The 25 Best Album Covers of 2016

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15. Damien Jurado, Visions Of Us On The Land

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One of the great things to come out of singer-songwriter Damien Jurado’s collaboration with producer Richard Swift, aside from a trio of great albums, is some truly amazing cover art. After the night-vision collage of 2012’s Maraqopa and the geodesic dome on 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun comes this trippy watercolor by Salt Lake City painter Brian Koch, which resembles an especially Dadaist Far Side panel decorating the side of a 1973 Dodge van. Part of a larger and thoroughly fantastical triptych, the cover depicts an automobile evolving out of the primordial soup and crashing into a tree, a sea monster with the face of Isabella Rosselini, a rock cliff topped with an enormous walrus head, and flying saucers descending on Seattle. It’s a perfect visual counterpart to the album itself, in which Jurado takes us on a road trip deep into the scarred heart of a weird, new America. —Stephen Deusner

14. D.R.A.M., Big Baby D.R.A.M.

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Much like his take on the kind of fringe-flaunting hip-hop that in 2016 demands any rapper must seek melody as incessantly as they do incisive, in-the-pocket wordplay, the cover to D.R.A.M. debut LP trades all sense of irony or pretention for straight-to-the-heart sincerity. That being D.R.A.M.’s golden doodle Idnit, there is love and joy and—eschewing anything besides their mutually grinning grills—nothing else on the face of the album, just two creatures pleased to be there, sharing some affection and promoting some responsible oral hygiene. It works: If you aren’t immediately drawn to the warmth and welcome of their cuddle pile, then chances are Big Baby D.R.A.M. has nothing else for you. —Dom Sinacola

13. Bon Iver, 22, A Million

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Brooklyn-based artist Eric Timothy Carlson was responsible for far more than 22, A Million’s cover art—he was also an integral part of the record’s rollout, designing the album packaging, promotional newspapers, and even the lyric videos for its 10 tracks. Per Carlson’s description of the recording process, discussed in an interview with Emmet Byrne of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, 22, A Million’s musical and visual creation went hand-in-hand: “The songs were all numbers from the start, multiple numbers at first. So we would listen to each song, talk about the numbers, talk about the song, watch the lyrics take form, makes lists, make drawings,” Carlson explained. “I was able to interview and interrogate each song—digging into weird cores—and by the end of each visit, each song would develop a matrix of new notes and symbols.” 22, A Million’s dense musical complexity is reflected on its front cover, a cloud of said notes and symbols that resembles a grouping of futuristic hieroglyphics. Carlson’s cover is exactly what a piece of album art should be: an undeniable invitation to explore the album’s (and the artist’s) world. —Scott Russell

12. Solange, A Seat At The Table

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So much of Solange’s standout A Seat at the Table is both an homage to her roots as well as a pushback against those who would seek to control her narrative (see: the stern “Don’t Touch My Hair,” among others). As if to signify her defiance, Solange appears equally austere on the cover of her third full-length album. With her shoulders uncovered and a bare face, Solange’s only adornments are the many clips in her hair, possibly representing the ongoing cultural stigma of a black woman’s unrelaxed, free-flowing mane. Knowles’ collaborated on the album cover artwork with Barcelona-based photographer Carlota Guerrero, who also art directed the singer’s performance for the reopening of London art gallery Tate Modern earlier this year. But it’s the younger Knowles’ expression that really completes the circle: It’s bold and it’s knowing; it’s a look of a person who’s seen her share of inequities and been conditioned into silence. But no more. —Rachel Brodsky

11. Kanye West, Life of Pablo

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‘Ye’s seventh studio album went through a number of changed before (and actually, even after) its release. Rumors abounded as buzz built around the idea of a new Kanye West album. We thought it would be called SWISH. We heard it might be So Help Me God or Waves. But when The Life of Pablo dropped in February, the minimalistic album cover designed by Belgian artist Peter De Potter proclaimed its identity with “The Life of Pablo” spelled out a myriad of times. The printed name is written repeatedly in three columns, sometimes overlapping on top of each other, spreading out across the peach-colored square of a cover. While the meanings of the cover photo(s) are debated, leave it to Kanye to make sure everyone knows his album’s name—in text, in buzz, and in spirit. —Hilary Saunders

10. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound

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Cultural vivisectionist and MoMA New Photography artist Deana Lawson worked with Blood Orange to create this intimate portrait for the cover of Freetown Sound. Lawson described the idea behind her photograph “Binky & Tony Forever” as the synthesis of young love and the need to embrace “intimacy and support, physically, between young people, particularly young black people.” Her work is deeply confrontational but ultimately focused on healing, a perfect fit for the complex themes R&B producer Dev Hynes explores on the project. —Emily Ray

9. Explosions In The Sky, The Wilderness

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The cover of Explosions in the Sky’s latest looks like a stained glass window in the coolest church imaginable. Jacob van Loon’s geometric design is a gloriously intricate composition that, true to the album’s title, appears to depict an erupting volcano at the edge of an ocean, with waves crashing against its side. Van Loon’s use of watercolor makes for a delicate, organic array of colors, with gossamer strands of white and tranquil blue-greens offsetting the warm red and orange accents. The piece achieves a singular contrast, with the abstraction of its colors opposing the precision of its lines, yet the differing elements combined form something more transfixing than either could have achieved alone. “The appearance of the finished painting doesn’t point to a specific place,” Van Loon told The Creators Project. “It’s a synthesis of experience and memory that translates to a landscape with its own ecotones.” Specific or no, Van Loon’s vision of The Wilderness is as engrossing as the album it accompanies. —Scott Russell

8. Anderson.Paak, Malibu

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For years, Malibu designer Dewey Saunders has collaborated with Anderson.Paak on some gorgeous tour posters and on .Paak’s debut LP, Venice. But the most staggering collaboration comes with the release of .Paak’s Malibu, which utilizes Saunders’ gift for collage art into a stunning album cover. Inspired by classic albums from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Saunders wanted an oil painting style to Malibu. Like .Paak’s music, Saunders’ cover is a mishmash of styles and ideas, from the blood-red sky that evokes oncoming doom, to the goofiness of .Paak playing piano in the ocean while wearing boxers. Saunders creates a cover that’s almost as if Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s album had been taken over by a hurricane, with .Paak playing in its wake amongst the remaining wreckage. —Ross Bonaime

7. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

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Though it is beset on all sides by towering waves, black clouds and a menacing leviathan lurking in the depths below, the ship at the center of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’s artwork is steady and undisturbed. Even amidst the fiercest storm, its cabins feel like home, illuminated from the inside, and from above, where the faintest hint of sunlight shines through. Sturgill Simpson’s bold and eclectic third album, a song cycle written for his young son, seeks to provide the same kind of inextinguishable solace evoked by its gorgeous album art. The adventurous Kentucky-born country singer is also a U.S. Navy vet, making the album’s seafaring imagery all the more resonant. Kilian Eng’s illustration would be satisfying if only by virtue of its symmetry and use of light, but its detail and thematic alignment with Simpson’s music make it an album cover to remember. —Scott Russell

6. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

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Coloring Book is Chance The Rapper’s third official mixtape, released this May. The cover art was designed by Brandon Breaux, who also designed the covers for 10 Day and Acid Rap. Taken together, the three releases chronicle the early dreams, harsh realities and strange pleasures of the rapper’s rise to fame. Where Chance was looking up to the stars on the cover of his debut album, and straight ahead for his sophomore release, he has now ascended into the surreal world of stardom and looks downright amused by it all. In the three years since his Acid Rap dropped, Chance had a daughter and, like his musical output, matured considerably. He was holding his newborn baby daughter when Breaux took the cover photo for Coloring Book . Chance references the positive impact becoming a parent has had on his life throughout the album. Even the title itself is likely also a reference to his new fatherhood. The Coloring Book cover art may seem simple and childlike at first glance, but Breaux and Chance are continuing to craft a musical memoir that colors way outside the lines. —Lily Guthrie

5. Frank Ocean, Blond/Blonde

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Frank Ocean  has a long history of rejecting sexual and gender identity labels. Is it any surprise that the public hysteria over his first release in four years would result in a bit of controversy over the album art for Blonde. Or is it Blond? Originally an exclusive release on Apple Music with the feminine spelling “Blonde”, publications and other streaming services have since styled the album with the masculine spelling “Blond”. Wolfgang Tillmanns, who photographed the cover, revealed that Ocean text messaged his decision to drop the “e” only a few weeks prior to the album release. Along with his short neon green hair, obscured face and bandaged index finger, Ocean’s nonconformist tendencies go beyond the lyrics of songs like “Good Guy” to the album titling itself. —Emily Ray

4. Dinosaur Jr., Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

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Dinosaur Jr.’s 11th album is a predictably powerful guitar-rock odyssey, and its vivid artwork, courtesy of German painter Daniel Richter, has the eye-catching psychedelia to match. Richter made his name designing punk record sleeves in the ‘80s—today, he’s a Saatchi-repped contemporary artist who nevertheless retains his penchant for hard-charging music. “I don’t believe in technique. For me, painting is a form of thinking, and I keep control over the things required for this form of thinking,” Richter has said. That kind of instinctive self-belief comes through in his Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not cover—the bright green figure stands out, and alone, atop what appears to be a mountain peak; the neon purple lines around him evoke everything from human veins to an equalizer meter, but the explorer is master of them all. He and Dinosaur Jr.—and Richter himself, for that matter—know exactly who they are, and what they are here to do. —Scott Russell

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