We’ve brought you the best albums of 2014, the year’s 124 must-hear songs, our staffers’ personal favorite tracks, and the best lyrics of 2014. Now let’s take a look at some of the year’s most intriguing and memorable album covers, many of which provided context to the music itself. There were trends, too, from Jesse Kanda creations that brought to life the alter-egos of FKA twigs and Arca, to The Roots and Fatima Al Qadiri commenting on race issues.
SBTRKT — Wonder Where We Land
For his second album, Aaron Jerome — aka UK producer SBTRKT — employed a whole team of folks to create the cover: art direction and design from A Hidden Place, Blue-Zoo, and Daniel Swan, and photography by Aaron Rhodes. A Hidden Place, a visual artist who designed Jerome’s signature tribal mask, replicates the symbol in miniature form on a teeny-tiny mountain cat, held in the palm of a mannequin hand. Perhaps the cover is supposed to convey the notion that fear is all about perception.
Arca — Xen
To fully understand the amorphous being at the heart of Alejandro Ghersi (AKA producer Arca)’s stunning album Xen and the gender-bending creature that appears on its cover, it helps to understand Arca’s alternate personalities. “Alejandro is very multi-sided as a personality,” Jesse Kanda, the artist behind the album’s cover and one of Arca’s close friends, told The Fader, “and he can sometimes become what we call Xen, jokingly. And it’s this very sassy, confident, very feminine side of him. And it’s like, ‘Ohhhh, she’s out,’ we say — mainly when we’re smoking weed, just fucking around. ‘Xen’s out.’ And he’s, like, going crazy, changing his outfits or whatever. That’s Xen inside of him. It’s this kind of ghost. A spirit. Alejandro’s spirit.”
Aphex Twin — Syro
For his first album in 13 years, Richard D. James (AKA Aphex Twin) said a lot. But nowhere on the record does he make a statement quite as clearly as he does on Syro‘s cover, where the album’s costs are broken down meticulously. “The intense, and ultimately pointless detail of the list really appealed to me,” said Ian Anderson, the founder of The Designers Republic, which created the cover. “It was good working with James Burton and the team at Warp to stretch out this mantra that tells the reader everything and nothing about the creation of what I hear was an intensely personal album in the making reduced to the numbers of an album in the marketplace.”
The Roots — …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Romare Bearden’s 1964 collage, Pittsburgh Memory, is used in its entirety on the cover of The Roots’ eleventh album. There’s something incredibly relevant to this 50-year-old artwork, considering the political year we’ve gone through as a nation and the kind of racially-tinged album The Roots made in light of that.
Pharmakon — Bestial Burden
The cover of Pharmakon’s new album is the car crash of album covers: despite wincing, you really can’t look away. Bestial Burden is an album Margaret Chardiet — AKA Pharmakon — made while recovering from emergency surgery, and that experience is an influence that shows all over the noise record, not just in its cover. “After seeing internal photographs taken during the surgery, I became hyperaware of the complex network of systems just beneath the skin, any of which were liable to fail or falter at any time,” Chardiet said. “It all happened so fast and unexpectedly that my mind took a while to catch up to the reality of my recovery. I felt a widening divide between my physical and mental self. It was as though my body had betrayed me, acting as a separate entity from my consciousness. I thought of my corporeal body anthropomorphically, with a will or intent of its own, outside of my will’s control, and seeking to sabotage. I began to explore the idea of the conscious mind as a stranger inside an autonomous vessel, and the tension that exists between these two versions of the self.”
David Bowie — Nothing Has Changed
Our editor-in-chief Judy Berman wrote upon the release of Bowie’s new compilation, “Nothing Has Changed is what Bowie sees in the mirror that pervades its artwork, looking back at half a century of his own work, insisting that his art and his identity within it have been more consistent during that time than we think. The reflection isn’t quite what we, the fans and the critics and everyone else out there who’s painted a lightning bolt over one eye, see in David Bowie.” The compilation’s three different covers — a Mick Rock shot from 1972, a Steve Schapiro photo from 1975, and one taken just last year by Jimmy King — speak to the continuum that Bowie believes exists within his discographies, and that many listeners may gloss over.
Elisa Ambrogio — The Immoralist
The cover of the solo debut from Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio is not a photograph that pushes album art forward, but it does leave you wondering what she means. Why a Waka Flocka Flame mask? Is this commentary on race? If I had to guess, probably not. Maybe it was just sitting around, or perhaps it just makes her laugh when she looks in the mirror. It’s clear Ambrogio has an ace sense of humor, and in donning this mask, she reminds me that some things are just meant to be amusing.
Blu — Good To Be Home
“We wanted to make a day in the life of L.A. in an album,” West Coast rapper Blu told Complex of his Good To Be Home. “Being as true to who we are…We wanted to put all that into the record, and we wanted to hear all of that come out of the record.” Good To Be Home was released back in May, but its cover by artist Joseph Martinez — gang members posing for a picture, taken by a policeman — feels even more relevant now in light of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner tragedies that further illuminated the tense state of race relations between the police and people of color.
FKA twigs — LP1
FKA twigs’ Jesse Kanda-designed artwork for LP1 was, without a doubt, 2014’s most discussed album cover — and for good reason. The cover and its accompanying suit of work, which had its own art show, illuminated the concept of persona — how it can obscure or accentuate certain aspects of a human to unrecognizable heights, and maintain others. Twigs spoke of the cover at an LP1 listening I attended earlier this year, noting that her main directive to Kanda was to incorporate the color red somehow.
Fatima Al Qadiri — Asiatisch
On Asiatisch, Fatima Al Qadiri offers up a “virtual road trip through ‘imagined China,’” via American cultural interpretations of the country rather than her own. (Warning: “Eastern” covers of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” are involved.) Al Qadiri grew up in Kuwait and has never visited China, so her commentary deals heavily in appropriation and stereotypes. The cover revolves around these ideas in a cunning way that doesn’t seem out of place at first glance, which is precisely the point; it requires understanding what she’s trying to say.
Flying Lotus — You’re Dead!
FlyLo made an album about how the end that’s really about the beginning. So it’s only fitting that for the cover, he interpreted the message of death as a birth via stunning illustration from Japanese manga legend Shintaro Kago.
Iceage — Plowing Into the Field of Love
Physically holding Iceage’s third album, the aspect you might gravitate towards off the bat is the stitched-in lyric sheet within the gatefold. This makes sense, given Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s strengthened lyrical focus. But the album’s cover itself is less obvious; you’re left to ponder what happened at the scene, if this woman is dead, and what that may have to do with love.