Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Art For Art's Sake--The Best Album Covers of 2009

Don't judge a book by its cover--but you can certainly judge an album. For me, there is an undeniable visual component to the music housed beneath an album's cover, sometimes informed by or in direct opposition to the artwork. The visual aesthetic enhances the music--think about those classic album covers and how they've informed your perception of the music: Sgt. Pepper's, Sticky Fingers, The Band, to name a few. We wear them on t-shirts, put them up as decoration, pass them on to future generations with hushed reverence: good album covers are pop-art, but they're liberated from two dimensions when placed on the hi-fi.

Sometimes good album covers don't coincide with good music, but the following are all Waterloo Sunset approved. Enjoy my favorite album covers from 2009, in no particular order.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
, It's Blitz

Motion, commotion, physicality, brutality--it's all in this photograph, one of the most immediately striking images released this (or any) year. Subtle features reveal themselves with repeated viewings like that chipped fingernail clutching the egg. There's a direct correlation between striking album art and classic albums music-wise--the band's musical ingenuity spills over into the visual field. And that's certainly the case here.

Grizzly Bear
, Veckatimest

For their career-defining album, Grizzly Bear went to artist William O'Brien. His complex geometric drawing not only captures the eye, but it also works well with the music. For the unitiated, Veckatimest is an exhausting, meticulously crafted record that revels in microscopic details while retaining warmth and a lived-in feeling, all details that mirror O'Brien's drawing. There's a sense of geography in the cover (much like in Grizzly Bear's music) where you're taken to someplace different from the place where you started out. Designer Ben Wilkerson Tousley also excelled here with the typography, skewing the words to reflect the cover and the music--these are familiar images/sounds, but played with just enough to reveal something new and unusual.

The Dutchess and The Duke
, Sunset/Sunrise

I was immediately excited for this record when I first saw the album art--it just screams to be made on vinyl. The colors are worn and faded, and the night part of the composite photograph actually comes off as a sleeve, leaving a big gaping hole in the middle and a separate daylight insert. The photograph is by Andrew Waits while lead singer Jesse Lortz handled the design. It's a perfect minimalist marriage between photograph and design--the liner notes feature more of Waits's peephole day/night landscapes, as well as cut-out circles to show information about the album. Oh yeah, and the music's damn good too--'60s-inspired folk-pop like early Stones and Dylan. If you found this all dog-eared at a record store, you'd swear it was some lost album from the early '60s. Not to say that the design or music is derivative; think of it more as a time machine with a modern twist.

Ganglians, Ganglians

Ganglians, Blood On The Sand 7"

The weirdness of these two covers fits with Ganglians' fuzzy psychedelia. Slightly dreamy but also kind of creepy.

, Songs of Shame

"Skeletal psychedelia" is what Woodsist (Woods's record label) terms their odd sound. Much like this cover, it's a natural, beat up, far away sound full of dark corners, peaks, and valleys.

Dead Man's Bones
, Dead Man's Bones

Ryan Gosling's spooky Halloween-themed kid's choir project used an appropriate aesthetic: make it look like some low-budget B-horror flick from the '70s. The kid in the full skeleton costume gets me every time.

Blakroc, Blakroc

Rap supergroup (with the Black Keys as the superb backing band) used this green slime to convey their smoky, sludgy sound. Blakroc is coming to get ya.

Timber Timbre, Timber Timbre

Unsettling, mysterious, captivating.

Blank Dogs, Under And Under

Simple and fantastic use of color and typography.

Amen Dunes, Dia

Photo superimposed upon itself several times. Pretty representative of the disarming and off-kilter music made by this lone wolf.

Death, ...For The Whole World To See

Unearthed '70s proto-punk never looked (or sounded) so good. This cover commands you to shout it from the rooftops: Death is at your doorstep.

Bear In Heaven
, Beast Rest Forth Mouth

Those pixelated eyes are oddly nostalgic--like some long-lost video game character from days past. Your brain naturally tries to fill in the rest of the face. Nice trick.

V/A, Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads And Dirges 1968-1974

Stone's Throw Records put together this interesting psych comp featuring rare cuts from all over the world. And that cover just oozes off the cardboard. Careful: it can force you into a catatonic state.

V/A, Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes

, Eccentric Soul: Smart's Palace

The Numero Group
always does a smashing job of capturing the essence of their myriad compilations through their impeccable album art. These are no exceptions: the former is smoky, heady folk, while the latter is another serving of rare, party-ready soul and funk cuts. I just wish they'd put that Numero logo somewhere else.

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