Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.
Some of the year’s most striking album covers reflect a social and political activism that also characterizes the most critically acclaimed music of 2017. Kendrick Lamar’s expression of frustration and anger on DAMN captures the current zeitgeist for many music fans. The design of the album forces your eyes to focus on Lamar and a piercing gaze that confronts and inspires. Not surprisingly, DAMN inspired a cottage industry of memes.
Meanwhile, Joey Bada$$ took a Trojan horse approach with the artwork for his album All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. The album was marketed with a bandana-like depiction of the American flag. When you opened what you thought was the cover, the real cover was revealed: Joey Bada$$, giving you two middle fingers with the American flag flapping behind him.
Here we have an homage to the American flag cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On — and the music is as incendiary in 2017 as Sly’s statement was in his time. Memorable album covers sometimes make statements. This one certainly does. As he said recently, “I personally feel like I was put here on this Earth not only to inspire, but to wake people up.”
Similarly, Portugal The Man picked the image of a burning Rolls-Royce to reflect the current political climate (“a fucking mess” in the band’s eyes). As discussed in Billboard, the band deliberately chose the burning-car image (which was not staged) for the album Woodstock because the car, a symbol of established wealth and power, is burning from the inside.
In the year of the woman, it’s fitting that one of the most memorable album covers of 2017 makes a statement about sexism. When country singer Angaleena Presley released Wrangled in April, it quickly became apparent that she had a lot on her mind, with songs such as “Country,” which criticizes country and western traditions. And her outlaw attitude is all over the album’s cover, which depicts her as angry, bound, and gagged. The cover art is intended to be a statement about the country music industry’s notorious sexism.
As Presley told Nashville Scene, “I’m bound and gagged on the front cover. But that’s how I’ve been feeling the past few years. On my last record, I got so many questions about, ‘What do you think about the lack of women on country radio?’ I would give these generic answers like, ‘Well it’s cyclical. There’s room for everyone. I think it’s going to change.’ But it hasn’t changed. If I have to be the whistleblower, so be it. I’m 40, I don’t have anything to lose. This is my F-you record.”
The Wrangled album cover is brilliant not only because of the depiction of herself in bondage but also the deliberately retro design, suggesting that sexism is part of a deep-rooted tradition in country.
Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy merits discussion because the album cover art shows how musicians can use album covers as multi-media visual icons. Pure Comedy is an existential examination of human existence that touches upon a wide range of themes, such as American society’s obsession with entertainment and our rampant materialism. You need to study the album cover closely to appreciate it. The cartoon figures created by Edward Steed form a collage depicting the many themes in Father John Misty’s rich meditation: anger, greed, and lust among them.
Four versions of the cover in different colors were produced, as if to suggest the moody terrain of the music inside. The album artwork is also connected to a line of merchandise based on the characters, including a fascinating Tarot deck and a sweatshirt that changes color. In the analog era, album covers were limited to the physical artifact. In the digital world, the album cover is the source of a rich vein of content and related merchandise, online and offline. So who says album covers are dead?
In 2017, both 21-year-old Lorde and 69-year-old Robert Plant were among the musicians releasing deeply personal works. Their album covers reveal an interesting contrast in approaches. On the cover of Carry Fire, Robert Plant looks like a weathered, majestic lion. The cover amplifies his looks with a spare design that puts the background in soft focus.
He looks like he is seeking a new musical horizon, gazing into the distance, and decidedly not at you. By avoiding the gaze of the listener, he hints at the private world of his own making inside the album cover. Here is an honest portrait of a man whose face wears the mark of a life full of adventure, triumph, and sadness.
On the other hand, for her sophomore album, Lorde asked artist Sam McKinniss to “create a kind of colorful teenage restlessness and excitement and energy and potential — to put that into color and put it in my hands,” according to a W magazine article. The portrait has a timeless feel, perhaps because it’s not a photograph.
Although Lorde is in bed, the image is more reflective than sensual, probably because of the expression on her face and the blue tones. The cover rewards repeated examination, revealing texture and flourishes, such as the rose tint on Lorde’s left cheekbone. This image is, literally, a work of art.
Whether expressing protest or channeling an inner vision, album covers in 2017 did what album cover art has always done:
- Capture your attention.
- Express the essence of the artist.
- Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
For more examples of memorable album covers of 2017, check out the covers I have curated on SlideShare. The SlideShare, which you are free to download, contains speaker notes with additional insight. What are your favorite album covers of 2017, and why?