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This Worked 2016 Our design team on the year's best album artwork

This year has been an exciting yet turbulent one for the music world. Twitter exploded when Kanye challenged everyone to guess the meaning of the abbreviation TLOP, we saw Desiigner throw up on stage while performing Panda, we were surprised by the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s first (and final) album for 18 years, and on a sadder note we had to say goodbye to the legends David Bowie, Kashif, Prince and Leonard Cohen.

But sometimes these happenings make us forget about the amazing creative work done by the musicians themselves, and more specifically the artists that produce the visuals that accompany their music.

We believe these play an integral role in telling the story of a musician’s album, and we think artists still think a great deal about how this narrative is reflected in their visuals.

This year we saw Beyoncé release Lemonade with a visual album – a video with a continuous story that connects each track to the next, making the album a beautiful whole. Or Frank Ocean’s long anticipated Blond – which was released not only with two album covers, but also with a magazine full of stories, like the browser history of some prominent rappers.

However, some have argued that the traditional album cover is dead, as today’s streaming services and their playlists only show the artist’s visuals as tiny thumbnails next to the tracks. Why would an artist still put time and effort into something that can’t be studied?

On the other hand, as streaming services have made everything look homogeneous, the only visual cue an artist can give its audience is this small square. It is the only way to communicate the style and feel of the album, before someone starts listening.

And so we asked our design team – who work with imagery every day – to list the album covers that most impressed and impacted them over the past 12 months. Some are the obvious choices, while others might come as a surprise…

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

One could say that Kanye’s career has been built on sampling. This artwork, designed by Belgium artist Peter De Potter, continues that tradition, sampling a promotional video by the band Joywave.

Kanye shows that an album is never finished, and neither is the artwork. TLOP’s cover is really an extension of the music – the style is expansive, responsive and daring. And you can even make it your own.

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

It’s offbeat, it’s different. The designer Eric Timothy Carlson explained the process of making the cover in this in-depth interview: “The songs were all numbers from the start, multiple numbers at first. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, make lists, make drawings. Real references and experiences are collaged in both the music and the artwork. I was able to interview and interrogate each song – digging into weird cores – and by the end of each visit, each song would develop a matrix of new notes and symbols.”

And so the artwork contains a varied range of strange icons, symbols and references that reflect the music perfectly, although you do have to spend some serious time listening to grasp its full meaning.

The songs were all numbers from the start. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, make lists, make drawings.

Solange – A Seat At The Table

Solange’s cover is a great example of artists telling a broader story with all visuals they put out alongside their music. The cover was shot by Carlota Guerrero, a young Spanish photographer whom Solange discovered via Instagram. Together with Carlota, Solange art directed all her videos, resulting in a coherent and beautiful story about black femininity. “The strength of solidarity between black women is one of the key narratives of this project so a lot of the images we made reflect that energy,” Carlota told i-D. This inspirational pairing leads to beautiful, simplistic imagery which is also reflected in the cover. And if you’re not sold by that then just look at this.

The strength of solidarity between black women is one of the key narratives of this project so a lot of the images we made reflect that energy.

Kaytranada – 99,9%

The artwork triggers you to listen to the album, and it made us discover Ricardo Cavolo – now on our list of illustrators to watch.

Ricardo likes to depict the story of heroes in his artworks. As he explained to Amadeus Magazine, “I want to speak about not regular people, but someone special and different form the average. I love to use symbolic details and I thought that with more than two eyes the person becomes different from the rest.” On 99,9%’ s cover, Ricardo depicts Kaytranada as an all-seeing hero, elevating him well above us mere mortals.

I love to use symbolic details and I thought that with more than two eyes the person becomes different from the rest.

Jameszoo – Fool

Fool is the debut album of new Brainfeeder member Jameszoo. The painting is done by Dutch painter Philip Akkerman, who usually paints self-portraits. A debut album brings pressure to put yourself on the map, to make a name for yourself. What better way of doing that by portraying yourself on the cover in a super appealing way?

Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna’s Anti hides some amazing mysteries. The artwork, made by Roy Nachum, shows Rihanna when she was young, with a crown hiding her face. As explained in Vanity Fair, “The image of a child is an homage to her roots, and the blinding crown represents success.” But what’s most interesting about this work is that it features braille, which spells out a poem by Chloë Mitchell. Through this unusual touch, Rihanna adds an extra layer of meaning to her album.

The image of a child is an homage to her roots, and the blinding crown represents success.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

The cover photo is taken by Deana Lawson and is called Binky & Tony Forever. Lawson is known for photos that are shot in environments which reveal as much about the viewer’s assumptions as they do about the subjects themselves.

In our eyes, the photo shows hopeful love, real love between a young couple. Maybe they don’t have much, but they do have each other.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

The artwork of this ninth studio album by the revered English band was made by longtime Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood, who has created all of their album covers since 1995’s The Bends.

As Stanley explained to NME, he starts thinking about the cover early on in the band’s creative process, and continues to evolve it during the whole recording period. It’s clear this process pays off; Radiohead’s discography is a beautifully consistent collection of artworks. And, once again, A Moon Shaped Pool is spot on in translating the overall vibes of the album to a cover.

Jessy Lanza – Oh No

We love this image because it is so knowingly over-the-top, but in a fun lo-fi way. The plants in the background seem to reference the popular 2016 cacti-and-fern hipster aesthetic. It feels like it might be a reaction to the idea that social media should be authentic, while it’s actually over-curated and stylized.

James Blake – The Colour in Anything

The long awaited second album of the super-talented producer has a cover that looks like a Roald Dahl story. Which makes total sense, given its the author’s longtime collaborator Sir Quentin Blake who is responsible for the artwork.

The pairing of the two Blakes might initially come as a surprise, given that there’s 56 years between them. But as Alexis Burgess told It’s Nice That, James and Sir Quentin Blake share a drive to create what they love, whether that’s making music or illustrations.T his mutual understanding led to a grown-up version of the children’s books Sir Quentin usually illustrates for. He has both nailed James Blake’s silhouette and his album’s atmosphere in one beautifully serene artwork.

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