10 Album Covers That Made Life Better and More Relatable

My favorite designs, from Dirty Projectors to Van Halen

I've always been fascinated by the power of a really great album cover, and how sometimes it could even make you listen to music you would never have discovered if it weren't for the cover. The cover was like a permanent full-page ad for the music, in your face at the record shop. At least, back when buying records was an actual thing for everyone who wanted to listen to music.

I own thousands of records. Today they're all stowed away in my basement. The only time I look at them is when I go down there to "sort things out," leaving the place in an slightly updated version of chaos every time. But some of those covers really stick in my mind. They never leave me. Because there was a time when those albums made your life better, or at least made life a tad more relatable.

Someone said you never forget the face of a person who helps you feel better. To me, the same goes for album covers.

Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan (2012)

This cover is just a photo. No band name, no title, no nothing. But the photo says it all. If you're not young anymore, it gently whispers to you about the time when the world was truly your oyster. If you're young, it conveys the laissez-faire lifestyle that lies around the corner if you just indulge in the fact that you're young and this is your universe. The only fuel required to make it in this world is your dream. You're on top of the world and there's nothing stopping you. Not even your girlfriend's dad, when you tell him that from now on you're going to focus on your band full-time. Is it any good? Well, that's nothing a spontaneous air guitar riff can't prove. This is my favorite album cover of all time. Best song on the album: "Dance for You."

Van Halen
1984 (1984)

This album sort of saved my life. As a teenager I was an exchange student in southern Alabama. Looking back, it was like I was an extra in True Detective or something. I went to a small high school in an even smaller town. As an alternative garage and punk enthusiast from Sweden, I had nothing in common with anyone. The school had two cultures: jocks and more jocks, all fans of heavy metal and the type of music Frank Black from the Pixies once described as "freedom rock." I didn't play sports and I didn't like either Van Halen or Aerosmith. I became an outsider. However, back then I was very good at drawing and creating art with my airbrush, which I had brought all the way from Gothenburg, Sweden. One day I saw a poster announcing a student art contest, so I created an exact copy of this album cover, entered it and won. This victory resulted in students actually talking to me. I didn't exactly become popular, but I gained enough respect to be greeted in the classroom. In short: 1984 became the social lubricant I needed to be somebody in Alabama in 1989. Best song on the album: "Jump."

Spacemen 3
Playing with Fire (1989)

The third studio album from the über-cool legends Spacemen 3 is a hypnotic record. But not only that, the cover is a masterpiece and a temple of its own in the world of independent rock. The colorful words describe the exact sound of the band with extreme precision. The flawless art direction nails the coffin of glossy, commercial '80s pop shut for good. Hey! We stole your cute '80s colors and we're setting what has been on fire, because we're psychotic punks with a million guitar pedals on the tip of our toes. And also, we're on all kinds of drugs. Spacemen 3 became the No. 1 inspiration for many bands to come in the '90s. This album cover became their cross, the words their commandments, and the music their psalms. Amen to that. Best song on the album: "Suicide."

Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

Who can argue with Kraftwerk being one of the most influential bands ever? The cover for their 10th and final studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks, is not only a tribute to the 100-year anniversary of Tour de France, but also a tribute to the bicycle itself—according to Kraftwerk, one of the most perfect machines ever made. A machine that enabled total harmony between man and machine. Rumor has it that cycling ended Kraftwerk. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were both obsessed with cycling. Twenty kilometers per day was standard. They demanded that everyone in the band join in. Cycling became almost as important as making legendary music, because Ralf and Florian considered cycling to be the most robotic activity a human being can undertake. The other members of the band were not as keen. Perhaps Karl Bartos, who left the band in 1991, said it best: "I guess I wasn't robot enough." Best song on the album: "Elektro Kardiogramm."

The Stooges (1969)

You know those T-shirts kids wear that say, "Here comes trouble"? That's kind of cute. But this cover is the real and ugly version of trouble about to hit. It's the perfect portrait of the guys you definitely don't want to show up at that party you're afraid your daughter is going to host while you're away for the weekend. Can you even begin to imagine the doorbell ringing on a Friday night and finding these guys on the porch? You try to close in immediately, but no, Richard Asheton's tired boot is in the way. Six hours later your suburban house looks like an abandoned dog shelter in Eastern Europe. If punk was one person, it would be the combination of these fine young men, who brought us the trouble we needed to look up from the everyday boredom of the status quo. A pack of rabid wolves in dog costumes. Best song on the album: "I Wanna be Your Dog."

Frank Zappa
Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982)

At first glance this cover feels naive, ugly and like it's stating the obvious. However, it's not. The simplicity of it reminds me of great ads where a headline explains what you need to go: "Aha, I get it!" Without the title, it's some sort of Rorschach-test for creatives. As a teenager, I had a poster of this cover on my wall. I woke up looking at it and went to sleep looking at it. Always inspired by the immediate power of its simplicity. To me it became sort of a symbol of creativity, a door opener for the mind; if that's a ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, then anything can be anything. You just have to look for it. I'm not really a fan of Zappa's music, but I've always admired his musical and political bravery as well as his playful creativity. Best song on the album: "Valley Girl."

The Pod (1991)

Ween. A legendary band inspired by soul, gospel, country, funk, R&B, psychedelia, heavy metal, punk and (!) disco. This cover is a takeoff of the 1975 Best of Leonard Cohen album. It's a best-of collection consisting of Ween songs. I love how the cover art really reflects Ween's musical style, a style that to me is about writing potential hit songs, then messing them up by adding all kinds of effects and experimental composition to them. In their purest versions, many Ween songs are like superhits remixed and re-recorded by mad scientists, just like this classic album cover was reimagined by the band. Best song on the album: "Dr. Rock."

Jonathan Richman
I, Jonathan (1992)

I just love this cover because it's 100 percent naked and honest, just like Richman is in everything he does. Just look at that curious, mischievous, almost childish face staring at you from the record shelf, wearing one of those caricature-of-what-French-poets-always-wear-in-movies shirts. He's like an honest salesman selling his own album by simply looking straight at the consumer. No wonder this guy charmed his way into becoming one of the Velvet Underground's hang-arounds. It's not Richman's best album, but it most certainly is his best face (and hair). Best song on the album: "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar."

Celebrity Skin (1998)

When I was commuting weekly to London back in 2002-03, I got stopped by customs EVERY single time. One time, my creative director at the time, Tim Hearn, totally lost it and said: "Don't you get it by now? You stop this guy every week despite never finding anything on him. Here's the thing: He was born that way, wearing a basic dishonest face. Make a note." I told this story at a party once, so everyone started spitting out names of other unreliable faces. Mostly celebrities. One of my friends claimed that Eric Erlandson, guitarist in the band Hole, looks so unreliable that even his own mom would do a background check on him if he wanted to borrow some money. For some reason that really stuck in my head. A few weeks later, Hole's third studio album was released, featuring the most unreliable face in the world on the cover. Eric is the one to the right. No offense, but no, you wouldn't lend that guy more than a buck. Best song on the album: "Celebrity Skin."

Happy Mondays
Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches (1990)

The perfect image of the happy chaos that became Happy Mondays' claim to fame, and their downfall. Only one record later, the chaotic and expensive recording of the album Yes Please! sent their record company, Factory Records, straight into bankruptcy. This cover makes you smile. It makes you want to be alive. And it makes you want to listen to the Happy Mondays. It drags you in and invites even your eyes to dance. I guess this is sort of what a ticket to heaven would look like, if God was into house music, funk, northern soul and taking ecstasy. Best song on the album: "Loose Fit."

Art of the Album is a regular Muse feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write about your favorite album covers, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.

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Magnus Jakobsson
Magnus Jakobsson is chief creative officer of The North Alliance, a network of Scandinavian design, communication and tech companies, including the Swedish ad agency Åkestam Holst.

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