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 photoshoot 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 drank all of booze right down to the bottle of vanilla extract and last hunk of rum cake yesterday, leaving the WORSTies to figure out why they woke up with candy canes superglued to their nipples and pondering if by some miracle both One Direction and Zayn Malik are both stronger apart than together.
Without further ado, we bring out the WORSTies!
Every year has a sludgy ooze of horribly designed record sleeves and 2016 was no different. I am forever dismayed at the reliance on glossy posed photos of the artist to try to “move units” in this industry, and I am especially lost on artists below the mainstream falling prey to that mentality. It was nice to see someone like Sturgill Simpson have a breakthrough country record with a cover far removed from the usual Nashville nonsense. The new twist on this seems to be the iPhone selfie styled shot that found it’s way into a treasure trove of bad hip hop album covers (many of which surprisingly featured rappers hugging their cats – is this such an obvious “I heart pussy” joke that I am missing it?) Point being that there are so many of those things out there that it is safe for you, the discerning internet browser, to assume that I hated them all. Lock each and every one in here at number eleven on the list of doom.
While you are busy doing that, enjoy the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers actually designed a record cover to intentionally get on this list. The best part of this is that the crow on the parking pylon looks like it was added at a later date to cover up a mistake. Mistake? Like the whole fucking idea of The Chili Peppers making another album much less having it be wrapped in this??? (Insert some terrible play on “californication” that denotes how utterly boring and shite this thing is.) Not enough parking pylons in the world boys. (Kudos to Chad Smith/Will Farrell Jr’s wife for putting the beat down on Charles in Charge though.)
The whole thing with Sia wanting to return to a private life and not showing herself in public often and wearing masks etc… is something I can respect. The woman behind some of the biggest songs of the last decade seemed to have found a balance that was much needed in her life. So, it was surprising to see her all alone on the cover of her new record playing up that internal tug of war with such a shaky hand and poorly executed concept. As far as what could have been, this is the cover that misses the mark by the greatest margin this year.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam made a lovely record together – something stronger than the individual pieces – which was quite an accomplishment in it’s own right. But… they adorned it with this awful type choice, which is poorly placed over a surprisingly unappealing photo of what looks to be Sabretooth from the X-Men movies (the crappy cartoony version – not cool Liev Schrieber Sabretooth) contemplating how many pairs of salmon colored shorts he owns while laying in a Paris hotel room.
In defense of House of Dad, the album is an homage to Andy Wilson’s father, who is a plumber. That’s the only defense I’ve got though. The Wolfgang Press did this better already anyway.
Cymbals Eat Guitars have managed to grace this list previously, but they then seemed to find their way visually by the Lose album, yet, it appears I spoke too soon. Whomever it is that is doing their sleeve art needs to climb into that coffin. Okay, that was harsh. It’s still true. Just acknowledging the harsh nature of the comment. Carry on. Actually, don’t carry on. You know what is the worst part of this? The photo is from artist Jo Broughton’s series of empty porn sets, which are fascinating glimpses into the pedestrian aspect of the making of sex films. Yet none of that comes across and the image itself just feels silly and limp. Having the “trendy font of the day” might have seemed ironic or in keeping with the cheesy aspect, but that only serves to further nullify the power that was once inherent in the image. Ugh!!! This is just all handled so poorly. Most designers would kill for the chance to work with images like Broughton’s but that opportunity is completely wasted here.
I know it isn’t the cool thing to say but the new A Tribe Called Quest album mostly makes me want to listen to old Tribe records, not the new one. Having to look at this abysmal cover by artist Richard Prince certainly doesn’t help. Ugly doesn’t even begin to describe this mess. Coming from a band with possibly the best hip hop album cover of all-time in the Zombart JK designed sleeve for The Low End Theory only makes this one sting even worse. A respectable return/end on the musical side, but far from a fitting visual exit.
80’s visual nostalgia has been big for some time and some how Dr. Dog decided Dr. Dog nostalgia was also in vogue as they covered the 2001 version of themselves on The Psychedelic Swamp with it’s bad War Games style video game graphics. The only thing more baffling than that premise for a record is how Matt Saunders (far more assured as a set designer than graphic designer) managed to get the typeface wrong on the title treatment??? At least go fully authentic on all aspects. Thanks for giving me a chance to pluck this sleeve back out and properly thrash it Dr. Dog, I think?
The number of covers doomed by crap watercolor paintings would rival Trump Tower if stacked up but there is always room for one more, as James Blake happily proves. Wait! There is a naked woman hiding upside down in the tree! That has to save it, right? Nope. Still complete and utter crap.
You guys said you were dying for more retro 80s graphics done poorly? Okay okay, take it easy. Dawes and Equiknoxx have you covered. Crossing musical genres with our terrible aesthetics. The 80s unifies in the weirdest ways.
I get that Beyond The Fleeting Gales is supposed to be inherently “uncool” as a band, but the sounds they are mimicking were bands that thought they were cool and just didn’t know the difference. Their record cover should either be playing up that irony or carving out it’s own identity. Instead, band member Ryan Gallows puts together some Corel Draw style garbage that is an affront to everyone who has ever tried to do right by a release by putting in the hard work to make a cover worthy of what is within.
So many awful paintings and colored pencil drawings on hip hop and pop covers this year that I hardly knew what to do with myself. Apologies to Bibi Bourelly but she gets to be the sacrificial lamb for all of those sins. You would think that the little alien riding on the lit joint (put to good use on her static video versions of her songs) would save it, but you would be wrong. Her trudging acoustic songwriting doesn’t help things to be honest.
Miles Johnson (not the famous skateboarder/designer Miles Johnson) at Secretly Canadian has had a solid year of doing the best that he can with what he has been given so this one is more down to the use of the portaits than anything else. I feel like I shouldn’t hate this as Inez and Vinood are brilliant fashion photographers and their portraits of Antony are gorgeous, except for this cover for the re-named Anohni. It is just horrible to look at and I am not convinced that the intent was to turn the viewer away. A rare failure when so many other things were going right.
Ryan Corey has made a career out of professionally polished bad record cover designs but this might be his crowning achievement. Garbage hasn’t always been awe-inspiring with their graphics but they have never been this bad, or this cheesy. Alien Skin Software used to promote these products where a Photoshop filter would turn your type into blue metal or glowing neon or better yet a fuzzy cheetah. Looks like someone was holding on to that disc for just the right moment…
Let me just say that I had to re-write this Tove Lo paragraph numerous times to remove all sexual references, both inadvertent and overt. (I couldn’t even say that I re-wrote this “entry”.) Let me also say that I never though that I would see a custom type solution made out to be a vagina with clitoris, but here we are. Designer Serena Neo literally goes all the way (whoops – one slipped in – whoops! There goes another one!) with the Lady Wood concept. It is impressive in it’s own way.
I wish I could say that ending 2016 with Lady Wood feels appropriate, and perhaps it is, given that it is exactly the kind of release that the new wave of female suppressors will comment on, without actually hearing, in the new year, but it doesn’t hit the mark. Maybe the Chili Peppers had it right. Can’t we just cover up 2016’s mistakes with a big yellow parking pylon? Anyone? Anyone? Did I just say that the Chili Peppers had it right? Aw, fuck this year. Do better 2017. A little over half of us are counting on you.
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.