Top 5 Album Covers

Ashley McCarthy RGD shares her favourite album cover designs


The ultimate design project for me is the design of an album cover. The final product is seen from three perspectives: the musician’s, the designer’s and the listener’s. Design, like music, can be subjective and sometimes personal, but ultimately the goal of any successful album cover is to convey the musician’s message in a single image, and hopefully it outlasts industry trends and the fickleness of a fan’s preference in format.


In no particular order, here are five of my favourite album covers from my collection:


1. Nas — Illmatic (1994), Designed by Aimee Macauley

This album cover features an image of Nas at age seven superimposed over an image of a street block in New York City and uses a mix of blackletter and sans serif typefaces. The album art is considered one of the most iconic in the hip-hop genre. What I love about this album cover is how it succinctly summarizes the themes of its contents such as memory, education, seeing the bigger picture, as well as it being almost a literal representation of my favourite song on the album, “N.Y. State of Mind”. Endless meaning and interpretation can be pulled from such a simple yet well-executed piece of photographic art.


2. The Smiths — Meat is Murder (1985), Designed by Morrissey

Whether you’re a fan or not, you can’t deny Morrissey’s talent for pairing provocative and sometimes obscure images with lovely typographic decisions. The original, unaltered image is of a Vietnam War soldier who scribed “make war not love” on his helmet. Morrissey, a devout animal rights activist, changed the words to reflect the name of the title track, “Meat is Murder”. Although the title track is actually my least favourite songs on the album, I chose this cover because of the lasting impact it has had almost 35 years after its initial release. For further reading on Morrissey’s design contributions to The Smiths, check out this comprehensive article from NME.


3. Converge — Jane Doe (2001), Designed by Jacob Bannon

Within the music subculture of metal and hardcore, “Jane Doe” has reached legendary status. Jane’s haunting, iconic face can be seen on the backs of jean jackets and tattooed on limbs across the globe. However, at the time of its release, “Jane Doe” was not well-received visually or musically. The label wasn’t sure the album cover was the right direction and fans were confused by the feminine and unconventional approach. Moreover, the appearance of the band’s logo in all-caps sans-serif was somewhat taboo in the metal, punk, and hardcore communities. With a fine art and design background, Jacob Bannon pours his soul into his art. I am particularly drawn to his meticulous use of texture through mixed media.


4. MIA — Kala (2007), Designed by Steve Loveridge

Although originally described as “garish” by some outlets, my favourite thing about this album cover is how intentionally unpolished it is. The artwork was inspired by African art and has a textile quality to it. The shapes are defined, the colours are bold and the typography is crude. These elements successfully convey MIA’s sound, personal experiences and political views. Back in ’07, people were still buying their music at major retail outlets and standing out from the crowd was crucial to grabbing the attention of music fans searching for something new and unique. “Kala” is an assault on the senses, both visually and sonically in the best way possible.


5. Deafheaven — Sunbather (2013), Designed by Nick Steinhardt

I have yet to find an example of minimalistic typography more beautiful than this. The original LP release featured a high spot gloss over all letters except for the stem of the “A”, which was die cut to reveal the speckled vinyl inside. The entire execution is absolutely dreamy. What I find most successful about this album cover design is the perfect juxtaposition of a warm and euphoric gradient with the actual sound of the band, which I will leave for you to discover on your own should you be curious. The designer, Nick Stenhardt, utilized his formal design training to create the full “Sunbather” typeface inspired by the experimental works of Jan Tschicold.



Published June 2018