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Back by popular demand, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2014: 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 cousin sporting the ironic porno ‘stache’s life depended on it, for the seventh 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 seven 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.

If it universally sucks then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either (this especially applies to the new class of divas and their glossy fashion magazine cover style sleeves that might as well be Revlon endorsements mixed with “My Closet has ADD!” Teen Vogue articles…) or Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga who managed to look equal parts cool and creepy and just confused me to no end. I am also finally going to stop picking on J. Mascis and his children’s book on acid paintings. And if you are Riff Raff then you better fucking bring it full on Riff Raff style. Good luck looking this good on the cover of your solo album James Franco! (It is too bad there won’t be any more LCD Soundsystem records, as I can almost hear that being a line on some deep cut.) If you are Florida Georgia Line and just looking at your record cover gives me herpes, well, they have an ointment for that (I hope.) And can someone tell the dude from How to Dress Well to at least grow a decent beard before plastering his face (sporting a “who farted?” expression none the less) all over his terrible record? A thousand thank yous.

If you are a dead serious indie rock band (and not Sinead O’Connor channeling her best guitar humping dominatrix persona) – 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 party all night in a skin tight mini dress, while the WORSTies will be here like a mean hangover, lost car keys, and a pregnancy test, soon enough.

Without further ado, we bring out the BESTies!

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2014 turned in to a pretty exciting year in design, at least as far as the music industry was concerned. But we have to start with a moment of silence for an absolute tragedy that befell a past winner earlier this year. 2013’s decorated album from Kurt Vile, “Wakin On A Pretty Daze” drew a lot of its charm from being an actual mural of commissioned art in Vile’s home of Philadelphia. When a non-art loving local citizen took it upon himself to paint over the work of Stephen Powers (ESPO), he brought upon himself the outrage of the internet, but it did little to bring back a unique and magical piece of the city, and a wonderful highlight of last year’s year in design.

(Silence over.)

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2014 also continued two trends in the industry as a whole; the proliferation of releases that foster smaller and smaller niche communities, but also provide a hothouse for unique packaging and cutting edge physical products (though I am not sure who was asking for lathe-cut CD-Rs this time last year) and the continued ass-kicking and penis-slapping world domination by the force known as Taylor Swift. We will cover both very shortly.

Before we get too deep, let’s talk about a few hot topics: I can’t pick The Roots album this year as they just ran an already great piece of existing art, but it was an inspired choice. Everyone likes that Rustie cover, but it looks like cheesy 80’s hair salon or Sarasota retirement community art to me. If you had been counting down until the ultimate gay death metal cover was produced – stop the clock! The Soft Pink Truth have you covered with a brilliantly Mavado Charon illustrated sleeve. If you are Moodymann and you managed to make yourself look pregnant, yet have a tiny bikini-clad woman wearing roller skates stretched across your ample belly, well, more power to you and your insanely heavy drop shadow. If you are Aphex Twin, everyone talked about your CD packaging! When I talked about it, I said “meh.” AND if you are Rome Fortune and shot yourself in a bathtub covered by a nip-slippin’ ladyfriend while you stare down the barrel of a gun, we ask – IS THIS THE GREATEST COVER OF ALL-TIME???? Or, have I been hitting the cognac too hard?

Methinks it is the cognac. On to the best of the best.

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By now you guys know I can be had with a really strong black and white cover, and art noise hip hop act Clipping delivers via the brilliant broken fence drawing of Tim Lahan. The effect is bold and graphic, yet the subject matter, and skill of the execution, creates a multi-layered set of meanings and interpretations behind the art. The illustrative element can’t be discounted here either, as a photo of a broken chain-link fence would have carried none of the power that this sleeve ultimately wields. The very physicality of the breaking and mangling of the fence is so much more pronounced in this format, much like the cut and paste distorted elements of the band’s music.

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I can’t lie; FKA Twigs album “LP1” leaves me bewildered as to what all of the fuss is about. I have a level of respect for anything on Young Turks but the buzz and promise of a Bjork/Kate Bush/R+B chanteuse just doesn’t jive with the clinical results. What is undeniable is that director Jesse Kanda has delivered one of the most memorable faces in recent pop memory. The distortions and manipulations on the interior of the packaging serve to embrace the digital medium on one end, while creating visuals that are not terribly far removed from the mind-melting work of painter Francis Bacon. It amounts to a staggering and complex visual leap on all fronts.

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This was a year filled with production tricks, but my favorite had to be the laser die-cut sleeve for Bonobo’s “Flashlight” EP. Designer Leif Podhajsky continued his run of interesting work with an intricate pattern of dots that gets smaller and smaller as you come closer to the center, interacting with the illustration below to create a false shimmer and depth that begs for further investigation.

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The New Pornographers continue their show of songwriting force and Canadian manners on their newest, the aptly named “Brill Bruisers.” While delivering a typically solid disc, where they really step up their game is in the cover art. Created by Stephen Wilson and Thomas Burden, the result is a mix of Wilson’s chunky typography for the band name, and his glowing color palette, and Burden’s crazy animated illustration style.

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Like a low-tech drug-addled sister to “Brill Bruisers”, Liars visual campaign for “Mess” hinges on an intense use of color in just the right fashion. Created by Julian Gross, the staged shots manage to walk the fine line between meticulous planning and utter chaos. It’s not as easy to pull off as one might think. The ability to take something simple and beautiful and surround it in clinical white walls, while instilling in it an animalistic and dangerous quality is not far removed from Liars themselves. Gross coxes hulking and staggering shapes from just yarn and a fan, and untamed tentacles from just the shape of an “L.” It is simple, and brutal, and in your face, yet you want to be near it and envelop yourself in its colorful embrace. (Gross gets bonus points for solid work on TV on the Radio’s record this year as well.)

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I can’t explain why I love this Matt Kivel cover for “Days of Being Wild” so much. There is always that breezy guitar-based style of music that seems to lend itself to this kind of un-tethered floating imagery, and Max Markowitz has an uncanny ability to use whitespace in a charmingly awkward way. What I really think sold it though was hearing Markowitz describe the images as tiny living organisms that are trying to communicate with one another. It is cheating to have the artist adding that kind of information, but I can’t un-hear it, and now that I have, I adore that colorful and positive statements are emerging from the organisms, yet seemingly unable to fully reach the nearest being and form a true connection.

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It was a year filled with really beautiful simple paintings on record covers, and the one that emerged as my favorite from that pile was the combination of Salina Ladha’s flat dimensions in her Matisse-like rendering, and Luke Norrad’s art deco lettering that graced HOMESHAKE’s “In The Shower” LP. When you keep it simple, it is the little touches that can make a huge difference. The couple embracing in the background provides the most visual intrigue, but it is also her decision to color the lamp yellow, but not the light, that makes me fall hopelessly in love with this painting.

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Robert Beatty has found himself on both sides of these lists in past years, and his 60’s puffy psych style is wearing thin with me to a degree, but damn if he doesn’t drop all of that nonsense and do a David Carson sneezing on a Peter Saville style design for Oneohtrix Point Never “Commissions I” LP. This. Is. Absolutely. Brilliant. Like Blue Note Reid Miles level brilliant. Applying just the right touch for an elegant and sophisticated, yet mildly playful cover. And just when you think he only pulled it off by going super simple, he roughs up the typography on the inside to remind you who is the boss. Robert Beatty is the boss. If this was the only album design done in all of 2014 I would be able to sleep at night. (If this was the last ever album cover design, I would be able to sleep during the day, mostly because I wouldn’t have a lot of work to do, but that is missing the point.) I could just stare at this for hours. I don’t just throw around references to Carson, Saville and Miles without considering the weight that deserves. Did I say how brilliant this design is? IT. IS. BRILLIANT!

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The crazy thing is that it is not even my favorite sleeve design of the year. Not even my second favorite, for that matter.

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That honor goes to the woman that has the potential to go down in history as her generation’s Elvis, or Michael Jackson. We can only hope that the trappings of fame don’t derail what is now officially a runaway train filled with party anthems and shy lipstick kisses and kick in the groin breakup songs. I don’t think it got enough press when it happened but recently Taylor Swift was the first woman to replace herself atop the Billboard singles chart. Her arsenal of hits seems never-ending and she mixes it with a power team that can stage a Wall Street coup with just the flicker of an eyelash. All of that industry know how and commercial pressure makes it all the more amazing that her new record, “1989” comes covered in a Polaroid of her shirt and cut off face and only the notations “T.S.” and “1989” scrawled on the bottom in sharpie. Swift and her team can do whatever they want at this point, but going lofi on the art end of things came as quite a pleasant surprise. Just going with the Polaroid angle doesn’t guarantee success, as they still could have gotten the photos themselves all wrong and missed the casual capture so beloved by the medium. This is so great that had you told me it was done by BYT’s favorite Polaroid shooter Lexie Moreland, I would have believed you. And that is the highest compliment I can pay a photographer.

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It is hard to think of something that could top the unexpected joy of Swift’s cover design, and only a completely different approach could surpass it. However, Ian William Craig’s “A Turn of Breath” does just that. Done in Craig’s printmaking and music making studio, the image is the result of covering one of the studio’s walls with a transfer of gradated ink, capturing the natural grittiness of the old building with the shimmer of the electric ink fresh from the can. It is the kind of thing that simply cannot be faked. Craig knew enough as an artist to capture it as is, and use it to cover his layered and glacial recordings. Somehow, an image that was never originally intended to be seen by anyone outside of Craig’s little printmaking room, is now my favorite image of 2014.

It was a complicated year, and as high as the highs were (and they were Reggie Watts level high), the lows were not to be outdone, so tune in in a little bit for the worst of the worst!

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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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