The art of the album cover is something that has always fascinated me. It might sound like an exaggeration, but a great album cover can elevate an album to mythical places. I'm not a purist at all, but with the resurgence of vinyl, I think there has been a renewed appreciation of this art and the role it can play in the enjoyment of music. And although the latter will always be the most important part of an album for me, having a great album cover can make the experience of listening to it a much better one. Here are some of my favorites.
A Broken Frame (1982)
Depeche Mode is my favorite band of all time. And although this, their second album, might not be their best or most renowned, its award-winning cover by legendary British photographer Brian Griffin takes my breath away every time I see it. There's something that feels ominous but at the same time peaceful in that image. Which I think it represents perfectly well the fantastic closing track of the album: "The Sun and the Rainfall." A deep track that happens to be one of my favorite songs of the band.
Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007)
The title of the French band's debut album translates to "Memories from another world." And looking at the album cover, it feels almost impossible not to be transported to that beautiful-yet-eerie portrait of an indefinite time and place. To my eyes and ears, the cover fits the music perfectly. It is aural bliss that when playing creates an atmosphere that is both ethereal and heavenly. The album takes elements from both shoegaze and black metal; a wall of sound created by distorted guitars, feedback, and overall dark ambiance. But instead of using screeching vocals (the way the black metal bands do) or hiding them beneath the music (the typical shoegaze way), the vocals rise above the metallic and dense instrumentation, giving the songs a healthy balance between harsh and beautiful. Yeah, this is definitely a great album.
Blackwater Park (2001)
Can you see the shadows of the people hiding in the back? Creepy, right? That's exactly how this album feels. Like if something menacing is lurking at you throughout the entire 67+ minutes of running time. The music is extremely dynamic. It can be extremely heavy and brutal—Mikael Åkerfeldt growls can pierce your ears—and atmospheric and even gentle at the same time. It really took me a while to appreciate this album. But once it clicked, it blew my mind away. It still does. And although I wouldn't consider myself a metalhead, this album opened up for me the doors to a fascinating music world. One that has to be drunk in small doses.
The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (2006)
The picture of the cover is called Untitled #44 and is from the collection called "Age of Man" by Nicholas Prior. According to him, this collection "is influenced by Freud's writings on The Uncanny, and the idea that an adult cannot look back on childhood as a child, which implies a mysterious and impenetrable chasm between adults and children." Kind of makes sense that the band chose a picture from this series to represent their major-label debut. Especially because it explores themes of introspection, depression, hatred, religion and alienation. With an impressive combination of art rock, alternative rock, post-hardcore and emo music, this album is an intense experience. Both musically and lyrically.
Laughing Stock (1991)
This band started in early '80s synthpop and were part of Britain's New Romantic movement. They had some worldwide hits like "It's My Life" and "Life's What You Make It," which are still go-to songs for everyone looking for some catchy and exciting tunes of that decade. But what Talk Talk did on their fifth and final album, Laughing Stock, sounds absolutely nothing like their earlier albums. They swapped synthesizers for violas, cellos, acoustic bass, trumpets and clarinets. Melodies for soundscapes. And four-minute songs for longer music suites. It is one of my favorite bands, and for me it's hard to choose one period over the other. I think both are truly exciting, and perhaps that's one of the reasons why I like this band so much. I also love the album cover. If you look closer, you can see it portrays Earth, with the birds representing the different continents. A cover as beautiful as the music.
Listening to Joy Division's second album almost feels like witnessing a tortured mind fading away. The cover is as dark and bleak as the album. And the fact that it features the image of a tomb makes the relationship between the album and the death of Ian Curtis—the band's vocalist—two months before it came out, much more disturbing. What about the music? Well, maybe this helps: It is suffocating, claustrophobic, depressing, dense, dramatic, suicidal, thick, disturbing, scary, deranged, challenging, hypnotic, strange, surreal, affecting, morbid, impressive, self-pitying, miserable, disarming, doomed, powerful, complex, mesmerizing, punishing, visceral, cathartic, brutal, creepy, eerie, furious, hopeless, unique, heavy, cold, passionate, gloomy, chilly, mournful, touching, superb and mind numbing. And that's just the first song. Multiply those adjectives by nine, and that is Closer.
Perverted by Language (1983)
I was a latecomer when it comes to The Fall. I discovered them in the early '00s, and took me a while to get past their peculiar and extremely repetitive music. It was a very prolific band with a style that pretty much remained the same throughout their four-decade career. Dozens (yes, literally dozens) of band members passed through the ranks of the band, which was in essence a project of the late Mark E. Smith. This album was their fifth (they released more than 30 albums after this one), and to my ears, it's an album as bizarre and as strangely compelling as its cover. In all honesty, The Fall has never been an easy listen. It's one of those bands you either love or hate. Nothing in between. I'm in the "love" camp. It was also one of the favorite bands of John Peel, the legendary and influential BBC Radio DJ, who back in the day explained perfectly well what The Fall is all about: "They are always different; they are always the same." Truer words have never been said about them.
Sometimes referred to as the White Album of Latin America, the second album of Mexican band Café Tacvba is a hodgepodge of diverse genres, playfulness and overall craziness. But in a good way. Throughout 20 songs and a full hour of exciting music, Los Tacubos take the listener through an aural rollercoaster that ranges from bolero to bossanova, Son Jarocho, Banda sinaloense, funk, pop, metal and good ol' rock that never, ever gets old. Which makes the album cover a bit deceiving, because its simplicity hides the cornucopia of sounds and rhythms to be found within its music. This is arguably one of the most acclaimed and most important Latin American rock albums of all time. One of those you must hear at least once before you die.
Strange Times (1986)
If you ask me, I'd always say the Chameleons might be one of the most underrated bands of all time. This is their third album and the one with which I discovered them. Their music can be classified as a combination of post-punk and dream pop. Not too dissimilar to what the Cure did in Disintegration, their 1989 masterpiece. I love how surreal the album cover is. I still cannot make sense of what is happening in it. But as the character in the middle clearly shows, this album is mind-blowing.
London Calling (1979)
It's hard not to choose this cover when talking about the best album covers of all time. It is an homage (or a spoof?) of Elvis Presley's debut album cover. They used the same typography and the same colors on the album title. They also used a black-and-white picture. But instead of featuring Elvis playing guitar, it shows Paul Simonon about to smash his bass guitar. There's no image that is as punk as this one. Oh, and the album is amazing. A masterpiece.
Art of the Album is a weekly Muse feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write about your favorite album covers, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.