Best Artwork/Packaging of 2013
It's December, which means the entire music industry release schedule winds down to a slow dribble of Christmas releases and allows us to get on with declaiming our end-of-year best-ofs without fear of a surprise Aphex Twin classic dropping on the 23rd. So before we get our knives out and dissect the worst examples of album artwork to disgrace the shelves of your local record store, Stuart Fowkes guides you through this year's highlights.
What makes a great album cover? Back in the day, it'd just need to be a great image that worked well at 12" square, stood out in a record shop and enhanced the music in question - in itself, no mean feat, but think how many classic album covers you can bring to mind now, and how hard it is to separate a the music from a truly great record sleeve.
In 2013, the job is much harder. The cover image has to work for vinyl, CD, squashed right down to a JPG on your phone, and expanded right out in everything from box sets and accessories to teatowels and Twitpics. But the guiding principles remain the same - make it striking, make it add to the story behind the music, and make it enhance the experience of listening to that record, no matter how or where you're listening to it.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Storm Thorgerson, who died earlier this year.
15. Beady Eye - BE (Columbia)
Check it out - Beady Eye in an end-of-year list that doesn't have 'worst' in the title! If you can bring yourself to ignore Beady Eye's attempts to liven up their suffocatingly-dull music with a bit of 'what's wrong with being sexy?'-style quasi-controversy, this is actually striking cover art for all the right reasons (even the supermarket-friendly covered-up shot works).
Shot by former Pirelli calendar photographer Harry Peccinotti (quite the groundbreaking photographer within his genre at the time) and with his wife as the subject, the composition is spot on and the understated colours work a treat, possessing a subtlety and class completely absent from the music. The shot, taken in the 60s, was never intended as an album cover and was used as the cover of Nova magazine the first time around (Editor's Note: The photo is from the same session, but not the exact same photo). As Liam himself says, "It's not porn, is it? It's classic, man. Classic nipple." As I said, try to keep the band out of your mind. The cover was compiled by Trevor Jackson.
14. Grumbling Fur - Glynnaestra (Thrill Jockey)
This slab of psychedelic electronic pop from Alexander Tucker and Daniel O'Sullivan was one of the surprise packages of 2013, with its burbling abstractions and Bladerunner worship, and the release also boasted one of the year's cleanest, well-composed sleeves (particularly on vinyl, with its complementary inner sleeve). Just as Grumbling Fur's music feels like a collaged assembly of their influences, so the sleeve builds on the central image with some neat, unfussy repeating circular motifs hinting at the sci-fi mythology lurking behind the record. An elegant piece of design that enhances the album by association.
13. Machinedrum - Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
Designers Dominic Flannigan & Eclair Fifi teamed up for this gorgeous effort on Ninja Tune - it's a gatefold vinyl set with a 12" x 12" booklet, housing coloured splatter vinyl. Even working within a strict colour palette of black, white and gold, it's the kind of design that could easily become unmanageably messy, but they've done a great job of keeping it ordered and under control, and there's a distinctive character running throughout the packaging. There are some lovely details too, like the front cover's gold numbering for the two records picked up on the centre labels on the vinyl itself.
12. Dark Seed - Nocturnes (Ohmega)
Dark Seed is a collaboration between Richard Norris (Time & Space Machine etc.) and designer Luke Insect, and as you might expect from a record so directly involving an excellent designer, the artwork is outstanding. The sleeve is the perfect reflection of the music, all John Carpenter synths and joyful analogue explorations. Its old soundtrack record/sci-fi influences are so obvious they barely need to be mentioned, but Luke Insect does a great job of keeping it on the right side of pastiche. Compare this to recent artwork by The Strokes, which attempts to do the same thing but instead falls flat on its face (it's practically a Topman T-shirt design in the making), and the skill at work here is obvious. The sleeve even has that pre-worn look as if it's been dug out the racks as some long-lost classic from a second-hand store.
11. Califone - Stitches (Dead Oceans)
Califone were reborn with this year's Stitches, a striking, bright and in some ways unexpected restatement of where Tim Rutili's songwriting has been aiming for the last fifteen years. The album art, like the music, is initially perhaps neat but unremarkable, but lodges itself in the mind as an unshakeable image as the weeks and months pass. It's a bold, but ambiguous and somehow vulnerable image, all of which reflects neatly back on the music. Also notable as part of the album package was the Stitches Tumblr, which creates a unique music video for you on the fly using a (presumably carefully-curated) selection of Tumblr blogs. Califone: down with the kids.
10. Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt (Monkeywrench)
Pearl Jam have often made creditable attempts to do interesting things with their artwork, bassist Jeff Ament usually the driving force behind how their records look. Working with designer Jon Pendleton, he's come up with a simple, graphical motif that looks great as a JPG on your phone, a CD sleeve or the full 12" experience. But what sneaks this one into the top ten is how they've adapted the cover artwork across the board. Each individual song has its own artwork in the same style (why more bands aren't doing this when most music fans are listening on the move is beyond me), and they've extended the artwork in imaginative ways into lovely scarves and cute little babygrows. Nice effort.
9. The Young Knives - Sick Octave (Gadzook)
The Young Knives have always done things their own way, from hand-painted T-shirts and Throbbing Gristle covers to field recordings and home-made synths on their new record. Sick Octave sees the band basically doing whatever the hell they want to, and they're so much the stronger for it. Admirably, by funding the new album via Kickstarter they took control of every aspect of the production, packaging and artwork (working with Oxford-based designer Simon Minter). Through Kickstarter, some packages of the album actually came with a Sick Octave HOME-MADE SYNTH (see image), which is pretty much the best way of improving a massive gatefold vinyl release. Other Kickstarter options included bringing in photographs of top supporters onto the sleeve of the vinyl and CD release. The portrait shot used for the cover is, like the record, tense and troubled with a not-overstated sense of mischief and carnival.
8. The Focus Group - Elektrik Carousel (Ghost Box)
Another entry on the list with a designer-turned-musician, as Ghost Box Records' designer Julian House unveiled his band The Focus Group's latest foray into outright oddness. It's a stunning, playful and confusing record with outstanding artwork to match. Inspired by the sixties underground press, it's conceived as a mind-altering DIY board game, and as ever it fits in with the gorgeous visual aesthetic that runs across the entire Ghost Box Records catalogue from top to bottom. Visually and sonically, you know what you're going to get from a Ghost Box album - years of hard work have ensured that it's a mark of genuine quality, and half an hour spent perusing their store is time well spent.
7. V/A - A Psyche For Sore Eyes (Sonic Cathedral)
Alas, the physical version of Sonic Cathedral's 2013 compilation has long since sold out, but with good reason - it's this year's best use of 3D glasses (erm, except maybe for Gravity). Two coloured 7"s, a pair of 3D glasses and a range of mind-expanding psychedelic swirls courtesy of designer Heretic. The construction of the packaging to house the different elements is clever and economical, and the imagery fits the woozy pop of contributors like Hookworms perfectly. The music's well worth your attention, so if you can't track this one down on eBay, pick up the digital version anyway.
6. Atoms for Peace - Amok (XL)
You know what you're going to get with a piece of Stanley Donwood design, and he rarely - if ever - disappoints. Following on from where he left off with Thom Yorke's The Eraser, the apocalyptic images switch from London to LA, but the style remains the same: crisp monochromatic lines depicting scenes of chaos and devastation with an eerie beauty reminiscent of a medieval artwork dragged into the 21st century. Originally an 18-foot linocut called 'Lost Angeles' which Donwood had in mind to use as record artwork at some point, the challenge was to reduce it down to vinyl, CD and PJG size without losing any of its impact. The final physical record features four options: triple gatefold or wide spine sleeve vinyl, and CD with 12-panel concertina wallet or a 4-panel wallet. Most strikingly, as part of the album launch the artwork was used as a building-covering animated GIF. Similar to The Eraser, perhaps, but Amok's artwork is striking, memorable and immediately recognisable.
5. Eluvium - Nightmare Ending (Temporary Residence)
Eluvium is another musician whose work is instantly recognisable due to a long-standing partnership - the majority of his album artwork is supplied by his wife Jeannie Paske, herself a notable artist. Some album covers are existing Paske works used directly (the album Copia, for example, is her work 'In Search of a View'), and others are commissioned specifically with a mood or a motif in mind. Nightmare Ending, an epic double album sure to be one of the records of the year, uses commissioned artwork done in watercolour, charcoal, pastel, powdered pigment and ink, and just as the album is effectively a summation of styles from Eluvium's past work, so the artwork develops themes from earlier records like Similes and Copia. And if you like Jeannie's stuff, you can pick up prints from her Etsy store just in time for Christmas - the perfect gift for the drone electronica fan in your life.
4. David Bowie - The Next Day (Columbia)
If we're going to overuse the word 'iconic' in this article, then let's at least try to reserve most of it for the David Bowie entry. How does one of the most revered artists of all time present a comeback after a decade away? And when the visual aspect of your work is as highly-regarded as Bowie's (to say the least), what kind of a statement do you make with your album cover? Bowie's answer was simple, obvious but at the same time appropriately daring - to take the artwork from one of his greatest statements and whack a great big white square over it. For designer Jonathan Barnbrook, it was about blowing away the past but also creating a jarring statement in the present - if anyone else had done this to a Bowie classic, they'd have been burnt at the stake as a heretic, but for Bowie it just works perfectly. The album cover statement actually created the marketing campaign for the record as a whole, taking everyday images and subverting them with a similar white square motif.
3. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp Records)
Another album almost weighed down by expectation once news of its existence came to light, and while the packaging is far from a total enigma, it throw out some of that classic Boards mystique, and carries off the themes and feel of the record perfectly. A haunting shot of the San Francisco skyline, transparent and shot through with sunlight, but as Marcus Eoin said, "if you look again at the San Francisco skyline on the cover, it's actually a ghost of the city. You're looking straight through it."
Thanks to some assiduous fan detective work, we can establish that the San Franciscan shot is apparently from the vantage point of the former Alameda naval base (see photo for the original view), but nothing's ever as simple as it seems in the Boards camp. Some buildings are not in their original position, as if this skyline is an imagined or half-remembered version reconstructed from memory, evoking the woozy, familiar-yet-distant feel of Boards' music. The band have also played along with their most hardcore fans by giving them two entire gatefold sleeves and two inlays covered in photos of suggestively-mysterious locations for them to decode. Oh, and it looks beautiful on vinyl.
2. The Simonsound - The Beam (own label)
The Simonsound Transit Authority wasn't something I'd come across before this year, but their special edition of 'The Beam' set a new standard for record packaging in 2013. Alongside the 10" coloured vinyl, there's a two-sided colour map, sewn-on pilot patch, one-off 1/4-inch tape loop, booklet and monorail ticket, all packaged in a letterpress printed sleeve designed by Stanley James Press. But it's not just about the bells and whistles - everything is shot through with bewilderingly high quality. Silver textured card with pockets inside the gatefold holding each of the special items, and everything laid out like a 60s space-age promotional brochure. Considering the 10" is only two tracks of (albeit high quality) burbling Moog soundtracks, the music is almost incidental to this beautifully-realised and immaculately-produced set.
1. Jon Hopkins - Immunity (Domino)
Immunity's album art hits the number one spot because it's one of the few in 2013 to have achieved relative iconic status in a short amount of time - partially due to the extraordinary critical success of the album and its subsequent ubiquity, but also because it's a beautiful and fitting piece of design. Even if you take it at face value as a nice graphic knocked up in Photoshop to suit the music, it's a great effort. But the more you discover about it, the more fascinating it becomes.
As someone obsessed with pulling apart the detail of sound at its finest level, the studious Hopkins collaborated with biochemist-turned-artist Linden Gledhill and art director Craig Ward, creating first videos and then images from microscopically-viewed chemical reactions. Gledhill filmed the crystallisation of food dyes through a microscope, freeze-framing the action for the final artwork shots. The intense examination of microscopic reactions is a fitting complement for the music, which reward intense scrutiny at the level of individual beats and sound qualities as well as at the song level. A perfect synthesis of sound and art.