The advent of digital music may have caused album cover art—you know, the little thumbnail next to the song you’re listening to on iTunes or on Spotify—to become somewhat de-emphasized these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lost art altogether.
Believe it or not, most bands still spend quite a bit of time crafting a look and feel for their records as an extension of the musical and lyrical themes of their latest opus. The result is some album covers that are every bit as glorious or arresting as your favorite jam of the year.
As evidence, here are the best album covers of 2016 (according to us, anyway).
8 Schoolboy Q Blank Face LP
This was one of the most talked-about album covers of the year, though mostly because Schoolboy Q initially released two fake covers to troll his fans—the infamous “crying Jordan” meme and Donald Trump, both with faces photoshopped out, in a nod to the album’s title—before revealing the official cover art. “You see me in the corner blank facin’,” Q explained to TMZ when he unveiled the actual cover. He refused to elaborate much beyond that, but there’s no doubt the artwork is as evocative and gripping as Q’s lyrics and the smoked-out, hazy atmosphere of the album.
7 American Football American Football (LP2)
American Football’s first album, American Football, came out in 1999. Seventeen years later, the band finally released a follow-up, also self-titled. The album’s artwork featured a view from inside the house that graced the cover of the first LP—a typical college townhouse in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois that is now famous due to the influence American Football’s debut has had not just on emo music, but on all of indie rock. The house has become something of a pilgrimage site for fans in the nearly two decades since we last heard from the band, which pretty much guaranteed instant iconic status for the cover of LP2.
Survive’s big breakthrough this year came via two of the band member’s score for the hit Netflix show, Stranger Things. Like the show, the appeal for many fans of Survive’s music rests on a nostalgia for the 80s, especially John Carpenter film soundtracks and synth-driven rock music. The cover art for RR7349 operates on similar principles by super-imposing garish 80s graphics on top of a soft-focused photo of a body of water at night with two boats in the distance. There’s something strangely somber and sentimental about it that perfectly encapsulates the band’s sound.
5 Rihanna ANTI
The striking artwork on the cover of Rihanna’s ANTI is a piece by Israeli-born artist Roy Nachum entitled If They Let Us, Part I. The central figure is Rihanna herself as a young child, with her eyes covered by an oversized crown. What looks like blood drips down the top half, with the whole image covered in braille. Nachum told Vanity Fair that it’s part of his Blind series: “I wanted to do something that opened people’s eyes and let people think. On the other side, it’s an opportunity [for] people who cannot see [to] experience visual art as well.”
With her latest album’s cover, Santigold held her breath for ten seconds at a time while under shrink wrap in order to make this statement about the disposability of today’s pop music (don’t try this at home kids!). She told Complex the idea stemmed from the theme of her album, and “how conflicted I was about being an artist in this environment where it’s all about marketing yourself and being a product.” Santigold collected items from around her house to be with her in the photo, which was shot by Japanese photographer, Photographer Hal. “All my hard work and my life is on sale for 99¢—which we all know is not true and you can get the record for less than 99¢, for free!” she said. “People don’t fucking pay for music, so it’s not even 99¢. The idea is, it’s a ridiculously undervalued price.”
3 Young Thug Jeffery
From his vocal delivery to his fashion choices, to his entire public persona, Young Thug clearly has his own sense of style—and that is what his fans love most about him. To wit: When he posted the cover for his latest mixtape, Jeffery, on Instagram, it instantly went viral. Featuring Young Thug in a periwinkle, gender-defying, dress-like outfit by Italian designer Alessandro Trincone, it’s the perfect visual for Thugger’s amorphous, genre-defying musical stylings. Once the album dropped, it more than lived up to the much-discussed photo adorning the front cover.
The cover of Beyoncé’s “visual album,” Lemonade, is understated, even simplistic, but perfectly suited to the material. It’s a still from the hour-long visual album that features Beyoncé herself, but instead of seeing her face, we see just the back of her lowered head and up-stretched arm. Given that the album is widely believed to be about Beyoncé reckoning with her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity, the weary resignation portrayed by her lowered head makes sense. But her luxurious fur coat shows her weathering the storm with her fabulousness intact, and her braided hair speaks to her unshakable personal strength and identity. Like Lemonade itself, it makes a simple but bold statement.
1 David BowieBlackstar
The deceptively simple cover for Bowie’s last album—often referred to as Blackstar but sometimes just ´—was, much like the late, great artist himself, enigmatic and multi-layered. The only Bowie record not to feature Bowie himself on the cover (if you don’t count 2013’s The Next Day, which reworked the cover for 1977’s Heroes by obscuring Bowie’s face with a white square), the simple black star on a white background above “Bowie,” spelled in letters styled from different sections of the five-point star design, at first struck some as too basic. But designer Jonathan Barnbrook explained the deeper meaning: “This was a man who was facing his own mortality. The Blackstar symbol [´], rather than writing ‘Blackstar,’ has… a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music.” Just like Bowie’s entire discography, the Blackstar cover was a gift that kept on giving. Shortly after its release, fans discovered that when held under the sunlight, the cover for the vinyl version of the album would turn into a glowing field of stars, as if Bowie wanted to remind us all one last time that there’s a Starman waiting in the sky… ♦