Up until 2020, my Spotify algo had me dialed-in. You know when you've been reference hunting on Pinterest, and after 20 minutes of finding the swipes that hit, the algorithm just locks in, and you're in-stream? It was like that, but better. Then my partner and I brought our beautiful son into the world, and I played the Muppets soundtrack 100+ times in a matter of months.
I've spent the last three years course-correcting my Spotify algo back to its mind and energy reading glory, and it's close now. All this to say, the music and its artwork that makes up my daily soundscapes can sometimes be moody, abrasive and hyper saccharine—in all the right and wrong ways. From Chilly Gonzales and JD Emmanuel to Boys Noize and Baby Keem, I live under a pretty wide spectrum of sonic influence—and the album or single art always has everything to do with how I ended up at that body of work.
The following list of albums for me, has everything to do with my first impressions and assumptions of the music without having heard it. Less about personal nostalgia, but works that I think so effectively telegraph the music's mood, tangibility and the space it creates.
There's a silent violence to David Rudnick's work that I find absolutely captivating. This album cover by David Rudnick for RL Grime in 2014 for me, marked the contemporary genesis of pop-culture's obsession with hyper 3D, chrome, dystopian gloss aesthetic. A big evolution of visual style and a lot of unexpected genre crossovers happened around this time. It's an ominous '90s rave flyer revisited—but in 3D. With just a quick glance at the artwork, you can smell the jet fuel of the music's velocity and hear the dystopian soundscape before you even put it on rotation.
In Colour (2015)
I love that Jamie xx designed this album cover himself. His previous albums all have a similar system of flat shapes and colors that remind me of works by Ellsworth Kelly. And for Jamie xx to have taken his previous album artworks and evolved it in a way that captured the breadth of his career, in a way that was so maximal but so meditative and quiet, like his music, is beautiful. What a legend.
I mean, Frank Ocean and Wolfgang Tillmans? This album and its cover is a gift from the gods. It's raw, brutally honest and poignant. The album cover so perfectly captures the profound beauty of the album's emotional intimacy. It captures Frank's universe of melancholic beauty—full of hope, nostalgia and regret.
If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015)
In Drake's discography, this is considered a mixtape and not an album. Within the Drake universe of hyper-polished cinematic productions, this body of work is different in the way that it feels and sounds deconstructed and raw. The hand scribble style of Jim Joe breathes and exudes the sonic energy of the mixtape. The type is cryptic, a bit violent, and doesn't read as perfected and premeditated—just a statement of pure energy, and of-the-moment intent.
Kanye West and Kid Cudi
Kids See Ghosts (2018)
This is peak Takashi Murakami, vibrant and childlike with a splash of darkness, underscored by impeccable execution. The album art is an incredible interpretation of the album's sound, because it's coming from the gaze of an artist that's feeling the music more so than hearing the music. The language barrier was essential to creating such a dialed-in fantastical visual universe of hip hop's newfound appreciation of psychedelia.
It's 2019 rap and pop culture zeitgeist in one image. Lensed by Harmony Korine, the album art perfectly captures the mood of the album. The album art leans into some of my favorite iconic visual tropes of the time—tuner cars, a bleeding pink/purple sunset, slime green ski masks and that high ISO film-like grain. The album art looks exactly like how the album sounds.
To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
I'm unsure if there's a more important body of creative work that's come out in the past decade. This album dropped during an extremely charged time in the U.S. The album and its cover felt like a unified scream of catharsis. With this album cover, I think we all felt seen by one of our generation's most important artists. This album cover belongs in MOMA.
A friend of mine texted this album to me sometime last year after I had asked them to fuck me up. I was looking for something new, and I had been on a tear of having Pink Pantheress and Boys Noize on rotation. I'm usually never at a loss for words to describe something, but here I am. The art, it's cute, it's fun, but also not. The cover's indescribable hyper pop and techno nihilism vibe... I'll stop here. If you're looking for something new, try it out.
One of my favorite releases of last year, this album's dreamy soundscape woven together by some incredible minor chord progressions is beautifully expressed by its album cover, by Cory Feder. As a Korean American, the album art's style drew me in with a type of familiarity that took me back to when I was a kid, wandering through my grandparent's house in Seoul. There's this childlike whimsy with a dreamy Agnes Pelton-like quality to the illustration—expressed through the lens of a deep understanding of Korean culture. It's got so many layers to it. Absolute heat.