2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our 25 Favorite Album Covers of the Year (and 10 of the worst)
Our Favorite Album Art From 2022
If you've been following us for a while, you know we love the whole experience of listening to music. We love researching new music. We love going to record stores and BUYING our music to support the artists who produce it. We love to write about why certain albums turn our collective cranks. We also love how album art can set the tone for the music inside the cover, and in some cases, lure you in to what's inside. When you stream music, this last part of the communion process is missing. Which is why, each and every year, we highlight our 25 favorite (and 10 least favorite) album covers of the year.
I love when an album title and its corresponding cover art sync up with each other. It's not mandatory, but sometimes the alignment makes both more impactful. Here, the album title alone could've resulted in any number of images featuring people eating in diners, drinking coffee at counters, or 1950's waitresses topping off chunky white coffee cups. All fine, but predictable. But this time, we get some presumably satanic creature firing up a smoke while a hellfire-hot cup of strong coffee simmers in front of him. He's clearly in his element. In the reverse, without knowing the title, you might say "Great cover, but what do you want to call the album?" And like the make-up-your-own-caption challenge on the last few pages of the New Yorker, someone might've won with "Diner coffee" as their supplied caption. And it would've been wholly satisfying. This cover is the perfect combination of visual menace and conceptual levity.
Perfume of the Soul
When I first saw this image it was much smaller and I mistook the hand grenade for a chicken leg. That absurd visual tickled my fancy and the image was immediately dragged into my album cover shortlist file (which I keep all year). I wouldn't say I was disappointed to find out later that it was, in reality, a hand grenade and not a chicken leg, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a brief moment of regret. I soon had to admit this is inarguably a better concept. In the context of the image, having to execute a perfect backhand in order to repel a tossed grenade certainly ups the ante dramatically for the player pictured. There's a lot riding on the next couple seconds. I love the old-school cartoon feel and how it contrasts with the rich colors used, with strong purple, saturated red, and bold yellow really jumping off the page. And, of course, I also love things that fuck with normal. So chicken leg or not, this makes our best covers list.
BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD
Ants from Up There
I was taken aback when I found out this was a painting by an artist from the UK named Simon Monk. It's so life-like. The talent required to execute a painting of this complexity is mind-bending and must've required a massive amount of planning. Painting the bronze plane alone, with its intricacies and nuanced shading, is a challenge in itself, but then placing it inside a plastic bag is another. Simply astonishing. Then, add a wood grain background behind the image and we're three intricate layers deep. Even the silver hook poses numerous challenges! Even better, the image has a connection to the album's title, Ants From Up There, which seems to allude to how people look from high above the ground, perhaps from a bronze airplane.
(watch my moves)
If you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up with a musician as a father or mother, here's a glimpse into that reality. Without a doubt, daily exposure to the strangely-wired mind of Kurt Vile is going to create an alternate world around you, far from what is typical. This photograph of him with his two daughters says it all. They're just sitting on a bridge with their dad, who happens to be sporting a dragon mask and trucker hat, and it seems very "business as usual" for both of them. If this is all you know, it becomes your version of normal. In fact, you can already see how his influence is slowly rubbing off on the two and it warms my heart to see it.
"Walk With Me" / "Falling in Between Days" 7"
Warhol famously did a decent amount of album covers back in the day, but I bet Picasso would've been great at it, too. This cover isn't his work, but it does fire the imagination of what could've been. When I look at this cover, a rare 7" on this list, I think of Picasso for obvious reasons. I like the way each has one arm, all you need to hold on to your partner, and I like that they both have the same haircut. There's an abstract connection between the two and they are clearly wrapped up in their own private, and colorful, world.
I've asked myself repeatedly why I'm drawn to this relatively simple photo, which was taken by Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders. I think it's because I've been working in office buildings my entire life, mostly in downtown Chicago, and I've spent my share of time staring out the window. I know I would've noticed a lone car sitting on the last open deck of a parking garage and I would've speculated about its presence. And, knowing my mind well enough, I would've concluded something nefarious as its backstory. A drug deal perhaps? An FBI meeting with an informant? A suicide attempt? Then I remembered what happened to the brother of a friend of mine back when I was a teenager. He got mixed up with some bad people, was murdered, and then left in the trunk of his own car in a remote parking lot at O'Hare Airport. It makes me want to check in on this lone white car on the roof across the way just to make sure everything is OK.
We generally make this list agnostic to content. "Can the album cover stand alone as art?" is often the question we ask ourselves when assessing album cover effectiveness. It can be argued, however, that a good album cover should be reflective of its contents. If not, what else is its purpose? Where to draw the line and when to connect the two is the hardest part of the selection process. This is especially true when the woman pictured on the album cover will eventually be murdered and eaten by her psychopathic, cannibal lover. Oh, and throughout the album she's telling her own story from the afterlife. Suffice it to say, converting such heavy content visually is not easy. But somehow the cover of Ethel Cain's Preacher's Daughter manages to do just that with this haunting, gently blurry image that looks like a photo you'd discover in your grandmother's attic after she passes. Even without any context, this cover unnerves me a little bit for some reason. But to my point earlier, I was drawn to the image long before I knew what the record was all about. Despite the picture of Jesus over her head, there seems to be another presence in the room with her. And then it hits you. Someone, perhaps with impure intent, is taking the photograph.
Orange is my favorite color. I'm just drawn to it for some reason. The predominant use of it here reminds me of one of my favorite paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago called The Golden Wall, by Hans Hoffman. It even has different hues of orange and splashes of yellow, just like the painting. The Oneida cover is a collage, seemingly made from an electronics catalog, but presents something artistic from the least artistic and inspiring of sources. It shouldn't add up to anything, but it does. I wonder how it would've looked with some little splashes of blue.
THE SURE FIRE SOUL ENSEMBLE
This has the distinct feel of an old Blue Note cover from the 1960s, one that views a simple concept from an uncommon perspective. If you didn't know by the title, you might think this a zipper, a comb, a band saw, or the the hair on the back of a neck (let your imagination run wild). It works with visual perceptions of space. Some will see a stairway right away, others might need a double-take to get there, but it'll come soon enough. It's not a trick. The colors chosen are pleasing to the eye, with the muted green a nice touch. A tiny hint of black in the title, label logo, and catalogue number adds just the right amount of subtle deviation.
DANGER MOUSE & BLACK THOUGHT
Jacob Escobedo has gained some notoriety with his album cover work on LPs by Broken Bells, T-Pain, and Gnarls Barkley, but his resume just got a big boost with this cover from Danger Mouse and Black Thought's critically-acclaimed album, Cheat Codes. I haven't found out what the cover is definitively trying to say, if anything, but I assume it has some relation to the album's title, which implies Danger and Thought are such masters of their craft that they've managed to master their chosen games, mesmerizing their audiences in the process. If that's not the case, then it's because putting bullseyes on people's eyes like they're all in some kind of weird cult-like trance is cool, too.
A simply gorgeous portrait of the stunning Juanita Euka. Totally pleasing on all levels, from the color palate to the shell necklace to her hair and skin embellishments (done in post, I assume). No wonder she appears to be in some sort of rapture at the moment. You'd be too if you looked like this. Even the trees in her summoned world can grow upside down. It makes me want to visit it for a while.
When I was in Lutheran elementary school the big 8th grade project, a rite of passage before graduation was the "mosaic." Each student had to create one, not from stained glass, but from colored squares of paper cut out of magazines (glass not in budget, nor would it have been a good idea). Some of the creations were astoundingly detailed and creative. I was pleased to see an album cover use the mosaic format, even if it's from Aussie punk/rock band Alien Nosejob. I appreciate that the background creates a halo effect around the guitar and not the guitarist, as if it were a sacred object (which it is, at least around here). The guitar is being presented to a group of cult-like front-row followers and the whole thing has the feel of a religious ceremony, and in our world, where records are religion, that's exactly the kind of sacrilegious appropriation we appreciate.
I'm going to assume each of these boxes represents the goings-on in one of the rooms of the titular roadside motel. Lower left: a murder? Bottom middle: a sexy hi-heeled call girl? Bottom right: some pervert with his ear to the wall? Elsewhere, a bloody angel's wing? Does that tie-in to our murder or is it unrelated? You can speculate on each. If you come up with a theory about the egg over-easy next to a ladder, let me know, would you? There are so many potential stories here, your mind is free to run wild. In fact, my latest theory is that all of what you see are needed to decipher a mystery. Any cover that prompts all that creative thinking has got to be good.
Afrorack, aka Brian Bamanya, is "responsible for building Africa's first DIY modular synthesizer, a huge wall of home-made modules and FX units that he dubbed, fittingly, The Afrorack." At this point, I'm all in on the story of its creation. I want to know and hear more. I want to know how he assembled his beast and I want to hear what he's doing with it. Of course, the cover of the album should feature his creation front and center. I love that it takes up the whole cover almost like it's a workable piece of machinery. If only it was interactive and the listener could flip some switches and turn some knobs while they listen. Then it would've been perfect. But I imagine that would've been a budget buster.
Anna knew she had to have a new pair of shoes today and Carlo had helped her try on every pair in the store.
Carlo spoke wearily, "Well, that's it. That's every pair of shoes in the place."
"Oh, you must have one more pair...."
"No, not one more... well, we have the cruel shoes, but no one would want to try...
"Yes, let me see the cruel shoes!"
"No, you don't understand, you see, the cruel shoes are...'
-From Steve Martin's short story, "The Cruel Shoes" from his book Cruel Shoes
When I saw this cover my mind raced back to my youth and Steve Martin's bizarre collection of short stories. Surely, I still had it on my shelf somewhere. So far, no luck, but I found the text for captioned section on the web, so here it is. Positive associations are patently unfair, of course, but has a shoe ever looked the part of a cruel show as much as this one? The cover art is suitably demented, effectively rendered in black and white, and the surroundings are like a bad dream come to life. In other words, perfect. It was inspired to contrast the B&W artwork with a bright flecked yellow border—it makes everything more visually arresting. No Zu are a band of punk-funk nuts from Melbourne, Australia, whose music, according to their press kit, is hilariously described as "implausibly danceable." But ask Carlo if you should try dancing in the cruel shoes and you know what he's going to say. And you also know your only response can be this...
SYLVAIN RIFFLET WITH VERNERI POHJOLA
Cake Walk From a Spaceship
My dad (an artist) was a big fan of pointillism, the method of producing art by adding small "dots" from a thin brush onto canvas, and I've similarly gained an affection for it, too. This approach is what draws me to this image, even though it appears to be computer generated (my guess, perhaps wrong). I love how the shape of the rocket is formed by the blackness of outer space and how the plume of smoke is slowly being absorbed by that darkness the longer it has to dissipate. Within the black background dots also create distant stars, giving the impression of a nearby galaxy. I also love that the rocket ship is of the old school variety, as a kid might draw one. There's a distinct feeling this music is about to take you somewhere unexplored. And that impression isn't far off. There's some pretty cool jazz to be found on the record, one best absorbed in an altered state. Add appealing fonts, intriguing title, and a pleasingly consistent two-tone color palate, and this is one cool trip.
I guessed electronica when I saw this cover and I was right. One look at the old-school computer programming font of the tracks (left side), artist name (Arp), and album title (New Pleasures), and it had to be something clinically modern. Here, the mechanical "mind" meets the creative mind, in the form of a fashion model holding the only position her garment seems willing to contemplate. The graphics are informational only, but also work aesthetically in complement to the black and white photo. I've spent time staring at this image and the position of the hands inside the circular sweater and it pains my should blades when I attempt anything close.
With its unusual color palette, at least for an album cover, this album from Suss has a somewhat common "image blocking" approach, but still manages to be provocative and interesting at the same time. The viewer can spend time musing as to the connection of all the elements or simply speculate on each frame individually. I choose to think the spaceman is on a free-fall to Earth, about to come to a harsh landing atop a lone desert cactus.
GOO GOO DOLLS
Chaos in Bloom
The music doesn't matter on this list, only the cover art. We haven't heard this one, but this combination of a pencil drawing and a splash of purple watercolor (presumably) is visually pleasing, with clean printed title and band name used to focus all attention on one focal point, the "chaos bouquet." This is an album cover you can hang on your wall as a piece of fine art.
Sometimes the best design is no real design. In this case, a close-up photograph of one of reggae's legendary performers, with evidence of a well-lived life in every great hair, every forehead wrinkle. The decision to catch him in full-frame profile was a smart move, a striking image of a long-serving icon that makes for a profoundly beautiful portrait.
TEARS FOR FEARS
The Tipping Point
This cover is by Barcelona artist Cinta Vidal. To review her portfolio of work is to see someone whose view of the world has us together and alone simultaneously, occasionally just on the other side of a chair from each other. Perhaps Tears for Fears identify with this concept because the band hasn't always stayed together, even though their innate connection has kept them creatively close. When they do come together, it can create great art. The characters here roll up to form a tumbleweed of interlocked chairs, each with corresponding cat, that'll make you grapple with perspective and turn the album cover in all directions. The mark of a great album cover is what you're able to do with it while the music plays.
PANDA BEAR & SONIC BOOM
These would make for some very eye-catching blinds, wouldn't they? You could feasibly make words of your choosing if the whole alphabet was at your disposal. Until they look closely, some may not realize the patterns are actually letters, in this case spelling out the album's title, RESET. Otherwise, it's primarily just some innocent random polka dots and a couple other shapes. This cover wouldn't work as well if it was just colorful letters. The key to it is the depth of the image, with each letter overlapping the other, perhaps swaying in a light breeze. The bright colors, smartly limited to just three for symmetry, really pop, too, implying a hip, modern inhabitant lives with them.
Gold: Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love
A cover that has that old-world craftsman feel, like a 75-year-old artisan meticulously applied the gold leaf by hand to each individual cover. When he dies, his art dies with him. Black and gold have always been an extravagant pairing, often denoting opulence and/or power, but I like how Alabaster DePlume brings it back to the beauty of flowers and an inspirational message where it belongs. It's a striking image, made even more powerful in the vinyl version, where the gold is embossed onto the cover so you can trace your fingers through the impressions and interact with it on an entirely different level.
If you know the true purpose of the building pictured, the one from which the members of German art-metal band Rammstein are descending, please do not tell me. Is it aerospace related? Farming? Nuclear power? A recording studio? Missile silo? Military torture chamber? OMG, is Hitler's cryogenically frozen body in there?! I don't think that's possible, knowing Rammstein's progressive politics—it just wouldn't add up—or would it? Anyway, the intrigue is off the charts here. There's a cold dreary precision to this picture that's stereotypically German (and I would know, coming from a German mother), but I'm drawn to its mystery. The band, dressed in black, only adds to the potential sinister undertaking in progress. There's something perfect in the pairing of band and image here and it's hard to take your eyes off of it. But....there's another layer to it, too. The record comes with a red sash with the band's logo and album title (Zeit, or "time"). The splash of color makes the picture pop and it looks pretty cool, too. Just try to not think about the red Nazi armband parallel. Maybe they should've gone with purple instead?
S.G. Goodman's Teeth Marks is an album that finds her vacillating between heartbreak and hope. If you've ever gone through a breakup, you know how it can make you feel incomplete for a while, whether it was the right thing to do or not. This album cover reflects that very feeling in a clever way even our child selves can understand. When we don't feel like ourselves, sometimes we need someone else to help us complete the picture. A friend, rock & roll, and possibly a new relationship can all do the trick for a while. Of course, it's really up to us to complete our own picture, but that's knowledge gained only by going through the process of recovering. But there's no doubt relationships leave a mark. Here, the apple represents this kind of emotional scar and S.G. holds it, bite taken, right where her heart should be, seemingly contemplating her next move. Aesthetically pleasing in design with its heavy drawing paper canvas and tasteful lettering, it's an image you interact with whether you take out a Sharpie and connect the dots or not. And I also like the way the title and the apple are the only things in red. The splash of teal on the lapel of her jacket also gives just the right amount of color to the image, combining the connect-the-dots concept with that of a child's coloring book. No detail left unconsidered.
And Now, Our 10 Worst....
On one level, respect I guess? I should respond to this considering my abnormal love for demented ideas. It's just that, thanks to this cover, I've spent way too much time dealing with pubic hair this year and it's all Dry Cleaning's fault. I really hope this is computer generated. And, suffice it to say, I do not want the see "The Making of" this album cover someday on the tenth anniversary deluxe reissue. Was the abnormally long "p" pube sourced from the Black Crowes Amorica album cover shoot, perhaps? This is well-executed, but I don't want to look at it a moment longer, which isn't a good quality for an album cover.
Lucifer on the Sofa
The cover of Spoon's stellar new record, Lucifer on the Sofa, was done by a very talented artist named Edel Rodriguez. He's a fine artist whose done some remarkable work. The response to this cover has been mixed and I swing to the the negative side of that debate. Art, like music, is all about personal taste, so I don't fault those who love this for whatever reason. As far as I'm concerned, Rodriguez could've submitted just about anything else from his portfolio and it would've made my best album covers list, but this bores me, and not only because it looks like a broken black-and-white cookie ("Look to the cookie, Elaine!") with a creepy face on it. I don't respond to so much red either (which Edel loves, quite clearly), nor do I love chunks of blocked color. And the band name and album title isn't doing it for me either. That said, I love the artwork he did for "The Hardest Cut" single pictured below. It fits the band perfectly and ties back to past Spoon's past album covers for Kill the Moonlight and They Want My Soul. Right artist, wrong art.
This is what happens when Beyonce has too many mimosas at Sunday brunch. She strips down and mounts the ice sculpture* for a photo op. Happens every time. I'm going to say it: Does every new album these days mandate baring your breasts? I'm not against it, quite the contrary, but it seems like that's an automatic lately. Is it truly a way of reclaiming your sexual agency or is it a cheap way to get attention? Discuss.
*It looks like an ice sculpture, but apparently it's a horse statue covered in mirror ball pieces. Neato. This is what happens when you have an unlimited budget.
Everyone loves goats. Goats for yoga. Goats for milk. Goats for love (according to Nadine Shah, at least). Goats for soup (but just the head). GOATS in sports. Here, we have, inexpliably, a goat in a Playschool Playhouse (see below) and whimsical photos like this are supposed to be posted on Twitter or Insta, not on album covers. That way, we can all have a laugh, pass it around, and then forget about it. On an album cover, the novelty wears off way too fast to make it part of the permanent record that you're going to have to live with forever.
Re: M Field
What exactly is this trying to accomplish? Don't even attempt an answer. South African singer/songwriter M Field, in piss yellow LL Bean sweatshirt, is on his cell phone. Someone just took a photo of him on his cell phone (in happier times) and is holding it up for us to see. The picture is clearly Photoshopped onto said cellphone. Why? Oh, and there's an oil-painted fox in one corner. Doesn't that say it all? What a total clusterfox.
Perhaps there's a way this could've worked. I think they went too far jamming the title and Oliver's name into his face and neck. The title alone would've been a little better. It's also just a lame attempt at graphic design. It should have a more potent impact, but it just doesn't. I'm not weirded out or appalled, I'm just bored.
It's the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man....in a thong. How did this idea get off the ground? Did it just "pop in there" unavoidably, perhaps stored deep in the artist's psyche? This painting was conjured up by the mind of Dutch artist Willehad Eilers. I appreciated the humor of it initially—the post-Ghostbusters existence of a now-typecast character actor—but then I realized the joke was soon over. Mohawke has said this about the painting: "I kind of think of that particular image as me five years ago, at the end of my partying career." From that point forward, I haven't looked at it the same way again.
MACHINE GUN KELLY
I know nothing about this guy and I still can't stand him for some reason. Maybe it's this supremely orchestrated magazine cover-esque photo shoot. I suppose it makes some sense if he's admitting to a corporate sellout, but I think that probably happened long before this album came out. That's not the issue with the cover though. It's just so posed, so uncreative (Oooh, pink tomatoes! Genius!), so lame, that I feel genuinely sorry for this guy already, even though he's at the so-called "peak" of his career. Isn't he cool and self-deprecating?! Awesome.
The MOAT (Most Overrated of All-Time), aka our musical nemesis Drake, checks in with another in a long line of totally shit album covers (he's on this list just about every year). This one I wouldn't even slap on the back window of the souped-up Honda Civic I use for doing doughnuts in urban intersections. He clearly puts about the same amount of time into his album art as he does his music. Which has, of course, made him one of thee most popular artists ever. I guess he gets the last laugh. I could go on, but honestly, nevermind. It ain't worth the time.
Un Verano Sin Ti
I'm sure someone, somewhere will claim this is artistic genius. It's actually horseshit. We have a way of changing our perspective on things in order to make our multi-platinum, worldwide sensations happy. Surely, it's brilliant! Everything Bad Bunny does is brilliant! I actually have no qualms with his fame, good for him. He's way better than Drake, to say the least. I'm stunned that this cover was, and I can't believe I'm about to write this, designed by a professional graphic artist, the L.A.-based Ugly Primo. (Which is telling.) I'm not sure I'd want to take credit for this mess of computer-generated art seemingly imported from a Commodore 64 computer circa 1982. Bunny has said he takes "full credit" for the heart part of the design. How innovative! The only excuse for using this is if his daughter did this in first-grade art class. But he doesn't have any children, so there's absolutely no explaining this lame attempt to be quirky or cute.
Still haven't decided yet...
Conditions of My Parole
No words. Nice shoutout to Nashville legends, BR-549, on his prison uniform though. Happy Holidays from the Pickled Priest!
"In the Fade"
This reminds me of my youth. For two consecutive years in the 70s, I dressed up as Peter Criss for Halloween. So kudos to Tony for choosing it. What really scares me is the dunce-capped clown, coming at you soon with a butcher knife.
One more before we cut this off...
I never bought into the eggplant emoji as penis symbol anyway, so cut away ladies!
See you next week with the last post of 2022.