Back by popular demand, we (finally) return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2016: The Year in Album Art. Like your friends, we have batched them into best and worst piles, 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 chubby neighbor who wears shorts all year round yet wears a t-shirt in the swimming pool’s life depended on it, for the eighth 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 let borrow our Alan Thicke shrine or anything.)
This will run much like the usual best and worst listings (and terribly similar to the past 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 that 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, or better yet, DJ Khaled sitting on a throne in your backyard next to a lion – well, of course you are – 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 year this especially applies to hip hop and R&B acts who are doing homemade collages or colored-pencil self portraits) or Elton John who managed to look genuinely awkward and surprised at being in the most contrived and low budget photo shoot of his career. If you are Paul Simon and your cover is abysmal but Chuck Close painted it, well, we can’t bag on old Chuckles now can we? If you are a dead serious indie rock band (and not J. Mascis, who I already agreed to stop hammering in this column every other year) – 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 in to two posts to spread the joy, so the BESTies are here to party all night in a skin tight mini dress, while tomorrow’s WORSTies will be here like a vicious hangover, lost car keys, and a pregnancy test, soon enough.
Without further ado, we bring out the BESTies!
2016 turned in to a really fucked up and confusing year on the whole. Honestly, everything seemed to be on hold to a certain degree as the U.S. was clearly split via the opposing presidential campaigns, and the rest of the world watched on in fear and amazement. From a creative perspective, it was as if no one knew what they should be pushing and pulling against and reacting to, so the middle of the road became pretty dense visually, with little in the way of extremes in either direction. I think we all know that will change drastically in 2017. I expect a much stronger showing from both the radical underground, and post punk visual guerillas, as well as the glossy trust fund boat shoe crew. Get ready for a Record Store Day Vampire Weekend box set that comes in a pair of salmon colored shorts, coupled with the audio of a salmon shorts burning protest being uploaded by the band The Vampire Weeknd as pay what you want on Bandcamp by 9:10 a.m. that day.
2016 brought about something that I had been longing for, and I solely credit Taylor Swift for pushing forward. The well designed massive shoot for the stars pop diva album cover that doesn’t hit you over the head with sexuality and blatant cock teasing. Let’s face it, even though I have no idea who those targeted people were, even Celine Dion album covers would be put together looking to get a rise out of the khakis zipping around the local Best Buy. Just last year our cinemas were filled with advertisements for Mariah Carey’s breasts before every movie. So, in a year when the war on women reached new depths, it warmed my heart to see Beyoncé present us with “Lemonade” and not “Dangerously In Love.” Her sister Solange presented possibly the sexiest cover of the year with just a very tasteful portrait of her in a deceptively casual pose and hair and make-up presentation. That this was the year of supermegastars Adele and Meghan Trainor further underpinned that changing dynamic. Should you still need to go all overtly sexy up in here, at least do so with a great photograph and refined type and layout. Ariana Grande in a black latex bunny mask? There are some things we will always be buying in mass quantities.
Before we get too deep, let’s talk about something important: Is it Danny Brown going all Cabaret Voltaire with his visuals? Not quite, though that was a pleasant development. Is it Drake finally admitting that he is making comedy albums by creating the perfect faux sad sack album cover? That conversation would fill seven articles alone. Is it the fact that I am the only person willing to admit that they didn’t like that Angel Olsen record? Is it the question as to whether Bruno Mars shaved his legs for the cover of 24K? No, it is Kanye West, along with designer Peter De Potter, making a wild turn visually into an ugly, yet invigorating system. The Life Of Pablo is perhaps the most unexpected visual direction in a superstar’s career in recent memory. It truly leaves me dazed with contradictions. So many of the gritty haphazard type things going on in design today that pull my eyes in are present here, not to mention the textures and the overall handmade vibe of everything. Yet, in drawing from West’s past it also overlays family snapshots with booty pics, at once pulling back the curtain and bringing you into the artist’s real world, only to place a physical and off-putting double barrel barrier keeping you from actually being able to do so. It is nothing if not absolutely fascinating. The packaging could end up on either of these lists depending on which part I react to more quickly. So, it ends up on neither. Yet, it is the one thing I can’t stop thinking about, leaving me blind to the rest of the field.
Methinks it might just be the lighting in this psych ward / Trump Tower lobby. This one might be the worst of the best, or the best of the worst. My head is still spinning. On to the best of the best!
2016 brought plenty moments of darkness upon us all, but my favorite kind of darkness is the kind that exists in the complex beauty that radiates sweetness and light into the shadows via the incomparable design of the one and only Vaughan Oliver. This year saw the release of several albums wrapped in sleeves that bear his undeniable touch. From the new Pixies to releases on Brooklyn Bridge Records for Old Fire and Stefano Guzzetti, that alone made this past year bearable.
In the same way that the divas always seem to fall back on the same overdone glossy twinkling lights look, folkswingers love to put on the serious face and part their hair just right and sit for a portrait. It is the fact that Keaton Henson does exactly that for the cover of “Kindly Now” that makes his subsequently painting a big goopy face over top of it so satisfying. I still find Henson much more exciting as a visual artist than a recording one, and perhaps even he feels the same way.
Kanye collaborator (who saw that one coming???) Bon Iver also dove fully into a systematic design approach for his sprawling 22, A Million release. Working intensely with designer Eric Timothy Carlson, a massive library of icons was developed and used to wrap around the recordings, creating a separate and distinct visual language for the album, and the process it took to arrive there. While no individual component in and of itself is all that breathtaking, the system on the whole really gets under your skin and starts to speak to you in a unique way.
By now you know that I am rarely a fan of a record sleeve designed by the artists themselves. Certainly there are exceptions, but the success rate is pretty abysmal, and we will see an awful lot of that kind of thing tomorrow. But, as I said, there are always exceptions. When it does happen, it is usually down to a very free and non-pretentious piece of artwork, and this time is no exception. Archie Fairhurst (who records as Romare) uses a wonderful and simple inverted drawing of a dense collection of figures to adorn Love Songs Part 2 to perfect effect.
Leapling captivates with a very clever painting of a painting (inspired by a famous work of art.) The “Killing Time” EP features art by Thomas Mazzarella who is just undeniably brilliant. He replaces the spaciousness of his recent work here with a more personal outlook, bringing us in on a single person diving into a swimming pool. It is the delicious details that really make this special though, from the diver wearing shoes to the water looking like concrete, to the tipped over flower vase and especially the giant, kind of boring, painting of a waterfall that takes up the entire wall facing the pool. The stylistic reference to David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings only serves to take it all to an even higher level.
Musically, I am a little late to the absolute psychpop joy that is Chris Cohen, but I am not late in appreciating the care with which he has packaged both of his solo records. His newest, As If Apart, features artwork from Anthony Atlas. Atlas’s work can often be frustratingly rushed and unfinished, but here, those qualities are what elevates the cover, making it out to be a study for a larger painting that will never actually take place. He also quickly, yet intensely, works over the drawing with little bits of cuttings and collage and ink, charcoal and pastel. The roughly cut out and stuck on “HRIS” paired with the blue “C” might very well be my favorite type of the entire year.
Achingly simple, but done just perfectly, the torn and flipped photo that adorns the sleeve of Sky Girl, a compilation put together by Julien Dechery and DJ Sundae, features art by Misha Hollenbach, who has emerged as one of my favorite collage artists of the past several years. Here, his work is straightforward, yet cuts to the quick. He is best known for his high fashion streetwear lines but it is his collages that really set him apart in my opinion. It takes a wealth of experience and skill to make a single tear in a magazine photo and place it just right and come back with a cover like this. It’s no accident, or easy task.
There were so many incredible prints and paintings that made up album covers this past year that it is difficult to choose just one to act as a representative for all of them, but hey, that’s why they pay me the little bucks. One of my favorites was local boys PEALS with the Janice Willen’s monoprint “Wind Yarn Paper” on it, but in the end I have to go with the Heike-Karin Foll painting for Christian Naujoks Wave LP. So. Good.
Okay okay – yes, this Wilco record is just an excuse to run a Joan Cornella cartoon. You are welcome.
In an era filled with Photoshop trickery, this Santigold cover might be my favorite of 2016. Do I even need to explain why?
In the same year that Kanye went full ugly and Beyoncé let the music speak, one of their peers took the biggest gamble of all. Rhianna paired with Isreali artist Roy Nachum to use one of the pieces from his “blind” series that featured her for her album cover. Built around a photo of Rhianna as a child, it is almost certainly the first million selling record to have the only type on the cover be in Braille. The image itself is striking, and made only more so by the layers inherent in using an actual photo of the artist as a child in this manner. Blinded by a glittering and polished tiny crown, and holding a large red balloon, the symbolism is coming at you fast and furious. If you want to delve too deep you start to wonder about choosing a topless photo of a young girl. And just so there is no confusion, the poem by Chloe Mitchell that is printed in Braille reads: “I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood. It is simply because what I want to say, what I need to say, won’t be heard. Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve. What I choose to say is of so much substance that people just won’t understand the depth of my message. So my voice is not my weakness, it is the opposite of what others are afraid of.” It could all easily go sideways and be ridiculously self indulgent and heavy handed, yet, the end result is breathtaking and absolutely astonishing at this level of the entertainment business.
It is impossible to not talk about David Bowie’s 2016 release Blackstar. Culminating a long working relationship with the brilliant designer Jonathan Barnbrook, the packaging has proven to be a treasure trove of interactions and explorations, operating as a vessel for fans to download a cache of graphics and pulling off stunning revelations long after purchase. From the field of gold stars that emerge when exposed to sunlight, to the fluorescent glow that takes place when put under a blacklight. It is a beautiful finish to a career filled with reinvention and constant (and delightful) surprises.
It was a very weird and disappointing year, and even the highs seemed tinged with sadness (see Bowie, David) but never fret, the lows were not to be outdone, so bring some extra buckets to carry the misery and tune in tomorrow for the worst of the worst!
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. He has designed well over a hundred record sleeves for labels ranging from Teenbeat to Warner Bros. At least 12 of them have been pretty good.