Personally, I have two sides to my creative output. There's the songwriter side of me that strives to be an avid and active music listener. Then there's the ad-nerd side of me that views music as a product, and album artwork as an ad for it. People see the cover first, so it needs to catch the eye, intrigue, and provoke a response. But sometimes, even though the cover sizzles, there's no steak. Well, dear reader, this list is just the opposite. Here are 10 great albums with music that meets or exceeds the expectations set by the stellar cover art.
Way back in 2012, years before she met any billionaire space cowboys, Grimes made Visions. Represented on the cover by a demonic-looking skull of her creation, amid an odd yet clean graphic design layout, the album itself is just as unusual. Her voice floats, childlike and reverb-soaked, through intertwined synths and drum programming. The result is both off-putting and incredibly danceable, all at once.
Must-hears: "Oblivion," "Nightmusic"
A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory (1991)
The only thing brighter than the, well, tribal body paint pictured in this artwork is the sound of the shiny jazz samples used throughout the album. They employ some of the catchiest moments from the genre and totally transform them. It all becomes timeless hip-hop through the magic of sticky-as-hell drum grooves, and of course, perfectly timed rhythmic lyrics. It's called a classic for a reason. Legends.
Must-hears: "Check the Rhime," "Scenario"
Prince and the Revolution
Analyzing Prince's genius, his persona, and his bombshell performances could fill volumes. I'm not necessarily saying Parade is his very best work; that's a debate that could rage on forever. All I'm saying is, this album cover totally encapsulates the music in one gorgeous portrait. Sexy, but a bit strange. Gender-bending and genre-bending. Prince is a MOOD. Put this record on and feel all of the things.
Must-hears: "Under the Cherry Moon," "Kiss"
Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (2017)
Looking like an intergalactic Barbie doll from the year 2095, Sophie graces us with her presence. The music takes the serene beauty of the image and distorts it with funhouse mirrors. Plastic becomes elastic, beats become frantic, and ambient soundscapes turn into nightmares. She is dragging us kicking and screaming into the future of both electronic and pop music, whether we like it or not. Amazing.
Must-hears: "Faceshopping," "Immaterial"
Strange Mercy (2011)
Is she suffocating? Oh my God is she gonna die?! This cover takes your pill-addict aunt's secret latex kink and moves it in a shocking direction. The album is full of electrifying moments to match, from so-ugly-they're-pretty guitar solos to acidic synth freak-outs. It's a strange universe that only its creator can fully understand, Aka, music history in the making.
Must-hears: "Cruel," "Surgeon"
Ah, FKA twigs. Darling of the art world. Is there anything she does that isn't on point? This image is both grotesque and beautiful, and the music it advertises isn't afraid to get ugly in the best way. Her work is, in my opinion, unclassifiable. By the way, the accompanying video album for this release is an absolute must-watch. She is a modern-day icon who knows damn well how to market herself visually.
Must-hears: "Figure 8," "Glass & Patron"
Richard D. James Album (1996)
Menacing. Creepy. Cartoonishly villainous. These are all apt descriptors of the cover of Aphex Twin's Richard D. James Album. That vibe is reflected in the sounds on the album itself. This is his world. He's the puppeteer behind the curtain, completely in control; you're just along for the ride. But be warned: Once you're on this ride, it's nearly impossible to get off. Evil. Insane. 100 percent brilliant.
Must-hears: "Cornish Acid," "To Cure a Weakling Child"
Remain in Light (1980)
So far this list has included several artist portraits. Talking Heads decided to subvert that tradition and turn it on its head, way back in 1980. Instead of beautifying or artistically interpreting the physical appearance of the artist, the band members obscured their faces with ugly splotches of red. The resulting image is as striking as the sounds. Maybe what they're saying is, we don't matter. All that matters is the music.
Must-hears: "Born Under Punches," "The Great Curve"
What's better than having a kickass album cover? Disrupting the artform completely. This took the unveiling of some album artwork, and turned it into a news story. It became an instant cultural artifact, and the music contained within is just as innovative. Due to its experimental nature, Yeezus has aged like the finest of wines. Take creative risks, kids. Sometimes it pays off big time.
Must-hears: "Black Skinhead," "Send It Up"
Every studio LP, 1993-2017
The only thing that's better than disrupting a category creatively, is to be an absolute master of your craft. Every single visual Björk has ever used as a cover is perfectly aligned with the unique worlds within each of her albums. Every project is a reinvention of her as an artist, and she's been doing it for over 25 years. Björk is the Album Cover Queen. Long may she reign.
Must-hears: "Crying," "Army of Me," "Pluto," "Pagan Poetry," "Oceania," "Innocence," "Crystalline," "Quicksand," "Sue Me"
Art of the Album is a weekly feature every Thursday 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.