In the last couple of years, we asked friends and designers we admire to put together a selection of their favourite record sleeves. Previous editions were curated by Stuart Hammersley (Give Up Art), Nitzan Hermon (Edit, Fineart) or Colectivo Futuro, but this year we were a bit hesitant seeking out a curator. We are most honoured that Manuel Sepulveda (aka Optigram) was interested and availaible on such short notice. Known for his countless designs for Hyperdub and more recently Planet Mu and Bleep, Manuel build up an impressive body of work in the last couple of years, regularly ending up in many best-of selections himself. But let’s hear (and see) it from the man himself.
I’m glad I was asked to make this list as it made me do a bit of extra research into what had been produced this year – I found about half a dozen great sleeves that I’d never seen before. Once I’d finished putting this list together it was nice to see that good covers were coming from a variety of different media still, be it photography (straight, manipulated and collage), illustration (traditional media and computer-assisted), 3D computer renders (realistic and surrealistic), or just straight-up graphics.
I’ve seen a few “best sleeves of the year” lists recently on some music sites and they seem to be focused around albums that have gotten good reviews; there seems to have been an inability to separate good music from the sleeve it comes in, with some terrible sleeves being lauded just because the album was great, and conversely some great sleeves getting overlooked because the album got a poor review. With the exception of seven of the albums I actually have no idea what the music even sounds like from the following list, and of those seven I only like four of them. These are simply covers that I thought were interesting and well executed.
One other thing, I’m not particularly interested in packaging, so even though there were some albums which had great packaging design (like Cave Painting’s Votive Life) they haven’t made this list. I believe that a strong image is by far the most important thing. Clever printing and fancy folding bits of paper just don’t move me.
Sakanaction – Yoru no Odoriko (Victor Music)
Anyone interested in cover design should remember to look beyond European and American releases. It’s obviously much harder to come across great design from Japan or Brazil or wherever if the albums aren’t getting reviewed by the English-speaking press, but it can be worth it.
Madegg – Tempera (flau)
Ital – Hive Mind (Planet Mu)
Artwork by Sam Chirnside
CFCF – Exercises (Paper Bag)
Photography by Ken Schwarz
The XX – Coexist (Young Turks)
Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio (Blue Note)
The headshot is a common staple of the album cover, but they can be really uninteresting, so I think it’s important (if possible) to try and do something unusual with it. Artwork by Giuliyani.
Young Magic – Melt (Carpark Records)
Artwork by Leif Podhajsky
Lorn – Ask the Dust (Ninja Tune)
Artwork by Jesse Auersalo
DVA – Pretty Ugly (Hyperdub)
I did a few album sleeves this year, and even though I’m pleased with most of them, particularly the albums by LV and Traxman, and Lion by Harmonic 313, I think the best cover I did was probably released at the start of the year. Artwork by Optigram.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Aftermath Entertainment)
Sometimes an uncrafted image just works perfectly.
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (Modern Love)
If I didn’t know any better I’d have said this was a cover for an indie band from the 80s, like The Smiths. Photography by Otto Bettmann.
Django Django – Django Django (Because Music)
Artwork possibly by Dave Maclean
Horseback – Half Blood (Relapse Records)
I find it hard to specifically make out what this is a drawing of, and maybe that’s why it appeals to me so much – the mystery of the macabre. Artwork by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.
Lone – Galaxy Garden (R&S)
Artwork by Konx-Om-Pax
Jam City – Classical Curves (Night Slugs)
The Darkness – Hot Cakes (Wind-Up)
I know it’s cheesy and a bit sexist but that’s obviously the point, and the painter did it well. It’s also worth pointing out how serious most cover design is (and has been for several years) so it’s good to occasionally see humour in album design. It’s just a shame that humour seems to only be seen on rock albums these days – I can’t remember the last electronic/dance cover that made me laugh. Painting by Diego Gravinese.
Laurel Halo – Quarantine (Hyperdub)
What am I saying, this one was funny too. I’m not being immodest and putting a second sleeve of mine in this list – although I put this together, it was a painting by Makoto Aida that Laurel herself chose. I was just the hired help.
Spoek Mathambo – Father Creeper (Sub Pop)
Robot Koch – Cosmic Waves (Project: Mooncircle)
Artwork by Fefe Talavera
The Rolling Stones – GRRR! (ABKCO)
If you want to find out a bit more about Optigram, make sure to visit the website or browse the discography. Manuel’s personal work recently got its own website, Werk (Not Work), and a Twitter account.
Unlike last year, I kept some of my favourite artworks of last year in a special folder. I will present my selection in a post coming next week.