ACL 2018 ~ The Year’s Best Album Covers

In the old days, we would flip through LPs in the stacks (and later, CDs), looking for something to catch our eye. Whenever we saw a good cover, we’d pause; and since cellphones didn’t exist, we’d ask the shop clerk, “What is this?”  Sometimes, after a brief description, we’d take the music home, hoping the inside would match the outside.  Sometimes the outside was all we needed.

A good album cover draws attention to the album. A great album cover enhances it.  We’ve pored over the hundreds of albums we reviewed this year and chosen ten covers of particular merit.  In each instance, our initial impressions were rewarded.  Would we have enjoyed the music as much without the covers?  We’ll never know.  We now associate these albums with their art, and are glad to count them in our collections.

Most of our readers will recognize the iconic image above as the cover to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. The image was simple, but 22 years later it can still be identified by fans of the genre.  Crate digging may have been replaced by web surfing, but the nostalgia still remains.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents the ten best album covers of 2018!

bvdub ~ Drowning in Daylight (Apollo Records)

bvdub’s album covers have made many appearances on our site, and for good reason: they announce the presence of great music with quality art to match.  David Morgan Williams’ image for Drowning in Daylight does several things at once.  It expresses empathy for the #MeToo movement, portraying the erasing of a woman’s mouth, and by extension her voice; recalls the abraded photos of the Stalin era (also referenced on Rutger Zuydervelt’s The Red Soul); and produces a tone of intrigue.  Even without interpretation, it’s a beautiful piece of art, with lovely flowing colors and contrast.

Ricarda Cometa ~ Ricarda Cometa II (Nefarious Industries)

Five years after the self-titled Ricarda Cometa, the Argentinian duo returned with Ricarda Cometa II. And five years after Hideyuki Katsumata was first honored in The Year’s Best Album Covers, he returns for a second round as well.  Wild music deserves wild art, and this is what the album (available on both cassette and CD) receives.  Nobody looked at this and said, “I’ll bet this is some great ambient music.”  The contrast between color and black-and-white, the swirls, the eyes … there’s a lot going on here, but there’s a lot going on in the music as well.  Consider each toothy segment as a reflection of a riff.

Hideyuki Katsumata (artist):
First I listened to the sound of the band.  I was imagining their style of play, it’s so open minded.  I tried to join them through improvisation and capture a mood of celebration.  I used 3 colors of pencils. The drawing was freestyle, because it is resistant to failures hahaha. I drew this picture so that every side was on the top, so I was difficult to pick which one to settle on.

Jorge Espinal (Ricarda Cometa):
This is the second time we’ve collaborated with Hideyuki. We feel that the way he works has a lot to do with how we make and think music.  Ricarda Cometa’s music is fully improvised, but for that to really work we have to really be on point, and extremely prepared. The same idea applies here. Hideyuki has all the freedom to do what he feels like and at that point he becomes a member of the band. That’s why we feel pretty confident it will turn out spot on.

Floex & Tom Hodge ~ A Portrait of John Doe (Mercury Classics)

This isn’t just a cover, it’s a theme.  A series of EPs preceded the album release, and extended the visual aesthetic.  At first glance, one thinks of worker drones.  Then one notices the headphones, the Michael Jackson poses, the arms raised to the sun and realizes, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.  The album is intelligent, playful, and original, a blend of modern composition and electronics that stands out as something exciting and new.  The art made us interested; the music made us believe.

Floex & Tom Hodge:
There is of course this idea and narrative of ‘John Doe’ behind our album. He is actually not any person in particular- we were just trying to say that ordinary stories behind this record could be anybody’s. We passed this simple idea onto illustrator Luke Insect and basically he made a marvellous interpretation! Not only does the album cover look stunning as an object in its own right, but he perfectly expressed the key dramatic concept using a kind of phantasmagoric imaginative colourful landscape based on multiplication principles.

Forma ~ Semblance (Kranky)

How much music can one fit into a small space?  This is the question posed by Peter Burr in the cover art for Semblance.  The figure manages to fit into the box while seeming to extend beyond it as well.  An exquisite use of typography (an undervalued art) enhances the feeling of complexity. The figure could be anyone; it could be us.  Bare feet represent vulnerability, while the graphics represent the computer age, and the threat to feelings of individuality.

Visual Artist Peter Burr:
The design was born from conversations with my friend and collaborator Eric Timothy Carlson. We were interested in creating a design that could function as a moving-image album cover – that is, we were thinking about how blurry the borders between still images and animated images feel in media culture lately. Consequently we developed a design that could exist in a fluid form: a single image/object/idea as music video/vinyl/gif and whatever the future may hold.

Kaada ~ Closing Statements (Mirakel Recordings)Those are some very long arms.  Is this the prelude to a hug, an extension of a pianist’s reach, or a new interpretation of the circle of life?  Each answer is apt.  One may even view the image as that of a clock or watch, thanks to the triangle within the circle on the lower left: and as such, a reflection of our finite nature.  The album may be built around closing statements, but the circle remains open, implying that lives and memories go on.  The hands remain open, symbolizing hope and letting go.  The art relays the lightness of the music, which some might assume would be dark.  In the midst of death, we are in life.

John Erik Kaada (composer):
The album cover of Closing Statements was made together with my long time friend and design collaborator Martin Kvamme.  There are several layers of symbolism and thoughts behind the motive.  An incomplete circle can be interpreted as many things.  But as the theme of the album touches upon our last moments on earth, the circle for me represents a life cycle, with the hands representing a beginning and an end. At the same time, they are reaching for each other.  

The album shows me returning to my old friend, the piano.  Even thought there are many different instruments playing on the album, the piano is the instrument holding it all together.  So then the two hands can simply be an illustration of a piano player’s hands. When the album was released, it was nice to see it worked technically, and was recognizable.  At first glance, on a miniature level, it looks like a ring, but as you zoom out you’ll see movement and the two hands.  We put a lot of love and thought into the making, and it makes me really glad to hear that people are noticing it.
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Memum ~ Confidence (Unperceived Records)

Here’s an album that underlines the value of vinyl.  Looking at the cover on a phone just won’t do; all the detail will be missed.  Melanie Kretzer (concept and design) and Rebecca Haley (illustration) have created a miniature world in a glass ball, like Superman’s Kandor.  The image shifts perspective when viewed at different angles, playing with scale.  Look closer, and one realizes it’s not a terrarium, but a torn photo, a ribbon, a charcoal drawing.  Memum’s music is similarly playful, but the cover pulls the listener into his fantastical world.

From Memum:
It all started with the photo of the wooden hut in Turku, which can be seen in the center of the cover. I lived there for some time with Anna Marjamäki and made the first recordings for the album. I sent the photo to Rebecca Haley, an incredibly talented young artist from Oxford, UK. She experimented with the photo and composed the drawings to be seen with wonderful dried flowers as a collage. Melanie Kretzer from Unperceived Records then brought Rebecca’s drawings into a new color context and took care of typography, textures and the layout form with its central circular shape. She also asked Becky if she could add another drawing of a bird in her realistic style to finalize the cover. The scene being shown speaks of trust, ease and letting go, which I think suits the music well. A special feature is the white ribbon that the boy holds in his hand: there is a real white paper tape glued on every vinyl and CD package. This way every physical cover is a truly unique piece.

Attilio Novellino and Collin McKelvey ~ Métaphysiques cannibales (Kohlhaas)

Matteo Castro’s enigmatic cover collage is mysterious and alluring, defying definition while inspiring multiple speculations.  Who is the woman on the cover?  Is she obscured by her own intention, or by the intention of others?  What does her unusual posture signify?  Does she see herself against a dark background, or is this how others see her?  In like manner, Attilio Novellino and Collin McKelvey toy with expectations in their music, offering few places to catch a grip.  And yet, when absorbed as a whole, their music is beautiful and strange: just like the cover.

Attilio Novellino:
Before the release of Métaphysiques cannibales, I had already seen and appreciated several artworks by Matteo Castro, so when Marco at Kohlhaas came up with the idea of a cover artwork curated by him I accepted enthusiastically.

I feel that the work Matteo realized for our record perfectly reflects a visual key to the cannibal metaphysics Collin McKelvey and me had in mind: I suppose it could be summarized in the deconstructed elegance of the female figure whose representation of the face – which has been torn away – cannot be seen, but only imagined.

An unexpected surface emerges from the void as a mysterious, disordered texture in place of the facial features: a violent removal of the features that feeds the imaginative activity of reconstruction, letting the imagination proliferate. Stimulating connections. Generating contents.

Rival Consoles ~ Persona (Erased Tapes)

If one cover from 2018 has a shot at becoming iconic, it’s this one.  According to Ryan Lee West (Rival Consoles), Persona is inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name.  The album’s theme is “an exploration of the persona, the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us, the spaces in between; between states, people, light and dark, the inner persona and the outer persona.” What better way to illustrate this theme than with an image that seems to be two faces and one?  We credit the artist for using black and red rather than black and white.  The most powerful aspect is the eyes, slightly shifted to the sides, as if to take in/on the world.

Ryan Lee West:
I absolutely love the power of the cover. I like that it hints towards an uncertainty in how we perceive ourselves and others, with such a simple arrangement of colour and form. It was very important to me that the image would have some kind of weight to it, as ‘Persona’ is such a strong word, and Özge really achieved that without it being forced or over wrought. 

Özge Cöne (designer):
I wanted to create a bold image that reflected the depth of the word ‘Persona’. I researched and experimented a lot with simple collaged form, which eventually led me to creating 2 human outlines: one which represents an inner world and the other an outer world, both of which are unknowable and abstract. I used Ryan’s eyes upon this, as I felt that it was a subtle reference to him, whilst maintaining a more universal image. The important thing for me was not to overcomplicate the image with information but to let it express something in a kind of effortless way. 

Somni ~ Bloom (Friends of Friends)

The cover is a huge explosion of color; the album is a huge explosion of sound.  The cover mashes influences and shapes; the album borrows from ambient, modern composition and electronics.  The cover makes us want to listen to the music; the music makes us want to delve into the art.  More than anything, the cover pops.  This was the perfect choice for Bloom, an album so filled with life that it needed a fitting visual representation.

Leo Shulman (Somni):
Basically from my end, I’d been eyeing Niv’s artwork for a while, he and my girlfriend went to high school together and were in the same art class and she put me on to his stuff a while back. I hit him up as soon as the record was done, would’ve loved to commission a piece but basically I was broke at the time and he said I could look through some of his completed works to see if there was anything I wanted to use. I ended up digging way back in time and found the piece I ended up using, I think from 2011 or 2012 or something? For some reason that one just stuck out to me immensely, I felt it fit the vibe of the album to a tee. Niv was really on the fence about letting me use it because it was such an old piece and his work has developed a lot since, but my mind was made up and he gave in! He didn’t have a high quality scan of the piece so he had to hit up his old friend (also randomly named Leo) who had the painting up on the wall. And yeah that’s basically it! Niv feel free to chime in with your side of the story!

Niv Bavarsky (artist):
Wow, thanks for choosing our album cover as one of the top ten, that’s beautiful. Leo basically summed it up well. I must have painted that image in 2010 or 2011, shortly after I graduated from art school. It was painted on duralar, a translucent plastic sheet, so the paint is actually on both sides of the page and plays with that effect, building up in layers. The original does belong to another Leo and I needed to track it down and borrow it to get a fresh scan. Anyway, I’m glad you all like it and that my older work has had a chance to live a new life!

We Will Fail ~ Dancing (Refined Productions)

Fans of phantasmagoric art will find plenty to love in the work of Aleksandra Grunholz, who runs her own graphic design studio while recording music as We Will Fail.  Her haunting triptych of covers for the Dancing release (a full album preceded by two EPs) drenches images from classic art in an indigo collage, repurposing the art for a new generation.  The same might be said of her music, which draws from techno and industrial yet sounds thoroughly like the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aleksandra Grunholz (graphic designer and composer):
The We Will fail “Dancing” artwork was inspired by visions of demons, hell, and the last judgement taken from classical art (medieval, renaissance and baroque). I was searching for images that would create a vision of a weird apocalyptic dream but not using gore/horror iconography. The quote I had in mind while creating covers for all 3 releases (Schadenfreude, Very Urgent, Dancing) was the title of Goya’s etching “Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”. The main theme of the album is night – end of the day, time for rest and time when thinking is affected by tiredness. Shapes are blurred and emotions exaggerated.  I really like that those visions are rather grotesque than horrifying.  For example:

I also like when there is a happening a lot in the same time. It gives impression of movement when its still a static image. 

A Closer Listen thanks all of the labels, composers and designers who contributed their words to this article ~ may your 2019 overflow with inspiration!

Richard Allen

3 comments

  1. David

    Where did you get the interpretation of the first painting? 🙂

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