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Once again we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2011: 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 halfass version of this and then we layeth the smacketh downeth like our step-sister’s life depended on it for the fourth 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 four 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 you are William Shatner… well, you get a pass because you almost made me cry during your deceitful turned loving turn on Psych this year. Yes, I am a softie like that.
  • 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 the Meat Puppets – always rife with poor life decisions…)
  • 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 was yesterday’s worsties.

So yeah – without further ado, bring out the BESTies:

It was a good year for imagery in design in 2011. This was the year Sam Beam and Bill Callahan finally had their painting abilities catch up with their songwriting (though it was a long wait, I have to admit.) Blitzen Trapper even made a snappy 7” with the help of Dusty Summers and Josh Cochran. Sonnenzimmer made a gorgeous package for a Swiss jazz label that I just couldn’t justify with only 200 pressed (thems the rules.) Some fun branding exercises took place, like the color changes from album to singles for Jamie XX and Battles type on gunk sleeves, along with Wild Beasts’ image mask among others. And let me say that I like the overall idea as to what Sacred Bones are doing in regards to their packaging, but the strong roster of forceful personalities that they have assembled makes me think they are holding the bands back a little for the sake of the overall label. Might be time to grow (and let go.) Speaking of growing up, big kudos to Earth and Mastodon for showing us how to appeal to metal fans, but still do incredible (and accessible) illustrated covers.

I also truly loved Matthew Herbert’s “One Pig” in it’s messy simplicity, like an old Basquiat drawing reduced to text on a blackboard. Yet, I just couldn’t squeeze it in. 10B. Don’t even get me going on 10C and 10D…

Okay, enough review. We’ve got some backs to pat.

We were pretty tough on Robert Beatty to kick off the worst half of the equation, so we would be remiss in not celebrating all that he does well, and that was never more evident than in his incredible sleeve for La Big Vic. Sort of a Legion of Superhipsters, La Big Vic could easily have fallen into 101 traps in reaching back to the past for inspiration, yet Beatty’s airbrushy illustration evokes the krautrock, dream pop sensibilities, while still seeming like a modern take, with it’s pillowy feel on the industrial surrealism.

Very rarely do you see a cover these days and become enraptured with the singular focus of an artist, especially when all it presents is a side profile shot of the person within. Alex Zhang Hungtai brought a lot of buzz with him this year, but he also delivered the goods in spades as far as giving us a dark, cinematic masterpiece via his Dirty Beaches persona. No record looked like it sounded this year in the way “Badlands” did.

I am stunned at the lack of attention being given to “Wounded Rhymes” on year-end lists, (“I Follow Rivers” is still my single of the year) but Leif Podhajsky won’t get short shrift here. His work for Lykke Li gave her an undeniable sense of sophistication, every detail, from slightly off kilter letters letting you know the type was set by hand, to the rips and pulls in the photos, elevated it to the highest level.


Embracing a return of thin serifs exploited in the “I’m Still Here” movie poster from Neil Kellerhouse, this fashion inspired look has come full circle via Jeff Kleinsmith’s design for Washed Out. The sleeve perfectly describes the stylish chillpop that Ernest Greene has mastered, and Martien Mulder’s photo of interlocked young lovers in bed serves to highlight everything that some people hate about Washed Out, and everything that even more people love about his music.

The cover of Cut Copy’s “Zonoscope” only disappoints in its heavy choice of a typeface. It more than makes up for it with a brilliant photo manipulation to show a cityscape integrated seamlessly into a colossal waterfall. In a year jam-packed with terrifyingly bad photo collages, so many of them lacking in concept and/or execution, this design by ALTER stood head and shoulders above the pack.

When you long for someone to really go all out with their packaging, make it incredibly special and spare no expense in order to make their fans know they have an “event” in their hands, you don’t have to look further than Kanye West. Joining with Jay-Z for “Watch The Throne,” the duo delivers on every front. Even with the bulk of their audience seeing everything via digital thumbnail, it means something to see that somebody really cares yo. Having fashion designer Riccardo Tisci create an intricate gold foil sleeve, built entirely on the tactile nature of the embossing technique, means that this is the package that requires you to buy it and get it in hand.

Arriving with a whimper, Times New Viking released “Dancer Enquired” in the dog days of summer to middling reviews and then it seemed to wash away from our collective consciousness. While they may be in a musical transition in moving to a slightly cleaner sound, the visual transition they made is more solidified. I know this may be the cover that divides the readers, and it may be true that it tugs at me by so closely resembling half of my 1992 college projects (declared sloppy and unfinished by my professors at the time,) but I think it is just perfect in it’s looseness and messy imperfection. The very essence of cut and paste and hand designed. All of the gritty parts that listeners lamented losing in the music, fully integrated themselves into the more mature cover.

If Vaughn Oliver touches something during the course of the year, you know by now that I will have a hard time keeping him off this list. When he revisits the collected works of 4AD house band This Mortal Coil, you know there is simply no stopping him. Lovers of Nigel Grierson photography will more than get their fill.

Bjork might not have made it on the strength of the cover for Biophilia alone, though we will never know. M/M Paris (always incredible) and Scott Snibbe Studio created a package that splintered into apps and even a set of tuning forks. Is this the future of music packaging? God, I hope so.

This seemed to be the year that having nudity on your cover officially became no big deal. My time in London was spent with giant posters of Josh T. Pearson’s record giving a peek-a-boo to all that pass by. Nudes or otherwise, Kati Heck’s painting for Alessandro Bosetti’s jazz record “Royals” was a clockstopper, to put it lightly. She has often manipulated nude figures in provocative ways, but here she simply embraces the form, even breaking it down into a color block study – creating a painting within a painting, perhaps her greatest talent.

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 any moment now, just in time for your post holiday shopping. You can also feel free to pop over to his site and make fun of his music packaging design. He deserves it.