Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Half-Yearly Report: Best Album Covers of 2013 (so far)


Well boys and girls, we're halfway through this year, and what a momentous and memorable six months they've been. But while news sites and critic collectives alike gallantly recollect their one-track thoughts and objective-narrowed opinions on specific albums to give you their equally semiannual reports on what's been the best/most hyped records of the year thus far, I've decided to lay off the classicist category of mention this time. Not that I won't be sharing with you my thoughts and designated thumbs-up on music over the past six months, but given I'm a man for detail (or at least I like to think myself as one), perhaps it's time I express such interests with a equally semiannual honors list of such. And if you've followed my writings over the course of this year, you'll notice that I'm quite partial to the genuinely pleasing album cover and sleeve for any given album. Whether that be artistic, illustrative, photographic, experimental, or just-plain left-field in delivery, an album cover can vastly generate assumptions on an album long before the needle lowers or track 1 has even started playing. And while there are some that can be perceived as unique to their own respected contexts, I present to you a select few that have appeased me thus far this year - some of which less likely than others, but all equally striking a visual chord with my curious eyes. So in no particular order...

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Photography: Neal Boenzi
Design: Ezra Coenig & Rostam Batmanglij

Following the signature name-at-its-centre photography that their debut and sophomore showcased, Vampire Weekend's third album offers a lot less designated and tightly constricted visuals than the evening house or 80's model said records provided. What we have instead is something that, as we come to learn, perfectly reflects Vampire's sound conceptually while at the same holds with it a sincere degree of cinematic scope. Taken in 1966 in New York City, the shot of a city-wide smog coating the island in a shifting fabric of industrial cloud, is indeed quite frown-inducing and sickening, especially to the most greenest of spectators. But the drama and the sheer scale of the visuals work well in playing to the US four-piece's almost-theatrical display of rich lyricism and sailing instrumentation throughout the album. And reminiscent of any 50's light-hearted drama the band seem to work so well in recreating sonically, the grainy, disposed perspective is both alien yet profoundly personal. A fitting description for the city that never sleeps and a band never prone to off-days.

Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
Illustration: Marcia Blaessle
Original Review 

Drawing without any real basis of factual or surveyed objects, can go either way when it comes to marveling at your own magnificent creation. You either love it for its wild imagination, or despise for its irrefutable lack of relation with anything [in the real World]. The cover to Trevor Powers' sophomore under the Youth Lagoon moniker, much like the album, is a vast sprawl of dazed hues and childish daydreaming, it's almost quite nostalgic in its likeliness to past experiences. The very swirling, free-flowing, abstractness of shape and form is completely free to do its own bidding, yet there's still that underlining motion and expressiveness that comes through amid the countless scenes and metaphysical locations being offered. Visually, it's the equivalent of a child's fantasy been free to pour out his/her thoughts instantaneously. But sensually, as mentioned in my review, it's the equivalent of pouring a full ice-crushed Tooty Fruity smoothie, gallons of fruit juice and countless fruit-flavoured, fruit-soured sweets/candies into your mouth, chewing them and simply frolicking in the overwhelming intensity of flavour and delight. This could in a sense be the tastiest and fruitiest inducing of imagery so far - GLUG GLUG GLUG, OM NOM NOM a plenty.

The Haxan Cloak - Excavation
Photography: Cody Cobb
Design: DR.ME
Original Review 

The first word that came to my mind when I saw this image was depth. Not conceptual depth, or textural depth. Nothing musical, but oceanic depth instead. Oceanic as in bottom-of-the-ocean abyss where light can't penetrate and God knows what lurks within it. Yes, oceanic depth: an area we simple humans could never single-handedly be capable of reaching just casually swim down to for a simple mooch about. It's perhaps awkward that I conjure the concept of risk of death (either by increased pressure underwater or perhaps something far more hideous and visually nightmarish) and my/our eye is torn towards what looks like a noose of sorts - seemingly floating about this darkly, hostile ambiance as if it were a part of the local flora or fauna. But Tri-Angle it seems continue to pave a brief-but-bold reputation in giving their artist's albums a simple-and-effective visual identity. And here, The Haxan Cloak's debut for the UK-based label, Excavaton, is no exception. Like the album, the image concocts feelings of mystery, speculation, confusion...and eventually (at least from how I read the imagery) shock at just how blunt and disparate Cloak's sound is in its portrayal. Soon, the dark-grey close-focus stillness of the imagery starts to make more sense. And as we sink ourselves deeper into the record's music, the themes of the sleeve soon come to play within the album's own subject matter: there is no after-life; there is only an impending abyss.

Eluvium - Nightmare Ending
Artwork: Jeannie Lynn Paske
Design: Jeremy DeVine

If you've been following the work of Oregon-based artist Jeannie Lynn Paske, or perhaps been more in touch with the [musical] releases of her husband Matthew Cooper under the Eluvium name - subsequently both portfolios been followed as a result - you'll know that Paske is to Eluvium's identity, as Stanley Donwood is to Radiohead's. Unlike the latter though, Paske's art has been fairly content and humble; humane figures cast amidst a spring-turn-summer ambiance of floral yellows, natural greens and weightless pale tones perfectly capturing Eluvium's take on instrumental ambient music. It's no surprise that I take to the cover to 2013's Nightmare Ending with both a sense of shock, and a concerning level of discomfort. Paske's watercolor-esque, translucent artstyle takes on an even gruesomer shade this time; familar drizzly hazes of pale browns, yellows and greys a mere spacious void amidst a tangled web of bloody reds and dismal blacks. Are those bones or horns sticking out of the piles?  Is that flesh that's a deep red, or are they (more hopeful but never any less concerning) blood stains?! What kind of person/thing would just leave these careless lofts of bodily mass in this manner? A shock-value image certainly, but given what we've been used to, Paske's visual identity for an album that (from the title) appears to allude to a ceasing of horrific imagery, adds an even grimaced mystery and anxiety to an album not conclusively darker or deeper in detail, but still manages to suggest (but never clarify) this more troubled and gruesome back-story.

Suede - Bloodsports
Photography: Anuschka Bloomers & Niels Schumm

To look at Suede's album covers is like retelling the tragedy of one more broken love: the self-titled embrace of naked lovers; Dog Man Star's morning-after failure at recollecting what (as in how grand a scale) the two got up the night before; Coming Up's match made in heaven of loud atire and conscious egocentricity; Headmusic's psychadelic-esque splotching of identity and struggle to meet one anothers' interest. And here, with Bloodsports (let's face it, while not on an artistic level, I'm sure plenty of neutrals will find themselves forgetting A New Morning actually happened), that naive, young-love romanticism comes to a hefty, striking and quite violent end. It's here that Bloodsport's image - as much its title - reflects that change in a simple, but powerful expression of action. Once lovers now stand (or lay rather) relegated to faceless, brutal, almost animal-like shells of their former selves; the freeze-frame of this domestic incident finding the female yin attacking her once male yang counterpart possibly out of frustration...or perhaps worse, out of sheer desperation. And for an album that is full of links to subjects on the decline of a relationship, the troubles between both parties and the eventual fall-out/lashing-out, this is an image that details a lot, but in its simplicity, worryingly leaves the onlooker on tender hooks as to how dire this scene will evolve into. The irony then, conceptually, is that while the album title flicks and curls its way breadth ways in the same way Coming Up's lettering did, the deep red tone and the more signatory, focused quality feels but a mere sorrowful reminder as to the once happy and content romance this broken relationship once stood as reflecting.

Gold Panda - Half Of Where You Live
Artwork: Andy Gilmore
 
For anyone who snatched a copy, or even pondered a view, while listening to Africa Hitech's 2011 LP 93 Million Miles, you're likely already used to seeing Andy Gilmore's geometric abstractions that enthrall the eye and too stretch it to the brim with its vast, block-colour patterns. These are the images however that feel evermore detailed and reasoned, maybe not on a conventional level, but more a contextually tense one. Gold Panda's sophomore this year sees the producer exploring more geographic and natural surroundings, and bizarrely, Gilmore's art gives that intention an even deeper and engaging edge in its visuals. Look at this imagery as a thumbnail and you'll pick out three maybe four prime colours used in the design. But as you do with Panda's sound, take a deeper surveillance and you'll find the image - much like the music - stands as a vast trove of spectral colour carrying in multiple paths and narrowed lines like a city network alive with activity. And this is exactly the kind of vibe and theme Panda aims to achieve. What starts as a brief snapshot of cultural associations and typical scenery, pans closer and closer in to what is a much more gorgeous detailing of buzz and activity that makes not only the Englishman's music so lively, but too plays well to the cover art's rich and figurative display of arranged colour.

Other Honorable Mentions:
Biffy Clyro - Opposites
Editors - The Weight Of Your Love
Lapalux - Nostalchic
Mitzi - Truly Alive
~Jordan

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