I love music and I love design. But 40 years ago, I only knew I loved music.
I would visit the local record stores in Cleveland and buy albums based on one song, without ever hearing another track. My "best" friends would laugh and say things like: "Why don't you just buy the 45?" "Save your money." "Don't be an idiot." But I didn't want two songs and a paper sleeve. I wanted 11 songs and a piece of art. Something to hold in my hands and look at while I listened to the music. And if you include that "new album smell" (which I do), four of my five senses were firing on all cylinders. What a rush. (Sorry, sense of taste, "sweet licks" is only for the ears.)
The majority of my list is from the '80s, for two reasons. One, I'm a human and early experiences left an indelible impression on my brain. I can't always remember what I saw yesterday, but I can vividly remember the first time I heard "Freeze Frame" by the J. Geils Band. Which brings me to reason two: These albums subconsciously launched my love for art, design and typography. For example, by the mid-'90s, I was graduating with a master's in design and my theseis centered around music. I wanted people to visually experience a song. So I created music videos without sound—similar to an album cover, but the imagery and typography were in motion. And then, boom, my design career was launched.
These covers were part of my foundation for clean, simple, smart design (with a splash of WTF). So without further ado, here are 10 covers that left a lasting impression on me. (Start your synth now.)
Designer: Gary Mouat
90125, not to be confused with 90210 (sorry, Jason Priestley fans), was one of my favorite albums growing up. In 1983, MTV frequently played "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and I instantly became a big fan of the song and band. After I bought the album, I soon grew to love every track. The album was always lying somewhere in my room where I could see it, and the simple, clean cover graphics subconsciously dripped into my brain. The curved "Y" that surrounds the primary color pie truly owned my lonely heart when I was a kid. Compared to previous Yes album illustrations by Roger Dean, this album art gave the band the modern design they were looking for, thanks to designer Gary Mouat and his Apple IIe. It was such a contemporary look (from a 1980s perspective, of course).
And now for a bit of "Cliff Clavin from Cheers" trivia: Initially, this band was only a portion of Yes, so they called themselves Cinema. So instead of the curved "Y"on the cover, it was a "C". But then another old Yes member joined the crew and the Yes majority outweighed the new guys, so they reverted back to the name, Yes. YES! So they took that "C" and simply turned it on its side and a line was added to make it a "Y." All thanks to Apple IIe's state-of-the-'80s-art technology. Graphic design is so easy, right?
Artist + Type Design: Roger Dean
Speaking of Yes and Roger Dean, here's Asia—a rock supergroup made up of a couple of Yes members and a few other '80s dreamboat rockers. For this debut, they used the famed album cover artist Roger Dean, who switched up his signature fantasy landscape (see Yes albums before 90125) for this illustration of a sea serpent and orb. He could've stopped at the serpent, but he was like, "I'm going to add an orb, too." So badass. The blue colors and angular type treatment not only appealed to my inner dungeon master, but also got me excited to draw angular typefaces in my math notebook.
Artist: Bill Smith
Time to bring out my inner American Psycho and celebrate my love for this band, and more specifically, this extremely abstract cover art design. The idea was to be as abstract as the song "Abacab." And to me, it succeeds. I love its simplicity. The natural sophistication of it. I love how the ripped Pantone paper and hand-drawn letters look as if the page was torn right out of a sketchbook (which I believe it was). And how the vertically written, all-lowercase album title adds to the balance. It really lets the viewer make their own interpretation. Mine is simple: Genesis rules.
True Colours (1980)
Design: Noel Crombie
Since we're on the topic of abstract and graphic, check out this cover design by Split Enz. If I remember correctly, there were 11 different color combinations produced—with black and white being the rarest (and coolest). I love the minimal design. And I spent hours of my childhood puzzling the geometric shapes together into letterforms, trying to visualize "Split Enz" somewhere in there. Or is it just "Enz"? I guess we'll never know.
Photography: Richard Croft
Design: Michael Nash Associates
The clean, sophisticated cover was a brilliant way to introduce Seal to the world. This cover won't be getting lost on any shelves. Minimal design at its finest. It has my "seal" of approval. (Sorry, couldn't help it.)
High 'n' Dry (1981)
"Bringing on the Heartbreak" was my gateway to this badass rock album. And yes, it was a power ballad. As funny as it is to picture my younger self emoting to a power ballad, it's not nearly as funny as the cover art. It was designed by Hipgnosis, who were well-known for their visual puns (High 'n' Dry, get it?) and overall silliness. I love the juxtaposition of the black-and-white, 1950s-style theater audience with the color photo of a man diving into an empty pool. As for the random mustaches, that's just pre-Photoshop at its finest.
Behind the Sun (1985)
Art: Larry Vigon
The organic nature of this painted typography breathes a warmth and humanity that you don't get with digital type. The typography is literally the art and primary performer on the cover. It's so well done, you can almost hear the words. This is one of my favorite album covers of all time. Not to mention, Phil Collins has some flawless synthesizer work on this album. I mean, what can't he do?? (Other than dance, apparently.)
LL Cool J
Design: Steve Byram
Photography: Josh Cheuse and Janette Beckman
13-year-old me thought LL was the coolest. Present-day me kind of of agrees. He was only a couple years older than me, so the release of this album had a profound impact. For starters, he had the giant radio I always wanted on the front. AND he was sporting Air Jordans (which I also always wanted) on the back. So cool. Today, I look at this album and it's less about the products and more about the graphic, structured crop of the radio—which is almost cooler than the man himself.
Artwork: Steve Maher
I'm not sure what drew me to supergroups, but if I had to to guess, it was because they're super. (And Jimmy Page.) In the '80s, there wasn't much graphic 3-D type treatment out there. So I really appreciate this. It looks like it was perfectly cut out of a block of ice. Or chrome. Or maybe some kind of "radioactive" material (yikes!). Regardless, the ahead-of-its-time design rocked my mind—even though this supergroup didn't stay together a super long time.
Art Direction: Len Peltier
Photography: Mark Seliger
Ok, this isn't from the 1980s, but I can't help but love the layout. This crop screams "I'm Lenny and I'm so cool, I don't even need to be totally in the shot. In fact, I'm going to slouch in this backseat and then ask the designer to complement the photo with a simple single character: 5." So minimal, yet so bold. Years later, I was introduced to one of my favorite campaigns: the Miller High Life "High Life Man" commercials, directed by Errol Morris. They reminded me of this album. And that framing is everything.