The Best (and Worst) Album Art of 2021
As another year comes to an end, if you're like me, then you're busy quantifying what new music you've heard this year; taking stock of everything that's been released, trying to decide on criteria for best-of lists, and kicking yourself for gems you've forgotten to listen to. It's been an immensely strong year for new music, and I've heard so many great albums, it's hard to keep track of them all. At some point I'll be closing my spreadsheets, finishing my rankings, and writing up my list of my favourite albums of the year.
This article is focused on not the best music of the year, but rather the best album art. All of these albums (bar two) are fantastic albums in their own right, but I've highlighted them here for the beautiful cover art that's moved me the most this year. Whether it's because the cover is perfectly suited to the music or whether it stands alone as a beautiful statement in its own right, all ten of these album covers are absolutely fantastic.
As well as mentioning the band or musician behind each of these records, you can find links to the websites or social media pages of each individual artist too. I recommend checking out their portfolios and supporting their work. Graphic designers and photographers are never given as much spotlight as they deserve.
The following list is arranged in alphabetical order by artist, with each album accompanied by my thoughts, plus links to each graphic designer.
The Best Album Art of the Year
Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark
Art: Aidan Moffat
I didn't anticipate a new Arab Strap album when they reunited for a tour in 2016, but their comeback release is one of their best records, simultaneously cementing their legacy while carving out new ground. The art by Aidan Moffat is brilliant too, at once reminiscent of the band's own Philophobia artwork while also bringing us up to the present, by way of a stunning Pedro Américo painting.
Lucy Dacus - Home Video
Art: Marin Leong, Lucy Dacus
A theme of Home Video is nostalgia and how we process it. Tracks like Brando and Hot & Heavy reinforce this; the music video for the latter track finds Dacus watching childhood videos projected on a theatre screen, much like the one on the cover art. Her blurred face suggests the distinction between memories and reality can blur - however, a stunning album with stunning artwork remains.
Dave - We're All Alone In This Together
Art: Tyler Remikie
The stunning painting on Dave's second album is a repainting of a Monet classic by Tyler Remikie. The vivid colours feel warm and welcoming, inviting you on the boat to join Dave on his emotional journey, while also reinforcing the theme of migration of the album, most prominently on tracks like the phenomenal Three Rivers.
Foxing - Draw Down the Moon
Art: Hayden Molinarolo
Shortly after 2018's Nearer My God, Foxing's Conor Murphy came out as bisexual: "I really am just so happy to be honest with myself, and the people I love". This joyous embrace of individualism is shown on the incredible Draw Down the Moon and in Hayden Molinarolo's beautiful design and photography. Murphy has made both the band's best album yet, and also the best version of himself.
Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee
Art: Nathaniel David Utesch, Peter Ash Lee, Michelle Zauner
Jubilee is, in Michelle Zauner's words, an album about "the different ways that we interact with joy". The warm, bright colours set a joyous scene, with the persimmons being a powerful metaphor for maturity, as explained by Zauner in her Rolling Stone feature. One of the year's finest albums, and one of the most instantly iconic album covers of the year, too.
JPEGMAFIA - LP!
Art: Carlo Cavaluzzi
All of JPEGMAFIA's albums come with a striking photo of him, ranging from the striking Black Ben Carson to the iconic All My Heroes Are Cornballs. His latest LP features his best art yet, an unforgettable portrait under streetlight and smoke. Equally beautiful is the alternative cover for the offline edition of the album, featuring the same hard lighting as the online version pictured here. It's fitting that his best album yet has his best artwork yet to match.
Lil Nas X - Montero
Art: Charlotte Rutherford
Montero was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, the long-awaited debut from one of the most unapologetically queer pop stars of our generation. The art is as vibrant as the music inside: glorious colours, beautiful clear water, and iridescent butterflies surround Lil Nas X, floating through a rainbow. It's perhaps the best example this year of the art fitting the music. If this is what it feels like to be Lost in the Citadel, sign me up.
ME REX - Megabear
Art: Jono Ganz
The art of Megabear is perfectly suited for the album. Just like how all 52 tracks of the album can be shuffled to give an (almost) infinite combination of songs, the art itself can be shuffled revealing a gate, a river, a bear, and a constellation. This is best shown on the beautiful oracle deck that accompanies the album. Just as ME REX's songs give room for a listener's input, so does Ganz's stunning artwork, making for a wholly unique design.
Porter Robinson - Nurture
Photo: Samuel Burgess-Johnson
The cover art for Nurture is a far cry from Worlds, Robinson's debut album. Gone is the glacial CGI imagery. Instead, we have a beautiful photograph of Robinson in a flowery field. Nurture is an equally personal listen to its predecessor, and the stunning album cover reflects the serenity found in tracks such as Blossom and Sweet Time.
Twenty One Pilots - Scaled and Icy
Art: Walter Crane, Brandon Rike
Like many listeners, I discovered Twenty One Pilots through 2013's Vessel. They've only become more ambitious since, with complex storylines and recurring characters between albums. The art of Scaled and Icy is a perfect representation of this, a fantastical dragon setting the scene for an album full of clues for fans to pore over. What a shame that the cover art is the best thing I can say about the band...
However, every silver lining has a cloud, and with that being said, we now move on to...
The Worst Album Art of the Year
Zack Fox - Shut The Fuck Up Talking To Me
Art: Zack Fox, Zack Fox's feet
Why, Zack Fox? Why?
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Follow them on Twitter.