As a kid born in the '70s, MTV and the rise of hip-hop shaped not only my taste in music but how I have worked for over 25 years in advertising. I've always been easily distracted. Music has been there to keep me on track. I remember my eldest brother was a huge rock and punk fan. He played the drums. Being seven years younger than him, I kind of just soaked up what he was listening to. I learned to appreciate early U2, the Police, R.E.M., that whole wave of the '80s, what I would call socially conscious rock. The punk, I never really could find joy in. For me, music has always been about two things: finding my focus, or finding my energy. As a creative and someone who got his start as a writer, I think I realize now that telling a story to a beat really is what I loved about the music I spent endless hours pumping through my headphones like I was trying to block out Vecna from Stranger Things. Music, and the artwork involved, continues to inspire me. Here are my top 10 album cover picks.
Kool & The Gang
I think this may have been the very first album I bought with "my own money." I used to nag my mom to play it while driving us all to school. I'm pretty sure she knew back then where my musical tastes were headed. She was a huge fan of the Moody Blues and Boy George, and my sister would always want to play Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. The design of the cover itself is amazing. The art direction feels relevant 40-plus years later. The over-saturation feels like an Instagram filter was used to create it.
Early U2 had such energy. From songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and then "New Year's Day," what a roller coaster ride this album was. I would sneak into my brother's room while he was gone, plop on some headphones and try to play the album on his drums. He knew how to play the drums. I did not. But you couldn't tell me I wasn't killing it. The simple and very powerful imagery, with the super desaturated image and the kid's piercing eyes, screams defiance and rebellion and even a bit of innocence lost.
I distinctly remember this album cover. The splashes of muted colors. The Police had an almost reggae-like vibe to them. Their music was so relaxing. I remember taking two tape decks and recording the album my brother had bought onto my own tape. The original Napster.
Sign O' the Times (1987)
I never considered myself a massive Prince fan. However, looking back at it, I must have listened to this album a thousand times while in middle school. He was in heavy rotation for my grades 6-8 soundtrack. This was an album that didn't fit into any one genre. The cover reflected that.
Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
Chuck D, that dude could make you feel every word he was spitting. They were talking about things 30 years ago that white America wasn't comfortable talking about. The cover was iconic. Simple and unapologetic.
A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders (1993)
This is one of the greatest albums of all time. It really was ahead of its time. I remember bumping this thing all night, every night, my sophomore year in college. The artwork on the cover was so dope. Fluid and fun.
Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (1993)
One of my all-time favorite albums. I still listen to this riding to work regularly. Such a smooth lyricist. The jazz elements he created found their way into tons of hip-hop albums moving forward. The typography and photography feel like a twist on Miles Davis/Birth of the Cool with a shot of grit thrown in for good measure.
I'm not sure there has ever been another album where I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time. I was in a 1980 white Ford Taurus with grey cloth seats sitting in my parents' driveway. The album title and artwork. This is a great example of art refusing to be forced into a box. Best album name EVER.
This might be my all-time favorite album cover, and the album ranks up there as well. "You know what the Midwest is. It's young and restless." Not sure anyone captured that time period better than Kanye.
Jack Johnson and Friends
Best of Kokua Festival (2012)
A whole different kind of vibe. When I say that my favorite albums take me to a place, few do so like this one. It's much more reflective than a lot of the stuff I listen to, there is a calming presence that his music possesses. While this might not be the most vibrant album cover, the unassuming type and color palette work well to set the stage for what's to come in a compelling album where no one is the star. My dad used to always listen to Sinatra after work as a way to relax. I think Sinatra did that for him. There is a groundedness to Jack Johnson that does that for me. Take that, Vecna!
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.