Memorable Album Covers of 2016


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Visual storytelling through album cover art is alive and well. The best album covers of 2016 act as visual touch points across the online and offline worlds, creating powerful statements about musicians and their visions. The enclosed deck contains detailed speaker notes explaining what makes each selected cover memorable. In 2016, an album cover can do more for an artist than it could in the days of album-oriented rock because there are so many channels and devices where the cover can capture our attention. Enjoy these selections and tell me about yours.

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  • The success of Adele's 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.
    But fortunately, musicians didn't give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a "visual album" aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.

    Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I've written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist's website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.
    Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:
    Capture your attention through striking design.
    Express the essence of the artist.
    Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
    The examples I've chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé's Lemonade to Loretta Lynn's Full Circle. Check out these examples to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.
  • Less is more. To depict a spectacular album that stuns viewers and listeners with an explosion of sound and visual storytelling, Beyoncé chose an understated yet powerful image. Her head is bowed and facing away from the camera. What do you see in this photo? A look of exhaustion? Determination? Both? Here is an album cover that invites you to learn more. The golden corn rows in her hair and the fur coat give a clue about the statement of self-assurance and identity that awaits in Lemonade, one of the most acclaimed albums of the year.
  • David Bowie’s Blackstar, released just days before his death, creates a totemic effect with the simple, direct image. The particles beneath the black star hint at a puzzle and mystery within, befitting David Bowie’s image as one of the most complex figures in modern music. Interestingly, Blackstar is the first David Bowie album cover that does not feature an image of David Bowie. And it looks as though he had his reasons: throughout 2016, music listeners reported a number of easter eggs in the album’s artwork such as star images reflected in the sky when you tilt the album gatefold against the light. David Bowie knew he was dying when he recorded this album. He left us with a puzzle to play with, but only if you took the time to explore its visual mysteries. More about that here:
  • How can you look away from the cover of HXLT’s debut album? The image of a man free-falling down the side of the building certainly invites discussion. Did he jump or was he pushed? Did he survive the fall? The black-and-white nature of the image also has a journalistic feel, reminding me of Stanley Forman’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a mother and her goddaughter falling off a collapsed fire escape. The cover perfectly captures the provocative punk vibe of the album and reminds us of why he calls himself “the original punk dude from Chicago who rapped.”
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  • DJ Khaled makes a clear statement of confidence and self-assurance by having himself seated on a throne, surrounded by flowers and accompanied by a lion. The cover is not only striking but also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, but the flowers, elegance. You have to give DJ Khaled credit for having the boldness to depict himself this way. Like a Pharoah, he is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. He rules his universe his way.
  • The American hip hop duo strike an intriguing post that reveals yet hides. They show off their tattoos and their sleek, bare torsos, and yet they look away from the camera, and their hair covers their expressions. That they are facing away from each other also invites conversation in the same way that Beyoncé’s Lemonade does. Are they headed in opposite directions? Complementing each other? Here is a cover that makes you want to learn more about the duo by listening to their potent music.
  • Here is the perfect album cover for a tongue-in-cheek punk band. A flaming sofa is bound to catch your eye. A flaming sofa being used by a casual newspaper reader invites interpretation. The image of an unknown figure chilling out with a distinctly 20th-Century pastime (reading an analog newspaper) sitting on an old sofa on fire, along with the depressing album title, creates layers of irony. Designer Chris McKenney explained to FACT magazine : “I took the photo with two of my friends, Barry Barosky and Dillon Utter, in the woods on a whim one day. My photos consist of layering and masking multiple different photos in Photoshop, and I think this image fits perfectly with the album once you give the record a full listen! PUP reached out to me for this photo a few years after I made it, and it’s cool to see something I created so long ago relate to something created by such a cool band right now.”
  • It takes a certain amount of guts to choose for your first solo album a cover depicting a slit wrist oozing honey. But that’s exactly what iLe did in 2016 when she broke away from the band Calle 13 to release her first solo album of Latin music, which earned high praise and coverage from mainstream news media such as The New York Times.

    iLevitable joins the ranks of many albums that have shocked and provoked. In the case of iLe, the slit wrist hints at a collision of sweetness and bracing despair, as if to make a pre-emptive strike at anyone who misjudges her distinctively sweet voice as the product of happiness.

    Record albums have a longstanding history of provoking and shocking. Album cover art can have shock value for many reasons, ranging from the artist wanting to make a statement to the artist simply wanting to get a rise out of you. After you listen to iLe’s music, you start to appreciate her own complex inspiration.
  • On the album Here, Alicia Keys sought to create more heartfelt and personal anthems. This was her first album in four years. She reportedly created it quickly. The album cover hints at a more natural self-expression, less slick and packaged than she normally appears on her covers. Her flowing hair completed by her gaze quickly grabs your attention. This cover works as a striking self-portrait and contrasts nicely with some of the other covers on my list, in which the artists gaze away from the camera to create mystique.
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  • I love the classic design of Maren Morris’s Hero. The album reminds me of the country album covers from the 1960s from the likes of Glenn Campbell, with simple colors, easy-to-read tiles, and a visible track listing. The layout makes efficient use of the square space. Ironically the music in the album is really cross-over country, drawing upon classic country and many other genres. The cover, though is a nod to the album’s country roots.
  • Travis Scott released this album after enduring a period in which he felt trapped creatively. So it’s no surprise that the album cover is brooding and dark, with a winged Scott sitting before the camera, doing anything but flying. The photo is moody and atmospheric, the work of photographer Nick Knight. Knight gave insight into the making of the cover in an interview with Revolt.Tv. He said,” Travis came to the studio and gave an incredibly energetic performance. He was literally launching himself into the air, running from the back of the studio and jumping. He was physically putting everything into it — working with someone who works so physically for you is amazing, it’s a fairly emotional experience. We worked for 3-4 hours, which is relatively short — when I worked with Lady Gaga we did a 14-hour session — but in that time he did everything he possibly could for me to get that image. It was easy under those circumstances to let images form. It seemed like the equivalent of an action painting – Travis just gave off this frantic, exuberant, colourful energy. We knew we had lovely shots straight away, we really did very little to the original files. The images we ended up using are very much how they were- not including elements such as the wings, obviously - but the white eyes, the smoke, that was all part of the original image. We were creating amazing imagery at a pretty startling rate.”

    More here:
  • Jamie T’s Trick name checks historical figures ranging from Joan of Arc to Robin Hood. Quite fittingly, the album cover depicts Solomon Eagle, a 19th Century paining by Paul Falconer Poole. I suppose you could say that Jamie T is cheating by using someone else’s art. But the painting demonstrates Jamie T’s clever historical allusions (indeed one of the album’s tracks is Solomon Eagle). Let’s give Jamie T credit: did you know anything about Solomon Eagle before you read about the cover, much less music that draws upon the painting for inspiration?
  • The Radio Dept. is a Swedish indie rock band. Running out of Love is a series of protest songs Sweden focused on the rise of conservative politics in Sweden. The cover reminds me of a Russian revolutionary, dressed like a citizen prepared for some kind of battle. Her face carries a calm resolve, complemented by the soft, muted tones of the painting. The cover hints a story that will end violently and sadly.
  • And then there are times when an album cover captures your attention by looking absurd. The Tindersticks’ The Waiting Room is that album cover. Band member Stuart Staples wears a donkey mask on the cover, shot by Richard Dumas. Staples told Lomography that in the mask, “I can feel safe, free of my personality and very calm. But I am also very aware that this new character is fractured, broken somehow.” And indeed the fractured character reveals more of its broken soul in the video for the album. What was at first a strikingly odd cover is in fact a glimpse into a dark soul. More about the cover here:
  • Full Circle is a collection of songs that tell Loretta Lynn’s life story. The album cover is a striking study of contrasts, with the sparkling blue dress and honey tones of Lynn’s guitar creating a river of color against the black-and-white barn behind her. Her contemplative face studies her guitar, her constant companion throughout her stellar career. The cover design is also interesting because the use of color puts your focus on Lynn, and yet she looks away from you. I love this cover because it’s so glam country, with the splashy title and dress, and her face is anything but glam.
  • What are your favorite album covers of the year, and why? Drop me a line at I’d love to hear from you.
  • Memorable Album Covers of 2016

    1. 1. Memorable Album Covers of 2016 David J. Deal December 2016
    2. 2. Beyoncé, Lemonade
    3. 3. Davie Bowie, Blackstar
    4. 4. HXLT, HXLT
    5. 5. Kaytranada, 99.9%
    6. 6. DJ Khaled, Major Key
    7. 7. Rae Sremmurd, Sremmlife 2
    8. 8. PUP, The Dream Is Over
    9. 9. iLe, iLevitable
    10. 10. Alicia Keys, Here
    11. 11. Young Thug, Jeffery
    12. 12. Maren Morris, Hero
    13. 13. Travis Scott, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
    14. 14. Jamie T, Trick
    15. 15. The Radio Dept., Running out of Love
    16. 16. Tindersticks, The Waiting Room
    17. 17. Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
    18. 18. Thank You David Deal