. Tompkins, Laboring Under Delusions

Tompkins may not have built his album around death or loss, but Laboring Under Delusions has no shortage of pathos. Built around the various jobs he has had over the course of his life (from video store clerk to actor in There Will Be Blood), Tompkins’ confesses that his entire adult life has been built around “not getting yelled at,” a quest at which he has only been marginally successful. Each section of the album is slowly and gloriously built up, clearly constructing the world in which Tompkins would slip into a particular kind of madness when asked about “the king hat” at a chapeau shop or the casual chastising he received at the hands of no less than Tom Cruise during the table read for Magnolia. The closing bit about an unfortunate encounter with “Weird Al” Yankovic is the best that the comedy of discomfort has to offer.

3) John Mulaney, New In Town

In a lot of ways, Mulaney is a throwback, as his material, while no less personal, has a surgical precision to it. You can almost picture him working through each word carefully, not unlike Jerry Seinfeld. Even without his stand-up, Mulaney would be a modern legend for co-creating Saturday Night Live‘s Stefon with Bill Hader (and for often adding lines to the cue cards that make Hader crack up on camera), but his album is a perfectly constructed collection of jokes that hit on everything from the difficulty of having lawyers as parents to the absurdity of Law & Order: SVU to his insane former life as a blackout drunk. He wants you to laugh at his pain, but Mulaney will be the one laughing loudest.

4) Hannibal Buress, Animal Furnace

Buress has an exquisite grasp on the absurd, and his ability to weave his flights of fancy into the mundane details of his adult life makes him fantastically compelling. Anybody who has ever had contact with a college newspaper will find that his riff about giving pre-show interviews a total blast, and his deep thoughts about the current state of hip-hop are both gut-busting and trenchant. There’s an air of silliness that inhabits the bio-dome that is Animal Furnace, but it’s Burres’ well-curated take on a smart, sharp version of stoned goofballery.

5) Jonah Ray, Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello

Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist network has been an awesome breeding ground for both fresh comedic talent and gleeful obsessions about comic books, video games, hard science fiction, and Doctor Who. Ray is perhaps the collective’s darkest member, as he extrapolates his nerdy confusion with the real world into supremely dark spaces. The best part about Ray is his ability to totally go with the flow: At one point during the course of Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello, Ray is explaining his varied relationships with different types of alcohol, but the bit gets derailed by a discussion about what got the visitors drunk in the Alien Nation universe. Ray is proof that it’s hard for nerds to grow up, and he has blended together many of his obsessions into one massive blast of insecurity and hilarity.

For more of our Best & Worst picks of 2012, pick up the year-end double issue of Entertainment Weekly on newsstands now or subscribe to EW here.