Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Best Album Covers 2012

Pretty slow in posting this, but it's the crowning achievement for writing, despite a busy year.I spent so much time on this article it created marital friction in my life. I wanted it to be really good. And it is. Don't worry, my wife and I are now friends again :). In any case, I am very proud of this article, and the bar has been set for next year. I couldn't possibly put the entire article with all 36 album covers, as well as all the people who contributed their thoughts on process and theme and whatnot on my blog, so here are the top five.

These are times of widespread disconnect, and music is one of the most genuine ways for a person all alone to feel understood. We’re seeing DIY backlashes against this loss of connection everywhere (Just look into the boom on homesteading crafts and farmer’s markets). To sell albums the handmade element is becoming almost necessary to get people’s attention. Many of the albums in this feature involve for the purchaser a unique experience. Handmade paper, specialty printing, yarn, boxes, scents, stitching, transparencies, layers layers layers. Some of today’s newer independent labels go for broke on presentation.

And what of digital only releases? The album cover is often all they have, making it even more essential. It isn’t just music. Every one of us is seeking an authentic experience, and a quality piece of cover art and the subsequent design of an album is a beacon for that desire. Every album reviewed on A Closer Listen in 2012 was fair game; here are the top 30 album covers of the year, along with some honorable mentions.

Simple. Bold. Spartan colors or just black and white. Oftentimes less is more. The top ten album covers, as voted by our writing staff, share a power through simplicity. Only two feature the artist name and title, while the others didn’t deem it necessary. The imagery is that effective.

Photography: Eirik HolmøyvikDesign: Michael Waring
Photography: Eirik Holmøyvik
Design: Michael Waring

1. Ian Hawgood ~ The Shattered Light
This photograph gives it all in one glance. On first look, the photograph evokes a deep solitude. It took Ian Hawgood four years to write this album, and it’s easy to imagine him alone amongst the fjords of Iceland in that pointed shed, processing the deepest of hurts. The album’s cover was photographed by Norwegian photographer Eirik Holmøyvik while traveling across Iceland. This tiny shack in the winter amongst dynamic geography speaks volumes about people overcoming hardship. ‘If someone can make it in that thing, then my First World problems don’t seem all that smothering.’ Maybe there’s a positive spin to put on things? On his father’s passing Ian wrote for Fluid Radio, “The light of life was shattered, but these shards of memory and eternal being remained, floating like embers: bright, bright embers that could last forever.”

Eirik Holmøyvik, photographer: Unlike some of the other covers I’ve provided, this photograph is a digital capture. It’s a classic black and white landscape from North East Iceland, about 4 hours drive north of Reykjavik. It’s a place of gravel roads and remote farms. I came over this amazing cabin which mirrors the mountains in the background. To make the photograph work, all I needed to do was to isolate the subject in order to enhance the clean and strong shapes of the cabin and the mountains.

EH: I’ve provided cover photographs for several previous Home Normal releases, including Ian’s 2010 release “Slow Films in Low Light”. So I guess he just turned to my portfolio for the latest album as well.

Review and Purchase Link

Artwork and typographical design: Dennis Huddleston

2. 36 ~ Lithea
Red, White and Black is my favorite color scheme, and Dennis Huddleston’s cover artwork for his latest 36 album is mighty unforgettable. It’s only smoke, but the symmetrical mirroring creates a sense of awareness. Of life. Smoke by nature is a luscious process to observe, evidence that something has ended, but to think that this boldly colored smoke might be staring back at you…

Dennis Huddleston of 36: When I designed the artwork for Lithea, I wanted it to reflect the concepts for the album itself; something veiled, organic, minimal, dark but beautiful.

DH: I used images of smoke against black isolated backgrounds, which were collaged together in Photoshop and melded in a near-random way to create an almost Rorschach-style mirrored image. I’m a sucker for the traditional black/white/red colour scheme and after multiple versions were made, I finally settled on the final artwork you see on the front cover. It is suitably ambiguous and I love the fact that people interpret it in different ways; just like the music takes each listener to entirely different places.

DH: The actual digipaks were hand-made by Tom Leggett at ACDSleeve, printed on 350gsm white card, which was then matte-laminated. The overall finish looked wonderful and Tom should be championed for his hard work.
Review and Purchase Link

Cover Photo: Paul Randall.
Edits & Design: Harry Towell

3. Spheruleus ~ Cyanometry
Perhaps we’ve seen images like this before, but this one makes a great album cover. The calm textures appear handmade even before you get ahold of it (and good luck with that, as only 50 of the first run – with this cover image – were made). Simple but rich with mystery, the imagery promises an album of secrets revealed through a natural process, a cover that says “It’s safe here. Rest. Tissue? Tea? ”

Harry Towell of Spheruleus: The final image reflected the album’s concept of Cyanometry – measuring the blueness of the sky – something I had become fascinated by as I went for a walk to make field recordings and take images for the bonus landscape photography.

HT: The main image was originally taken by Paul Randall who records as Microvolt. He kindly let me use and edit the image. I chose lo-fi textured effects in the editing process to make it look like a painting. The bonus images were also edited using similar lo-fi digital processing methods, which I had discovered using some simple programs. I experimented with the landscape images for a long time, in some cases starting all over again several times. Once these were in place, I then chose Paul’s image as the cover artwork. This didn’t take long to edit, as I had gotten used to the programs I was using and the sorts of techniques I wanted to use.

HT: Whilst Paul supplied the image, it wasn’t actually for this project. He sent me a number of images for an EP he released with my Audio Gourmet netlabel. I edited them all and sent them back to him. He chose one for his project. The one with the birds wasn’t used and I decided to ask if I could use it as the front cover to Cyanometry.

HT: For the first 20 copies, I hand-stamped a tessellating hexagonal pattern on the front of the card packaging. Then I stamped the album title in the centre. All 50 copies had the hand stamped title. Inside, each copy had both the cover image and also one of the bonus images, a CD of course, and then a hand-written thankyou note to the person that bought it. I had stressed at the time that these were in a limited edition of 50. They sold out in next to no time and I had several emails asking if there were any spare copies left! So I decided on a repress using the money I had made from the first release. For the re-press, I didn’t want to offend those who may have bought on the premise that it was strictly 50 copies, so I did a simple professionally printed card wallet at a cheaper price, so others could get hold of the album. The problem I had with the original image was that as a heavily edited image, it didn’t have a very good resolution for printing to packaging so I had to choose a new front cover.
Review and Purchase Link

Photography: Jurgen Heckel
Design & Layout: Daniel Crossley
Booklet words: Vincent Vocoder
Poster/Booklet design: Ian Hazeldine

4. Olan Mill ~ Paths
What looks like devastation to many can be transformed into hope or opportunity through a wise lens. Olan Mill’s gorgeous ambient washes and classical motifs sprang out of Alex Smalley’s history in music therapy for the mentally ill, so he’s had plenty of experience in helping people see things another way. Is this photo a Cormac McCarthy moment, or is it one of the paths from ruin to riches?

Alex Smalley of Olan Mill: Around the period this record was assembled (late 2010) I was ruminating a great deal on man’s impact on the planet – I was particularly fixated on how we’ve adapted pristine natural environments in order to extract resources for commercial gain. To me this image works as a good visual metaphor for these activities and the potential lifeless path our future promises as a result.

AS: Once I had the Jurgen Heckel images a clear idea formed in my mind for the vinyl design. From years of buying records and studying album artwork I knew I’d have to capitalise on the strength of image over any elaborate design aesthetic. Decisions regarding design were made out of sympathy for the image and the listener’s need for information.

AS: Beyond the vinyl design and book content, I was very happy to let Dan complete the rest of the package with his team. I’d seen his work on previous releases for the label and this was part of the appeal to release Paths on Fac-ture.

AS: A book titled ‘On Rainbow Corner’ was written specifically for the release and is included with the package. Its conception was the result of the author’s experience with the music, artwork and track names. I thought it was important to have a narrative aspect to the release, a snapshot of someone’s experience of the World and its varying paths. The text acts to blur the borders of mind hygiene. There are strains of autism, personality disorder and psychosis in the piece and all to slightly unsettling effect. Hopefully the music acts as an antidote to any discomfort felt.

Review and Purchase Link

The Letting Go
Photo: Unknown

5. Hexakai Dekagon (HXDK) ~ The Letting Go
Total annihilation is a terrible barrage of feelings, but it never looked so good. No one can deny this cover is badass. Most of our staffers included it on their lists. And yet, the image is borrowed from a lost and uncredited source. Some readers are going to have an issue with this fact, but if the message in a bottle has no signature, who else can you save but yourself?

Nathan of HXDK: I struggled with whether or not to use [the photo], but it seemed to me to be the perfect representation of what I was trying to get across – the burning bridge being a metaphor for destroying close friendships and relationships due to anger and grief (with a liberal dose of self loathing) and also realising that it was necessary to break away from that situation in order to move on or be stuck in that rut to the cost of my sanity and at least salvage some semblance of self and so on and so forth…

Nathan: It’s an image I stole from a Google search as i was looking for a picture of a burning bridge. It would be disingenuous for me to claim any credit for it whatsoever. I’ve tried to find the original source but to no avail. I’d also seen it on a few random blogs and assumed it was just a stock image. I could be wrong, and if someone claims it’s their photo and wants it taken down, then (to overstate the metaphor) i’ll cross that bridge when i come to it. It fits the subject matter of the album perfectly and i didn’t really anticipate it having any impact outside of my small circle of friends. So i just went with it.

Review and Purchase Link

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