What makes a perfect album cover? Sure, there’s aesthetic and artistic appeal, but in the case of album art, there’s something more. Great album art reflects the character of the music within, whether it’s preparing you for the music you’re about to listen to, or on the other hand, perhaps only reaching its true meaning once the final track has elapsed. It’s by no coincidence that you rarely see a great album with an awful piece of cover art – visual arts and the album format are fundamentally intertwined, and the it’s the best artists that take that to heart when crafting their album experience.
But whether it’s by virtue of the great music contained within, or maybe even vice versa, the following twenty albums form a gallery of the year’s most striking and most innovative pieces of album artwork – and they’re all worth a listen too.
20. Wiley, Godfather
Where other musicians opt for stylised portraits or out of this world self portrayals, Wiley, like his music, is straight to the point. Caught in a pseudo-candid studio shot, the Godfather of Grime announces his return, that slight social media touch reflecting grime’s renewed contemporary appeal.
19. Corbin, Mourn
Just like the moody, synth-laden alt-R&B strewn throughout this debut, the album cover finds an uneasy, low fidelity niche – there’s something warm and familiar about this forest scene, but between the gothic hip-hop typography and Smidzik’s menacing stance, Mourn’s artwork inspires a very certain sense of apprehension.
18. The xx, I See You
Fittingly, the xx’s third studio album continues their signature minimalist symbolism – but for the trio’s most in sync and focused record, I See You’s digital artwork abandons the reflective silver sheen of the physical edition and instead sees Romy, Oliver, and Jamie peer back at themselves, and one another.
17. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Despite the shadows and darkness, there’s a very real warmth about A Deeper Understanding’s art direction – not only does Adam Granduciel’s lonely studio pose pay tribute to his obvious influences in vintage heartland rock, but it paints a vivid portrait of the nostalgic Americana-gaze presented within.
16. alt-J, Relaxer
Inspired by digital artist Osamu Sato’s cult PlayStation game LSD, alt-J worked directly with the Japanese designer for their own appropriation of his surrealistic visuals; like the trio’s artsy folktronica, Relaxer’s artificial psychedelia focuses on those uneasy tensions between the synthetic and the real.
15. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Father John Misty never refuses a chance to play the cynic – whether behind the camera, or perhaps just out of the frame’s sight, it’s easy to understand Tillman’s weary worldliness through Pure Comedy’s cover art; an assortment of warped, cartoonish figures, all strewn about a gloomy horizon.
14. Washed Out, Mister Mellow
In abandoning much of the chillwave aesthetic, Ernest Greene seems to have discarded the genre’s hazy visual cues as well – this pastiche of past and present matches the album’s last minute sample collage perfectly.
13. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION
St. Vincent pulls no punches – like this album’s best moments, MASSEDUCTION’s art direction hits hard with its loud, hypersexual posturing, a clear reflection of the bombastic art pop that Annie Clark plays with throughout this project.
12. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Just like the Long Beach rapper’s bars, Big Fish Theory’s art direction is harsh and blunt – with a Yeezus style jewel case design and a grainy goldfish backdrop, the album’s low fidelity design sees Staples reconcile the realities of his upbringing with his eclectic, but minimalistic production choices.
11. IDLES, Brutalism
Between the odd post-Soviet portraiture and the photograph’s slight verdigris tint, IDLES’ art direction goes further than a simple nod to the architectural styling, but alludes to the haunting, dystopic landscapes of contemporary punk hidden within.
10. SZA, CTRL
In what’s perhaps an allusion to the myriad of past lovers that the St. Louis singer-songwriter discusses throughout this album, CTRL’s contrast of shattered computers and untamed greenery sees SZA sit unperturbed and triumphant, unconcerned with the past she leaves behind.
9. Jay-Z, 4:44
It’s only fitting that on what is likely Jay’s most raw and personal record, there’s no mafioso pose or gangster stance adorning the cover art; 4:44 is straight to the point, stunning in its minimalist simplicity, and in its elegance, readies audiences for the rapper’s newfound maturity and return to form.
8. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Drawing from Kanye’s The Life of Pablo in its fetishisation of wonky minimalism, the art direction for Kendrick’s fourth studio album is as striking and unique as always – the Parental Advisory sticker, ajar to the right; the plain red Times New Roman typography; even Lamar’s own despairing pose; it’s the perfect summation of DAMN’s musical direction.
7. Thundercat, Drunk
Thundercat’s absurd sense of humour extends even to his art direction – in a visual pun, the bass virtuoso appears, well and truly, drunk, an outlandish parody of classic funk and soul records. But matched with clean, contemporary design aesthetic, Brainfeeder’s visual homage adds a modern touch – a nice change from all those tributes that opt for a faux vintage appeal.
6. Xiu Xiu, FORGET
As always, the cover art for Xiu Xiu’s tenth studio album sees the experimental pop group breaking down boundaries through transgressive design – it’s the contrast between the pink Arabic lettering “We forget” and the blue backdrop that so expertly outlines the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, and the themes of sexual exploitation discussed throughout FORGET.
5. Sampha, Process
Almost as if in a waking dream, Sampha’s debut sees the British electronic soul artist expose himself through stark portraiture, confronting the audience directly from behind closed eyes amidst a colour palette as metallic as it is warm.
4. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
As a director, designer, rapper, and recording artist, the young Los Angeles polymath has always had a penchant for visual arts – but as good as Tyler’s alternative Scum Fuck Flower Boy packaging is, it’s painter Eric White’s work that captures this album best, portraying Tyler amidst a sea of flowers and a swarm of bees, the sunset palette perfectly encapsulating the tone of his hip hop exposé.
3. Fleet Foxes, Crack Up
It’s as if the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya was always destined for Fleet Foxes – it’s the painterly quality of this piece, especially amongst the cascading cliffs and crashing waves, that speaks so directly to the themes of nature and water that run throughout Crack-Up.
2. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
As bright and inviting as this album may appear at first glance, there’s a severe, but intended irony in this art direction – captured within a polaroid frame, Elverum cleans out his late wife’s studio, finding this lone postcard, a copy of beat poet Joanne Kyger’s Night Palace. In portraying this scene, Elverum, as much as he does through the album’s minimal folk requiems, finds final resolution.
1. Björk, Utopia
For the ninth time, Björk takes centre stage about her album cover, returning once again with a vivid portrait imbued with feminine sexuality – the Icelandic experimentalist’s art direction is as much as a statement as the music itself is, referencing both Utopia’s alien folktronica through otherworldly faerie flutes, and her dedication to female empowerment with a chromatic, vulvaic depiction of Björk herself.