So, here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to rattle off a bunch of good records that came out this year under vague genre headings. Pop music has become so Balkanized and personal tastes tend to be so subjective that recommending music as a holiday gift is a little like recommending entrees from a menu as long as the Internet itself. When in doubt, try before you buy.
Rock: Since his White Stripes days, Jack White has consistently turned out excellent side projects. Blunderbuss is his debut solo disc and it has all the roots-blues guitar work we’ve grown to expect, cut with art rock production. The Alabama Shakes exploded from obscurity this year with a vintage Muscle Shoals soul sound that many have compared to the Rolling Stones. Boys and Girls is the name of the record. The best rock record of the year, though, comes from Australia’s Tame Impala. Following the promise of their debut, Lonerism is a masterwork of infectious riffs, psychedelic textures and stick-in-your-ear hooks.
Hip-Hop: No one can vouche for its quality yet, but next week Outkast’s Big Boi will release the much-anticipated Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. Locals Phantogram figure prominently on three of the tracks, along with A$AP Rocky and Little Dragon. Killer Mike also guests on one of the tracks, but it’s worth getting the rapper’s full-length R.A.P. Music, which has been topping lots of year-end lists. It’s smart, politically-driven and the beats are undeniable. The ’90s have gotten a lot of love in hip-hop lately and one of the best tributes came this year from 16-year-old Joey Bada$$. 1999 is an impressive debut, full of tastey soul samples and precocious turns of phrase.
(Speaking of) Soul: Legendary vocalist Bobby Womack returned to prominence on his 27th record this year, courtesy of producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. The Bravest Man in the Universe dusts off his soul pipes and introduces his sound to a new generation courtesy of collaborations with Lana Del Rey (whose full-length you might as well skip) and the late Gil Scott-Heron. Arguably the best record of the year, however, also arrived in this genre. Besides blazing the trail for gay rights in the R&B community, Frank Ocean pretty much floored audiences this year with his debut Channel Orange. The thing is a work of pop music art, pairing soulful vocals to verses by Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000.
Indie: Here’s where things get vague and complicated (like much of the music that might fall under this category). Beach House is a case in point. Bloom might best be filed under dream pop, and if you like cryptic lyrics, hovering synth and eery female vocals, these guys pretty much do it best. Grizzly Bear erred on the side of accessibility for their latest album. Shields trades in some of the “fussy” baroque stuff from prior records for more guitar and drum. Can we call them indie-rock now? Of all the stuff that might fall directly under that banner, though, the best of it comes from the Dirty Projectors, whose Swing Lo Magellan is masterful in its synthesis of rock, Afro-pop and heady, literate lyrics.
Etc.: The rest of this should fall in some sub-category of the above and, while her thoroughly major-label output disqualifies her from the prefix, Fiona Apple is a proper appetizer. The Idler Wheel… is simply Apple at her best, full of all the gorgeous volatility for which she’s revered. Cat Power was volatile enough this time around to forsake her folky roots almost completely to create Sun, an album full of electronics and drum machines, which, almost inexplicably works like a charm. Sharon Van Etten is the relative newcomer to this sub-genre, and her melancholic croon record Tramp is gorgeous in the way that hurts and heals all at once. If you like the above with a healthy dose of surrealism, check out Fleet Foxes drummer Father John Misty’s debut Fear Fun. It’s catchy, literate and one of the best of the year.