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The Art Issue 2022

From Renaissance To Gemini Rights: The Stories Behind 2022's Best Album Covers

Nine artists dissect the blood, sweat, and mirror pieces of the year’s best album art.

Originally Published: 

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but what about an album?

When it comes to music, an album’s cover may be one of the most important factors contributing to whether you’ll decide to give something a listen — alongside the artist and, of course, the music itself. After all, in the age vinyl and CDs, it was the record’s cover art tasked with catching your eye while flipping through the bins, or while scanning the shelves of a supermarket; it’s what you framed and hung up on your wall when you found a particular project that you loved and wanted to display to the world as if a part of your own identity. It’s the singular stand-in for an album’s heart and soul, and as visual designer and director Andrew Thomas Huang tells NYLON, “it should be brave.”

Music is largely a digital experience in 2022, but the power of the album cover remains uncontested. This year’s wide breadth of releases brought a slew of memorable designs from mainstream and indie artists alike, and they traversed a range of mediums, too: painted, photographed, collaged, and more. What they all shared was their ability to transform the audible into something visual with crystal clarity.

Below, NYLON talked to ten artists, designers, and photographers responsible for some of the year’s best album covers to learn how Beyoncé’s mirror-covered Renaissance horse came together, Steve Lacy’s delightfully weird collage for Gemini Rights was assembled, beabadoobee’s whimsical Beatopia was conceived, and more.

Ethel Cain

Ethen Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter by creative director Hayden Silas Anhedönia (Ethel Cain)

Did you go in knowing this shot would be the cover, or at what point did it become clear to you?

Cain: I wanted something that looked older and a little creepy, like an eerie photograph found under your grandmother’s bed of a relative she never told you about. We shot it on Polaroid and took about 8 selects, but I noticed my face was morphed slightly in one of them. It stood out to me as being almost alien-like. I knew it was the one immediately.

What is a challenge you faced while creating the cover?

Cain: We shot with natural lighting (I’d covered the flash on the Polaroid with an old black Videodrome shirt sleeve), so they were due to turn completely black. I had to get all my selects, run to my studio, and then wait for the right moment to scan them as they developed to get the colors and contrast I wanted. The final select is pitch black now, which I love. My album artwork as it was immortalized only existed in a window of about 30 seconds.

In your opinion, what is a trait or quality a great album cover should have?

Cain: I’ve always thought a good album artwork should be able to be parodied easily. Something with strong core traits (color palette, shapes, figures) that can be deviated from as far as possible while remaining recognizable.

What was your favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

Cain: “I Have Seen The End and It Is Beautiful” by Wulven. I love the color palette and the subject so much. I saw it posted on a friend’s Instagram story the day it came out and listened solely based off how much I loved the artwork. The first track quickly became my most played track of the fall season.

Artwork by Dasha Shabalaparabala

beabadoobee’s Beatopia by illustrator Dasha Shabalaparabala

How did you first meet Bea?

Shabalaparabala: First time I spoke to Bea was over FaceTime last autumn. Bea shared how she wrote the album in her small room back home, reminiscing in her imaginary world. This could not resonate more with how I normally create, too. I felt like we both shared the sense of isolation from the world and a very strong, almost spiritual connection with it at the same time. This sense played the most crucial part in making the album cover afterwards. The first time I met Bea in real life was when she came to my house a few weeks after the album release. I gave her a butterfly fairy tatt right off the album cover — that was our little Beatopia celebration.

What inspiration or guidelines did Bea give you in creating this piece?

Shabalaparabala: There was no clear guideline, but more of Bea’s vision of the Beatopia world — the color palette, the sounds and smells of this place, the creatures who live there. What I grasped is Beatopia being a very earthy-smelling place hidden far away in magical woods, full of the cutest and the most badass little creatures and fairies who’re up to no good.

My role was to try and recreate this world. What I loved the most is integrating Bea herself into her own fantasy. It made me feel like a kid again. I used to draw strange looking princesses and then add bizarre worlds around them using crayons and paints. Bea is always the protagonist in all of my Beatopia sketches — she is the one who invites all other creatures to come out and party together.

What was the process like creating the art for the album?

Shabalaparabala: Quite chaotic. Initially the label asked for an acrylic painting. I started working on that while simultaneously sketching and drafting ideas. One day, when the painting wasn’t anywhere near done, I decided to share my drafts with Bea and the team just to give them a sense of my direction. What happened after is they all fell in love with my loose sketches and decided to use my drafts for an album instead of the acrylic painting, which I never properly finished. You can find almost all of these sketches on Beatopia vinyl.

How long did the piece take you in total?

Shabalaparabala: I had a very loose time frame to complete the cover, which was liberating — I could take my time to research and get a little lost in Beatopia. It might’ve taken me about a month until I showed my drafts to Bea. After that everything happened very quickly. I just had to combine a few sketches together, redraw a few small things, add some writing and that was it. We had all the material we needed.

How did the music inspire the art?

Shabalaparabala: Dirty Hit shared a couple of demo tracks from Beatopia with me, which I listened to on repeat many (many, many) times. To keep the experience fresh, I decided to make my own playlist inspired by Beatopia. I collided some of my fave Bea songs, the whole of her Our Extended Play EP, and a lot of Björk. That was my recipe to try and recreate the feeling of the album that I haven’t heard yet, but already knew so much about.

Matilda Finn

The Weeknd’s Dawn FM by director and photographer Matilda Finn

How did you conceptualize the artwork for The Weeknd's DAWN FM?

I didn’t conceptualize the artwork for DAWN FM, I conceptualized the music video for “Gasoline” instead. This is where the character of old Abel was created. I took some photos on the side of one of our shoot days, and this one was chosen for the album artwork, which was an incredible surprise.

What is a challenge you faced while creating the album art?

It was an incredibly ambitious, tough shoot, but I think any project worth pursuing has its fair share of challenges. I think the most memorable hiccup was that the shoot had to be postponed the first time because of COVID. The photograph itself was taken just before we shot the last scene after a 14-hour day. We shot it incredibly quickly — I think I took about 10 shots in total, so the album art itself was beautifully simple.

In your opinion, what is a trait or quality that you think a great album cover should have?

It should say something, it should capture what the album's saying. I actually don't really like artists’ portraits on album covers, ironically. But when they say something, like I hope we do with this old character, it’s not just an artist portrait for portrait’s sake. I think the qualities of a great cover should mirror the qualities of a great album, of the music itself. It should make you feel something.

What was your favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

Shamefully, I don't look around too much because it is what I do, but I did love Kendrick Lamar's album cover. I think that's a great example of a photograph that is very symbolic, very poignant, and beautiful. It tells the story, and yet, it's so simple.

Greg Hildebrandt

Jesse Jo Stark’s Doomed by illustrator Greg Hildebrandt

How did you get involved with Jesse Jo Stark's team for Doomed?

Hildebrandt: Jesse Jo’s a friend of Duff McKagen from Guns N’ Roses. I’d recently done a painting for Duff. Jesse liked the art and asked him for my number. She spoke with Jean, my agent, and they worked out the painting she wanted.

What was her ask for the album cover, and how did you translate that creatively?

Hildebrandt: Jesse originally wanted to be both an angel and a devil on the cover. She sent me a bunch of reference images from Tales From the Crypt and Weird Science. She liked the high contrast colors and the typeface used on those books. While I love those old comics, when I saw a photo of Jesse, I did not feel that art style from 1950 was appropriate for her look or her music. She did not want to see her face as the devil. I felt that it was necessary to see her face as both characters to be able to convey the emotion she felt, and Jesse agreed. I first drew her with a tail, but once she saw the sketch she said no! I sketched different attitudes for the angel and Jesse chose the one she liked best. Once she saw the painting, she decided that no type was going on the cover.

You painted the cover in acrylic; what is the advantage of painting this cover vs. producing it digitally?

Hildebrandt: I use my computer to search for references; I don’t do art of any kind on my computer. I look at a lot of art. I find more and more digital art that impresses me, but it is not what I do. I have spent my life striving every day to study light and its effects on objects. I have painted for the last 64 years professionally, and what I try to find is the soul in a person and convey it with my art. I have not succeeded every time, no one does, but I am happy with what I have accomplished in my career. I guess it comes down to: Do you want a painting that is made by hand or not?

You've created artworks for Black Sabbath and the Trans-Siberian orchestra previously. What is your strategy for approaching album artwork vs. other kinds of visual media?

Hildebrandt: The art used on the Black Sabbath Mob Rules cover was not created for them. It was a nightmare that I had hand-painted for myself many years ago. My agent licensed it to Black Sabbath. When I am creating an album cover, it is completely different than any other illustration job, simply because I have the ability to discuss what the creator of the music wants to see in the art. My cover is interpreting their work for their fans. Different than illustrating, say, Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. I have no specific formula for album covers. Every painting I do has its own strategy. I want my album cover art to be a dramatic picture of the music.

Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights by art director and designer Viktor Hammarberg

How did you conceptualize the artwork for Steve Lacy's 'Gemini Rights?'

Creative Director Kwasi Fordjour had the vision of using the logo as an integral part of the artwork, so with Kwasi's guidance, I started to simplify the album into a symbol. We eventually landed on the two arrows with the horns as a logo. Artist Frank Dorrey was commissioned to collaborate with me on the artwork; there is a specific aesthetic he does that I envisioned for the album. I sent Frank some references and we discussed ideas, after which he sent me some artworks using Julian Klincewicz's photographs of Steve. Prior to Frank finishing his reworks of Julian's photos, I used placeholder artworks to explore different ways I could use scanning and photography to add depth and texture, while also emphasizing its meaning. I came up with the idea of aligning an unedited photo of Steve below Frank's version of Steve, and using a razor to cut out the shape of the logo to reveal the one below. Other than the obvious fact that Geminis are twins and the artwork features two similar looking people (both Steve), you can etch deeper and find many different meanings. I love the fact that the artwork stays abstract enough for there not to be a super clear meaning, so people can analyze and find their own truth, but it's still specific enough to be a worthy representation of Steve's album.

What themes or feelings did you want the album cover to evoke?

I wanted it to feel weird, authentic, and abstract while still aligning seamlessly with the sound and themes of the album. The final artwork is an actual scan, which I feel really accents its soul. Compositionally the cover is a portrait, and I love having that simplicity as a baseline, and altering it to create an interesting twist. I always want to create artwork that can stand on its own, just like the music can stand on its own — it's a marriage of two senses and they complement each other.

What was a challenge you faced creating the artwork?

Exploring logo designs, I made a lot of variations and unique suggestions before we landed on the one featured on the cover. Also, cutting out the logo once is not bad, but I did it so many times while exploring different options and routes that I really wish I had some sort of automated laser cutter.

What was your personal favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

Ethereal by $NOT [by photographer Mike Miller] or Beatopia by beabadoobee (illustrated by @shabalaparabala). There's probably more that I haven't seen/thought of.

Mihailo Andic

Lil Baby’s It’s Only Me by Art Director Mihailo Andic

How did you conceptualize the artwork for Lil Baby's It's Only Me?

We began working on the cover at the end of May. I reached out to Lil Baby's manager, Pee, asking if they were working on any ideas. We all got on the phone a few days later and began talking through concepts. Around the end of July is when we landed on the Mount Rushmore idea. Baby suggested we try it. I wanted to expand on it a little more and create a landscape that he's actually surrounded by. The next step was creating the four different versions of him on the mountain. One thing I really wanted to have on the cover was Baby himself sitting on the rock. I felt it was very important to have a world surrounding the mountain; if it was just the four faces on the mountain I don't think it would have been as impactful. That's where it ties into the My Turn cover. The artwork has the goats from the previous cover, and now Baby is in front of a mountain, not on the edge of one.

A rough concept of Lil Baby’s It’s Only Me cover.Mihailo Andic

What is a challenge you faced while creating the album art?

Andic: The biggest challenge throughout the four-month creative process was working on one concept and having to completely scrap it to begin another one. In July, we actually had a cover completed (another idea) that we unfortunately couldn't move forward with. The challenge for me was pivoting my mindset from being stuck on one idea that I thought was the one, and leaving it behind to start from scratch. That pushed me to outdo myself, and in the end it was all worth it. It was out of my control, but I made the best of it and overcame a very big challenge.

In your opinion, what is a trait or quality a great album cover should have?

Andic: A great album cover possesses three things. 1. It makes the person want to listen to the album on first glance, regardless whether they're a fan. 2. It gets people talking and starts a conversation. 3. It makes you want to buy a physical version of the album. One of the best feelings is having your work on a CD or vinyl. If it makes the fans of that artist want to purchase the album in physical form, you've created a special piece of art.

What was your favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

Andic: SNOT's Ethereal album cover. The moment I saw it, I was intrigued and wanted to listen to the project based on the cover alone. It's only a photo of the artist, but everything about it — the wardrobe, colors, editing, lighting — was perfect to me. Sometimes all it takes is a beautiful photo.

Beyonce’s Renaissance horse by set designer Nicholas Des Jardins

How did you get involved with Beyoncé's Renaissance?

Not the most exciting story, but producers reached out to me based on previous work of mine. Not entirely sure what previous stuff of mine got me the gig.

How did you conceptualize covering the horse with disco balls?

The horse came about working with her and her creative team. Originally we were going to do a giant 8-inch disco ball that was already in production when we shifted ideas. The job from the start was under an immense time crunch, so for a while I was hesitant about the horse. Install was Monday after Easter weekend and the concept came about on Thursday night. We negotiated down to just doing a saddle covered in disco ball mirrors, but me and my studio manager knew it would be so worth it if we could pull it off, so we scoured the greater Los Angeles area for an available life-size horse. We waited until we knew it was possible to pull it off before we let her and her team know that we were going to deliver the full horse that inevitably became the cover.

What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing the horse to life?

Time. We had very little. Thankfully, we discovered a secret source for old fiberglass horses, as many of the current manufacturers had months-long wait periods. We found and picked it up that day and immediately started to work on covering it in 1/4" glass mirror pieces. The mirrors were coming in shipments from different vendors to get enough in time. Me and the rest of the team were literally waiting for the mail person and ripping the boxes open and continuing the task as the mirrors trickled in.

What was your personal favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

I'd say Rosalía and Kendrick Lamar, both for music and art. Rosalia's Motomami is such an amazing journey of an album and a friend of mine, Daniel Sannwald, shot the cover. That is such an iconic image of her. Kendrick is always so consistently great, and the cover for Mr Morale [& The Big Steppers] is so beautiful. I love Renell [Medrano]'s work.

Andrew Thomas Huang

Sasami’s Squeeze by visual artist and director Andrew Thomas Huang

How did you conceptualize the artwork for Sasami's Squeeze?

I had long conversations with Sasami about the heavy metal sound she was channeling for Squeeze. I was thinking about our shared Asian heritage and wanted to find a symbol that felt powerful and mythological in scope, which I feel metal as a sonic genre allows for. My mind immediately went to the snake women often depicted in East Asian folklore like the Nure-onna, or Lady White Snake in Chinese myths and so I had the idea of turning Sasami into a serpent for her album cover.

In an interview with NYLON, Sasami said that you both bonded over folklore characters. Were there other deities you had in mind for the cover before you landed on the Nure-onna?

The snake image was pretty immediate and instinctual for me, maybe because her album was called Squeeze? So the thought of coiling and constricting was the instant image. But other things came to mind like classic Asian B horror films like Hausu or Chinese ghost movies. I felt those films did a good job interweaving mythology with contemporary FX so I wanted the album imagery to have that horror movie kitsch quality to it as well.

What is the biggest feeling or theme you wanted the cover to evoke?

Feminine power. Divine rage.

You've created album covers for Björk previously. In your opinion, what's a quality or trait a great album cover should have?

A great album cover should instantly communicate the world you're trying to build with your music. Sometimes a world is a character — so you want the image to quickly convey the character or emotion that is at the heart of your sonic vision. Like a Tarot card. It should be clear, concise. Very now, but timeless. Most of all it should be brave.

Rottingdean Bazaar/Annie Collinge

Dry Cleaning’s Stumpwork artwork and design by Rottingdean Bazaar and Annie Collinge

How did you conceptualize the artwork for Dry Cleaning's Stumpwork?

Collinge: We approach each project with our own concept. This made sense with Stumpwork as there was a completely open brief for the artwork, so it was a good fit for our way of working.

Bazaar: Annie and us had been talking the last couple of years about involving vintage soaps in a project. As Rottingdean Bazaar, we have also worked a lot with pubic hair, using it as a material in pin badges and art. Our concept for the album artwork emerged from the confluence of those two things, as well as reflecting on the title and lyrics.

What was the biggest challenge you faced executing the artwork?

Bazaar: This was the first time we had all made album artwork and designed a full album package. The most challenging part was overseeing the manufacturing process which we were completely involved in, particularly as certain aspects of the design and our specifications needed to be printed very precisely. It was a six month process and along the way we discovered that the record pressing and printing industry is quite variable and idiosyncratic in how it operates, so there were a lot of aspects to navigate to make sure our vision for the artwork was properly realized.

In your opinion, what is a trait or quality a great album cover should have?

Collinge: Being a single image which is mysterious and memorable.

What was your favorite album cover of 2022 (that you didn’t make)?

Bazaar: Our favorites are handmade covers for CD “mixtapes” that one of our friends makes and gives as presents once a year.

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