Once again, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2013: The Year in Album Art. 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 half-ass version of this and then we layeth the smacketh downeth like our inappropriate uncle’s life depended on it for the sixth 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 six 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. (I do acknowledge the advent of the new “wimpy” rapper record sleeve personified by Drake, and I find it… weird, and wimpy, so maybe it is seriously on point. But I am not talking about any sleeves with Blue Ivy on them, at least not yet.)
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 Miley Cyrus who released her weakest effort yet, by miles and miles, and tragically named her album “Bangerz” and dressed it up in Miami Vice kitsch and couldn’t even put on a giant foam hand facing the right way for her big offensive VMA’s moment, yet still overcame it all to back up her boney caboose into the very gay and very flaccid penis of the modern media industry and become the most talked about celebrity of the last year.
If you are a dead serious indie rock band (and not Gary Numan in a top hat) – 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 were the 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…) as we wake up to 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 is the WORSTies.
So yeah, while we try to decide whether everything deserves an ironic “z” at the end of it in honor of Miley – without further ado, we drag out the WORSTies:
I hardly know where to start, and I apologize that this is about to become NSFW, but there is just no way around it, this is the year of the ugly boob (and no, I don’t mean Black Flag’s Greg Ginn.) I could have legitimately filled out this entire list with topless women BUT that would have denied us the true skin searing magma flowing from the top of this epic shitvolcano of a year. Grab a Sherpa and a serious pair of boots, because once the boobs fall by the wayside the air will start to get pretty thin…
It is hard to talk about disappointing album design without starting with Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time.”
It is one thing if your artist is a vulnerable junkie making bad decisions and being exploited from every corner, but it is another thing to decorate her album with it. That involves some compromises, but here is the rub, if she was making that kind of music; desperate, confused, and howling music, then you would at least be applying some truth in advertising. When PJ Harvey used a similar set up with “Rid of Me” to present a record that laid her bare and raw to the bone, it was incredibly powerful. Here, it is nether powerful, or even really sad. It is just confusing. Ferreira makes glossed up pop, even if it might have tiny alt trappings attached. She is the face of Redken’s new ad campaign and she grew up hanging out with Michael Jackson and even though her label seems clueless as to how best to promote her, they should set their sights on the market they signed her for: the Top 40 market. This creepy cover is just creepy, and misguided, and creepy, and artless. Mostly artless. And creepy.
There are always ALWAYS really terrible illustrations adorning various records. It often feels like a challenge as to who can create the very worst. But even with that in mind, some are soooo bad that they still cause me to toss my milk and cookies and then invite seven buses full of people to come from Carnegie Hall over to eat them.
Comanechi’s “You Owe Me Nothing But Love” somehow ups the stakes by including a bewildered poodle holding a heart-adorned bra to go with the amateur hour topless (well, the dog does have her bra) mess of a doodle. Just imaging the conversation where someone decided this would be a good idea makes me want to swing a sledgehammer in every direction possible. If this was some juvenile take I might let it slide, but this is an established band trying to pull over a blanket of ultra lofi aesthetics for art’s sake. Meaning that this is as studied as Ferreira’s sleeve. Does anyone want a “slightly” used sledgehammer?
Will the topless horror ever end??? Not if Mystical Weapons have anything to say about it! Could we change your disgust if we threw in some insect arms and creepy spider hair on the girl? What about a corset? What if we told you Sean Lennon was in the band?
The nudity could go on for months given the abundance of unsexy boobs on display this year (and no, once again I am not referring to members of Black Flag, yet.) But let’s end this whole thing with some male nakedness in illustrated form. The Fat White Family’s “Champagne Holocaust” sports a terrible band name and terrible album name and even worse sleeve. Their brand of trashpsych would do well to investigate The Cramps and others in that genre but this is simply unforgiveable and unfortunately, unforgettable.
Exhausted by all of this nakedness? I never thought I would admit such a thing, but me too.
Let’s refresh with a classic disappointment. The great Peter Max, err I mean Damien Hirst takes hold of a photo of the band by iconic snapper Pennie Smith (she of the incredible Clash images from years gone by) and creates a pile of colorful excrement for Babyshambles “Sequel to the Prequel.” More is Less. Jaw-droppingly so.
Speaking of oddly disappointing. Neko Case has not always had world-beating sleeve designs, but they haven’t been offensively terrible, until now. “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You,” is a surprisingly revealing record, but the big surprise was originally a very clumsy crowdsourcing campaign for artwork before Case and frequent collaborator Kathleen Judge returned off the back of their Grammy-nominated “Middle Cyclone” art with THIS. It is a potent mix of bad and awkward and leaves me almost speechless. It may be the worst sleeve of the year, because it was trying to be much better than this and the team involved here has shown that they can do so much more. Crazy.
King Krule was touted as a special talent, and he came across in the States with a certain intriguing look and a unique voice and we all wanted him to be the new post punk teenage Billy Bragg or something amazing and then he made a really mediocre record (read Jana Hunter’s take on it as soon as you can) and you walked around Dalston and realized he looks like every third guy on the street and said record came wrapped in just plain bad graphic drawings that were charmless in every way and you wondered if “6 Feet Beneath The Moon” would serve as the reality check that it should be or was it the beginning of the end of the line. You wondered these things, not me. I already know the answer.
Interestingly, this is the only album on this list that I feel is really pretty special. It is odd that most of us expected My Bloody Valentine to return with a sense of style in their packaging that matched their accomplished (and stylish) music. The band had never shown a massive concern for that side of things, though they had been lucky enough to have sympathetic design and photography done for them. Now, in control of all aspects of their long awaited return, they more than delivered on the music, but the sleeves were cheap and flimsy and sporting boring/bad art and typography of a questionable resolution. It just all seemed so amateurish, which is a tough thing to take when it envelopes a sound that seems light years away (still) from what anyone else can pull off. That the core audience is pretty visually savvy didn’t help things, though the long wait for something/anything seemed to mute the grumbles as people began to receive their physical orders. Sigh. At least we finally have the music.
Few things entertained quite like the dueling touring editions of Black Flag this year. “What The…” even started it’s own jokes for you via it’s title. Far more accommodating to the music scribes than to each other, the group headed by Greg “Talk to My Attorney” Ginn hit the knockout blow with this album cover. You have to hand it to them, as it garnered more press than any recorded music from this line-up could ever hope to imagine. It has to be here, if only for the very reason that it reminded all of us that we can still be offended by an album cover simply by it being absolutely terrible. I can only imagine Ginn’s brother Raymond Pettibon was busy answering a deposition and too tied up to help out.
When I first laid eyes on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Mosquito” I knew instantly that it would be my top horror show of an album sleeve for the year. It even warmed my heart that so many of you knew me well enough to send it my way hoping that it could hold out through the hot summer months and the icy fall chill. Designed by Julian Gross, with art from Beomsik Shimbe Shim (take a bow folks!) the cover reaches for the stars with what is clearly a massive and time consuming effort to create the most trad and shitty and most of all boring image of all-time. Shimbe Shim is a talented animator but this all seems to have gone out the window here as the overall direction is lacking. Making accomplished figures that have no aesthetic purpose and are neither fun or gross (where are the Garbage Pail Kids when you need them???) or exciting in the least means that his talents on the construction end are worthless. I will give them this – the art looks as crappy and as artless as the title track to the record. So, you know, fair play and all that. Bloodsuckers.
That was exhausting. I might hate boobs. Nah, just talentless drawings of them… I couldn’t bear the thought of putting Kathleen Hanna amongst all of this nonsense so The Julie Ruin made a narrow escape, along with Grant Hart and Waxahatchee and Speedy Ortiz and so many other terrible record covers. But don’t worry kids. You still have next year.
Until then, stay horrible.
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.