Back by popular demand, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2019: The Year in Album Art. Like your former lovers, 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 we are a high rent dominatrix wearing a Nancy Pelosi mask. We have been doing you this favor for well over a decade now, which is to say that we simply care far too much about your visual well-being.
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, Quelle Chris naming your album Guns and then covering it in a sad collage of bullets – well, that is seriously depressing on all levels – and Merry Christmas, as I have left a pass under the tree for you.
If it universally sucks (see Ally Venable photoshopped in a jar of honey for her Texas Honey album for instance) then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either (this year this especially applies to indie acts that are using authentic old photos, and yes, I know the Katherine Dieckmann photo has huge significance for Sharon Van Etten, but that doesn’t make it a good cover, and this provision is all that is sparing it from some proper ridicule.) If you are a dead serious rock band (and not J. Mascis, who may or may not have released an album this year but I have 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 broke keto and ate ten loaves of French bread, leaving the WORSTies to figure out why they woke up puffy and twenty pounds heavier with the roof of their mouth feeling like they gargled razor blades as they ponder if Taylor Swift adopted a dog for Christmas and named it Scooter just so she could say; “bad Scooter, now I have to stick your nose in this smelly poop you made Scooter. When will you ever learn Scooter? Naughty Scooter! You have been a bad boy, Scooter.”
Without further ado, we bring out the WORSTies!
Every year has a sludgy ooze of horribly designed record sleeves and 2019 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 have to admit to being thrown off center by the heavy reliance on retro 80s style. As someone who survived that as a child, I can’t see any point in returning to that vapid glossy falseness. Much like people who crow about Ronald Reagan being a great president, trust me when I tell you that you wouldn’t utter such words if you lived through it up close. Point being that there are so many terrible album covers 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. Unless you mean Burna Boy who made giant Nigerian currency with his face on it, because that is just ballers ballin’.
Lana Del Rey made an intentionally bad album cover with an intentionally bad and limp album name adorned with her wrapped around Jack Nicholson’s son on a sailboat as her sister snaps photos and even included a cover of a Sublime song which is really a Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess and it all just worked because she couldn’t be stopped musically. Much like Vampire Weekend, she manages to connect to our innermost emotions by being wildly removed from our everyday existence.
Speaking of VW. WTF? FOTB?
Ezra Koenig likened the cover art of Father Of The Bride to that of The Beatles White Album. Seriously, fuck that guy for even saying something like that. And fuck him for naming his record with this awful title. And FUCK him for slapping this un-ironic non-kitsch just plain stupid and ugly thing together.
There has never been a shittier album cover to top the charts.
Think about the opportunity to do something great, or at least mildly interesting that has been missed here.
Seriously, fuck that guy.
Plenty of effort went into this, but it’s still heartbreaking to have one of the defining albums of not just the year, but the decade, have such an abysmal cover. I know there is an aesthetic at work here, and I embrace this notion of marketing Billie Eilish in a different way than the usual pop princess, but why do so like she is starring in the crappiest mid-budget cable horror movie ever made? She debuted with promise both on the music side and visually with Don’t Smile At Me, sporting a minimal look that was equal parts moody teen and fashion photographer tastemaker. It was a work in progress, but one could see it going in a bold direction. What you couldn’t imagine was it morphing into this demented psycho ward vignette that graces When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s awful to look at, says nothing about what is inside, and worst of all, is terribly cheesy. The public reaction does say everything about the devastatingly original music within that none of that has been able to slow down her ascent to becoming the most interesting pop artist in the world.
Speaking of effort, supposedly 803 different poses of Young Thug were photoshopped in to create his face on the cover of So Much Fun. As a feat, it is kind of impressive. It certainly looks like him as they worked over a portrait, but I can’t get past this weird need to change the scale of the figures in order to pull this off. The perspective is odd on so many of the poses and the closer you look (and let’s be honest, doing something like this begs that you look closer at it and try to dissect how it was assembled) the more maddening the lack of skill and nuance in it’s application becomes. The big version mowing the lawn to create the type is funny, but more than anything it serves to make the variation in scale bizarre. I only care about all of this because it wasn’t needed. You could have pulled this off with all of the figures at the same scale, and it would have worked a thousand times better (and not ended up on this list). Why put this kind of effort in, when it is effort that is misdirected from the outset?
Blistering rap from Rico Nasty with Kenny Beats gives Anger Management an easy title and the context for the artwork wrapped around the EP, but that hardly excuses the sub-Parliament funk illustration. 2019 was the year that we lost Pedro Bell, the artist who pioneered that look with his surreal and spacey interpretation of the heavy grooves being laid down by George Clinton and crew. Dom Glover brought in Keith Rankin to do his digital airbrush thing, but the results are less Primal Scream therapy meets Bell and more boardwalk sweatshirt meets low budget horror movie.
Taunting me with even more globes, Mannequin Pussy graduate from their fun DIY visual roots to a bigger budget with their Epitaph debut Patience. Drafting in the super glossy 80s advertising inspired photography of David Brandon Getting, they somehow “get” a super boring stock photo style smash you over the head with it’s concept burning globe image. Laid out by the talented Lauren Cat West, it boggles the mind how this could all be so blah given the talent at hand. When that happens it is almost always the band forcing things on the visual creatives, but everyone involved here is guilty by association regardless.
There is a small group of friends that I text with where periodically it comes up as to whether or not Jenny Hval is “cool” to listen to. I think she is but frankly I also don’t really care. Hval has made some of my favorite music of the past few years, particularly when she has stretched herself and pushed outside of her normal songwriting. She challenges herself, and that is always “cool” in my book. Of course, as soon as I say that she makes sure to cover her most recent album with decidedly super uncool artwork. Worse yet, it’s not very good super uncool artwork. Obviously there are spiritual connotations and abundant symbols within, but why does it have to be presented like a hokey high school drawing class project? Esra Roise can do things that are more sophisticated than this, and you can see all of the ways that Lasse Marhaug is trying to make the design work hard enough to compensate for it, but nothing helps. I guess I am going to have to just admit to the others that Hval is indeed pretty uncool. That won’t stop me from enjoying her music, but I will always cringe when I see this album cover.
You can just hear the executives at Domino listening to the early tracks submitted by Alex Giannascoli and thinking how this guy is about to become a massive star. Then they are quickly reminded that he has periodically shifted what name he should be recognized under and that it has finally settled on something that starts with a bracket – (Sandy) Alex G. No worries! It’s not like he also wraps these wonderful songs in some of the worst artwork imaginable. Oh, wait… well, we will just have to have a talk with him about these awkward folky paintings of sheep and ice skaters that he keeps submitting. Oh, who does the paintings you say? His sister? That’s okay, we would much rather keep this thing at a cult level and make sure it never ever goes mainstream anyway. Please send his sister this sack of money over here on my desk and tell her how much we all love the album art.
This list requires at least one example of bizarre primitive illustration each year, and that honor goes to the Dance Ideas 5 compilation Beats of No Nation. I don’t even want to know what this is trying to be.
Flume whipped up a pile of singles this year and along with Reo Cragum gave us Quits, which just so happened to top the charts of head scratching weird collages visually. This was a massive hit in Australia, which just means that everyone in Australia has some bizarre shit as the featured graphics on their Spotify homepage. Given the full radio push and everything around it, Quits is hard to imagine looking so rough and bizarre, like a 90s jungle drum and bass album vomited after ingesting too many E’s.
Sunshine Rock almost feels like a beautiful culmination of over twenty years of horrible record sleeves from Bob Mould. That encompasses ten different albums, all of them with jaw-droppingly terrible covers. That Mould is so singularly talented and continues to make such engaging records is the only thing that keeps me from just shelving this next to something like the most recent Divine Comedy or Waterboys or Reel Big Fish record (which all look awful, and like they barely tried, of course). Husker Du had incredible album art, and Mould acquitted himself nicely with his early solo sleeves as well. Most of his solo records have had competent people at the controls, and a few have even had photos from top talent, so why are they uniformly bad? One can only assume that the more input Mould has, the worse they get, right down to Bob taking a graphic design credit along with Daniel Murphy on this stinker.
John Foster is the author of Album Art: New Music Graphics (Thames & Hudson) as well as New Masters of Poster Design (Rockport) and numerous other books, many of which you should probably own. As principal of his design firm Bad People Good Things he has designed hundreds of record sleeves for everyone from Teenbeat to Warner Bros. A few of these are pretty good.