The Best Album Art of 2012

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Thumbnail for Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

Zebras, skulls, Madonna, and more

Album covers are trickier than ever to design these days—they do double duty as posters and icons. The same image has to make sense at both LP size and the one-inch-square dimensions of an iPod Nano screen, which often means that type has to either dominate an album cover or be absent from it. With more than a few significant colors, tiny album graphics dissolve into visual noise; conversely, if designs are too simple, they can seem sloppy or underdeveloped at full size. Too many artists are content to slap some type on a generic artist photo or smother an image in Photoshop effects. But we’ve also seen some striking packaging this year, with covers that comment elegantly on the music they symbolize. Here are five of the best.

David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant

(4 AD/Todo Mundo)

There’s a lot going on here, from the beast-and-the-beauty photo by Richard Burbridge, featuring prosthetics by Gabe Bartalos that mangle Annie Clark’s face and cleave David Byrne’s chin, to Steve Powers’s type with its little hats-and-shoes decorations. But the artwork effectively conveys the album’s premise: dignified, deeply quirky duets.

Scissor Sisters: Magic Hour


Neil Krug’s photograph for this dance-rock band’s latest album nods to the sleeves of the ’70s rock records that inspired the music—is the sphere a mirror reflecting the zebras, or a prism distorting the scene? It’s also a play on the album’s title: For photographers, the “magic hour” is the time just after the sun rises or just before it sets.

Brother Ali: Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color


Kai Benson’s cover design for the Muslim rapper’s fifth album (built around a photo by Jonathan Mannion and Daniel Yang) is a scorching provocation: Ali, dressed in mourning black offset by his white beard, is using a reversed American flag as a prayer rug. The off-register blue-and-red type that makes up his name is a witty touch.

Madonna: MDNA

(Interscope/Live Nation)

Madonna’s always been good at picking surprisingly rich images of herself, and this cover is one of her best. Art directed by Giovanni Bianco, with a photo by Mert & Marcus, it uses candy colors and distortion to echo the title’s drug pun. But it also hints that the star is fundamentally unknowable—we see her behind a wall of glass, fragmented as in a lenticular 3-D image.

Voigt & Voigt: Erdingertrax 1


The German techno producers Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt’s first in a series of collaborative EPs has a striking cover image that’s full of implied questions: Why are the skulls lit differently? What’s with the holes in their mouths? Are they blowing kisses? You will not find any answers in the subsequent EPs. The Erdingertrax 2 sleeve displays two creepy-looking ceramic dog heads, posed in exactly the same way.

This story is from Print‘s 2012 Regional Design Annual. Purchase the issue, or download a digital version, at