Vinyl album sale are hitting historic highs in the United States, casting a spotlight on the importance of album cover art. Album sleeve design plays an essential role in expressing a musician’s vision and sparking curiosity through visual storytelling. In the digital age, album cover art is even more valuable. That’s because digital gives musicians more ways to raise awareness for their work through the visual power of an album cover — on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The memorable covers of 2020 expressed the times we live in. The album sleeve for Taylor Swift’s Folklore captured the essence of social distancing and a newfound longing for nature that led to skyrocketing visits to national parks during the pandemic.
Duval Timothy’s Help reflected something we’ve been missing and wanting during the pandemic: the human connection . . .
. . . as did Heavy Light from U.S. Girls:
SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is), with its simple upraised fist, symbolized Black empowerment during a time of social upheaval.
Those themes of Black empowerment where everywhere, including Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here? from Flo Milli . . .
. . . Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD . . .
. . . and Twice As Tall from Burna Boy:
But there was plenty of room for artistic expression on its own terms. The goofy design of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflected a bit of whimsy, mystery, and arch sense of humor that has defined her work for years.
Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch shared a sense of deadpan humor that works for any era:
The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.
But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.
Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.
Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:
Capture your attention through striking design.
Express the essence of the artist.
Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.
Have you ever come across someone who captures a style that you can admire but never hope to emulate? Elton John made me awestruck when I found a copy of Greatest Hits in my sister Karen’s room when I was a kid. The album came out at a time when greatest hits packages actually meant something, long before digital made it possible for listeners to create their own playlists. The best collections served as an introduction to an artist’s body of work and made it easy for you to enjoy in one listening singles that you otherwise had to catch on the radio if you were lucky enough to be listening at the right time. And Elton John’s first Greatest Hits collection was one of the best, not only for the music but the memorable album cover.
All the songs that defined his rise to superstardom were laid out for you like diamonds — hits like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Bennie and the Jets” (I always wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of pronouncing “Jets” like “jetssssss,” which gave the song its signature moment). My favorite was (and remains) “Daniel.” When he sang “Daniel, my brother, you are older than me/Do you still feel the pain” my mind drifted to my brother Daniel, who was two years older than me and who was indeed experiencing a lot of pain in his life. I’d heard all those songs — how could you not growing up in the 1970s? — usually riding in the car with my mom and dad, driving to places like Peoria, Illinois, or Mishawaka, Indiana, to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Even on a crappy car radio, his songs were unmistakable.
But when I found that album, I didn’t even bother listening to the music at first. I really didn’t need to. I just studied the album. Every detail. The creamy white suit, oversized glasses, and natty hat offset by the dark blue shirt and multi-colored bow tie. The over-sized pin of the dude looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One affixed to his jacket. And to top it all off, that elegant walking stick. On the back cover, there he was, playing his piano, wearing glitter shoes. I loved everything about his look, but I realized he had captured a style that was all his own. I was just a kid entering adolescence, with no sense of how to look. I was making that awkward transition from matching clothes to jeans and shirts, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too shy and awkward to try to attempt to look anything like presentable. On that album cover, Elton John gave me a glimpse of another world, of other possibilities beyond my imagination.
All I could do was press my nose against the glass and watch.
The year was notable for the appearance of some over-the-top, in-your-face covers from mainstream artists, with some classically elegant and visual mind benders tossed in. It’s as if musicians everywhere got together and decided, “Screw it — if albums are going away, let’s make the last gasp a memorable one.”
Bjork recast herself as some sort of mutant alien on Vulcarina, and Grimes dropped one of the ugliest album covers I’ve ever seen with Art Angels, demonstrating that memorable is not necessarily the same as beautiful. And I’m still trying to figure out the weird plastic thing creature on the cover of Arc’s Mutant.
But not all covers needed to be outrageous to be memorable. The album cover art for Fetty Wap’s self-titled album was honest and real, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was socially provocative and thoughtful. Meantime, Colleen Green’s smart-alecky smirk on the cover of I Want to Grow Up was what rock and roll attitude is all about, while Leon Bridges’s Coming Home and Adele’s 25 were throwbacks with their classic designs.
In fact, album cover art is perfectly suited for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music of the album, capture the personality of the artist, and engage your interest — just as great marketing should do.
Albums as we know them are dying. Long live record album art.