Last night saw the winners of the Best Art Vinyl 2023 Award announced, with the sleeve design for PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album emerging victorious.
Reports of the death of vinyl appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Despite being superseded by everything from cassette tapes to mini discs, records continue to appeal to the public and have recently reached sales figures not seen since the 1990s.
It’s easy to see why. There’s something about the ritual of placing a record on a turntable and dropping the needle that the likes of Spotify and Apple Music can’t best. Another important component of records is their physical album sleeves, which have been recognised for the last 18 years with the Best Art Vinyl Award.
Organised by Memory Box UK, the Best Art Vinyl Award shortlists 50 nominees and asks an expert panel of artists, designers and music industry winners to crown a winner. For the 2023 prize, the judges selected artist and university professor Michelle Henning for her work on PJ Harvey’s album I Inside the Old Year Dying.
The artwork, which appears on PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album, is notable for its striking composition and the apparent simplicity of a branch casting a shadow on a beach. However, the final image is, in fact, the result of months of preparation, perfect weather conditions, and a combination of multiple images and techniques.
Michelle explains: “I suddenly realised that I didn’t need a whole forest; I just needed one stick, and such a simple single object would give it the feel of the classic album covers I admire. Now I realise an unconscious influence was Polly herself because she had chosen to use drawings she had made of single twigs (‘twiddicks’) to break up the sections in her poetry book Orlam.”
The debut studio album for US soul trio Gabriels, Angels& Queens took second place and features striking black and white concept photography taken by Melodie McDaniel. With an impressive portfolio of musician photography that includes the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Cat Power and Rhianna, to name but a few, it’s no surprise that her album cover achieved worthy recognition.
She said: “It felt appropriate to focus on lead singer Jacob Lusk, considering his fronting role in the band and his strong religious background. We contemplated using a church baptismal font or bathtub, but I was really drawn to the idea of having it outside. In my mind, I envisioned capturing a river baptism would be the most powerful and evoke the feelings and culture of the South.”
Meanwhile, third place went to Mat Maitland’s cover for Sub Focus’s fourth album, Evolve. Based around the image of a Nudibranch sea mollusc, it creates a lenticular LP format, which appears to animate and evolve as the viewer moves it in their hands.
To achieve this effect, Mat worked together five separate re-rendered images that were created through GAN machine learning technology. “Aesthetically, we didn’t want to just use straight documentary images of Nudibranchs, so we had some decisions about presenting the concept,” Mat reveals.
“I had been working on a personal project the previous year with digital artist Claudia Rafael and felt she would be a great collaborator in elevating how the forms were depicted. After collating a huge bank of imagery, we decided to remove any sense of environment, instead having them live in a void of darkness to elevate their impact but also remove any concept of scale…”
Regarding this year’s winners, Best Art Vinyl founder Andrew Heeps says that simplicity and thought-provoking concepts helped these record covers come out on top. “We have three very different designs, all of which deserve greater artistic scrutiny this year,” he says.
“While the winning album artwork for PJ Harvey and runner-up Gabriels focuses on the single iconic image with multiple conceptual layers, third place Sub Focus uses an evolving single image via a lenticular design. Each of these worthy winners brings levels of artistic complexity and techniques together to bring the music inside their beautiful packages to life.”
Want to see the three winning designs and the entire list of 50 nominations in person? You’re in luck. They’ll all appear as part of a striking art installation in the window of the Hari in London until 28 January.