[11 min read + 6 min media]

2016 is coming to an end and we decided to invite you for a small journey throughout some of the striking album covers that helped to define its music. This is not an anthology: it’s rather an itinerary that aims to spark a conversation concerning what ten popular artworks might tell us not only about their artists, but also about the politics and the status quo of the music industry of what has been a rather surprising and exhausting year. As always, feel free to add your own choices and thoughts in the comment section.

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David Bowie: Blackstar (ISO / RCA / Columbia / Sony)

Nowadays, it’s easy to look back and realize how David Bowie’s comeback (starting from the morning of January, 8th 2013, when we found out about “Where Are We Now?”) was packed with clues about his demise. They actually go even beyond the music and lyrics. Case in point: though Bowie’s face had always adorned the front covers of his records, things changed drastically with his last two studio albums, both designed by Jonathan Barnbrook. If his face (from Heroes) was concealed by a white square in The Next Day, it definitely went AWOL with the minimalist approach of Blackstar. The CD cover consists of a large black star on a plain white background, with six segments below forming the word “BOWIE” in stylized letters; the vinyl cover, in black, features the star as a cutout section, revealing the record beneath it. Some music journalists noted that a “black star lesion”, usually found inside a breast, suggests to medical practitioners evidence of certain types of cancer; others pointed out that the five-pointed star and the black colour are pretty self-explanatory in western culture (the death of a celebrity). Either way, the artwork has its intrinsic merits: it’s both simple and bold, elegant and sharp, unique and immediately recognisable. By far, the most iconographic album cover of the year.

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Solange: A Seat at the Table (Saint Records / Columbia / Sony)
Alicia Keys: Here (RCA)

Two popular stars decided to celebrate this year their blackness unapologetically not only throughout the songs of their albums but also via their front covers: Solange with natural strands adorned with colourful duckbill clips; and a make-up free Alicia Keys rocking her naturally curly hair. These portraits not only articulate the core of their feminine and African-American personas, as they bring to a medium traditionally packed with fashion, bling, props and other forms of simulacrum, a much needed freshness emanated by their naked beauty. The former is defying, the latter seducing. Both are undeniably proud of their heritage. Resistance goes a long way. #blacklivesmatter

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Bon Iver: 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)

We already talked extensively about the exquisite work of Eric Timothy Carlson in designing Bon Iver’s new album. No other record explored so deeply in 2016 the potential correlations between music, images and words in both digital and analogue worlds.

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Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (GOOD / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella)

If, by Kanye’s own words, the packaging of Yeezus was intended to be an open casket to the demise of physical releases of music, the one of The Life of Pablo [TLOP] looks, three years later, like its rotten corpse.

Just like its music, which received several updates during the year, the album cover has two versions. The first one has the title repeatedly displayed in three vertical rows over a peach-like orange. The text is not perfectly displayed and the typography overlaps, creating a disconcerting visual noise. A small picture of a black family wedding (that is rumored to be of his parents) is also oddly pasted on the left bottom. The second version uses bigger black font over the same backdrop colour, but this time there’s only one column that features the title, with two vertical columns displaying several “WHICH/ONE” underneath it, which seemed at the time a tease regarding which Pablo’s life influenced the album (the addition of the track “Saint Pablo” in June, 14th pretty much answered the question). Finally, a bigger version of the same wedding photo is moved into the center and a picture of swimsuit model Sheniz Halil is pasted in the bottom.

If “ugly”, “sloppy” and “lazy” might be the first words that come to mind when we look at both versions of the cover, we all should know better, since Kanye West is a man who deeply cares about design. Though it seems to lack the sophistication and attention to detail of his previous artworks, the cover of TLOP was also commissioned to a renowned visual artist. Peter De Potter is a Belgium creator that gained some worldwide recognition due to his collaboration with fashion designer Raf Simons, though he has been publishing for years in his blog strangely crafted collages that overlap original work with images he discovers on social media. This vernacular and producerly aesthetic immediately triggered an overwhelming number of visual remixes by fans unhappy with the official design. If Kanye intended for the music of TLOP to be “a living breathing changing creative expression”, its apparently plain album cover ended up being something even more dynamic and fascinating: a crowd-sourced visual lifeform nurtured and disseminated throughout the digital media landscape.

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Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings)

Full disclosure: I was really underwhelmed when the cover of the new Radiohead album appeared online in early May. At first glance, not only did it seemed to lack the graphic intricacies of previous collaborations between the band and Stanley Donwood, as it appeared to be a rather dull photograph aimed to straightforwardly illustrate the album title and its recurrent themes of ecological balance. Things started to change for me when Adam Thorpe revealed in a piece for The Times Literaty Supplement the modus operandi of its creation: during several weeks, Stanley painted a series of acrylics in a barn with speakers wired up to the recording studios next door, reacting in real-time to what he was hearing. Later, all results were modified and manipulated on computer for the LP’s cover and remaining artwork.

When I received the special limited edition in September, the whole thing was a revelation. In spite of the turquoise filter that sobered the cover, the physical texture added a vibrant contrast to Stanley’s ominous and impressionist paintings. Though much has been written about how digital media has drastically changed our relation with images, A Moon Shaped Pool physical artwork might be the best example of how much touch enriches our visual perception. Perhaps the next frontier in digital album artwork might be the addition of haptic information that will be in a near future processed by fans and users. In the interim, even high-quality jpegs, pngs or tiffs of the cover of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool will be condemned to be a pale shadow of its tangible version.

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Santigold: 99¢ (Atlantic Records)

Japanese visual artist Haruhiko Kawaguchi (aka Photographer Hal) has made a career of photographing (mostly) naked couples in transparent plastic bags sealed in vacuum. For the album cover of Santigold’s 99¢ he added an interesting spin: the singer is shrink-wrapped with other items with a promotional low price tag, thus making a firm political stance on the perceived value of contemporary music in the digital era. Mesmerising stuff.

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Beyoncé: Lemonade (Parkwood / Columbia)
Frank Ocean: Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)

They are arguably two of the biggest American stars of popular music and both chose to hide their faces in the covers of their new albums. If they were released today, one might felt tempted to see it as an emotional reaction to the Trump era we are all about to get into. But if we look closer, both covers portray artists taking a break, perhaps gasping one last breath before (re-)entering the arena. One has braids, the other a bandage covering one of his fingers. It looks as if some pretty bad stuff happened to these warriors before their pictures were taken. And that some more harsh shit is about to fall on them right after.

Both records were released as multimedia experiences. Lemonade is the second visual album in a row by Beyoncé and the cover is a still frame of the film co-directed by Khalil Joseph. Blonde (stylized Blond on the cover) followed Frank Ocean’s Endless (another visual album released exclusively on Apple Music) and it was promoted with a magazine titled Boys Don’t Cry and two album covers shot by Wolfgang Tillmans (the alternate one features Ocean with a helmet on a racetrack getting ready for some action). Lemonade and Blonde are also deeply personal records: the former assuming publicly themes of infidelity and revenge through an emotional process that includes intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and redemption; the latter subverting with an underlying mix of anxiety and delicacy any simplistic narratives about the public disclosure of his sexuality. What is more striking though is how both artists leverage their personal dramas to articulate bigger issues: black womanhood, racial profiling, police brutality, materialism and genre identity. There’s a bar in Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” that exemplifies with great economy this quantum leap: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just like me”.

This is probably why Lemonade and Blonde display similar portraits on the cover of their albums: their music goes way beyond and is far richer than the face value given by today’s unstable music market and media swirl.

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The Hotelier: Goodness (Tiny Engines)

When The Hotelier finished recording Goodness, frontman Christian Holden sought out Brooklyn-based artist Xirin as a collaborator to flesh out a bold and uncompromising idea for its cover: a picture group of fully nude aged folks joyfully enjoying the sunlight. They posted an ad to Craigslist seeking for older models for their project that included not only the album cover but a teaser video shoot, stressing that both would involve non-erotic nudity.

It was after releasing the Goodness teaser video that problems started. Some of the major distributors, including Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify, required them to censor out the nude bodies. After discussing numerous alternatives, they opted for a all-or-nothing approach, blurring the entire centre of the photograph with big pixelized squares. Surprisingly, the result didn’t look like self-imposed censorship as much as an invitation of sorts for fans and users to seek out the original artwork on their own.

In an era where NSFW covers are based on airbrushed and highly sexualised bodies, Goodness original cover forces us to look at unfiltered and imperfect human nudity, which is to say it demands us to stare at what most of us will eventually come to look like (if we’re lucky). Just like Death Grips, The Hotelier use nudity as a political stance to express the conflict between their anarchy-punk leanings and the fact that they are a commercial band. That major corporations see that as a potential offence to a generation used to routinely grace over album covers packed with young, naked and sculptural bodies without even a second thought, not only shows their rampant hypocrisy but how much we have all become blindfolded when it comes to deal with our own beautiful, though decaying and inevitable, mortality.