The 25 Best Album Covers of 2016

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The 25 Best Album Covers of 2016

Paste editors, staffers, writers and interns voted on the best album covers of 2016 after reviewing a field of over 350 designs. Album design trends in 2016 included horizons both terrestrial and celestial, intimate portraits of embracing couples, and lots of grainy childhood snapshots. We also saw lots of solid mono-color borders, intricate collage work, and hand-drawn block letters. These are just a few of our favorite album cover designs – please share your top picks in the comments.


25. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

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Margo Price’s breakout debut album made an immediate impression on Paste contributor Eric Luecking, who wrote in his review that he was floored by its very first song. The cover of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a stunning image of Price captured by Danielle Holbert, may very well have the same effect on you, assuming you have a pulse. The photograph is deep and dark, yet inviting; Price poses in a cream-colored ensemble, her dress twirling while her in-profile expression is stoic. She’s surrounded by the soft, perfect purple of flowers and the shadows of the forest. There is a bravery and vulnerability to this tableau, a woman alone with nothing but her thoughts and the wild world that surrounds her, depending only on herself to tame the two. Sadness and joy, freedom and fear each make their presences felt, just like on the record itself. Margo Price is here to stay—we can only hope this is the first of many beautiful album covers from this Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. —Scott Russell


24. Dylan LeBlanc, Cautionary Tale

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Dylan LeBlanc mentions none other than the recently departed Merle Haggard when describing the coming-of-age wisdom he drops on this honest and deeply reflective Americana delight. The legend once said “the singer is secondary to the song”. These insightful words, along with support from producer and friend John Paul White, helped LeBlanc move beyond habitual self-doubt into crafting his most striped down release yet. The album cover could be considered tertiary to the singer. But it takes nearly an hour to listen to an album like Cautionary Tale, where a cover takes only moments to reveal itself. It is an instantaneous reflection of both the singer and the songs within. (Merle had an extremely specific album artwork aesthetic himself, and surely would have agreed that album cover art it is nearly as important as the music itself.) LeBlanc credits Birmingham-based Art Director Aaron Gresham with combining the bold yellow color and black snake, scales, floral and celestial motifs. He told Paste the cover represents “a story of a life in chapters and moments. The balance of happiness and fulfillment swayed by temptation and chance. A beauty and elegance displayed in even the most trying moments – that serve as the story of life.” — Emily Ray


23. Vince Staples, Prima Donna

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A prima donna is a person whose ego outstrips their potential, and if there’s any artist who seems to incessantly, temperamentally tackle the reality of his own emerging importance, it’s rapper Vince Staples. The cover to his latest EP may be too easily literalizing its title, but between Staples’ low-lidded stare and his transformation into a bobblehead, there really is no better image to sum up his music. Big-brained but blockbusting, both callous and kind, commercial but cult-ish, continually questioning but fully committed to placating a record label—the Prima Donna EP is a stark, minimal reminder of the kind of heart-stopping art that can come from stoking one’s psyche. —Dom Sinacola


22. Rihanna, ANTI

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For an album that found success through brash singles like “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Work,” the artwork to Anti offers surprising depth and metaphors. Rihanna discovered Israeli-born artist Roy Nachum while perusing Jay-Z’s private collection, and later commissioned him to design the art for her eighth LP. Entitled “If They Let Us, Part I,” Nachum’s work depicts a young Rihanna in stark monochromatic schemes with a bold splash of red. Little Robyn Fenty holds a balloon, which represents escapism, while wearing with a golden crown that covers her eyes. While the crown itself symbolizes Rihanna’s pop stardom, its placement also shows the blinders that success can bring. Most interestingly, Nachum—who included this as part of his “Blind” series—regularly uses Braille as a pointillistic, stylistic, and narrative fixture in his works. The dot-like imagery across the Anti cover is actually an entire poem called “If They Let Us” written by Chloe Mitchell especially for Rihanna. Read the full poem here. —Hilary Saunders


21. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger

Artist Chuck Close is perhaps best known for his photorealist portraits. He’s depicted many famous faces, including musicians like Philip Glass, Lou Reed, and recently, Paul Simon. His rendering of Simon is made of colorful, experimental pieces that together form a cohesive whole, making his portrait a fitting cover for Stranger to Stranger, a record that shares those qualities. Simon has suggested that this may be his final release ever. He’s given us music for almost 60 years, but in spite of sharing artistic intimacy he remains a “stranger” to us, as we listeners are to him. Again the cover offers a poignant parallel: in both the songs and on the cover itself, Simon appears to privilege us with close, personal glimpses of him, when they’re ultimately just collections of artful inventions. —Monica Hunter-Hart


20. Okkervil River, Away

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Frontman Will Sheff has described the eighth studio album by American rock band Okkervil River as something of a death story. It was written in response to the loss of loved ones, and to a certain degree, a loss of sense of self. “I was just like an animal reacting to his environment. I literally was in a time when I was unsettled and not even living in my home and kind of licking my wounds a little bit in seclusion,” he told Paste writer Eric Swedlund earlier this fall. Based on Nin Maminawendam, a work by the famed American landscape painter Tom Uttech, the outstretched cover scene is garish candy swirl sunset against the decay and vultures of fall. Like the melancholy melodies on songs from “Okkervil River R.I.P.” to “Days Spent Floating” the moody album art draws no clear conclusions. It simply explores the unyielding euphony of it all. —Emily Ray


19. Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit

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It’s Monday night. And you’re high as a kite watching Lion King. —Emily Ray


18. David Bowie, Blackstar

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Blackstar is David Bowie’s 25th and final studio album. The artwork was created by Jonathan Barnbrook, the British designer behind several of Bowie’s other albums — Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day among them. The cover is minimalist, but it holds many meanings. The title and design are symbolic of a black star legion, the name of a certain type of tissue damage usually indicating cancer. Bowie died from liver cancer two days after the album was released, and his medical condition was kept a secret until his death. Fans have found many hidden secrets embedded in the album cover and vinyl LP, including a small image of a bird casted when in direct light, a blue glow when placed under a blacklight, and a hidden constellation on the inside cover forming the shape of a Star Man, a frequent Bowie moniker. If you look closely, the segments of 5 pointed stars near the bottom of the cover spell out ‘Bowie’ in a stylized way. A fan noted that the font used on the back cover to name all the tracks is a font titled Terminal), likely used as a way for Bowie to discreetly tell his fans he was running out of time. —Lily Guthrie


17. PUP, The Dream Is Over

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If this is not the embodiment of 2016, I dunno what is. —Hilary Saunders


16. Lambchop, FLOTUS

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That’s Kurt Wagner’s wife on the cover of Lambchop’s latest album, FLOTUS. And that’s President Obama’s hand on her shoulder. She’s the chair of the Democratic Party in the notoriously red state of Tennessee, which means she has a demanding job, to say the least. But this image—a painting of a detail of an official White House photograph—conveys all the qualities that make her so good at her job: a sense of casual power and purpose, a supreme affability conjured by the most infectious smile of 2016. Wagner works in a rich black-and-white palette that has become his visual signature (see 2012’s Mr. M), caking paint on the canvas and then chipping away at to create a sculptural effect; even re-pressed at 12×12, the image is both photorealistic and almost three-dimensional. It’s a sweet valentine to the musician’s own First Lady and perhaps a humble suggestion that he is actually First Dude to a highly successful and important woman. —Stephen Deusner

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