Before 1938, all albums came packaged in plain brown wrappers. That is until graphic designer Alex Steinweiss had the idea to put something enticing on the cover to attract buyers. Steinweiss’ use of vivid colours and bold typography became synonymous with the golden era of jazz and pop music in the '30s and '40s, and he pioneered a whole new album art form that would continue to grow throughout the ages.
The album cover has changed a lot in the last sixty years. In the ‘70s, elaborate fold-out vinyl and picture discs were the trend; in the ‘90s, ‘special editions’ of albums became popular, encased in extravagent boxes; and now, digital is king. Today, most people see album art as a tiny digitised square on the front of their iPod, but that hasn’t hampered artists’ creativity. Labels like Warp and Hyperdub, and many indepedents, are still releasing lavish, beautifully designed vinyl.
Art is still vital to the process of making an album for a lot of artists, and many hire external designers, artists, sculptors, and illustrators to realise their vision. In this list we’ve picked 20 of the best album cover designs of the year in contemporary music, of all genres, along with quotes from the artists and creatives behind them.
Die Antwoord – Ten$ion
Yolandi Visser and Ninja, known collectively as Die Antwoord, are a South African hip-hop duo with a history in performance art. Their outlandish visuals, which they design themselves, define them as much as their music, and the album art for Ten$ion is typically bizarre and provocative.
Ninja, Die Antwoord “People are unconscious and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. The God-given gift of artists is to create stuff from nothing. Die Antwoord makes hyperreality. We create an exaggerated, thrilling experience.”
Seekae – +Dome
Designer Bryan McLeod was asked by Australian electronic trio Seekae to design album art that looked like the plus sign in their album’s title, but that was a little more abstract. The result is this neat geometric design made up of three connecting cubes.
Young Magic – Melt
This is the debut album of lo-fi Brooklyn band Young Magic. The psychdelic digitised artwork echoes their hypnotic, dreamlike electronic sound, and was designed by artist and philosopher Leif Podhajsky, who has two entries on our list.
Leif Podhajsky, Artist “I start with an idea which I either sketch, write down or preserve in my head, then begin an extensive search for images, photos, cut-outs, textures anything which I think may help form the idea. I have a large image library to draw from and am forever adding to it.”
Major Lazer – Get Free
Major Lazer is a fictional ‘80s cartoon character, and the face of producer Diplo’s dancehall/reggae project, Major Lazer. The distinct albumart style runs through all of their releases, and is especialy eye-catching on the Get Free EP, Major Lazer’s first 2012 release.
Diplo, Producer “The whole concept was based on 1980s Jamaican dancehall artwork; ‘80s dancehall was fun. I remember taking a bunch of words, like laser and general, just cheesy words that you would find in a dancehall name generator. And the two words that were first were "major" and "lazer.", and I was like, “Let’s call this guy Major Lazer.”
DVA – Pretty Ugly
London artist Optigram designed the cover for DVA’s debut album on the respected Hyperdub label. He says it’s an attempt to ‘graphically interpret synaesthesia’ – a neurological condition that joins together senses that are normally experienced separately.
Manuel ‘Optigram’ Sepulveda, Artist “There's a lot of freedom in most record sleeve projects to just explore and do what you feel; there's not the usual client considerations/compromises that most other graphic design jobs come with. So the work can be very personal. Even when the artist or label gives you an initial concept it's still fun to interpret their ideas in my own way and those early collaborative discussions can be really helpful.”
Unsane – Wreck
Unsane are a noise rock band from New York whose legacy stretches back to the late ‘80s. They’re known for their gruesome album art, and Wreck continues that fine tradition with a ghoulish blood-dipped hand that’s a perfect entry point for their aggressive music.
Squarepusher – Ufabulum
While touring Ufabulum, avant-garde electronica legend Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson programmed a dazzling monochrome LED light show that pulsed and flickered in perfect sync with the music. This minimalist cover recalls the stark visuals of that live show.
Tom Jenkinson, Musician “I want to make the link between picture and sound as coherent, apt and appropriate as possible, because quite often I find that when I watch the visuals which form a part of a musicians live show, or a DJ playing records, I find it hard to see, actually, a link between what I'm looking at and what I'm hearing. It's the first time I've actually done a project whereby the visual aspects of the live show have been developed alongside the music.”
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
This collaborative album sees The Flaming Lips working with artists as diverse as Bon Iver, Nick Cave, and Yoko Ono. The abstract cover image is randomly generated by a computer, and every copy of the limited edition vinyl release has its own unique pattern.
JK Flesh – Posthuman
Justin K. Broadrick, or JK Flesh, is a former member of extreme metal bands Godflesh and Napalm Death. Posthuman is a change of direction: dark, electronic, and industrial. The close-up photography of a hand on the album art looks like a strange alien landscape. The design was created by Ambigraph, who handle all of 3by3's releases.
Steve Harris, 3by3 Label Manager "Creating artwork for harsh music is tricky as all visceral imagery has been massively overdone and therefore, visuals become a little redundant and come across as pastiche. We endeavoured to create an aesthetic that would not literally reflect the music but instead, create a space in which the music can function independently. Using very tender, close up shots of skin references the 'flesh' angle of course but also conveys a fragility and intimacy that we felt contrasted really well to the sound, letting the audio shine in its own right."
El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
At first glance this stylised image of a bird looks like a splash of liquid, but on closer inspection you can see it’s made up of shards of broken mirror. The image, which is El-P’s logo, was designed by late sculptor and artist Alexander Calder, who drew it for him when he was a child.
El-P, Musician “The bird has become a representation of who I am. It’s just been there all my life and it’s symbolism that doesn’t represent anything else except my life. I like to think of it as some ancient archetypal symbol that represents me.”