I love album art. I love it as much as I love the music itself. I love it so much in fact, that back when I was riddling my parent's computer with virus-embedded music downloaded from Limewire, I would meticulously download the corresponding album art to every song so that my iPod wouldn't have that horrible grey music note square image. In my eyes, the art completes the music.
Album art sells the music, sure, but it also makes statements, epitomizes/pushes genres, creates visceral reactions... you name it. Below are 10 album covers (in no particular order) that do some, if not all of that. They might not be the greatest of all time, but they're pretty great.
L.O.T.I.O.N. Multinational Corporation
W.A.R. In the Digital Realm (2022)
Definitely one of my favorite bands from the DIY scene in New York. Led by Alexander Heir (who designs all of their covers and started the Death Traitors brand), the band blends dystopian themes and fiercely political lyrics with electronic and hardcore music while creating a truly cyberpunk world that speaks to a lot of the anxieties about our relationship with technology that I have.
This cover is one of my favorites ever. It’s kind of cheesy, with the huge server-type looking things in the lower right corner, a massive mushroom cloud and two destructive forces of the military and technology giving each other a stern handshake. In spite of that, the contrast between the inherent nihilism of the subject matter and the colorful style of illustration create a strong tension and point of view that yanks you in. It’s like the poster of a really, really good b-movie. "Cybernetic Super Lover" is a banger, you should listen to it.
Floral Shoppe (2011)
Anyone who had two Tumblrs knows this album. Most people know it because of Lisa Frank 420 (aka that one vaporwave song), and listening to it for the first time was such a defining moment of my college experience, and actually motivated me to learn how to use Photoshop so that I could make vaporwave art. When I first saw it, the combination of the Pepto-Bismol pink, bright green lettering, checkerboard floor and sterile-looking bust of Helios was like... weirdly nostalgic but also extremely critical. An incredible exercise in satire, anytime I look at it now I’m reminded of how ultimately silly our society is.
Unknown Pleasures (1979)
It's a bummer what happened to Ian Curtis because Joy Division was such a good band, and New Order was just not as good after Movement. Unknown Pleasures is such an absurdly good album, though. Really one of those that I can't help but listen to from start to finish, which is a huge deal considering my shortened attention span. Apparently the white lines on black were an executive decision taken by Peter Saville, and it's so good that he did, because were it black-on-white (as the band originally wanted), you wouldn't be able to express the loneliness, isolation and moodiness of the songs within.
Mother Earth's Plantasia (1976)
Plantasia is just a delightful album. It's so wild that he made the whole thing with just one instrument—it's part of the reason I had a modular synth phase. There was a moment in my life where I would listen to it weekly, on the day I watered my plants. It calmed me down from bad trips, got me through long work nights. Mort really did a number on us with this one.
The typography is so stylishly '70s, and I absolutely love the use of negative space in the illustration. In a lot of ways, I think the pared down nature of the cover speaks to the minimalistic nature of the music. I'm not sure if that was intentional, but it really works well.
Viper the Rapper
You’ll Cowards Don’t Even Smoke Crack (2008)
Viper the Rapper is the most prolific rapper ever. Last I read, he has made at least 1,500 albums (that was as of 2020), yet his most popular by far is You'll Cowards Don't Smoke Crack. He didn't get too popular until someone uploaded it to YouTube. He's one of the fathers of Cloud Rap, and self-produces all of his albums with a signature style of vaporwavey, chopped and screwed beats and a monotone deep voice that talks about everything from playing basketball, interstellar wars, playing minecraft, and his time as a drug dealer.
This cover probably contributed to Viper catapulting into internet celebritydom. It's got a brutalist nature to it that reminds me of old Memphis cassette covers. Either way, the cover is a perpetual roast of a world full of rappers who have multimillion-dollar teams overproduce and curate finely-crafted gangster personas. You should check out his other covers, they're pretty hilarious.
Hidden History of the Human Race (2019)
Blood Incantation is one of the most creative bands I've ever listened to. They're everything I love about death metal, but push the genre further by blending in elements of psychedelic rock and science fiction-inspired lyrics. Hidden Histories is a perfect example of this, with "The Giza Power Plant" being my favorite track.
The album art was done by Bruce Pennington, a 1970s British artist famous for his sci-fi works, and it encapsulates the epic proportions of Blood Incantation's music so well. It feels fresh in a genre inundated with repetitive visual themes and typical representations of horror and death. Even the color palette is refreshing—the cooler colors are honestly beautiful and work together so well. At the same time, the band incorporates important visual elements of the genre that let you know what you're getting into.
Claude Fontaine (2019)
Claude Fontaine is so cool. She's talented, interesting, sensitive, and curious about the world around her. Blending old-school Reggae, Bossa Nova, and Tropicalia rhythms, she sings timeless songs about love and heartache. She's like a modern Astrud Gilberto.
The photo cover tells the story of the album. You have Claude's eyes deadlocked with those of a macaw perched on her finger—a North American enchanted by a world completely new to her. Much like the macaw does to the image, these Caribbean and South American genres add color and life to a heartbroken world. It's a beautiful concept executed perfectly.
Don Melody Club
Pure Donzin (2021)
Don Melody Club is one of my better bandcamp finds. His debut album is a great reincarnation of Dutch pop from the '70s-'80s. Although there's a Miguel Bosé-esque quality to it, it always feels new and kind of exotic to me as I have never been exposed to too much music from the Netherlands. I have no clue what he's saying, yet the songs (like "Isabel" and "Psychonauten"—my two favorites) are clever, intimate and sincere.
The design feels like a perfectly modern reincarnation of all of the trends from the era. There's definitely a "it's not new, but it's new to you" thing going. It's nostalgic, which is ironic considering neither Don Melody or I were alive in the '80s.
Physically Sick (2017)
This album is the first in a series of compilation records curated by Discwoman-founder Umfang and others, featuring tracks from DJs and producers like Octa Octa, J. Albert, and Physical Therapy. I think the label donated all of the proceeds to a number of nonprofits and social causes, which is a really great way to live up to the Protest music aspect of techno. I love parodies in graphic design and presenting an album as medicine to social ailments is really funny. It's also a great example of the ways that techno scenes appropriate things like pharmaceutical design aesthetics and turn them on their heads to make something that feels rebellious and new.
Hank Wood and the Hammerheads
Hank Wood and the Hammerheads (2018)
One of my best friends and I have drank a looooooooot of beers while listening to this album. It's really a pretty flawless listen. It's one of those where you can hear a band really coming together and figuring out what they're gonna sound like. Hank Wood is a good band, I wish they would release more stuff.
Similar to the Blood Incantation album above, it's always so nice to see album art that goes beyond what is expected of the genre. The typography designed by Sam Ryser is awesome, feels retro and rock 'n rolly, yet the hand drawn bits give a playful touch (yet at the same time suggests that something might be wrong).