The music industry in the 21st century has been defined by a shift in the way that listeners experience the songs they love. While artists were riding high at the beginning of the 2000s, still shifting millions of copies of albums on CD, the creeping influence of file sharing and music piracy led to physical sales declining for the first time in recorded history. This fall was hastened by the rising popularity of streaming and legal downloads, through platforms like iTunes and Spotify, whose convenience has come at the literal expense of artists being paid.
However, despite how long it took the music industry to work out how best to adapt to this changing landscape of music consumption, for the artists, old habits die hard. That is to say that although album sales were slow over much of the last two decades, musicians continued to treat their full-length records as their main artistic statements. This decision has more than paid off as the so-called “vinyl revival” of the last few years continues to take hold, with LPs now outselling CDs for the first time since the mid-eighties.
And this means that album artwork remained a vital part of the overall package, even as more and more fans were enjoying their albums digitally, reducing record covers to tiny on-screen thumbnails while the music was set to shuffle. Here, we’ll go through the five best album covers of the last five years, as the vinyl revival allowed them the space to fully breathe.
2015 – Justin Bieber Purpose
Bieber’s fourth album is best remembered for its hits, and the likes of “Love Yourself” and “Sorry” have become staples since they were first released five years ago. But Purpose itself also saw the former teen star finally find a place for himself as a grown-up artist, and the album’s cover was a perfect representation of that. Created by LA street artist Retna, whose work is characterised by its “elaborately designed calligraphy”, the cover is adorned with ancient-looking symbols, while a shirtless Bieber looks pensive in the centre of the image. After the image was unveiled, fans and the media were left asking both the singer and the artist “What Do You Mean?”, but neither Bieber nor Retna have yet commented too extensively about the secrets the cover holds.
2016 – David Bowie The Next Day
Released on his 69th birthday, the final David Bowie album Blackstar was shrouded in symbolism, much of which came into sharp focus two days later, when the icon tragically died of cancer. However, many forget that on Bowie’s 66th birthday in 2013 saw the release of his first new music in a decade, ending a period of uncharacteristic silence with a mournful, self-referential song and video entitled “Where Are We Now?”.
Released two months later, its parent album The Next Day was hailed as a huge return to form, and for playing around with instantly-recognisable imagery from the musician’s history. Most significantly, its cover bastardised Bowie’s classic cover for his 1977 “Heroes” album, obscuring most of Bowie’s face with a big white square. Many were outraged at the apparent lack of thought and effort which went into the usually design-conscious musician’s latest record sleeve, but The Next Day’s designer Jonathan Barnbrook willingly explained it in a since-deleted blog: “The Heroes cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.”
2017 – Cornelius Mellow Waves
The Japanese musical polymath Keigo Oyamada has been making records for over 30 years, but the inspirations behind his Cornelius project are as entrenched in fashion and design as they are in music. In the mid-nineties, he was a brand ambassador for the iconic Japanese fashion line A Bathing Ape, and his live shows and album covers have always been as kaleidoscopic as his music. For Mellow Waves, his first new record in 11 years, Oyamada went all out, collaborating with venerable Tokyo artist Tadayoshi Nakabayashi on a pop-up gatefold vinyl sleeve, complete with with a phenakistoscope cardboard disc which could be placed on a turntable to create an animated experience based on images from the video for its lead single “If You’re Here”.
2018 – boygenius boygenius
boygenius is a supergroup made up of three of the most critically acclaimed songwriters of the last few years — Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker. As such, it’s fitting that the artwork to their only release to date not only introduces the band as a unit, but also tips its cap to a very different meeting of minds. Initially sent as a postcard to fans on each singer’s mailing list, the image on the boygenius cover is a winking reference to the sleeve of the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album from 1969. By appropriating the classic rock icons’ poses from their mammoth-selling debut, boygenius subverted the classic rock boys’ club, while also giving a slight hint at the influences they were collectively drawing from. A subtle sleeve, but no less successful for it.
2019 – Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble Where Future Unfolds
Growing up a devoted fan of hardcore punk in the eighties, visual artist and musician Damon Locks has slowly pivoted towards spiritual jazz, working with revered record label International Anthem as their unofficial in-house designer. The 2019 instant classic, Where Future Unfolds, was his first album under his own name. A righteous protest record, it was a live recording of a multimedia show he performed with his 15-piece Black Monument Ensemble the previous year, a collective he considers less a band and more “a project of ideas”. The artwork, designed by Locks himself, fits the music perfectly, drawing on influences from across the genre spectrum, from lino cuts to comic books, to depicting afrocentric images of civil unrest and Black resilience in stark monochrome.