The vinyl resurgence continued at a furious pace in 2021. By midyear, vinyl sales were up 94 percent from the year before. The week ending December 2 (which included Black Friday) marked second-largest week of vinyl sales since MRC Data began tracking sales in 1991. The popularity of vinyl also underlined the importance album cover art, with online sites such as Our Culture and Exclaim devoting articles to the best and worst album covers of the year.
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. The cover art is like a totem that appears in both the physical world (the album itself, merchandise, clothing, billboards, etc.) and digital (an artist’s website, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) Album cover art can also inspire a musician’s followers to create their own fan art based on the original sleeve. The cover becomes a digital totem.
As I have done for the past few years, I’ve created my entirely subjective round-up of the most memorable album covers of 2021. These are neither the worst nor the best. The simply made a powerful impression and stuck with me like a musical earworm. The memorable covers of 2021 reflected a pervasive sober realism. The covers reflected many artists who emerged from the oppressive isolation and tumult of 2020 by facing the world head-on, such as Cautious Clay’s portrait on the cover of Deadpan Love . . . .
. . . Or Lily Konigsberg’s Lily We Need to Talk Now.
Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, focusing on Eilish’s tear-stained face, expressed Gen Z angst perfectly.
Happier Than Ever also inspired a cottage industry of fan art. Here are a few examples:
But there was plenty of room for whimsy and humor, such as Baby Queen’s The Yearbook and Lil Nas X’s Montero.
Lorde’s Solar Power expressed a carefree spirit that spoke to the album’s theme.
St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home was awash with provocative retro.
But on the whole, the albums that stayed with me felt simple, direct, and sometimes humble, like Joy Orbison’s Still Slipping Volume 1, which looked like a scene from a Charles Bukowski short story.
For more memorable album covers of 2021, check out my SlideShare presentation. All these covers spoke to me. I hope they speak to you, too.