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.



10 ALL INDIA RADIO FEAT. MANNERISMS & EMILY HOPKINS / Longevity

For you youngsters, back in the day we'd put a record on the turntable and then sit back and stare at the 12"x12" album cover while the music played. It was a 360-degree experience that has been lost on most people of this new generation (kudos to those of you who have adopted the vinyl format despite our modern conveniences). Personally, I ate up details about recording locations, musical personnel, band acknowledgements, design credits, song lyrics, production and songwriting credits, you name it. But nothing was better than dissecting a really wicked album cover like this one. The beautiful redhead with the creepy plant face pictured here is just the beginning. This cover generates tons of logical and illogical questions. Did these "leaf eyed" beings emerge from the spacecraft pictured? Are they responsible for caving in her face? Are those white dots orbiting her head going to land as well or are those moons? If so, why are they orbiting her head and for what purpose? And why is the album titled Longevity? How does that tie in to the visual? Or does it? Why has the girl been buried up to her shoulders like a human plant? Is that all these plant-eye people know to do? And how do the mountains fit in to the story? Is this another planet? Album art should be part of the musical experience and this is a good example as to why.



09 POPPY / Flux

This looks like a failed polygraph, but what does it say when the machine kicks out a drawing along with your results? You've got to be lying, right? This is a pretty cool concept overall. Maybe there's a cool intern over at the FBI.




08 DARIUS JONES / Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)

This is touted as a breakup album, which seems disappointingly generic considering the person with the giant eyeball and the twin purple tongues on the cover. Or perhaps it explains everything. I just don't know.



07 KAIDI TATHAM / An Insight to All Minds

The next time I see this album in a record store I'm going to buy it. I just know an album I need on instinct. I must hear the music first when the needle drops. I also hope the album's claim of being An Insight to All Minds is a legitimate boast. Plus, I think it would be amazing to witness a man of color walking on the moon or Mars someday, too. I hope when that happens the red suit and blue-tinted domed helmet is a part of the astronaut suit. And that the photographs of the event have the cool matte finish and texture present here. That would be an awesome visual.



06 MÁQUINA DELIRIO / Mefistovalsas

From the artist himself: "There's little you can do when you're suddenly hit by a storm of pervasive sensory stimuli that send you into doubt, an itch in your brain, between diving into introspection, dancing, or even getting into a cycle of mixed feelings." So I assume that's what this cover is trying to achieve. Designed by Brazilian illustrator Pedro Correa, whose portfolio is staggeringly amazing (his work with eyeballs alone merits a gallery show), this cover is an explosion of ideas all rendered in very pleasing muted tones and has a texture you can almost touch with your mind. Now I think I'm getting close to the idea Máquina was shooting for in the first place. Oh, and in case you're interested, the music, I am delirious to report, lives up to the album cover and then some. Wild shit, man.



05 DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO / I Told You So

The folks over at Ohio's Colemine Records are smart. When it came to designing the cover to DLO3's newest they went into the Blue Note zone for inspiration. The only thing missing from this homage to the golden age of jazz album covers is the Blue Note rectangle and oval (which would also make a great name for a breakfast joint—"Wanna head over to the Rectangle & Oval for some pancakes?"). Otherwise, all the Blue Note basics are present. A complete listing of the musicians involved, bold font colors over a black and white photo, and perspective and space in copious doses. Plus Delvon appears to be shadow boxing under the bridge, which is cool. I've gotta think the design team at the Note would nod their approval upon eyeing this beauty.



04 JAMES BLAKE / Friends That Break Your Heart

04 JAMES BLAKE / Friends That Break Your Heart (Limited Edition Alternate Cover)

Extra credit to James Blake for giving us not one, but two great album covers this year. Friends That Break Your Heart was released in two ways, the first being the common release (top), the second as an alternate limited edition (bottom). Both are spectacular works of art, but my final vote goes to the limited edition by a hair mainly because I have a soft spot for black and white drawings. Both captivate and disturb equally, the first because the image is surreal, the second borderline horrific. The covers were designed by an amazing artist named Miles Johnston and if there's one great thing about loving album artwork it is the discovery of new and important artists I might never have discovered otherwise (unless featured in High Fructose or Juxtapoze magazines, that is). I highly recommend visiting his website and poking around. The guy is demented in the best possible ways.



03 VILLAGERS / Fever Dreams

There are obvious reasons I love this cover and then some less obvious ones. The concept itself isn't particularly innovative (person unaware of gigantic animal or monster in their midst), but the execution is stunning. The texture of the bear, the composition, the innocence, all perfect. I also like the fact the guy in the pool, the dog on the deck, and the bear are all snoozing together, like they're tired after a long day goofing off. They appear to be friends hanging out by the pool, not in any danger. I guess that also depends on whethr\er you're having fever dreams or fever nightmares. I've found myself looking at this cover for a long while every time I passed by it looking for something to play. There's something both peaceful and frightening about it, but it's comforting that we'll never have to find out which it is.


FYI: Someone named Paul Phillips did the artwork, but I couldn't find much about him on the web. Bummer. A limited edition of the album includes four different covers, each as cool as the next. Good luck trying to source a copy as they are long sold out.



02 LIMINANAS/GARNIER / De Pelicula

I've translated Pelicula from Spanish to mean "film," which makes sense because the album was intended to be, and sounds like, a very cool soundtrack album for a movie yet to be made. That said, the music is a collaboration between two French musicians— the Liminanas and Laurent Garnier—so don't know why the fuck we're landing on a Spanish title for a project dominated by French musicians. What I do know is that this cover is simply amazing, like something on an 60s genre picture (horror, psyche, arthouse, suspense, whatever). They've also gone redhead for the lead role, which is a nice change of pace. Do redheads have the ability to control our minds? It would surely explain their hold over us. From a design standpoint, I love the green and black lettering, the consistent color palette, and the implication of mind control via the use of concentric circles emanating from the frontal lobe of our new master and commander. Great images, great composition, and it also draws you in, which is the main point here. You will want to know what this sounds like, And when the movie gets made, you'll want to see that, too.



01 LADY BLACKBIRD / Black Acid Soul

The first time ever I saw this album cover I fell in love. The lettering is so perfect, the title so intriguing, you could almost miss the fact that Lady Blackbird herself is hidden inside the letters. It took me a couple moments to adjust my eyes to what I was seeing. I do love how the title dominates the cover while also revealing the object of our affections simultaneously. It's a cool trick that mainly works because of the curvaceous font, which seems to undulate in the heat like flames in a flickering fireplace. From moment one, I wanted this. I had to have it. So I popped for the import vinyl mainly so I could put it on my shelf and stare at it for warmth as the record played yet again on my turntable.




...AND NOW, TEN OF THE WORST ALBUM COVERS OF 2021



10 SUFJAN STEVENS & ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE / A Beginner's Mind

Is this what a beginner's mind conjures up? I don't remember it this way, to be honest. Granted, it was a long time ago. This is the work of acclaimed artist Daniel Anum Jasper, who is hit or miss with me on a painting-by-painting basis, but they can't all be winners can they? Like musicians, painters sometimes uncork a dud. And I hate the gratuitous use of rainbows in album art so that was a bad start. Right up there with angel's wings. And water. And the wave size makes no sense. And the butterfly is poorly placed. And the head snakes aren't well executed. The list of problems goes on and on.



09 LIZ PHAIR / Soberish

I hate collage art like this, especially from an artist who surely had a decent graphic design budget at her disposal. And a giant Liz Phair perched on top of the Washington Square Park arch? Why not just have her climb the Empire State Building (also pictured) like everyone else? What a clusterfuck this is. Maybe she did it when she was drunkish.



08 JADE BIRD / Different Kinds of Light

I'm a fan of Jade Bird, but her name already makes her sound like a fictional character, so why exacerbate that fact by making her look like she's been cast in the next Star Wars sequel?



07 DRY CLEANING / New Long Leg

If I see another album cover where someone snaps a pic of their long shadow I'm going to take a pipe to their kneecaps. And the random shots of construction equipment? A cry for hipster help. Look how random we are! Blasé is the name of the game for Dry Cleaning, so we're going to quickly scribble our band name, too, which shows we don't care about anything. Somewhere, someone is putting this on their Best Album Covers of 2021 list and I'm sure they'll have a perfectly good reason for including it.



06 DURAND JONES & THE INDICATIONS / Private Space

I've been in too many dusty and dank record stores clogged with unwanted gauzy disco records like this to let this modern version slide.



05 J. COLE / The Off-Season

Good album, stupid cover. Yeah, we get it, you played "pro" hoops for the Rwanda Patriots this year, but please, for the love of all things holy, don't act like you had a choice to quit your day job.



04 DANNY ELFMAN / Big Mess

If we had 1985-era Kelly LeBrock emerging from a wax shell this could work. Anything else is a big, disgusting, mess.



03 CONNAN MOCKASIN / Jassbusters Two

Is this lamest, tamest, creepiest album cover ever to feature a Parental Advisory warning? It really should've had a Hairstylist Advisory instead. Kids, don't do this at home.



02 KACEY MUSGRAVES / Star Crossed

I had my suspicions that Kacey put this cheesy necklace on the cover so she could sell dramatically overpriced versions of it to her fans and I was right. It can be yours for $49.99 from the merch store on her website right now while supplies last (and they will last). I guess that's fine, artists have done worse to make a buck, but why settle for a cover picture that looks snipped out of a vintage Spencer's Gifts catalog circa 1985?

I also take issue with the first "S" in STAR CROSSED floating in the crack like that. That's not how it looks on the actual necklace I'm wearing proudly right now. I opted to pay for mine in four easy installments of $12.49. She's so accommodating! I had the money, too, but still opted to prolong the impulse purchase agony because I could.



01 DRAKE / Certified Lover Boy

Oh boy, a dozen new Drakes and Drakettes in the oven! Pinch me. I didn't know what to expect when I was expecting another phoned-in Drake album this year—other than the obligatory blind adoration of millions and a handful of Grammy nominations—but this cover should've been aborted in the design lab. Happy Meme's Day!


BEST REISSUE OF AN OLD ALBUM WITH A NEW COVER

01 TAYLOR SWIFT / Red (Taylor's Version)

Taylor Swift simply smolders in trench coat ($999) and fisherman's hat ($259) on this reboot of Red, and compared to the original version, which had her in a white blouse ($79) and cowboy hat ($199), everything about it looks upgraded. As we know all too well, she, and her songs, get better—and longer—with age.




STILL CAN'T DECIDE...
Our annual batch of covers that could swing either way depending on the moment.

PORTRAYAL OF GUILT / Christfucker

On one hand, I'm more than done with death metal bands and their indecipherable logos. On the other hand, if you're going to name an album Christfucker, it's smart to own it and put the title a clear font at the top of the album for all to relish. Using a label maker font is an added bonus. If there is a God almighty out there, show your face, please, and weigh in on this cover. Is it good or bad in your eyes (if you have eyes)? My guess is that the man upstairs would get a bit of a kick out of it, commandments be damned.



COUNTING CROWS / Butter Miracle, Suite One

Adam Durtiz was never the funniest guy at the party, to put it mildly. He did have the best weed, though, and this cover proves my point. It might not be a good time to trot out the old frat house "butter face" chestnut right now, either—it was stupid in college and it's even stupider now. But then why is this image oddly amusing? Is it partially because nobody on the planet even realized the Counting Crows released a new record this year? My main issue is that there is a huge butter patty sitting right there in the sand! Get it out of the sand! Forget it, it's too late now. This isn't a horrible cover, but at least I've seen butter.



KIEFER / Kickinit Alone

This is the casual day version of Johnnie Taylor's Taylored in Silk album. It's mildly clever, what with the band name and album title embroidered on the tag and all. With this can't miss chick-magnet garment at your disposal it's a miracle anyone would need to kick it alone.



JOHN MAYER / Sob Rock

We can't stand John Mayer, but even we have to admit that he nailed the look of the typical 80's album cover here. Light pastel hues, cheeseball font, and even that classic washed-out look is recalled, like he's on set for a Miami Vice shoot. But what we really love is "The Nice Price" sticker that used to get slapped on some albums back in the day to lure cheapskates into buying more records, a temptation that has actually worked a total of zero times in the history of album marketing. Add a pricing machine tag upper right and the package is complete (although putting the year of release in lieu of an actual price was a tactical error—it should say $18.99 on it to remind us of the mass fleecing of fans by greedy record companies when CDs took over the marketplace in the mid-80s).



AND FINALLY, THE PERFECT COVER TO MARK THE END OF 2021...

LORDE / Solar Power

We bring this year's album cover list to an end with the help of our close friend Lorde. "Lordey, Lordey, Lordey," as Jack Tripper used to say.


See you next week for our TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2021 list!


Cheers,


The Priest