Sure, you could give an iTunes voucher to the music lover in your life this Christmas, or you could attempt to be a little more thoughtful and choose an album for them, if you dare. Here’s a round-up for reference, with the best releases of 2014 divided into piles depending on the kind of person who might like them. It’s assumed you’re already with-it enough to be aware of the year’s biggest sellers, including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Coldplay. Casting the net wider, there are plenty of vital sounds.
The Hip Hop Heads
Kate Tempest – Everybody Down (Big Dada) illuminates UK street culture with the thoughtful rhyming of a prizewinning poet turned rapper. For bringing some intelligence to a hip sound she seemed a shoo-in to win this year’s Mercury Prize, but was trumped by Scottish rap grumps Young Fathers – Dead (Big Dada). The trio may have looked like they’d been handed a parking ticket rather than a GBP20,000 cheque, but the dense, claustrophobic textures of their music are worth celebrating. Meanwhile in the US, Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park) finally got a release, three years after she first began buzzing as the voice of the controversial house track 212. After endless feuds with record labels and other artists, it’s surprising how much fun she sounds like she’s having. Also recommended is impressive New York duo Run the Jewels – Vol 2 (Red UK) but it’s not really an appropriate Christmas present – they gave it away as a free download.
The Teen Queens
Any young girl worth her salt should be playing Taylor Swift – 1989 (Virgin EMI) on an endless loop this year. You might not look to the country star turned pop starlet for relationship advice, but she’s got plenty to say about the confusion of transition to adulthood, and nobody makes better pop tunes right now. The sound of teenagers maturing can also be heard on One Direction – Four (Syco), which sees the hunky chaps seeking that elusive boy band/Tom Petty fan crossover market. Thankfully 5 Seconds of Summer – 5 Seconds of Summer (Capitol) and McBusted – McBusted (Universal/Island) are as noisy and silly as young men with guitars ought to be, combining the crunching riffs of their more credible influences, Green Day and Blink-182, with snappy, funny lyrics.
The Soul Sisters
The soul world has been a place for experimentation this year, with Mary J Blige – The London Sessions (Universal/Island) seeing the queen of hip hop-soul upping sticks to our city and writing with hot house producers Disclosure among others. Then there’s Jungle – Jungle (XL), a retro selection of falsetto funk created in an up-to-the-minute fashion on computers. The sultry tones of Banks – Goddess (Virgin EMI) would suit those who wish London Grammar were a bit more wispy and ungraspable – it’s futuristic digital soul that twists Jillian Banks’s slinky voice in a dozen different directions. The breakout star, however, is FKA twigs – LP1 (Young Turks), the work of a former backing dancer for Jessie J that sounds like R&B beamed from another planet. Check her mind-bending videos first, then dive into an album that sounds as if it’s taking an entire genre somewhere new and mysterious.
The Indie Kids
Whether rock music is back or not back or in or out this year is a moot point when there are albums as great as The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) floating around. Adam Granduciel’s Philadelphia group rein in their blurry, meandering tendencies on their third album, trading up for glorious, widescreen rock ‘n’ roll. If you miss the softer stuff, Real Estate – Atlas (Domino) is a dream of an album. The Brooklyn trio’s gentle jangle generates sonic sunshine in any climate. Alvvays – Alvvays (Transgressive) is a perfect fit for the old school indie fan, the Canadian quintet offering a debut that barrels along in a lo-fi haze and crucially, doesn’t forget the tunes. But the comeback of the year in this area came from Jamie T – Carry on the Grudge (Virgin EMI). He proved that he hadn’t spent five years of silence messing around – rather perfecting a rowdy, raw sound that’s catchy but clever.
The Rocking Intellectuals
For those who prefer their indie rock to come with a side order of unsettling oddness, it’s been a gala year. Alt-J – This is All Yours (Infectious) shows the band overcoming the loss of a member and the extra pressure that comes following a Mercury victory, to produce a second album that does all the things they do well (obtuse song structure, creepy vocals, obviousness avoidance) even better. Wild Beasts – Present Tense (Domino) works in a similar vein, strange and beautiful. They’re getting ever better after four albums. Also on their fourth, but only being introduced to the world this time around, Future Islands – Singles (4AD) made an unlikely star of singer Samuel T Herring – a fluid mover who could be the most emotionally intense frontman since Morrissey. And the other best fourth album of the year was St Vincent – St Vincent (Caroline International). She upped her game considerably and brought her surfeit of ideas into sharp focus on a smart, funky album.
The Modern Mums
A few cosier but far from crap things for mum: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros) summons the polished FM rock of peak period Fleetwood Mac, showing that she still has numerous fine songs in her after a long career singing with Rilo Kiley. Also retro but in a softer, plusher way, Rumer – Into Colour (Atlantic) prompts Carpenters comparisons but the quality is too high to be pastiche. Those missing Adele and willing to try something a bit more leftfield should investigate Lykke Li – I Never Learn (Atlantic), which sees the serious Swede in ballad mood, singing big songs in heartbreaking style. Among the boys, George Ezra – Wanted on Voyage (Columbia) has a powerful voice and a cheeky grin. It’s feelgood singer-songwriter fare with some of the most memorable tunes of the year.
Among those who favour the acoustic guitar, some of the best Americana albums came from Puerto Rican raised on punk in New York – Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (ATO) – and two sisters from Stockholm – First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (Columbia). The former band’s Alynda Lee Segarra is a revelation, giving a dusty sound fresh power with her edgy choices of subject matter. First Aid Kit do it in a richer, fuller way, on a third album strong enough that they were able to play the Albert Hall this year. Dawn Landes – Bluebird (Western) has had less public attention and feels more low-key but it’s a real beauty, a break-up album that’s more pretty than sad. The most ambitious work in this field is Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy (Atlantic), a third album that came eight years after its predecessor and almost didn’t come at all. Its long, intense songs reward full repeated immersion.
The Computer Geeks
The world of laptop electronica can be a cold one, but not in the case of Caribou – Our Love (City Slang). Dan Snaith’s sixth album is a wonder, getting real soul from vocal samples and house beats. It didn’t earn as much fuss as Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp), however, which sees the king of this sort of thing making a long-awaited return to the album format and providing plenty of substance for his army of trainspotters to froth over. There’s more beauty to be found on SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land (Young Turks). It’s dark and mesmerising, with a remarkable new noise in every corner. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time (Olsen) is much more fun, the Norwegian DJ’s belated debut album managing to include vibrant disco, scat singing and Bryan Ferry singing Robert Palmer.
The Dad Dancers
How could dad not want a new (sort of) Pink Floyd album? Pink Floyd – The Endless River (Parlophone) may have been based on two-decade-old outtakes and feature no contribution from Roger Waters, but David Gilmour and Nick Mason still capture enough of that familiar drifting, stately sound to bring out the old hippy in him. Meanwhile, Robert Plant – Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar (East West) looks boldly forward from Led Zeppelin and introduces Celtic and African influences to a beguiling mix. Neil Young – Storytone (Warner Bros) finds him at his softest, draping new ballads in orchestral sounds. But some of the best work in the classic rock mould this year comes from an Irish newcomer. Hozier – Hozier (Island) is a powerful, mature work with Biblical themes that justifies the Van Morrison comparisons.