Vinyl countdown: our writers' favourite album art

Best Art Vinyl awards has chosen David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock as the best artwork of 2015. To mark the occasion, our writers choose their favourite sleeves

Nick Drake – Bryter Layter

Nick Drake’s career may come cloaked in myth and mystery, but one facet often overlooked by musical historians and cultural scholars are those shoes. Those incongruously bulky blue suede brothel creepers with banana yellow laces.

For many years I assumed the disbanded footwear on the cover of Bryter Layter were some kind of symbol of the introverted, agoraphobic musician’s rejection of fame and its exhibitionist implications. After all, would a soft, dandy-ish sort like Drake really slip on something so commandeering? However, thanks to the premise of this feature, the story behind the unlikely shoes has been unearthed. As it turns out, the creepers in question are symbolic, but were owned by the portrait’s photographer, Nigel Waymouth.

Nick Drake and the banana-yellow laces enigma
Nick Drake and those shoes Photograph: PR company handout

If one forum is to be believed, Waymouth’s shoes, which were made to design by the Chelsea Cobbler, were placed in front of Drake’s feet “to add an optimistic note (blue suede shoes – dancing shoes), in an otherwise sombre photograph, that would echo the title of the album, Bryter Layter.” The post also goes on to detail its other items: the chair Drake sits on was once reportedly owned by Charles Dickens, who sat in it to write, and the small Guild guitar was one that Eric Clapton gave to his friend and flatmate Martin Sharp. Backstory aside, the other intangible elements of the image come from its awkward composition, something that I love, but is likely to infuriate design pedants, from the positioning of the portrait in the oval shape which looks a little off-kilter, to Drake’s face, largely covered in shadow. I happen to think his terrible posture and shadowy face is rather apt, given his temperament. Its colour scheme, a very 70s clash of bold hues – mauve, red and orange – are also gregarious shades that seem to complement what Melody Maker referred to, somewhat snidely, as this album’s “cocktail jazz”.

Examining this vinyl sleeve in 2016, the artwork appears effortlessly aloof and elegant, it emanates a strange sophistication, and is a symbol of a man who shirked the spotlight, the stereotypes and the silly shoes of the 1970s.
Harriet Gibsone

The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers

‘Like a neon sign Jonathan Richman would have seen on Route 128’
‘Like a neon sign Jonathan Richman would have seen on Route 128’ Photograph: Public domain

There was a time when my favourite album covers looked like the fantasies of a prepubescent boy – all demons, lightning bolts, strange new worlds – and I firmly believed that Mark Wilkinson and Derek Riggs were the greatest artists to set oil on canvas, thanks to their designs for Marillion and Iron Maiden. But that was when I actually was a prepubescent boy, and demons, lightning bolts and strange new worlds seemed like the best possible subjects for songs. As an adult, the album covers I have loved best have been the cleanest and simplest – the first Ramones album, the four of them slumped against a wall in black and white, the band name above them in block capitals; some of the covers William S Harvey oversaw when he was art director for Elektra Records (contrast the covers of Love’s Forever Changes and the first Stooges album: at heart, they’re much the same – a band portrait from an unorthodox perspective, a stylised logo – but they speak volumes about the very different records within). But my very favourite is also the cover to my favourite album – the self-titled LP by the Modern Lovers. It’s nothing but a logo against a plain background (my preferred version is the black background, rather than the purple of current versions), but it’s beautiful – like one of the neon signs Jonathan Richman would have seen flashing past as he drove along Route 128. It’s a cover that spoke to the time the music was made – the early 1970s – but speaks to what it represents now, too – an almost mythic America that’s part innocent, part cynical, but which lives on in those who love rock’n’roll. It’s perfect.
Michael Hann

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

‘Marvin Gaye is here to deliver some truths’
‘Marvin Gaye is here to deliver some truths’ Photograph: PR company handout

It is, on the surface, just a photo of a bloke staring into the rain. But what a story it tells. Marvin Gaye had to fight to get this record out, to break away from the commercial shackles of Motown and release a deeply personal, artistic statement unlike anything the label – or indeed any other label – had put out before. So it makes sense that all we see is Marvin: his head, his thoughts, his anguish. Yet James Hendin’s shot tells us about more than simply Gaye’s own artistic progression; it also manages to convey the album’s themes – as the 60s dream soured, Gaye felt compelled to sing about the environment, the Vietnam war and the racial tensions building in his country. The atmosphere in this shot mirrors the bleakness: it’s raining, and Gaye is outside, alone, the definition of troubled (the Tedesca typeface serves to add a gothic edge). Yet Gaye is also defiant, standing tall, here to deliver some truths with the confidence of a man who no doubt knows he’s made a masterpiece. This one sleeve tells you an awful lot about the state of America in 1971. It also tells you that, no matter what happens in the world, you will never, ever look this cool in a waterproof coat, so don’t even try.
Tim Jonze

Friendly Fires – Pala

Album cover Friendly Fires - Pala
‘Captures the album’s kaleidoscopic, indie-rave joy’ Photograph: PR company handout

It’s hard to tell where society stands with regards to physical albums. While streaming and sales turn songs into MP3s and artwork into jpgs, the more we listen to music digitally, on devices tucked into our pockets or plugged into speakers, the less we engage with the sort of artwork over which we can run our fingers. Vinyl’s resurgence in the UK forges on, however, and while our habits pull to and fro, I still applaud impressively shot or beautifully designed album covers that continue to be created in the digital era. A favourite would be the vibrant photograph of a parrot used for Friendly Fires’ 2011 album Pala. Norwegian fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø’s image perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic, indie-rave joy of the band’s second album, with all its references to Hawaiian air, sun-kissed faces and the soaring unpredictability of love. Whether seen on a record cover or phone screen, its colour-saturated brilliance shines through.
Tshepo Mokoena


Harriet Gibsone, Michael Hann, Tim Jonze and Tshepo Mokoena

The GuardianTramp

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