In January, it looked like armageddon in the music industry.

In rapid succession, three albums secured the No. 1 spot on the U.S. album chart with the lowest sales figures ever posted, trumping the dubious record set by Justin Bieber’s “My World 2.0,” which hit the top with 60,000 units in May.

The underperforming titles were Taylor Swift’s declining “Speak Now” (52,000 units sold) and two new releases, Cake’s “Showroom of Compassion” (44,000) and Amos Lee’s “Mission Bell” (40,000).

So is it time to stick a fork in the record business?

Not according to Nielsen SoundScan senior VP of analytics David Bakula.

“At the time, everybody did look at that and say, ‘Oh my God, 40,000 to be No. 1. That’s it,'” Bakula says. “But I’ll tell you, and I’m not saying this to sound like a shill for the record business, the weeks since then have been really fantastic. Q1 of this year has ended in a way that I think (had made) people really optimistic.”

Looking at SoundScan figures through the first 12 weeks of 2011 (the week ending March 27), album sales showed a comparative-quarter decline of 5%. However, the rate of decline has diminished: 2010’s first quarter was down 8% compared to the previous year.

This year’s early first quarter looked especially ghastly because two of 2010’s best-selling releases made huge debuts early in the year: Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” (out in January with 481,000 sold the first week) and Sade’s “Soldier of Love” (bowing in early February with 502,000 shifted out of the box).

However, Bakula notes, “The release schedule was really flip-flopped. Last year it was very heavy at the beginning … (but) these last weeks of Q1 and the first weeks of Q2 last year were very quiet.”

One proven artist, Lupe Fiasco, lofted sales in March with the 204,000-unit debut of “Lasers.” But the big story, as it frequently is in the music biz, was developing acts. U.K. singer Adele’s sophomore release “21” accounted for total sales of 847,000 in just five long-legged weeks, while R&B vocalist and solo debutante Marsha Ambrosius’ “Late Nights and Early Mornings” shifted 190,000 in four frames.

At the quarter’s end, six-figure first-week sales of Chris Brown’s “F.A.M.E.” and Jennifer Hudson’s “I Remember Me” solidified the sales picture.

Bakula says, “You go back to Feb. 27, which was the week Adele came out, and ever since then it’s been really good weeks.”

In addition to potent out-of-the-box performances by such relatively new acts as Adele and Ambrosius, some old-school, slow-rolling albums played a part in propping up the numbers early in 2011.

“Is it getting harder to develop artists currently? Maybe it is,” Bakula says. “I think there have always been times when there’s been a title or two that come out of nowhere. You look at Mumford & Sons (‘Sigh No More’), which has been on the chart for 53 weeks, and it’s in the top 10 still. Florence & the Machine (‘Lungs’) is another great example of that. That’s been on the chart for 39 weeks, and I think it’s been out longer than that. That’s still a top 50 record, and you’re talking about over 500,000 scans for an artist we had (previously) never heard of.”

The recovery pattern appears likely to sustain itself through the second quarter of the year. April’s release schedule includes new titles by such gold-standard acts as Foo Fighters and Alison Krauss (April 12), plus a fresh title from the “Glee” cast (April 19).

Those albums are just appetizers before an anticipated feast in May, which will see new titles by renascent “American Idol” judge Jennifer Lopez (“Love?,” May 3), now-liberated rap titan Lil Wayne (“That Carter IV,” May 23) and pop diva Lady Gaga (the most heavily promoted set of the year to date, “Born This Way,” May 23).

“With Wayne and Gaga and J-Lo, we’re going to kill the numbers in May,” Bakula says. “I think May is lining up to be a really fantastic month. … That (Lopez) album is probably going to sell 175,000. Lil Wayne’s obviously going to sell very well the first week. I’ll be surprised if Wayne doesn’t do close to what Gaga does.”

Bakula sees other harbingers of renewed health: He points to a 13% upswing in digital sales — with 313 million tracks sold — in the first quarter, a renewal for a side of the business that had flattened in 2010.

A self-described “eternal optimist,” Bakula is not ready to proclaim a triumphant year for the music industry. But, given the way 2011 began and the biz’s recent travails, he is waxing upbeat.

“I’m not willing to go out there and say the health of the business is back,” he says. “But it does show that when we do have great releases, people are more than willing to go out and buy them.”

Return to Music for Screens: Spring 2011