It's much easier for you to specify your needs as there are hundreds of distros and packages that can be combined. To a first approximation pretty much all linux packages are available for all distributions.
Beyond that, most linux distributions are based off some other distribution. The description of Kubuntu as "Ubuntu, but with the KDE desktop environment" is perfectly descriptive.
So what distinguishes one distro from another? Besides what comes installed by default, the most significant difference is how those packages got there.
Debian is probably the distribution that the greatest number of other distributions are based on. It has a very very long testing cycle; it takes packages years to get into Debian's stable branch. Ubuntu is based on Debian unstable, and a shit-ton of things are based on Ubuntu, including Linux Mint.
Red Hat produces the next biggest family of linuxes. Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux are more or less analogous to Debian unstable and stable, respectively, but I don't think very many people are dumb enough to try and base a distro on Fedora. CentOS is RHEL with the logo removed, and Scientific Linux is also based on RHEL.
Next up we have Gentoo, Arch, Slackware, and Suse.
I was going to put a joke about Gentoo here, but it's taking a while to compile. Gentoo is a rolling-release distro where most of the packages that you use are compiled on and for your machine. You mention gcc, this is related, but you will probably not ever use it directly. Compiling packages yourself can make them run faster, but it can take a long time.
Arch is a well-documented, rolling release distribution. I'm not sure what else to say about them honestly, but "well-documented" is one of the highest compliments I'm aware of.
Slackware is the oldest and most "unixy" of the distributions. It uses an old bootloader, old unix-style boot scripts, and by default boots to a text terminal. You should use Slackware if you want to retreat into a cave for five years, to emerge with a profound knowledge of unix, a full beard, and a solid opinion on whether emacs or vi(m) is the best text editor. I'm pretty sure these things are highly marketable. No, really.
Suse hasn't failed yet. The last time I checked, they had a wonderful, polished experience, and great admin/configuration tools. I have no idea why they don't have more users, except that there's already a shit-ton of options.
It's probably fair to say that Debian stable, RHEL, and any derivatives will have the longest testing cycle, and fewest updates in any given span of time. There are many more distributions for more specialized purposes, such as BackTrack for pen testing, Puppy for small installations, Bodhi for those seeking Enlightenment. You may have to figure out what you need on your own there.
Whew! Let's take a break for a minute.
All right. So with all that in mind, you can install, as previously mentioned, pretty much all the same stuff on any and every distro.
Here is a guide on desktop environments. If you're a n00b, you're probably going to want one of those.
We also have another guide for more experienced users, or those on resource-constrained systems, that covers some of the more popular window managers. Because sometimes 2GB of gnome libraries gets a bit old. For the truly adventurous, this post covers 30 Window Managers in 30 Days.
Honestly, there's really a pretty limited amount of advice that one can give about using any particular distro. They're all substantially similar. Without any specific information about what you want to use, a recommendation becomes, well, exactly what you were complaining about. "Use XYZ because it has ABC." Ask a vague question, get a vague answer. You're probably not going to be able to boil things down to a simple or unambiguous choice anyway, but you're not going to go too badly wrong by just picking something and using it.