Great album art can come in many forms. It can be a photograph that stops you in your tracks, a lovingly produced box set filled with hidden messages and tactile features, or a minimal graphic design that invites closer inspection. Our annual Record Sleeves of the Year round up has featured all these and more – from pop-up musical sleeves to designs that appear to animate before your eyes.
Whatever the format, a good cover should grab your attention and remain in your mind long after you’ve listened to the music. And there were many of those in 2018. This year brought us some powerful photographic covers (from Nas’s album Nasir, which featured a black and white image by Mary Ellen Mark, to The Carters’ Everything is Love, which featured a still from the set of the pair’s Apesh*t video, filmed in The Louvre); controversial covers (Daytona’s Pusha T, which featured an image of Whitney Houston’s bathroom), abstract geometric designs and minimal one colour sleeves (Everything Is Recorded), along with more conventional artist portraits.
There were some recurring themes – blurry portraits (Earl Sweatshirt and Lily Allen), black and white sleeves and images defaced with doodles and handwritten type. Our top 10 from 2018 is a diverse selection – but all combine a strong idea with great execution and attention to detail. Each one is an imaginative visual response to the music contained within – and has the power to stand out on digital platforms as well as record store shelves.
Here, in no particular order, are our top 10 from 2018
Aphex Twin – Collapse
Back in August, a series of cryptic murals featuring Aphex Twin’s distinctive logo appeared in London, Turin, New York and Hollywood – prompting much excitement among fans of the electronic artist known for his bizarre and brilliant visuals.
Collapse was released in September and its cover – created by long-time collaborator Weirdcore – features a striking visual take on the album’s title. Daniel Mason at Something Else worked with Aphex Twin, Weirdcore and long-time Aphex collaborator The Designers Republic to create a limited edition vinyl version, which comes with a silver foil inner sleeve produced using a little-known foil engraving technique
Weirdcore also directed a trippy video for the EP featuring collapsing landscapes and glitchy graphics. It’s another excellent cover from Aphex Twin – not that we’d expect anything else from an artist who has released some of the most memorable videos and album covers of the past 30 years.
Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar
Edinburgh band Young Fathers teamed up with Hingston Studio and photographer Julia Noni to create the artwork for Cocoa Sugar. Noni’s image of band member Alloysious Massaquoi in a black hat and bright red lipstick stands out on even the smallest of screens – with its saturated colour palette and Massaquoi’s exaggerated expression, the off-kilter portrait sits somewhere between humorous and unsettling and is hard to forget.
Tom Hingston says the cover art was inspired by the album’s exploration of male identity and “the subversion of the masculine and feminine”. In early discussions with Hingston, the band looked at visual artists who addressed similar themes in their work, including graphic designer Jean Paul Goude and pop artist Richard Lindner.
“Lindner went onto form a major influence in the creative, through his technicolour paintings of the 40s and 50s New York underworld; the hustlers, pimps, prostitutes and the gangsters who socialised with the actors, circus performers and the like,” explains Hingston.
Young Fathers also teamed up with director Oscar Hudson to create a delightfully eerie video for album track Holy Ghost, which depicts a mysterious seance in the Scottish highlands from afar.
The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
The 1975’s album has a surprisingly minimal cover design. An all-white sleeve, with a handful of colourful squares and the album, band and track titles printed in neat black type. It’s an unusual approach at a time when most artists opt for photographs and bold colours that will stand out among the mass of visuals on streaming apps and social media. But there’s something intriguing about the sparseness of the design – and it’s a suitably reductive approach for an album that explores our complicated relationship with technology and the perils of the internet.
Designer Samuel Burgess-Johnson took inspiration from European mid-century graphic design as well as the album’s content. “Conceptually there were many ideas at play,” he tells CR. “Spectrally opposing colours, floating in voids of white space, aligned with some of the ideas put forward on this record.” The inner artwork was created to counter this sparse exterior with blocks of bold colour and moire-style patterns.
Florence + The Machine – High As Hope
The deluxe box set of Florence + The Machine’s album High As Hope is a beautiful thing to behold, with pastel-hued images of Florence Welsh, floral patterned discs and a pack of custom tarot cards. The box set was designed by Brian Roettinger and features photographs by Tom Beard, Vincent Haycock and Lillie Eiger. The dreamy artwork reflects the nature of the band’s music and the floral discs are a lovely surprise for fans unboxing the album.
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
Alongside lighting up the fashion world with her vagina-shaped trousers and releasing one of this year’s best music videos, Janelle Monae also put out some stellar album art in 2018. The cover for Dirty Computer has a slightly psychedelic, otherworldly feel, with Monae resembling a religious icon in a jewelled veil.
The cover was designed by Joe Perez Studios and features photography by Juco. “Our portion of Dirty Computer’s album cover process started when I traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Chuck Lighting, Janelle’s creative director,” Perez tells CR.
“We met at the music studio where Janelle was finishing Dirty Computer. I discussed the albums themes with Chuck, Nate Wonder and Janelle, [and] found out through our various conversations and watching the film that this was a very personal album with themes that stemmed from the artist’s own identity.” Perez’s studio was given a bank of photographs to choose from for the cover selected an image of Monae looking downwards – a shot that Perez says reflects the intensely personal nature of the record. “We felt that she was exposing the real Janelle to the world for the first time and with that comes a sense of great vulnerability.”
Gatefold art shows Monae in her famous pink trousers and wearing thigh high glitter boots and the vinyl edition comes with a bright pink picture disk. Joe Perez Studio also created a custom font for the cover.
Baloji – 137 Avenue Kaniama
Moolman travelled to the Congolese town of Lusanga to photograph Baloji for the album and single covers. The album cover shows him standing in front of a Pygmy wedding installation – an image inspired by a Congolese tradition where the bride and groom receive gifts while standing in front of a structure made from plants and vegetables.
Baloji and Moolman returned to Lusanga after working on the cover to create a nine-minute short for album track Peau de Chagrin / Bleu de Nuit, which also explores wedding rituals and features some elaborate costumes. It’s the latest in a series of interesting collaborations from the pair, who travelled to Kinshasa in 2015 to create visuals for his EP, 64 Bits & Malachite.
John Grant – Love is Magic
The visuals for John Grant’s latest album are a humorous take on the lengths musicians will go to in pursuit of musical brilliance. Inspired by odd tales from the making of famous albums, art director Scott King worked with Grant and photographer Jonathan de Villiers to conceive a series of outlandish portraits which show the musician playing guitar in a paddling pool and performing while covered in feathers and wearing a cage on his head.
“The ‘big idea’ was to shoot John searching for ‘that sound’ – you know, the mythical stories that have built up around the recording process – so Brian Wilson insisting on recording Beach Boys songs in a sandpit or making everyone in the studio wear a fireman’s helmet when they were recording the song Fire; Martin Hannett insisting that Stephen Morris record his drums on the roof or the general madness of Phil Spector … so the idea was for John to embrace this kind of lunacy in search of the perfect sound,” explains King.
Images have intentionally grandiose titles such as Malicious Reconstitution and Remembering the Accident – “the feeling I was trying to get for all the images was that kind of preposterous (yet great) performance art,” King adds.
The deluxe vinyl edition comes with a set of photographic prints taken by Grant and a lyric booklet and a diagram titled ‘The Structures of Interpersonal Alienation’. The logotype, which appears on stickers and the lyric book, was designed by Fraser Muggeridge.
Maribou State – Kingdoms in Colour
Maribou State’s album Kingdoms in Colour takes inspiration from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Inspired by the record’s diverse musical influences, designer Alexander Brown created a beautiful floral motif by combining elements of plants from different parts of the world. “I wanted to make an icon which would represent the album’s character and provenance. Creating flowers which like the music [are] a hybrid of global influences all coming together in one form,” he explained on Instagram.
The flower motif has been used on gig posters and merchandise – including t-shirts – and has also been animated to create some eye-catching social media teasers. Alongside this, Brown has created hybrid designs in a range of colours for single releases.
Beach House – 7
Photomontage is a popular style right now (see Clean Bandit’s album What is Love? and Little Dragon’s Lover Chanting), but Beach House’s 7 is particularly memorable with its punk-inspired monochrome cover, which shows a woman’s face obscured by the album’s title. The cover design features iridescent foil accents as well as fragments of faces and buildings. The yellow and black inner artwork provides a bold contrast to the outer sleeve – and the whole thing perfectly captures the dystopian mood of the record.
Post Typography says it was asked to create “a design that conveys the record’s unsettling, sci-fi tinged themes”.
“The art has a subtle, shifting narrative. Visual motifs and photo pairings repeat and change throughout the packaging,” explains the studio on its website. “We spent weeks sifting through vintage magazines and books to find the perfect imagery to create a rich experience for listeners to discover something new each time they look at the album.”
The foil also changes colour in different lighting conditions – “under some lighting, [it] appears gray and flat, blending in to the black and white art. As the light shifts, the foil explodes in a rainbow of shifting colours, a hint of the future flashing through,” says Post. It’s a striking design filled with hidden details – and one that rewards closer inspection.
Roisin Murphy teamed up with Baltimore musician Maurice Fulton to create four new singles. Each one was released by The Vinyl Factory on a 12″ EP featuring some brilliant artwork by New York-based graphic designer Braulio Amado.
Each single’s artwork is wildly different but all combine handmade elements with bold colours and expressive type. It’s a playful set of designs from Amado and the latest in a series of great album covers from Murphy.