When people think of great album covers, they often turn their heads back to the past. Though Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Wishbone Ash, Vanilla Fudge and many others had some great cover artwork, I think there are many modern album designs that are just as good.
This is a collection of 20 modern albums with great artwork, illustration and design sensibilities that inspire me. I think any of them would look perfect on a t-shirt, print or poster and I’d proudly wear or decorate with any of them. They’re presented in no order other than alphabetical.
Abe Vigoda – Skeleton
The simple and bold typeface rendered in white look fantastic against the album’s tropical, yet sinister background. The face covered in tar standing in front of a field of flowers is extremely vibrant and menacing.
Blacklisted – No One Deserves to be Here More than Me
The black and white portrait makes a great centerpiece among the jungle of abstract, mixed media artwork that composes the album cover. The band’s name is stamped on almost sloppily and haphazardly, but that helps it blend into the cover’s bold colors and strange design without detracting from it.
The Coathangers – Scramble
There’s a lot to think about with this one. The pig-dog-hedgehog-planet creature is being zapped by a UFO, and has obviously died from the attack. Beyond that, the blues, greens, yellows and reds work perfectly against the grays present in the background and make for a bold, memorable design.
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Com Truise – In Decay
This album cover succeeds because of both its simplicity and its strangeness. The two faces, their two distinct colors, the horizontal lines that render them and the blue highlights look wonderfully weird against the background’s simple color gradient. Of course there’s much more to it than that—I see something new every time I look at it.
Dead to Me – Cuban Ballerina
Just as the Com Truise cover was simple, this one is much more straightforward than the others. Roses, skulls, teardrops and ballerinas are nothing new, but the artwork speaks volumes. This is an expertly illustrated album cover that makes excellent use of bright, unusual colors for contrast.
The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency and I
This album cover doesn’t speak of an alien world so much as it speaks of an alternate dimension. The strange figure and stranger landscape seem just a little bit out of the realm of human comprehension. The slightly off-kilter geometry adds to the feeling.
Electric Six – Flashy
I’m not going to lie; I think this would be an awesome tattoo. A jet powered, fire-breathing cat with an octopus tentacle for a tail and angel wings is pretty brilliant on its own. But when its rendered on a vibrant cloth background with an uneven border, it becomes something magical.
Future Islands – On the Water
This abstract piece does an excellent job of conveying a watery, nautical feeling. Though the design is extremely pleasant and soothing, there’s a certain rawness that’s revealed through the brush strokes themselves.
Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another
The hazy Venn Diagram centered in a field of black makes for a striking, eerie design. The presentation only highlights the band and album name, producing an instantly album cover. Beyond that, though, the spectral appearance of the human figures is both intriguing and unsettling.
Iron Chic – Not Like This
Righteous Indignation always turns out amazing work, but this is among their best. This cover manages to be whimsical, endearing and sort of terrifying all at the same time. The illustration is fantastic and the simple, but vibrant, color palette makes it a modern classic.
Killing the Dream – Lucky Me
This is a rare example of a simple design rendered in a complex way that’s actually successful. The stark and sparse color scheme allows the eye to soak in the whole picture without getting stuck on the details—but the amazing details, in all of their depth, are there when you’re ready for them.
Lightning Bolt – Wonderful Rainbow
This intense jumble of images is anchored by the rainbow in the upper right hand corner, which is what makes the whole thing palatable. The fact that something like this is palatable at all, which is astounding and serves as a perfect complement to Lightning Bolt’s musical aesthetic. This album cover is at once bizarre, abrasive and incredibly appealing.
Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
The hard lines of these hand-painted geometric shapes are interesting because of the little imperfections. The warm quality that the colors and the medium produce contrasts beautifully with the inorganic nature of the aforementioned shapes. This is a great example of disparate elements working together in perfect harmony.
Parts & Labor – Receivers
This mixed media piece is stunningly complex, but the layout is incredibly easy to digest. There’s a lot to interpret and absorb here, but it’s so pleasing to look at that the task becomes engaging and enjoyable. The weird, alien landscape and factory imagery are harsh, but the vibrant colors and the composition make the entire package into something fantastic.
Rational Anthem – Breadline
The sepia toned background looks appropriately bleak and gloomy in relation to the album title. The two depression-era people in the foreground, rendered in something of a faux-photocopy fashion, add to the aura of despair. This is a simple cover that’s been executed in a way that’s very fresh and memorable.
Red Fang – Murder the Mountains
This album cover would be positively terrifying if the artwork wasn’t relegated to a small circle in the center. Against the dingy field that comprises most of the background, the intensity of the album’s artwork becomes bearable. And what an image it is—a crazy hybrid of all sorts of horror and heavy metal imagery all compiled into one demonic mountain! Jack Kirby would be so proud.
Screaming Females – Castle Talk
The red lettering of the album’s name and the yellow brick background are front and center in this album design, despite the detailed image in between them. If an album’s title is actually printed on it, it needs to be instantly readable, which is where this cover succeeds. The stylized horse also looks amazing, of course, which is what seals the deal.
Sister Kisser – Vipers
This might be my favorite design in this entire showcase. Another effort from Righteous Indignation, this album cover lets its incredible illustration and color palette speak for themselves.
Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse
Sonic Youth is no stranger to great album covers, but this one stands out even among them. The image melts into the background in a hazy, dreamlike kind of way that lets the piece’s color radiate emotion without anything hold to it back or get in its way.
The Howling Wind – Of Babalon
The layout and overall design here are fantastic. Rendered mostly in 3 colors, the main image stands out just as much as the band name and album title. The simplicity of the artwork is what makes the whole affair so sinister—it’s gorgeous, but it’s also very unsettling.
Album covers are a great source of inspiration for illustration in design. Many modern bands, in an effort to stand out from the pack, have gone above and beyond with their album covers, which will undoubtedly become part of the amazing album design canon.