Even during the streaming age, you may find yourself lost in a record shop, entranced by a record based on the artwork alone. Evoking the feelings, themes and material of the music within, the best album covers of 2021 offer snapshots of life a year after lockdown.
20: Jimi Somewhere: ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
Jimi Somewhere’s music could easily soundtrack a modern teen flick in which the protagonist discovers what they believe to be all there is to know about youth, love and friendship. Recorded while Somewhere – born Benjamin Schandy – was between ages of 17 and 21, Nothing Gold Can Stay explores the ephemerality of youth through the musician’s signature sound of dreamy guitars, Auto-Tuned croaks and raw emotion. In keeping with the coming-of-age themes, the record’s artwork perfectly encapsulates teenhood as the beautiful, colourful, confusing experience it is.
Photographer: Dev Dhunsi
19: Topaz Jones: ‘Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama’
The New Jersey-based Topaz Jones received acclaim for his debut album, 2016’s Arcade, and was invited to perform its notable bonus track, Tropicana, as part of Highsnobiety’s partnership with COLORS. Five years later, Topaz delivers a follow-up, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama, whose artwork reflects the album’s funk-infused reflections on childhood and immediately stands among the best album covers of 2021. Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama also comes accompanied by a short film, which won the Sundance Film Festival’s award for Best Non-Fiction Short Film, proving that Topaz’s artistry stretches far beyond the auditory.
Photographer: Jason Filmore Sondock
18: Madlib: ‘Sound Ancestors’
Madlib’s Sound Ancestors sleeve may induce memories of school physics lessons. Its photography uses the Chladni plate method of visualising sound, as devised by the “Father Of Acoustics”, Ernst Chladni. The German physicist found that when fine powder, such as sand, was sprinkled on a vibrating plate, it would settle in patterns displaying the plate’s vibrations. Simple yet effective artwork for Madlib and Four Tet’s collaborative album.
Photographer: Richard Foster
17: slowthai: ‘TYRON’
Controversial Northampton rapper slowthai released his sophomore effort in February 2021, exactly a year after accosting Katherine Ryan at the NME Awards. A double-album, TYRON – which takes its name from slowthai’s birth name – supplies endless mosh pit energy throughout its first half, while the second reveals a more emotional side to slowthai’s artistry, with the MC grieving over the death of his brother on songs such as nhs and feel away. Reflecting a new beginning for the young rapper, the album cover pictures a deceased, devil-horned Tyron Frampton laying under an apple tree. Shot by independent creative studio Crowns & Owls in Tyron’s hometown of Northampton, the image reflects how, as the design trio put it, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
Designers: Crowns & Owls
16: Julien Baker: ‘Little Oblivions’
Little Oblivions is a fantastic example of Julien Baker’s development as an artist. Effectively acting as her entire band, she performs bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, guitar and keyboards, and multi-tracks her own vocals. She was even responsible for the album’s striking artwork: a self-portrait featuring a watchful lone wolf looking on. Scrawled over the image is one of the album’s most piercing lyrics: “There’s no glory in love/Only the gore of our hearts,” taken from the song Bloodshot.
Painting: Julien Baker
15: Griff: ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’
Winner of the BRIT Awards’ 2021 Rising Star accolade, Griff unveiled her debut mixtape, One Foot In Front Of The Other, in June. Chronicling the 20-year-old singer’s experience of heartbreak, it boasts flawless vocal performances and sparkling production courtesy of Griff herself, who wrote, performed and recorded the collection during the 2020 lockdown. Its dramatic cover photo – captured by photographer Kerry Dean, and standing as one of the best album covers of 2021 – pictures Griff (aka Sarah Faith Griffiths) balancing on a tightrope as she carefully attempts to cross to the other side. Speaking with Apple Music, Griff explained why she chose the image and title: “There’s a sense of vulnerability of the unknown, and all you can do is just put one foot in front of the other.”
Photographer: Kerry Dean
14: Jevon: ‘Fell In Love In Brasil’
This illustration of an angel-winged Jevon staring directly at a burning Brazilian forest is by far one of the best album covers of 2021. Though a highly established producer who has played a huge role in XL Recordings’ NEW GEN project, Jevon has nonetheless gone under the radar for many. His long-awaited debut – and supposedly final – album, Fell In Love In Brasil is a sonic celebration of Jevon’s heritage. Inspired by one of his grandfathers, who left him Brazilian vinyl when he passed away, Jevon successfully blends UK rap with bossa nova and samba, with the money generated from the project going towards funding a studio in the favelas of Brazil.
Illustrator: Andy Harris
13: Squid: ‘Bright Green Field’
Brighton-based five-piece Squid have been known in their hometown and the surrounding area for the best part of half a decade, yet they have only now released their long-awaited debut album, Bright Green Field. Giving the post-post aesthetic their own unique take, Squid comment on right-wing propaganda and the immoral behaviours of big corporations. The creator of the album’s cover image – an imaginary cityscape in the shape of a fleeing human – Felix Geen was also responsible for the epic, eight-minute 3D-rendered video that accompanied the record’s lead single, Narrator.
Illustrator: Felix Geen
12: Weezer: ‘OK Human’
Ditching the guitars that have defined their previous records, Weezer’s 14th studio album, OK Human, features a 38-piece orchestra and entirely analogue instruments, creating a new sonic aesthetic for the band. Its album cover, however, retains the band’s pop-punk leanings with a comic-book style reminiscent of Green Day’s Dookie artwork. The cover was illustrated by the Swedish artist Mattias Adolfsson, known for highly detailed illustrations which emit a kind of controlled chaos. Weezer frontman River Cuomo, a keen comic fan himself, became infatuated with the style after discovering Mattias’ work in a local comic shop.
Illustrator: Mattias Adolfsson
11: Sad Night Dynamite: ‘Sad Night Dynamite’
This self-titled mixtape offers a peek into alternative electronic/hip-hop duo Sad Night Dynamite’s dystopian world – as reflected by the artwork’s image of a limo sinking into green, murky waters. The photography, by Angus Steel, captures the dark heart at the centre of the music, from the all-too-real dangers of living in surveillance states (Killshot) to the beach-based abduction detailed in Icy Violence.
Photographer: Angus Steel
10: Tash Sultana: ‘Terra Firma’
Tash Sultana’s sophomore release, Terra Firma, released on their own Lonely Lands Records, sees the Australian multi-instrumentalist explore a more band-orientated style and experimenting with a wide array of sounds, honed production from New Zealander Dann Hume, and collaborations with homeland rapper Jerome Farah (Willow Tree) and singer-songwriter Josh Cashman (Dream My Life Away). It also boasts one of the best album covers of 2021 – its mix of cobras, pyramids and waterfalls bringing to mind 80s heavy metal album covers or the explosive colours of a Santana record sleeve.
Illustrator: Pat Fox
9: 96 Back: ‘9696 Dream’
Sheffield-born, Manchester-based producer/DJ 96 Back (aka Evan Majumdar-Swift) is well known for his highly individual and eclectic experimental electronica, and 9696 Dream arrived earlier this year as the first in a series of three releases due for release on the Local Action label. While rooted in dance music’s past, his music isn’t fixed to any particular subgenre or structure, though designer Oliver Van Der Lugt’s artwork recalls the heyday of early 90s rave culture. Sharing a similar vision to 96 Back, the Melbourne-based artist also makes music and DJs, under the fittingly throwback alias Air Max ’97.
Designer: Oliver Van Der Lugt
8: Kojaque: ‘Town’s Dead’
Fans have awaited Kojaque’s debut full-length release, Town’s Dead, ever since the Dublin rapper’s 2018 EP, Deli Daydreams, pegged him as an up-and-comer. A genre-fluid and highly ambitious work, Town’s Dead draws from hip-hop, R&B and jazz, as the MC explores both himself and the world on his doorstep, tackling the issues of class and gentrification surrounding his hometown. The album’s simple artwork pictures Kojaque (real name Kevin Smith) leaning out of a casket to sip from a pint of Guinness, revealing a humour not often seen among the best album covers of 2021.
Photographer: Joshua Heavens Onabowu
7: Foo Fighters: ‘Medicine At Midnight’
One of the few “old guard” groups to make it into our list of the best album covers of 2021, legendary rock outfit Foo Fighters released their tenth album, Medicine At Midnight, in February, with frontman Dave Grohl revealing it was inspired by their “love of rock bands that make… upbeat, uptempo, almost danceable records”. To help them in their mission, the group recruited self-proclaimed anarchist, designer and YouTuber Kel Lauren to create the striking artwork. The results are one of Foo Fighters’ finest, most intriguing album covers to date.
Designer: Kel Lauren
6: Claud: ‘Supermonster’
This debut album by Chicago artist Claud was the first release on Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory label. Across the 13-track record, Claud tells their coming-of-age story through a DIY indie-pop aesthetic with collaborations from Joshua Mehling, Clairo and Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Joshua Portrait. A former art-school attendee, Claude created their own artwork, inspired by the late outsider singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. On finishing the record, Lee Foster the manager of Electric Lady Studios, presented them with a sketch by Daniel Johnston called Claud And The Supermonster. Claud took the album title from the sketch, later saying, “I write about feeling like a creature or a monster a lot in my own work, and so did Daniel.”
5: Bicep: ‘Isles’
For their second studio album, Irish duo Bicep commissioned artwork from Studio Degrau. As the designers explained, the image – as colourful as the album itself – came from “sculptural moments that are created by freezing gestures from the human body, while reacting to techno”. A bold and meaningfully executed entry among the best album covers of 2021, its distorted – yet natural – appearance reflects Bicep’s eclectic electronic sound.
Designers: Studio Degrau
4: girl in red: if i could make it go quiet
Going by the name girl in red, Scandinavian indie-popper Marie Ulven released her debut album, if i could make it go quiet, through her own label, World In Red, after its release was initially delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Labelled “indie pop’s new voice for the queer generation”, Ulven’s music takes the form of internal audits as she reflects honestly on her anxieties and behaviours, and their effects on loved ones. Discovering Fredrik Wiig Sørensen’s cover painting via Instagram, she was immediately captivated by how much the image reflected the distorted headspace she felt herself in at the time of recording the album. It made a perfect fit.
Illustrator: Fredrik Wiig Sørensen
3: Nubiyan Twist: ‘Freedom Fables’
The third album from London-based nine-piece jazz collective Nubiyan Twist channels a co-operative spirit through an array of guest features and an extensive mix of styles, pulling from jazz, hip-hop, Afrobeat, soul, reggae and dance music. Its beautiful, Space Age-jungle artwork is courtesy of Bristol’s Emma Rodriguez, aka MOONCRAB, who specialises in drawing digital landscapes. “I’m inspired by my own ups and downs, because that’s when I want to escape the most,” Rodriguez says on her website. “That’s when I want to create something that helps me get away, but I’m also inspired by things I see and dream of and surround myself by.”
Illustrator: Emma Rodriguez
2: J Cole: ‘The Off Season’
J Cole’s sixth studio album, The Off Season, was also his sixth straight record to go No.1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Continuing a run of sports-themed album covers (The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights, Cole World), The Off Season’s artwork pictures Cole standing in front of basketball hoop set on fire. The rapper’s nonchalant expression perfectly contrasts with the flames, signifying a potential end of an era while also evoking a feeling of pure dedication to his craft, as if the young Cole has had to decide between choosing basketball or hip-hop as his life’s true calling.
Photographer: Justin Francis
1: Mogwai: ‘As The Love Continues’
The long-running Glaswegian post-rock outfit Mogwai scored their biggest album success with their tenth release, As The Love Continues. Topping our list of the best album covers of 2021 so far, it also gave the group their first UK chart-topper in their 26-year career. Capturing the widescreen cinematics of their music – which has appeared on the French TV series Les Revenants, Italian crime drama ZeroZeroZero and the science-fiction film Kin, among countless other uses – the artwork, by Cardiff-based graphic designer, illustrator and art director David “DLT” Thomas, is an immediately arresting and slightly twisted portrayal of a demonic-looking stuffed white fox, based on a photo taken in the 1910s of a piece in the collection of the Russian merchant Nikolai P Alin.
Designer: David “DLT” Thomas
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