Some of my earliest memories are of a vast dusty and vaulted abandoned train station in Winnipeg, Canada, surrounded by septuagenarians, painting, drawing and sketching. My grandmother was a poet, an artist and a jazz aficionado who began taking me to art classes when I was 5 years old. I was surrounded by smoke-filled oversized cars, mysterious old jazz acetates, and perhaps it was here that my imagination started to investigate the relationship between music and image. Growing up in the prairies, with bitter soul-chilling winters, I had endless hours to explore my father's magical album collection, to thumb through my older brothers' records and to magnetically be drawn into worlds I knew I would one day explore.
Here are 10 of my all-time favorite album covers.
Island Life (1985)
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Here's Grace!"
Every inch of this cover art screams Grace. To this day, the mere sight of art is like discovering lost treasure. From the near-impossible contortion and superhuman form, to her sculpted-by-the-G-d's shape, there is no mistaking this album hides a sound that echoes the outstanding achievement that was capturing Grace Jones in her prime. Interestingly, Island Life is a compilation album by Jones released in 1985, summing up the first nine years of her musical career. The cover art showcasing this well-oiled goddess was created by long-time creative partner, designer Jean-Paul Goude, an illustrator, photographer and graphic designer.
As Goude was once quoted on the creation of this historic image: "I photographed her in a variety of positions, which I combined into a montage that made it possible to show her simultaneously full frontal and in profile, like an Egyptian bas-relief. Then, having transferred the montage to photographic paper, I used it as the preliminary sketch for a painting meant to give the photographic illusion that she is alone, like a contortionist, though on closer look you can see that from a strictly anatomical point of view the pose is impossible to achieve." The impact is staggering.
Night and Day (1982)
Released in 1982, this incredible collection of songs pays tribute in some strange way to the charm of Cole Porter. When I discovered that the artwork was created by none other than Philip Burke, I was gobsmacked. For context, Warhol was a fan of Philip Burke, whose work appeared in Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Time and Vogue. Burke would later go on to become a near in-house regular with Rolling Stone magazine, and his vivid explosions of color in his unmistakable portrait work would garner him international acclaim. The simplicity of the line work on the album cover for Night and Day captures the somewhat spartan sound on some of the songs while simultaneously conjuring the magic that allows us to hop right into a sparkling, elegant New York or London Town world of hip soirees, driving through cities, brimming with anticipation, elation, instantly transported.
Bat Out of Hell (1977)
This debut album from Meat Loaf is an all-around showstopper. Love him or hate him, he had the chops to blow the socks off many singers, and the sweetness in his sound to melt hearts. What I recall most about this series of songs from my youth is the wild world this artwork took me away to, on jagged wings. The cover art, depicting the image of a naked man on a motorcycle, a horse skeleton, a graveyard, beasts and a post-apocalyptic graveyard is bold, dynamic and terrifyingly beautiful. Meat Loaf's creative writing partner, Jim Steinman, is credited with the concept for the cover, which was illustrated by Richard Corben. Corben, who passed away in 2020, was a horror, fantasy and comic book artist, best known for his comics featured in Heavy Metal magazine.
The Grateful Dead
As legions of deadheads will tell you, The Grateful Dead were not necessarily known as a studio band, to say the least. I had the thrill of seeing The Dead when Jerry Garcia was alive roughly 50 times, no two shows were even remotely similar and they had the power to create a "group sound" that was truly inexplicable, with or without psychedelics. This cover art was created by legendary artist Rick Griffin, he captured the essence of the band's sound in shape and color. This cover would go on to define the band's stylistic graphic design for decades. The artwork is apparently adapted from a painting created as a concert poster for the band. The bottom portion depicts death, rebirth and the cycle of life, with fertility symbols and Egyptian-based imagery. The top depicts a sun which doubles as an egg being fertilized. Some fans swear that the hand lettering of "Grateful Dead" can also be read as "We Ate The Acid"—you be the judge.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
This wild collection of musical stories is a semi-autobiographical album about Elton John (Captain Fantastic) and his long-time creative writing partner Bernie Taupin (Brown Dirt Cowboy). The unbelievably intricate cover was created by pop artist Alan Aldridge, who based this brain explosion of imagery on the renaissance work of Hieronymus Bosch's masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights. Anyone familiar with Bosch's masterpiece will know of the controversy surrounding his depiction of surreal sexual pleasure, scatology and wonderfully depicted degenerate behavior. When the original album was released, it contained an actual poster inside of the full cover, in all of its glory—bizarre, trippy, fantastical and an invitation to enter a new planet.
Chronic Town (1982)
Their debut EP signaled a changing of the guard and a jangling sound that would forever be immortalized. The haunting image on the front of this album only surprised me after I listened to the music. On the outside, we see a seemingly bored, blue gargoyle with his tongue extended from his mouth, a photo shot by NYC based photographer Curtis Knapp. Upon opening the album, dropping the needle and experiencing this entirely new kind of sound, it is as though the body may in fact reject the transplant. Poetic musings, volcanic sounds; Stipe, Berry, Buck and Mills have nothing to lose, and you can hear it. I can hear the A&R pitch now: "Hey, how about a debut album from four random guys from Athens, Georgia, filled with trebly guitar songs about things like gardening at night, that lasts in its entirety 20 minutes and 26 seconds and has no photos of the band." Perfect! Bravo.
This double album featured tracks from the band's first three albums and is considered KISS's breakthrough recording. This album cover would prove to be the image that created the KISS Army—a loyal cult-like following of fans who would dress up like the band, do the kabuki style makeup and more than likely also helped create the most air bands in the history of popular music. Personally, this album art changed my life. It made me want to see live shows immediately. I looked at this image and knew I would see hundreds if not thousands of concerts in my lifetime. The album packaging featured a gatefold sleeve, a tour program with photos and handwritten notes from the four band members. As much as the front cover photo by Fin Costello blew my mind, the back cover image of two teenagers holding a handmade KISS sign, fists pumped in the air, in a packed arena filled with anticipation, smoke and beer, gives me chills to this day.
The Velvet Underground
Considered by many VU fans to officially be "the last" VU album. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker created a sound that would ultimately come to be known as the sound that inspired countless bands and musicians, and rightfully so. One of the most important bands in the history of music, albeit I may be biased here, they were part of a scene that churned out some mind-blowing art. By the time this album came out, Lou Reed had fired John Cale and brought in Doug Yule to replace him. It has become common knowledge that Lou wanted to create songs that had greater commercial possibility. Although this album failed to succeed commercially, it succeeded on so many levels, and the cover art is one of them. The artwork for the album, by Stanislaw Zagorski, features a drawing of the Times Square subway station entrance, with "downtown" misspelled as "dowtown." Zagorski, a Polish illustrator and painter, cut his teeth creating album covers for some of the jazz greats in the mid 1960s. I had the privilege of seeing VU live at Wembley Arena in 1993 on their "reunion tour," an evening I will never forget.
The Specials (1979)
It's hard to imagine a cover from this era that captures the feeling of a specific genre of music more than this iconic work of simple, minimal graphic art. A landmark moment in the U.K. ska scene, heralded by the force of nature sound, produced by Elvis Costello. The Specials' logo and overall look and feel, call them the brand guidelines—like most things to do with the original incarnation of the band—was dreamed up by Jerry Dammers (aka "The General"), who was the keyboard player, a vocalist and principal songwriter for the band. Dammers pushed The Specials to adopt the Mod / Rude Boy fashion culture and this look was in turn copped by the loyal legion of fans. Like the band's music, the cover has an attitude. The photo begs questions of the viewer, the black and white aesthetic speaks of the bleak U.K. times under Mrs. Thatcher, and the album would go on to make a major global statement. BlessUp.
It's Time (1964)
Nothing says timeless jazz classics and speaks for this historic genre of cover art style, like the graphic design of the inimitable Reid Miles. In this instance, McLean's alto saxophone screams and cries and bellows and begs and moans and seduces, while the cover art signals a heroic and brave departure in creative exploration. The simple typographic brilliance that blasted minimalism into the market in 1964 would herald an era in advertising, jacket covers and album covers, marked by a design style that would never go out of style. Breathtakingly beautiful.