The best record sleeves of 2020

Our favourite album designs from the past year include intimate portraits, flammable record sleeves and the ‘Photoshop interface of the future’

If the last few years have seen music slip away into the obscurity of streaming, this year it’s been hauled back in. With the pandemic turning the music industry upside down, listeners have embraced Bandcamp Fridays – the music platform’s regular fee-waiving initiative – while charity vinyl sale Secret 7” brought in £134,000 for its final edition.

In consideration of where their money is going, music fans have also engaged with a way of consuming music that encourages greater appreciation for albums and releases in their entirety. That of course includes record sleeves and album art – and thankfully this year has seen some excellent designs. We look back at ten of our favourites from 2020.

Idles: Ultra Mono
Following on from 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance, Bristol punk band Idles’ third LP Ultra Mono dived headfirst into observations on politics, mental health, fame, and masculinity. The band commissioned past collaborator Russell Oliver to paint the album artwork, which shows a large pink ball crashing into the face of frontman Joe Talbot (whose favourite colour is pink) and giving him a nosebleed.

Talbot came up with the concept – a shirtless, defenceless man being struck by a ball – and enlisted Oliver to bring it to life in the style of Caravaggio. Despite Idles’ fierce criticism of politics, the painting was designed to embody the band’s “unconditional love and acceptance of all”, drawing on the album’s fifth track, Kill Them With Kindness.

Packaging and metallic copper record for Slayer’s Relentless HELL-P

Slayer: Repentless HELL-P
For their final release, metal band Slayer went out all guns blazing. Designed by Kolle Rebbe, the packaging and record design of the ‘HELL-P’ was what one fan dubbed “one of the most metal things I have ever seen”.

The pentagonal outer cardboard case is emblazoned with skulls and flames, and unfurls to reveal a black inner sleeve containing the record. The sleeve was fully sealed, however, meaning listeners would have to burn it to access the record (a small coffin of matches are provided). Thankfully, the record is made out of fire-resistant copper and steel, meaning it would withstand the inferno and also resist the fires of hell, should you ever find yourself there.

Charli XCX: How I’m Feeling Now
While half of the UK was busy trying to ferment things during the first lockdown, Charli XCX was working on a new music project – one that she opened up to her fans. The pop star involved them in the making of How I’m Feeling Now through social media updates revealing the ins and outs of creating music, screenshots of conversations with collaborators, and a string of virtual chats where fans could feed back on ideas, artwork and the music itself. A verse written by fans even ended up on one of the tracks.

Created from start to finish within a matter of weeks, How I’m Feeling Now was both a real-time reflection on life during the pandemic as well as an experiment in communication and co-creation. The cover art was taken by her boyfriend at home, and shows the singer-songwriter relaxing on a bed as she peers at a camcorder (or ‘Charli Cam’), nodding to the album’s open process and, more widely, the always-on nature of fame in the social media age. The physical record also featured collaged fan art, plus reams of additional behind-the-scenes photographs of the singer (though at this point, it’s all behind-the-scenes), while the process was documented in more detail as part of a PDF book designed by Studio Nari.

Zara McFarlane: Songs of an Unknown Tongue
Jazz singer-songwriter Zara McFarlane’s latest album Songs of an Unknown Tongue explores her ancestral links to Jamaica and its early folk and spiritual traditions, and “is an allegory of my personal journey exploring how the effects of colonialism resonates within my life today being Black and British,” she explained on social media.

Mcfarlane’s concept for the artwork drew on Afrofuturist cues and images of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and hibiscus flowers – symbols that carried personal significance to her in relation to her experiences in Jamaica.

New York-based visual artist Sajjad, who also made the album art for Burna Boy’s 2019 hit African Giant, was enlisted to bring the idea to life. With photoshoots called off early in the pandemic, the team went for a collaged cover and use of an archival photograph as the basis for the portrait. The result shows Mcfarlane emerging from the mountains and crowned with crimson hibiscus flowers, which not only taps into the idea of roots and ancestry, but also offered a disguise for the distinctive hairstyle Mcfarlane was wearing in the original shoot. The album title was printed as a sticker that would come off with the outer shrink wrap, allowing the beautiful design to shine to its fullest.

Nicolás Jaar: Telas
Chilean-American producer Nicolás Jaar released three albums this year, the latest, Telas – meaning ‘veils’ – having been in the works since 2016. With this record, Jaar’s compositional experiments married with a visual language more than any of his past releases, unfurling in both a ‘solid’ state (the physical record) and ‘liquid’ state (a digital counterpart).

The release came as a double black and clear vinyl, with a gatefold jacket decorated extensively with intricate markings, symbols and patterns conceived by Jaar and designer Somnath Bhatt, which seem part-pixel art, part-embroidery. The accompanying interactive website experience developed by Abeera Kamran cracks open design details like an atom and sprays them around in a spatial experiment.

Tame Impala: The Slow Rush
The artwork for Tame Impala’s fourth album The Slow Rush is set in Kolmanskop, an abandoned mining town in the Namibian desert, and showcases fascinating interiors that have been reclaimed by nature.

The series of photographs were shot by Neil Krug, who travelled with the band’s Kevin Parker to Kolmanskop. They were then digitally painted to enhance the surreal quality of these miraculous spaces, which despite being a tourist hotspot have the same eerie, isolated feel as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Artificial views were added in the background and features of the rooms were altered to make for dreamlike images.

“When we were [in Kolmanskop], I kept getting these crazy deja vu moments – like these hair on the back of your neck, freaky vibes, as if I had been there in a dream or I’d thought about it before,” Krug told CR. “I didn’t know much about the place before we went – I’d seen something about it in National Geographic years ago – but standing there and driving around some of the roads I had this very wonderful, eerie feeling that I can’t quite put into words.”

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Grimes: Miss Anthropocene
Not one to do things the conventional way, Canadian artist Grimes’ latest concept album taps into the state of the world through the lens of its titular persona, an anthropomorphic goddess of climate change. Though Grimes looked back to ancient mythology as inspiration, the concept broaches contemporary issues envisioned through a futuristic lens – and the artwork has more than a healthy dose of dystopian energy.

The artwork was created with the help of designer and director GMUNK, who worked on visualising Grimes’ expansive world as a “‘Photoshop interface of the future’ that contained all the easter eggs and back story from the creative direction of the album – which was a lot of content to include,” GMUNK explained. “The style was to be maximalist ‘Oblivion UI’ crossed with Grime’s grungy palette of blacks and pinks. The program itself was themed on simulation theory mixed with world and God creation – essentially a first person narrative where Grimes was logged into the program space and running the simulations herself.”

Moses Sumney: Græ
Released over the space of three months, Moses Sumney’s double album Græ is a remarkable body of work that speaks to the complexity of identity, feeling and masculinity. The album artwork was photographed by Ghanaian photographer Eric Gyamfi, who has worked with Sumney on repeat occasions, including on the cover art of his 2017 album debut Aromanticism.

While in Ghana, Gyamfi photographed the striking image that would eventually become the album cover: Sumney’s nude body draped over a rock in front of a waterfall. The image emblematised the bare honesty of the album, while also seeking to redefine stereotypes of the Black male body by presenting it as soft and vulnerable. The art and packaging was designed by Julian Gross, who also worked on the first record, and comes with a striking range of alternative artwork.

Future Utopia: 12 Questions
Musician and record producer Fraser T Smith is no stranger to collaborating with stars behind the scenes, having produced and written for everyone from Britney Spears to Gorillaz to Adele. However, his recent album 12 Questions, released under the alias Future Utopia, saw the roles reversed as he drafted stars into his own project. Contributors include long-time collaborator Stormzy and Dave (both of whose albums Smith has worked on), rising star Arlo Parks, actor Idris Elba, artist Es Devlin and beyond. As the title suggests, the album involved posing 12 questions to each of the collaborators on topics stretching from faith to freedom, equality to ecology.

Pentagram’s Abbott Miller was brought on board for the creative direction and design of the album art, which captures the complexity of such themes without becoming heavy with a psychedelic illustration by Ori Toor. “It allowed us to illustrate these big themes — greed, power, technology, environmental crisis, social justice — but to balance the darkness with a sense of optimism,” Miller told Design Week.

Shygirl: Alias
British rapper Shygirl’s latest EP Alias is a visceral exploration of sex, and there’s a suitable amount of skin on show on the release’s twisted cover. At the centre of the artwork is a fleshy face that sits somewhere between an ill-fitting mask and leather wallpaper, with a stare piercing through a pair of misshapen eyeholes rimmed by eyelash extensions. The harsh lighting picks up the shine of lip gloss as much as it does the puckered where a nose has seemingly sunken away, uncomfortably straddling the line between seductive and unsettling.

Working with make up artist Jimmy Owen Jones, a cast of Shygirl’s head was made and then flattened out as a way of distorting the familiarity of facial features. Photographer Henrik Schneider captured her expression peering from behind the cast for the cover artwork, which was heavily influenced by the period of introspection she experienced during the first national lockdown.

Shygirl absorbs multiple personas across the EP, and the allusion to a disguise on the cover art is a clever nod to this creative approach. The limited-edition EP bundle also came with stickers, a hand fan and a pack of condoms for good measure.

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