The power of a good album cover can’t be overstated. It’s the first thing listeners see and remains present on all platforms, from vinyl to CDs to streams. More than that, It’s a chance for musicians to develop their persona visually in addition to their natural sonic development. Some musicians choose to do this by using artwork based on the same themes as the album, some use it to show the next step in their evolution as an artist.
What Beatles fan could forget the brilliant colors of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Not only did the psychedelic style perfectly complement the record, but Ian Inglis went so far as to say after the release of the record that album art was no longer, “a superfluous thing to be discarded during the act of listening, but an integral component of the listening that expanded the musical experience.”
The cover of Aladdin Sane featured David Bowie in his signature Ziggy Stardust character with a red and blue lightning bolt across his face, a look that has defined Bowie in the minds of many and inspired the style of listeners around the world.
In 1971, The Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers. Although the cover artwork didn’t ascend to the next level of pop culture fame, the band’s new tongue logo made its debut on the insert released with the vinyl. Nowadays I see this logo everywhere – on clothing, artwork on the internet, even neon signs on the wall.
What about Metallica? Arguably the biggest metal band of all time, Metallica is known for their high-octane thrash metal sound paired with iconic album covers like Ride the Lightning and Master Of Puppets. While that artwork continues to influence metal to this day, it took on a double life when celebrities like Kim Kardashian began including it in their wardrobe along with other rock and metal band iconography from groups like KISS and Iron Maiden.
This artwork is so iconic and timeless that Kylie and Kendall Jenner even appropriated it into their own clothing line, blending their likenesses and classic rock and metal artwork from bands like Metallica and Pink Floyd in 2017. Kanye West did something similar when debuting a new Yeezus logo in 2016, which was directly inspired by and based on Metallica’s own logo.
Regardless of the approach, cover art has the ability to significantly influence the general perception of an artist and their work. An attraction to good visuals is hardwired into us in so many different ways – we process visual information 60,000 times faster than text, 90% of the information transmitted to our brains is visual, we’ve used visual depictions to document and navigate centuries upon centuries of the human experience, and now with modern technology we create an unfathomable amount of images, graphics, videos, and other pieces of visual content that we all watch and engage with every single day.
Simply put, If an album’s art is good, it will give you some insight into the album you’re about to listen to and the artist as a whole. If it’s great, it will take on a life of its own, just like all these have.
With all these examples of great cover art from decades past, it sometimes feels like we missed out on a golden age of album art. Sure, we did miss out on the renaissance of cover art as we know it – but now we get to live in a world full of artists and designers who’ve learned from these iconic looks and can help artists visually brand themselves better than ever. So let’s take a look at some of the good (and not as good) cover art from the past year.
Brandon Banks by Maxo Kream
Maxo Kream’s songwriting is known for often focusing on his family’s troubled past. On Brandon Banks, Maxo draws many parallels between him and his father, exploring how growing up with a father going in and out of jail led him to the life he lives now. The juxtaposition of Maxo and his father’s face on the cover conveys this central theme clearly without any unecessary flair, while the aesthetic provided with the black and white color scheme and tape are fitting for the tone of the album.
Heavy Is The Head by Stormzy
Heavy Is The Head is Stormzy’s biggest release yet, and provides a very broad but thorough look into his life. As one of the biggest voices in grime and UK rap in general, the title of the record along with the crown on Stormzy’s head is a fitting visual metaphor for a lot of the record’s themes. In his hands he holds a stab-proof vest painted by the one and only Banksy. which serves as a representation of the state of the UK and Stormzy’s role as a key figure in modern British culture. This cover is both simple and brimming with underlying meaning.
Nothing Lasts, Nothing's Lost by Jakub Zytecki
Nothing Lasts, Nothing’s Lost is a dreamy, emotive record that sets Jakub Zytecki apart from his peers with its unique approach to songwriting and sampling. The artwork for the record perfectly captures the feel of the music – the pale red clouds blending with the deep teal background, the scratch marks and other simulated wear and tear on the cover, and the black and white photos fading in and out from one another. All of these visual motifs evoke the deep sense of peaceful nostalgia that is central in this album.
Flamagra by Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus can best be described as a mad scientist and a producer all in one. His newest record Flamagra is full of wild melodic passages and mind-bending production, creating a unique soundscape in which he puts his raw creativity on full display. The sheer organized chaos of the cover art is perfectly reflective of the record, and feels like taking a deeper look into the inner machinations of Flying Lotus’s mind in all their firey, absurd glory
Jesus Is King by Kanye West
Kanye West can get away with pretty much anything at this point – he’s made such a name for himself already that he doesn’t need to worry about groundbreaking album art. That shows on the cover for his newest album Jesus Is King, which depicts a plain blue LP with the name of the record and Kanye’s.
ASYLUM by A R I Z O N A
ASYLUM was my introduction to A R I Z O N A, and I really enjoyed the album. The rainbow gradient on the cover is fairly pretty and reflects some of the record’s sound, but it ultimately doesn’t really do anything. Like Jesus Is King, it’s not so much that anything was done wrong – it’s just that not enough was done right.
Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial by Roddy Ricch
Roddy Ricch made a huge splash with this album – particularly from all the attention his single “The Box” received. My main issue with this artwork is that it’s not really reflective of the album to me – the black and white look with Roddy’s serious expression isn’t what pops into my head at all when I think of the general sound of the record.
Born 2 Rap by The Game
Born 2 Rap is The Game’s self-proclaimed final album. While it received generally positive reviews, the artwork isn’t for me. The concept and implications of The Game surrounded by a bunch of pregnant women in his studio feels generally weird to say the least, in addition to the fact that it’s not really a great photo. Also, the logo/name placement reminds me of some of the worse parts of 90s and 2000s mixtape art.