Back by popular demand, we (finally) return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2017: 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 Steve Harvey dressed up as a psychotic pimp snowman trying to gobble up all of the wedding cake before the clock strikes twelve, for the ninth year and counting. (Which is to say that we care waaaaay more than they do, but let’s not get carried away like we would let Tommy Wiseau actually speak if we won an award 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 pot leaves draped all over the place, or better yet, a black and white super serious wearing lots of makeup to look like I’m not really wearing makeup looking photo of Demi Lovato – well, Demi, you have taken your broken doll parts and somehow melded them into a blazing phoenix of diva power to re-emerge as a universal badass and I salute you and all of the bad boys whose necks you are currently standing on in your eight inch heels. You get a pass.
If it universally sucks then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either. Oddly enough, this seemed to be the year that a lot of artists finally got some proper professional help on their album covers. Even Randy Newman had a gritty edge and cohesive design this year, hitting closer to the aesthetic mark that Taylor Swift was reaching for than Tay Tay herself. Of course, this was also the year that one of the biggest records of the year featured a photo of Harry Styles sobbing in the shower, so, all bets are off. (I can only hope that they update that album cover when Harry hits 30 and that one lone weird hair on his shoulder pops up right next to his little guitar tattoo. You might be Harry Styles but NO ONE escapes shoulder hair when they turn 30. These are the rules.) If you are a dead serious indie rock band (even the legends. Well, especially the legends) – you might not fare as well… This is for items worthy of discussion only and to shame those that should know better and to praise the proud few.
Also – WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT JOHN MAYER COVER??? I could write 2,000 words on that alone.
Okay, we are splitting this end of year (okay okay – start the new year) fun in to two posts to spread the joy, so the BESTies are here to party all night dressed like a 50’s housewife telling jokes and bailing Lenny Bruce out of jail, while tomorrow’s WORSTies will be here like a vicious hangover, lost car keys, and a flaming hula hoop laying in the middle of your living room, soon enough.
Without further ado, we bring out the BESTies!
I wasn’t shocked to see 2017 turn into an even more volatile and splintered society, but I was emboldened by the rapid response in so many quarters as people began to band together around both common causes and common enemies. When the entire entertainment world was turned upside down it served to potentially create a proper re-set that will bring about a more equal and safe workplace, and it also put in place a massive creative pause as people tried to figure out how their work fit into a marketplace with entirely different rules than when they might have started their project. 2018 is going to be interesting to watch in so many ways.
2017 was also the year that 90s nostalgia went all in. This was the year they were promoting Mom jeans (and actually calling them Mom jeans!!!) to 14-year-old girls as a cool thing to wear. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for baggy comfort and whatever it takes to bury the skinny jean era we should all get behind, but surely this is the most bizarre marketing pitch of the past 30 years? As a pleasant side note, more and more hip hop acts are going for the blissed out three sizes too big sweater look pioneered by Lisa Bonet, and Lisa Bonet is married to a much younger crazy hunky Aquaman, so, you know, my girl knows a thing or two about these things. I don’t think it matters in this day and age that it is mostly dudes dressing like Lisa Bonet.
This was also the year that TWIN PEAKS RETURNED and all the high school kids in the neighborhood came to my back fence to yell questions about TWIN PEAKS to me as I walked my dogs. This means that no matter what the album designs looked like this year; 2017 WAS A RAGING TWIN PEAKS LOVING DOUBLE COOPTASTIC SUCCESS!
We have to start the discussion of the highlights from this year by recognizing one of the greatest marketing campaigns in hip hop history. Brian Roettinger has gone from the edgy outsider, working his magic with folks like No Age and Liars, to right into the belly of the beast, helming projects for some of the biggest artists in the world. This was the year when creative direction seemed to truly be valued and artists were sure to partner with designers and creatives on the visual side that were willing to spar with them and challenge them to be more than they might have been otherwise. Roettinger had created breakthrough work with Jay-Z on his last album, but when they launched 4.44 they created a new language and accomplished something that had never truly been done before. The Beatles might have had the White Album, but they never promoted a release by just plastering a single solid color and three numbers all over the place before. The campaign went from the album cover to the sides of buses to huge banners in malls to social media memes to just everywhere, riding only on a surprising color choice and those simple numbers. It was breathtaking in it’s simplicity and awe-inspiring in it’s effectiveness.
Roettinger also played a large part in one of the most surprising record covers of the year. As the creative director he brought on Robert Beatty to illustrate Kesha’s Rainbow album, doing so in a way that only Robert Beatty can. Beatty’s work tends to be mind warping regardless of who it is applied to, and psychedelic in the best way possible. Seeing it step up to big releases like Tame Impala had warmed my cold cold heart, but seeing it completely reinvent a mega top 40 pop star was almost too much to process. Even more amazing than the fact that that even happened, was how well it worked. Perfectly encapsulating Kesha’s re-entry into the pop world following years of legal battles and personal struggles, it captures her quirky qualities and space princess vibe while showing her naked and unafraid as she walks into the deeper water. Unafraid perfectly describes this entire cover.
Going back to the one color and some type mode of problem-solving, Portland’s messy pop collective and aptly named Mope Grooves centers itself around Stevie Pohlman, who titled their most recent album Joy knowing that it was wrapped up in equal parts depression and bliss. It is hard to explain just how wonderfully the cover art by Raf Spielman balances between the two, without demanding that you just look at it. The repetition of the band name cascading down in blotchy rows, along with the jagged and empty dialogue balloon, just absolutely nails it with equal parts charm and despair. Perfect.
Davy Kehoe’s Short Passing Game is filled with skittering little drum machines that feel like they are going to overheat as his ominous vocals or blaring horns thunder over them as the night creatures coo in the background, like a Soft Moon on Adderall instead of cocaine. It’s a cool and bracing sound that doesn’t shy away from the darkness. It’s also wrapped in an absolutely brilliant sleeve. J. Mason’s design has an incessant energy, yet a jazzy sophistication. The words flipped and the type messed with in just the right way, as the yellow dots scatter about, leave the viewer forever intrigued with what is inside, and the tracks themselves do not disappoint.
Every top ten album cover list should have at least one sleeve adorned with a beautiful and artful collage, and this list is no exception. Matthew Hunt created a number of little collages to fill out the lovely 8 page booklet and cover for Bons Gras H’utsi record. Each shape and texture just right, anchored by the sections of deep black that give it an unexpected depth and sophistication. The music is as if The Books were stoned out of their minds and only had a few 60s folk records to manipulate, which fits this look and feel to perfection.
There is so much to enjoy in Ben Tousley’s work with Grizzly Bear that it can be tempting to just pour it all out there. And as much as I loved what he did on the “Painted Ruins” album proper, I REALLY loved what he did for the singles that preceded it. The combination of Tousley’s wild hand made typography (a departure for him) layered over the artwork of LA painter Chyrum Lambert for the cover of “Mourning Sound” might very well be my favorite combo of the year.
It was a good year for Swiss psych rock and Balduin continued his lilting grooves and colorful swirls on Bohemian Garden. Assembled by Lorenz “Lopetz” Gianfreda, one of the founders of innovative Bern design firm Buro Destruct, with Balduin over his shoulder, the pair plucked out a small textile painting filled with saturated colors that are so rich that they seem to bleed off of the page. You pick up the album and half expect it to feel heavy with so much ink charged into the sheet. That feeling perfectly marries with the orchestral tunes within.
The record that both sounded and looked the most like Twin Peaks to me this year was Obsequies Organn. The record is filled with glitchy tension and a weird sense of foreboding, yet often reveals moments of transcendent beauty. Using the visuals of mixed media artist Thomas Hauser to add a degraded, yet surrealistic and cinematic edge, they lock me in with pure grainy black and white joy.
This was the year that Braulio Amado emerged as one of my very favorite designers. His inventive mix of playfulness and offbeat color selections, coupled with an almost childish sense of humor and drawing style, found it’s way into an incredibly sophisticated sense of style, with elegant touches and layout chops that haven’t been seen in a very long time. I recommend checking out all of his work (so much so that I profiled him in my upcoming book!) but for now here is a taste of his work this past year with Frank Ocean.
This was also the year when one of the biggest design triumphs in the music industry left me equal parts enthralled and bone-chillingly cold. Luke Hayman and Pentagram tackled The National’s Sleep Well Beast project as if it were a full-scale corporate re-brand. By taking it dead seriously, they kept the inside joke aspect of it intact as well. Of course it is absurd to treat a band in this way, right down to branded staplers and corporate brand guides, and the way that they executed it should be applauded. For me, the true irony is in that it is applied to a band that has always felt contrived and distant to me, and the corporate coverings possibly felt all too appropriate.
Temples Volcano best typifies the post-Beatty school of retro psych graphics and no one pulls off a bit visual trickery quite like artist Jonathan Zawada. Continuing the wonderful lock and key image in a slew of Warholian variations only serves to show you how rock solid it is as both an image and a concept.
There was a barrage of gimmicky production techniques as the high-end vinyl market for pop culture products (and soundtracks in particular) exploded. A lot of it was more show than substance, but the work Alan Hynes does for Mondo always shines through in its concept and execution. For Carter Burwell’s soundtrack to Anomalisa he does a wonderful play on the napkin for the sleeve BUT the real capper is the amazingly detailed pop up that forms two different hotel rooms and contains numerous connections to the film and just makes your jaw drop at the sheer brilliance of it all.
Every year needs some v23 alumni joy and 2017 was no exception! We had a little taste via the “Wait In The Car” single and can all now start looking forward to some more amazing Chris Bigg design work for The Breeders in 2018. Now THAT is some 90s nostalgia I can get behind!
I am sure that I missed a few highlights (sorry/not sorry – tell ‘em Demi!) but overall it was a shockingly good year for album art. My only regret is that I wish the Björk cover didn’t creep me out so badly, as there is a beauty in the execution. Luckily, it wasn’t so creepy that it ended up on tomorrow’s list! Be sure to 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! He has one coming out this March via acclaimed publisher Thames & Hudson entitled; “Album Art: New Music Graphics” where you can get over 300 pages of his thoughts on the state of music packaging, accompanied by a ton of pretty pictures. 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.