For me, album artwork is as important as the music that is pressed on the vinyl. It is one of the key elements that can take a project from good to classic and maybe, if you are lucky, iconic. Yeah, I am about to nerd out with 10 projects that made an impression on me.
With so many great albums, pulling 10 is not so easy. I scratched my head as I put this list together and asked myself, what about album artwork that was designed before Macs came into the game? Or when formats changed from vinyl to cassette to compact disc? The graphic designer has less real estate to pull off their magic.
Anyway, for me, I am always a fan first and the whole package matters. The artwork, credits, mastering along with sequencing of tracks matter. To all my fellow music heads, I look forward to reading and learning from your lists. Let's get it, 2021!
The Black Keys
Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (2006)
Fat Possum Records
Like the opening of a Bond film, the colors of yellow and orange shoot out of the revolver on the cover of Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. Dan Auerbach's vocals and guitar playing are scary good with Patrick Carney keeping it all together with drums and percussion. Patrick's brother Michael is the one who came up with this incredible artwork concept. This project is a perfect example of stumbling on truth. The Black Keys' tribute to Junior Kimbrough is raw and to the bone. I would have never learned of Junior Kimbrough if it weren't for Chulahoma. "Keeping Your Hands Off Her," "Meet Me in the City," and "Nobody but You," when playing loud anywhere, are like having your own theme music.
Rage Against the Machine
The first time I laid eyes on the Rage Against the Machine artwork, my instant reaction was, WTF? At the time I was living in Seattle in the middle of a Northwest music explosion they called grunge. The image on the cover of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc on fire makes you pause and wonder, what the hell is this? You immediately understand you are in a different mindset when you hear the opening "Bombtrack." This project blows your hair back and gets the blood moving. Big ups to the team that put this project together. From sequencing of tracks to the artwork and credits. A great nugget in the CD booklet is the statement, "No samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record." Signed, the "Guilty Parties."
The Chronic (1992)
Death Row Records/Interscope
The Chronic changed the game. The simplicity is what makes the cover art great. It hits on two levels (pun intended). Those who roll their own could relate to the "Zig Zag" reference. Out of all the genres of music, I believe metal fans along with rap/hip-hop fans are true to their genres knowing when someone is trying to get over. So when Dr. Dre and Death Row dropped The Chronic, they were telling the streets and the industry this album here … is DOPE! That was huge for Death Row's first artist album and even bigger for Interscope, which was on the verge of closing its doors. The so-called leaders of the industry claimed rap was just a fad. So when you drop the needle on the record and the PFUNK hits you on "Dre Day" with your head knockin', you too will agree, "Hell yeah, this is dope!"
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
If any album applies to what is going on in the world today, it is The Lonesome Jubilee. The image on the cover was captured at Midway Tavern in Elnora, Indiana, by photographer Skeeter Hagler. The gentlemen sitting next to Mellencamp at the bar is Woody Baker, a local welder and metal fabricator. He had no idea who John Mellencamp was. In this image, it seems to me a young Mellencamp is lost in thought, pondering what the future holds, while next to him is the elderly everyday man whose expression is of a hardworking life. Together the image is The Lonesome Jubilee. "Paper in Fire," "Down and Out in Paradise," "The Real Life," "Cherry Bomb" and "Empty Hands" are songs everyone can relate to. Cheers, and here's to you, Woody!
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Pee-Chee folders, pencil fighting, making your own book covers and passing notes in class were the elements of my middle-school years. The carved-up school desk in the image of Lauryn Hill takes me right back. The sequence of tracks is sharp, like the #2 pencil on that carved-up desktop. From the intro of the teacher taking roll call, this project flawlessly takes you through each track like a great teacher takes you through class subjects. The vignettes are nice segue nuggets, like the moments you had between classes. For me it is always the whole package. Like a great book, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill takes you on a sonic ride while you enjoy the artwork and credits. Like Biggie said, "If you don't know, now you know!"
Earth, Wind & Fire
All 'n All (1977)
EW&F album artwork is like looking at a comic book and having the anticipation of what sonic adventure awaits. As a kid, when my mother would clean house, she would always spin music and place the album jacket in front of the stereo. With my feet hanging over the couch, she would have me read out loud the credits, lyrics, etc. With questions like "Who played what instruments on the song?" "Who wrote the song?" "Where was it recorded?" "Who did the artwork?" Little did I know I was getting schooled with music knowledge that I use every day. Fast forward a few decades, and I would get the opportunity to work with Ralph Johnson of EW&F quarterbacking his project Audio Caviar. Making sure artwork, credits, production and product were on point. As a thank you, I was a guest of Mr. Johnson at a EW&F show. Before the curtains raised, Mr. Johnson invited me on stage with the rest of the band to join the prayer circle. To the left of me was Phillip Baily, to the right were Ralph Johnson and Verdine White. Needles to say it was a surreal moment, and the only thought going through my mind was my mother having me read the album credits as a little boy. Thank you, Mom … miss you.
Buena Vista Social Club
World Circuit/Nonesuch Records
"Music is a treasure hunt. You dig and dig and sometimes you find something. In Cuba, the music flows like a river. It takes care of you and rebuilds you from the inside out." —Ry Cooder
God bless Ry Cooder for bringing Buena Vista Social Club to the masses. Ibrahim Ferrer puffing on a cigarette as he walks through a Cuban neighborhood with apartment buildings in the background along with kids playing is such a strong image. You can almost smell the food cooking, hear the kids playing and music coming from the apartments. Like the ring band around a cigar, the Buena Vista Social Club jewel box has a cardboard sleeve that slides right off. The sleeve holds the jewel box as well as the 47-page booklet. The paper quality of the booklet is top shelf, like a fine wine label texture. In the booklet are great pictures, and each song is given its own brief description on its origin and the recording session. Across from the description, the lyrics are printed in Spanish and English. You don't have to understand the language just feel the music. "El Cuarto De Tula" features Julienne Oviedo Sanchez on timbales, who was just 13 at the time this track was recorded. "Dos Gardenias" stabs you right in the heart. This piece was arranged by Isolina Carillio in the 1930s. Ibrahim Ferrer just kills it and "Candela" is straight fire. Buena Vista Social Club is a must for any audiophile's collection.
You already know what time it is when you hear the words "Jordan," "Kobe," "Madonna" and "Aretha." So like a true audiophile, when you hear the word Tapestry ... you already know. Carole King has blessed us with so many songs for our life's soundtrack. Tapestry, to me, is one of those projects that every time you feel it you are hearing it for the first time. Tapestry opening up with "I Feel the Earth Move"—such a great song, and the piano playing is just bananas. The cover art is just a cool, simple shot of Carole on the window ledge with her cat Telemachus, taken by rock 'n' roll photographer Jim McCrary. I think I dig the cover because she reminds me of my sitter as a kid. "It's Too Late" is the song that you max the volume and just let the music take you. If you cannot feel this song, I hate to inform you are dead inside. "You've Got a Friend." "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" C'mon, game over. Not to mention James Taylor on acoustic guitar and background vocals on this album. To sum up, Tapestry it is simply iconic!
Talking Book (1972)
Talking Book is one of my all-time favorites. The credit goes to my mother for the musical insight. As a little boy I remember asking her why there are "bumps" on the album jacket. The original pressing of Talking Book came with braille on the jacket. That is when my mother broke it down what braille was and how special Stevie Wonder is. This album has heater after heater. "Maybe Your Baby," "You and I," "Tuesday Heartbreak" (Denice Williams background vocals, David Sandborn alto sax), "Superstition," "I Believe" and "Blame It on the Sun" in my opinion should be on every greatest hits package. I later learned that the braille on the jacket reads, "Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong."
The Mood: Soundsational (2006)
This album makes my list because I busted my butt to help get it from the studio to the record store shelf. The artwork is a throwback tribute to the Ohio Players. The Mood: Sounsational was a really exciting project to be a part of. Witnessing how hard artists work in the studio to get their vision recorded inspires you to bring your A game to the project. Bobby and IZ gave me the room to move and do what I needed to in order to make The Mood: Soundsational happen. The packaging indeed reflects what is on the album—simply classic. Producing the likes of Usher, Gwen Stefani, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mary J. Blige the Avila Brothers, I have a track record of 28 album titles and 32 million albums sold worldwide.