We can all agree (I hope) that the old “can’t judge a book by its cover” adage applies just as easily to albums. From Magical Mystery Tour to Rumours, The Talking Heads to The Smashing Pumpkins, and even this year’s standout Cat Power LP Sun, there’s a rich history of great music hiding behind heinous artwork. So does album art matter?
I think no and yes. “No” in that it’s about the music, not the packaging. In a world of digital listening, we interact with the songs themselves more immediately than ever before – there’s not that barrier of a bizarro / ugly sleeve to “get over,” in the event you find the sleeve bizarro and / or ugly. But also, “yes” in that cover art is still a way an musician represents themselves and their work. It may no longer be a first impression, but it is an impression, and you can almost look at it as an indicator of how much care they put into their overall project. And even on a more practical end, sure, physical releases no longer drive sales, but they are prized by collectors – the 180 gram vinyl editions and so forth are the sort of thing where people use the download card, then frame the LP cover and hang it on their wall. Would you really want to have Grimes’ frantic scribbled acid freakout hanging in your living room? (Okay, maybe you do.)
This week, UK music and culture blog The 405 listed their worst and best album covers of the year – lively reads, always – and it got me thinking about the role album art plays in 2012. Do you ignore it? Do you (like me) get antsy when your iTunes doesn’t have artwork for all its mp3s? What was the worst decade for album covers? (Hint: the 90s.) Which album covers blew you away this year? Which made you wretch? Discuss in the comments section, and check out some standout Philadelphia album covers from 2012 after the jump.
Cough Cool – Lately (Bathetic Records) – This album cover is just so Philly, from the vintage shot of our hometown team smack in the center to the fact that it’s surrounded by that very specific shade of Phillies red. I’m not even a sports person and I love this. And sure, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the scuzzy lo-fi rock contained within, but it doesn’t not have a lot to do with it – and it certainly draws me in.
Family Band – Grace and Lies (No Quarter Records) – On the other hand, this cover has everything to do with the music. There is a lot of mystery, mystique and uncertainty in the atmospheric tones and surreal lyrics of recent Philly transplants Family Band. Words written on eyelids, startled and brethlessly gazing outward, gets it about right.
The Wrecking Crew – Wu-Tang Pulp (Three Dollar Pistol) - Illustrated album covers tend to be more impressive than photograph-based ones. This release from The Wrecking Crew goes a step further – it’s not just some impressionistic painting, it’s remarkable comic book style renderings of Philly MCs Zilla Rocca, Has Lo and Curly Castro, who this year nerded out over their own personal Beatles, Wu-Tang Clan.
mewithoutYou – Ten Stories (self-released) - Long-standing Upper Darby post-rock outfit never disappoint with their album covers, which often feel more like they should be on a museum wall than in a plastic shrink-wrapped case. For Ten Stories, which loosely tells the story of an 1800s circus train crashed in the wilderness, we get a rich illustration of the scene to help us connect the dots of the album’s narrative.
Lushlife – Plateau Vision (Western Vinyl) – Like Family Band, I’m drawn to the mystery on this one. One could easily dismiss it as blurry-arty-black-and-white-photo, but it seems an apt fit for Raj Haldar’s stream-of-consciousness raps and his imaginative backing tracks. It’s clearly a stage we’re looking at, and on Haldar’s stage, just about everything can happen.
Aaron and the Spell – Sing (self-released) – Another impressive painting; here, Aaron Brown is rendered as a wandering serenader, a nomadic musician somewhere in between the world of the living and the dead. Or maybe it’s more just an illustration placing him on the grounds of his grandparents’ Florida church where he first was inspired to sing. In any case, it’s a lovely cover for a lovely record.
Everyone Everywhere – Everyone Everywhere (self-released) - Photograph of a photograph. But more important, an illustration of vicarious living. The woman in the lower left loves the majestic mountain peaks and tall pines, but is content to experience them through a poster on the wall. Like Cough Cool, not particularly tied to the music, but it does get you thinking.
Sun Airway – Soft Fall (Dead Oceans) - Something about this reminds me of a Pink Floyd LP jacket. Intricately art-directed and highly surreal, this work the band commissioned from the N-A-M photographic collective is an otherworldly image for otherworldly music.
Heyward Howkins – The Hale and the Hearty (self-released) - I’m not sure how many photographs were shredded and geometrically arranged to create this striking, sky-blue illustration for Heyward Howkins’ debut LP. But if we are to assume that a major function of the album cover is, like we said, to draw you into the music, this one brings you directly in to the center and through the sleeve into its brilliant new folk character sketches and metaphorical musings.
Hop Along – Get Disowned (Hot Green Records) - My favorite LP of the year on a number of levels, and its album art couldn’t be more appropriate. Get Disowned‘s songs are covered in layers of sound – instruments, voices, noisemakers – and its lyrics can be as uncertain: the character Frances Quinlan follows is at once tormented, confused, frustrated and haunted. You just don’t know what’s going on, even after dozens of listens, and the image of a dense foliage, a vortex of leaves we can’t see beyond, fits. But like Howkins above, this cover draws you in, to the center, through the sleeve and beyond.