As with the past two years, I'm going to break this down into price ranges. This is mainly to help those who wander onto the blog figure out what's the best they can get for the money they plan to spend. Also, this is by no means a comprehensive list of what's out there right now. These are just some of my picks based on sets I've built, seen built, or read reviews on. They are what I would recommend to friends or family who ask "what LEGO set would you buy for so-and-so?"
Stocking Suffers (Under $15)
These are little sets that that make good little gifts for maybe that non-family kid you have to buy for. Small LEGO sets can sometimes seem underwhelming, but these represent some of the better ones I believe are out there.
Collectible Minifigures - Currently on Series 12, these blind-bag packaged figures are always a hit. Kids (and many adults) love the figs, and this series consistently turns up characters that are fun to have in your collection. One of my favorite layouts at Brickworld this year was the CMF environments built by ToroLUG, which covered every series of figs out so far. While the production quality has dropped off a little with the last few releases, these are still worth picking up.
Mixels - 4.99
My first thought on these was that they are kind of random, but the idea has proven to actually be quite clever. I highly recommend picking up all three of a single color for the most fun, but I have seen kids do so much with just a single pack that I don't think you can really go wrong.
Light Repair Truck (60054) - $9.99
When it comes to CITY theme vehicles, I tend to shy away from the police and fire based sets. I have enough of them in my collection and they are pretty evergreen since there is always one out there. These general utility vehicles are always great though and I love it when they offer a little extra play feature, like the light post.
Mia's Lemonade Stand (41027) - 9.99
As the parent of a young girl, I have been getting plenty of time in with the Friends line of sets. Most of what we have bought for her has been on the smaller side, mainly because her interest in building has not really taken off fully as of yet. There are many sets in this range, but we've been pretty happy with this one around here. Not only do you get a pretty practical lemonade stand for play, but you also get a very nicely done little scooter to go with it.
Batman: The Penguin Face off (76010) - 12.99
I'm a sucker for Super Heroes sets and this one is pretty darn good. Aside from including two excellent figures, this set also features some very clever brick-built penguins and an awesome duck for The Penguin to ride around in. There's plenty of action in such a nice little set.
The Average gift range ($15-39)
This is where the bulk of my LEGO purchasing is done for gifts, so I will be offering quiet a few options here.
Forest Animals (31019) - 19.99
I.love.this.monkey! While there are many smaller Creator sets, I think the theme doesn't really start to shine until you hit the $20 price point. The 3-in-1 sets are particularly impressive, since they encourage kids to look at different ways to use the pieces included. There are many useful pieces in this set and I highly recommend it.
Camper Van (60057) - 19.99
Most of my favorite CITY sets are the great vehicles, which are your standard cars/trucks/vans in the $20 range. I'm a big fan of this one in particular because of how well done it is. It has quite a few play features, including seating inside the van and a canoe. The logging truck is also a relatively unique vehicle, if you would like to avoid a police/fire vehicle rehash that's been done a hundred times.
Batman: The Riddler Chase (76012) - 29.99
While the dragster portion of this set is kind of a...drag, the Batmobile is awesome and is almost worth the price of the set alone. Add in the excellent figures (Flash, Riddler, and Batman), and you get an excellent set for just $30. Perfect for the little Bat-fan in your life.
Cinderella's Dream Carriage (41053) - 29.99
The Disney Princess line is getting a second wave, so LEGO must be doing something right. We have built a few of these, but I have been left mostly unimpressed with the structures offered in the line. Far too many big pieces are used to construct the walls, limiting their usefulness in creative building. The carriage though offers a great selection of pieces and is really kind of a classic of Disney lore. If you're in to steampunk building, I've saw a very cool MOC made using the wheels from this set, although I have since been unable to re-find the picture.
Snowspeeder (75049) - 29.99
When it comes to Star Wars, I seldom touch anything that's not Original Trilogy. I make exceptions for a few of the cooler Clone Wars models, but those do not pop up very often. While the ship itself is not very large, it is one of the better minifigure scale versions I have seen. Of course, this also pairs very well with a set I'll be listing further one down in this guide.
MetalBeard's Duel (70807) - 34.99
It's hard to believe that less than a year has passed since "Everything is Awesome" passed into the minds of every LEGO fan in the world. I've either built or handled most of the sets in the line, but this one stands out as my favorite on the cheaper end of the scale. I fully admit to having a thing for pirates, so you might consider me a little biased. This set still stands out to me though because MetalBeard is a cool character (and fun to build) and he actually has a worthy opponent included with the excellent Micro Manager.
For the good kids ($40-99)
This is also the range where you start getting to sets adults will really enjoy more as well, since they offer more of a challenge and are typically more detailed.
Minecraft: The First Night (21115) - 39.99
It's possible to argue that Minecraft's popularity peaked when Microsoft bought the property earlier this year. Those who spend any time around kids would probably be able to tell you how wrong you are. This wave of sets is hitting just in time for Christmas, and I'm guessing all of them are going to be hard to come by. While there are cheaper entries in the line, this one gets my pick for now. An important thing to keep in mind with all of the Minecraft sets is that they all include incredibly useful common parts in standard colors. With the grays, browns, and greens, there are tons of non-Minecraft things that can be built with these. If any ever actually go on sale, I would be highly tempted just to pick them up as parts packs.
Stephanie's Beach House (41037) - 39.99
The fall wave of Friends sets has them going to the jungle, but I'm still a big fan of the Heartlake City buildings that go with the line. This build actually packs in a ton of nice details and accessories for a mid-sized set. One of the great things about many of the Friends buildings is that they really do feel like a complete playset when done. This is one of my favorites from the theme this year.
X-Men vs. The Sentinel (76022) - 49.99
I initially was extremely disappointed in this set when I saw it in pictures. The Blackbird seemed too curvy and the sentinel is...well, he's still not very impressive. In person though, the jet is actually fairly well done for what it is and I really don't think you can complain about the minifigures at all (other than questioning the re-use of Magneto so soon when there are so many other villains to make). Easily my favorite Marvel set of the 2014 line.
Bike Shop & Cafe (31026) - 89.99
If the modular line seems a little too big for your kid, or just a little to out of your price range, this set is an excellent substitute. They are apparently carrying on with this style of mid-range buildings next year as well, which I see as a very good sign that LEGO realizes we want more than single-family houses for buildings. What really makes this set work so well is the many different configurations you can do using the pieces, since it is a 3-in-1 set. Just a great set overall from a classic theme.
For the "amazingly good kids/spouses" ($100-199)
This is the stuff that growing up as a kid my parents would have picked as a "big present" under the tree. These sets are the ones fans young and old will enjoy.
Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP! (70816) - 99.99
Hands down my pick for best set of the entire year. Not only does it embody one of my favorite characters of the entire LEGO Movie, this ship is truly an amazing blend of what made LEGO my favorite toy as a child and what brought me back to it as an adult. I think any LEGO fan who skips this set it really going to regret it down the road.
The Agents theme came back strong this year and, while most of the smaller sets are perfectly good buys with interesting figures and builds, the flagship set stands out above all of the rest. There is such a great variety of little details in this set, from the collection of spy vehicles to the gadgets in the command center. Easily a stand out from the wave.
Star Wars: AT-AT (75054) - 109.99
When I think of OT vehicles, the AT-AT is the first thing that comes to mind. I have vivid memories of watching the Battle of Hoth over and over again as a child. While ridiculously impractical as a siege vehicle, there's just something about the AT-AT I still find charming. LEGO has produced multiple versions of this set over the years and, while this one does feel a little small, I think it's the best yet. I'm sure it will come as no shock that it can be a little unstable, but I still think this is worth adding to any Star Wars fan's collection.
Parisian Restaurant (10243) - 159.99
No list would be complete without the latest entry in LEGO's now iconic Modular line. While the price got bumped $10 for the Parisian Restaurant, the designers made good use of that money in making what is probably one of the most detailed buildings in the theme yet. Both inside and out, there are far too many features to even begin to list them all. I don't think anyone could be upset with adding this to their collection. I've been very impressed with how the Modular line has progressed over the years, and I'm hopeful for what the future will bring for the design of these buildings.
For the "Can you buy presents for me?" crowd ($200+)
This is the stuff that's for the really good kid (or adult) on your list.
The Simpsons House (71006) - 199.99
When it was confirmed that there would be a Simpsons set in LEGO form, I think most people were not shocked to discover it would be the famous family's humble home. The designers certainly did not skimp on the details with this set and it earns every penny of its hefty $200 price tag. There are some issues I have with the set (Half the family looks stoned), but the rich interior packed with references from the long-running show more than makes up for any flaws. Sadly, I have not added this to my collection yet. It's on my list though.
The Tumbler (76023) - 199.99
I hesitated about putting this set on the list. Not because it's horrible or poorly designed, but because your chances of actually finding a copy any time before 2015 are pretty much non-existent. The demand for this set was so strong, it pretty much disappeared within days of being released and LEGO's own website indicates you will likely not be able to buy it until next year. I have so far only managed to see a single copy in the wild at my local LEGO store, and I just could not justify spending the money at the time though. The Tumbler is arguably one of the more iconic variations of the Batmobile to come out of the cinematic side of Batman and this set is pretty clearly a must have for any fan of the franchise.
MetalBeard's Sea Cow (70810) - 249.99
A monument to excess, this ship manages to be the most amazing and ugly pirate ship I have ever seen at the same time. Much like the SSS!, the Sea Cow stands out as a highlight of the LEGO Movie for me and I would love to have this version sail in to my collection. One thing I find amusing about this ship in comparison to other TLM sets though is that it's not even remotely close to the same scale as the movie version. While it's only on screen for mere seconds, the actual ship is many times larger than this. Making a MOC of the "real" Sea Cow is actually a future project goal of mine...although it's more of a dream project at this point.
Star Wars: Sandcrawler (75059) - 299.99
If there's one thing LEGO does right, it's large LEGO sets based on Star Wars. There have been very few misfires in this line and the Sandcrawler is the latest and greatest to join the list of mega-sets from the OT. While obviously not as impressive as some versions, LEGO has actually managed to take what's essentially a rolling warehouse and turn it into an excellent display piece and playset. Other priorities will probably keep me from ever owning this, but I'm still so happy it got made.
And so, that wraps up my annual list of LEGO greats for the year. As always, I would argue that any gift that involves LEGO is a welcome one. Happy holiday shopping!