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Once again, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2013: The Year in Album Art. 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 inappropriate uncle’s life depended on it for the sixth 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 someone we would leave our girlfriend alone with under the mistletoe or anything.)

This will run much like the usual best and worst listings (and terribly similar to the last six 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 and plastic surgery credits in the liners 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. (I do acknowledge the advent of the new “wimpy” rapper record sleeve personified by Drake, and I find it… weird, and wimpy, so maybe it is seriously on point. But I am not talking about any sleeves with Blue Ivy on them, at least not yet.)

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 Miley Cyrus who released her weakest effort yet, by miles and miles, and tragically named her album “Bangerz” and dressed it up in Miami Vice kitsch and couldn’t even put on a giant foam hand facing the right way for her big offensive VMA’s moment, yet still overcame it all to back up her boney caboose into the very gay and very flaccid penis of the modern media industry and become the most talked about celebrity of the last year.

If you are a dead serious indie rock band (and not Gary Numan in a top hat) – 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, while we try to decide whether everything deserves an ironic “z” at the end of it in honor of Miley – without further ado, we bring out the BESTies:

It was a strange year for design in 2013. A TRULY eye-popping theme emerged in the very worst of what was already a staggeringly bad year in bad album cover design, but more on that tomorrow. The minimal aesthetic that has gripped every corner of the design world finally reached it’s apex as the biggest new artist in the world draped her record in what most would assume is a FPO (for placement only) stand-in. Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” is so not there that it doesn’t even contain enough substance to include it on either side of this list. Hopefully we can find a way back…

The counter was to go one step too far. Who knew this would be the year I would say; “I really wish that Carcass record didn’t have a background image behind the surgical instruments. It might have been my favorite cover of the year.” We also saw a proliferation of sleeves that were sans typography, which I was really surprised at given the staggering mountain of awesome hand-made type that adorned sleeves the year before. This was previously a pretty gutsy move on the part of any label and resisted at all costs, but now that most music is sold in a way where the name and title exists in text just below or above it, I think the comfort level has rapidly increased. It makes the times where type and image come together to make something more powerful than the individual parts even more amazing.

Kicking things off with the best of everything that had happened in design in the 3-4 years prior (casual photography, hand-made typography, brilliant natural composition, a return to authenticity) much in the same way that it did the same thing musically, Kurt Vile’s “Wakin On A Pretty Daze” was a joy on multiple levels. Created with street artist Stephen Powers (ESPO) it managed to weave Vile directly into the Philly landscape that shapes his music in so many ways.

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It was a year filled with two scenes bubbling in the underground that were exciting on different levels – collage art, from the masters like Robert Pollard, to young bucks like Zach Hobbs and Vincent Griffin, to a merging of late night after hours club throb to percolating house beats. I think we will be hearing a lot more from both quadrants in 2014, but here is one of the sweet spots where they merged together. Using Benjamin Roder’s art, Evol Ai’s “Dark Disco” EP was just perfect at personifying both.

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Hometapes has traditionally had pretty spectacular packaging and the incorporation of painter Peter Ravn’s work to Leverage Models self-titled LP ups that game even further. His creepy corporate-informed paintings speak to our times better than nearly anyone in the current art world.

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Beacon’s “The Way We Separate” speaks to a more interpersonal connection (or lack there of) and in a wave of R&B influenced duos that threaten to numb us out of any sexual dynamics inherent in their music, it is a staggeringly refreshing take on the visual element via Langdon Graves’ illustration.

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Adorned with an illustration from Real Deal comic artist Lawrence Hubbard that says more about Los Angeles just by his selection as the illustrator than you could possibly imagine, I am stunned by how much I absolutely love and adore a cover for a record by Snoopzilla. 7 Days of Funk hits on all levels and in exquisite detail. I can only hope that it inspires more people to investigate the insane decade of violent street hustlers Hubbard documented in his comic’s run.

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It has been pretty exciting to read the back and forth around Jonathan Barnbrook’s design for David Bowie’s “The Next Day.” Just knowing that design can still do that across all age groups, for such an already iconic artist, was refreshing. It is hard for me to distance my appreciation for the concept behind the design from the actual application, but it is brilliant on all levels. As Barnbrook himself stated, “we wanted to do something different with (the album cover) – very difficult in an area where everything has been done before.” Against all odds he has managed to do just that, and upset the very notions of what we think about design as it relates to music and the histories of both creative industries. I could honestly fill this entire space with just discussing this sleeve and still not exhaust all of my thoughts. Amazing.

David Bowie's The Next Day

Staying with UK heavyweight design mavens, anyone that knows me has at one point or another heard about my disappointment with how 4AD has progressed in reissuing their back catalogue sans a sensitivity to the iconic work done on the design side, perhaps personified by the Colourbox box set last year. All is forgiven in one fell swoop by returning Vaughan Oliver to the helm of this jaw-dropping Breeders “Last Splash” deluxe edition. Using the original as a building block to both strip down to bare essentials and layer textures and visuals all at the same time, he creates a stunning set that excites and engages throughout every square inch of every page and disc and panel and sleeve; creating a new piece of beauty, while never losing site of the original.

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Jonwayne “Rap Album One” pushes the boundaries of the genre in a number of ways with it’s pillaging of wildly unpopular sections of funk, jazz and R&B to form the bedrock of his music and his Motorhead roadie meets high school science teacher look, but where it really and truly wins out is in it’s album art. Jeff Jank has produced some amazing sleeves for Stone’s Throw over the years (including the cigarette pack cassettes for Jonwayne earlier) but in maximizing the square size with the saltine photo he manages to make me laugh and feel intrigued and amazed all at once. You can just picture it there as a visual relief in every DJ’s crate, with them shaking their heads and finding it irresistible to pick it up each and every night.

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Sometimes type and visuals and natural photography and composition and a mountain of hard work and all of the things we have talked about here come together and sometimes it happens on a PAUL MCCARTNEY RECORD!!!!! Constructed by visual artist Ben Ib, the simple construction to create the title “new” would have worked even if it was just drawn out on paper, but done via fluorescent tubes and color makes it even more powerful, AND even more unlikely to be the cover for a Paul McCartney record. Did I mention it is a Paul McCartney record that is perhaps the coolest album sleeve of the year? Paul. Mc. Cartney. Take it in for a minute. (The pathway to get here stems from an original design by UK art duo Rebecca and Mike through the design consultancy YES, all of which was inspired by the work of Dan Flavin, to arrive at the one built by Ib. Now THAT sounds like a Paul McCartney sleeve.)

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That should probably be my top sleeve of the year but I have to finish with the one that has gripped me visually since it came out. Producer Daniel Avery’s “Drone Logic” is wrapped in Kate Copeland’s illustrations that evoke such a quality via her watercolor work (and even more so by her use of whitespace) that I can’t look away. Young in age but advanced in ability, Copeland has a unique take on the world as a whole that comes across in every brushstroke and line. The mix of classical black and white old soul illustration for a beat heavy superstar DJ record proves to be too fascinating a mix for me to resist. It is as if they brought the daytime and the nighttime together to create an endless visual heaven of yearning and uncertainty interrupted by occasional bliss.

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Even if it was weak on the whole, it turned in to a surprisingly strong year in some narrow aspects for album design, with piles of honorable mentions that could quickly follow behind the records talked about here. It was also a polarizing year, as the bad sleeve design seemed to be the worst it has ever been, and with 97% of all album covers being total crap, that is really saying something: More on that tomorrow! Until then cats and kittens, don’t let your girlfriend design your record cover, or sleep with your best friend, in that specific order.

ALSO-DON’T FORGET TO CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR THE WORST ALBUM ART TOO. THAT ONE’S ALWAYS FUN.

John Foster owns his very own design firm, Bad People Good Things, and he writes lots of books – you should own a pile! “Paper and Ink Workshop” and “New Masters of Poster Design: Volume Two” 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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