What is an album cover? The answer seems obvious, but it’s not. For years, an album cover was a 12″ x 12″ image that graced the front of a record sleeve. Once in a while, the cover was obscured by outer paper or cellophane (as in Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here), though usually it was on display for the world to see. Most people conceded that a cassette cover could also be considered an album cover ~ then a CD cover.
Then came digital. For a while, digital releases were reflections of the physical product. Then music was released in digital-only versions. Finally this year, we realized what we’d neglected to notice all along ~ that some of our Best Album Covers were never available in physical form! The conundrum became apparent as we considered Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living. Could we count the cover of the card box, even though the music was a download? We decided that we could, because the album was available as a download on Bandcamp as well.
Now we have a tentative definition: an album cover is the primary artistic image used to represent an extended piece of recorded work. All such works, if released and reviewed by our site in 2020, were eligible for this feature. And now, A Closer Listen presents The Year’s Best Album Covers!
Apparat ~ Dämonen (Mute/It’s Complicated)
Layout: Carsten Aermes
Images: George Tyebcho
This eye-catching image of an indoor cloud is the first introduction to a score by Apparat. Based on Sebastian Hartmann’s play Dostoevsky’s Demons, both album and cover mingle a fascination with the divine with an acknowledgement of suffering.
From Carsten Aermes (Layout):
Sascha (Apparat) asked me if I would like to design the covers for his soundtracks. Of course, I said yes. After listening to him several times I quickly had a vision. I knew that Sascha had a soft spot for surrealistic 80s avant-garde LP covers and that this aesthetic would fit well with the trippy, very narrative soundtracks. It was important to me that it did not become retro, but has a reference to the films and the play without quoting them too exactly. I wanted the images to be open to the listeners’ and viewers’ own interpretations.
I immediately thought of my Georgian friend George Tyebcho from Tbilisi who is a great 3D artist and is able to create surreal images that can also reflect the warmth and poetry of Apparat’s music. I showed Sascha renderings of him and he was immediately taken with them. So I briefly wrote to George and gave him links and material to look at and the soundtracks. From then on I became the mediator and filter between George and Sascha.
aswekeepsearching ~ sleep
Artist: Tanaya Sharma
A young woman lies luxuriantly in a field of giant sunflowers: a perfect image to accompany a sleep-themed album. More art graces individual tracks as well. One of the artist’s goals is to spread positivity; we find in her a kindred spirit.
Bambi OFS ~ YAKKA (Subsist Records)
Artist: Judith Becker
This exuberant photograph was taken by ethnomusicologist Judith Becker during a Bebuten ceremony in Bali. The image is joy incarnate, as the dancers’ sense of abandon links them to something primal and eternal. The percussive music is a reflection of this joy.
From Cédric Dambrain:
YAKKA’s cover features a photography shot by ethnomusicologist Judith Becker during a Bebuten ceremony in Bali. I saw this picture while reading her book ‘Deep Listeners – Music, Emotion and Trancing’, in which she demonstrates that people’s ability to enter trance states is inversely proportional to their sense of separatedness from the rest of the world. It really was a perfect match between my work in the field of experimental music and sound installations – which is about treating sound, space, and the listener’s perception as an integrated phenomenon, and the ethnofictional and beat-driven quality of Bambi OFS. Beyond that, the bodies in their convulsive state, along with this incredible trancer’s smile, really speak a thousand words.
Many thanks again to Judith Becker for kindly giving me her permission to use this image.
Liminal Drifter ~ Connected (Hidden Shoal)
Artist: Stuart Medley
Illustrator Stuart Medley has compiled a grand portfolio of comics and independent images. We’ve featured his work for Liminal Drifter before, and this year he’s impressed us yet again. The image connotes heat, yearning, disappointment and hope, all at the same time, the logo cleverly hidden in the bedpost.
From Stuart Medley:
Working with Liminal Drifter’s music is always an experience rich in possibilities. I start by making a kind of visual list of images that occur to me while listening.
Just free associating. This works best when two quite different ideas can be joined in the final picture, and the combination creates a third meaning. I think it’s called bisociation.
There’s so many ways to go that the music suggests, the hardest part is making a decision on which is the best idea to draw up.
Simon had been talking with honesty about the darker side of being a new parent. Made more difficult because so few do talk about it. From my visual list to do with infants and sleeplessness, I repurposed a cot as a kind of prison, at the same time flipping who was in control in the family. One thing I’m always conscious of is the potential for a mini-narrative across the surfaces of a music package. They’re not just 2D but a strange kind of 2.5D in that the flat surfaces can open up and be turned through space to reveal images not immediately apparent to the listener. So they have a 4D aspect of changing over time as you navigate through them, especially while listening. I enjoy playing a little game with what can be withheld from and what can be revealed to the listener as they engage with the package, opening it up to go into the story a little deeper. Leaving the final visual punchline to the disc art itself. I grew up with the wonderful gatefold sleeves designed by Hipgnosis/Hardie and recall how they took time to decipher. In my own puny way I want to re-present that experience to contemporary listeners.
This is the third album I’ve done with Liminal Drifter. I think we’re building a visual universe that complements the music. I like to think all the music and all the elements in the pictures from all three albums belong in the same imaginary world, which is right next to this one and shows, and can be heard, through a tear in the fabric between the two.
From Liminal Drifter:
I’m a lucky guy to have this awesome graphic talent helping with my releases. “Connected” was a hard one for me as a artist. I was determined to produce an album while grappling with early parent-hood. I knew it was going to be tough, the album and parenting. The track titles give clues as to the journey. I was quite honest with Stu about the difficult journey we had taken to have a son and the journey onwards. It wasn’t a fluffy pink version of baby wrangling rather the raw ups and downs. It was about the Connection to my son before he was born, as he was born, and onwards. Stu took my darker version to heart and rightly so, because it’s not easy. The first 6 months were drama-filled. Ironically, the “Connected” album has been super popular in the NACC Chill chart during COVID and into the US election. It has been in the top #5 for 6 months so it must be connecting with the US/Canadian audience at a time when everyone needs some chill. I hope it helps!
Mukqs ~ Specular
Artist: Keith Rankin
Looking for fantastic, phantasmagorical art? Look no further than the oeuvre of Keith Rankin. His playful image for Specular is packed with allusion and bursts at the seams with color. Mukqs went on a tear this year with an inspired array of releases, and this art did its part to draw us in.
Me and Max have become closer over the years, we’ll talk online about our record labels and a lot of new music in general. He was making these albums really quickly back to back to keep the energy going, and asked if I had any art to contribute last minute. I looked through my art folders and found this image I made a while back but forgot about, I think I thought it was too simple or basic and gave up on it, but looking at it now that’s the aspect I like most about it, it makes sense with the music’s spontaneity.
Keith is a close friend and someone I deeply admire as a visual artist, musician, and label head. When I was working through this project earlier this year where I was releasing a new Mukqs EP every week, I wanted to shy away from making the art myself and take a moment to highlight friends whose art I love, and of course Keith came to mind immediately. I believe this was a piece that had been sitting in limbo in his archives for a while that never saw the light of day, but I was thrilled when he first sent it over. I love his surrealist style, and his attention to detail with the way he digitally paints these images and landscapes. I think it matches the vibe of the album, which is one of the more diverse and less genre-focused EPs among those that I made in this period. Keith’s art gives the music a whole new dimension and opens up a lovely 3D space to hang out inside.
rocomoco & The Hidden ~ Wishing the Clouds Away (Aviary Bridge Records)
We’re big fans of collage art, and Wishing the Clouds Away is a fine exemplar of the practice. By keeping the image simple, the artist amplifies its power. The mix of wonder and play finds room on the splendid electronic EP as well.
In lofi hiphop it is all about vibes and moods. Even though we are mostly into instrumentals we want to tell stories. That is why track titles and visuals are a vital part of our 2 minutes lofi beats. In the early days, lofi hiphop started using japanese mangas like flipping jazz samples in the SP404. When you dive deep into lofi culture nowadays you will see a much wider range of styles in music and in visuals. We always loved the work of the Moscow based artist Abstractjity and asked him to develop a visual concept for the EP by using his cut up collage style. That was January 2020 shortly before the pandemic breakout of the Corona Virus which subsequently dominated the mood of all of us this year. So this was our original briefing where we were initially going to call the E.P ‘Far Away From Everything’:
“We are preparing an EP at the moment with the title “far away from everything”. Very chilled and ambient vibes. We have an idea to use seperate layers or parts of the collage for the singles before we release the E.P. So this would be a unique way to use your excellent work that matches our look and feel.“
But Abstractjity also needed a subject to create an image so we had a brainstorming over an Instagram dm chat and settled on these topics: “Mountains, stars, planets, reading books is never wrong. Clouds and escapism.“
Abstractjity came back with the cover artwork. Bang! A perfect match to the vibe and mood we were looking for and a big inspiration for us because we were still working on the music. Based on his artwork we also decided to change the E.P title “Wishing the clouds away“.
Rone ~ Room With a View (InFiné)
The cover photo is a perfect reflection of Rone’s “utopian city,” where colors and cultures mingle and dancers are free to express themselves in a safe and creative environment. The contrast between the bright clothing and beige backdrop is striking, as is the sense of community ~ a hopeful vision as we cross the border of the year.
From InFiné: Room With a View is both Rone’s latest album and the soundtrack of a Contemporary Dance show with the collective, La horde, which took place in March in Paris at Châtelet Theater. Although this new album is almost exclusively instrumental and produced solely by Rone, the regular contacts with the Marseille Ballet troupe, the rehearsals and the conception of the performance carried out in parallel have fed the album with a creative and multicultural energy that makes it almost a collaborative project. It was important to reflect this synergy on the cover.
From Rone: “I finished composing the album while simultaneously rehearsing the show with the Ballet National de Marseille. One of my inspirations was classical paintings such as ‘The Raft of The Medusa’ by Théodore Géricault and having all the dancers on the album sleeve made total sense. We worked with Boris Camaca who did a fantastic job, we basically spent a day on the Ballet’s roof playing like kids, while Boris shot hundreds of photographs. When I saw that particular picture, I knew I had my new album sleeve!”
Spektral Quartet ~ Experiments in Living (New Focus Recordings)
Over the years, Copenhagen’s øjeRum has released a healthy amount of music, while gracing dozens of albums with his art. We’ve always wanted a book, a card deck or other collection of these images ~ and in 2020, we got our wish. This striking cover art is only the introduction to a generous art deck that accompanies the double album Experiments in Living.
From Spektral Quartet: Experiments in Living is ultimately a sonic collage, stringing together seemingly disparate musical approaches, which is where the idea to release it as a kind of Tarot-like card experience came from. During an early brainstorming session, (violinist) Maeve piped up and said, “I’ve been following this incredible artist on Instagram…” and once we all started digging in, we were smitten. øjeRum’s collage-based creations are not only transportive, they also leave considerable space for the viewer to become immersed in their own interpretive experience.
The symbiosis was immediately apparent, especially considering that one way to “play” is to create a track list based on the artwork adorning each card. The funny thing about the album cover is that we wrestled with the idea of commissioning something new from øjeRum, but when we finally got honest with ourselves about it, we realized that it – coordinated with Natalie Bontumasi’s seamless text treatment and design – couldn’t be anything but the enigmatic piece that you see living there.
Thisquietarmy x Away ~ The Singularity, Phase I (P572)
Artist: Michel “Away” Langevin
With so many forces threatening the world at the moment, it’s great to see an old-fashioned kaiju ravaging a major city. What’s more, the image glows in the dark! We were enamored immediately by the cover, and the large, dramatic, cinematic music followed in its wake.
From Away (Michel Langevin): “When on tour around the globe with Voivod, I like to draw my impression of every city at the end of the night. I usually do the art on a hotel notepad after the show. This one was done in Tokyo on January 19th 2019. I had spent a couple of days walking around paying close attention to the architecture. Eric is also a traveller so I thought it might be appropriate to use some of my road art for the vinyl.”
Walt Shaw ~ Burnt With a Brilliant Light (Discus Music)
Artist: Walt Shaw
A man of many talents, Walt Shaw not only performed the mesmerizing percussion of the album, but constructed its elaborate, evocative art, titled “Invocation.” Is there nothing this man can’t do? Even better: as one listens to the music, one can imagine the art, and vice versa.
From Walt Shaw:
As a percussionist and a visual artist, I have never felt that the creativity was originating from two separate realms. The two expressions always seem to come from the same energy in my head. Most of my paintings are abstract or abstracted and most of my percussion has huge elements of free improvisation – in effect painting with sound. The two modes inform one another. When I’m painting I often visualise forms that could easily be graphic scores and when I’m playing I frequently feel rhythms, textures and compositional considerations that are like those on paper or canvas.
Brushes on paper, brushes on skins; sticks on metal, graphite on paper, they are all applied with similar gestures.
So in producing a painting for Burnt With A Brilliant Light, my album on Discus, a series of percussion ‘sketches’ dedicated to ten of my favourite visual artists, the word ‘invocation’ came to mind. It’s about the spirit of the sounds invoking the spirit of the image and vice versa.