10 Great Album Covers, Chosen by James Kirkham of ICONIC

Primal Scream, Massive Attack, Bob Dylan and more

Just looking at some of these covers is like time travel. You're immediately transported to sights, sounds, feelings, emotions and friendships long forgotten. Even before you've heard a single bar or beat from any of the records, the very visual is so evocative and something of a forgotten past. We can all agree that they simply have less of a standing now in the era of Spotify and streaming platforms. It is nobody's fault, just as the endless infinite convenience of these platforms is like magic then perhaps something was always going to give. But there was a benefit in the finite. You'd re-look at covers again and again. You'd place them deliberately at the top of piles of records or CDs as you might have wanted a certain band seen first by others. You'd look longingly into the cover as you listen to the whole album, searching for more meaning without the instant gratification of the internet to assist you. The covers are windows to a different time, a beautiful artwork tardis which moves you to a moment in your own distant memory. Beautiful and so meaningful.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997)

This cover stands up and managed to capture the feeling of '90s overblown excess bordering on the surreal. Damian Hirst had opened a west London restaurant called Pharmacy with packets of tablets and artwork of medicine adorning the walls. This masterpiece of an album too came packaged looking just like medicine, with the CD itself sealed under foil inside a plastic bubble. It felt like unwrapping some kind of audio pain killer. As a student finishing a graphic design degree at the time, I obviously adored it.

Primal Scream
Screamadelica (1991)

This just feels like an emblem for ecstasy, the anointed symbol of acid house. It is so simple, yet so incredibly evocative. It feels so uplifting and sun-drenched, and all the more amazing as it arguably has the most humble origins of all the artwork here. The album cover for Screamadelica was painted by Creation Records' in-house artist Paul Cannell. Comically, unbelievably, Cannell was inspired by a damp water spot he'd seen on the Creation Records offices ceiling after taking LSD. Yet it became so iconic, it was made into a Royal Mail stamp.

Massive Attack
Mezzanine (1998)

Nick Knight's photographic masterpiece is like a twisted, nightmarish, dystopian cyborg insect. It was as dark, brooding and atmospheric as the sonics of the album, a world away from the soul of "Blue Lines," this had the feel of a post-Britpop hangover in full effect.

Duran Duran
Rio (1982)

Is there a more '80s album cover? The cover artwork designed by Malcolm Garrett felt utterly inspirational for every graphic designer in the decades that followed. Painted by Patrick Nagel, the original thinking of the ensemble was to resemble that of 1950s cigar packaging, although this is not immediately apparent. Regardless, it is considered one of the greatest of all time. 

Sonic Youth
Goo (1990)

Raymond Pettibon's design was much mimicked and parodied and adorns a million t-shirts and bedroom wall posters. The American hand-drawn artwork is based on a newspaper photograph of Maureen Hindley and David Smith, key witnesses in the 1966 Moors Murders trial—with the stark black and white drawing juxtaposed with mysterious comic-book style dialogue, making for a perfectly arresting and impactful cover. 

Sex Pistols
Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols (1977)

Jamie Reid's god like graphic design, as informed by one of the greatest ever music marketeers (Malcolm McLaren) and original stylists (Vivienne Westwood). Quite the alchemic combination. This was their only studio album, and the cover will surely never be beaten. An impact which launched an entire movement, a new music era, informed language and changed society. The rich color scheme is still being given glowing references year after year, whether it be this season's radiant Glitterbox disco artwork or Intro's infamous Primal Scream's Swastika Eye's cover. The powerful resonating effect of Never Mind The Bollocks seems to last forever. Absolutely incredible. 

The Clash
London Calling (1979)

Photography by Pennie Smith was everything here, capturing the guitar smashing moment which feels now so synonymous with the band. But the use of color and typography in Ray Lowry's design lifted it still further. Some say this precise combination of the "moment" and essence so beautifully shot is perfectly befitting of The Clash themselves, as they briefly were, but would never be again. 

Bob Dylan
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

The album cover features a photograph of Dylan with his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, walking together in New York City. I particularly loved the nod to this given such prominence in the 2001 remake of Vanilla Sky, where a recreation was done by Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz's characters, used as a key part of the movie's reveal. They spoke in the film just as fans see the cover, of an incredibly nostalgic moment, a beautiful dreamy wistful passage of time which you want to last forever. Photographed by Columbia Records studio photographer Don Hunstein, this is less about design and more the impact of a single shot—surmising a moment, the feeling of a decade or even an era for a nation.

The Beatles
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Peter Blake's masterpiece. It is so ingrained in our psyche you need to stop and see it all over again for the first time. Like viewing the Mona Lisa, so ubiquitous, so recognized, so mimicked and parodied a million times since. What is wonderful are the stories of the concept: Blake has said that the intention was to show a new band surrounded by fans after a performance in the park. This was that scene, with the Beatles standing in front of cardboard cut-outs of these "fans." Surreal, colorful, '60s psychedelic goodness which will forever be imprinted onto the fabric of our culture. 

Parklife (1994)

The antidote to grunge and American influence. The antithesis of that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden scene. This was the epitome of a new '90s "England." An update to the Kink's '60s poetry of a forgotten London, Parklife was dog tracks, betting shops, Cockney rhyming slang, pie and pints, Hackney marshes, jellied eels and everything in between. The front cover of greyhound racing was actually taken at Romford Stadium, Essex, by sports photographer Bob Thomas and has become the enduring iconic image of '90s Britpop.

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.

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