Earlier this year, we feared we would be unable to publish this article as labels paused physical production and artists recorded at home. Yet our fears were misplaced, as plenty of fine physical editions were produced! In an odd twist, some of them only included digital copies of the music. There’s a feeling of warmth involved in receiving a physical package, especially one made with love. This year only amplified our desire for tactile editions. A well-presented physical edition earns a spot on our music shelf and stays in the memory because it is seen.
A special mention goes to James Norman for his superlative book Micro Record Label (image above), which covers the scene in depth, with a sense of humor mingled with playful nostalgia.
BEST PACKAGING OF THE YEAR
Spektral Quartet ~ Experiments in Living (New Focus Recordings)
We knew this was something special from the moment it was announced. After years of gracing album covers (and recording dozens of his own), collage artist øjeRum created a series of art cards for this project. They arrive in a keepsake box, accompanied by two decks of word cards and the suggestion to pair words with images and images with songs, producing an endless supply of listening experiences and interpretations.
V/A ~ Relatives Schoensein (Adventurous Music)
Five hours of digital music and a 92-page book of softcover street art make Relatives Schoensein a generous package. With proceeds going to multiple causes, the non-profit organization is making a positive difference in a tumultuous year. The music here is spectacular, with multiple new artists to discover and embrace. Matching the music with the images is part of the fun, but either can be enjoyed separately or apart.
epic45 ~ We Were Never Here (Wayside & Woodland)
Another softcover book, this one a collection of “nowhere places,” nevertheless makes us feel as if we have been somewhere ~ in fact, somewhere ordinary and extraordinary all at once. This is the way we always suspected the music of epic45 would look if given the chance. The same nostalgia that tints the album visits the photographs as well. These places thought they were forgotten, but now they know they are loved.
V/A ~ Fearful Void Series (Lost Tribe Sound)
And now we have bunches of books, or rather albums in book-style packaging, which look great when the spines are lined up. Each album showcases the abstract art for which the label has become known, while the music runs the gamut, expanding on former series with an even wider tonal palette. Subscribers will receive the books all at once in one magnificent package unless otherwise requested, a kind way to save on shipping costs in a time when budgets are tight.
Sam McLoughlin/David Chatton Barker ~ Tales of the Monstone (Folklore Tapes)
The always reliable Folklore Tapes returns with two haunted tales in a stitched 30-page book, along with the music on 12″ vinyl. Reading while listening recaptures the sense of folk tales told around a fire in the dark of night, children’s eyes widening at each new revelation. The music is similarly evocative, surrounding the listener like the spirits of the woods.
Jon Brooks ~ How to Get to Spring (Clay Pipe Music)
The first of two entries on our list from Clay Pipe Music, How to Get to Spring is a prime example of simplicity done right. The crispness of the images, the color of the vinyl and the vinyl label create a unified front. Seeing the snowflake and the flower, one can already imagine how to get to spring.
Gilroy Mere ~ Over the Tracks (Clay Pipe Music)
Clay Pipe Music does it again! Last year it was a livery cab; this year it’s a train station that arrives with the Flexi-disc (but also with the download for home printing and assembly). Clay Pipe Music was honored earlier this year in the comprehensive interview collection Listening to the Wind: Encounters With 21st Century Independent Record Labels by Ian Preece (Omnibus Press).
Ranges ~ Babel/Confusion of Tongues (A Thousand Arms/Dunk! Records)
Seldom have we seen a label go all-out like this: a twelve month project including a keepsake box, ceramics, silkscreened vinyl, elaborate art and two generations of coins meant to be traded online, all in the service of Babel, the commerce referenced by the title. We were frankly stunned at the scope of this project; one might even call it Biblical.
Phil Tomsett ~ The Sound of Someone Leaving (Fluid Audio)
Fluid Audio continued its incredible run this year with a series of handmade releases, any of which could be featured here. Our favorite of the batch combines tactile nostalgia with a sense of loss ~ a fitting emotional capture of a rough year. The aged photographs and slides are met with abraded melodies that tug at the heart and speak of deep sorrow with grace and gratitude.
Samutek ~ Onamy (Evening Chants)
Even in the field of Big Physical Releases ~ books and train stations and minted coins ~ there is room for a cassette to stand out. Onamy does this with a fold-out booklet of dark, red-tinged art, along with a centipede cassette, a perfect pairing with such mysterious music. This is the sort of detail that many will never see, perhaps the best argument for the survival of physical formats. Those who receive this tape will feel as if they have received an additional, secret gift.