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Once again we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2011: The Year in Packaging. 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 halfass version of this and then we layeth the smacketh downeth like our step-sister’s life depended on it for the fourth 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 a blood relative or anything.)

This will run much like the usual best and worst listings (and terribly similar to the last four 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 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 you are William Shatner… well, you get a pass because you almost made me cry during your deceitful turned loving turn on Psych this year. Yes, I am a softie like that.
  • 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 the Meat Puppets – always rife with poor life decisions…)
  • If you are a dead serious indie rock band – 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 red hot, just back from the club, 24 hour romp in the sack (and kitchen and hallway and your roommate’s bed and…) while this list reveals 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.

So yeah – without further ado bring out the WORSTies:

2011 continues the trend of collage happy, slapped together covers, waaaay over done photoshoptastic headshots, late 60’s early 70’s aesthetics, and a turn towards illustration styles that celebrate the hand done and amateur styling. I have to admit it has left me pretty torn (though I know something good when I see it, now more than ever.) This is perhaps personified by the work of Robert Beatty and his mix of sci-fi pulp novel cover art and a surrealistic bent; His work was everywhere and I honestly can’t decide how I feel about it. I even bought an AIDS Wolf t-shirt baring his drawing, yet I am certain every time I see it I will spend an hour debating internally whether to pull it on. It was that kind of year.

Beatty joins an illustrious group of designers who have had the pleasure of appearing on both sides of this list in a single year.

Here goes. It’s all over but the crying…

Mr. Beatty kicks things off with this retro styled illustration for the surging soundscapes of Michael Perkins “Mr 666” record (layout is by Plural, but it is really all about the illustration.) Synth driven washes that would have easily wrapped themselves around a c-level early 80’s flick, Perkins delivers an album that fails to live up to it’s ominous title, even if it supposed to follow a narrative that leads to “Murder By Phone.” It desperately needs visuals to bring the level of tension it might aspire to. The cover certainly doesn’t deliver on that front. The Tronesque glowing grid and airbrushed skull are undone by the clunky execution and especially the silly smashed computer screen – is this supposed to be a horror film for 8 year olds? Even they deserve a better entryway to the inside. This fact is only highlighted by Perkins posting videos built on old slasher flicks up on youtube.

John Maus did himself few favors via his lazy comments regarding the state of record stores, but he hurt himself even further with this hokey lighthouse image. Nothing about this says innovative lo-fi synth artist at work. Rather, it says “shouldn’t Billy Joel’s name go in some scripty font in the upper right on this thing?” It couldn’t be further removed from the challenging work behind this bland mask.

Look, I am as excited for the return of Kate Bush as anyone, certainly enough to let any silly titles slide by. That she seems to have fallen in love in the hardest way while we were all away is delightful. “50 Words For Snow” is a little schmaltzy for an album name, but it is a thousand times worse when magnified by the snow sculpture snapshot adorning the cover of a semi-human snowman making out with a woman. I am speechless. I really am.

Is this actually how Grinderman goes out? With this amazing illustration of Nick Cave by the people that do Rugrats? No? Yes? Wait… well, at least the type is well done. Oh…

Red Hot Chili Peppers are at the level where you would expect me to just put them in the “of course it is bad” pile, but when you have one of the highest profile artists of the past century doing your cover art in Damien Hirst, you quickly find yourself back on my radar. I hope they all got “I Hired Damien Hirst to do my Album Cover and all I got back is this Fly on a Pill” t-shirts. Not that the bastards would even know how to wear a shirt…

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart took a step towards sub My Bloody Valentine territory this year, a step backwards by my estimation. A bigger concern is the painting adorning the cover of “Belong.” Or, should I say, the unfinished painting adorning the cover of “Belong.” Now, if a horrible painting were enough to warrant inclusion on this list, we would run it all day, every day. Instead, it is a typographical misstep that cinches the deal. Poor choices help your chances, but don’t secure a spot either. But when you combine all of the above AND you fail to line up the “B” in Belong with anything, leaving it to choke off the whitespace and sit at a space below just a little bit more than the space between words in the line above and you just clearly don’t know what you are doing and you seem to have been placed on this earth to make me mental and and and… well, then you get on the list.

I enjoy hand rendered design, perhaps more than the next guy. I may have even written an entire book on said enjoyment. If you make your cover look like the doodles of a high school burnout, I will actually give you kudos if it is done well (perhaps best personified by the intricate Blink 182 album this year.) If you make it oddly unfinished and each piece of your doodles is unrelated and forced, like bad for badness’s sake, then you are Thurston Moore and you can do better.

Bringing one of the most anticipated records of the year was Radiohead, who saw fit to subject us all to the ugliest digital painting imaginable filled with comical ghost glob figures and condensed white type showing a black and white forest and piles of who gives a shit through it. Like Pains, it also makes for some of the most uncomfortable spaces between letterforms in the past year, no small achievement.

Nothing says Blondie like the surrealist paintings of Chris Berens, right? Right? Right? Holy shit this is beyond words.

Annie Clark produced a record that I still have trouble figuring out who exactly is supposed to enjoy it. So it seems all the more appropriate that she designed her own cover of her mouth stretched over white balloon plastic whatnot and bookended it with the same thin font as Pains and the other artists hellbent on doing this themselves. Odd that those are the same people delivering horrific letter spacing and misguided imagery. It is almost as if they had no proper training in this field at all. How else can you explain her using a deathmetal screaming figure pulsing through your torso type of image for St. Vincent? Now, can someone please tell me who is supposed to enjoy this album??? I truly don’t know.

John Foster owns his very own design firm, Bad People Good Things, and he writes lots of books – you should own a pile! “New Masters of Poster Design: Volume Two” is out any moment now, just in time for your post holiday shopping. You can also feel free to pop over to his site and make fun of his music packaging design. He deserves it.