Our columnist Stuart Fowkes trawled through every single piece of vinyl in Rough Trade East until they kicked him out the shop, shortlist in hand for the best album artwork and record packaging of 2012.
When creating the shortlist for this piece, it became clear that pulling together a worst album art of 2012 list would be a much simpler task, with fine music but horrible missteps from the likes of Animal Collective, Pulled Apart By Horses, Thee Oh Sees, Prins Thomas and so many more. But that's another article for a more cynical hack with a more acid tongue than I, so let's move on to saying some nice things instead.
This has been a year of trends for album artwork, with few outstanding offerings beyond the categories du jour of:
- i) Instagram cover. It had to come - take any old crappy picture, whack an instagram filter and some lettering on it and - wham! - there's your 2012 zeitgeist record sleeve.
- ii) The moody landscape shot. Loads of this perennial staple around in 2012, split between "our mate's a photographer" and "we took this ourselves on tour (4REAL)".
- iii) The "we've got no ideas so let's just do the album title nice and big" typography route
- iv) The arty blurred shot:
What makes a piece of album artwork successful? It's different for everyone, but for me it's a combination of being a striking image in itself (obviously), of working with, not against the music - enhancing but not dictating how you hear the record, and of having some thought and imagination behind it.
The continued but still relatively minor resurgence in vinyl sales notwithstanding, record artwork now seems to be heading down one of two paths. One is acknowledging that physical sales for a given artist are a minority concern, so the art might only need to work in the context of phones, iPods and Spotify - too often this can translate as "any old rubbish will do". The second - and obviously far more interesting - says that the demand for physical product is still out there, but what's on offer just needs to be that bit more special. Hence the inclusion here of several box sets, special editions and experiments with format that just scream "buy me!".
Generally, artwork now needs to work even harder to stand out, the bar has been raised - so let's look at some highlights of this year's crop.
15. Grimes - Visions
A bit of a Marmite cover among the people I straw-polled, but there's no question it's immediately distinctive and has stood out over the course of the year on the shelves. Although somewhat cluttered, it's a mashup of styles with a character of its own, part nightmarish comic book, part instruction manual for removing the mind from the body. Grimes herself reckons it's all "a quest for the ultimate sensual, mystical and cathartic experience and the vehicle for my psychic purging." Er yeah, that.
14. Oneida - A List of the Burning Mountains
Just a great piece of design - the black square central to the image as forbidding as Oneida's music (and just small enough to avoid 'none more black' Spinal Tapisms), with a clean, crisp image behind it.Without reading too much into it or delving into realms of pretension, the artwork finds that space in Oneida's music between its unremitting bleakness and scenic airiness.
13. Iliketrains - The Shallows
A brilliant sleeve recalling old Hitchcock movie posters or something out of Metropolis, but without becoming straightforward pastiche, it's instantly recognisable and stands out a mile from the rest of the Instagrammed moody-landscape pack. You could sell this one as a poster to stick up in independent coffee shops. In a good way.
12. Squarepusher - Ufabulum
It's all about the nineties rave vibe for the new Squarepusher release, pretty much every format of which glows in the dark. The vinyl set is screen-printed in regular and glow-in-the-dark ink, and the cover image is one that will make your eyes boggle if you spend too much time alone with it, much like Tom Jenkinson's hyper-maniacal music itself. The album even comes as a phosphorescent-print T-shirt with a download code, revealing the Squarepusher logo when you're frightening yourself by listening to the album at home in the dark with white gloves on.
11. Wishmountain - Tesco
This makes the cut as an excellent cover because it matches the form of the record so well. For those of you unfamiliar with Wishmountain's universe, he creates entire albums from the sounds of household implements, foodstuffs and what have you. This album, obviously, is constructed entirely from samples of items available at your local high street Tesco, a tour de force of "how the hell did he do that?". It's obvious what the cover image actually is, but its purpose and immediate identity is obfuscated.
10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
A new Godspeed! album is always an event (particularly when you have to wait a decade between releases), and part of that is always to take in the latest instalment of their remarkable visual aesthetic. Never a band to do things by half measures - just take a look at the fine artwork of pretty much any record on Constellation - the new album is no exception. Yes, there's the overblown, wilfully-misspelt pretentious load of old guff in the liner notes ('God's pee' - really, guys?), but the layout, print quality and design of the vinyl edition is as outstanding as we've come to expect from them, with a record ten years in the making.
9. Wild Nothing - Nocturne
Wild Nothing make what can loosely be termed dream-pop, and if you take a look at the sleeve for Nocturne, apparently wish they were signed to 4AD in the eighties. I mean this as a compliment: this artwork does a fine job of recalling some of Vaughan Oliver's excellent work for that label, with its clean lines, crisp type and attention to detail in simplicity, not in overloading the design. The sleeve comes with a cutout 'frame' into which one of six different designs can be slotted, and the limited edition version comes in blue vinyl with a lunar calendar on the side – the lunar calendar detail on the album cover works beautifully and the meeting point between classicism and psychedelia that the sleeve achieves reflects wonderfully on the band.
8. Can - The Lost Tapes
Not just one of the releases of the year musically, the artwork's pretty special too. Housed in a mocked-up reel-to-reel tape box to match the source material, this makes an awkwardly-large but handsome addition to any bookshelf. Extensive liner notes by Irmin Schmidt reveal not just the origin of every one of the 30 treasures here, but also just how mental Malcolm Mooney actually was. The artwork by House speaks of genuine scribbled liner notes, nods to the sense of discovery and rediscovery by both band and listener alike in its use of imagery, and creates a treasure house of a release that you can lose an afternoon in. Not too many releases can still soak up the attention like that.
7. Carter Tutti Void - Transverse
I'm a sucker for optical illusions, and if you move your head around in front of whichever device you're reading this article on, you can see the Transverse album cover moving around and messing with your head. It's also a really smart, straightforward piece of design that's already won well-deserved design plaudits this year. Following on from Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion eye-strainer, I'm keen to see someone make a record cover out of the lilac chaser next year. Someone rise to the bait, please.
6. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
Possibly the major release of the year with artwork most carefully calculated to generate a bit of hype and buzz (there's a long-winded award title for you). It's verging on cynical to look at it from this angle, though, since the concept was Natasha Khan's own, and not dreamed up by a nudity-obsessed EMI marketing team. There's no denying that Ryan McGinley's cover photo is a striking image and a bold statement, yet once you get past the "ooh she's naked" factor, the cover shot opens up much more interesting questions like "how the hell is she holding that guy up without putting her back out?" More to the point, though, it's a cover that says something about her new-found sense of confidence and speaks volumes for the music. And it takes a risk, which few covers have done this year, so for that reason alone it needs to be in the top bracket.
5. Matmos - The Ganzfeld EP
Only managed to pull three new tracks together and worried about how to pass it off as a proper new release? Take the Matmos approach and make the music entirely secondary to a package that constitutes an experiential release. The Ganzfeld EP is only three (albeit finely-crafted as ever) tracks strong, but comes with a set of its own headphones, certificate, stickers and so on. The real centrepiece is the accompanying customised goggles for self-imposed sensory deprivation, fitting in with the fascinating method of composition of the EP. Subjects deprived of the senses of sight and hearing were asked to describe out loud anything that came into their head, the resulting transcripts of which were used to produce the record. Now you can recreate the science behind Matmos in your own home, even if you don't come up with an electronica masterpiece in the process. Failing that, they'll be handy if you're into tanning beds.
Some bands just don't disappoint with their ambition. When Flaming Lips' collaborative album for Record Store Day was announced, there was the limited edition and the super-limited edition. The latter was said to contain blood samples from some of the album collaborators, made available to a few of what Wayne Coyne called "interested rich Flaming Lips people" (anyone with a spare $2,500). These days, if your release doesn't contain Ke$ha's blood, it won't make our top 20 (actually, thinking about it, if enough releases contained Ke$ha's blood, we could stop her from making any more music). But even the limited edition available to us normal, non-vampiric mortals was pretty special: the artwork for each was completely individual, with random multi-coloured vinyl and artwork generated by computer so each was unique. Count yourself lucky if you got hold of one – the limited edition sold out overnight, but you can still enjoy the music thanks to the recent reissue of the album in a non-limited way.
3. Beach House - Bloom
One of the few album covers this year that could justifiably be tagged 'iconic', the cover of Bloom is everything a cover should be: striking, simple, and it looks great as a tiny JPG on your phone, on the CD digipak or in its full 12" glory. Matching the band's confident stride into new territory, it's a cover that doesn't feel it needs to overstate the case (indeed, neither band name nor album title make an appearance), but one in which you can easily lose a few minutes in silent reverie.
2. Kotki Dwa - Staycations
When you find out an album has been recorded in partnership with the National Trust, with field recordings taking place in a whole series of lavish Trust settings around the country, it's reasonable to expect the final product to come pretty well packaged. The limited edition version of Staycations (long since sold out, unfortunately), comes in a hand cloth-bound matt foiled book with a 1920s RAF manual feel to it, with eleven suitably scenic postcards and a risograph poster. It's the kind of artwork that's so neatly put together you click 'buy' before you've even listened to a note of the music.
1. Sigur Ros - Valtari
We've written about this one already: it's a lovely analogue image captured by using a battered old Polaroid and deliberately using damaged film to bring out the unique colours. The ship image so familiar in Reykjavik harbour is subverted and given something magical by lifting it above the water, and the motif has been used across festival blankets, T-shirts and jewellery. With a levity that belies the album title's meaning ('steamroller') and a beauty that matches its music, the Valtari artwork is an absolute triumph. It even looks a bit Christmassy and it's December now, so there you go.