The best record sleeves of 2019

Our favourite album covers from the past 12 months include powerful portraits, surreal collage and experiments with screen printing – spanning genres from grime to rock and pop

We might be living in a post-album era but there are still a wealth of great album covers to be found in 2019. Granted, most of us now interact with covers at thumbnail size, but the album cover can still be a powerful tool for communication – and thankfully, there are plenty of artists and designers who are adopting a creative and playful approach to the format.

Here, we round up our top ten covers from 2019, including designs for Kano, FKA twigs and Slowthai.

FKA twigs – Magdalene 

FKA twigs brought us another twisted self-portrait with the release of her second album Magdalene. A collaboration between twigs and artist Matthew Stone, the album’s cover takes inspiration from Renaissance and Surrealist art as well as the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene.

The image was created by painting on to a 3D scan of twigs. With its combination of CGI and crude brushstrokes, it’s an image that sits uncomfortably between painting and photography – and is equal parts striking and unsettling. It’s an image that demands a second glance and leaps out from even the smallest of digital screens.

Speaking to CR about the making of the cover earlier this year, Stone explained: “I [was] trying to create something that feels authentically human, but kind of trapping myself within this digital world. I’m working in CG and digital images of real paint, and I’m trying to depict bodies that feel real and unreal at the same time.”

Holly Herndon – Proto

Electronic composer Holly Herndon’s album is an ambitious experiment that explores the role of AI in music creation. Working with AI expert Jules LaPlace, she created a virtual ‘child’ named Spawn that can interpret and develop musical ideas. The album brings together a series of tracks which were recorded by Herndon and collaborators and remixed by her AI baby.

Designer Michael Oswell worked with Herndon and her musical collaborator Mat Dryhurst to create the Proto cover art, which mirrors the creative process behind the album.

The cover was created by layering photographs of everyone involved in the making of the record – including Herndon, her partner Dryhurst and musicians featured on individual tracks – to create an eerie portrait. A glassy top layer imposed on the image spells out the name of the album while the record’s back cover features an assortment of black type in various weights and styles. It’s a startling cover – one that combines uncanny CGI with a human touch and avoids the visual clichés that are often used to represent AI.

Flying Lotus – Flamagra

Flying Lotus’ visual output includes some odd and intricate album art – from the Tarot-inspired imagery for You’re Dead to the detailed drawings which grace the cover of Cosmogramma. For his latest record, Flamagra, the artist and director enlisted Toronto creative Winston Hacking to create a trippy collage that is laced with humour.

FlyLo’s face stares out amid the flames in a surreal image that resembles a scene from some kind of steampunk underworld – and leaves you longing to find out if the music is as bonkers as the cover art. The vinyl edition opens to reveal a pop-up gatefold with more weird and wonderful creatures and contraptions.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

The cover of Ghosteen presents a lush paradise dreamt up by Tom duBois, an American commercial illustrator turned Gospel artist. After years of working on illustrations for household names – including Quaker Oats, McDonalds, Nintendo and Gillette – duBois turned his hand to making paintings inspired by his Christian faith. The cover, from his Eden series, depicts the Garden of Eden, complete with flamingos, leopards and a wealth of colourful flowers.

Cave hasn’t revealed the meaning behind the image, preferring instead to let fans make up their own minds. But whatever his reasons for choosing it, it makes for a beautiful cover. In an era of stripped-back photographic designs, or record sleeves with dark and dystopian themes, the image stands out for its radiant optimism. But it also takes on a certain poignancy on the cover of a record that deals with loss, grief, faith and Cave’s experience of losing his son.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You 

2019 brought us a wealth of stripped-back photographic covers for female artists – from Lil Simz to Brittany Howard and Jamila Wood. But none were quite like Lizzo’s.

The cover of Cuz I Love You shows Lizzo wearing nothing but a 42-inch wig – a surprising sight given her love of bold costumes on stage.

It’s an intimate and serious cover from an artist known for her playful performances and music videos – but is a fitting approach for an album that has been described as her most honest yet. It also feels like a powerful statement from an artist who has championed body confidence and self-love – and spoken out about the damaging effects of growing up without seeing plus-size women of colour reflected in pop culture.

Speaking to The Cut, hairstylist Kendall Dorsey – who selected Lizzo’s wig for the cover shoot – said: “[It] was really about her exposing herself as a woman, and just being fearless, free and confident.”

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Hot Chip – A Bathfull of Ecstacy

A collaboration between Jeremy Deller and design studio Fraser Muggeridge, the artwork for Hot Chip’s seventh album sidesteps obvious visual references to drugs or rave culture in favour of a subtler nod to psychedelia.

The studio created a screen-printed cover in rainbow brights and a custom typeface that channels the Arts & Crafts movement. Typographic quirks and imperfections from the print process give the cover a delightfully off-kilter feel – with its smudges, blotches and odd spacing, it feels like a relic from another era.

Great typographic covers have been in short supply this year but the design is proof that a type-based approach can prove just as effective as photography or illustration. The artwork is just as striking on billboards as it is at LP size, and has also been applied to posters and merch.

Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain 

Crown & Owls’ artwork for NGAB perfectly captures the humour and irreverence of Northampton rapper Slowthai’s debut album. Just like the music it represents, it is funny, bleak and unmistakably British. From the dated council estate draped in union flags to the upturned shopping trolley and Playmobil car, it’s filled with details that will be recognisable to anyone who grew up in working class Britain – and leaves us in no doubt as to what the album’s about.

It also provides a nod to punk music – a major source of inspiration for Slowthai – bringing to mind a famous image of Johnny Rotten on a cross. The presence of stocks touches on ideas of shame – another theme in the record – while the nudity and the slightly manic grin remind us that this is an artist who isn’t afraid to shock. The album also features some brilliant portraits of Slowthai.

Bon Iver – i,i 

The vinyl edition of Bon Iver’s i,i is a joy to unpack, revealing a series of collages created by the group’s art director Eric Timothy Carlson.

Carlson spent two years working alongside the band during the making of the album, pulling together a wealth of images from tours and recording sessions. Close-ups, portraits and still lifes are layered together in playful compositions, offering an abstract take on the behind-the-scenes photobook.

Images of everyone involved in the making of the album are displayed on the gatefold – reflecting Bon Iver’s growth from a solo to a group project – while the reverse features images and symbols from the collective’s previous album, 22.

With its clear plastic sleeve, spot varnish and five-colour prints, the album combines high production values with handmade touches, creating a physical release that is made to be pored over.

Kano – Hoodies All Summer 

Grime artist and Top Boy star Kano’s comeback album is a thought-provoking reflection on the state of the nation – one that swings from funny and optimistic to harrowing. Its tracks touch on issues from knife crime to the Windrush scandal and the effects of social inequality in London and beyond.

Photographer Olivia Rose and creative director Phil Lee worked with Kano to create the album’s artwork (you can read our interview with the trio about the making of it here), which features black-and-white images of children on a London estate.

Speaking to CR, Lee said the aim was to reflect the duality of the record – both its “strong sense of optimism” and its “darker, tougher side”. The cover image feels at first glance optimistic – a gesture of friendship and solidarity – but the absence of colour and the lack of smiles gives it a more sombre tone. In the vinyl edition, the image is contrasted with an all-colour photograph of an older boy lying covered in blood, which provides a stark reminder of the violence that has become all too common on London’s estates. It’s a powerful cover – Rose’s photography perfectly captures the record’s tone, and offers a vivid portrait of the neighbourhoods and communities that Kano raps about on the album.

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost 

The artwork for Foals’ fifth studio album combines cats, contemporary art text created on a typewriter, and is the product of a close collaboration between designer Mike Lythgoe and lead singer and guitarist Yannis Philippakis.

The cover image – a cinematic scene by Ecuador-born artist Vicente Munoz – was one that Philippakis had been “living with” during the making of the album. Speaking to CR when the album was released, Lythgoe said: “Yannis felt that image was the best way to visualise what the record is like sonically.”

It’s an evocative image – one that feels like a faded snapshot from another time – and the red foliage give it a strange and slightly eerie feel. But pictures of Philippakis and Lythgoe’s cats on discs add a whimsical touch. The type on the record’s left hand side was inspired by the labels often seen on Japanese releases, while the reverse features a typed track listing complete with Philippakis’ handwritten notes. “It’s nice to have something hand-drawn rather than always technical and detailed,” says Lythgoe,” and fans appreciate that personal touch.”

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