10 Great Album Covers, Chosen by Brendan Gillen of Boomshot

Steve Hiett, Sylvester, De La Soul and more

I've DJ'd and collected records ever since I got a pair of mail-order turntables for my 16th birthday. The first songs I learned to scratch to? "Breaker, Breaker" by GZA and "No Scrubs" by TLC. (Did this fact save me from teenage scrub-hood? Reader, it did not.)

At Boomshot, I'm a writer and director by trade. Whether it's for the US Open, ESPN, or Fox Sports + State Farm, the aim is always to find the best approach to tell a story in a way that will resonate and make people feel something. A good DJ seeks to achieve much the same thing.

Below are some records whose covers I love and which tell stories that make me feel something. At the very least, I hope you stumble on a song or two that adds a bright spot to your day.

Marcos Valle
Marcos Valle (1983)

I mean, c'mon. If this cover doesn't make you smile, I don't know what to tell you. So many questions. Are all those juices for Marcos? Which one is his favorite? Why is he wearing a t-shirt that resembles hospital scrubs? Is he vitamin C deficient? Somebody get him all of the juice. There also appears to be a glass straw on the table, which is very environmentally conscious for the early '80s. Sure, the storytelling is a little loose here, but if the artwork doesn't put you in a good mood, the music certainly will. Just cue up track A1, "Estrelar," blend up a smoothie or seven and let it ride.

Cover artists (my Portuguese is nonexistent, but as far as I can tell): Cosme de Oliviera, João Bosco, Tuninho de Paula

Tatsuro Yamashita
For You (1982)

Another album + art combo guaranteed to lift your mood. Eizin Suzuki, the artist responsible for this cover, was a cornerstone of the visual aesthetic for what has become widely known as City Pop, an infectious blend of soul, funk and R&B that swept Japan in the '80s. The artwork is sun-drenched and nostalgic and draws from the exchange of music, language, and culture between Tokyo and Los Angeles in the post-war years. For You is equally upbeat; if you need proof, the groove on "Love Talkin' (Honey It's You)" is so infectious it should come with a warning label. Holy slap-bass.

Cover artist: Eizin Suzuki

Steve Hiett
Down on the Road by the Beach (1983)

Steve Hiett is the Bo Jackson of music and photography—a beast in both fields. By the early '80s, Hiett had set aside his music dreams and became a well-known fashion photographer and art director, shooting for magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire. Not unlike the music on Down on the Road, his photos are dreamy, vibrant and enigmatic, and I love the rich blues he captured on 35mm. When a gallery in Tokyo offered Hiett a solo exhibition of his photos, he asked if he could include a 7" single of his music with the catalog. Long story short, CBS/Sony caught wind of the music and commissioned a whole album's worth, which became Down on the Road by the Beach. The album reached cult classic status and wasn't even available outside of Japan until the total heroes at Efficient Space reissued it in 2019, including a replica of the gallery photo book with physical copies. Can't recommend this record highly enough.

Cover artists: Steve Hiett, Masaru Kawahara, Malcolm Watt

A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory (1991)

I almost didn't include this one because I know it's been featured before, but screw it—The Low End Theory is on my short-short-shortlist for favorite album of all time. That it's adorned with one of the most iconic covers in hip-hop is icing on the cake. The "painted lady," which would become a touchstone of Tribe's visual language, is rendered in impressionistic brushstrokes that embody the jazz samples Tribe pioneered. And the red, black and green color palette is a calling card of the Afrocentric themes Tribe and their Native Tongues cohorts championed. Album art doesn't get much more perfect than this.

Cover Artists: Jean Kelly, Nick Gamma, Dave Skillken, Joe Grant

De La Soul
De La Soul is Dead (1991)

Speaking of Native Tongues, here's an example of a group using bold artwork to take control of their identity and narrative. After De La released their debut, Three Feet High and Rising, the cover of which was decked out in daisies and Day-Glo, journalists and industry-types typecast the group as "hip hop hippies," which cheapened the brilliance and depth of their music. With De La Soul is Dead, a much darker and more contemplative record, De La quite literally killed the hippie narrative that was at least partially responsible for their success and proved they were willing to take risks in the name of creative control and authenticity. Boss move. RIP Dave "Trugoy" Jolicoeur.

Cover Artists: Mark Weinberg, Joseph Buckingham

Someone Like You 12" single (1986)

On the flip side of the Day-Glo coin is this beauty. Keith Haring only provided artwork for a handful of records, and this one is probably my favorite (David Bowie's Without You is a close second). As a DJ, it represents everything you strive for: sharing a song that gets everyone moving, exchanging good energy, and having fun together. I'd like to think Keith played the record over and over in his studio as he painted the cover because it's about as ecstatic as the song. If you've seen my face wedged in a Zoom square at any point recently, you've seen this record lurking in the background.

Cover artist: Keith Haring

New Order
Technique (1989)

Welp, a discussion of album art wouldn't be complete without Peter Saville, the co-founder and art director of massively influential Factory Records. His most famous artwork has gotta be the pulsar lines on Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, but my pick is this New Order cover, which just might be my favorite album of theirs too. Power, Corruption & Lies is killer, don't get me wrong, but this one just pulls me in. Apparently, Saville found the cherub, which is a garden statue, at an antique shop in London, and photographed it as an ironic representation of the drug-fueled hedonism of the music scene of the late '80s. Did I Google that? Yes. Did I pick up on any of it? Lol, no. But the candy colors, which look almost heat-sensitive, are totally rad, and that's enough for me.

Cover artists: Peter Saville, Trevor Key

Madvillainy (2004)

This one has been featured before as well, and for good reason—an iconic hip-hop cover and a desert island record for me. What I love about it, aside from MF DOOM glaring at us from the shadows of his famous metal mask, is the pop of orange in the right-hand corner. It's as though that little orange box tips the artwork off-balance in the most perfect way, a visual corollary to DOOM's brilliantly off-kilter rhyme schemes. You could listen to this album every day and still pick up on a new entendre or metaphor. As a writer, I'm in total awe of DOOM's brilliance. Also, I'm going to try to convince my girlfriend that we should hang a framed, poster-ass-sized version of this artwork in our new apartment. Wish me luck.

Cover artists: Eric Coleman, Jeff Jank

Mos Def
The Ecstatic (2009)

This might quietly be Mos Def's best record. And the cover is beautiful. It's a still frame from Charles Burnett's 1978 film, Killer of Sheep, a portrait of a Black family living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Stan, the head of the family, is a sensitive man who works at a slaughterhouse and grows weary of the brutality of his day-to-day. He finds solace in the little things at home—a warm cup of coffee, tender moments with his wife and children—but the still image of a boy playing unsupervised and jumping from rooftop to rooftop encapsulates the inequality at the core of the film and at the core of much of Mos Def's music.

Cover artist: Charles Burnett

Esther Phillips
From a Whisper to a Scream (1971)

Did I agonize about which album to include to round out this list? Oh, you bet. But here we are. Kudu was an offshoot of Creed Taylor's legendary jazz label, CTI, which has a bunch of killer covers in its own right. And I do admire Kudu's visual identity, which often featured a black border, bold color blocking, and elegant portrait photography. But the real reason I'm including this record is that I think it's super overlooked, and encourage you to check it out. I first discovered it by way of "That’s All Right With Me," which Mobb Deep sampled on "Give Up the Goods," which is an awesome slow burner for spring time. There's also a bit of music lore attached to the record: At the 1972 Grammys, Aretha Franklin graciously tried to give Esther Phillips the award she won for Young, Gifted, and Black because she felt this album deserved it more. Pretty good endorsement! And props to Human Head records in Bushwick, my favorite record store in the city, for having it in the bins.

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.

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