Sure, Lil Yachty was exaggerating slightly when he lamented about being the “only one who really care[s] about cover art” on Chance The Rapper’s Mixtape in 2016, but the streaming era has undoubtedly shifted and abstracted notions of not only music itself, but of the album artwork that contains it. As 2019 closes, we can see that the book has been rewritten — or, shall we say, digitally republished.
Because of our devices, album art now has to be functional on screens both big and small. Taylor Swift will still force you out to JB Hi-Fi for your CDs, and your favourite artist has you wrapped around their finger importing that bulky, full-size vinyl, but now artwork has to be legible not only physically, but digitally, across varying screen sizes over multiple devices. It has to be durable in an era where music — and subsequently, its album art — is increasingly intangible and untethered from physical mediums.
Perhaps now, album artwork is more important than ever? It’s a quick, easily recognisable, art-based “data point”, floating among multiple other data points, as NYT Pop Music critic Jon Caramanica suggests. Where does album art sit in the musical data points of the future?
For now, let’s reflect on the year passed in achievements in album art: the best covers of the final year of the decade, from creepy to clever to cool (and with a special shout out to those featuring cars).
100 gecs - 1000 gecs
Few album covers this year pack such an unsettling punch as the image on the front of 100 gecs’ debut, 1000 gecs, with its strange warping of colours and light, as if miraculously captured mid-lightning flash. In its strangeness, it’s an evocation and continuation of the notion of ‘cursed images’, which culture writer Jia Tolentino describes as “little snapshots of a world arranged by a spooked, mischievous, possibly malevolent presence” — inexplicable flashes of inexplicable events. Perhaps intentionally, or perhaps even by chance, 1000 gecs’ back-to-the-camera eeriness recalls the ending of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, though the cover’s stadium light illumination and digital gloss is all the more frightening. And that’s before you’ve heard the music — the cover scares my mum, but the music scares my dogs.
FKA twigs - magdalene
It’s hard to avoid both the visual and aural hypnosis of FKA twigs' sophomore record, magdalene. Forged by the trio of twigs, her creative director Matthew Josephs, and artist and long-time collaborator Matthew Stone, the record’s sickly orange artwork not only is a distillation of a half-decade of public and private tribulations over relationships and health, but of the catharsis waiting at the end of that tunnel. A patchwork of aesthetics references both biblical and artistic, the cover is emboldened by its accompanying visuals, which branch beyond the cover’s slightly-askew portraiture to reveal a deeper deconstruction of the human body.
As Stone attests, his process — a frenetic fusion of painting, photography and digital 3D manipulation — “brings an uncanny digital feeling to what’s essentially a painterly image”. The music inside, a considered 39 minutes of grandeur and gracefulness occasionally ruptured by moments of gut-deep salvation, gels perfectly with the art.
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Avant-pop teenage provocateur Billie Eilish’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a bombastic mix of art pop, industrial and alt-R&B packaged in one of the most progressive and popular records of the year — though the album’s cover is comparatively simpler than such description. Peering through the vignette with a nightmarish limelight is a bedroom centrepiece in all white — Billie’s eyes, iced with contacts, included. What the cover allows through its minimalist design is the album’s sound — a cross between the “how much bass do you want?" "yes" meme, bass-heavy, spooky growls and “this is the type of song to listen in the car while it's raining” vibes — to fill in those dark, black edges, leaving your frightened 2am brain open to imagine any monsters that might be lurking in the shadows. For Billie, that monster is the titular ghastly force from the 2014 horror film, The Babadook, whose art style she took inspiration from and lent to the cover’s photographer, Kenneth Cappello. If all the good girls go to hell, I guess this is Billie’s version of it.
young thug - so much fun
Young Thug is defined by his inconsistencies, but at least we can say for sure that his album covers are never boring. Historically, Thug’s artwork wavers between ingenious — JEFFREY’s iconic ruffled dress, or Young Martha’s mantle-hanging portrait of rap royalty — and straight up bizarre — the not-so-luxurious, floating upper body Weezy riff on Beautiful Thugger Girls; or the unseemly cartoonishness of I’m Up. On Thug’s decade-closing album So Much Fun, he aligns the two sides of his wacky artistic energy into a bona fide masterpiece. Designed by regular collaborators Fano and Be EL Be, the cover sports a collage of Thug’s head built from precisely 802 smaller versions of Thug of varying sizes — some looking up, others looking down, many of them glowing as to show off Thug’s diamonds. The cover’s real MVP is the comparatively bigger blond Thug, who’s mowing the album title into the cover’s lush green landscape.
lil nas x - old town road (multiple versions)
The defining song of the year also had the defining cover(s) of the year — and no, we’re not talking about whatever the hell Lil Nas X was thinking when he commissioned that amateur hour, sci-fi-inspired fan-art for his now Grammy-nominated 7 EP. Keeping the flame of the Old Town Road remix meme alive was the slight adjustments to the original’s Horse On White, peaking both musically and artistically with the most unlikely posse cut of all time: Lil Nas (black horse, mainstay) alongside Billy Ray Cyrus (beautiful brown horse), Young Thug (slime green horse) and Mason Ramsey (cute little golden baby horse). A record-length stretch of the imagination in any other year, but in 2019, it couldn’t make more sense. In other covers, remix-hoppers like Diplo and RM from BTS get their share as white and purple horses respectively, but those versions are better left to the ever-shifting sands of meme time.
slayyyter - slayyyter
What if Britney Spears was part of PC Music? That’s the question Slayyyter asks, and perhaps even answers, on her self-titled debut. A post-Ke$ha, post-Lady Gaga kind of electro-dance pop artist, she embodies this type of viral stardom that is increasingly common in 2019, but her potpourri of sonic and visual influences — from Spring Breakers to Grand Theft Auto loading screens to Final Destination 3’s ‘tanning bed girls’ — are perhaps too niche for total world domination. Instead, Slayyter is destined for semi-underground, online pop stan reverence, as her debut album cover suggests in all its hyper-materialist, cyber-bubblegum aesthetics. Photographed by Jason Altaan and edited by glitchmood, the cover is equal parts eloquent and trashy, like someone drunkenly rendered Hannah Diamond’s glossy, ultra HD art through a filter of Tomorrowland promo videos and Cock Destroyer memes.
megan thee stallion - fever
The cover for Megan Thee Stallion’s fourth mixtape, Fever — a movie poster in the style of Pam Grier Blaxploitation films like 1973’s Coffy — is an apt representation of the music inside: real hot girl shit. Megan raps with the explosive energy of these '70s Pam Grier vehicles, with high-octane supporting characters like DaBaby and Juicy J giving the music an extra bounce. But as the cover shows, this is Megan’s project through and through, and she stands tall, engulfed in flames rising above the cityscape and the cars and, of course, a stallion.
lana del rey - norman fucking rockwell!
Lana Del Rey said fuck continuity: where her previous album covers showcased only her as a lone figure, dressed in white and accompanied by a car — a symbol of freedom (or the illusion of) — Norman Fucking Rockwell! breaks from tradition and places Lana not only isolated in the ocean, but with her arm wrapped around a companion (Jack Nicholson’s grandson, Duke). Gone is the clean typeface and faux-candid design; the textures are all new. The skies are now painted with a heavy brush and look down upon a burning coastal city. Credits are reduced to acronyms and cling like pop art stickers. It’s probably not enough to claim reinvention — Americana is still being excavated. But on NFR!, in her new place, and with her hand reaching for us, she sounds anew, rejuvenated, at her best.
caroline polacheck - Pang
Nothing could go wrong when former Chairlift frontwoman/neo-yodeller Caroline Polachek crossed paths with PC Music acolyte Danny L Harle. Much like fellow fringe pop star Charli XCX and her own tight-knit collaboration with PC Music figurehead AG Cook, Caroline and Danny’s pairing is a match made in musical heaven. And while nothing they concoct on Pang has me reaching for my eyepatch per se, my girlfriend has used the album’s rollout as an example of how “sexy pirates are back this year”. I’m not necessarily convinced (does NFR! count? She is on a boat…), but Pang’s paratextual artwork — collated most prominently on Caroline’s Instagram — certainly makes an argument that they might be. The accompanying video for Ocean Of Tears is indeed the most sexy pirate the album art gets, but there’s an argument to be made that the ladder she’s hanging from on Pang is hanging from some kind of steampunk airship. Regardless, the album art is slightly askew and quite painterly — just like the sounds inside it.
Stormzy - Heavy Is The Head
On the cover for Heavy Is The Head, Stormzy’s follow-up record to 2017’s acclaimed Gang Signs And Prayer, the grime rapper is poised in reflection. Perhaps on his slew of recent successes — the first grime album to go #1, the first grime artist to headline Glastonbury — or perhaps pre-emptively on successes of the future. Released only last week, Heavy Is The Head is looking like a victory lap, tracking well commercially, critically, and culturally, with the stark photograph on its cover finding a home in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery. Photographed by Mark Mattock (with art direction by Hales Curtis), the image has Stormzy holding the Banksy-designed “stab-proof” vest he donned at his Glastonbury performance. It’s all a little juxtapository — the typeface wrapped his head like a crown, the being so self-serious in the presence of a Banksy piece — but Stormzy’s demeanour pulls it off.
honourable mentions: cars
Music and cars go together like bread and butter. A good majority of listening time happens when you're driving, whether that’s from the radio, aux or the latest Taylor Swift CD. Iconic album cover cars of the decade? The bright orange BMW E30 M3 chilling on Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ultra; the chunky Chrysler Town & Countrys on the front of both The Black Keys’ El Camino and the deluxe version of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
There’s a cinematic quality inherent to cars, and the cover for Juice WRLD’s final album Death Race For Love translates this into a maximalist arrangement — all cars, guns, fire, smoke and city lights stylised as a retro PlayStation One cover. Centre frame is an extra-size Juice, emerging from the clouds and tying the cover’s references — the steel-crunching, octane-fuelled Death Race films and Twisted Metal games — together with a permanent state of heartbreak on his face.
Elsewhere this year, cars of varying makes and models graced the album covers of Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY and Denzel Curry’s ZUU. One could make the argument that both albums are specifically for car listening: the distorted guitars of SOUND & FURY’s synth-rock and radio static make you feel like you’re channel surfing in some unmade post-apocalyptic John Carpenter road movie — perfectly complemented by the album’s fiery, anime-styled cover. On ZUU, Denzel Curry ditches the bloated, conceptual bent of Ta13oo — clown paint and all — and stands tall in full frame. Behind him, a sleek vintage car, beaming in the afternoon sunlight.