This was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I bought a metric ton of records as a kid, up through when I DJ'ed in my late teens (not the sexy stuff … mostly school dances and weddings). But for reasons I can't fully explain, I don't have most of those records now. That's why picking my 10 favorite album covers was tough. It required a lot of memory jogging and Googling. I think I got there, though.
Many of these are album covers that reached out and grabbed me as a young kid—I think that's when most of us are wide open to being moved by these images that intrigue or perplex us. A few are more contemporary. All have merit as stand-alone works of art.
News of the World (1977)
This is one that prompted so many questions in my young brain. What happened here, exactly? Is that a robot? Why did he seem so sad about whatever he'd done? I also remember just staring into his eyes, then at the drop of blood on his middle finger … then back to the eyes … back and forth … looking for answers. I learned later that this was based on an existing piece from 1953 by Frank Kelly Freas from an issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The caption under the original piece was "Please … fix it, Daddy?"
Island Life (1985)
This was intriguing to an adolescent J Bonilla for fairly obvious reasons at first glance. But well beyond that, this is an absolutely stunning work of art. And like most of the covers I'm drawn to, it prompts questions. One might be unsure if this is a photo of Grace, a painting, or a sculpture. And why is the microphone plugged into the wall like a toaster or coffee maker would be (that's not how mics work, right)? Well, it's not really a painting, and definitely not a sculpture. It's a composite of photos of the scene from different angles, by controversial photographer (and Jones' lover) Jean-Paul Goude. Describing the process, Goude explained: "I cut her legs apart, lengthened them, and turned her body completely to face the audience … then I started painting, joining up all those pieces to give the illusion that … she was capable of assuming such a position."
Highway to Hell (1979)
I grew up in a very Christian household, so AC/DC records weren't coming within 50 yards of the house. But I remember first seeing a poster of this album art on my bud Matt's bedroom wall when I was about 9 years old. I had this guttural instinct to bolt for his front door and sprint home, away from this evil. That depraved sneer on Angus' face. Those horns. The tail! I stayed, because I was also wildly intrigued by the imagery. It turned out Matt had the album, too, which was just as good its wonderfully wicked cover.
Tom Tom Club
Genius of Love (1981)
When I started DJ'ing in my late teens, I walked into the local record store and told the guy behind the counter I was a new-ish DJ and needed some good stuff to round out my crates. He asked if I had Genius of Love. I didn't. He shook his head in disgust and walked me over to it in the stacks. This became one of my favorite album covers done in this busy, hand-drawn, folk-art style (The Beatles' Revolver is up there, too).
A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders (1993)
This album was released with three different versions of the cover. Each version had a different color border, with a unique set of artists on each. Pretty original concept. It was also released at a time when there were serious regional beefs in hip-hop. So, it was hailed as a great attempt at "cultural unity" in the hip-hop community. I remember being very drawn to the painting—the main bit of continuity throughout the three iterations of the cover, and a continuation of a visual theme started in their previous album, The Low End Theory. The image is Afrocentric, evocative, and not the least bit forgettable.
Awaken, My Love! (2016)
This is easily one of the most visceral pieces of imagery on a mainstream album cover in many years. I could just stare. Is this anguish on her face? Some type of joy? This provocation isn't surprising from an artist like Childish Gambino, who's been pushing envelopes in the visual mediums that accompany his music like almost no other relevant contemporary artist.
The Number of the Beast (1982)
Now, back to 10-year-old J, whose mind is completely blown by this cover. There's the devil! This guy I'd heard about in church—he's staring me down, and every bit as scary as they say. And who's that other big guy? I don't remember hearing about him. So many questions. There were so many Iron Maiden album covers that blew my mind. Most of them, really. The artist that created all those hellscapes, Derek Riggs, really knew how to reach out and grab us.
This had it all for young J. It was the perfect visual representation of the rebellious desires starting to pulse through me at 10 or 11. And this year, 1984 (in combination with 1983), was arguably the pinnacle of pop music in the 20th century—think Thriller, Purple Rain, Like a Virgin. Among all those monster releases, this album was the biggest monster of them all for me. I drummed as hard as I could to these songs in my garage back then, trying to mimic Alex Van Halen. And this naughty little rockabilly cherub on the cover somehow represented every kid in the world for a moment.
Head Hunters (1973)
My dad is a guitarist and introduced me to jazz fusion when I was pretty young. I didn't own this album until later in life, but I remember being struck by the boldness of the colors and a bit vexed by the creature that Herbie had apparently become. I enjoy launching off on a bit of research now and then about album covers that intrigue me, but in this case I'm going to let the story behind that creature remain a mystery.
(later retitled Santigold)
Hey, it's mixed medium! Such a simple, effective idea and execution on this cover. It just stands out. It makes it fairly clear that she has something to say, and that it'll be a treat.