Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: The Best (And Worst) Album Art

Judging by my previous End-Of-Year celebrations, i'm a little behind this time, and while the final calculations and minor tweaks are made to the annual Top 15 Albums list; the usual Music Rant festivities will continue unabated.

Those of you really into my writing will have noticed that I've been publishing some outside lists on my twitter feed. Just to get everyone in to the spirit, but moreso to show just how diverse a year 2010 has been. As the irrefutable influence of the digital age continues to shape our culture, so too does the musical landscape come ever more fractured. Call it post-modernism, call it the death of genre, call it the mash-up era - whatever - the successes and pitfalls of 2010 can all be attributed to its lack of cohesion, and in some cases the celebration of this fact. 

However, good art is always good art. The sleeves and artwork that demanded to be viewed in detail, not within the tiny confines of an iPod screen. But in some cases maybe it would be better to have never laid eyes on them at all.

Mark Ronson & The Business Intl. - Record Collection
Collage art has a tendency to chart the extremely good, or the extremely bad. The cool configuration of Ronson's sophomore effort definitely falls into the former camp. It's tilted at the nostalgia crowd by clearly suggesting that these are old school vinyl covers, and as if you needed confirmation, there's those oh-so eighties pink ray-bans. Bonus points for continuing the artistic theme throughout the liner notes.
Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid
It would take a hefty art brief to cover the narrative and musical scope of Monáe's genre-defying sound, but this decepitvely simple portrait just about does it. Tieing in with the messianic character of Cindi Merriweather (just listen to the record ok?), the city and the woman become one in a shining display of mecha-diety. One part Fritz Lang's Metropolis, one part digital pharoah, all parts Janelle.
MGMT - Congratulations
The very first sign that MGMT had left the pscyh-pop accessibility of Kids, Time To Pretend, Electric Feel et al. behind was with this wilfully unfashionable cover. The joke was on them, the Sonic The Hedgehog inspired artwork postively screamed of early 90's tastes and in doing so invoked a warm sense of rose-tinted nostalgia. Its garish colours almost prepared one for the chaotic, acid-fried obscurity within, almost. 
Klaxons - Surfing The Void
The great man who introduced me to this album once said (on an unrelated note) "what the freak did cats do before YouTube?" Indeed. Surfing The Void finds the cat meme phenomenon of the oughties captured brilliantly. There's a subtle link to the dark journey of Klaxons' music itself, this bushy-whiskered feline is about to embark on quite the post-punk, prog-leaning trip.

Intronaut - Valley Of Smoke
Looking more like the cover of a fantasy paperback than an album, David D'Andrea's gothic pen and watercolour scroll nevertheless captures the album's sound. Hazy atmospherics play in the background, while the dense layers and twisted detail inhabit the foreground, without any one element crowding the other. That and it shows that album covers for prog-metal bands need not be cringeworthy
Everything Everything - Man Alive
I can't really place my finger on what makes this sleeve so appealing. It's a beautiful profile of a fox at sunset, which in itself doesn't make sense, even before it's vandalised by streaks of non-descript pixels. Maybe it's the unique font, or the way it seems the natural origins of the photo are being deconstructed, but there's something about this cover. Ultimately it's the bizarre fusion of elements that'll keep you looking at it.
Sleigh Bells - Sleigh Bells 
If the list has proven anything thus far, it's that the best album art captures some of the spirit and character of its contents with a striking, iconic image that belies complexity. Sleigh Bells is just such an example. If you had to describe the duo's brand of sixties pop colliding headfirst with jagged guitars and machine driven drums, then a grainy filmstock of old-school cheerleaders with their faces scratched out would make perfect sense. It was either that or a newspaper photo of the resultant car crash between a Thunderbird and a Mack Truck. 
Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part II: Return Of The Ankh
Like the other side of the coin to The ArchAndroid above, it favours the organic and psychedelic. Sure there's the towering robotic version of Badu fronting a pile of scrap metal, but the overall impression is of the dense, purple foliage beneath a tri-moon skyline that surrouds it. Complete with mini-Badu gardener goddess figure. It's interesting that two female mavericks came from two completely different starting points and ended up with some cross-over elements, whatever they were smoking - I want a puff.

The Like - Release Me
This is how retro-chic should be done. From the simple typface, to the clear fact it's shot in a studio, right down to the stereo sound stamp. And don't even get me started on those matching dresses.
Devo - Something For Everybody
The image that adorns the pop-pranksters' latest is a joke, nothing more. But what a wonderfully executed joke. Taking their legendary 'flower-pot' helmet and turning it into a perfectly photo-shopped billboard for chocolate. Simple, but oh so sweet.
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
It's probably not a mistake that Age of Adz looks like a long lost vinyl album. Or an agit-prop poster for somet futuristic rebellion. Or the scrawlings of a teenage boy discovering a talent for typography. In short its a busy, almost dizzying piece when you stop and take it in. But isn't that just like Sufjan?
The National - High Violet
In actual fact, this is a still of artist Mark Fox 's sculpture The Binding Force, so it's artistic credentials are already well intact. However, it's a sriking change from the gloomy covers of Alligator and The Boxer, albums that the quintet built their reputation on. This colourful explosion of words marks the point at which the group transcended to a whole new level.

Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
"We want like a nostalgic picture of the sunset. A tropical sunset." A bland title begets bland artwork I suppose.
Prince - 20Ten
Sure this lame sleeve is bad, but Prince really had no excuse, fellow musical chameleon Bowie already proved a cartoon avatar was an awful idea with Reality.
Die Antwoord - $0$
The misogynistic covers of the hair-metal golden age makes an unwelcome return, the Polish pop rap group might be trying to make a commentary on the commercialism of the music industry. But scolding low-brow doesn't mean you have to mimc low-brow
Z-Ro - Heroin
Commercial hip-hop already have a proven track record of tasteless artwork, so the odds were already stacked against Southern rapper Z-Ro. But is that really a validation for going whole-hog with photoshopping himself into every last opportunity of this image? and is he really likening himself to the addiction and euphoric rush of a hit? Poor.
Rhymester - Manifesto
Falling devastatingly short of its intended so-bad-it's-good effect, just the idea of three hipster centaurs weilding sword-wands in a Power Rangers-esque high five is enough to set the gag reflex twitching.
Apparatjik - Apparatjik
Perhaps the various members of Coldplay, a-ha and Mew wanted to downplay their supergroup status, but this excessively dull diagram outright kills it. The graph doesn't even make sense, and not in an interesting way that makes you want to explore it. More a frustrating "why-the-eff did I waste my time and money on this!" way.
Coco Rosie - Grey Oceans
It's self-evident that the frealk-folk couple spent their entire budget on recording the record, such a pity that all that money was wasted; because no-one wants to even conceive what this photo-shopped, androgynous mess contains. 

weezer - Hurley
weezer - Death To False Metal
Ladies and Gents, a tip of the hat to weezer for giving us not one, but two, absolutely stinking exhibits of how not to deliver your music visually. Both are terribly conceived exercises in ironic humour. The first, a context-less 'tribute' to a character from Lost. The second, a poorly-drawn excerpt from a freaky cult pamphlet that's meant to effuse a chuckle because it's not metal related. Are weezer really out of ideas or do they just not give a shit anymore? I'd much prefer they just picked a random colour of the spectrum and did Blue, Green and Red style albums for the rest of their now-average career. It would be a much less offensive assault on their audience's intelligence.

and finally, as a bonus treat. The number one trend for 2010 Album Artwork is...


three's a trend right?

Feel free to start some community-stirring discussion about my choices, perhaps offering your own suggestions for best and worst art in a roundtable digital discussion.

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