New Year’s Eve, 2018
by Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
While I can’t speak for all of you, I’m fairly certain that there are a great number of you who are tired of hearing other peoples’ opinions. Nearly every conversation you’re exposed to these days – on your Twitter or Facebook feeds, your favorite TV news channel or penetrating your personal space from that group of guys that sit behind you on the train or next to you in your health club’s locker room – it’s nearly impossible to not overdose on other peoples’ takes on what’s “good” or “appropriate” or “the best/worst” these days. And so, rather than talk about “what’s best” this year, after both participating (as a judge) in several album cover art competitions and having had the chance to review the articles by others in which the “best covers of 2018” are discussed/rated, I thought that I’d simply make note of several of the trends I’ve seen in record package design lately, leaving the pontificating to those who are perhaps better qualified (or, at least, prepared to convince you that they are) while I remain simply a teller (or re-teller) of tales and one that will continue to monitor the field for my readers so that you’re aware of who is behind the projects that produce the most-notable packages for your favorite LPs, CDs, DVDs and box sets/compilations.
This past year, as musical acts work hard to differentiate themselves while promoting their efforts in the world’s largest music marketplace (that being the online/digital music space) and, simultaneously, in record stores catering to music fans everywhere, retail products and online experiences that are designed to build a closer relationship with fans have both taken advantage of the latest production/printing technologies and gone “back to basics” to bring customers record packages that feel unique and desirable (collectors know that feeling well). What most-impressed me this past year were the slew of boxed and/or limited-edition offerings and, based on reported sales (with some sets selling out during their pre-order periods), fans – even those raised without the large-scale availability of physical product – found themselves shelling out good money for collectible packages from musical acts in all genres. I don’t know how well digital picture frames (the big ones, I mean) and subscription art services are selling, but I can only assume that, for the foreseeable future, there will be enough people who, for their favorite acts, will continue to pay to own and display and show off their investments in “the real thing”.
I’m also excited to see the names of album art producers that I’ve never seen before (probably my fault) and from individuals and studios located all over the world. While my own scope of knowledge has only on occasion gone outside of people working for clients here in the U.S. and the U.K. (and, to a lesser extent, in Canada and Australia), my research this past year has introduced me to record design projects coming from folks in Africa, China, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Italy and several other countries. These works, while they might be for musical acts and pop/rock genres that I’m entirely unfamiliar with, show off design styles and imagery that I’m certain reflect the cultural sensibilities of their local markets, making them all the more fascinating for those of us who’ve rarely been exposed to the colors, shapes, typography and photographic images found within.
Here’s a recap of the award-winners from the major album art-focused competitions this past year:
Grammy Awards (Recording Academy, U.S.) – For “Best Recording Package”, there was a tie, with awards given to the teams that created El Orisha De La Rosa by Magin Diaz and Pure Comedy (Deluxe Edition) by Josh Tillman, AKA Father John Misty, while the Grammy Award for “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package” was awarded to the team that created the package for the outer-spacey Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition
Making Vinyl Awards (Making Vinyl trade show, U.S.) – You can read the list of all the winners at https://makingvinyl.com/packaging-awards-finalist-2018/, with top winners including the team that created the I’ll Be Your Girl package for The Decemberists (receiving the Alex Steinweiss Award for “best in show”) and the folks who created the Listen Without Prejudice CD box set for the late George Michael.
Best Art Vinyl (Art Vinyl world-wide online competition) – The team behind Run The Jewels’ Run The Jewels 3 record package took the top prize in the last polling, with all nominees/winners available for viewing at https://www.artvinyl.com/lp-records-displayed-as-artwork-prize/
Independent Music Awards ( New Jersey , U.S.) – the 16th annual award show focused on top indie talent selected Hiroshima bend’s ODP 048 – Rednow Gnir to receive the award for “Album Packaging”, with the winners in the other categories viewable at http://independentmusicawards.com/16th-independent-music-awards-winners/#design
Juno Awards (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Toronto , Canada) – The Canadian music industry’s top award for “Album Artwork of the Year 2018” was handed out to the team that created the cover for Stubborn Persistent Illusions’ Do Make Think Say. View past nominees and winners on the organization’s web site at https://junoawards.ca/nomination-category/album-artwork-of-the-year/
Aria Awards (Sydney, Australia) – “Best Cover Art” kudos went to the talent behind the cover for Paul Kelly’s Life Is Fine. To see previous winners in detail, check out the Aria Awards site at https://www.ariaawards.com.au/history/award/best-cover-art
“Best Album Covers” of 2018 – Magazine, web sites, trade journals:
a) Billboard Magazine staffers collaborated to give us their list of the “Best of 2018” – https://www.billboard.com/photos/8490351/best-album-covers-of-2018-top-20
Takahashi Murakami, David LaChapelle and Kacey Musgrave’s sister Kelly are among the talented individuals and teams behind this list of 20 mostly photo-based album cover images for musical acts including Janelle Monae, Kanye West, The Internet, Migos, A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott.
b) London-based design magazine dezeen shares their “Top 10” list of highlights in the world of design and illustration, amongst which you’ll find the previously-mentioned T. Murakami album cover image prominently featured…” As we continue our review of 2018, design reporter Gunseli Yalcinkaya picks out 10 defining moments in graphic design and illustration, including Edel Rodriguez’s powerful images of Donald Trump, the artwork of Kanye West’s Kids See Ghosts album and the social-media response to the Pittsburgh shooting…”
c) A writer who is always on top of what’s taking place in the world of album cover design, Rachael Steven’s article for the Creative Review (UK) site presents, in no particular order, a list that backs up Rachael’s statement that “great album art can come in many forms. It can be a photograph that stops you in your tracks, a lovingly produced box set filled with hidden messages and tactile features, or a minimal graphic design that invites closer inspection. Our annual Record Sleeves of the Year round up has featured all these and more – from pop-up musical sleeves to designs that appear to animate before your eyes.”
d) Lizzie Manno and the Paste Magazine staff share a list of 30 expertly-crafted cover images, “From the Crosby, Stills & Nash tribute of Boygenius to the blatant literalism of Ty Segall and the cosmic high art of Kamasi Washington, we take a look at the 30 new album covers that gripped us in 2018.”
e) LA-based pop culture media mavens Mandatory Media asked writer John Grimley to present their list of the 15 best examples of album cover imagery they saw this past year, on which you’ll find examples from musical acts including Spiritualized, High on Fire, F*cked Up, Nikki Minaj and Royal Tusk, among others.
f) The staffers at the DJ Booth site found a number of interesting and inspired images on the covers of records from artists such as JPEGMAFIA, Mac Miller, Blood Orange, J. Cole and others.
g) Instrumental and Experimental Music aficionados A Closer Listen always seem to find album images that are as different and mind-expanding as the music included in the packages, with this year’s list featuring covers from musical acts such as bvdub, Floex & Tom Hodge, Memum and Rival Consoles.
h) Album art expert John Foster’s regular columns (“Judging A Cover By Its Cover”) for The Vinyl Factory are always an interesting read, so it was with great anticipation that I waited to see his list of the twelve best covers he saw this past year. Well, we wait no more, finding ambitious and energized album imagery including on covers from Roisin Murphy, Beach House, The Decemberists and Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls.
i) Those of you with a penchant for music from our neighbors to the North (i.e., Canada) can always count on internet radio hosts Jeff MacCallum and Carey Newton, whose The Cups N Cakes internet radio show has been in existence for nearly five years and has become one of the best sources for new Canadian music. Their list of best album covers this year includes those found on music by artists including Jonathan Kowchuk, Empanada Fuzz, Shooting Guns and Jo Passed.
j)While the team at Rare Tempo’s overall focus is on providing a place to learn more about truly indie acts (AKA “starving artists”), this year they decided to look deeply into the Rap/Hip-Hop genre to find their favorite examples of record cover perfection…“You might be thinking, Wow, what a niche topic you guys. But what we found was that hip-hop and R&B artists today are not only changing the art of music but also that of the album cover. The following album covers are striking, colorful, and somewhat haunting at times. So, without further ado, here are our picks for top album art from 2018.”
k) Loudwire’s Joe Divita doesn’t profess to be an expert on the topic but, as he puts it, “Forever living the adage of ‘I may not know art, but I know what I like,’ we present 30 Totally Sick Metal Album Covers From 2018.” Fans of hard rock and heavy metal music now have no reason to feel left out of the discussion – http://loudwire.com/30-sick-metal-album-covers-2018/
l) “Big Data” fans also can see who the top vote-getters were on balloting sites such as The Top Tens – https://www.thetoptens.com/album-covers-2018/ (multiple genres) and Rate Your Music – https://rateyourmusic.com/list/RamonRDuarte/best-album-covers-of-2018/11/
m) Of course, no recap of recent album cover artistry would be complete without pointing you to those articles that go out on a limb to announce what they deem to be the “Worst Album Covers” of 2018. I am impressed with the opinions of The Top Ten’s Martin Canine (real name?), who writes that “2018 brought us some jaw dropping album covers. Jaw dropping for two reasons: while we got stunning cyberpunk landscapes, wonderful color compositions and beautiful outfits worn by the singers, there was also a certain amount of artworks that were… “special”. Many lists compiling bad album covers focus on concepts that are outdated, unoriginal, or, for whatever reason, too cinematic, but this isn’t what this list is about – these covers are absolute disasters.”
Finally, I’d like to share something that illustrates just how difficult it must be to learn the English language…while doing the research for this article, I used several search engines and plugged in the same search terms (e.g., “best” and “album” and “cover”) in each and, for the most part, the answers I received were the same. However, in the case of the term “best record sleeve” on Google, I did find one highly-placed link https://www.bestreviews.guide/record-sleeves that, indeed, show me a listing of the best record sleeves available these days (!!).
Best Wishes to you all for a joyous, peaceful and fearless New Year 2019.