Back by popular demand, we return with our unbiased and definitive (just ask us) music review of 2014: 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 cousin sporting the ironic porno ‘stache’s life depended on it, for the seventh 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 seven 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.
If it universally sucks then I won’t waste my time mentioning it here either (this especially applies to the new class of divas and their glossy fashion magazine cover style sleeves that might as well be Revlon endorsements mixed with “My Closet has ADD!” Teen Vogue articles…) or Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga who managed to look equal parts cool and creepy and just confused me to no end. I am also finally going to stop picking on J. Mascis and his children’s book on acid paintings. And if you are Riff Raff then you better fucking bring it full on Riff Raff style. Good luck looking this good on the cover of your solo album James Franco! (It is too bad there won’t be any more LCD Soundsystem records, as I can almost hear that being a line on some deep cut.) If you are Florida Georgia Line and just looking at your record cover gives me herpes, well, they have an ointment for that (I hope.) And can someone tell the dude from How to Dress Well to at least grow a decent beard before plastering his face (sporting a “who farted?” expression none the less) all over his terrible record? A thousand thank yous.
If you are a dead serious indie rock band (and not Sinead O’Connor channeling her best guitar humping dominatrix persona) – 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 led things off like the kind of blissful and glittery New Years Eve that only happens in romantic comedies, followed by the WORSTies below, where you try to remember if your “date” last night should be hiking up her dress and standing up to pee right about now.
Without further ado, we bring out the WORSTies!
While we all agree that 2014 was a year on an upward trend design-wise, there was still a lot of dreck floating about. Enough that you could, truth be told, walk on water. I miss certain labels that you could depend on to produce terrible sleeves almost as much as I miss those that could be certain to produce stellar ones. (Well, that’s a lie, I will forever miss the v23-fueled days of 4AD more than anything.) In a day and age when the stakes feel smaller per release, and most records are sold on-line right next to a track you can sample, rather than imaging what is inside based on the sleeve, many labels are allowing more and more artists to get heavily involved in their cover designs. This usually results in a ratio of 95% terrible design, 3% average design and 2% amazing design. Now that I think about it, that might correlate pretty closely to popular music on the whole (and that comes from an insane lover of music.)
The issue that creates is that there are almost too many bad covers to choose from! So, if you find yourself not on this list, don’t think that you are excused. There is likely a sacrificial lamb presented here for all of your collective sins. Naked in it’s horribleness, but surely far from alone. Some people will stand proudly side-by-side, undone by their bullheadedness, and in some cases, diminishing aesthetics. It is the mighty who have fallen, those that once knew better, that sadden me the most. However, I can always cheer myself up by asking the following question once again: If you are Rome Fortune and shot yourself in a bathtub covered by a nip-slippin’ ladyfriend while you stare down the barrel of a gun, we ask – IS THIS THE GREATEST COVER OF ALL-TIME???? Or, have I been hitting the cognac too hard (again!)
Methinks it is the cognac. On to the worst of the worst.
2013 was the year that the collage broke through and found it’s footing in the underground art world. 2014 was the year the underground art world broke the collage.
This White Lung cover personifies a lot of what is terrible (and unimaginative) in current collage work, but it is by no means the only offender. Just featuring the worst collage-based covers alone would reach into the hundreds here, so thanks for taking one for the team White Lung. Unlike their music, which is picking up on everything kinda crap about the 90s, at least their sleeve design is picking up on what is crap in the modern era.
Once people finally got to hear Perfect Pussy, the buzz seemed to die down, but I can’t helped but feel like it was helped southward by this blah album cover. As a band that has made huge efforts to be uncommercial (see-name, sound), the failure to deliver a similarly challenging cover design was massively disappointing. Worse, I still can’t be sure what this crest is supposed to be for. If it mimics the corporate logos of Warner Brothers and the like, it doesn’t do it well enough to get the connection, nor is it clever in any way. If the bizarre marble effect applied to it is supposed to be for a tombstone or some kind of chiseled signage, that is not executed well enough either, but I don’t get that vibe anyway. The closest thing it resembles is a hood ornament for a foreign car, but why? It is just blah and weak, but most importantly, it is a massive missed opportunity when they had everyone’s attention, for likely what is the first and last time.
If you suddenly see Reebok mass-producing sneakers with little hands forming hearts on them, it must be a byproduct of their new partnership with Kendrick Lamar. It is easy to be put off by the pure cheesiness of the image here, not to mention the hokey staged blue and red “colors” of the two stand-in gang members. I wonder if Lamar knows Gareth Bale was working to patent that hand motion and symbol? All of it just seems…silly? BUT that is not the thing that elevates it to WORSTie levels. That honor falls to the white orb on the ground behind the red figure that fuzzes the fingers on his hand and crowds out the “I” placed in the middle and COMPLETELY UNBALANCES AN IMAGE THAT IS OBVIOUSLY SET UP TO BE A MIRROR IMAGE!!!! Seriously, what the fuck? It is one thing to have that in the shot (inexcusable) but another thing altogether to leave it in after the fact (INEXCUSABLE!!!)
Speaking of photo editing, a fallen hero found his dalliance with a major label again fraught with despair, and comically bad photoshop clone stamping. If you look hard enough you can find image-by-image threads as they follow the amateurish re-working of the bricks behind Morrissey, while simultaneously smoothing out the worry lines on his brow. None of that can smooth over the fact that this is just plainly a terrible album cover, and surely the worst of the man’s storied career. Moving on from the memorable sleeves of his time in The Smiths, Morrissey has generally left his solo covers to a large photo of himself, but this time everyone involved seems to have not even been able to bother with that. Instead, it feels like a photo before everyone gets ready to take a photo. Pre-wardrobe, pre-makeup, pre-location scouting and pre-giving two shits. Sad stuff. They couldn’t even get the spray painted type a decent color. I will be over here crying into my pompadour.
Morrissey isn’t the only legend to have lost a step here. Leonard Cohen re-emerged with a wildly awkward cover design, seemingly done in MS Paint, for “Popular Problems.” Michael Petit is credited with design, but seemingly specifying “booklet” design, and I have to wonder if that is an attempt to distance himself from the cover? With the awkward spacing and white space on top of the overall lack of design awareness evident in this sleeve, I certainly hope that it did not come from a trained professional. They couldn’t even get a photo of Cohen with his tie straightened out. I will be over here crying into my expensive hat.
People love this record cover by Little Dragon. I am here to tell you that those people are idiots and wouldn’t know a decent photograph or piece of type if it slapped them in the face, then licked all of it’s fingers and then slapped them again and then slapped the person sitting next to them, and licked their fingers.
Just so Morrissey doesn’t feel too bad, Black To Comm wins for the absolute worst use of photoshop this year, which is a shame as Marc Richters music can be very interesting and certainly deserves better. He has also had solid covers in the past, so this one truly baffles.
Everyone is in love with the design of this Swans record, and as much as I appreciate Swans, I am lost on this one as well. “To Be Kind” incorporates baby faces from painter (and former Slash Records man) Bob Biggs, cutting out the images from paintings done long ago that Michael Gira has always coveted for his album covers. Had he used the faces as is on their black backgrounds, I actually think it would have served as an interesting and possibly disconcerting sleeve, but for no reason that I can imagine they have been chopped out, and chopped out poorly at that. The weird black lines and sections left behind make for an odd meeting of the images and the unappealingly tan/goldish background. Even more odd, is the selection of the least appealing face to lead with on the cover. A big part of me feels like the idea was for this to look disturbing and kind of blunt and raw, and it is possible that it succeeds in doing so, but it still comes across as if someone didn’t know what they were doing in executing it, and I also can’t help but think that people are being so positive about it because they think it is the cool thing to do, rather than actually thinking it is an amazing album cover.
The Ghost of a Sabretooth Tiger is not the first act to sport a cover that looks like it was right out of the gold ribbon ceremony at a middle school art show, and it won’t be the last – and the album deserves better. But, if I can’t poke a sharp stick at J.Mascis’ paintings (and I swore that I wouldn’t!) I can at least find another well-known chap with long hair parted down the middle and glasses who has a penchant for this nonsense. This is actually a great idea! Can someone please write a screenplay where Sean Lennon and J. Mascis play the young and modern day version of a character, or better yet Sean Lennon just plays a young version of J. Mascis??? Now, what were we talking about? Oh right, terrible cover illustrations…
Artist Alex Chitty does not do album cover design for anyone other than tUnE-yArDs, and I cannot think of a better gift to humanity than keeping it confined like that. Chitty is like the ebola of cover design. Something could be said for all of her covers being really awful, but what would be said is “hey, those covers are all really awful,” so why bother? Breaking out type skills learned in Microsoft Word atop terrible washed out and poorly lit photographs of generally unappealing objects arranged in weak compositions is no way to go through life young lady. A part of me feels like tUnE-yArDs is going to be that artist 30 years from now that everyone thinks was underground and cult and on the fringe and a new generation re-discovers it with a burning passion, but they were actually pretty big and overground and none of the things you might have assumed – kinda like a funk version of the way Galaxie 500 are treated now (“Hey! We actually sold some records you dickheads” – Dean Wareham). The only difference will be that Galaxie 500 had nice record covers and tUnE-yArDs had a photo of a fruit roll-up on theirs.
Sturgill Simpson saved modern country music while setting back album cover design by 100 years. Seem like a fair trade-off? Maybe…
Pharmakon saved the idea of taking really bad gross looking photos of raw meat and vegetables on your body for album covers in the future while also yelling into a creepy reverbed out microphone a lot. Seem like a fair trade off? Maybe…
Not to be outdone by all of the jokers before him, James Vincent McMorrow started off the year by adorning his kinda sorta R+B album with what has to be an ironically bad watercolor of a flamingo looking in on a tropical beachfront with a polar bear lingering on a iceberg nearby and surrounded by comically awkward art deco typography and OH JUST FUCKING SHOOT ME.
Is it 2015 yet?
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.