There's a unique pleasure in pinpointing albums to their year, to see them as snapshots of the state of culture. In the same way that the songs speak to the musical zeitgeist and carry the imprint of the instruments and recording technology, the cover conveys the current fashions, design methods and technologies. They are tidy square icons of their time. But they sit on a twinned timeline: when they were released and when you first listened to them. I wasn't alive for the release of many of my favorite albums, but looking at the covers can provoke nostalgia for the time when I discovered it.
This selection isn't bound to a singular theme. I love many of the following albums for the music, and they've been blessed with equally evocative covers—others I've selected purely for their looks. Enjoy your scroll…
It's nice to see an album cover so indifferent to its advertising task (or so confident in its visual allure) that it forgoes the band and album name altogether. Wire has a number of handsome, stark covers. The proto-Memphis abstraction on their third album, 154, is both elegant and playful.
Cold Hands (2001)
I'm often drawn to album art created by the musicians themselves. Black Dice's artwork from the early 2000s captured their sound perfectly. Their cut-up aesthetic swerved wildly between genres. At times, they embrace noise; at other times, they venture into drone, chant, or unwieldy pop mutations. The cover's low-effort collage and uncool type, which wants to be on a jasmine tea bag, capture their unprecious approach to art-making.
Paul and Linda McCartney
This is another cover done by the musicians, and I love how the naif approach dovetails with the warm, inviting music of this album. Linda provided the photograph while Paul went to town with a marker multi-pack—I imagine sprawled out on a rug near the fireplace of their cottage in the Scottish countryside.
I remember seeing this lettering on a wheat-pasted poster in Brooklyn. It was my first encounter with the work of Robert Beatty, who has since amassed a catalog of gorgeous album artwork. This is one of his most restrained, minimalist covers, but his impeccable craft and graphic finesse shine through.
20 Jazz Funk Greats (1977)
This cover is a true wolf in sheep's clothing—the innocuous title and pastoral cover art veil the group's often confrontational sound. As band member Cosey Fanni Tutti explains, "We did the cover, so it was a pastiche of something you would find in a Woolworth's bargain bin. We took the photograph at the most famous suicide spot in England, called Beachy Head."
It's our second cover from the Beatles diaspora. I love Yoko Ono's take on the portrait album cover. There's just enough spatial ambiguity to tease the mind, and the seemingly plastic-wrapped glare gives it a cold cyborg futurism. Also, her choker looks great.
Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
Sober design plus a bit of chaos is often a successful recipe. Here, it's a blue-collar sans serif with singer Mark E. Smith's manic scrawlings in support. A music critic at the time described the cover as "meticulously shoddy," which could just as easily characterize the music itself.
Washing Machine (1995)
Sonic Youth was touring the yet-to-be-released album Washing Machine when Kim Gordan took this Polaroid of two fans wearing their recently acquired merch. The meta approach combined with cherry-lipped teenager awkwardness channels the band's coy self-effacement and art savvy.
Be Your USA (2018)
I love the collision of styles on this cover by designer Timothy Luke, who has done great things with PC Music. We have a test pattern that wouldn't be out of place on a 1980s Factory Records release, a 3D render with strangely squashed color values, and a logotype that's 1960s via early 2000s. Luke's animated rendition of this cover for the single's lyric video was also masterfully done.
Funky Doom (2020)
Designer Braulio Amado's graphic toolset is dizzying. He does everything exquisitely, from typographic minimalism to drawings so loose they almost fall apart. His knowledge of design history is as apparent as his penchant for freewheeling experimentation. This cover lets color take the lead, with obscured type teasing the mind with an unsolvable puzzle.