Incredible records can often be made evenbetter with the help of jaw-dropping artwork. These sleeves should be at the front of every record shop, worthy of standing proud in any vinyl collection. Without further ado, get ready to gawk at the greatest album art of the 21st Century:
1Foals - ‘Holy Fire’
Who designed it? Leif Podhajsky designed the apocalyptic sleeve (he also worked on Tame Impala’s ‘InnerSpeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ albums). The original photo is by Thomas Nebbia.
They say Podhajsky: “I think album artwork has lost some of its magic in the transition to digital mediums. It used to be all about opening up a gatefold record, putting on the wax and sitting back to gaze at the album artwork. It was the key insight into a band’s ethos.” [Clash]
2Kendrick Lamar - ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Who designed it? Vlad Sepetov, who also worked on Kendrick’s striking ‘DAMN.’ sleeve in 2007. His ‘TPAB’ artwork is one of the century’s most iconic so far, stride-for-stride matching Lamar’s potent commentary on black America.
They say Sepetov: “The ‘Butterfly’ album with Kendrick was just a message that Kendrick’s manager sent me via text at like 11pm at night.
I had to make something that night using next to nothing; I had to just mock it up really fast. Sometimes that’s how it is: I am just given a bunch of photos and I have to turn them into something totally new. Each time it varies greatly.” [Huck]
3The Streets - ‘Original Pirate Material’
Who designed it? The cover was shot by Rut Blees Luxemburg, who also photographed the art for Bloc Party’s ‘A Weekend in the City’ in 2007. The original shot was titled ‘Towering Inferno’, and features the Kestrel House towerblock in north London.
They say Luxembourg: “It was the perfect one because when you listen to that album, you really have the sense of this guy living in a similar estate, in his bedroom, doing the music. There’s something quite intimate about [Mike Skinner’s] music because it suggests an interior place. Although it talks about the city, it comes from a private experience.” [The Fader]
4Tame Impala - ‘Currents’
Who designed it? Kentucky-based artist Robert Beatty is responsible for the animation, which somehow makes geometric diagrams look sexy.
They say Beatty: “Kevin’s ideas for the album artwork were all based on turbulent flow, the way liquid or air flows around objects. He sent over a bunch of images of diagrams that I took inspiration from. Everything was very open and they let me interpret things in my own way.” [iso50]
5Run the Jewels - ‘Run the Jewels 2’
Who designed it? Nick Gazin was tasked with creating Killer Mike and El-P famous logo, which also graces the sleeve of ‘RTJ2’. El-P sent the artist some rough ideas and sketches – he did the rest.
They say El-P, in an email to Gazin: “Here are two pictures of me attempting to show you the other hand positions I had in mind. One of the gun hand robbing the chain hand, one of a hand coming from behind or the side and snatching the chain. You'll get the idea.”
6The Strokes - ‘Is This It’
Who designed it? Colin Lane’s suggestive sleeve is almost as famous as the album itself. Lane’s then-girlfriend was the star of the shot. She came out the shower, Lane had his camera at the ready, they posed for some shots and that was that.
They say Lane: “We did about 10 shots. There was no real inspiration, I was just trying to take a sexy picture.”
7Kanye West - ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
Who designed it? George Condo’s original NSFW sleeve – depicting Yeezy having sex with an angel – ended up being censored. “Banned in the USA!!! They don't want me chilling on the couch with my phoenix!” Kanye tweeted at the time. Condo made five different versions of ‘MBDTF’’s cover, some of which Walmart was more willing to stock.
They say Condo: “She’s a kind of fragment, between a sphinx, a phoenix, a haunting ghost, a harpy. And then Kanye is also in some sort of strange 1970s burned-out back room of a Chicago blues club having a beer — so far away from the real Kanye West that it’s just a scream.” [Vulture]
8David Bowie - ‘The Next Day’
Who designed it? Jonathan Barnbrook, who also designed the sleeve for ‘Blackstar’, came up with this clever twist on Bowie’s 1977 album ‘Heroes’. Rarely does a white square look this good.
They say Barnbrook: “If you are going to subvert an album by David Bowie there are many to choose from but this is one of his most revered, it had to be an image that would really jar if it were subverted in some way and we thought ‘Heroes’ worked best on all counts.”
9Frank Ocean - ‘Blonde’
Who designed it? Wolfgang Tillmans shot the photo of Ocean. It was originally intended for a cover of Fantastic Man magazine, but Ocean wrote to the publication barring them from using any images. Tillmans’ ‘Device Control’ techno track also features on Ocean’s ‘Endless’ album, which came out in 2016.
They say Tillmans: “We immediately got on, and I felt he was a unique artist, and that all the backs and forths were somehow OK. He seemed so well-considered and sharp, yet open to what would happen on the day.” [Pitchfork]
10Radiohead - 'Hail to the Thief'
Who designed it? Stanley Donwood, who’s designed every Radiohead cover since ‘The Bends’. Donwood likes to work next to the studio Radiohead record in, allowing his paintings to match with whichever sea change the Oxford group are exploring at the time. This scatterbrained piece mirrored the mood of Thom Yorke and co., whose songs took on George W. Bush, consumer culture and post-Y2K anxiety.
They say Donwood: “I wrote all the words down then cut them up and put them together in rough maps. The artwork were maps of cities that had some relationship with the war against terror. Manhattan, LA, London, Grozny, Kabul.”
11Young Thug - ‘Jeffery’
Who designed it? Garfield Larmond photographed chamaeleon-like rapper Young Thug for the gender-shifting ‘JEFFERY’ sleeve. A jet-setting trip from New York to Atlanta saw Thug and Larmond pick up a garm designed by Alessandro Trincone.
They say Larmond: “When he put it on, it definitely spoke for itself. Everyone knew: this is different. If you think of Young Thug, you automatically get this perception of a different sense of style. He knew it would be crazy. When I showed him the first set of photos, he was like, ‘OK. This is it. This is what we needed from the beginning.’” [The Fader]
12Blur - ‘The Magic Whip’
Who designed it? Tony Hung designed the neon-lit sleeve, which links with Damon Albarn’s trips to Hong Kong. The words “blurry” and “magic whip” are spelled in Chinese, and lit up like an alleyway bar sign.
They say Hung: “The image: A sweet, daytime, English, summer product found in pastel shades, evoking visions of blue skies and green parks … now transformed into a buzzing neon sign, rendered in hard lines and electric hues, found on any busy street in Mong Kok on a dark night. Melting ice cream provided a melancholic twist.” [The Creative Review]
13Interpol - 'Turn on the Bright Lights'
Who designed it? Sean McCabe’s shot of a London theatre lit up at night seemed to resonate perfectly with Interpol’s debut, despite the album’s stories centring around life in New York.
They say McCabe: “It was a personal photo I had taken about a year before I had met them, I went to a movie theater in London, and I went to see a film. I was sitting in the front row of the theater because the movie was all sold out, and the whole theater was red, and I just took my camera out and took a photo of it. For some reason they had these red lights on the screen waiting for the film to start. When I came home and developed it, I just loved the way it looked.” [Paste]
14Grimes - ‘Visions’
Who designed it? Grimes’ Claire Boucher designs all her own artwork. ‘Visions’ expresses her fascinations for comic book culture.
They say Boucher: “I feel like Grimes is the uncool pop star. I want to be inclusive. I feel like a lot of people don’t feel cool. If you like comic books and technology, then maybe you like Grimes.”
15Lorde - ‘Melodrama’
Who designed it? Brooklyn artist Sam McKinniss found the perfect match for Lorde’s game-changing songs about teen heartbreak. They shot photos at a local studio, and he turned his favourite into a painting.
They say McKinniss: “[Lorde] had really distinct ideas of what time of day, where it would exist, and the time, and the colors, [all of] which we talked about a lot.” [Vogue]
16Gorillaz - ‘Demon Days’
Who designed it? Jamie Hewlett, the resident artist who formed Gorillaz with Damon Albarn. ‘Demon Days’ shows all four animated members all grown up, and served as inspiration for ‘Humanz’’s art, which arrived 12 years later.
They say Hewlett: “I think Damon was tired of being the frontman for Blur, and I was just aghast at how boring most pop groups are when they're interviewed. Look at them, on television, all sat on the couch with nothing to say.” [The Guardian]
17Kurt Vile - ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’
Who designed it? Philadelphia artist Steve Powers painted a mural for Vile’s fifth album. The mural was defaced in 2014 by a resident who thought it was attracting too much graffiti to the area. The resident, DJ Lee Mayjahs, immediately regretted their decision. He wrote to Vile saying: “Unfortunately, in my mind, I have felt that that your tags on the wall there have attracted other painters to that area and the amount of graffiti we have had to deal with since then has increased tenfold… Today I lost it and went and painted over them… I became a vandal again myself. I became what I despise… I realized that having that work painted was the culmination of a dream for you. And I just destroyed that dream, I am so sorry.”
They say Powers: “When we first painted the wall, we left the tags that were already on the wall when we started. I thought they were kids from the neighborhood and I wanted to leave them up and make them part of the design. I painted the lower half of the wall as fast and as fun as I could, with the same joy as I painted graffiti when I was 17 and free as I will ever be.”
18St. Vincent - ‘St. Vincent’
Who designed it? Willo Perron & Associates, who also made the sleeve for 2017’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’, which makes Annie Clark look like a “future cult leader” (in her words).
They say St. Vincent: “I’m wearing this metallic dress, and my hair, I look like I stuck my finger in a light socket. … The throne that I’m sitting on is inspired by the Memphis design movement, which is very much about elemental shapes.” [NPR]
19Björk - ‘Volta’
Who designed it? Fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm and fashion photographer Nick Knight were behind ‘Volta’’s art, one of several iconic Bjork sleeves. The Icelandic musician’s experimental approach to music is always matched by her album art. Upcoming LP ‘Utopia’, designed by Jessy Kanda, sees her dressed in furry fancy dress, playing a flute. As you do.
They say “With Volta, I was interested in mixing together 2007 and a tribal thing – but without it being ‘hippie hippie’. I was brought up by hippies so, being a punk, this was the ultimate taboo.” [Dazed]
20Father John Misty - ‘Pure Comedy’
Who designed it? Edward Steed, a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker, drew the nightmarish, apocalyptic picture gracing Josh Tillman’s latest record.
They say Steed: “There were some similarities in our worldview, and I didn’t have to adjust my style to suit him… I sketched lots of small scenes—sort of satirical in tone but not literally referring to the lyrics—and then arranged them on a landscape. I suppose the unifying theme is the absurdity of human life on earth. Mostly, I was just trying to make something that’s good for people to look at while listening to the record. I just drew the type of album cover I would want if I made an album, which I never will.” [Surface]
21M.I.A. - ‘Kala’
Who designed it? M.I.A. is 100% responsible for ‘Kala’’s future-gazing collage. It’s a perfect match for the album’s bolshy, frenetic, culture-shifting style.
They say M.I.A.: “It's a hard album sonically. And it's hard in terms of what it stands for.”
22Stormzy - ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’
Who designed it? John Ross photographed the iconic last supper scene, and Mark Farrow handled art direction.
They say Fisher, to NME: “The last supper idea came out of seeing him interacting with his mates during an earlier photo session. John Ross, the photographer, had lit the images beautifully – it just brought that image to mind, so we decided to shoot it a couple of days later.”