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  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

An Eye for Music

2020 has been a rather music-orientated year for 31% Wool – we’ve collaborated with several bands on their visual styles and cover art, as well as being involved in the last ever Secret 7 exhibition, where we were thrilled to have our cover entry for Vampire Weekend’s Harmony Hall selected for the exhibition and raise over £100 in the auction for the refugee charity Choose Love. 

I’ve always been intrigued by the crossover of creative disciplines, which you will already know if you have been dipping into our new blog (our last post feature about the late great Storm Thorgerson – King of the album cover, and our previous, an interview with singer and guitarist Bram Johnson, who is also a talented illustrator.

Interested in the varying perspectives of different creatives, on what makes a great album cover, I decided to ask 6 designers and 6 musicians exactly that. Oh and I couldn’t resist getting them all to tell me about their favourite album cover art, just to make it a little more difficult.

The lines were somewhat blurred between these aural and visual disciplines as the musicians I asked quite clearly have an eye for design, and the designers I spoke to have an ear for music, so it makes for a thoughtful and sometimes surprising read… we have more than a few designers who like covers without typography and some musicians whose favourite covers rely on the words.


Lou Kyme

Singer, Songwriter and brand strategist

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Lou: Memorable. Evocative. Bold. Graphic. Maybe a bit provocative, but not necessarily. I think the music has to lead – this isn’t a brief-less project, much as it might seem like a fine art quest. But the design can still do something unexpected. It’s the graphic designer’s interpretation of the music, not necessarily the musicians. 

Vinyl is a beautiful format for album design, and without question, digital formats don’t maximise the tradition, which is an enormous shame. I suspect the resurgence of vinyl is as much to do with the artwork as it is a format for playing music.

Memorable. Evocative. Bold. Graphic. Maybe a bit provocative, but not necessarily.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Lou: Too hard a question! My favourite album covers aren’t necessarily the best or most challenging designs. Music and its art always has such emotional attachment for me – of times and places gone by. Elvis’s RSA cover with the pink and green type over a b&w live shot – I pulled that vinyl out of my dad’s collection on so many occasions. Or Frank Sinatra, Wee Small Hours. The illustration is a little stiff, but evocative – and I’m not even sure if I’m reacting to the image or the song anymore.

The album cover in my picture is iconic, and the first full album I owned. I thought it was cool when I was a kid, and it still makes me smile whenever I see it. It’s one of these covers you immediately recognise wherever it’s referenced. Duran Duran was my favourite band when I was 11 and my Aunt was dating one of the band members and sent me a signed copy (hence what looks like scribbles across the front). Looking at it now, it’s kind of ugly. Jarring purples. Cliched stylised illustration. But I still cherish it. Time and place.


Jamie Ellul

Creative Director, Supple Studio

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Jamie: For me it has to reflect the music inside the sleeve. From a tone and idea point of view it needs to feel appropriate for the band / artist. I think you can tell when the designer has worked closely with the musicians to create something that feels like part of the story of an album, that reflects their musical vision in a visual way. 

These days a design needs to translate from 12inches down to 30 pixels on a phone – that’s no mean feat in itself. But the best album covers are simple and iconic. I recently judged the D&AD awards and was in love with the Stormzy album cover for Heavy is the Head. Beautiful idea, reflective of the times it was made in, stunning photography and art direction. It feels perfect for the music. And it’s great to see that labels and artists still care about the artwork even in this fast moving digital age. 

It has to reflect the music inside the sleeve.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover of all time?

Jamie: Wow that’s a tough question. It probably changes from year to year – if you’d have asked me last year I’d have said the cover for The Who’s Face Dances. It’s art directed by Peter Blake and features a series of portraits of the band members by a who’s who of British painters. I picked up a copy at a car boot and it’s a fantastic piece of art direction. 

But probably the cover that’s stuck with me from teens to now is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. I remember pouring over this cover in my dad’s vinyl collection. There’s so much to love about this cover by Hipgnosis – the brave approach of having no typography on the main sleeve, the art direction of the photography and bleak location, but of course most of all the concept. Shocking, surreal and engaging. Then there’s the singed edge to the photo frame – just genius. Wish I’d done that.  


Jessika Jones

Vocals and synth, Tiger Mimic

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Jessika: It's so hard to pick a favourite anything when it comes to music!

I tend to gravitate towards minimalistic covers, like Elza Soares’ Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo for instance. There’s something about the simplicity that draws me in, and they have such a timeless quality to them. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover of all time?

Jessika: My all time favourite cover is Nirvana's In Utero. I remember absolutely loving the anatomical angel and cutting it up from a magazine, laminating it and sticking it up on my wall when I was a teenager. It’s such an instantly captivating image and set the tone beautifully for an album that has such a mix of visceral and delicate moments. In an industry that was still emerging from the hyper-masculinity of the hair bands and metal of the 1980's, it was refreshing to see a high-profile band utilising feminine imagery in a non-exploitative, non-diminutive way (Kurt Cobain was also an outspoken feminist and LGBTQ supporter). I also loved the way they were able to integrate that figure into their live show. Okay, I think I’m gonna buy an In Utero poster for my bedroom now!


Rob Howsam

Designer, creative consultant and creator of sonic sketchbook Six Four Zero Two.  

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Rob: I’d say there are two key ingredients that form the recipe for a 'great' album cover.

Some of the greats, but not all, have both ingredients.

1. The iconic front face

Perhaps the most potent ingredient is a singular, arresting and memorable cover image. 

A visual that burns into the brain, and the collective cultural memory. Immediately eye catching and distinctly recognisable, forever more.

Done well, these icons are at the very least a powerful, self-contained ‘advertisement’ for the album. But the 'greatest of the greats' go even further. Transcending the medium to take on a life of their own; often becoming more famous than the album itself. These powerful cultural icons go on to be adopted as tribal 'flags', or as emblems of the times. 

Got the T-shirt, never heard the album.

2. The secret sauce

Like a graphic ‘umami’ that has the power to transport the listener away from the humdrum of real life and off on a magical mystery tour – to the dark side of the moon perhaps, to their nirvana, to utopia or dystopia, or to another girl on another planet.

A great album cover, uses its entire form – the format structure and materials, words and pictures – to create a completely immersive and ‘other worldly’ experience. Beyond just housing the music, these covers are an essential part of the listening experience.

A visual that burns into the brain, and the collective cultural memory.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Rob: Released in 1978, ‘Black and White’ by The Stranglers was one of the first Post-Punk albums. The sleeve was designed by Kevin Sparrow and the cover photography is by Ruan O’Lochlainn.

The insides give little away, like a monosyllabic teenager. Stark and practical. A black side and a white side. Just lyrics and credits.

The front cover tells you everything you need to know. With no words, just a simple but enigmatic black and white image – the band are presented as four separate silhouetted figures. As cut-outs on a stark white background, the dark forms are positioned in composite perfection. The distinct pose, position and attire of each band member creates a curious narrative that draws you straight into the world of "the men in black".

At the back is the bassist, crouched low with his arms around his knees. One white arm. A little closer to camera, the lead singer standing head bowed. Black gloves. Most prominent and in the foreground is the drummer (which of course shouldn’t be allowed). Hands in pockets of a long black coat.

Finally, to the right is keyboard wizard – and sadly, recently departed – Dave Greenfield; black and white Penny Loafers and a black leather jacket (fitting sweetly to his brain?). Just as the free-thinking, anything goes spirit of Punk was crystallising into a tired studded formula – enter the four dark horsemen of the post-punk apocalypse.


Grace Healy

Pianist, and keys in Bugeye

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

I think a good album cover should not only capture what the music is about, but also add another layer of meaning; the cover is part of the package, and can sometimes offer interpretations that the music alone can't achieve.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

One of my favourite album covers is Unbehagen (1979) by the Nina Hagen Band. Hagen's style has always been difficult to pin down. In this shot she's feminine (accentuated cheekbones, fur coat, big hair) but with a dark and macabre edge. The photo was taken outside the studio where the album was being recorded - Hansa Tonstudio, Berlin. The location is particularly interesting because of the socio-political situation at the time. I think the image captures what Hagen was really about: a playful yet politically charged rebellion against an oppressive regime.


Katherina Tudball

Creative Director, Superunion London

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Katherina: Growing up with cassette tapes and later CDs, vinyl records were not really a physical part of my childhood. As a kid I discovered the beauty of the format through a book belonging to my parents: The Illustrated History of the Rock Album Cover by Angie Errigo.

I was first attracted to the square, LP sized book by its unusual cover, with a cut-out circle at its centre it mimicked a traditional vinyl dust sleeve. Through this book I learnt a lot about graphic design and discovered that visual communication could be literal, metaphorical, sexy (there were a lot of ‘racy’ covers in the 70s), incredibly detailed, utterly simple or just weird. Experiencing album art this way, with no connection to the music or knowledge of the performers, meant I was responding purely to visual impact. And regardless of style, the best were arresting and intriguing in equal measure. 

Regardless of style, the best were arresting and intriguing in equal measure. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Katherina: My number one album cover started life not as a real record, but as a joke. If you haven’t seen the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap please watch it immediately, it’s the greatest mockumentary following the decline of a fictional British rock band. In the film Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove album is released with a completely black cover – no text, no graphics, just black – because the original design was banned at the last minute for obscenity. 

I love the post-rationalisation that ensues to justify this accidentally minimalist design: “It’s like how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” I love it as a fictional counterpoint to the Beatles’ 1968 White Album. I love that non-fictional metal band Metallica released a very similar black album cover in 1991. And finally, I love it because it looks cool. Black is indeed my favourite colour.


Billy Lunn

Singer and guitarist, The Subways

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Billy: For me, simplicity is always key. It’s always really difficult to find one image that encapsulates an entire album’s worth of work, so it’s often a pointless task trying. Instead, those album artworks that draw us in are often the simplest.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Billy: Harvest by Neil Young. The rawness of a group of musician-friends convening in a barn and just playing out an entire album is right there on the cover. The dust of Nashville in the yellow-gold, with the deep orange of the setting sun right there in the middle. And with that cursive writing, with the album title taking precedence over Young’s own name, it says ‘this is all about the music’. 


Lee Bradley

Creative Director, B&W Studio

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Lee: To be honest, it’s no mean feat choosing your favourite album or record sleeve. I think people of my generation (born in the 70’s) went through various genres of music. I remember being into heavy metal in my 2 or 3rd year at grammar school. I was mates with a heavy metal drummer and at this point I was really attracted to the Iron Maiden albums. This was my first taste of design and had an influence on my career as a graphic designer.

The Maiden covers were so iconic. They were more than just a cover, they were the brand of the band. The logotype ‘mast header’ was always positioned at the top of the sleeve with each album showcasing a different illustration. The iconic hand-drawn logotype was designed by Dennis Wilcock in 1977. There was something about album covers in the 80’s - they were incredibly crafted, and almost like works of art. I think it was something to do with record shops and how they displayed them. They had to have a powerful image to attract more attention. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Lee: My favourite album is the Number of the Beast. Eddie (the band’s mascot*) looks 3-D and is reaching out from the cover in a scary way. It reminded me of the famous horror films at the time which were all the rage - it must have been an 80’s thing. The scene was dramatic and felt reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí surreal painting, which you could look deeper into and find something else.

The cover depicts Eddie controlling Satan like a puppet, while Satan is also controlling a smaller Eddie. According to Derek Riggs (the album artist) this was inspired by a Doctor Strange comic book villain with Doctor Strange dangling on some strings like a puppet. It was met with controversy, particularly in the United States. 

A lot of the Iron Maiden album covers became famous tattoos worn universally. The cover captures the music so well, so that’s why I choose this artwork. Looking back at them now I think the combination of Eddie, the strong iconic logotype and a very distinctive illustration style really made my day.

*Eddie is a perennial fixture of the group’s artwork, appearing in all of their album covers (as well as most of their singles) and in their merchandise. There’s something to be said about an album cover that becomes an iconic t-shirt range as well. A testament to the design and brand they created.


Holly Carter

Lead vocalist and guitarist, Berries

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Holly: The ability to portray a bands music and their personalities without losing something on the way, and to get the main message of the album across in the artwork but still leave room for questions and interpretations.

There are no special effects and thrills, it's just really raw and DIY and totally relatable. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Holly: Sleater Kinney Dig Me Out. For me, growing up and seeing an album cover with a girl band on the front was extremely important. It connected with me on so many different levels. The main picture looks like it was taken in one of their bedrooms with music posters on the walls, you know that they are just three friends hanging out and making music. There are no special effects and thrills, it's just really raw and DIY and totally relatable. 


Sarah Hyndman

(Find Sarah’s next record-themed live Zoom event here)

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Sarah: I’ve always loved album covers that add something extra to the music so they become a part of the experience. This might be through images and typography that add layers to be decoded, like clues, so I feel a sense of discovery and that I’m in-the-know. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Sarah: I just looked through my records and the Proustian rush came from Alice Cooper’s School’s Out album. It has a pop-up cover that turns into a school desk with legs. You open the desktop to take the record out. It really caught my imagination that a record cover could be in an unusual format and it’s something I remembered later when I became a graphic designer. 


Adam Kidd

Lead singer and songwriter, Fragile Creatures

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Adam: Like most art, the quality of an album cover is subjective. We may find a design aesthetically pleasing, and we may be able to appreciate why it works as an album cover, but ultimately I think very few people would pick an album they do not like to top their ‘greatest album covers of all time’ list.

I think the music within and the cover need to be intertwined, the sleeve art should resonate with the artist and the mood of the record it represents. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think it’s crucial. 

Also, on a practical level, the kind of image we need to represent an album has subtly shifted over time in line with shifts in the way we consume music. 10 years ago The Beatles Sgt. Pepper sleeve would dominate such lists, but now it’s more likely to be Abbey Road. Why? Although Sgt. Pepper’s sleeve is full of images of icons; it now seems too cluttered to read as iconic when represented as a tiny collection of pixels on a screen. I think in 2020 a great album cover needs to have a certain simplicity that allows us to read it when it’s been reduced down to a tiny box on our phone. Ideally it should have hidden depths we can’t read in pixel form, which jump out at us when we view the sleeve at vinyl record proportions, a reward for shelling out on the shellac!

The final factor is typography: and some album covers are all typography – say, The Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks. The fonts used and their proportion need to be in harmony both with the style of the artist and the record in question. Jeff Buckley’s Grace utilises a great picture of the artist, but the fonts and where they are placed, particularly the album title, seem haphazard.

Ideally it should have hidden depths we can’t read in pixel form, which jump out at us when we view the sleeve at vinyl record proportions.

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover of all time?

Adam: At the moment I think Radiohead’s The Bends is my favourite album cover. I’ve always found the figure kind of mysterious. It has an uncanny valley quality. I had assumed it was an early computer generated rendering of a man, but did some research for this article and discovered it is in fact a resuscitation model from a hospital. It has that glitchy, early computer graphics feel because they projected the photo onto a screen and the re-photographed it. This reads well as a tiny box, but gives us texture and an interesting perspective shift that can be appreciated as a larger reproduction (as a teen I had a huge poster of it on my wall).

The fonts are easy to read, well positioned, and unfussy. I think this head is recognisable as humanoid, but it is not a human, and this resonates with the central themes of the album: anxiety, desperation, alienation. It also has a timelessness, where it could have been made any time between the mid 80s and early 00s – which feels right for The Bends to me. I don’t have a fixed position on this though – I very nearly picked London Calling, but that’s a story for another day!


Jack Renwick

Creative Director, Jack Renwick Studio

Julia: For you, what makes a great album cover?

Jack: Iconic, intriguing and able to make you so curious that you have to listen to the music. It should represent the band, their sound, their vision and be equally as strong as the music itself. Great album covers are works of art. The record shop is the gallery and a great cover makes you stand in front of it, staring, wondering and needing to find out more. 

Julia: What’s your favourite album cover?

Jack: Technically I’m cheating as it’s a 12-inch single. New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, designed in 1983 by Peter Saville – a die cut black cover pastiche of a floppy disc with a strip of coloured shapes, no title, no band name. My older sister owned it and I would sneak it out of her record box, lay it on our bedroom floor and stare at it for hours, tracing my finger round the circles, trying to understand it. What is it? What does it mean? I was 11 years old and clueless about design but I was fascinated by this black square and knew there must be a meaning to these colours that frustratingly I couldn’t work out. “It just looks nice” didn’t make sense. 

12 years later a friend told me the designer of my now cherished Joy Division and New Order records was giving a talk in Manchester. Chancing our luck we drove down from Glasgow, blagged in, and there was Peter Saville on the stage of the Haçienda nightclub. He talked about the colour alphabet on the back of New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ album and I nearly jumped out of my skin. ALPHABET?!  Of course! We sped home, grabbed both records and deciphered the code – ‘FAC 73. BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH. NEW ORDER’. Genius. Years later at Art School, my final year dissertation was titled Me and Peter. I wrote it in his colour alphabet and annoyed the shit out of the assessors.

Iconic, intriguing and able to make you so curious that you have to listen to the music.


Thanks to Lou, Jamie, Jessika, Rob, Grace, Katherina, Billy, Lee, Holly, Sarah, Adam and Jack for chatting with me about album art and sharing their photos. I’m rather glad I was asking the questions, as I still can’t decide what my favourite cover would be…


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