Kira Karlstrom is a former professional basketball player turned Emmy Award winning marketing and creative executive. Kira is currently a senior creative director for Capitol Records primarily responsible for creative strategy, experiential and content marketing driven initiatives for frontline artists including Katy Perry, Niall Horan, Lil Baby, Migos, Lewis Capaldi, City Girls, Loren Gray, Queen Naija and more. She chose her 10 favorite album covers for our Art of the Album series.
My brother is nine years older than I am, and while he was in high school, he was given "Kira duty," driving me around to various dance rehearsals and school functions. His midnight-blue Pontiac Bonneville had a newly installed CD player to replace the tape deck and a stack of CDs that covered the passenger-side floor mat the majority of the time. At the ripe age of 9, this was a cover I'll never forget seeing for the first time. I loved the illustration—its comic-strip nature and dogs that somehow managed to look somewhat human had its appeal. I didn't for the life of me understand what it all meant—or many of the lyrics when listening to it, for that matter. Thinking back, it's probably better that I didn't understand what I was seeing/hearing as I frequently gripped the CD case in my lap as we rode around singing at the top of our lungs, "What's my motherf**kin name?" and … "Sippin' on Gin and Juice, laid back …" in my small hometown of Clarkston, Michigan.
Michael was why I fell in love with dance and music. This album cover is more iconic to me because of the music rather than the cover, but it's a cover I had ordered a printed version of and framed in 2009 that sat in my cube when I worked at ESPN. Reason being, in 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer, and during my five-and-a-half-hour surgery, my dad for the entire duration listened to Michael Jackson purely due to my love for his craft. "Beat It" became our theme song and the theme for a benefit that was thrown during my battle, "Cancer—Just Beat It," in which, I dressed as MJ and performed Thriller with a set of backup dancers. This cover is elegant, yet symbolic—filled with swagger and confidence.
The Fame (2008)
My first job was at ESPN, part of Creative Services, which included the music department. One of the heads of the music department and I loved to talk new music and big ideas for campaigns. Many days I would come in and there was a CD of an unreleased single or album sitting on my desk, as the music department received everything weeks and sometimes months in advance of release, due to licensing and sync opportunities. One morning I came in and this album was on my desk with a note, "She's going to be big." I may have actually worn this CD out I played it so much. "Just Dance" and "Pokerface" were incredible pop songs, and I definitely thought I was insanely cool listening to this, weeks before its debut. The cover, when I first saw it, though, I remember thinking, "Lady … who?" This almost looked futuristic and unconventional for the times, but the creeping of "fame" across this unidentified woman's face was something so memorable and intriguing. This was an artist who would not be forgotten.
Teenage Dream (2010)
Katy Perry is one of my favorite pop stars of all time. She has such a way of pushing boundaries, and at the time, appearing naked in a cloud of cotton candy was nothing short of shocking and unforgettable. My favorite part about this cover is the story behind the creation of it. Famous for his work, primarily composed of landscapes combining sweets and humans, Will Cotton was the man behind the curtain on this one. In his New York studio, he personally spun pink cotton candy in which Katy lay in the middle of to achieve this cover. No, it wasn't a Photoshopped collage—she actually lay in sticky, lush, pink cotton candy. Truly a teenage dream come true.
River of Dreams (1993)
I was definitely a dreamer growing up. I always had a million things going through my head, which is why, when I first saw this cover in my mother's CD collection, I immediately gravitated toward it. My mother was an art teacher as a hobby, aside from her night shifts as a nurse, and I could only assume from what I had learned that this cover was done by a famous painter. Come to find out, it was actually painted by Billy's then-wife, actress and model Christie Brinkley. Which, I might add, Rolling Stones awarded her the "Top Picks" award for "Best Album Cover of the Year" the year this debuted. Regardless, I still loved to sit and stare at the illustration, trying to figure out what Billy Joel was thinking and what every scene in this cover depicted. There were so many hidden meanings, I would often make up my own stories for each intricate detail. Definitely a cover from my childhood.
The College Dropout (2004)
This album came out my freshman year of college and is easily one of my favorite albums of all time. I was a Division 1 college basketball player, so the iconography of someone in a mascot suit sitting on a set of bleachers resonated with me—especially, during the times (and there were many) when I fantasized about leaving college myself. College dropout was Kanye's debut album, and at a time where the internet search wasn't as easy as it was now, the first time I saw the cover I remember wondering, who's beneath the bear head? Who is Kanye West? This bear, however, ended up being a genius marketing campaign with the "Dropout Bear" becoming an iconic staple in Kanye's career. If you don't know the story of the Dropout Bear, I would highly recommend reading about it.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
My favorite movie of all time is The Wizard of Oz, so naturally, when I first saw this cover, I was instantly enamored. And when I say favorite movie, I have a notarized piece of the yellow-brick road, so you can see why there was a gravitational pull from my soul to this cover. The other nod that I found so lovely and intelligent was the addition of the red platform high heel, representing so many things in Elton's life, and in my own. I felt connected to this artwork and the meaning behind it unlike any other.
I'm well aware, I have a slew of pop albums in this mix, but my love for covers designed by captivating artists will prevail on this one. Retna is a Los Angeles-based artist praised around the world for his hypnotic calligraffiti works, inspired by hieroglyphs and Native American typography. If you drive around West Hollywood, you'll see a few large-scale pieces of work. Retna's addition, the overlay of art, completely changed the aesthetic of this cover. There were also three versions of this cover, where the lettering was done in white, blue and black, which ended up being part of an interesting marketing campaign across social media. Believe it or not, I actually have a large blue-and-white Retna canvas in my own home, so you can imagine when I saw this cover why I loved it.
When I was in my 20s, I picked wine by the design of the bottle. I'd like to think that stemmed from choosing my music by the album covers as a child. This album cover, or should I say cassette tape cover, was chosen for that very reason. More or less it was a way more interesting version of a "Where's Waldo" illustration. Which, I guess you could also say, I'm a sucker for collages, Easter eggs and hidden meanings because there is so much to digest and look for in this cover. Not to mention the illustration style of Richie Bucher has inspired many, including Vince Staples whose FM! cover was also illustrated by Richie as a tribute. There is a lot more to imagine and discover in a cover like this. Let's just say, in the end I was sprayed by the Dookie on this one.
Things Fall Apart (1999)
As my final album cover, I leave you with this. In 2003, I moved from my small town of Clarkston, Michigan, to play basketball at Drexel University in downtown Philadelphia. In 2004, our "Spring Jam" my freshman year was to be headlined by the Roots. Somehow, maybe because I was a basketball player, I ended up on stage dancing next to Black Thought, and later actually hung out with the band after the show—something that led me to following this band to this day. The Roots were iconic in Philadelphia, and there was something about that live show and the conversation that followed that put them as one of my all-time favorite groups for so many reasons. Prior to the show, I wasn't familiar with the Roots, but I was so moved by their music that the day after the show I headed to the record store on South Street with my best friend to see what we could find. The first cover in the row was When Things Fall Apart. It took me a minute to register what was happening in this photo—an image of two young teenagers with a young African American woman in the forefront, running in fear of their lives from the police. Looking at my best friend, who was an African American female, we had a moment in which I realized for the first time this was something she had dealt with her whole life, something I would never understand—racial injustice. This image was jarring, impactful and in the end an eye-opening educational moment for me. This cover was a statement piece, as it was one in a series of covers that were made for this album. This cover and the music on this album were a step toward social activism, something that couldn't have been more important for me to begin advocating for.