Album art is not dying. Not this year anyway.
Digital is not consigning the notion of album art to some nostalgic bargain bin. If anything, I see a resurgence in well-crafted album design, especially in the last two years. With vinyl sales up in the first half of 2015 compared to 2014, and surpassing 9 million for the first time in 20 years*, things are unexpectedly looking good for the format. This is also good for design.
The mixture of styles in this year’s selections has been wide-ranging, with illustration, photography and sculpture being the main creative mediums on offer.
I won’t pretend to be objective. My choices are made because of what I listen to. Which leads me to the next thought. Does good design stand alone from the music or is it devalued if the music is mediocre or bad? The two are linked so closely. The meanings in music, unless it comes with a descriptive title and literal lyrics (let’s be honest, there is not much of that about), can be too vague to create a descriptive cover. Good design and art combine to help visualise the concepts and thoughts that can be willfully buried within music.
Design: Will Calcutt
One of the definitions of good artwork is to complement the music. Heather Phares says in her Allmusic Guide review, that “superficial as it can be to judge an album by the album art, the shimmer and shadow on the cover of Benoît Pioulard‘s first full-length (and Kranky debut), Précis, aptly depicts the music inside.”
The Universe Smiles Upon You
Design: Samuel Muir
Evocative rendering of mountains at night. Magical.
Design: Anthony Grace
Haunting cover art. As enigmatic as Julia Kent’s music.
Design: Peter Saville
Peter Saville is one of the big names on this list. Saville has been a part of virtually every New Order release. This feels like his most solid work for them in years. Bold colours and basic abstraction are hard to do with such balance. Stunning in its simplicity.
Pentatone Remastered Classics
Debussey, Shubert etc.
This is somewhat of a cheat as this is a series of 19 albums to date. Together they make a wonderful set. It makes you want to own every copy in the series, and in fact, I may start doing that. The label Pentatone are pushing boundaries in the classical sphere, their artwork is visually interesting compared to the conservatism of the major classical labels. Possibly my favourite on the list.
Photography: Shane McCauley
It’s just stunning composition.
Escape from Evil
The Lower Dens
Design: Hermonie Williams
Williams is a multidisciplinary artist who creates abstract sculptures. I could stare at it for hours.
Design: The Made Shop
The creation of this artwork is fascinating. The Made Shop created their own special effects. “We built a free-standing pyramid of fluorescent light tubes, within which we exploded nested balloons filled with coloured Holi powder (the same powder used in India’s annual Holi Festival of Colors). To capture the images, we used super high-speed flashes triggered by a timed audio relay. To pop the balloons, we of course used a blowdart – naturally.”
A Kind of Zo
Weird and wonderful. Travassos is a designer that lives in Lisbon, but also runs Shhpuma Records and does all the design work among other projects.
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
Design: Carson Ellis
Beautifully rich and detail illustration. It looks both elemental and ancient.
Ochion Jewell Quartet
Design: Aaron Vinton
Beautiful simplicity in type that conveys a sense of community through the patterns. It evokes old style tableware or Victorian wallpaper.
Design: Jamie xx
The obvious choice on this list. It is beautifully simple and striking. Jamie XX says that he designs everything, and he ended up designing the album cover for In Colour. “I wanted to have a spectrum of colors to represent all the records I put out previously, and because the album has a lot of different shades on it. I also wanted to have black and white in there, so the flip side of the vinyl is gonna be a black logo, and the frontside is white. That represents the two The xx albums.”
Design: Denise Burt
Striking and complex rendering of a dense forest of skyscrapers from above. Good to have some op art in a release this year. Designer Denise Burt also has a nice book about her album designs.
The Magic Whip
Design: Tony Hung
A delicious looking cover. Tony Hung says of his work, “the image: A sweet, daytime, English, summer product found in pastel shades, evoking visions of blue skies and green parks … now transformed into a buzzing neon sign, rendered in hard lines and electric hues, found on any busy street in Mong Kok on a dark night. Melting ice cream provided a melancholic twist.”
Every Open Eye
Design: Amy Burton
Enigmatic. On a purely aesthetic level, it is beautifully composed. It harks back to Saville’s early New Order albums.
The Kandinsky Effect
Simple and intriguing. It betrays some of the music complex rhythms inside. The cover is Ying to the music’s Yang. The contrast actually works.
Strangers to Ourselves
An aerial photograph of Venture Out RV Resort in Mesa which looks too good to be true. Even if retouched, it is still an incredibly weird creation. There is no typography to distract from the symmetry.