The best record sleeves of the year 2021

Our favourite sleeve designs from this year range from everyday realism to futurism and fantasy, featuring painting, mosaic and 3D art

Discourse around the relevance of the album format and physical records have waxed and waned in the streaming era.

However two of the world’s biggest (and most intensely monitored, in terms of appearance) pop stars reinforced the significance of the album cover – at times considered something of a casualty of streaming – as they marked their own return to the spotlight. Billie Eilish released her eagerly awaited sophomore album Happier Than Ever, a statement incongruous with the sombre expression and tear-stained cheek on the album’s cover. More recently, Adele marked her comeback with a stripped back image to accompany her blockbuster ‘divorce album’ 30 (plenty more on that here).

On the more provocative end of the spectrum, Drake made headlines with his album Certified Lover Boy in the summer. The cover art, designed by Damien Hirst, features rows of multiracial pregnant emojis, drawing parallels with Hirst’s spot artworks – and much derision online. In typical 2021 fashion, Hirst recently reimagined the cover design as a series of artworks and minted them as NFTs.

Below, we take a look at the ten moments in album art and record sleeve design that stood out for us this year.

Squid, Bright Green Field; Label: Warp

Brighton band Squid released their debut album Bright Green Field to wide acclaim, wrapped up in a campaign that placed an emphasis on striking visuals from the outset. 3D visual artist and director Felix Geen was brought in to work on the cover artwork, designed by Lanning Sally, which shows a large figure outstretched on grass. The body almost appears skewered with arrows, but is in fact made up of 3D scans of urban environments. (Geen also created the music video for one of the singles, Narrator, in which worlds are being built in real time, also using some of these scans.)

Squid also worked with Kyoto University scholar Yukiyasu Kamitani, whose lab team has found a way to translate brain activity in response to stimulus into an image. The band sent Kamitani sections of tracks along with images they felt represented these lyrics or moments in the music. These were then shared with people, whose brain activity was analysed and a new image generated with the help of machine learning, which was incorporated into the grass on the album cover and additional album artwork.

Dave, We’re all Alone in this Together; Label: Neighbourhood

Following on from his extraordinary debut Psychodrama, Dave’s sophomore album We’re all Alone in this Together bolstered the artist’s reputation for grappling serious themes with flair and compassion, this time prying open everything from domestic abuse to hostile immigration policies.

The cover art is a rework of Claude Monet’s late 19th century painting Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise), newly transformed by artist Tyler Remikie, with whom Dave has worked closely for a number of years, including for the flame-licked artwork on his debut LP. A key piece in the Impressionism movement, Monet’s waters are muted by the early morning smog cloaking the port of Le Havre, where the painter was from. In Remikie’s artwork for Dave, there is just one lone boat, which floats against a dialled-up palette of fuchsia and coral.

The scene is evocative of migration – the personal freedoms and fears that might come with making that journey – while Dave uses the music to explore everything that “led up to the events of the first album: heritage, history, culture, my family, the countries that we come from, the regressive state of humanity in where we are now,” he told GQ. In a political context, these themes are often loaded and sensationalised, but in the hands of Dave and Remikie, they are softened and humanised.

Indaba Is compilation; Label: Brownswood

Brownswood Recordings’ compilation album Indaba Is brings together the current crop of talent in the South African jazz scene. The cover artwork was illustrated by Johannesburg-based artist and designer Rendani Nemakhavhani, who also creates work under the moniker Pr$dnt Honey.

The cover image is a close crop of a face, placing full emphasis on details like the texture of the skin – coated in rings, somewhere between trees and contour lines on a topographic map – and the ochre and crimson layering around the eyes, evoking the multiplicity at the heart of the compilation.

Madlib, Sound Ancestors; Label: Madlib Invazion

Known for his alchemistic collaborations with the late artists MF Doom and J Dilla, and his remixes of Blue Note Records, Madlib’s album Sound Ancestors was a rare instance of the lauded music producer releasing a solo record – sort of. Although the base material was created solely by Madlib, the record was arranged and mastered by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, over the course of several years.

“Several months before working on the album I watched a documentary that touched on the similarities between shapes created in cymatic (sound wave visualisation) experiments and the structures of primitive lifeforms. The documentary speculated that perhaps sound could have had something to do with the origin of life,” Errol F Richardson, who worked on the design, told us. “When I first heard the album title, I immediately thought about the possibility that sound could be, in a way, our ancestor.”

Richardson was drawn back to a series of photographs taken by Richard Foster that he had bookmarked years earlier. The photographs are of sand scattered on a Chladni plate, a technique of visualising acoustics pioneered by physicist Ernst Chladni. The vibrations reveal beautiful patterns based on the sound frequencies, as shown in the range of the additional album artworks and the special edition cover, where the wavy pattern is brought to life with a glow-in-the-dark cover conceived by Mason London. Like the process of collaborating, the pattern created by the grains is far more fascinating than the sum of its constituent parts.

Arca, Kick iiii; Label: XL

Venezuelan music artist Arca recently released a suite of albums, Kick ii – iiiii, that emphasised her distinct trajectory as a solo figure. All four album artworks build on the idea of multitudes, bringing together gore and majesty; birth and destruction; nature and technology; ancient symbolism and radical futures. But it’s the cover of Kick iiii in particular that exemplifies the careful construction of Arca, where bodies lay strewn beneath a monumental rendering of her body – mermaid tail and all – encased in scaffolding.

Speaking to CR, 3D artist and key collaborator Frederik Heyman said: “We wanted Arca to transcend the physical world into an extensive digital seance via her performative avatar, navigating through ancient symbolism revisited in a contemporary post-human narrative. This all eventually resulting in a digital manifesto. A celebration of both life and death. Embracing what has been, reborn in what’s to come.”

Athletic Progression, Cloud High in the Dreams, but Heavy in the Air; Label: Touching Bass

Danish-Tanzanian trio Athletic Progression’s latest album Cloud High in the Dreams, but Heavy in the Air is all about encapsulating the fluidity and experimentalism of a jam session, complete with scraps of audio from the studio that form interludes. Recorded over the space of just one week in Copenhagen, the music evolved from live shows and voice memos improvised and fleshed out into songs.

The electronic-infused jazz record features cover art by French artist Lossapardo, whose practice sits at the intersection of painting, music and animation. The painted artwork feels as though it is bathed in late afternoon sun, buildings in the rear view as the three drive off into the uninterrupted view of a seemingly empty landscape. The composition brings complexity, but the overall effect is, in plain terms, peaceful.

Lil Nas X, Montero; Label: Columbia

Lil Nas X marked his debut studio album with this brilliantly OTT artwork. The cover shows the singer and rapper unclothed and suspended mid-air in an embellished CGI universe. “We wanted to make something which was intricate and had an element of illusion, but which aesthetically feels uplifting and hopeful when you see it,” photographer Charlotte Rutherford told us.

“We worked from an amazing art piece by John Stephens which showed a heavenly sky and lake, with the water from the lake falling into the galaxy,” she continues. The artwork is littered with Easter eggs and sumptuous detail thanks to CG artist Metapoint. The resulting imagery echoes the album’s themes of change, transformation, self-love – and, like the music itself, feels both a touch vulnerable but clearly defiant.

Anton Bruhin, Speech Poems/Fruity Music; Label: Black Truffle

Swiss artist Anton Bruhin’s experimental practice spans the fields of visual art, music and poetry, which combine in his record Speech Poems/Fruity Music, an irreverent project and clear outlier on our list. The record brings together recordings made between 2006 and 2008 using audio software Fruity Loops, known for its simplistic approach to sequencing looped patterns in music production (dubbed “the adult version of Tetris”).

Bruhin employs the software’s presets – like its limited text-to-speech functionality – to subvert their intended use entirely. The video game sound palettes are reflected in the 8-bit aesthetic of Bruhin’s artwork, which emblematises the Tetris analogy. The monochrome mosaic design on the cover sees the text awkwardly forced into a grid – camera glare, loose tiles and all, a reflection of the jerky yet charming ‘speech poems’ Bruhin squeezes out of the software on the record.

Joy Orbison, Still Slipping Vol. 1; Label: XL

Real name Peter O’Grady, Joy Orbison’s long awaited debut LP Still Slipping Vol. 1 sits more in the mixtape category, blending heady cuts, textured soundscapes and conversational fragments between relatives with loose gestures – reflected in the scrawled tracklisting on the sleeve design.

Family is the glue not just in the music but the album visuals too. Shot by Rosie Marks, who also photographed the wider album art and an accompanying zine, the record sleeve features his cousin Leighann, who was responsible for introducing the producer to genres like jungle, drum and bass, and UK garage – all fundamental cornerstones of his music output. As Leighann takes a deep drag on a cigarette on the front cover, on the reverse she faces away on a sodden terrace. The damp paving slabs and laundry hanging unfussily in the background bring a sense of everyday realism, but the images are handled with care and warmth.

Tyler, The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost; Label: Columbia

The release campaign around Tyler, The Creator’s latest album Call Me If You Get Lost was, as ever, a spectacle, from his theatrical, windswept BET performance to the retro self-directed music videos.

The official album cover for the album was a travel ID issued to Tyler Baudelaire – a nod to the 19th century poet closely associated with the roaming flâneur – creative directed by Wolf Haley, the rapper and producer’s alias. However, we’ve slipped Gregory Ferrand’s striking alternative cover onto this list. Ferrand’s portfolio of surreal, cinematic paintings caught the eye of Tyler, The Creator, who approached the artist with a rough sketch and a list of details he wanted to feature in the painting, Ferrand told us. The low-angle perspective means Tyler towers over the composition, dressed in his golfer garb seen in the Lumberjack video and wielding two luggage trunks, while a beached sailboat juts between his legs in the background.

“On my end, it felt like a conversation but throughout the whole process, it was obvious that Tyler knew exactly what he wanted from me,” Ferrand said. “And now that I’ve been able to see the rollout for Call Me If You Get Lost, his planning and creativity is very impressive.”