Back by popular demand, we (finally) return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2017: 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 Steve Harvey dressed up as a psychotic pimp snowman trying to gobble up all of the wedding cake before the clock strikes twelve, for the ninth year and counting. (Which is to say that we care waaaaay more than they do, but let’s not get carried away like we would let Tommy Wiseau actually speak if we won an award 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 pot leaves draped all over the place, or better yet, a black and white super serious wearing lots of makeup to look like I’m not really wearing makeup looking photo of Demi Lovato – well, Demi, you have taken your broken doll parts and somehow melded them into a blazing phoenix of diva power to re-emerge as a universal badass and I salute you and all of the bad boys whose necks you are currently standing on in your eight inch heels. You get a pass.
If it universally sucks then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either. Oddly enough, this seemed to be the year that a lot of artists finally got some proper professional help on their album covers. Even Randy Newman had a gritty edge and cohesive design this year, hitting closer to the aesthetic mark that Taylor Swift was reaching for than Tay Tay herself. Of course, this was also the year that one of the biggest records of the year featured a photo of Harry Styles sobbing in the shower, so, all bets are off. (I can only hope that they update that album cover when Harry hits 30 and that one lone weird hair on his shoulder pops up right next to his little guitar tattoo. You might be Harry Styles but NO ONE escapes shoulder hair when they turn 30. These are the rules.) If you are a dead serious indie rock band (even the legends. Well, especially the legends) – you might not fare as well… This is for items worthy of discussion only and to shame those that should know better and to praise the proud few.
Also – WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT JOHN MAYER COVER??? I could write 2,000 words on that alone.
Okay, we are splitting this end of year (okay okay – start the new year) fun in to two posts to spread the joy, so the BESTies recalibrated your Netflix history yesterday so that it only shows Marvel series now (can David Tennant be back in Jessica Jones like tomorrow???), leaving the WORSTies to dig around under the couch for that experimental tube of male birth control that the NIH study wants returned tomorrow as they have an epiphany and finally realize that Cardi B is named after Bacardi rum.
Without further ado, we bring out the WORSTies!
This past year was still filled with plenty of terrible photos, but it was also the year when hip hop transitioned into not terrible, but also not great, super busy illustration mode. In a manner reminiscent of all of those loony Scientist dub covers (“Scientist Rids The World Of The Curse Of The Vampires” perhaps being the high water mark) the old tough guy photo was replaced by zany drawings of neighborhood adventures. Perhaps the best description might be Miles Davis On the Corner meets MAD Magazine. None of it was particularly good, but all of it was more fun and engaging than the awful photos of the past.
This was also the year when the biggest album of the year did indeed feature a terrible photo, even if it was appropriately moody, along with a crime against typography just to make a point (or punctuation mark, as it were). With Damn Kendrick Lamar truly exploded, but in having the power to call the shots with Dave Free, he took a huge step backwards visually from when he had been working with top designers. It was so bad that it inspired people to aggressively re-design the sleeve and post them on-line.
Sometimes there is bad art on an album cover, and then there are other times when THERE IS BAD ART ON AN ALBUM COVER!!! 2 Chainz Pretty Girls Like Trap Music amounts to absolute insanity as far as record covers for a massive commercial release goes. This would be horrifying if it was on a limited run cassette, but going all the way up the corporate chain baffles me. Artist Trevor Andrew might have an incredible back story (Olympian turned fine artist riding Guccighost persona to force bad doodles on to the unsuspecting trust fund kids) but even knowing the huge limitations inherent in his work to date, I still couldn’t have imagined something this awful. I am sure it is supposed to be intentionally bad, but no one could have seen this kind of gold medal bad hitting the record racks.
The long history of artists lovingly putting an old photo of a cherished relative on their record cover is filled with lots of misses and very few hits. I can see the pull in making something that will immortalize that person forever and ever and show your love and respect (and your lingering longing for their acceptance) that drives this kind of decision-making. When Drake put this photo of his dad Dennis Graham on the cover of More Life it clearly was done with love, and you can see how this likely perfectly captures everything he enjoys about his Pops. It also perfectly captures the nerdy wimpiness that undercuts all things Drake (are we still sure that Drake is not a comedy act?) There is zero swagger in this photo, from the goofy oversized bow tie, to the pipe, to the mega ‘stache, to the silk noragi (I am embarrassed to even type “noragi”) and the giant rattan chair. There is nothing cool about rattan. Those are the rules. If Graham were 85-years-old in the photo, there might be some folksy charm, but this is clearly set out as if he was in full on young mack mode. Couldn’t be further from the case. Adding the “came with my student copy of Word” option for script type below only underlines all of this. And yes, I am a total dick for spending this long making fun of a harmless photo of Drake’s father.
Speaking of just coming off like a total jerk – I hate to be hard on a lovely and very intense record Phil Elverum made about losing his wife to cancer. That battle was painfully documented and I have nothing but love for Phil as an artist and as a human being and I appreciate how difficult it must have been to bring this album to fruition. Having said all of that, no one is spared from commentary when they release an album that looks like this. Mount Eerie A Crow Looked At Me somehow manages to be visually terrible in so many unexpected ways. The photo itself is boring and not executed well. The lighting is weird, as is the pinkish/mauve hue soaking everything as an after effect (and something easily remedied by anyone with a working knowledge of either photography or software) and OF COURSE this is all here because of what it means to Elverum, much like the photo of him holding his child on the back. Using his wife’s illustration on the interior (and remembering how lovely her artwork was on earlier releases) just serves to remind me how much I yearn for that to be on the cover. The type speaks for itself. If you are wondering if I should have just left this all alone, and if I will regret commenting on it – the answer is yes, and yes.
Sure the photo on the cover of Obama favorite Low Cut Connie’s Dirty Pictures (part one) by local shooter Chris Suspect is used out of context in a way here that it could possibly earn it’s place on the list, and that is a huge shame as Suspect is insanely talented and his photos on their own are bracing. However, what seals the deal is Hannah Taylor’s fake gold type that is one Photoshop filter away from flying back to 1997. I could get behind a sleazy rock and roll interpretation of the photo, but this misses the mark by so many miles that it is not even in the same country as a successful album cover.
Graphically speaking, the cover of Amine’s Good For You is well executed. The Portland rapper has charm in spades and certainly there is a broad blast of humor running through his recordings, but there is nothing funny about this, or enjoyable, or even charmingly juvenile. It is just (wait for it) shit.
I love Juana Molina so much and this Halo record is so good and I absolutely adore the design touch of having the UPC playfully put into a bone shape on the back of the album, but the final imagery that came about via her longtime creative partner Alejandro Ros just ruins it for me on some level. The tale goes that in taking photos of Molina with a skeleton, Ros then came back combining her with the single bone. The final product is not quite creepy enough, or quirky and funny in the right way. It’s just odd in a totally non-engaging way, which is the complete opposite of the incredible music within.
I don’t have massive expectations visually for Maroon 5. They have been a pop juggernaut for decades now, and playing to the masses in the safest way possible is the path best taken. Travis Schneider provides that kind of safe design that the L.A. music machine depends on and I imagine that was the plan here, but these Snapchat inspired images are so blatantly pandering to a pre-teen audience that it comes across as creepy, especially when the band shows their age by naming their Red Pill Blues record after a movie made in 1999. Creeptastic.
There is something inherently ridiculous about DJ Khaled, and I freely admit that his pimping out of his baby boy all over the Grateful album is pretty endearing in such a weird way. (Thank goodness that leopard cub looks to be photoshopped in and not really cuddling up against his kid’s super shiny suit pants.) The alternate cover for this is just totally over the top and so clearly bad that it wouldn’t have made this list, however, this little man chilling in the hot tub is something else altogether. If I am roasting Drake and Mount Eerie than this soaky diaper is making the list.
Speaking of a soaky diaper, let’s get to the biggest disappointment of the year. LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream arrived as a pretty big surprise, given the massive send off James Murphy and crew had undertaken in retiring the band. When we learned that they were putting out a new record (blame Bowie) we were excited, and probably had reasonable expectations. When we saw the record cover featuring a painfully boring painting of the sky by Robert Reynolds, with the title placed in the center in a tall gothic condensed font that did little to grip you (though the font is named Heroic) – well, we got concerned. Murphy has a bit of a mixed bag as far as past visuals go, but never anything this blah and underwhelming. I always wish that his expert culling of musical influences could extend itself to visual influences. In the end, the music was okay. Not as high as their past highs, but respectable. As for the cover, it made me get down on my knees and beg to the ghost of Alan Vega that this is not their final album ever, as it would be a terrible visual statement to end with.
I am sure that I missed a few lowlights (sorry/not sorry – tell ‘em Demi!) but overall it was a shockingly good year for album art, despite The Darkness continuing to release music. Let’s hope we can keep it coming in 2018. You kids know what to do, just shut up and play the hits.
John Foster owns his very own design firm, Bad People Good Things, and he writes lots of books – you should own a pile! He has one coming out this March via acclaimed publisher Thames & Hudson entitled; “Album Art: New Music Graphics” where you can get over 300 pages of his thoughts on the state of music packaging, accompanied by a ton of pretty pictures. 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.
If you haven’t seen the good side of album art, check out the Best Album Art of 2017