From punk rock to spiritual jazz, music has the power to be profound, and its album covers serve as canvases for the musician's inner psyche. Whether windows into the album's story or—as is the theme for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here—what may be missing, covers that stand the test of time prove themselves hypnotizing, drawing the eye and future listener as powerfully as any work of art.
Wish You Were Here (1975)
There's so much that's already been said about this masterpiece from the Pink Floyd canon, musically. The album serves as one part homage and one-part send-off album to early Floyd collaborator Syd Barrett. I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock by way of my boomer parents, but Pink Floyd went into deeper, stranger territory, and this was an album that greatly influenced what sounds my ears were open to.
Fast forward twenty-plus years and I'm working as a director at a production agency and now what intrigues me about this album isn't related to the music at all. This album cover was photographed by longtime Pink Floyd collaborator Hipgnosis, led by Storm Thorgerson. After many listens Hipgnosis had boiled down the entire record to one conceptual word: "absence."
Storm wanted to shoot it on location at the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles. There's so much to unpack here. The symbolism of a "handshake deal," the vapidness of the entertainment industry, and how the man on fire is actually burning the edge of the photo. When asked about the location, Thorgerson and designing partner Aubrey "Po" Powell explained it's "the land of make-believe; where nothing is real and all is absent."
After all these years, I'm still peeling back the layers of this masterpiece.
Jean Jacques Perrey
Moog Indigo (1970)
This album first caught my attention only because of the cover art. This prismatic beautiful woman, donning a head scarf and seemingly endless confidence, felt like some sort of After Effects masterpiece. However, this was from 1970, predating Adobe, the computer, and so on.
It wasn't till years later that I fell in love with Moog synthesizers, BBC library music and all forms of early electronica. This album leans more fun/kooky than experimental, which at the time led it to be considered something that was more for kids than praised for its oddness. It wasn't until 20 years later that it was re-discovered by record diggers and sampled by the likes of Gangstarr, Fatboy Slim, and Pusha T.
While researching this album art, I discovered that there is no photographer or design company that is credited for this album art. The world may never know how this image was created and I'm embracing the mystery of it all.
A Tribe Called Quest
Low End Theory (1991)
In addition to this being my favorite hip-hop album of all time, the simplicity, beauty, and colors on this album cover have become synonymous with this record for me. This is a photograph by Joe Grant and the design by Zombart. The Day-Glo text accentuates the model's lower end while black dominates the cover, making it pop even further. The samples on this record alone make it worth another listen.
Future Shock (1983)
I had this record as a kid. It was phenomenally fun, lighthearted and had such a funky groove to it. Years later, I realized how cool it was that "Rockit" is the first recorded song in history with a record scratch in it. The album art was created by David Em, a pioneer in digital art and painting. He designed systems before home computers existed to create digital art. After learning that, it makes perfect sense that Herbie and David collaborated on three records together—pioneers in sound and vision.
The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)
This still holds up as the Psych Rock Opera of my time. This album art is a glimpse into the storytelling you are about to experience. Frontman Wayne Coyne not only wrote the lyrics and part of the music for this opus, but he also painted the cover. The Obi strip was designed by George Salisbury to make it feel like a Japanese book. In this interview, Wayne says: "I think I'm a visual artist who is lucky enough to be in a crazy, almost absurdist art rock band that is endlessly in need of something visual."
This sophomore release is one of the greatest sound-defining records of my youth. It takes influences from so many genres and still stands as a singularly unique sounding album. Björk convinced producer Nelle Hooper (who produced her first record, Debut) to produce Post, but only if she could add in some more producers to keep it fresh. Those included 808 States, Graham Massey and Tricky. She moved from Iceland to London and this new set of sounds, ideas and influences really laid the groundwork for a lifelong career of exploration and collaboration for her.
The cover art was another big step from her freshman release, Debut, evolving from a pure and simple black and white photo to this bold, colorful and powerful portrait. The album cover was shot by Stephane Sednaoui and designed by Paul White.
The Way Out (2010)
This is a left-field LP that's a blend of samples and folk-based instruments that come together as a whimsical sound collage. I don't think this is an easy listen for most people, but I wanted to include it as the album art is completely unique. This LP comes with just the title lettering as outlines. It also comes with 36 die-cut stickers for the owner to decorate the front cover in their own way. It gives me the paint-by-numbers and colorform vibes and I kinda love it.
Brown Rice (1975)
This record is something I discovered more recently as I got deeper into spiritual jazz. Don Cherry seemingly had three chapters in his musical career: He played in the Ornette Coleman quartet, a wild free jazz and experimental era and finally this record launched his next chapter, world/spiritual jazz. Brown Rice might be a literal pivot point for his sounds and openness to incorporate influences from around the world. This album is hypnotizing and has a pulsating rhythm that carries you through its four songs.
The original release had a childlike drawing on the cover, which I also love, but this photo is so powerful to me. The colors and the slight flash on his face really pulls him off the background and illuminates his already vibrant clothes. Behind him are the Watts Towers, which is public art sculpture in Watts, California, near where Cherry lived as a child. The towers give off a sense of mystery and otherworldliness that fully match the music inside.
D'Angelo And The Vanguard
Black Messiah (2014)
With each repeated listen, I continue to peel back the layers of this album, which took D'Angelo over 14 years to complete. I think it will be considered one of the most meaningful releases for the plight of the Black man in America, right up there with "What’s Goin On" by Marvin Gaye and "There's A Riot Going On" by Sly & The Family Stone.
The album art was photographed by Barron Claiborne and evokes the feelings of standing together. The album also contains vocal samples from Fred Hampton and Khalid Abdul Muhammad, both chairmen of the Black Panther Party. This black and white image makes the struggle seem timeless. It could be from the '50s or '60s, or it could be from a George Floyd March, six years after this album was finally shared with the world.
MM Food (2004)
This is a masterpiece. Written, rapped and produced by the man with the mask on his face and many aliases: Viktor Vaughn, Metal Face, King Geedorah and Zev Love X. This album stands on its own as a front-to-back listen. It's a deep dive into the mastermind behind the mask; a recluse with an MPC sampler and a rhyme flow that is still unmatched.
MM Food is also an anagram of MF DOOM. The album art is a painting by Jason Jagel and art directed by Stones Throw's art director, Jeff Jank. The painting is titled "Part Of A Complete Breakfast" and originally had Doom's character smoking a blunt, which was removed for the release.