Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2009 End Of Year Celebrations: The Best (and Worst) Album Art

Though it has been promised time and again, the End of Year festivities are finally here. Over the next week or so, i'll be doing all my usual features, and kicking off proceedings is a tribute to the year's good, bad and ugly album covers.
The sleeves that demanded to be viewed beyond the confines of a tiny iPod screen, and those that were better not to have laid eyes on at all. 


Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
It's definitely a love-it-or-hate it kind of a cover. If you're prone to epileptic fits you're probably part of the latter, but its magic-eye properties seem a perfectly succint representation of the group's psychedelic-inflected avant-pop. Colourful shapes, constructed upon rhythmic repetition, that can occasionally do your head in - just like that freaky green and blue wallpaper. Seriously set it as your desktop background and cower at its shifting inertia.

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
A stark change from their usually austere artwork that matched their serious artistic ambitions, the cover of Wilco's latest instead reflects their freer, more relaxed vibe. What better way to capture a mix of both a sense of security and self-depracating humour, than the image of a camel in a party hat - at a birthday that no-one seems to be attending. 

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
As is the case with Bitte Orca's artwork, just like the music it emphasises the importance of the girls' harmonies, its clean and precise setting is offset by two explosions of contrasting colours, and those little tendrils they emit represents the group's synergy and soundscapes. In actual fact, it's a recreation of an old EP of theirs called Slaves, Graves & Ballads
and in the evolution from ugly if engaging sketch, to fully blown human art, it's a perfect metaphor for the current success of Dirty Projectors themselves.

Hudson Mohawke - Butter
A  textbook example of art that's 'so bad it's good.' Whether it was deployed with steely seriousness or irony doesn't seem to matter. For anyone nurtured on Saturday morning cartoons or grew up with slap bands and curly shoelaces, it's a crystalline eighties vision made reality. Right down to the hot pink streaky typography to the sickly palette of flourescent colours.  Even the combination of a full moon and realistically rendered animals recalls those tacky wolf t-shirts (you know the ones).

Jay-Z - The Blueprint 3
Upon first impression, I couldn't shake the familiarity with Secret Machines' artwork from a few years back, but I realise the Hov wouldn't be so callous as to rip off others. In fact the image was created by Tobin Smith, who did a similar junk collection on Athlete's album Tourist. It goes without saying that its a breath of fresh air among the repetitive covers of teh rap genre. It's a fairly daring one too, considering Jay-Z's track record for self-mythologising portraits. Instead, the combination of a Kubrick-white instrumental sculpture with the bold red icon is a powerful substitute for Jigga's own.

John Frusciante - The Empyrean
I'll admit I have a soft spot for collage artwork, it has a charm and texture that few other art styles can achieve and Frusciante's latest solo album offers up a truly great example. It has the colours and composition of a moody renaissance painting, yet the fragmentation and layering of cut-and-paste work. It also manages to evoke a mini-narrative in its scale. 

Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You
At it's heart, it's just a great photograph. It could have been a disaster, picture an image more along the lines of most pop records - framing the artist, posing for the camera. Perhaps there lies an alternate shot somewhere in which Lily is leaning against the giant letter blowing a bubble or laughing coquettishly; instead we have this wonderful image in which she exudes confidence and cheekiness - Allen's best qualities. It's a fitting simile, in the crowded pop market, Lily Allen stands out by simply being her adorable self.

RX Bandits - Mandala
A new discovery for me this year, but it turns out RX Bandits have a string of covers that feature wonderfully surrealist paintings - which along with their punk/ska turned prog sound lends them another similarity to The Mars Volta. For Mandela we have birds, blind patriotism, dynamite, more birds, money, the earth, and yep, more birds.

Skunk Anansie - Smashes And Trashes
The most surprising thing about this cover is that it's for a a greatest hits compilation. That's right, a record label flogging, money-making, best-of. The kind that usually takes the cheap option of some carelessly slapping some lifeless image of the band to its front. Instead we are lavished with this beautifully gloomy image. Part cubist nightmare, part sensual photograph, and all brilliant execution.

Smith Westerns - Smith Westerns
Yes, that is indeed an inverted image of Nirvana's Nevermind spliced with a traditional painting of the Virgin Mary. Neither is, presumably, used with permission and it combines to create an exciting, and memorable, cover. It's a shame that the scuzzy, lo-fi garage rock of Smith Westerns isn't as inspired or as daring as their artwork.

Muse - The Resistance
If there's a consistent thread to Muse's album art (save perhaps that for Origin Of Symmetry) its the recurring theme of the human figure against an alien landscape, a familiar entity farflung to unfamiliar settings. But where previous records used photography to achieve this effect, The Resistance instead plumps for graphic design, and an even more belittled figure. The silhouette is wonderfully ambigious too, either cutting a path through the holographic kaleidoscope straight back to Earth, or away from it. 

Mastodon - Crack The Skye
Metal lords Mastodon have never been lacking when it comes to great artwork, and so it was no surprise that their fourth album again featured stunning graphics. It's a loose visible interpretation of the record's batshit insane plot involving astral projections getting lost in black holes that lead to Tsarist Russia. Look see, there's a poltergeist Rasputin facing a perfectly detailed mirror of himself. The detailed symmetry off-set by a big fucking bear, just to remind you that this is metal. Two devil's horns up. 

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Despite appearances, this is a deceptively complex arrangement of elements. Three different fonts, the contrast of soft pink with larger, darker objects, the spacing and framing of the white non-border; but it's all balanced perfectly in a pleasing, and eye-catching, arrangement.

Ramona Falls - Intuit
Ramona Falls is the solo name for Brent Knopf's musical downtime between main band Menomena's albums. As such it uses a similarly chaotic cartoon style to Menomena's Friend and Foe. Done by Theo Ellsworth, it's a beautifully dense landscape of characters, scenes and intricate details. Rendered in yellows and browns, its statue-esque figures remind of religious iconography but undercut by a comic book style that's quirky, fun and bizarre all at once. It's the kind of CD sleeve you can pore over again and again while engaging with its wonderful contents. 

Volcano Choir - Unmap
One could very easily have conceived this as the cover to Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago and it still would have worked. Obviously the woods and snow are familiar lyrical territory, and as such the shrouded orange figure could be seen as a metaphor for isolation. Even if it seems like, for lack of a better term, an obvious Bon Iver-ism, it's still an equally spooky and evocative cover, mysterious and engaging while being distancing and surreal. The flourishing decoration that borders the title is reminiscent of old world maps also, a nice touch.

The Von Bondies - Love, Hate And Then There's You
Punning album titles and artwork that go hand in hand can so often fail miserably, but The Von Bondies manage to pull it off with their latest. Despite the grim, shadowy lighting, its a humorous image. The way the gunman is standing defiantly, about to relish the moment, in contrast to the blissful awareness of the writer. It manages to create a story that engages the viewer, what has he done to so anger this dood? Will he actually fire? Is he faking it? Effectively cheeky.

Neil Young - Fork In The Road 
Oh Neil, you're not even trying anymore are you? Maybe he just got excited about finally getting a mobile phone with a camera...
The Used - Art Work
No one wants to see this when they're browsing the racks, it may be hard to be spotted when you're filed under 'U' but that's no excuse for needlessly provocative and puerile stuff to get noticed.
Toddla T - Skanky Skanky
It really is too soon to be referencing this, and remember what I said about puns in art? Yeah, that dummy ain't cute. Perhaps Chris McClure really needed the money
Pumpelstiltskin Grinder - Living For Death, Destroying The Rest

It may be trying to be funny or tongue-in-cheek by cramming a million masochistic cliches into one cover, but it's just busy and ugly. 
Ben Lee - The Rebirth Of Venus
Fuck You Ben Lee. Seriously, Fuck You.
Ace Frehley - Anomaly
Art Director: "I dunno Ace, I dunno if you still got it"
Mr. Frehley: "Oh baby I got it, the font is killer, some really spacey stuff, shit, the shades alone is gonna knock 'em dead"


Remember kids, when in doubt, sex sells!

Electric Tickle Machine - Blew It Again

Dark Meat - When The Shelter Came

Feel free to comment and add suggestions below! I'd love to see what I've missed out on or what you thought would be better (or worse, I shudder to think).


  1. I thought one or two of the good ones were duds. Then I got to the duds. Eeesh.

  2. I like that Dark Meat album art... a lot!
    Seriously though.