2020 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our 25 Favorite Album Covers of the Year (and 10 of the worst)
25 PVRIS / Use Me
If you grew up in the CD age, you'll relate to this cover. I can't tell you how many times I've battled with these goddamned stickers that they put on CDs. Hours after opening a new CD, I discovered them on the bottom of my shoes, stuck to a shirt sleeve, or affixed to one of my dogs. PVRIS's Lynn Gunn looks positively nonplussed on the cover of her new album, as if she's equally frustrated with her plight. Perhaps she just cracked off one of the plastic hinges from the CD jewel box of her own record. That would really add insult to injury. I'd feel used, too.
24 KELLY LEE OWENS / Inner Song
Great photography captures the essence of a subject in just one isolated microsecond in time. Here, that moment miraculously finds Kelly completely calm and in full motion simultaneously. It's almost as if Kelly's head is capable of spinning independently from within her loose-collared pullover to create a dizzying effect while still retaining an almost Zen-like focus. It personifies what Kelly's music sounds like at its best. (I also like the understated placement and font of the title.)
23 THROWING MUSES / Sun Racket
The photo, which seems to be an alley or service road tucked behind a tropical paradise facade, appears to convey the idea that there is often a measure of ugliness behind even the most beautiful things. The album's title indicates as much. And the coral tint used throughout—along with its partner in crime, seafoam green, the default hues of island life interior design—almost makes the human intrusion on nature forgivable.
22 THE CHATS / High Risk Behaviour
Sure, great album covers can result from brilliant graphic design, inspired artistic talent, and/or an ingenious concept, but in the end the cover should serve its content. So, when this snarky Australian punk band needed a cover, it made sense that the canvas be no more sophisticated than what a high school sophomore might doodle on the back of a spiral notebook during Intro to Chemistry. And from the timeless blend of bass, drums, and guitar comes the big bang behind rock and roll's very creation.
21 LORI MCKENNA / The Balladeer
If you're a singer/songwriter—and there are few better than Lori McKenna—your milieu is a bare stage and your only accompaniment is often an acoustic guitar and possibly a lone spotlight (if you're lucky). That simplicity, and the scary level of vulnerability that must come with it, is perfectly reflected in this cover, a throwback to a long gone era (1950s country and rock and roll) in a warm and calming orange and brown package.
20 NICK FINZER / Cast of Characters
American trombonist Nick Finzer's new album is an homage to six major influences on his life, not all of them musical (or so I have inferred). The bottom middle is clearly Duke Ellington (confirmed by a corresponding song title), top middle is apparently Brutus (of Julius Caesar legend), and could bottom right possibly be Adam Driver? (There would be worse choices, just ask John Oliver.) Their true unrevealed identities aren't really the point, however, but it's a curious diversion nonetheless. What makes this cover so appealing is the original artwork from graphic designer Laura Reyero, who turns each influence into a pleasing angular figure set inside a wall of colorful geometric shapes. I was intrigued enough to investigate his music further, which confirms the success of the design all by itself. Perhaps a corresponding board game is in order? Clue could use a hip, contemporary reboot (Mr. Brutus. In the colosseum. With the trombone.)
19 OLD 97'S / Twelfth
If you're from Texas, the number 12 conjures fond remembrance of Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame quarterback, Vietnam veteran, and Rolaids spokesman, Roger Staubach. He's one of the most beloved athletes of all time in any sport, and his mere presence continues to inspire to this very day. So when Dallas's also, but not equally, beloved Americana band Old 97's miraculously made it to their twelfth studio record, the cover choice had to be as effortless as a fourth quarter TD pass from "Captain Comeback" himself. Hence, we have this iconic photo of "Roger the Dodger" in action, seemingly floating on air prior to hitting a streaking Drew Pearson for the game winner (writer's embellishment). Not lost: the band name and album title with matching Cowboys color palette.
18 MAGIK MARKERS / 2020
I'm not quite sure what Connecticut noise-rockers Magik Markers were trying to convey with this cover, but it's beautifully rendered nonetheless, featuring the band members in old-fashioned pajamas jauntily playing rugby (or tossing around a loaf of hot rye bread) in an orchard clearing. What kind of music would you expect if you bought this record, sound unheard? The answer is certainly not what they really sound like, but this isn't the first ironic album cover and it won't be the last.
17 CHUBBY AND THE GANG / Speed Kills
This Disney / R.Crumb hybrid color blast by an artist who goes by the name of Spoiler perfectly reflects the riotous, debauched punk rock of London's Chubby and the Gang. It positively begs you to buy a vinyl copy so you can peruse the cover while you listen. I can guarantee you that you will not be done eyeballing it before the band's 26-minute record races recklessly to a close. Extra credit for having the paper boy's newspaper headline proclaim the album's title, Speed Kills.
16 LARAAJI / Sun Piano
Ed Gordon was a zither player busking in NYC's Washington Square Park until he was discovered by Brian Eno in the early 80s. Few scenarios sound more unlikely to these ears. But soon he changed his name to Laraaji and started channeling inspiration from Eastern mysticism (prominently featured on Eno's Ambient 3 album). Eno has that effect on everybody, just ask David Byrne and pretty much anyone else who has traveled into his orbit. I imagine his housekeeper probably changed her name and took up the hammer dulcimer at some point, as well. That pronounced Eastern influence is still at play here in his album art, with the sun erasing the division between indoors and outdoors, creating an expansive and gorgeous, albeit smoking hot, atmosphere for his otherworldly divinations.
15 UMBRA VITAE / Shadow of Life
I always appreciate a metal band that doesn't use the usual tired cover images (corpses, skeletons, monsters, stillborn babies, decapitations, and the obligatory jagged, indecipherable lettering). Umbra Vitae (a dream team made up of ex-members of Blood from the Soul, Wear Your Wounds, Twitching Tongues, and Uncle Acid) manage to avert all the usual tropes here with a pretty neat piece of graphic animation. It's like a jumble of fiberoptic cables or a haystack coming to life, which is cool or scary depending on your perspective. They should've gone simple with the band name and album title, however, but that's a minor quibble.
14 TIM BERNE'S SNAKEOIL / The Fantastic Mrs. 10
I've spent some time mulling over my attraction to this cover. From any conventional perspective, it's a mess. But to a mind that thrives on ambiguity, it succeeds because of its chaotic overlap of elements. Like many of their contemporaries, Tim Berne's Snakeoil play a combination of compositional and improvisational jazz. Some of it is planned, some of it isn't. That merger of organized and disorganized expression is expertly mirrored here. But why put all the consonants in black and all the vowels in red, with the exception of one single solitary "R"? Perhaps only The Fantastic Mrs. 10 knows for sure.
13 SPAZA / Uprize!
This is the soundtrack to the documentary film Uprize! about an apartheid revolt from 1976 in South Africa (I'm greatly simplifying it since I'm only speaking of the album cover, but I encourage you to delve deeper on your own time). The music was created by a constantly morphing group of musicians going by the name SPAZA. There's no photographer credit for this cover photo, but it captures a triumphant moment in a long struggle and the expressions of joy shown here seem to be those reserved for moments when something really matters. We could've used more of this in 2020, but we eventually got a taste of it late in the year.
12 WOJTEK MAZOLEWSKI / When Angels Fall
The badass tattooed musician is normally the realm of rock and rollers, but here we see Polish bassist Wojtek Mazolewski bringing a little rebellion to the format. If anything, the original jazz musicians were much cooler than most rock stars anyway, so it makes sense. Bringing a rock and roll attitude to jazz may ruffle some cosmopolitan feathers (his main band is cheekily named Pink Freud), but anything that expands the fan base helps everybody, doesn't it?
11 THE FLAMING LIPS / American Head
I could've told you that giving the Flaming Lips paint guns would backfire, but you wouldn't listen. In the end, we get a strangely appealing album cover so it wasn't a total farce. The contrast between the black & white photo and the splashes of color (multiple shots right in the face!) almost made me buckle and buy another Flaming Lips album. Almost.
10 THE MAVERICKS / En Español
I have to admit that, for me, Day of the Dead imagery is getting a little tired. It's everywhere these days. No disrespect to the sacred holiday itself. But from within even the most oversaturated art form can come originality. In this case, the artist breathing new life into the form is Denver's Dolan Geiman. One of his mixed media masterpieces graces the cover of the amazing new Mavericks album, En Español. His work fuses custom cut tin pieces and fuses them onto a wood background to stunning effect, as seen here. I want one so bad, but they don't come cheap.
9 ALGIERS / "There is No Year"
This cover adapts design elements you might commonly associate with late-50s/1960s jazz albums and incorporates them here. We find the band's name tumbling down "stairs" built from a photo and some newsprint. The terrifying photo is from 9/11, I presume (or at least evokes that moment); the text is taken from a poem by bandleader James Franklin Fisher that fuels the lyrical content for the entire album. If you read the fine print (a chore, but worth it), you'll discover intriguing passages like this one: There's a man made of skin and hair and nightmare designs / His spleen stains the papers, his sex splits the headlines / He only lives through infection, strapped 'cross a waterbed / Kept alive by ad men and the alchemists. It's, uh, heady stuff. The collective visual, however, comes off like a newspaper mock-up in an anti-gravity chamber. The title, with its bold coloring, is almost ominous in retrospect when considering the fate of 2020.
8 SAM LEE / Old Wow
The closer you look at this cover the more you will appreciate the intricacy of its etchings. The cover is a perfect match for English singer Sam Lee's traditional folk music as well. Yes, it would've been funny if he actually played Swedish death metal, but alas, not the case; just pure and natural music from another time and another place. If you have kids, hand them your vinyl copy (the only option for such an album) and have them find all the living creatures scattered throughout the cover. I'm somewhere in the 18 range so far.
7 GUIDED BY VOICES / Mirrored Aztec
Guided By Voices is not known for their great album covers (Jellyfish Reflector excepted). Devotees may disagree, but I've never found Bob's design aesthetic particularly interesting. As I was debating whether or not to purchase yet another GBV album (as I always do, usually buckling in the end) I honestly made the decision to snag a vinyl copy of Mirrored Aztec exclusively based on the album cover alone as a reward for the effort expended this time out. It's got plenty of my favorite colors (orange/purple) and has a distinct Native American psych vibe. Could this be a move to more appealing cover art from the band? Perhaps so, especially based on his next album, Styles We Paid For (out December 11th), which is also excellent. A positive new development for the Rock Bobster and we applaud him for it!
6 BUTCHER BROWN / #KingButch
The claim to fame of this album cover is that it was designed by Lou Beach, a guy who has designed all kinds of stupid album covers over the years (search his website to peruse his portfolio for more gems like Godley & Creme's Snack Attack, pictured). He's most noted for designing the cover of Weather Report's massive hit album Heavy Weather, which is, in reality, yet another ugly ass cover by an overused artist (one person's opinion, of course). Every once in a while, however, he hits on something that works (like The Neville Brothers Fiyo on the Bayou) and lo and behold he may have saved his best work for 2020. It's colorful, whimsical, and strange in all the right ways and complements the richly eclectic sound of Butcher Brown's music. Mission accomplished.
5 GANSER / Just Look at That Sky
Simple and bold is never a bad way to go. That's the formula they used when they made the Pickled Priest and that's the recipe used here by Chicago's up-and-coming post-punkers, Ganser, whose excellent Just Look at That Sky came out this year. Nadia Garofalo is a cool customer and the choice to focus on that fact for this stark black and yellow cover is immediately striking. The reflection in her glasses is also a clever way to evoke the album title. But note to band: If your logo is a G in a box, some may interpret it to be the opposite of a Parental Advisory Warning. Cutting-edge G-rated material enclosed! Bring the kids!
4 GREGG AUGUST / Dialogues on Race, Volume One
A great album cover can perfectly reflect the times from which it was created and Gregg August's Dialogues on Race is one such album. With great simplicity, black quotes open the dialogue and white quotes close the dialogue. What happens between the quotes is what matters now.
3 KELEKETLA! / Keleketla!
A record created in Africa by a collective of local voices and musicians (with the help of legendary English DJ duo, Coldcut), the album, and its cover, exudes the joy of making music. In this case, the message is simple: the sum of a community exceeds the value of its individuals. The result is one of the year's most original, diverse, and important albums. The cover was created by my new favorite artist, the stunningly talented Lisolomzi Pikoli. Search his name and check out his other work, which is equally amazing. He has conveyed the magical power of community here in glorious fashion.
2 JOHANNA WARREN / Chaotic Good
The decision to rotate this cover image on its axis was ingenious. That said, it would've made this list right-side-up or upside-down, but altering the perspective makes the eye train on the photo for a few beats longer. Those extra beats are just enough time to absorb the beauty of the subject, the emotion on her face, her body language, her elegant clothing, her reflection in the polished wood floor, and, strangely, what looks to be padded walls surrounding her. It's likely just a mattress on its side, but it's amazing how a simple photo can evoke myriad responses, some nuanced, some powerful, some mysterious. There's no intrusion from fonts or letters either. Nothing else is needed; just the photo. It tells you everything you need to know, but not everything you want to know. Perhaps the rest of the story will come from the music. And that's what a great album cover can do.
1 JIMIN LEE / Strange Flower
Korean jazz artist Jimin Lee was not on my radar until I saw this cover, to be honest. But I know I'm in the presence of a great cover when I immediately seek out not only everything there is to know about the musician, but also anything I can find out about the artist behind the design. Predictably, there's more information on the former than there is for the latter. The music is beautiful, poetic, experimental, and fragile; I like it. The cover, designed by Mingoo Roh—and I can find no other information or work by said individual—is absolutely striking. A visual feast for your eyes. If you put your nose up to it, you can imagine how it smells. If a print could be had, I'd have one on my wall already. From the black and white ink face to the contrasting floral headpiece to the appealing lettering, this cover is perfect. A work of art.
DA BABY / Blame It On Baby
File under: Credit where credit is due. Recorded post-pandemic in April, this is a not-so-subtle message to all anti-maskers from a guy who got it right from the start. He was way ahead of his time as well, donning a mask well before it was highly recommended and often mandated. And if a mask is good enough for Da Baby, it's good enough for you. So strap one on.
AND NOW, WE PRESENT, REGRETTABLY, OUR 10 WORST COVERS OF 2O2O
In this case, we're only choosing album covers by artists of some notoriety. In other words, artists who should've known better.
10 JARV IS... / Beyond the Pale
I didn't think something could irritate me nearly as much as Jarvis Cocker's new band name (inexcusably stupid) until I laid eyes on this lazy-ass cover for their first album. And I've taken dumps that formed letters better than this font.
9 BOB DYLAN / Rough and Rowdy Ways
Let's face it, Bob has given zero fucks about album art since he stumbled into the 70s with the abysmal Self Portrait artwork under his arm. This truck stop 8-track tape cover joins such design abortions as Good As I Been to You, Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, Saved, Infidels, and New Morning, to just scratch the surface. Considering the cascade of images Bob unleashes over the course of his modern "masterpiece," this is a cover most foul.
8 COUNTRY WESTERNS / Country Westerns
"Let's do every fucking thing possible to make sure no one listens to our music" should not be an aspiring rock & roll band's mission statement. Country Westerns is actually a pretty damn good bar band with a scrappy lead singer who can also write killer songs. So to capitalize on that fact, they opted to confuse people by calling their Nashville-based band Country Westerns when they don't play country & western music at all and then slapping a nondescript, meaningless nature scene on the cover of their debut record, which tells us fucking nothing at all other than the band has bad judgement and a penchant for self sabotage.
7 BRANDY CLARK / Your Life is a Record
I hear what you're saying; there are surely plenty of record covers from this year that are much worse than this one. Maybe you even like it. Sure, we could make fun of a bunch of lame bands with dubious decision-making skills for this entire list (hold that thought), but for me, the real offending album covers are also the laziest; the ones released by notable artists who should know better—artists with enough creative common sense to reject a lame concept when they hear it. So I'm a little irritated with Brandy for hearing the pitch for this cover and buying into it: "We're going to dress you up in a leather jacket and black bellbottom stretch pants so you look super cool, then we're going to drag that old jukebox over there out to the mountains where you never see a jukebox usually (production reminder: rent generator) and have you stand in front of it. What Brandy should've said that she didn't is "Next idea, please."
6 CAR SEAT HEADREST / Making a Door Less Open
I shouldn't be surprised that a band named Car Seat Headrest would have an inset painting of a folding chair arbitrarily placed on their album cover, should I? And I'm not really. Which doesn't make its blatantly intentional randomness any more tolerable. It's a good thing you rock, Mr. Toledo, otherwise we might be whacking you in the back with your own folding chair like a professional wrestler.
5 DJANGO BATES / Tenacity
You don't see a lot of novelty covers used in the overly serious jazz milieu and there's a very good reason for that.
4 LAUV / How I'm Feeling
Honey, I shrunk the clones. And one of them now has a full head of black hair for some reason. Somewhere a graphic designer, fresh from a lengthy Photoshop session, is floating face down in the water beneath a high bridge after realizing their portfolio is forever tainted by this bizarre, ill-fated construction.
3 LEYA / Flood Dream
The Sound of Music cast party got out of hand again, and of course, the lovely Gretl was the only one sober enough to stop shit-faced Freidrich from swallowing his own tongue. A few of his favorite things: booze, drugs, and more drugs.
2 EARTHEATER / Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin
Is she getting her vagina welded shut? Is that even a thing? I guess once you get twin back-of-the-thigh horse tattoos, anything goes. And those bat-sized wings don't seem capable of getting this exotic lady with the tennis ball braids into the air even with a significant, Phoenix-rising updraft.
1 ANVIL / Legal at Last
Anvil may be the most consistent band in rock history when it comes to album art and album titles, but that doesn't mean it's a good quality. For eighteen straight albums they've feature an actual anvil on the cover of their albums in all kinds of ludicrous scenarios. They also title all their albums with a similar naming convention, with the first and third word always using the same letter (Forged in Fire, Plenty of Power, Juggernaut of Justice, Absolutely No Alternative, you get the idea). To date, pretty harmless, ham-fisted shenanigans from a decent metal band who made their name mostly from the Spinal Tap-esque documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil that has since become a cult favorite. But this time, perhaps they've gone a bit too far. The most tolerable offense is the anvil bong being smoked by the angel. While even the craftiest stoner could never hollow out an anvil and make a functional bong out of it, the ingenuity of desperate potheads everywhere is undeniable, so why not? It's actually somewhat funny, the more you think about it. And now that weed is becoming legalized everywhere, why not celebrate that fact on an album cover? It makes perfect sense. So what's the problem, then? This is where the angel comes in to the picture. Could it be a coincidence that a young, beautiful, nubile is on the cover of an album titled Legal at Last? Wasn't the legalization of weed enough for these rockers? Why did they have to give the title a creepy, lecherous, double-meaning? If you've seen the members of this band, some of the ugliest, smarmiest-looking dudes in rock history, imagining them impatiently waiting for a young girl to cross the threshold into "legal" womanhood is simply too much for my mind to tolerate. Or to put it in terms to which Anvil can relate: Intolerable and Imbecilic.
STILL CAN'T DECIDE...
SHITKID / Duo Limbo
As long as Gene Simmons doesn't stumble into their trailer park, I'm all good with this decidedly skanky cover. After all, I dressed up as Peter Criss for two consecutive Halloweens in the late 70s, so who am I to judge? I think I used the same makeup artist as these ladies, too.
NZCA LINES / Pure Luxury
I was prepared to put this on my worst covers list at first glance, but then I realized its subversive messaging and gave it a pass.
AND, SLIGHTLY OFF CAMERA AT THE TAYLOR SWIFT FOLKLORE COVER SHOOT...
IRAE / Lurking in the Depths
We've always known that Taylor Swift is a closet Satanic cult leader (at least that's what my pals at QAnon tell me) and this is proof. Wherever she goes, her blood drinking attache and personal occultists, Irae, aren't far behind. But I'm sure Tay Tay was more than pissed that they used the same location for their new record's cover shoot.
AND HERE'S THE OFFICIAL END OF THIS YEAR'S ALBUM ART SPOTLIGHT
OSEES / Panther Rotate
Fittingly, the final new record of the Pickled Priest's year belongs to our beloved Osees. But we could've done without the hot pink asshole/silver ballsack combo, to be honest.