Gradient Applauds // Minimalist Album Covers
‘And when I’m standing in this mirror after all these years/What I’m viewing is a little different/From what your eyes show you/I guess I didn’t see myself before you’ Superpower – Beyonce (ft Frank Ocean)
Musicians are seeing themselves in a new light and demanding to be taken seriously as album artists. How? By streamlining their branding, and making better music, which helps!
Everyone and his mother has said that new ways of downloading and streaming music are killing the album. Some musicians are actively combating this defeatist attitude and packaging their products in minimalist ways to highlight the music, rather than focusing on looks and getting people to approve of their hair/boobs/muscles/legs/clothes before listening.
Interpreting and visualising music using images is no easy task; it is also really subjective. It must be even harder for musicians to pick one image, visual, colour, piece of text, or word to define their latest album. Choosing a striking image or graphic is the most common option however a string of artists are going super minimalist and using just colour and text and I applaud their bold statements. All this bare bones styling would come across as shallow and pretentious if the music was rubbish. However, it appears that when a musician goes minimalist, their music follows suit and is elevated by this impeccable focus.
Take the Knowles sisters, Solange and Beyonce (Have you heard of her? Apparently, she is somewhat talented!). Solange took the lead in 2013 with an EP of music that positioned and delivered herself as the queen of the indie r’n’b revival. Before this reinvention, she was always just the lesser known, not quite so talented sister to a pop megastar. Just look at the difference between her SO 2008 album cover for the clumsily titled Sol-angel & The Hadley St Dreams and her bold and very red cover for True.
At the tail end of 2013, Beyonce one-upped her sister and released a self-titled fifth album with bold pale pink text over a black background. For a visual album, this is not very visual but it represented ‘yonce (as we are now all required to call her) taking control, talking about change and letting the music and accompanying videos speak for themselves.
Kanye West has always been pretty focused and had a grip on his sometimes out of control branding and image. This contradiction has always made West an interesting character to follow, however he’s never really gone for minimalism. There were stripped bare songs on his epic last album but no one was prepared for the uber-minimalism of Kanye’s latest album. Its bare bones production, honesty and brutalism were striking and controversial, even by his standards! Couple this with the instantly iconic no-cover album cover and we saw West at his most artistic and powerful.
It’s not all about change though and in the last two years, we have seen more and more new-comers using minimalist and focused branding to make the industry and listeners take them seriously from the beginning.
From their very first haunting guitar lick, The xx have been branding themselves as the understated, moody, no frills band their music and on-stage non-presence suggests. I’m going to be honest and say that their simple X album covers were an inspiration for our scaled back G logo. I doubt they’d be uncool enough to admit it but from day one in 2008, they knew how important branding and imagery was in making them shareable, stand out from the crowed and instantly recognisable. Deafheaven captured a similar but more expressive version of minimalism by modelling the cover for their 2013 second album on the colour and tone of the inside of your eyelids when staring at the sun. The album was appropriately titled Sunbather and the title text is reduced to lines and shapes, on the cusp of being meaningless.
2012 was all about Frank Ocean. He came in like a wrecking a ball (I hate myself for that!) and dropped one of the most instantly lauded and impeccably realised debut albums of the internet age. Apparently Ocean is one of many artists with Synesthesia and he is drawn to the colour orange (check out that orange car on the cover for his introductory mixtape) as it was the colour he most closely perceived during the summer he first fell in love. In 2013 it was Lorde’s turn to appear to the music scene fully formed without a hint of exec tweaking. As literally EVERYONE keeps going on about (including conspiracy theory birthers – crazy!) she’s way too good for someone so young. True, the quality of her album and visual focus seem more sophisticated than her age suggests but Mozart was a court musician in Salzburg at the age of 17. That is the same as having a number one single, number one album and winning a Grammy, right!? Yes, I did just compare Lorde to Mozart. If Mozart had album covers, I’m pretty sure they’d be as awesome as Lorde’s Pure Heroin minimalist bold text.
Since I’m pretty sure I just lost all credibility and as this is an ongoing observation, I’ll end with a quote from the classic sitcom Frasier that kind of contradicts everything above.