Physical albums have never been harder to find. So why are album covers more important than ever? The answer is simple: people shop for music online, and the first thing they see is the image. While few people have the time and inclination to play the hundreds of albums released each week, it’s easy to scroll through hundreds of images. Sure, you can’t tell an album by its cover, but you can tell if someone has put thought and effort into the process. If the art is good, then the music may be as well. The ten albums we’ve selected match memorable art with compelling music to form a complete package ~ even if there’s no package! And although a picture is worth a thousand words, we’ve reached out to labels, artists and composers to add a few words of their own as well.
Andrew Sherwell ~ Invocation of Deities by Working of Ritual Instruments (Slow Tone Collages)
Artist: Andrew Sherwell
The image drew us to the music, because we’d never seen anything like it from Slow Tone Collages. To state the obvious, we think all of the label’s covers should be collages! As a bonus, the artist is the composer himself. The image is ancient, elegant and strange, a perfect reflection of the music ~ or is it the other way around?
From Andrew Sherwell:
“The symbols of the divine originally show up in the trash stratum,” Philip K Dick.
For me, creating the music and creating the artwork are integral parts of the same creative act. Driven by the same influences and inspirations, I can’t do one without the other. Both employ very similar techniques: I take samples or images and heavily process them, mix with my own sounds and images, layer upon layer, until something new emerges. One process uses Photoshop to marshal my ideas, the other Ableton. Often, I try to conceal the joins so that you can’t identify the sources; I blur and obfuscate. Just as often, I deliberately let the workings show: the rough edges, the bad edits, the sounds of tapes turning off, the mistake I forgot to erase. I like the rifts these make, little tags that tug at the attention, aurally or visually, that point out the process and pierce the artifice. In doing so, they somehow open things out and let the meaning in.
Aperture Duo ~ S/T (Populist Records)
Artist: Adrianne Pope
The push and pull of strings is brought to life in the cover image, illustrated by Aperture Duo’s violinist Adrianne Pope. One can imagine the image in motion, but cannot predict who will win the tug of war ~ unless it is a pas de deux. Pope also teaches, tap dances, animates and works in film and television, a true polymath!
From Adrianne Pope:
Graphic novels are my jam. Mango jam…not something I eat every morning, like blueberry or apricot, but something I really take the time to sit down and enjoy. So when Linnea and I started talking about our album cover, I asked her if I could attempt to draw something comic book inspired, thinking it would fit with our self-dubbed avante-garde folk punk debut album. When she immediately agreed, I felt like the luckiest duo half ever because it was a reminder of how much we trust and support each other. And that trust is what inspired the cover image. From there, I drafted different scenarios…in one we held a broken power line while being electrocuted, in another we were gigantic eyeball aliens. At one point there were speech bubbles with Spice Girls lyrics and I realized things were beginning to spiral. So I got rid of all the background imagery and decided to keep it simple. Just two people holding on to a string, making music.
Conrad Praetzel ~ Adventures Into Somethingness (Paleo Music)
Artist: C.K. Itamura (Peach Farm Studio)
Album Graphics: Brian Willis
The cover seems tailor-made for the screen era, as it is lit from within ~ an effect one would find difficult to replicate on a hard copy. The image tricks the eye, as it appears painted and scratched into copper; the secret is revealed below. Itamura invites us to participate in the adventure, and Praetzel’s music leads the way.
From C.K. Itamura:
All of the artwork for Conrad Praetzel’s Adventures into Somethingness was created specifically for this album.
The process began several months ahead of the album release when Conrad gave me a CD onto which he had burned rough sound sketches he created that were intended for the album. Over the course of several months, he would continue to provide me with CDs, with each subsequent one containing the latest versions of the soundscapes. For several months these CDs were in fact the only music I listened to, over and over again while driving in my car visualizing what the music looked like, the shapes and colors of the music, and how it might feel to travel though a tangible version of them. When the songs for the album were completed, Conrad made the final digital files available to me so I could shift to listening to them in my studio while I created the artwork.
Since listening to the early music sketches, the various iterations, and all the way to the final version, the through lines I heard were: great expanses, landscapes, atmosphere, water, air and light — all in motion. To capture the essence of these elements I created photo images of multiple paintings on paper when they were soaking wet, while the paint was still in motion expanding across the fibers, with the light source coming from behind the paper inducing translucence. I had to work quickly to capture the images before they dissipated. Of these, Conrad selected four: one for the front cover, one for the back, one for the inside spread and one for the CD disk. The paintings, once photo-captured, were left to dry and no longer exist in physical form as they appear on the album.
Art. Evolving. Ephemeral.
Hatis Noit ~ Aura (Erased Tapes)
Photograph by Yuki Tsukishima
Artwork by Özge Cöne
Design by Shaz Madani
The final product was a team effort ~ photography, artwork and design. But the colors make the image pop. Hatis Noit is one of the world’s most unique performers, and as such receives a visual rendition worthy of her voice. The artist’s songs seem like samples of synesthesia, and the image offers its own multi-media impression.
From Hatis Noit:
Just like the album itself, for its cover art I aimed for something very bold and vivid to represent primal human energy, but also it needed to be modern to reflect this current world — especially after the pandemic. Özge Cöne, the visual artist and long time collaborator of mine, understood and realised the concept perfectly, using a portrait I spontaneously had taken by my friend Yuki Tsukishima in her Tokyo flat. As the album title ‘Aura’ suggests, I also wanted the printed cover to be special and unique compared to the digital cover on the screen. Robert the producer and art director at Erased Tapes suggested applying a special gloss printing technique on this specific blue colour in the picture to make it feel even more three-dimensional. And finally the Iranian graphic designer Shaz Madani added this beautifully minimal but naturally flowing typography to compliment everything. It turned out so well and I was amazed to see the design could develop even further by this collaborative effort.
Henning Schmiedt ~ Piano Miniatures (flau)
Artist: Ryuto Miyake
We love the pairing of piano miniatures with miniature images, the idea of Ryuto Miyake, who has plenty more works in this vein. The collection evokes nostalgia and childhood, as does Schmeidt’s music; the toys look like those we owned once upon a time, while the repetition of images suggests the wallpaper of a child’s room.
From Ryuto Miyake:
I also played with BRIO toys when I was little, so I drew it over my memories of those days. I drew the parts of the toys in full size with colored pencils on a small piece of paper and decided on the layout by arranging them on my desk.
The June Rise ~ Birds (Self-Released)
Artist: Carolyn Ridsdale
While the word “best” prompts endless debate, the word “favorite” is unimpeachable. This image is my favorite of the year, and drew my attention to the work of a stellar artist. After hearing the EP, I went back and purchased the prior album: an example of album art that works! The music sounds like a tree filled with birds and the romanticism of spring; everything here is perfect.
From Mark Yodice (The June Rise):
The artwork for Birds was dreamed up by Australian illustrator Carolyn Ridsdale. As the recording process was approaching conclusion I began keeping my eyes open for imagery, both local – in my sleepy small town neighborhood – and in the arts, that would reflect the mystical undercurrent of the three songs on the EP. It may have been the better part of a year before I found my way to Carolyn’s work, as I was in no rush to release the music; and this was via Instagram, unsurprisingly so. I was listening to a guitarist’s short clip and for whatever reason, took notice of her icon, as she’d left a comment on that page. I visited her own page and with a little bit of detail – or maybe a good deal of detail, I don’t exactly remember; Carolyn accepted the commission and brought this scene to fruition. We had a few different colors for the background at first and then Carolyn made a short promotional video for the EP with the background that ended up being used for the cover. I remember referencing tarot card imagery, magic, and ‘Anne with an E’, a whimsical television series from Canada …
Mia Zabelka | Henrik Meierkord | IsosTech ~ Aftershock Vol. 2 (Subcontinental Records)
Artist: Juul Kraijer
Juul Kraijer works with chalk, charcoal and photography; the photo below is one of many with snakes. This is a dangerous image, connoting dangerous music, and the industrial flavor of the album rewards the listener who takes a chance. Can one be calm when encased in reptiles? Yes, just as the harshest of music can sometimes be soothing.
From Juul Kraijer:
Upon seeing my snake photographs many people ask me: is this real? The answer is yes, the snakes are real and they were really there, coiling on the face. To make photographs like this a lot of trust is needed, between the model, the animal-handler and the photographer. My model is my muse. She was very involved in this project and incredibly courageous. We have worked together for many years, building things up slowly, starting with birds and beetles before proceeding to serpents and scorpions. This shoot with a litter of twenty juvenile pythons was one of most challenging we did. Just like me my model thinks snakes are extraordinarily beautiful creatures, but very alien to humans as well. She reaches a sort of superior level of meditation during the shoots. She knows I need her face to have a very inward-turned expression and succeeds in this even under circumstances like this. She’s a most amazing model!
In the suite of photographs and in the video work I made of her I’m shifting the traditional hierarchy between humans and animals. Generally in iconography the animal is a mere accessory, a pet, or of symbolic value only. In my works the snake is the coldblooded protagonist, coiling over the girl’s face supremely oblivious of her living presence. The human body seems to merge with the animal body, fusing into a new hybrid creature. The boundaries of the body, as a container of the self, are no longer absolute and can be transcended. Twoness could be oneness. Animal and human are brought skin to skin, alienatingly close. I work with the limits of the physically possible and mentally bearable.
1 Mile North ~ Sunken Nest (Mutual Skies)
Artist: Jonathan Hills
Whether the cover is literal (a Fire Island boat burning) or metaphorical (a symbol of a world on fire and the destruction of places once felt safe), the image is a powerful draw, perfectly suited to the peaks of post-rock. The color contrast is exquisite, the image suitable for framing.
From Jonathan Hills:
For my past releases finding cover art involved searching for an existing image that fit the attitude of a fully completed album. But for “The Sunken Nest” the artwork was created to fit a theme that came together as I was working through the album’s production.
I started to envision a maritime narrative that was pieced together in my head as each track came together. By the time I’d arranged the tracklist I had a pretty good sense for the arc of a story born from the music – sort of like an invisible film formed from a body of music – as opposed to the other way around.
The album art was created with composite images that I pieced together from a number of sources including hand-painted brush strokes and generative AI. To match the vibe of the album the image balances tension with serenity. A bouquet of flames peacefully absorbing a lone ship on a wide open sea – an image that I pictured during the album’s imagined narrative… before the ship and crew drift to the bottom of the sea. The album’s track listing described this scene: (1) Plunge forth (2) into muted depths (3) where light collapses into night. (4) Exhale and sink. (5) Find rest (6) amidst the ship, (7) your sunken nest.
Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double ~ March (Firehouse 12 Records)
Art & Design by Megan Craig
We are in awe of Megan Craig. We showcased this image early this year in our article, How to Get Noticed in 2022, and it led us to review a superlative album. But then we learned that Craig is also a teacher, painter, and philosopher, the winner of an essay award for an article published in The New York Times, and the graphic designer for Firehouse 12 Records. We’re not worthy!
From Megan Craig:
When working on a record cover, I like to collect as much information from the musicians as I can. I always work from scratch, reacting to the musicians and trying to make a cover that meets their own visual sense of the music. Tomas and I worked together before, on an album that had visual references to graffiti and basketball. With this project, Tomas pointed me to several videos of the Batsheva Dance Company that he was interested in. I worked with some of the dancer’s forms, piles of bodies, and color palettes. I wasn’t depicting the dancers, but drawing on the energy of their choreography, the patterns and repetitions of different shapes. Tomas isn’t scared of color, so we went for rich tones. I created the album art and lettering in hand-cut felt, a material I have been using in my own studio practice for the past several years, making tapestries and large-scale banners. This gave the record a soft, hand-made feel that I thought would make people want to reach out and touch the album. It seemed right to make something tender and warm. I used a smokey blue felt for the title to reflect the complex emotions of this historical time – the March of 2020 when the album was conceived and the somber but miraculous march of time since then. I’m grateful to Tomas for being so trusting and open to collaboration.
V/A ~ Field Studies Vol. 1 (Friends of Friends)
Artwork: Sean Lewis
Little houses that look like home; illuminated people listening to music; separate rooms in the same system of trees. This beguiling image is perfect for a compilation, especially one from a label called Friends of Friends. Like the people in the picture, these artists mingle with each other, share ideas, and offer a brightly-toned album that sounds like a forest of beats.