OK, so I'll try to set expectations right out of the gate—this is not going to read like a list of the greatest album covers of all time. Probably far from it. To create such a list would require a knowledge of both the art world and obscure music that I don't pretend to have. So in the absence of that deep-cut hipness, I'm going to employ a different kind of selection criteria for what constitutes great album art.
For me, a great album cover is one that takes you back to a moment in time, and simply by seeing a particular piece of album art, a set of memories or nostalgic feelings return to the surface. This will, of course, make my selections extremely subjective and tied to my own life experiences, but trust me—better that I approach it this way than attempting to break down the compositional integrity and cultural subtexts of Blink 182's Enema of the State.
And with that, I give you my 10 great album covers…
Glass Houses (1980)
In the spring of 1980, I was 5 years old and my father bought an Onkyo home stereo we weren't allowed to come within 10 feet of. The first vinyl album he bought to play on the "Onk-ee-oh!"—as my six siblings and I called it—was Billy Joel's Glass Houses. This was Long Island in the '80s, so literally everyone listened to Billy Joel, but I didn't know anyone who lived in a glass house, hence my fascination with the album cover. I have a vague memory of asking my parents if we could move to one of these magical structures, and my father replying with something about heating bills. It's all pretty fuzzy but when I look at this album cover one thing resurfaces crystal clearly—"Oooooooooowwwoooooooo, what's the matter with the clothes I'm wearin'?" I remember singing that line like it was yesterday.
Thriller means a lot of things to a lot of people—the ubiquity of Michael Jackson's creativity in the early '80s, music video innovation like we'd never imagined—but when I see MJ chilling in his white suit on this album cover, it brings to mind one thing: Hot Skates parties. Hot Skates was a dream-like indoor roller skating rink about 10 minutes from my childhood home, but if you lived within a 40-mile radius of this place and were between the ages of 7 and 12, there was no question where you were having your birthday party. The highlight of Hot Skates was a retractable movie screen that came down for a few minutes during each set of parties to play a music video for the hundreds of kids gathered beneath it. For a solid year and a half, that video was "Thriller." My older siblings had told me how life-changing it was to see "Thriller" play on the big screen at Hot Skates, so when I was old enough to attend a Hot Skates party and actually experienced it for myself, I was so happy I think I cried.
Slippery When Wet (1986)
As a child I had the unfortunate habit of creating really unambitious Christmas lists. While my siblings would ask Santa Claus for bicycles and Nintendo game consoles, I would request things like toiletry kits and desk blotters. In 1986, I really decided to go for it, though, and I shocked my family when my Santa list consisted of one item and one item only—Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. I was 11 years old, and if all went according to plan, Slippery When Wet would be the first record I would ever own. So you can imagine my excitement when I came down that glorious morning and saw the beautiful airbrushed asphalt of Jon Bon Jovi's opus glistening inside its cellophane wrapper under the tree. It was, in every way, my Red Rider BB gun, and while the Onkyo was reserved for the likes of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis on that particular day, the Playschool record player in my bedroom boomed a non-stop volley between "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer."
Tougher Than Leather (1988)
I feel fortunate that at the age most kids start becoming interested in rap music, which for me was around 1988, the artists who were most popular were actually very legit. To say I had a good introduction to hip-hop with Run-DMC's Tougher Than Leather as my first rap album is an understatement. I bought the album in cassette form, as in seventh grade I rarely went anywhere without my bright-yellow Sony "Sports" Walkman. And because I was employed as a paperboy at the time, my routine consisted of getting home from school, rewinding Tougher Than Leather in the Sony, and then heading out to deliver newspapers with tracks like "Run's House" and "Beats to the Rhyme" blasting in my ears. I found the album an appropriate soundtrack for my life at the time, with my days spent working for the man and navigating the mean streets of suburban Long Island.
De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
My Tougher Than Leather period would come to an abrupt end some months later, when a trio of locals called De La Soul released a musically inventive album entitled 3 Feet High and Rising. Of all the album covers on my list, this one might actually be in the "greatness' conversation. For me it represents the beginning of a three-year period where the only thing I thought about, talked about, or dreamed about was skateboarding. My Catholic schoolboy crew and I would tear around town with a boom box in tow, find a freshly painted curb to scuff up, and proceed to do so with tracks like "Me Myself and I" and "Buddy" playing at a socially acceptable volume. Then some storeowner would come out and tell us to scram, and we would do exactly that.
Abba's Gold was an ironic mainstay at every high school party on Long Island in the early '90s, but people definitely listened to it alone in their car. I did. Its cover art was just words on black because it didn't have to be anything else. This was Abba's greatest-hits album and they knew the music was so good they were like, "We don't need album art—we're freaking Abba and this is our best stuff, we're going to sell 60 trillion of these albums." And I think they did—I think they sold a hair over 60 trillion. You have to respect this album cover for how little time or effort was actually put into it. One can envision the meeting at Polydor Records in 1992 when the executives were like, "OK, Abba, what would you like to put on your greatest hits album cover?" To which a chorus of Swedish laughter broke out followed by Bjorn Ulvaeus saying, "Just put the word 'Gold' under our name and print the record." Followed by more Swedish laughter.
Siamese Dream (1993)
Billy Corgan's masterpiece came out a month after I graduated high school and for the next four years, this album to me was like the world's strangest security blanket. It's the only album that ever inspired me to buy a wall poster with the cover art on it, the only album for which I was willing to endure the restrooms at Lollapalooza to see performed live. There was a song on this album for every confusing, angsty, heartbreaking, thrilling experience a person can have between the ages of 18 and 22, and since it was always at the top of my CD stack next to the stereo on my dresser, its cover art was a constant for me during those years.
It's like some kind of angry goat or something? I don't know. I never knew what Pearl Jam was trying to say. And I mean that literally—I think I misheard at least 80 percent of all Pearl Jam lyrics. I do know that in the fall of 1993, when I was a freshman in college, every dormitory hallway in America was a cacophony of stereos playing "Daughter" at different volumes and completely out of sync with each other. Unless you were physically in one of the rooms, it was impossible to actually hear "Daughter," but you felt "Daughter." That continued on a 24-hour cycle for about four months, then Dookie came out.
The main album art for Dookie was instantly iconic. It was sort of like an apocalyptic "Where's Waldo?" for the punk rock set. But more so than the mushroom cloud announcing the arrival of one of the all-time great punk bands, the image that stuck with me was actually on the album's rear jacket. Wedged between the columns of track listings was a plush puppet of Sesame Street's Ernie, positioned on the hand of a concert goer in a way that looked like the little guy was crowd surfing. To me, that image was the perfect encapsulation of the band's rebellious yet playful vibe. Apparently, Green Day had to retouch Ernie out of that image for future releases, making the original Dookie CD something of a collector's piece. Of course, I have no idea where mine is.
OK Computer (1997)
Like Siamese Dream after high school, Radiohead's OK Computer came out the month I graduated college, and it quickly became the soundtrack for my transition into adulthood. Its cover art looked like some kind of dystopian commuting nightmare, making it oddly appropriate, considering all the gear-grinding trains, subways and taxis I was suddenly taking on a daily basis. I remember the newness of being constantly surrounded by elaborate machines—giant escalators in and out of New York's Penn Station, elevators that delivered you 30 stories into the sky, and of course the strangeness of sitting at computers all day long. The beautiful machine-like instrumentals and digitized vocals of OK Computer seemed to fit in with this new reality, and when someone would ask what I was listening to on my Discman, I felt kind of cool and artistic saying Radiohead.