Since the age of 12, I've been entranced by album cover artwork.
I love it all, from scrappy, Xeroxed DIY 7-inch records to high-budget special packages. From a design perspective, there's much to learn from a full range of production. Making a living creating artwork for musicians is a genuine thrill for me. Even more thrilling is witnessing the resurgence of vinyl, and seeing younger generations enjoy the holistic experience of the recording package.
Here are 10 album covers that inspire me deeply:
Born Under a Bad Sign (1967)
Artist: Loring Eutemey
Loring Eutemey was an African American designer who began his career at Milton Glaser's Push Pin Studios in NYC before designing for Atlantic Records. Eutemey's work is a Mod mix of illustration and design, and the Glaser influence is evident. Born Under a Bad Sign is a playful depiction of symbols of bad luck rendered in a childlike style (I love the smiling skull!). And I can't get enough of the chunky "3" in "13"!
Cold Sweat (1967)
The King James Brown records in the 1960s are a deep obsession of mine—specifically, the hand-drawn titles for Cold Sweat, Raw Soul and James Brown at the Garden. Cold Sweat is absolutely feverish and psychedelic, in a style reminiscent of Mad magazine illustrator Basil Wolverton, with immaculate sweat droplets dripping off the letterforms. This graphic artist made a body of work for King that is so distinct from any other LP art from the time.
Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Artist: Devo + John Cabalka
To me, this is a perfect Devo vision—a portrait of a midcentury icon repurposed, developed and "devolved" into something brand new that perfectly represents Devo. As the story goes, Devo wished to utilize the art from a package of Chi-Chi Rodriguez-branded golf balls for their Are We Not Men? LP. But fearing a lawsuit, they asked the art department at Warner Brothers to mutate Rodriguez's illustration into a composite, using features from 20th century American presidents. Working with Devo's direction, Cabalka landed on a bizarre image that is a perfect fusion of queasy, surreal pop culture, somewhat similar to a police rendering—not anyone in particular, and questionably even human.
Pedro dos Santos
Krishnanda is of my favorite albums—a joyous, spiritual masterwork. I came across it while digging for my tropical radio show, and was immediately drawn in by this cover—a mix of collage, children's schoolbook, and radiant psychedelia, swirling insects, animals, flora and fauna. The cover (and the recording) feels like a world emerging.
Animal Party (1986)
Artist: Wilfred Limonious
Wilfred Limonious was a cartoonist for the Kingston-based newspaper The Star before he began designing album covers. Animal Party is irresistible to me: the hot colors, the anthropomorphic, loved-up dancers, the selector with a spliff, and the Jamaican patois in word bubbles. I love that Limonious, who was known for depicting Jamaican life daily in the paper, transitioned to depicting another perfectly Jamaican cultural event—dancehall.
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Beat Bop (1983)
Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat
For some reason this record brings up a physiological response within me—I immediately imagine the scent of burnt plastic! This Jean-Michel Basquiat cover is the perfect expression of Beat Bop's loping, hypnotic, spacey artiness, featuring vocals by two MCs/graffiti writers—Rammellzee, an Afro-futurist sculptor (nicknamed "the Sun Ra of graffiti"), and K-Rob, a locally famous teenage battle rapper from the LES. It's a perfect document of an incredibly fertile time in New York City.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Armed Forces (1979)
Artist: Barney Bubbles
I would have loved to have seen where Barney Bubbles would have gone should he not have left us so early. He was a true multidisciplinary designer with a vast knowledge of art history. Bubbles first cut his teeth during the English psychedelic movement, designing work for Hawkwind and others. He joined Stiff Records in 1976 and made his best work for their punk roster. Elvis Costello's Armed Forces folds out from the 12-inch to panels that reference the art of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Pollock, perfectly overlaid with animal prints and patterns. It's a package that is irreverent and bold, and could have easily turned into unmemorable kitsch, had it not been in such masterful hands.
Neopolitan Spiritual Church Choir
He's There (1966)
Harvey painted Gospel covers for Savoy Records—he distilled religious concepts in a surreal manner. Harvey's work reminds me of vernacular signage of West Africa, mixed with the surrealism of Salvador Dali. They are bold, brightly hued and hallucinatory. For He's There, Harvey gives us a guiding reassuring eye over the churches and homes of this Dali-esque landscape—along with a mushroom cloud and a blood-red sky.
Tam Tam Tam Reimagined (2016)
Artist: Matt & Dan Studio
Tam Tam Tam, recorded in Brazil in 1958, got the reinterpretation treatment in 2016 by Gilles Peterson's Sonzeria project. Peterson, a global music historian and DJ, assembled contemporary jazz musicians and producers from the U.K. and Brazil to sample the original recording and create fresh sound for Reimagined. Matt & Dan Studio perfectly fuse the original cover with a modern illustrative flair, incorporating Brazilian color sensibilities and graffiti-like energy into this blissfully explosive cover.
Lounge Originals (2020)
Artist: Field of Grass
I am a big fan of all that Numero Group issues, and this 2020 package is my favorite so far. For this compilation of lounge originals from the 1970s, Numero Group packaged them into a LP-sized matchbook, complete with screenprinted strike strip. I love a great conceptual design—the Whispers Lounge package is so fun and Oldenberg-esque, and perfectly sets the stage for the "bossa nobodies and seafood jazzers" recorded within.