Illustration by Beatrice Sala

The standard of 2021 sleeve art has generally been impressive, with the gatefold back with a vengeance like it’s the ’70s again. That said, the proliferation of vinyl isn’t anywhere on the same scale: this year saw a logjam at the pressing plants with waiting times becoming elasticated, and box sets in particular on hold for up to a year.  

While it’s never been easier to create something professional-looking on a computer, in many cases that seemed to be the gauntlet that inspired artists and graphic designers to attempt something more authentic, on a larger scale, or which involved microcosmic details of physical tools like paints and crayons.

If graphic designers are thinking bigger, then all that ostentation rather feels like the last days of Rome. Worryingly, the vinyl revival and the long waits endured have inevitably led to price hikes, meaning records are becoming objets d’arts. Here are seven sleeves from 2021 that caught our eye (and sometimes our wallets).  

Topaz Jones – Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama

Topaz Jones – Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama 

New Jersey rapper Topaz Jones made a surprise splash at Sundance with the film that accompanies his latest album, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama, winning best nonfiction short. The half-hour documentary explores Black-centered alphabet flashcards one topic at a time with contributors from Black Thought and Ivy Sole, and stunning editing by director duo Rubberband.

Jones is developing a strong visual identity with impeccable messaging, and that’s reflected in the artwork for Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama. The album has not yet found its way onto vinyl, sadly, meaning there’s not much info available on who was involved in the production of the cover shot, though it appears to have been taken by photographer and cinematographer DP Chayse Irvin, who worked on BlacKkKlansman and Beyonce’s Lemonade. The angle is reminiscent of the Beatles’ EMI balcony pictures that have recently been merged for the Get Back promotional material for the TV series; though here there’s a Guggenheim-like twist—perhaps illustrating a transfer of power. The Beatles have been subtly referenced several times this year, and surprisingly well too: see also, Earworms by Nick Frater.    

Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

Olivia Rodrigo – Sour 

Olivia Rodrigo was the international breakout star of the year and her debut album cover perfectly embodies the performative nature of teen angst, complete with twee stickers on her face that replicate pimples. The art direction came from Dina Hovsepian, who has worked variously with edgy teen sensations like The Rasmus and t.A.T.u. and more recently she took charge of the layout for Billie Eilish’s Don’t Smile at Me.

Rodrigo has ridden a similar zeitgeist to Eilish since going viral in January, meaning shrewd label bosses issued a clean version of Sour for those concerned their parents might be offended. Accordingly, the packaging is a bubbling concoction of teen perturbation and quasi-rebellion for the Instagram generation, denoting danger—but hopefully not too much.    

Drake – Certified Lover Boy

Drake – Certified Lover Boy

The cover of the new Drake album is far from Damien Hirst’s first foray into album artwork: he’s designed covers for Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Hours, and he also once let Ed Sheeran loose in his studio to throw paint at a spinning wheel for the album Divide.

Hirst’s artwork usually contains certain signature motfis: for RHCP it was a pharmaceutical tablet, a longstanding favorite for the artist; with The Hours it was a skull (though this time, without the $100million price tag and diamonds.)

For the Canadian rapper’s sleeve uniformity is key, with 12 pregnant women emojis with different colored skin tones and garments perfectly spaced and commodified in a clear nod to the artist’s Spot paintings. It’s curious in its banality, and makes one wonder which artist is going to eventually get the dead shark. There is no shortage of famous artists creating cover art for legendary musicians: think Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Gerhard Richter and Sonic Youth, Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga, Banksy and Blur… which all suggests the music artist gets the artist they deserve.     

Gaspard Augé – Escapades

Gaspard Augé – Escapades

Gaspard Augé has featured with his electronic duo Justice in Under The Covers before, when we looked at the semiotic re-appropriation of the cross for many of their sleeves. Augé’s debut solo album uses another implement, this time a tuning fork. Here, it becomes a giant bolt that’s crash landed onto the landscape, perhaps tossed by an angry Zeus figure out of shot—Augé, meanwhile, is running away, having angered the heavens.

The Frenchman comes from a graphic design background himself, and oversaw the direction of the packaging, with regular Ed Banger/Because video director Thomas Jumin assuming responsibility for the artwork. There’s a glorious surreality to the picture that clearly draws inspiration from celebrated ’70s sleeve-smiths Hipgnosis, who in turn borrowed their sense of the surreal from the likes of Magritte and Dalí. In 2021, Augé kept his end up where design was concerned, while having some concerning plagiarism issues with a certain Canadian superstar to deal with…

The Limiñanas and Laurent Garnier – De Pelicula

The Limiñanas and Laurent Garnier De Pelicula

This collaboration between Perpignon’s finest, The Limiñanas and fellow French dancefloor overlord Laurent Garnier is built around a concept of lovers on the run in an Italian B-movie. Belgian artist Elzo Durt certainly rose to the occasion, working in a psychedelic cartoon-like style that perfectly compliments the album.

The cover is a mash-up of Cold War radar paranoia, or maybe psychic superpowers, with some classic cars and a celebration of red hair in the style of Robert Crumb thrown in for good measure. On the flipside, there’s a hardboiled sleuth, or maybe a pulp novel author? The typewriter with all the song titles hammered out manually in the classic Courier M font may provide a clue. It’s a visual overload of noir tropes that together don’t entirely make sense, though it’s a case of the more the merrier for an endeavour like this.     

Black Light Animals – Playboys of the Western World

Black Light Animals – Playboys of the Western World

The eyeball often evokes the ominous in Western art, especially when it’s being sliced open in Buñuel and Dalí’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, while under the aegis of The Residents, it’s used for mystique and high jinks, too. The eyeball has made a comeback in 2021 [we’d argue it never went away – ed.], featuring on the cover of new Italian horror soundtrack compilation PAURA in reference to the 1975 flasher flick Eyeball, and it’s here too on Black Light Animals’ stunning cover for Playboys of the Western World.

It’s entirely reflective of the Kansas City psychedelic glam band’s music, and what it’s actually meant to represent are moot points. It would surely be impossible to turn down this glorious artwork by Joshua Wilkinson.

TH1RT3EN & Pharoahe Monch – A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism

TH1RT3EN & Pharoahe Monch – A Magnificent Day For An Exorcism

A rap rock album by a band with a name like a personalized number plate perhaps wasn’t high on the list of things you thought you needed in 2021, and yet this collaboration between legendary Queens MC Pharoahe Monch, Jack White’s drummer Daru Jones, and guitar prodigy Marcus Machado really hits the spot. The photograph on the cover comes from the 2012 El Hombre Gris (or the Gray Man) project by Spanish artist Cayetano Ferrandez. It shows an uncanny presence who manages to look both very modern and very 19th century; real and plasticised—a slave perhaps, or just a slave to TV? Our dystopian times feel represented in this image, even if it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why…