Record sleeves of the year 2023

Linocut and collage techniques appear in our list of favourite album designs this year, alongside photographic covers taking us to spiritual places

As AI image platforms swept through the creative industries this year, plenty of album covers seized on the technology, from Beth Frey’s cover for Róisín Murphy to Mat Maitland and Claudia Rafael’s design for Sub Focus.

Yet the more surprising album cover credits that cropped up a lot this year weren’t machine-based: they were the musicians themselves. Four records out of the ten on our list cite the bands and producers as contributors to the album artwork. It’s a sign of artists taking a more direct role in the visual world they’re building around their music.

But it is also a reminder of how many hats music artists need to wear nowadays, particularly in an industry with ever-tightening purse strings (unless you’re in its upper echelons). As imagemaker Aidan Zamiri put it, for most underground artists these days, “the vision has to be reduced, it has to fit within the means” – or else they need to take care of it themselves.

It’s why it’s a joy to see such ingenuity from artists and designers each year, even in the face of the budgetary and time constraints facing musicians and their visual collaborators. On that note, you can revisit our favourites from 2023 listed below in order of release.

Young Fathers, Heavy Heavy. Label: Ninja Tune

For their third album, Heavy Heavy, Edinburgh trio Young Fathers joined forces once again with designer Tom Hingston, who worked with the Mercury Prize-winning group on their previous album. Heavy Heavy deals with the turbulence and tensions of life and society, but also the moments of optimism scattered in between – themes that were picked up for the cover artwork.

The cover image features an image of band member Kayus Bankole by London-based photographer Jordan Hemingway. Bankole’s appearance is modelled on the Nkisi figure found in several west and central African cultures, which is believed by many to have spiritual powers that can banish evil and usher in good fortunes. Traditionally made out of wood and metal, the figure “looks brutal at first glance because it’s covered in nails, however when you go a bit deeper past the surface level those nails represent the collected wishes from the village,” fellow band member Alloysious ‘Alloy’ Massaquoi explained.

The two typographic deluxe editions were inspired by the work of mixed media artist Antoni Tàpies, who introduced materials like sand, cement, and grit into his pieces. For his designs, Hingston used a combination of screenprinting and incorporating different additives into the ink. “Painted by brush and by hand, lyrics, slogans and track titles evoke the raw, primal energy of the music – it’s a very gestural language in that sense,” Hingston told us. “We wanted the type itself to have physical substance, texture – and to actually feel as if it had been painted directly onto the sleeve.”

Kelela, Raven. Label: Warp

The ‘difficult second album’ is a real thing in the industry, but Kelela’s highly anticipated sophomore album, Raven, lived up to expectations. “Water is a motif in Raven that, much like its use in Afro-diasporic rituals, Kelela employs to summon rebirth, romance and protection,” said one reviewer. The album plays with the idea of a phoenix being reborn, but without the cliché. “No more phoenixes. We’re done with phoenix,” Kelela told Vulture. Instead, she constructed the idea around a raven re-emerging – a concept threaded into the cover art, creatively directed by Mischa Notcutt and photographed by Hendrik Schneider.

“The artwork, the sound of this album – I think a lot of people would say it’s darker. And maybe, topically, people would receive that sadness,” she added. “Yet its symbolism is complex. It says that, as a talking bird, the raven also represents prophecy and insight. Ravens and stories often act as psychopomps connecting the material world with the world of spirits.”

Caroline Polachek, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. Label: Perpetual Novice

Something tells us that Caroline Polachek’s release date for her LP Desire, I Want to Turn Into You was no accident, particularly as it fell outside the conventional Friday release schedule. The singer-songwriter’s album came out on Valentine’s Day to wide acclaim; on its front was a cover shot by repeat collaborator Aidan Zamiri that set the tone for Polachek’s explorations of love, hunger, even a desire to inhabit desire itself.

Speaking of the album art, Polachek said it shows “a scene of me on all fours crawling in the train, listening to headphones with coffee stains on my dress, but of course, there’s all sorts of things quite visibly unusual about the setup. The ads on the walls make no sense, the subway maps look like cave paintings. There’s sand coming up from the front and it’s peppered with little tie-ins and subtle lyrics on the album.”

A Pitchfork review noted that “as a nod to desire’s transformational power, her album’s cover displays her on all fours on the grimy subway, lunging forward with a ravenous look in her eyes. On one end of the car is the rat race; on the other end, sand – a mirage of paradise.”

Kali Uchis, Red Moon in Venus. Label: Geffen

Photographer Cho Gi-Seok is known for his resplendent, powerful imagery combining elaborate prop styling and ethereal, even eerie manipulations of facial features. The mag that Cho conjures in his images was the perfect match for Kali Uchi’s record Red Moon in Venus, and all the creative potential offered up by the spiritual connotations of the album name.

The album is “a timeless, burning expression of desire, heartbreak, faith, and honesty, reflecting the divine feminity of the moon and Venus”, according to Uchis. Cho teases this “burning” musical expression into a portrait awash with glowing orange hues. Though she wears an ornate headpiece featuring details that frame her face like dripping blood and butterflies emerging from her braids, her strong, seductive gaze cuts right through to the viewer.

Ulrika Spacek, Compact Trauma. Label: Tough Love

British band Ulrika Spacek’s latest album Compact Trauma features an immersive cover artwork created by band members Rhys Edwards and Joseph Stone. The red and white dogtooth pattern on the cover has a central cutout resembling the circular window often seen on the inner sleeve of vinyl packaging.

Here, though, the cutout reveals a black and white image of hands held out at us. It’s a quietly mysterious design that leaves listeners asking questions.

Kid Koala, Creatures of the Late Afternoon. Label: Kid Koala

The cover of Canadian producer Kid Koala’s latest LP, Creatures of the Late Afternoon, features the album name etched onto moonlit signage in what appears to be a deserted film set, but is actually constructed out of corrugated cardboard like a diorama.

But it’s inside where the treasures await. Designed in collaboration with Corinne Merell, the vinyl LP’s double gatefold format opens up to a working board game, complete with game pieces, dice, and 150 game cards all featuring intricate artworks painted by Kid Koala himself. The bonus version of the record comes with eight additional tracks to be played in tandem with the board game.

Black and white image of the album artwork for Playing Robots Into Heaven by James Blake, showing the musician wearing a large tannoy like device on his back surrounded by other people forming a queue as they walk up a hill that slopes diagonally across the bottom third of the image

James Blake, Playing Robots Into Heaven. Label: Polydor

Playing Robots Into Heaven was James Blake’s first album since installing Crowns & Owls as his ongoing creative partners. It marked a shift in tone away from the “quiet guy behind the piano”, explained Jamie Adair of Crowns & Owls, “which is a big part of who he is – of course it is – but I think there’s a real will to communicate a little bit more directly from his part as he’s grown as a musician.”

In the album cover image shot by Thibaut Grevet, Blake is shown as part of a crowd of people going somewhere in the belief that it will be “better than where they are now”, Adair explains, an “ascension” to a utopia. “It’s this idea that James is part of this procession and the music’s leading people through this landscape to something bigger and something better beyond it.”

On Blake’s back is a large tannoy-like device, which projects music during this imagined procession. The device was built by hand with the help of a prop designer, using a Soviet synthesiser and music sculptures by the Baschet Brothers for reference points.

Gaunt, Blind at the Age of Four. Label: 3ON

British music producer, fine artist, and Royal College of Art alumnus Jack Warne, who releases work under his alias Gaunt, went on a deeply personal foray with his debut album. The album name, Blind at the Age of Four, is a direct reference to his experiences of Thiel-Behnke dystrophy, a type of corneal dystrophy that he has dealt with since childhood, leaving him in complete blindness for weeks at a time up until early adulthood. It was also when he first connected with music, spurred in part by his late father who experienced the same condition.

The surreal album visuals were created by Warne using both analogue and digital technologies including augmented reality, 3D rendering, drawing, and digital painting techniques. The shape of a face seems to sit at the base of the artwork, but it’s disfigured beneath a layer of glossy textures and warped mark-making.

The album was released as part of a wider multidisciplinary art project that included an exhibition involving painting, AR, and soundscapes drawn from the album, and a live show at ICA that was held in complete darkness.

Sufjan Stevens, Javelin. Label: Asmathic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album Javelin is a reminder of how publicly introspective he can be with his audiences. The album’s sound has been described as “cut-ups, snippets, bits and pieces of some larger picture”, which come together to channel his life and career so far.

This compositional approach is reflected in his own collage work on the cover, which features photos of his friends and collaborators, and even glimpses of himself too. This style is continued in the 48-page booklet of artworks and ten short essays included with Javelin. All written and made entirely by Stevens, it features what his label describes as “meticulous collages, cut-up catalogue fantasies, puff-paint word clouds, and iterative colour fields”.

Light in the Attic and Friends compilation. Label: Light in the Attic

Record label Light in the Attic began its Covers series over a decade ago, where contemporary acts take on songs by other artists which have been released on the label in the past. The label brought together all 20 of these covers into one compilation, Light in the Attic & Friends, which launched to coincide with Record Store Day this year. Tracks include Ethan and Maya Hawke taking on Willie Nelson, Mac DeMarco reinterpreting Haruomi Hosono, and Iggy Pop & Zig Zags performing a Betty Davis song.

It’s all part of what LITA founder Matt Sullivan describes as a project to keep past music alive in the present: “We believe that an essential component of archival work, aside from simply honouring the music, is to seek ways in which to bring fresh perspectives, context, and reverence to the original artists and their work.”

This sense of evolution and interconnectedness is captured beautifully in linocut artist Sophy Hollington’s piece on the cover, where ideas around roots and growth are interpreted literally, as is the name of the label.