Say what you like, 2018 has been a marked year for music. While critique is very serious business, we are also human and what we like is all the more special than the critical appraisal of an album. For the next month, every day, you will find our staff picks for our favorite facets of music from best features to worst songs and everything in-between, based solely on what strikes us as diehard music fans first, and critics second. It's been an incredible year for hip-hop.
Let's get started. These are our favorite album covers of 2018.
East Atlanta Love Letter — 6LACK
Cover art and presentation has had a strong 2018. Sam Spratt is a legendary painter. Kodone is an incredibly fine artist. Murakami, too, is a creative genius. Yet, a photo of 6LACK holding his daughter in a papoose while he records in the kitchen remains the most striking and human album cover of the year. For a man who makes power fantasy music, this might be the most regular portrayal of him in existence. The contrast is thrilling from a narrative standpoint, and a pleasure from a "Well isn't she just darling?" standpoint. —Donna-Claire Chesman
KIDS SEE GHOSTS — KIDS SEE GHOSTS (Kanye West & Kid Cudi)
Kanye handled pretty much everything he did in 2018 in the worst possible way, but tapping Takashi Murakami to create the most gorgeous cover art of the year was a highlight matched only by his production work on Pusha T's DAYTONA. —Brendan Varan
The rumors regarding a possible Kanye West-Kid Cudi collab album swirled ever stronger after the two were seen visiting the studio of Takashi Murakami. The Japanese artist, who previously designed the cover for West’s Graduation, was able to effectively capture the ambient and other-worldly energy of KIDS SEE GHOSTS in his cover. The full artwork even contains Kanji characters that translate to “chaos,” reflecting the project’s amalgamation of genres. Ultimately, it’s only fitting that one of the best albums of the year has the best artwork of the year. —Stephen Barston
The work of celebrated artist, Takashi Murakami, it goes without saying that this is a beautiful illustration that belongs in a gallery, but superficial aesthetics aside, it is also a perfect spiritual avatar for the music it was created to adorn. KIDS SEE GHOSTS is, in large part, an album about the internal struggle between light and darkness, and Murakami’s design evokes this tension effortlessly, embodying it both through the artist’s gorgeous choice of color palette, and through his illustrations of demonic creatures, which appear to loom large, despite having been conquered. Marking Kanye’s third collaboration with Murakami—following the cover of Graduation and the animated video for his song “Good Morning"—this trifecta of home runs suggests a certain creative kinship between the two artists that would have been nice to see more of across Kanye’s other collaborations from the infamous Wyoming sessions. —Hershal Pandya
KOD — J. Cole
Is it a coincidence that KOD, J. Cole's fifth and best full-length studio album, sports the best album art in his catalog? I think not. Released just ahead of the surprise April drop, the Sixmau-illustrated cover perfectly captures the album's direction and tone. "I don't really see it as a darkness," Sixmau explained in an interview with Detroit Metro Times. "I just see it as, like, a realness. Like, this is our reality. We're here, and we're in it. ... This reality has to be represented in some way. It's not all sunshine and rainbows." Well said, well done. —Z
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Negro Swan — Blood Orange
The cover of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan displays a male angel leaning out the window of a car. He’s vulnerable yet guarded, magically majestic, beautiful and black. It’s an image perfectly communicating the album's enchanting exploration through an intimate, dreamy world of blackness. Negro Swan’s cover accomplishes the function that all the best album covers are able to do: be a wordless poem saying to the eyes what awaits the ears. —Yoh
To be the Negro Swan is to be the lonely yet noble outlier, to revel in your own uniqueness even while pondering what that reality means in terms of your own livelihood. It’s a junction that’s poignantly illustrated in the artwork from Blood Orange’s most recent album, a snapshot of Kai the Black Angel resting his head on the roof of the car to peer at the camera with one eye. Somber and pensive yet equally elegant, it’s one of the most striking covers of the year, with a deeper significance that only boosts the profile of the album itself. —Kenan Draughorne
NOIR — Smino
The purpose of album art isn’t just for the mood-setting of each project, but the perfect encapsulation of the mind creating the art within it. Between this year’s NOIR, and last year’s blkswn, there are few better than Smino at finding the perfect picture that represents their entire artistic being. Between the weed smoke gently floating in front of the lens and the unknown woman braiding Smino’s hair, legs wrapped around him as he squints hollowly at an unseen TV screen, NOIR’s album art is as relaxed and comforting as every single one of Smino’s light-footed rap melodies. —Matt Wilhite
Supreme Blientele — Westside Gunn
There are so many colors to choose from in the world of rap album covers, but this year I only needed three: black, white, and grey. The cover of Westside Gunn’s Supreme Blientele is confrontational and striking but also highlights between the lavish and grimy lives that Gunn finds himself stuck between on the album. Like most of my favorite covers, it sums up the feeling of the album while looking cool as hell. That Fendi mask sitting on his face is really hard to deny. —Dylan "CineMasai" Green
Swimming — Mac Miller
What makes a memorable album cover is the artwork’s ability to not only speak to the album’s themes but also to add layers to its meaning, from the greys on Saba’s CARE FOR ME to the sunny-though-misleading landscape of Vince Staple’s FM! When I look back on 2018, however, the cover for Mac Miller’s Swimming will haunt me in light of his death. Mac is dressed too soon for the occasion, his eyes downcast and his feet dirtied. I had thought it was an airplane window behind him, but since his death, many have speculated that the rectangle he sits in is his own coffin. Either way, I am begging him to come back to earth. —Ben Taylor
Veteran — JPEGMAFIA
Until another rapper takes a limo to go pick up a welfare check—on camera—there’ll never be another Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But musically speaking, JPEGMAFIA is cut from the same frayed cloth as Ason Jones. There’s his irreverent humor (“I Just Killed a Cop Now I’m Horny” sounds like a working title for a N*gga Please album cut). There’s “Real Nega,” which stacks Peggy’s own frenzied energy over ODB’s mouth-croaking-slash-opera-solo from “Goin’ Down.” And then there’s his Return to the 36 Chambers-inspired Veteran album cover, which I’d like to think would’ve earned a gap-toothed grin of approval from Dirt McGirt. While Peggy’s driver’s license doesn’t quite carry the same gravity—or hilarity —as ODB’s food stamp card, it does possess its own mischievous charm. Look closely and you’ll see “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Don’t Litter Louisiana” in small print above his driver’s photo. His psychopathic smile suggests that he got wasted, joyrided, and tossed the cans out the window immediately after leaving the photo booth. He probably filmed it, too. —Andy James