For the latest installment of our 2020 Year in Review, we’re rounding up some of our favourite album covers of the year. The music doesn’t necessarily have to be great for the artwork to land on this list, but one of the unique things about album covers is how they relate to or evoke the material and themes on the record itself. Flip through our first 40 picks – which you’ll notice are presented in more of an aesthetically pleasing order rather than ranked in terms of quality – and read more about some of the year’s most striking album covers below.
10. Teyana Taylor, THE ALBUM
Drawing inspiration from Grace Jones and flaunting a hi-top haircut resembling that of her husband Iman Shumpert, Teyana Taylor digs into her African roots while looking to the future on the beautiful cover artwork for her debut album. Shot by German photographer Daniel Sannwald, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Travis Scott, Stormzy, and Rihanna, the picture is as powerful as it is visually striking, showcasing Sannwald’s visionary approach while also capturing the strength, ambition, and complexity that are so integral to the artistic vision that Taylor lays out on the 23-track LP.
9. The Strokes, The New Abnormal
With their sixth studio album and first full-length effort in seven years, The Strokes leaned into their more experimental tendencies, embracing a more playful, even improvisational approach to songwriting with help from producer Rick Rubin. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that they decided to use a 1981 painting by the late neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, titled Bird on Money and originally made in tribute to Charlie Parker, as the album’s cover artwork. Basquiat’s impact in and connection to the music industry and particularly the world of hip-hop is well documented; among other things, he created the record cover for K-Rob Vs. Rammellzee’s ‘Beat-Bop’ and even made an appearance in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ video. David Bowie, a collector of Basquiat’s work, said that “he seemed to digest the frenetic flow of passing image and experience, put them through some kind of internal reorganization and dress the canvas with this resultant network of chance,” and while it may be slightly pompous and absurd to argue that The Strokes are attempting to do the same with The New Abnormal, the cover certainly encapsulates the band’s revitalized creative energy.
8. Lyra Pramuk, Fountain
For the cover artwork of Lynda Pramuk’s much-anticipated debut album Fountain, a mesmerizing seven-track effort composed entirely of sounds fashioned from her own voice, the American composer and producer teamed up with regular collaborator and acclaimed visual artist Donna Huanca. Though the two artists utilize different artistic tools, their work often explores similar themes surrounding transformation and the boundlessness of the body, which is represented both sonically in the album’s transcendent compositions and visually through the startling artwork.
According to this illuminating conversation between Pramuk and Huanca, the two started working on the cover before most of the songs had reached their final form. “At the time, I had been working on a sort of water journey through the pieces, writing down and drawing every form of water I could possibly find,” Pramuk explains. “Water is so transformational and connected to so many cultures and rituals: baptism, bathing, cleaning or purging.” Huanca adds: “To transform we have to dissolve and it’s ugly. Allowing yourself to dissolve, I think that’s where people get stuck, because we’re taught to identify as one thing or another.”
7. Told Slant, Point The Flashlight And Walk
The cover art for Told Slant’s third studio album, the intimate and affecting Point the Flashlight and Walk, was created by Thea Kliros, singer-songwriter Felix Walworth’s late grandmother, who was a painter and children’s book illustrator; Amalia Soto, a Brooklyn-based artist known as Molly Soda who has collaborated with Walworth in the past, helped edit the illustration digitally. Marking a notable shift from Told Slant’s previous, more minimalist album covers – composed mostly of hand-drawn pine trees set against a mostly white back background – what’s captivating about this image is how it evokes so many of the album’s themes while seemingly existing in a narrative world of it own. Here, the tree is just part of a bigger picture, hovering over in the background; your attention is instead drawn to the two young characters at its center, who’ve somehow found themselves lost in the night, alone and straying from the path that sits next to them.
On Point the Flashlight and Walk, Walworth delves into the complexity of human relationships, navigating the difference between connection, codependency, and devotion; the poignant cover art seems to capture similarly conflicting emotions as the two girls look both distant and inextricably tied to each other. It also alludes to the scenes of childhood innocence and growing up that Walworth paints throughout many of these songs, and it’s tempting to imagine the characters on the cover singing some of the songs’ lyrics: “Hold out your hand/ It’s only some darkness”; “I was hiding from me by putting you in the way”; “You’re my family still, even though we don’t talk now”; “I’d be following you and you’d be following me/ I would turn into you and you would turn into me.” But the one mantra that ultimately resonates the most, and that the illustration so wonderfully reflects, is this: “I’ll stay with you, stay with you, even when it’s scary to.”
6. IDLES, Ultra Mono
For a group bent on subverting the expectations of what it means to be a rock band by spreading the message of love and kindness, IDLES’ music sure does sound like the equivalent of getting hit in the face. That was certainly the case with their relentlessly ferocious 2017 debut, Brutalism, and their sound lost none of its visceral impact with the release of its critically acclaimed follow-up, Joy as an Act of Resistance, a year later, even as it saw frontman Joe Talbot and company wearing their heart more prominently on their sleeves. As the band continues to embrace vulnerability and self-acceptance, the cover artwork for their latest LP Ultra Mono, which was painted by Russell Oliver in the style of Caravaggio, seems to embody the bracing energy of the group, that in-your-face directness that gives it much of its appeal. Depicting a shirtless man being struck by a giant pink ball, it underlines thr approach the band has taken when it comes to dealing with haters: as Talbot deadpans towards the end of the album, “Fuck you, I’m a lover.”
5. Apparat, Soundtraks: Dämonen
There’s something about the cover artwork for Apparat’s Soundtraks: Dämonen that’s at once elegant and elusive. The third in the German composer’s 2020 soundtrack series, this is the score to Sebastian Hartman’s theatre production of Fyodor Dostevsky’s Demons, and the mesmerizing cover hints at the unexpected moments of beauty and grace that are hidden away in this otherwise haunting listen. The cloud seems to almost have a life of its own as it’s bathed in otherwordly light; you wonder whether it’s hiding from the vastness of the pink sky, or simply basking in its warm glow, or for some reason inadvertently trapped in this empty room. It’s a wonderful illustration of the struggle that’s implied in the music, the richness as well as the wordlessness of it, but it also seems to crystallize a moment of pure joy that’s easy to gloss over: as Dostoevsky writes, “There are seconds, they come only five or six at a time, and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony, fully achieved.”
4. Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
The cover artwork for Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia, the follow-up to the Barranquilla-born, Toronto-based multi-disciplinary artist’s Polaris Prize-winning 2016 LP La Papessa, is as colourful as the music itself. That much is obvious from just a quick glance, but there are a lot more layers to it: as Pimienta told NPR, her intention was to invoke the classical notion of the idealized Colombian woman in the stance of the Virgin Mary in order to expose its pernicious undertones as well as the anti-Black sentiment young Colombian women often internalize as soon as they are baptized. “You become this perfect lady when you get your hair straightened for the first time,” she explains. “Strike one: You look Black. You got that Black blood in you. We need to thin that s*** out. Don’t be in the sun, straighten your hair, and put on this white dress for your first communion. You gotta look beautiful for the priests.” But Pimienta, an Afro-Colombian queer woman with indigenous Wayuu heritage, also injects her own personality into both the album and its cover art, both of which radiate confidence. She adds jokingly: “I was like, how can I make a gay version of a wedding dress?”
3. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Olof Grind’s cover for Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher seems to encapsulate the whole atmosphere of the record in a single image. The setting captures a sense of desolation, Bridgers standing in the desert alone in her trademark skeleton suit, and yet its vivid tones also hint at the kind of warmth and emotionality that permeates her soul-stirring music. There’s an otherworldly feel to it, too, as if the picture was taken on a different planet, or maybe right after the apocalypse; it also feels like a reflection of the way the album builds a world of its own, one that’s both haunting and profoundly human. Bridgers was nowhere to be seen on the cover of her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps; here, her presence is small but unmistakable, placed front and center. She is alone except for the large rocks that loom over her, which seem to almost have a life of their own, the one on the far left corner almost mirroring Bridgers’ own shadowy figure. She leans slightly backward and looks up at the clear sky, not in search of some higher truth but simply a sign that we’re not alone.
2. Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
For The Slow Rush cover art, music photographer Neil Krug (who also did the artwork for Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, Bonobo’s Migration, and Bat for Lashes’ The Bride, among others) and Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker had to travel to the ghost town of Kolmanskop, Namibia in southwestern Africa. You have to applaud the sheer time and effort they and the production crew invested depositing tons of sand in a semi-destroyed room, but the final result is more than just the product of human toil: nature did its part, too. As Krug tells it, by the time they returned at sunset after working all morning, the sand had shifted in the wind, creating the ripple effect seen in the image, a perfect evocation of Tame Impala’s layered psychedelic sound. “I was a wreck at first,” he explains, “but it looked so beautiful, like nature just needed to sort things out.”
1. Moses Sumney, græ
One of the many things that strike me about the cover art for Moses Sumney’s græ is the way it not only encapsulates the richness of the music as well as the themes surrounding the complexity of the self, but how palpably it ties in with the album’s title: notice the way the two letters are intertwined, much like the way Sumney’s nude body is wrapped around a rock in front of that waterfall. The natural setting invokes the transfixing beauty of the instrumentals, a diverse array of sounds that make up their own island, but at its center lies the stark vulnerability and emotional honesty of Sumney’s voice, seeking to deconstruct notions of identity, race, and sexuality. What makes the photograph so unique, however, is the way Sumney and Ghanaian photographer Eric Gyamfi, who also worked together on the stunning cover art for 2017’s Aromanticism, capture the enveloping quality of the album, how each of its individual elements feel inextricably linked to one another, locked in an embrace that extends, ever so gracefully, to the listener.