Good album covers might be more important now than they’ve ever been. Sure, the world is trending away from actual, physical copies of albums. But the unique, universal pleasure that comes with “putting a record on” and sitting down with a 12-inch square in your lap isn’t yet a thing of the past. It just takes arresting, evocative cover art to inspire listeners to take the trip.
We picked our five favorite record covers of 2015 so far based on two fairly loose criteria: 1) Would we, finding the record at a record store, buy it based solely on the album art? and 2) Does the cover enhance the listening experience of the record? The five covers below are true to the music within and help it get its point across.
But, as we talked to the musicians and designers behind these covers, it became obvious that that’s where the similarities stop. Album covers can actually serve different purposes for different bands—they can be an accompanying text, or a random piece of art, or a summary of all the record’s intentions and ambitions. Album artists can be friends with bands, full-on collaborators, or, in a couple cases, they might never have even met. And yet all these collaborations yielded album covers that truly make the records better.
Here are the very different stories and philosophies behind our five favorite album covers of the year so far.
For the cover of Purity Ring’s second full-length album, the band and illustrator/Edmonton homegirl Tallulah Fontaine both knew they wanted to do something a little lighter than the cover they used for Shrines, which Fontaine also illustrated. Before they knew it, Fontaine was sketching sex organs.
“When we were working on the gatefold art, Megan [James, Purity Ring vocalist] looked at me and said, “I feel like everything is getting too serious. The album name, and the band — can you just draw some penises and vaginas?’” Fontaine recalls, laughing. “And I said, ‘Yeah. That’s great.’ Though it did yield a lot of horrifying Google searches.”
Fontaine created sex organ diagrams for the album’s gatefold art, including little ovaries and veins, and some of those went on to make up the bright planet that hangs in the center of the another eternity cover, pulling James into a sky pink sky. Corin Roddick, the other half of the band, came up with the cover concept, but all agreed that they wanted to complement the brighter, romantic music on another eternity with a sci-fi vibe that recalled the early 90s—when alien abductions were the rage and extra-terrestrials just wanted to ride around in your bicycle basket.
Renata Raksha, the fashion photographer who also shot St. Vincent’s album cover last year, took the cover photo of James floating toward Fontaine’s planet; then, Raksha assembled the final cut of the cover.
Fontaine is clearly a very comfortable collaborator for the band. “Almost always, I find the artwork she does for us is a picture of exactly what I was trying to say or describe with my words,” says James. “She encapsulates our atmosphere in her own iterations, but if feels like the exact same expression.”
A trip to the movies somehow validated everything for Fontaine and the band. “We saw Interstellar a few days after we finished working on the album, and we were so excited,” Fontaine says. “We were new to LA and the movie had all these sunsets and we thought, ‘This is exactly how we wanted the album to feel.’”
If the cover of I Love You, Honeybear smacks of Father John Misty’s trademark sarcasm, it’s probably because Josh Tillman knew what he wanted for the cover from the outset. Los Angeles-based artist/illustrator Stacey Rozich was officially commissioned after Sub Pop art director Sasha Barr showed one of her illustrations to Tillman. Excited, Tillman sent her some guiding concepts, as well as a demo of the album, which she listened to constantly while working on the artwork. “He largely left it up to me,” says Rozich. “But he said, ‘Here are some things that are hallmarks of the album that I think are subject matter for you to work with.’”
The subject matter of I Love You, Honeybear includes, in part: A confused man’s dueling sexual appetite and childlike dependence on women; the relaxed, buzzed beauty of L.A at night; horny debauchery in a bathtub; and general impending doom. Look and you’ll find these themes personified on Rozich’s cover, rendered in a style not unlike that of children’s storybook illustrators like Maurice Sendak or Benjamin Chaud. “It’s something very reminiscent of what we’ve all grown up with — storybooks, and folk tales,” Rozich says. “I like to create those for the modern times, with different earmarks of popular culture.” In this case, Rozich lays out the psycho-sexual mythology of I Love You, Honeybear in a watercolor background.
Which brings us back to the sarcasm. “[Tillman] said, ‘I want my face to be on a baby’s body, breastfeeding a beautiful woman, with some kind of Renaissance iconography,” says Rozich. But Rozich, proving herself a good foil for the puckish singer, turned Baby FJM into a tiny Jesus. “That’s how I kind of interpreted the scenario. It’s such an iconic trope in paintings, used for centuries… But he never said, ‘Make me Jesus.’”
The cover for hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction’s EarthEE, is, like their music, a work of Afrofuturism—the school of art that projects African American experience through the lens of science fiction, and encompasses the work of artists as diverse as Sun Ra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Octavia Butler. Toronto-based artist Rajni Perera takes this approach in her own work, a melange of sci-fi pulp concepts and explorations of the female body that she calls “Immigrant Futurism”—a style that suits the otherworldly EarthEE.
“My style is inspired by Ukiyo-e block prints; the science fiction work of Moebius and Serpieri; Perera says. “I grew up reading Heavy Metal magazine, and a lot of that comes into my work naturally.” Perera listened to the record before starting on the cover art and knew she wanted to render the THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons as “sci fi goddesses in space.”
Unlike much of her other work, though, Perera was working with actual bodies—Harris-White and Irons came into her studio pose for the photos on the album cover. “People nowadays will get botox and all kinds of plastic surgery for their records, and we’re just ourselves,” says Harris-White. “We’ve gotten a lot of complements saying, “Wow, you look so free!” But this is how we look—we’re not going to pretend.” Perera put a purple sheen on the photos and then painstakingly drew on their outfits by hand with a white gel pen.
“What THEESatisfaction does is about transcending the body, coming out of yourself,” Perera says. The Afrofuturist aesthetic—a label the band isn’t in love with, by the way—functions on a political level in part by rising above the world. “Our whole album is about stepping outside of Earth, and looking at it as an outsider,” says Irons. “It’s about realizing Earth is pretty small when you see how vast the universe is.”
Jay Shaw started working on the cover for Shadow of the Sun with the simple direction to imitate the style of 70s pulp art. Shaw, a Boulder, Colo.-based graphic designer, has a special love for this kind of stuff — particularly dark 70s horror movie posters from Poland, where artists created images that were surreally detached from the plots of the actual movies they advertised. Starting from that obscure angle, Shaw has done all kinds of notable work, including a recent Time cover. (When we told him some of his work reminded us of Knight Rider, he didn’t totally agree: “Once you get into the 80s, there’s a neon shittiness that comes into play.”)
Moon Duo turned to Shaw as they prepared a record that’s a little colder and darker than their previous output. “We wanted something ambiguous but otherworldly for the cover, which is how we also feel about the music,” says Moon Duo’s Ripley Johnson. “Our references for Jay were examples of his own work, specifically for Blue Sunshine and The Visitor. And the cover art for the Halloween III soundtrack, which reminded me a bit of our live visuals, which Sanae [Yamada, the other half of the band] designs.”
Unlike the inscrutable Polish designers Shaw admires, he stuck closely to his own literal interpretation of the album’s title. “I thought, ‘Let’s do some bright sun thing, and everything else will be cast in shadow.’” He stuck to specific cues from sci fi book design of the era, including the pink box around the central illustration and the font he used, Avant Garde, on the back cover.
A lot of his design work follows a similar motif — a human head in the middle of the frame, beseiged by something evil, either from all around or within. “Faces coming off, opening up, splitting open,” he elaborates.”For some reason, that’s the first thing I think of with everything. It’s this cheap visual that works so well for so many narratives. You know: off goes the face and out comes the monster.”
Brooklyn painter and indie demigod Steve Keene churned out 12 (!) different paintings for Radical Dads after the grungy alt-rockers asked him to do the cover for Universal Coolers. But that’s just how Keene rolls—he’s as renowned for his conveyer-belt process as a painter as he is for the work he did for Pavement and Apples in Stereo in the 90s—the pieces that led Radical Dads, worshippers of 90s indie rock, to seek him out in the first place.
“I feel like I’m a natural wonder,” Keene says. “I paint hundreds of pictures a week, and people use them for everything—tree houses, college libraries, posters, album covers. You know [the piece isn’t] rare, and thousands of people have it, and it’s only worth a couple of bucks. It’s just another thing in the world.” Keene says he only does one in about 20 of the record covers bands ask him to do. He didn’t even listen to Universal Coolers when he was working on the cover, though he does like their music. He just watched a couple of the band’s YouTube videos, then looked to magazine clippings and other cultural detritus for inspiration, like he usually does.
Radical Dads guitarist Chris Diken couldn’t care less that the art isn’t really related to the record. To boot, the cover he chose out of the 12 Keene sent was the one that displayed the band name where it was easiest for shoppers to see. “Art and music [are] an opportunity in life to not think about shit,” Diken says.
It’s kind of like those the jazz labels of the ‘50s and ‘60s that haphazardly slapped pieces of abstract art onto the record du jour—yielding record covers that look nice, but don’t really interact with the music. Diken and the band’s choice to use Keene’s slapdash art feels a lot like Keene’s own art-by-the-barrel philosophy in the way it deconstructs expectations of what artists (and bands) should do. “We’re very aware that we’re operating in this milieu that’s full of templates and cliches,” Diken says. “We try to subvert that, and make fun of that. We don’t take our stuff very seriously.”