2021 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our 25 Favorite Album Covers of the Year (and 10 of the Worst)
Cover art is the ultimate first impression. I admit I've purchased many albums in my lifetime based on a cool cover alone. What's the risk? If the music sucks, at least you've got something you can put in one of those stupid album cover frames they sell everywhere now that vinyl is considered hip again (until people realize one false move will result in your favorite song skipping in the same spot for eternity). Thankfully, I'm good at this. Most of time (~74%), my instincts prove accurate and the music inside is similarly excellent. I guess if an album meets my visual aesthetic, there's a decent chance we'll align musically as well. Funny how things work out. So, here are our favorite album covers of 2021 so far. No, we didn't see every album released this year, but we thumbed through our fair share and these are the best we've seen so far.
25 FAYE WEBSTER / I Know I'm Funny haha
She's young (24) and looks bored with you, but she's got depth and a subversive side as well, both qualities present in this simple sabotaged photograph. Initially her songs seem to unfold with a similar disinterested vibe, but they manage to hold your attention because there's something real there to latch on and relate to. There's also a sense of humor running close to the surface obviously. Sometimes on top of the surface.
24 PINO PALLADINO AND BLAKE MILLS / Notes With Attachments
Cold, artless, clinical, dour, and borderline corporate in its businesslike efficiency, there's still something strangely refreshing about a cover that just doesn't give a shit. This artistic masterpiece hearkens back to the days before the album cover was even invented. Back then, they told you what you needed to know and little else. And we liked it that way. The economical approach in use here tracks with the album's title, which reduces music down to its most simplified elements. Excessively reductive yes, but inarguably accurate. I also delight in a specific line item being added for "Artwork and Design" (credited to adventurous jazz musician/producer Sam Gendel). "Artwork" is a definite stretch as there is no artwork to be found anywhere on the cover, the back cover, or anywhere else inside the LP's packaging. And the extent of the "design" decisions seems to be limited to "justify left," "justify center" or "justify right" (wisely chosen in the end) and maybe a couple spacing decisions. The key thing to remember is that simplicity is art, too. And this is a good reminder of that principle.
23 LORAINE JAMES / Reflection
Back when my dad was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago he was given an assignment by his sculpture professor to "create a piece that is interesting from every angle." It sounds easier than it is, I assure you. But to this day, some 70 years later, that very sculpture sits on a shelf in my home, not just because my dad made it, but mainly because it accomplished its stated purpose. It's interesting to look at. Occasionally I rotate it in order to give equal time to each side as, by design, there's no preferred perspective. The cover of Loraine James' new album Reflection immediately reminded me of my dad's assignment. It's a fascinating creation, and even in 2D it manages to captivate. I really wish I could spin it around and take it in fully; I'd trace its curves with my index finger and spend time with each and every angle. I believe it's an exaggerated portrait of Ms. James, and based on her music, she too is interesting from every angle. The cover was done by Optigram, London-based designers who have regularly worked with influential British electronic label Hyperdub. Their motto is "Abstraction, camouflage, geometry, and science fiction" and that's a pretty cool foundation from which to build.
22 HOOVERIII / Water for the Frogs
Based on the cover alone, I doubt it will surprise anyone that Hooveriii (pronounced Hoover-three) are a prog-rock band. Prog-rock is responsible for some of the most fantasmagorical album artwork ever produced, which is fitting considering the grandiose, high-concept ideas typical of the genre. The artist responsible for this cover is San Diego-born Jesse Fillingham, who, based on his portfolio, has yet to produce a piece of art that wouldn't look amazing on an album cover someday. There's some deliriously whacked shit on his website that I encourage you to check out.
21 HEART ATTACK MAN / Thoughtz & Prayerz
The old dressing up as nuns gag is one of the oldest comedy (and porn) tropes in the book, as witnessed by the cult classic 1990 film, Nuns on the Run, starring none other than Monty Python comic genius Eric Idle. So, the joke isn't fresh in 2021, suffice it to say, but somehow I am still tickled black and white by this cover. Cleveland's Heart Attack Man, objectively a great band name as well, have struck just the right balance between absurdity and commitment on this cover by not overdoing the novelty. What makes the cover really work for me is the stark off-grey background which cleanly offsets the four penguins posed front-and-center. It looks like a bland once-white wall you might see in a Catholic school classroom or adjacent convent. The black hand-lettered band name and title also works thanks to a pleasing amount of surrounding white space. The title is a good one, too, appearing to comment on our society's tendency to react to all tragedies with "thoughts and prayers" and little in the way of tangible solutions. The Parental Advisory warning is especially delightful in context. Perhaps a swat across the knuckles with a yard stick is in order.
20 HOLLY KENNIFF / The Quiet Drift
A good cover should stand on its own. It's gravy if the image and the music have some sort of logical congruity, and that can certainly enhance the holistic experience, but covers should draw you into the music on their own merit first and foremost. I knew nothing of Holly Kenniff, a pretty noteworthy ambient artist in certain circles, but when I was first faced with the photo on the cover of The Quiet Drift it struck me immediately, like the best photos do. This shot is saturated with melancholy, mainly because the posture of the woman pathetically riding solo on a child's teacup ride. (Perhaps a child is present, but too small to be seen over the cup's edge, but I choose not to make that assumption.) Being sad at a carnival or amusement park only makes your predicament that much more pronounced, doesn't it? Here, we can assume she's spinning into her own private emotional orbit, a lonely heart contemplating her current plight.
19 MACH-HOMMY / Pray for Haiti
If you didn't know better, you might assume this is an actual Basquiat, but instead this is artist Noah Leigh's interpretation of the legendary neo-expressionist artist's 1981 work Untitled (Fisherman) which sold for $26M about nine years ago. It's a pretty damn effective tribute, with the only real tip-off coming via the bandana wrapped around the man's mouth—a Mach-Hommy trademark. That said, it's a pretty cool work despite it being adapted from a more prestigious artist.
18 ALLISON RUSSELL / Outside Child
Every decision made here is spot-on. It starts with a fabulous Marc Baptiste photograph which captures a confident and powerful Allison Russell in quiet repose. From there, the design elements are flawless. Allison Russell's name tucked inside her headpiece (first/last nicely split by five dots) is classic Blue Note, albeit modernized. Her psychedelic zebra turtleneck looks almost like a tattoo if you don't look too closely. The album name in lowercase surrounded by carets is understated as if to avoid being intrusive. The sun partially filtered by her head wrap is a brilliant and striking detail—the only color present—and seems to convey positivity emanating from this outstanding young artist. But perhaps my favorite part is the light DaVinci-esque geometric shape circling her face. It's a brilliant addition, adding even more intrigue to her image. It confirms what the music tells us—that this is the work of a complex and multi-dimensional artist and this is the representation she deserves.
17 NAKED RAYGUN / Over the Overlords
Naked Raygun has always valued visual art. They have one of the best band logos ever (simple, playful, edgy) and each of their albums have featured something for the eyes as well as the ears. From Throb Throb, where they enlisted comic book artist Mike Saenz, to Jettison, which was created by future uber-designer John Bergin (of Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, and The Walking Dead fame, among many others), they've been a reliable source for cool packaging. Their new comeback record, Over the Overlords, is no exception. In fact, it's easily the most elaborate artwork of the band's storied career. It was done by gifted Chicago designer Miguel "Ech" Echemendia, a guy who specializes in wild illustrations for all types of bands and products. Check out his website for more. It'll be time well spent.
16 NOV3L / Non-Fiction
Never underestimate the power of black and white when designing your album cover. The image here finds presumably a military invasion of what could be a concentration camp, enemy encampment, or possibly a prison. In the foreground is the blurred image of a person of unknown intent (friend/foe?) which only adds to the drama. The title of the album is Non-Fiction which gives the scene an even weightier premise. It captures a dramatic story in progress and gives the feeling that high stakes are on the table. I'm not a fan of bands that use a numb3r to replace a consonant in their band name, but here all is forgiven.
15 CARSIE BLANTON / Love & Rage
This cover represents the last two years with a single photograph. It captures both the pandemic and recent racial protests while also demonstrating the human connection many of us have missed out on for over 18 months now. Like the album, which preaches the merits of being good to each other, this cover shows the best of human nature. Being considerate of each other in trying times (masking up), standing up for what we believe in (via peaceful protest), and being there for those we love when it matters most.
14 JONATHAN BLAKE / Homeward Bound (tie)
14 JULIAN LAGE / Squint (tie)
Back in the day, no other label delivered cutting edge music in hipper packaging than Blue Note Records, the temple of cool. Since the label's revival the newly invigorated label is cranking out records again and they thankfully have continued to proffer the same brand of Blue Note musical and artistic quality that they built their rep on starting in the late-1950s (see our Top Blue Note covers post). Here are two examples of the new Blue Note's design aesthetic. The first shows that they're as forward-thinking as ever and able to think outside the box. It notably features no artist or musician details (which is contrary to their normal modus operandi) and only a stunning graphic design to lure you in. It's absolutely beautiful, but it doesn't scream Blue Note. That's what makes it special. That said, the Julian Lage cover is also proof that the old days aren't completely forgotten. The graphics department at Blue Note always had a way with space and minimalism and this proves that that approach remains timeless. This is a very blue record, appropriately enough, with multiple shades used throughout. It's subtle, tasteful, and appealing, particularly in its attention to the most minor of details, like the darker square in the "Q" that overlaps in the title's reflection. The little things matter.
13 HENRYK DEBICH / Zblizenie
If this album doesn't have such a cool 1960's-esque jazz cover, I would never have discovered its lead track, "Puma," which sounds to me like Poland's own version of the "Theme from Shaft," and that alone is a testament to the power of great album art. Decked out in vibrant colors, we see the many different personalities of Polish conductor Henryk Debich, a man unknown to me before, but will never be again. This is an album of many moods and perspectives, just as promised by its cover art. I have ordered a copy for my collection, which wouldn't have happened without this appealing cover. I rest my case.
12 MATTHEW SHIPP / Codebreaker
There are more jazz albums with cool album covers than in any other genre. That's a fact. Why? Not sure. Perhaps Matthew "Codebreaker" Shipp can get to the bottom of the situation. This album combines the complexity of jazz and all its permutations with the concept of Oceans 11 and comes out with an intiguing plot in the bargain. What code is being broken? Nobody but Matthew knows and you're going to have to listen to the album to unlock its secrets.
11 RODRIGO LEÃO / A Estranha Beleza da Vida
The title of this album translates as "the strange beauty of life," which explains the cover concept. Everything around us is shared, so everyone can experience it in their own way. But these are merely our surroundings and not the most important components of life. The colors of life are added by each of us, and some of those colors blend and become more vibrant when shared with another. When that happens, eyes lock, hands clasp, hearts soar. It's all a very magical thing.