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Back by popular demand, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2019: The Year in Album Art. Like your former lovers, 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 we are a high rent dominatrix wearing a Nancy Pelosi mask. We have been doing you this favor for well over a decade now, which is to say that we simply care far too much about your visual well-being.

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, Quelle Chris naming your album Guns and then covering it in a sad collage of bullets – well, that is seriously depressing on all levels – and Merry Christmas, as I have left a pass under the tree for you.

If it universally sucks (see Ally Venable photoshopped in a jar of honey for her Texas Honey album for instance) then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either (this year this especially applies to indie acts that are using authentic old photos, and yes, I know the Katherine Dieckmann photo has huge significance for Sharon Van Etten, but that doesn’t make it a good cover, and this provision is all that is sparing it from some proper ridicule.) If you are a dead serious rock band (and not J. Mascis, who may or may not have released an album this year but I have 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 watch all five seasons of Schitt’s Creek while snuggled up in seventeen layers of Neil Barrett lightning bolt sweaters, leaving the WORSTies to figure out why this group of emo kids keep lingering outside the store and only buying artisanal bespoke chewing gum, yet have such great taste in clothing and overall style as they continuously rain compliments down on said sweaters. Kids today…

Without further ado, we bring out the BESTies!

2019 was the year of denial in design. One could argue that most of us are in massive denial about the general state of affairs and living in a constant fantasy land as a coping mechanism, if nothing else, but trust me when I tell you that is an entirely different article. Luckily for the music industry, it was founded on creating an alternate reality and projecting a glittering fantasy world inhabited by people who just so happen to be utterly fabulous and wildly talented. That form of denial happens all the time when you swim in these waters, but this was a different kind of rejection of the normal. Designers and artists refused to take things at face value.

A record sleeve became just another layer in a collection of shifting and sliding parts. A photograph became a painting, and then that painting was picked apart by hand, and then that painting was photographed, and then that photograph was manipulated digitally. A simple series of portraits became a bizarre exercise in artificial intelligence and strung out conversations about the role of robots in music. A found photo inspired a foreign landscape on a distant planet existing parallel to ours, and said planet was built using old player piano rolls.

Nothing was as presented.

It was unacceptable to accept limitations.

The best creatives stretched what was possible until they snapped and broke, and then they reassembled the pieces into something beguiling and mysterious.

In a year filled with creeping uncertainty and general terribleness – they tried to do more, to be more.

And for the rest of you out there producing terrible album sleeves – come on people, it can’t be that hard. Even Daryl Hannah managed to design a decent record cover for Neil Young this year…

Nothing personified this approach quite like Bon Iver and the i,i album. Justin Vernon has integrated artists of every form into his project, transforming Bon Iver from a single person into a growing collaborative movement. Art directors Eric Timothy Carlson and Aaron Anderson, along with photographer Graham Tolbert, have been a huge influence as the project has evolved. Carlson began working with collages that took on additional meaning as video work began as well. That layered quality permeates not only every visual, but also the packaging on the whole, as no bell or whistle is spared. Housed in a five color plastic sleeve, the gatefold also includes a booklet with lovely printing and tons of tiny little graphic turns.

Natalie Mering has been transforming Weyes Blood into something pretty magical and on Titanic Rising she drafted in underwater specialist Brett Stanley to photograph a cover that would speak to the viewer on so many levels. Building a 90s bedroom set, adorned with posters of her Father and Lou Reed, they submerged it all and set a two hour time limit to capture everything needed before it disintegrated in the pool. Mering views the water as symbolic of the subconscious, but placing her in a teen’s bedroom further distorts everything. Stanley brilliantly shows the ceiling as an escape from drowning and the whole thing feels like the fever dream of a young Sandy Skoglund that she would eventually realize and build as an adult with Revenge Of The Goldfish.

When you are a big pop star you have to have a giant photograph of yourself on the cover of your record. These are the rules. FKA Twigs has subverted these rules to great effect in the past, and for Magdalene she continued her visual collaboration with artist Matthew Stone and creative director Matthew Josephs. Stone masterfully projects the vulnerability inherent in the album, using his process of painting on glass, moving to the computer, building busts and figures, photographing them, carving them digitally, adding in 3D modeling, folding in more paint and then printing them out on a linen canvas. The result is epic and unique, just like the project it adorns.

The Josh Homme collaborative series Desert Sessions Volumes 11 & 12 takes advantage of perhaps his greatest partnership – that of his work with the design studio Morning Breath. Some of the most fun and off kilter illustration work and design in the world has come from the hands of Jason Noto and Doug Cunningham. They shine brightly against the usual morass of visual bile that clogs up the rock genre, with bold colors and wacky characters interspersed throughout their work. Desert Sessions is no different with its wonderful design, but it also refuses to just be a record package. Acting as if it needs to keep a five year old occupied on a long drive, it has a fun packed body swap mix and match booklet and a set of hilarious stickers, including the hairy legged pork pie hat adorned dancing egg, while making the most of every inch of the inner sleeve and labels as well.

If all we were left with after 2019 was that little dancing egg, I would be okay with that.

Ghostly International has paired with designer Michael Cina for some epic highs, so it was interesting to watch Cina tackle being given a found photograph by label head Sam Valenti for inclusion on the compilation Thousands Of Eyes In The Dark. Using it as a jumping off point, Cina would create an internal narrative around isolation and where this ladder would lead to, eventually creating a parallel planet and trading the literal eyes for the holes in a player piano roll. The alternate reality folds together multiple concepts and just so happens to be exquisitely beautiful as well.

I was really taken with Damon Locks work on Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings album, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard he was putting together a record as Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble. Where Future Unfolds is a continuation of his drawings of urban settings, showcasing strong community bonds as well as generations of adversity. Printed with black and red on metallic gold paper, and housing a gritty collection of black and white flyers, the end result is a mirror reflection of a deep love of, and concern for, Chicago.

The duo of Kevin O’Neill and Karisa Senavitis design under the Will Work For Food banner and have been behind the lovely joy that is the RVNG’s label aesthetic. It would be easy to pluck just about any release out and feature it on this list, but I will go with the beautiful simplicity of a personal favorite with Craig Leon’s The Canon Anthology Of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol 2. Leon edges out the wonderful new Peter Ivers collection and is really standing in for the whole, and more than anything I wanted to also take this time to highlight the fight Kevin continues to undergo with multiple sclerosis. In an effort to allow Kevin to receive HSCT (hematopoietic stem cell transplantation) a fund was set up, amazingly reaching its goal quickly. However, if you ever enjoyed one of his designs, or you just want to send good vibes out into the world, your thoughts would be well spent directed towards Kevin’s journey and recovery.

Almost as much of a conversation as it is a visual construction, Holly Herndon assembled Proto by combining an emotional response with technical knowhow: Conceptual in practice, but very real in application. That same approach extended to the cover art as Mat Dryhurst took the portrait photos of all of the participants that had been shot by Daniel Costa Neves and created a composite figure. The result was hauntingly familiar, yet decidedly alien. Designer Michael Oswell then added bulging typography via 3D modeling that is akin to neon tubing, but it sticks to the edges as forms glom on to one another. Capping it all off is clunky type that abandons all the rules of typography and layout. The result is a fascinating meeting of technology and human error, across all boundaries.

The Twilight Sad returned in a big way with It Won/t Be Like This All The Time. Working with longtime designer DLT (Dave Thomas) they created a continuation of the rough visual language they had established. Using text edit programs to run the images through, as he adjusted the coding, Thomas arrived at a unique and disorienting style that felt as if a pixilated screen had been broken. A perfect look for our times.

Each year should feature at least one incredible painting, and that honor goes to Loribelle Spirovski for her work on Methyl Ethyl’s Triage. Using an aggressive style of applying her oils, Spirovski reminds me a bit of Francis Bacon (my favorite artist, regardless of medium) in how she forms her faces. She pairs that with a more simple use of angles and shapes and loose line work, creating a brilliantly sophisticated world for her figure to live in.

We also need to acknowledge the old design crutch – when you are stumped for what to do, just put a big head on it. Tyler, the Creator does just that on IGOR, but in a pretty effective manner. Using a photo from longtime collaborator Luis “Panch” Perez, designers Darren Vongphakdy and Phil Tosselli keep things simple, and very pink, letting the wildly engaging image do all of the lifting.

I snuck in another Ghostly release (good year!) with Steve Hauschildt and his Nonlin album, as this one features artwork from Collin Fletcher. I am a big fan of Fletcher’s work for Yves Tumor, so it was a surprise to see such a different approach here. I am also a sucker for an excellent die cut show through, and this truly delivers on that front. More than anything, maybe Fletcher’s Arizona base informed this, as it reminds me a great deal of James Turrell’s art installations.

For her Night Of The Worm Moon album, Shana Cleveland enlisted Jakarta based illustrator Kendra Ahimsa, who goes by the name Ardneks. The growth of his work has been fascinating to follow, as is the inherent culture clash seeing 60s psychedelic graphics interpreted by a young designer half a world away and decades removed from those touch points. It is perfect as the former La Luz frontwoman tackles a similar type of culture clash as she navigates a love of Sun Ra and cosmic exploration with the harsh realities of LA culture. The result is an escape to another time and place, yet still grounded in the now.

I take a pretty irreverent tone on these rundowns each year, but after finishing writing this I learned that Vaughan Oliver had passed away. With his work for v23, and in particular his legendary record sleeves for 4AD, Oliver defined what could be done on a record cover and what great heights we should all reach for. I am a designer because of Vaughan Oliver. Virtually everything that I might touch and somehow make better than it was before is because of the inspiration of Vaughan Oliver. Vaughan taught me so much. He was a friend. To say that he will be missed is a terrible understatement. He will be mourned. Forever.

The design world is poorer for his absence.

The world is poorer for his absence.

John Foster is the author of Album Art: New Music Graphics (Thames & Hudson) as well as New Masters of Poster Design (Rockport) and numerous other books, many of which you should probably own. As principal of his design firm Bad People Good Things he has designed hundreds of record sleeves for everyone from Teenbeat to Warner Bros. A few of these are pretty good.