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Since 2016, we’ve been rounding out December with a selection of our favorite apps from the previous year. Before we dive into our 2020 picks next week, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the highlights from years past.

It’ll be just like A Christmas Carol, except instead of revisiting a bleak childhood filled with hatred, our Ghost of Christmas Past will be taking a look at some of the best apps from the past five years. It’s a best of list of best of lists!

Tips Premium subscribers can click through to read the full rankings from each year, but for the rest of you we’ve picked out one app from each year that still holds up particularly well today. There are some absolute crackers in the mix, so let’s dive in!

Note: all stated prices are correct at the time of writing, but a few are on sale for the holidays, so might have changed by the time you read this!

2019

AudioKit L7 – Live Looper ($3/£3)

Live looping is a niche area of music, where a performer gradually fashions a soundscape by recording short audio passages that continue looping as more layers are added. Vocalists like Reggie Watts have used the technique to stunning effect, and it’s popular with guitarists like KT Tunstall and James ‘Land Observations’ Brooks.

Inspired by classic Roland hardware, AudioKit L7 brings pro-grade functionality of this kind to your Apple device – and in a package that’s accessible and immediate. Plug in headphones and use your device’s mic, and you can quickly get started, recording up to 16 tracks, and applying effects like reverb and autotune.

Don’t expect to top the charts on day one, but because you can use your voice and anything around you, AudioKit L7 gives you a fighting chance to make some interesting noise. It’s certainly a good bet if you’re turned off by apps that demand you learn to play an actual instrument first!

More: see our other picks from 2019

AudioKit L7

2018

Nception (free with IAP)

This app is like shoving everything your iPhone’s camera sees through a kaleidoscope. You can switch live between basic single-pane reflections, or more complex efforts that make even the most mundane of subject matter suddenly seem interesting.

Should that not be enough of an abstraction from the real world for you, nception offers additional tools. There are 36 color filters to apply, and videos can be shot in slow-motion. All the effects you apply can be previewed and shot in real-time, and you can import existing content from Photos.

Without doubt, nception falls into the novelty category when it comes to filter apps – but if you’re the kind of person who’s fascinated by reflections, this is a must-have download.

More: see our other picks from 2018

Nception

2017

Vignettes ($3/£3)

Although it’s categorized as a game on the App Store, Vignettes is better described as a toy. It’s primarily concerned with you exploring vibrantly colored objects, transforming them in a blink of an eye when one surface is precisely flat against the screen.

Amusingly, the first object you manipulate is the app’s name, which duly morphs into a chest that when opened reveals a telephone. Many more objects await discovery, a number of which are interactive – such as a suitcase into which you can hurl an infinite number of socks.

It’s all very odd – a surreal sit-back experience that proves entertaining and that wholeheartedly embraces the joy of discovery.

More: see our other picks from 2017

Vignettes

2016

White Noise+ (free with IAP)

There are a lot of ambient noise apps out there, but White Noise+ is a little bit special. It feels very much at home on the iPhone, with a minimal but friendly and stylish interface, which has you drag icons to a grid. Said icons represent various sound types – white noise; wind; rain; chimes – and where you place them affects the sounds they generate.

Those icons placed at the top of the grid play more prominently than those towards the bottom. Those towards the right increase the complexity of the sound. This means with a very simple interface, you can craft surprisingly elaborate mixes beyond the capabilities of most competing apps. If you’re unsure how best to use the sounds, the app helpfully includes some examples.

For free, you are limited in the sounds you have access to (although still get some great ones). A one-off IAP unlocks everything – and we’d say it’s well worth the outlay, for this best-in-class iPhone app.

More: see our other picks from 2016

White Noise+