I would've loved to have shared my 10 favorite album covers with you, dear reader, but almost all of them have already shown up in this column. And honestly, what could I possibly add to the discourse around Maggot Brain or Unknown Pleasures? So, these are not my favorite covers (okay, a handful are) but rather a collection of album art that makes me feel something. And like a toddler, I have LOTS of feelings. Some of these covers make me sad, some make me confused, a few make me nostalgic and one makes me afraid of the flute. What could possibly make a grown man afraid of a woodwind? Read on to find out!
During the Heroes recording sessions, David Bowie and Iggy Pop spent their downtime hitting up the art museums of Berlin. While checking out the works of German artist Erich Heckel, they began amusing themselves by mimicking the paintings' unnatural hand poses. Both Bowie and Iggy would recreate those postures on their next album covers (Iggy's was The Idiot). So there you go, that's the backstory. It's cool I guess. But really, who gives a shit? All that matters is that when you see Bowie in that pose you think of that song. THE song. A song that is, for my money, one of the greatest ever recorded. Bowie's gone, and I miss him as much as you, but Heroes is immortal.
Push Push (1971)
Oh look, it's the horniest jazz flute record of all time. Though I'd argue there's no such thing as an un-horny jazz flute album. The genre is rife with lusty LPs like Perm Chutney's Flutin & Fornicatin or Tottingham Station's Blowin' On Them Holes, two albums I completely made up, but you thought were real until just now. Somehow Push Push manages to cram 12 pounds of '70s macho grossness into a 10 pound flute case. Chest hair glistening with equal parts Brüt and cocaine? Check. Flute hoisted like an axe that only chops down… inhibitions? Check. Legend has it if you put your ear up to Herbie's belly button, you don't just hear the ocean, but a sexy-ass orca deep in its depths, whale-singing the Kama Sutra to another sexy-ass orca, who is very into it.
High Violet (2010)
Goddamn I love people who try, and nobody tries like The National. Sure, they're incredibly white and the saddest, most exhausted of dads, but only these guys can make miserable middle-aged tiredness sound so exhilarating. Their previous album, Boxer, was a minor masterpiece, and its lead single, "Mistaken For Strangers," is a stone-cold classic. But High Violet is where it all came together. I got so into the record when it came out I completely ignored the cover; it just looked like a bunch of gibberish scribbled on a wall. It wasn't until I picked it up on vinyl that I paid the cover any mind. It's a photograph of artist Mark Fox's sculpture "Untitled (Binding Force)." And those scribbles are actually a Catholic doctrine from the Vatican, chopped up and reassembled. The piece takes a mythic, incredibly grim dogma and explodes it, rendering the blown up bits in bright pastel. Just like a great National song, something heavy and sad has been pulled apart and presented to you in a new way. You can find something beautiful and exciting in it now. All you have to do is try.
The Miami Bass Wars (1988)
The following correspondence is reprinted with permission from the National Bass War archives, Washington, D.C.
November 7, 1994
Coconut Grove, Florida
My Dearest Abigail,
I hope this letter finds you well. I hate to disappoint you my love, but I fear that our campaign to end this Miami Bass War by Christmas has been, indeed, a failure. Just yesterday our regiment took heavy losses while trying to secure a critical causeway between the Taco Bell parking lot and that patch of grass behind the Long John Silvers where the goths go to be sad. T'was a brief skirmish but the carnage was vast; the battlefield littered with blown out woofers, scorched tweeters and smoldering bass cannons. I escaped relatively unscathed, though I have suffered severe hearing damage and totally ripped my JNCOs. I dare not speak it, but if I don't make it home, I will understand if—after an appropriate period of mourning—you move on and go to prom with someone else. Just please not Tommy Inunziatta. That guy's a poser.
With all the love and adoration my heart can contain,
Randy O'Hanlon III
Author's note: Oh yeah, the album cover. It's trash but it triggers one of my happiest memories: riding to school in the bass-rattled backseat of my best friend's older brother's '88 Ford Tempo.
Season of Glass (1981)
I doubt there's ever been more emotional wreckage packed into a single image than the one that graces Season of Glass, the record Yoko Ono released just six months after John Lennon's murder. It's a chillingly placid image; John's bloodstained glasses sitting next to half full (empty?) glass of water, Central Park just beyond the window of the bedroom they used to share. It's Yoko grieving in real time, and reminding the world that not only is Lennon gone forever, but there's a real person left behind to pick up the pieces in ways more intense and more ordinary than anyone could fathom.
Garth Brooks in… The Life of Chris Gaines (1999)
By the time it arrived on Garth Brooks' chin for his The Life of Chris Gaines album cover, that soul patch had seen some shit. In 1999, an incident at an Arkansas Cracker Barrel involving a faulty spoon and some piping-hot chili left Brooks unable to grow facial hair below the lip. But later that year, when Garth unexpectedly adopted the persona of emo sadboi Chris Gaines, he knew his look wasn't complete until he had a gross triangle of whiskers on his Mentolabial Fold*. Luckily, one magical tuft of stubble had been floating from from celebrity to celebrity since the early '80s. It started when Jackson Browne first summoned it from the dark lord Hirsutismus after his "World in Motion" album failed to go platinum. Since then, every six months, during a full moon, the soul patch bestows the gift of delusional hipness to a different boomer celebrity suffering an identity crisis. Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kevin Costner—they've all taken a trip on this magic mini mouthcarpet ride. And it's still a friend to those in low places to this very day. In fact, some say that at this very moment it's somewhere over New Orleans, where it will soon be the fifth-weirdest thing about Nicolas Cage.
Bizarreride Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
I don't like Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle album cover. The record is a classic but the artwork is aggressively shitty. On the other end of the spectrum is Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Unlike Snoop's outsized bravado and debauchery, The Pharcyde's debut is an exercise in vulnerability. It's like listening to four razor-sharp class clowns pine over girls, get rejected constantly, and explore—with hilarious honesty—what it's like to be held hostage by your own urges and shortcomings. The cover illustrates the record's theme just as brilliantly as the music; that navigating the social minefield of figuring out who you are in your twenties is a thrilling, nauseating rollercoaster ride into completely uncharted territory.
My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy (1969)
By the looks of it, someone's about to become a Blue Ridge Mountain Man.
Nothing's Shocking (1988)
Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell belongs on the Mount Rushmore of '90s cultural architects alongside Tupac, Kurt Cobain and Madonna (you could make an argument for Tarantino, but by the time you finished his forehead there wouldn't be enough granite left for anyone else). Not only did Farrell invent Lollapalooza, his breakthrough album Nothing's Shocking essentially created alternative music. Apparently the cover image came to Farrell in a dream, which seems about right. It perfectly evokes the heavy, dark, transgressive music Jane's was firing into the zeitgeist in that weird cultural rut between the death rattle of hair metal and the rise of grunge. It's worth noting that the model for those flame-headed conjoined twins was Casey Niccoli, Farrell's muse and creative partner. She doesn't get nearly enough credit for her role in the band's artistic output and overall influence on the cultural trajectory of the decade.
Hit 'Em Where It Hurt (1995)
I've been to the end of the internet yet I cannot find the artist responsible for Criminal Elament's Hit 'Em Where It Hurt album cover. That's likely because it's not man-made, but was actually snapped by a red light camera at the intersection of Holy and Shit. You could show the most advanced A..I art generator 10,000 straight hours of Steven Seagal movies and inject peyote straight into its algorithm—it still couldn't create an image as gloriously unhinged as this. "Is that a rabid dog riding a freight train?" No Grandma, that rabid dog IS a freight train. This is the problem with overbreeding. Chihuahuadoodles and Corgipoos are one thing, but crossing a Bulldog with an Amtrak? That's hubris bro. And what do you feed it? Coal? Because honestly we're too dependent on that shit as it is. Labradocomotive aside, the rest of the cover is an orgy of red flags. The train track seems to originate IN THE OCEAN, upon which a racehorse and an unmanned lowrider are speeding away from each other. Why? Did a jockey and a car enthusiast decide to settle a beef with a good old fashioned Sea Joust and the driver lost? Towering over it all is the Criminal Elament crew; a quartet of white T'd sirens singing you to shipwreck your feeble mind on the rocks of their jagged genius. Perfect. No notes.
Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.