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.
40: The Dodos: ‘Grizzly Peak’
Comprised of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber, The Dodos have been striving together for the best part of 15 years, and released their eighth studio album, Grizzly Peak, in November. Each new Dodos record stands alone from what’s come before, making following the duo a wonderfully unpredictable experience. Grizzly Peak continues their experimental streak, in terms of both Kroeber’s unique drumming style and the physicality of Long’s performances, yet it is very much an album that reflects on their musical journey so far, looking back on the mountain they have climbed together.
Illustrator: Michelle McNeil
39: 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
38: Doja Cat: ‘Planet Her’
Over the last few years, Doja Cat has become the quintessential Gen Z pop star, solidifying her position among the A-listers. Planet Her furthered her trajectory when it hit No.1 on the US R&B chart while also breaking Spotify’s record for the biggest opening day for a female rapper. Famed US photographer David LaChapelle ensured the record came with one of the best album covers of 2021, helping to capture the exquisitely strange yet glamorous music within.
Photographer: David LaChapelle
37: 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
36: 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
35: Big Red Machine: ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’
US indie duo Big Red Machine, consisting of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National), released their long-awaited second album in August. Musically, the record is soft and slow-paced, covering sombre themes such as grief, love, loss and reconciliation, and featuring guest appearances from the likes of Ben Howard, Taylor Swift, Fleet Foxes and This Is The Kit. It’s cover, designed by Graham Tolbert, features pre-school era images of Dessner, his twin brother, Bryce (whom the track Brycie is about), their sister, Jessica, and great-grandmother Stella. Aaron explained that Stella’s death was the siblings’ first brush with mortality, and so it felt fitting to include her and their childhood selves in the artwork.
Designer: Graham Tolbert
34: Angel Du$t: ‘YAK: A Collection Of Truck Songs’
A supergroup composed of members from hardcore outfits Trapped Under Ice and Turnstile, Maryland rockers Angel Du$t worked with Beck/Elliot Smith producer Rob Schnapf on their fourth album, resulting in a more power-pop approach to their music. A quirky entry among the best album covers of 2021, YAK: A Collection Of Truck Songs’ artwork was designed by Alabama-born artist Zach Hobbs, who used a Xerox machine to create an abstract collage inspired by punk rock’s DIY aesthetic.
Designer: Zachary Hobbs
33: Hayley Williams: ‘FLOWERS for VASES / descansos’
Recorded alone in lockdown, the Paramore vocalist’s second solo album is a more folk-centred affair than her popular debut, 2020’s Petals For Armor: Self-Serenades. Bare-boned and highly emotional, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos acts as a prequel and showcases Williams’ talents in a new light, as production takes a back seat and Williams’ lyricism and raw songwriting come to the fore.
Photographer: Linsey Byrnes
32: Isaiah Rashad: ‘The House Is Burning’
The artwork for Isaiah Rashad’s third studio album, The House Is Burning, features a crayon drawing of, well, a burning house. Raw and child-like, it’s the sort of image that a concerned parent may nevertheless proudly stick on their fridge. Rashad’s first album in five years, The House Is Burning features guest appearances from SZA, 6LACK and Jay Rock, and marks an incredible return for the Tennessee rapper, debuting at No.7 on the Billboard Top 200 and landing him his first-ever Top 10 record.
31: 454: ‘4 REAL’
454’s debut mixtape offers a clever mix of pitch-shifting vocals, hazy synthesisers and heavily distorted 808s – a familiar combination in modern-day hip-hop production, yet 4 REAL has its own distinctive sound. 454 delivers short, repetitive and highly infectious bars on top of his cloudy production, which sometimes serves to disguise the introspection in his lyrics. Standing out from the current crop of hip-hop stars, the Orlando rapper is pioneering a colourful pop-rap sound that’s determined to spill in 2022.
Designer: Chris Hardy
30: 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
29: Hand Habits: ‘Fun House’
Meg Duffy, aka Hand Habits, who also works as a studio musician for artists such as The War On Drugs and Weyes Blood, released their fourth solo album, Fun House, in October. With production from SASAMI and engineering work from King Tuff, the talented songwriter crafted a soft-pop aesthetic that raises the bar while retaining Hand Habit’s signature Americana sound. One of the best album covers of 2021, Fun House’s artwork features a painting by Canadian artist Curtis Talwst Santiago titled Whatever lay ahead he already accepted. Duffy was drawn to the image, which portrays a figure from the landmark drag-culture documentary Paris Is Burning, because of its non-binary feel – a fitting choice for a record which was intended to explore all aspects of its creator’s identity.
Illustrator: Curtis Talwst Santiago
28: 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
27: 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
26: 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
25: Aminé: ‘TWOPOINTFIVE’
For the latest instalment in his mixtape series, the Portland, Oregon-based rapper Aminé enlisted New Jersey-based artist Frank Dorray, who creates his visuals using an iPhone 8s and an app called Picsart. TWOPOINTFIVE’s hyper-colourful artwork befits the more creative follow-up to 2018’s ONEPOINTFIVE, capturing the way Aminé blends inspirations from pop and dance music to create the aural equivalent of a sugar rush.
Designer: Frank Dorray
24: Halsey: ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’
Halsey initially teased the cover of her fourth album with a video of herself wandering among maternity-themed artworks, before revealing the image at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art. Directly inspired by the Melun Diptych, which was created circa 1452 by the French painter Jean Fouquet and depicts the Virgin Mary and an infant Christ surrounded by cherubim, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’s cover photo was shot by Lucas Garrido and captures the singer sitting on a golden throne, left breast exposed and an infant on her knee. Halsey, who have birth to her first child in July, stated that the artwork conveyed “the sentiment of my journey over the past few months” as she aimed to reclaim her autonomy and tackle body and breastfeeding stigma.
Photographer: Lucas Garrido
23: 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
22: 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
21: 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
20: Trivium: ‘In The Court Of The Dragon’
For their tenth studio album, metal veterans Trivium took lyrical inspiration from ancient mythology, but, instead of focusing on existing folklore, the band decided to create a personal mythology which would provide a framework for their songs. For the artwork, they enlisted French painter Mathieu Nozieres, who created an original oil painting the likes of which could appear in any prestigious museum. On coming up with one of the best album covers of 2021, Trivium frontman Matt Heafy said, “After extensive research, we found one of the few living artists who is capable of creating artwork like Caravaggio and Gentileschi… Mathieu took our song title and created an original oil painting on canvas unlike anything we could have ever imagined.”
Illustrator: Mathieu Nozieres
19: El Train: ‘And Then We Woke Up’
For his dreamy debut album, Brighton-born producer El Train pulled together like-minded collaborators such as Kaisha, NDO, Paal Singh and KALLITECHNIS. The result was an eclectic mix of R&B, lo-fi, electronic beats and hip-hop whose tranquil artwork was crafted by fellow music producer and visual artist Ali “Komikamo_” Kamara. His style, which typically consists of watercolours, acrylic paint and ink materials, suits a soothing record such as this, crafted during what El Train described as an “extended period of hibernation”, and which encapsulated the feelings of a slow return to normality following the UK’s lockdown restrictions.
18: Japanese Breakfast: ‘Jubilee‘
Jubilee is the third studio album from dream-pop outfit Japanese Breakfast, the solo project of singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner. The record sees a change in tone, however, towards something more joyful than Japanese Breakfast’s previous output. Zauner told KEXP that “it was going to be an album about joy” and that the colour yellow “was going to play a major role in it”; for one of the best album covers of 2021, she fully embraced that inspiration, sporting a bright, flowing dress and yellow eye make-up while surrounded by hanging persimmons.
Photographer: Peter Ash Lee
17: 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
16: 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
15: 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
14: 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
13: Lil Nas X: ‘Montero’
2021 has been a hell of a year for Lil Nas X. Proving that he is far from a one-hit wonder, the rapper became one of the year’s biggest pop stars following the release of his long-awaited debut album, MONTERO. The record narrowly lost the No.1 spot on both sides of the Atlantic to Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, despite 11 of its songs featuring in the Billboard Hot 100 – three of which, Montero (Call Me By Your Name), That’s What I Want and the Kanye West co-produced Industry Baby landed simultaneously in the US Top 10. MONTERO’s artwork, which features a nude Lil Nas X floating in a heavenly oasis, was inspired by John Stephen’s painting Genesis II, continuing X’s repurposing of Christian imagery in celebration of his sexuality and truly unique artistry.
Illustrator: Charlotte Rutherland
12: 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.”
11: 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
10: Young Thug: ‘Punk’
Young Thug is no stranger to beautiful album covers, with his 2019 record, So Much Fun, featuring an outline of his own face, created from 803 different photos of the rapper. Thug’s 2021 album, Punk, also uses his image to craft a bold optical illusion, and is inspired by the Mexican-born surrealist painter Octavio Ocampo’s Forever Always. Ocampo is renowned for his metamorphic painting style, in which one image transforms into another, typically representing a contrasting concept. Thug isn’t the only musical artist to look to Ocampo for inspiration: original pressings of Cher’s 1989 album, Heart Made Of Stone, featured a painting by the artist, in which Cher is depicted sitting next to the titular heart, creating an image that also looks like a skull.
Illustrators: K2, Lil X
9: Altin Gün: ‘Yol’
Amsterdam-based Altin Gün have built a strong reputation for creating a signature blend of old and new for their brilliantly infectious psychedelic pop music. Their third full-length album, Yol (whose title translates to “path” or “road”), offers an exciting mix of Turkish folk, psychedelia and 80s-inspired synth-pop that’s more new wave than their previous work. The low-angle artwork, created by Anne Caesar, makes for a perfectly vibrant match to the influences at play in the music.
Illustrator: Anne Caesar
8: 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
7: 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
6: James Blake: ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’
As its title would suggest, James Blake’s fifth album is about love and friendship, and the loss of both. The songwriter and producer worked very closely with visual artist Miles Johnston on the artwork, which displays an animatronic Blake lying on his side, parts of his body missing as if it were a half-completed jigsaw puzzle. The record includes collaborations from SZA, JID, SwaVay and Monica Martin, all of whom aid Blake on one of his most raw and seemingly traditional albums.
Illustrator: Miles Johnston
5: 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
4: Villagers: ‘Fever Dreams’
Fronted by Conor O’Brien, Irish indie-folk band Villagers created one of their most daring records in Fever Dreams. Swaying from euphoric pop to hair-raising psychedelia at a moment’s notice, the record was, O’Brien said, written from “an urge to write something that was as generous to the listener as it was to myself. Sometimes the most delirious states can produce the most ecstatic, euphoric and escapist dreams.” One of the best album covers of 2021, the magical artwork was designed by Brighton artist Paul Phillips, who created the image in response to O’Brien’s request that it reflect some element of scale.
Illustrator: Paul Phillips
3: Dave: ‘We’re All Alone In This Together’
Many artists can feel the pressure when following up such an impactful and well-received debut album such as Psychodrama – but not Santan Dave. The British rapper’s second, We’re All Alone In This Together, is another classic UK hip-hop record on which Dave explores his heritage through impeccable storytelling and diverse production. The MC flaunts his lyrical ability throughout, combining his masterful flow with social and political messages that add depth. The cover art is a reworking of French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s 1872 piece Impression, Soleil Levant. Featuring a small boat adrift at sea, the image reflects the themes of migration that run through the album.
Illustrator: Tyler Remikie
2: black midi: ‘Cavalcade’
The explosively busy and undoubtedly vinyl-worthy artwork for Cavalcade is a perfect representation of the insanity of black midi’s experimental rock. Over the last four years, the English four-piece have championed a modern strain of progressive rock with twisted rhythms, lavish chord changes and heavy tones, and their second album extends that adventurous sound. It is unrelenting and complex, much like this entry among the best album covers of 2021, which was designed by graphic designer David Rudnick.
Designer: David Rudnick
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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