ACL 2017 ~ The Year’s Best Album Covers

Hundreds of albums are released every single day.  So how does one stand out?  By making a great first impression.  Great art calls attention to great music.  On this list, appearance is everything.  We enjoyed each of the albums listed below, but our experience began with the eyes, not the ears.  We’ve chosen an especially select group this year; we hope you like what you see!

Aner Andros ~ Artefacts and Sonic Brushstrokes (Gentle Wash)
Collage art:  Trash Riot

One look at the cover art, and we wanted to review it; one listen to the tape, and we were glad we did. This unusual album honors its title; we can hear the sonic brushstrokes as they occur.  The portfolio of Philadelphia’s Trash Riot is packed with phantasmagorical imagery, any one of which might have been chosen; but this one, with its inverted dive, lifts the sprits while inspiring daydreams.

Aner Andros:  I discovered TR a couple of years ago and fell in love with his wonderful art immediately and decided to use one of his images for the (at the time) upcoming album. When I found “Suspended In Mid Air”, I thought it was the perfect pick for the Artefacts and Sonic Brushstrokes cover. I wanted it to signify an ascent for my music: a clear-cut jump in the style, quality and maturity of my work. The original image pictures a diver in the opposite direction, but I rotated it 180 degrees for the afore-mentioned reason.

Broken Thoughts ~ Realign (Self-Released)
Photography: “Metamorphosis #17” by Frédéric Fontenoy
Designed by Seariel

The eerily manipulated body art of Frédéric Fontenoy is disorienting and futuristic ~ much like the music of Broken Thoughts.  The cover looks like an alien being caught in the midst of metamorphosis, simultaneously existing in multiple places at once.  The slipcased presentation (with accompanying poster) make this an all-around triumph.

Keju Luo (Broken Thoughts):  I was left in awe the very first time I saw the series Metamorphose for its surrealism and raw power. The photograph was created before I was even born, but I feel deeply connected and think it’s the perfect visualization of what I tried to achieve in music – something instinctive, powerful, yet dreamlike and a little spooky. I emailed Mr. Fontenoy via his website without much hope at first, but he was kind and agreed to my proposal. It’s just amazing how things work out these days thanks to the internet.

Frédéric Fontenoy:  This photo is part of a series about 28 photography, realised in 1988, before Photoshop.  «Metamorphosis» explores the relationship of the human being in Nature.

Process:  First, I research landscapes, without any depictions of the human being, I imagine a pseudo-human shape which could exist in this panorama: a solitary work, in front of and behind the camera, not really a “self-portrait” but rather a use of my body. It is rather close to a performance in which I have to feel this place and create the movement. The photo records this furtive choreography.

I am inspired by Hans Bellmer’s papers and works; in particular “Small anatomy of the image”, which freed me to think of another body; and by mythology, in particular Celtic mythology, where the forms of the protagonists are not fixed, passing as animals in human shape.

I like that this work makes us think about our place in Nature and about the respect which we owe her, a strong current political theme.

bvdub ~ Heartless (n5MD)

The album art suggests a path through the snow, a way through the storm, a journey clear and bright. These themes are reflected in the music as well.  Draw back a bit, and the subtle print turns the road into Excalibur.  bvdub’s album is an album of hope in the heart of difficulty, and the cover draws us in. Vinyl is available in matching copper, clear and splattered white (like a blizzard!).  Now that winter is here, the image is even more alluring.

Brock Van Way (bvdub):  Of course the cover has a meaning very closely tied to the album and its message… to me. Everyone is going to have their own interpretation, and not only is that the beauty of it, but this cover more than any other is specifically intended to require no small amount of thought to figure out the connection. It’s far from obvious. But trust me, it’s there. In spades. Just like with my music or anything else, I prefer to let it speak for itself. There is a modern obsession with explanation, analysis, and deconstruction that I will both never understand nor get on board with. Music should mean what it means to you. Images should mean what they mean to you. Everything in your life should mean what it means to you. If somehow, somewhere in the cosmos my meaning and yours intersect, it’s a beautiful thing. If not, it’s not any less beautiful. It’s just a different kind of beauty. Less talky more feely.

Colin Andrew Sheffield & James Eck Rippie ~ essential anatomies (Elevator Bath)
Collage art:  Eugenia Loli

What is this?  The exclamation meets the first view of Eugenia Loli’s artwork, creating curiosity about what might lie inside.  The air of mystery extends to the experimental album, a wonderland of unusual textures and sounds.  And where is the dancer’s head?  The implication is that it is filled with sounds; she is lost in a world of her own creating.

Colin Andrew Sheffield:  James Eck Rippie discovered Eugenia Loli’s collages online early in 2016 and showed me her work, thinking that some of her images might be appropriate cover art for the music we were working on at that time.  I agreed and we found two collages, in particular, which seemed to be just perfect for our needs.  James reached out to Eugenia and she turned out to be incredibly generous and easy to work with.  So, those favored collages ended up as the covers for our two “Essential Anatomies” cassettes (as well as the re-release on vinyl).

The music James and I make together is undeniably Sound Collage.  We use samplers and turntables as our sole instruments, and vinyl records (and other pre-recorded work) as our medium.  So, when it came time to release these recordings, we wanted to attempt to find a visual equivalent for our music.  Collage was the obvious choice.

The two pieces of Eugenia Loli’s that we chose were not only aesthetically appealing, but they seemed to be commenting on our music, in a way (a strange sensation considering that both of the collages we used were created well before our music was recorded).  The collage pictured here, which was used on the second volume of “Essential Anatomies,” is entitled “Solar Energy,” and, according to Eugenia, it pictures a dancer “running on photosynthesis.”  The idea of organic matter converting light into usable energy, seemed like a kind of metaphorical description of our working methods in creating this music.  Simply substitute us for plants; pre-recorded sound for light; our new audio works for usable energy.  It is perhaps a labored metaphor, but we understood it as an abstracted depiction of a process familiar to us.   Besides, the sheer beauty and elegance of Eugenia’s work was simply too good not to use!

Pan Daijing ~ Lack (PAN)
Photography by Ralf Marsault
Artwork by Bill Kouligas (PAN)

When introducing a singular talent to the world, it helps to have a striking image.  The photography and artwork combine to create a sense of physicality and intrigue.  The artist appears vulnerable yet strong, existing by her own definition.  The mottled red backdrop speaks of danger, mystery, blood. This artistic sensibility is applied to a full range of press photos, each with its own intensity.

Ralf Marsault:  Niklas Bildstein Zaar contacted me and suggested we could work together on the project.  It was challenging to think about ways of constructing images from Pan’s music, but on the whole it came very naturally because I immediately liked the samples she sent me.

Pan’s music evokes for me a “calling”, in a very subliminal and appealing way.

At some point, we all spoke of a colour that would open the perspective of that image making, and red became obvious, if not “urgent”.  I suggested working in my Kreuzdorf atelier because it is an inhabited, not to say “haunted”, place that I particularly cherish: the light is very enigmatic there, and I could also easier prepare that kind of “bleeding background” I was thinking of. There was also even the option of producing a similar intensive scar in the bark of a nearby tree.

And so, the shooting went on.

Then Bill found that specific “sedimentation of layers” for the layout that is so metonymical to Pan’s music.

I loved working on the project and see much future in her music.

Smileswithteeth ~ Suddenly constantly (Knowmad Records)
Artwork:  deadtheduck

















The artwork of deadtheduck tends to be figure-oriented, referencing the work of R. Crumb.  Given his body of work, it’s a surprise to see this linear image, its only curves found in the low-flying cloud.  Yet when listening to the music, one thinks of the amorphous nature of melody set against the architecture of beats.  There are four versions of this image, each with different shading, one for each of the tracks; the indigo one is our favorite, but it’s great to have alternatives.

Madhav:  The conversation around the artwork began with Gabriel sharing rough drafts of what he wanted to do for the EP and the three of us (Gabriel, me and Aazin Printer, founder of Knowmad Records) bouncing off some ideas based on landscape photographs that Gabriel had sent from the trip to Iceland that inspired this EP, plus a few panels Gabriel had liked from some comics I’d published online under my online pseudonym, deadtheduck. For someone who usually works with character driven illustration, experimenting with drawings of landscapes was quite a new space for me and eventually we zeroed in on a drawing of an empty building with a cloud floating silently between it. The artwork itself was modified a little for each single, depicting colors from four different times of the day, giving the EP a loose narrative of solitude and the persistence of time.

Gabriel (smileswithteeth):  Madhav sent me so many beautiful illustrations for this EP it’s fun to think that the piece we settled on is in many ways the most understated. But I think the way that it leaves room for the music to speak, while still evoking the repetition and longing present in the EP, is a testament to his deft touch. Both the music and the art have this strong, colorful, slightly melancholic atmosphere that really compliment each other nicely.

Thomas William Hill ~ Asylum for Eve (Village Green Recordings)
Art: Paul W. Ruiz
Design: Richard Robinson Design

The first of two Village Green albums on our list, Asylum for Eve is an album rich in hue, reflected by its stunning cover art.  Paul W. Ruiz’ paintings are awash in vibrancy, and Hill’s album is a perfect match: layers of sound and color, swirling together as one.  Richard Robinson’s art direction has been a boon to the label as well, his Salvation series of short films a highlight of the label’s amazing year.

Throwing Snow ~ Embers (Houndstooth)
Design and animation:  BREZ with Ross Tones

We already admired the cover, a visual extension of the music within.  The album is a circle, the end curving back to the beginning.  One can feel the energy rising from the grooves.  But then we saw this video, and learned about Houndstooth’s “best kept secret” ~ that by applying the Layar camera app, smartphone owners could animate the art.  This not only makes for a great album cover, but a sweet selling point for the LP and disc.  As physical formats continue to give way to digital and streaming, this release went in the opposite direction, and succeeded.

Ross Tones (Throwing Snow):  The  concept of the artwork came from the music itself. ‘Embers’ is all about natural cycles, birth and death and the complexity that arises from simple rules. Tracks are born and then die leaving remnants of themselves to become the building blocks of the next track. The last track on the album dies and is reborn as the first, continuing the cycle. I wanted the cover art to reflect the cyclical nature of the album, but also be a graphical representation of the music itself. The line of the circle is like an interpretive score showing the dynamic arc of the tracks, so the listener can trace the progression.

I value both digital and physical formats so wanted to link to two together with augmented reality. The ‘circle’ of the artwork is animated and plays a musical atmosphere from the album when the Layar app is used on a smart phone. The animation orientates itself exactly over the LP cover even if the phone is moved, so creates an impression of the album being alive. It was also a hidden extra that I didn’t reveal until a few months after the release. I created the artwork on an iPad with Procreate before it was tidied up by Roberto Rosolin, the designer from fabric. The animation was done by Brendan Bennett.

Tom Hobden & Eliot James ~ Roam (Village Green Recordings)
Photography:  Michael Kenna

As we learned in our interview with the artists, Michael Kenna’s photo  is more of an instinctive choice than a topical one, inspired by nuance and mood.  Yet somehow, the image works: stark yet rich, lonely yet lush.  The centering of the credits provides a perfect contrast, the typography simple yet effective.  Here’s what the duo has to say:

The central theme of Roam is really landscape…most of all the English countryside. When we were writing we often used visual reference of certain places we both know and love as inspiration, to capture a mood or a feeling, and whilst we tried to be quite varied our own backgrounds tended to lead us back to the good old english countryside. We were also delving into a lot of early 20th century english composers at the time (Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan-Williams) and that period tends to invoke a lot of pastoral scenery which in turn became a bit of a theme. The cover photo was something that came up through us looking for landscapes that we felt would encapsulate the project. We stumbled upon Michael Kenna’s photography and instantly fell in love with his imagery. Whilst the photo we used has little to do with the english countryside (it’s actually a chinese seaweed farm) it seemed to represent the tone of the record perfectly.

Valgeir Sigurðsson ~ Dissonance (Bedroom Community)
Photography: Brendan Canty & Colm O’ Herlihy 
Graphic design by Francis Redman, founder of new music imprint Trouble in Utopia.

It’s not just a fantastic photo: the artist emerging from darkness into light, representing the shift from dissonance to consonance on the album and mirroring the artist’s personal journey.  The typography is stylistic, thin enough to blend in yet strong enough to stand out.  The A is an inverted V for Valgeir.  The album itself is slipcased like a cave.  Every element of design is well-conceived and executed, a triumph for all involved.

Valgeir Sigurðsson:  In the summer of 2016, nearly a year before Dissonance was released, I drove with Colm O’ Herlihy and Brendan Canty out of Reykjavík to the Hvalfjörður (Whale fjord) tunnel to shoot the photos that became the artwork images. The twilight and the glowing turquoise night sky just past midnight on this June night provided a backdrop for the concrete mouth of the tunnel, with its fluorescent glow coming from inside it. When we looked at the images back at the studio, was as if Gustave Doré’s 1890’s engraving of Dante and Virgil approaching the entrance to Hell was being rendered in full colour. To me Dissonance is an urban record, in contrast to my previous records probably. And it’s also a response to internal and external dissonances, on a deeply personal level as well as one that is concerned about the way we are living as people on this earth. I wanted the artwork to reflect all this and help tell this story to some extent. As soon as the images found their way into the hands of graphic designer Francis Redman the circle was formed. He immediately nailed the typography elements, and then sent various layout suggestions, photo manipulations and image variants until we narrowed it down to something we were both very pleased with. During the process we also talked much about the packaging and printing options, and how each format would best carry the artwork. And his attention to detail and ability to follow the process through to the printing stage paid off in the final results.

Francis Redman:  From my point of view this was a project where the music spoke to me quickly, and, as it came across with images from a rainy and enigmatic Iceland I was inspired. I felt I understood how the record should ‘feel’ visually, but it was a case of developing the technique.

Balancing an abstract image with the rugged landscape in the images and keeping the presence of the natural was the challenge – something that wasn’t absent from nature but had the feeling of the urban and the man made. Having set about finding some interesting textures to use, trying concrete and rock I ended up clearing the freezer and making big blocks of ice. The idea was to create something textural but not oppressive, – the balance was important, as was the print. Anyone who has printed heavily black images will know how hard it can be to keep detail, it is not a glamorous subject but ink on paper is not a one route solution, one wrong colour conversion can spoil the end result. Rounds proofing and adjustment paid off in the end.

Thank you to all of the artists for their responses ~ we wish you continued inspiration in 2018!

Richard Allen

One comment

  1. Pingback: Best & Worst Album Cover Artwork of 2017 – Updated Summary | Album Cover Hall of

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