The Best Album Art of 2012
December 18, 2012 | 9:02AM

All words by John Foster

Once again we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2012: The Year in Packaging. Like your friends, we have batched them into best and worst, and many of you will have confused the two. You know the drill cats and kittens – several sites provide some half-ass version of this and then we layeth the smacketh downeth like our step-sister’s life depended on it for the fifth year and counting. (Which is to say that we care waaaaay more than they do, but let’s not get carried away like it’s a blood relative or anything.)

This will run much like the usual best and worst listings (and terribly similar to the last five years) but first we need a few ground rules. I will be judging covers based on expectations and possibilities as much as – if not more than – basic aesthetics. This means if you are a pop songstress and you produced a cover with your big ol’ airbrushed yap on the cover with scripty type and filigrees or you are a Top 40 rapper with a tough looking photo of you with your shirt off and bling to the gills draped all over the place – well, of course you did – and Merry Christmas, as I have left a pass under the tree for you.

If it universally sucks then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either (this especially applies to fading stars this year with hokey covers – always rife with poor life decisions… or Taylor Swift – who earns our undying devotion for acting like a male cockrocker from the 70’s by bedding every movie star she wants, as well as American royalty via the Kennedys, and just strutting backstage and having any boy (band) toy that she pleases, writing smash pop hits about it all the while. Who cares about the cover of your record when you have a massive penis like that.

If you are a dead serious indie rock band – you might not fare as well… This is for items worthy of discussion only and to shame those that should know better and praise the proud few.

We are splitting this holiday fun into a two posts to spread the joy so the Besties are here to save the day, with memories of the red hot, just back from the club, 24 hour romp in the sack (and kitchen and hallway and your roommate’s bed and…) while we un-friend the harsh reality that all of the painkillers from your knee surgery are missing from the medicine cabinet and your couch smells like urine and you think that girl that just left your group house in your roommate’s Volvo might be your third cousin that is tomorrow’s worsties.

So yeah – without further ado bring out the BESTies:

It was a rough year for design in 2012. Pedestrian record sleeves seemed to be the rule of the day. Bands like Tame Impala had the chance to reach a huge audience and build on the daring covers of their recent past, yet emerged with bland results. Twin Shadow finally had the tools to overcome his horrific debut cover, and realize some of his space age dreams, yet there he is in a boring pose and blah type. It went on and on, and don’t even get me started on the youth of today embracing ’80s ugly for ugly’s sake (at least not until tomorrow.) All the death metal records looked like typical death metal records. It was just that kind of year.

That meant that the strong work was easier to find, as those that truly cared gave a lot back to their fans. Once again, this year emerged with a slew of incredibly strong black and white covers. In some ways, I wonder if the ability to view an endless array o colors now on our computers has subconsciously driven creatives towards the stark qualities inherent in a single maximum contrast solution. Something like the new Beach House or Frankie Rose is a thousand times stronger in black and white than it would be in any other color. Food for (black and white) thought.

With all of that in mind, we’ve endured enough review – let’s get to patting some backs!

Two of my favorite covers this year were not only more or less black and white, but also only formed by hand-rendered typography, and nearly mirror images of each other. In fact, the added bit of enjoyment in the Mouse on Mars sleeve is a literal play on a mirror image. Scott Walker’s return is marked by a painted slash of type that seems more troubled and confused and cinematic, much like the videos he has to accompany the record, and the enigmatic man himself.

mouseonmars  

The reverse is true about the brilliant new record from the Scandinavian collective GOAT. Built on a repeating colorful triangle/diamond pattern, played against a tight laser die cut, it allows for another pattern on the interior sleeve to interact as you pull the record out. It is simple, yet utterly psychedelic. This seems to be the sleeve Animal Collective has always been hoping to accomplish. Added kudos goes to the band for their search friendly album title – quite literally pulling it to the top of every “world music” digital inquiry.

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Another imminently colorful sleeve is the detailed illustration adorning Father John Misty’s “Fear Fun.” Dimitri Drjuchin’s painting of a cult-like world inhabited with fear and love and heartbreak and coffee is the perfect wrapping, and his imagery balances the bright palette in just the right way.

In a very direct way, the stark minimalism of The Soft Moon’s sleeve for “Zeros” does a similar job. Pared down to a rough texture and a thin geometric “Z” that breaks across the visual field, the cover says everything you need to know about the dark and cold music within, with the simplest of strokes. The key for me is in using the consistent quality of the thin line for the “Z,” as the tight and controlled feel works here in polar opposition to the personal nature of the hand-made type on the Scott Walker record.

Sometimes you yearn for the days when a band could just put a massive logo together and have it say everything you need to know about the band. Truth be told, we yearn for this in all of our consumer products, and it remains one of the hardest problems for a designer to solve. But here is the whirlwind that is King Tuff to let us know that the art form is not lost, and scuzzrock kids finally have something worth drawing on the cover of their high school notebooks. The packaging is lovingly assembled by the always amazing Jeff Kleinsmith, and features the drawing talents of Luke Thomas. I hope some kid in 9th grade art class is memorizing those two names right this very second.

It’s been long enough that we can all finally admit that the only problem with the new Grizzly Bear is that the songs just aren’t that good, right? It certainly isn’t being held back by this gorgeous and evocative packaging, which continues their glorious run of wonderful sleeves. Richard Diebenkorn’s prints fill the cover and the interior with such flair and joy that I almost forget the meandering tunes within (and reminds me that they can still make the right decisions. The next record should be amazing on all fronts).

Can’s “The Lost Tapes” brings all of the joy of a hidden treasure in a recently discovered weathered box of master tapes, with the sophistication of a classic Blue Note sleeve. Absolutely perfect.

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I didn’t want to love this cover. In a lot of ways, I am still not sure that I do. However, I am sure of one thing – that no other record sleeve so accurately described the complex musical mashup that exists within, like the direct imagery adorning the new Sleigh Bells. Every detail is exactly as it should be, from the type of shoes, to the amount of wear, the amount of blood, and I will never forget that they still took the time to really work out including the type, rather than just slapping it on. Okay okay, I love this cover.

I always look for someone to make the most extreme music possible, yet somehow invite me in with some piece of design that begs for my attention. This year it was abrasive supergroup Old Man Gloom with their incredible monochromatic (bringing our rundown full circle!) sleeve for “No.” It might just be the most beautiful cover of the year, even if it houses some tough listening.

Special recognition goes to The Sea and Cake for making me smile, while still staying sophisticated. Crystal Castles for bringing about the full evolution of their status as the Siouxsie and the Banshees for a glitchpop generation. Wild Nothing for putting together a beautiful system of variable packaging, that makes so much more than it’s pedestrian painting would have otherwise allowed (and for a gorgeous sleeve for the “Nowhere” single.) Nicolas Jaar for inverting the second “A” and putting together a lovely and simple graphic system around compelling black and white photographs and Death Grips for looking exactly like you would expect it to sound and making us all wonder how they ended up on a major label for as long as they did.

I likely have missed a few cool things here and there, so feel free to throw in your two (or three) cents about covers you loved this year in the comments below. Don’t be upset if I instantly disagree though. xoxo

 

John Foster owns his very own design firm, Bad People Good Things, and he writes lots of books – you should own a pile! “New Masters of Poster Design: Volume Two” is out now for holiday gift giving, just in time to show your loved ones how highbrow you are. You can also feel free to pop over to his site or faceplace and make fun of his music packaging design. He deserves it.

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