10 Great Album Covers, Chosen by Musician Isaac Watters

SZA, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Talking Heads and more

As a designer and musician, album art is something I always wrestle with. It is basically impossible to distill a record down to one image or a singular title. But here are some great covers, chosen with no particular set of qualifications other than that they stuck out to me and were nicely varied. Now that so much album art is only consumed digitally, I'd like you to imagine holding these covers in your hand, and how some of them—especially the older ones—would smell, and how they would crease and tear from the vinyl being slid out hundreds of times over the years. It's more fun to imagine standing in front of a painting, even when it's just on your screen. I tried my best to find the names of all the responsible artists, photographers and graphic designers. Hope you enjoy!

Brian Roettinger
Beach House Bloom (2012)

When I first saw this cover I was like, is that the ceiling of the Mexico City airport? Turns out it is. I love the simplicity and abstractness coupled with the sense of movement and shifting perspective you get with one super contrasty photograph. I appreciate that there is no text on the cover, not even an image that you can really wrap your head around, just the dots. If you stare at it, it really starts to move and ripple. Really fits the music.

Paul Robeson
Songs of Free Men (1939)

Such a strong and sure design, it conveys so much confidence that these songs would save the free world from the hate and war of the time. Probably inspired by El Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. In this case the wedge is the sword of traditional folk songs slicing the snake of Nazism. It's a fitting cover for the strength of Paul Robeson's voice. Alex Steinweiss was one of the earliest designers to make album art an important part of music production.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blue / the Lyre of Orpheus (2004)

I was really drawn to this cover in Amoeba Records years ago, as a tactile object, the CD box is wrapped in fabric though it's hard to tell in this image, and the photo of the flowers is pressed into it. Such a beautiful cover—it feels more like a book of poetry from the 19th century, and maybe in some ways it is. Tom Hingston—design, artwork. David Hughes—photography. Delphine Ciampi—photography.

The Olivia Tremor Control
Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle (1996)

So many layers, dreams within dreams, and mysteries in this painted cover. It hints that there is really something interesting inside. Album art and design by Will Cullen Hart.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Trout Mast Replica (1969)

Maybe I just like the color red. I wonder which came first, the trout mask or the title. It's an amazing instance of Anthropomorphism. I know they say dog owners start to look like their dogs, but Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vliet really did look like his trout mask. Such a wild cover for such a wild record. Design and photography—Cal Shenkel.

Everything Was Beautiful (2022)

Meta packaging as medical product design. Feels like branding for a new dose of anxiety medication. That's what the music does too. Art direction and design by Mark Farrow.

SOS (2022)

SZA is apparently referencing a famous photo of Princess Diana, but with so much more confidence and strength. I love the way she feels like she's flying. It's not photoshop. It's just a beautiful image. Photo by Daniel Sannwald.

The White Stripes
Elephant (2003)

White Stripes had the best most recognizable branding of their time, so simple. Just red and white. Apparently they are making the shape of an elephant head in the photo. At this point in their career, all you needed to see was red and white to know it was their record. Though there were multiple versions of this cover, I like the one where Meg is wearing the black dress the best. So saturated. Photography by Patrick Pantano.

Talking Heads
Remain in Light (1980)

One of the first ever albums designed with the help of a computer, partially done using a lab at MIT to doctor the images. Today it feels so amateur in its graphic sensibility like a toddler got hold of the cover and opened it up in Microsoft paint. But it also feels primal and erratic in the best way, there is a pure childlike energy to the cover and the artwork. OR it feels like revolutionary warriors masked and ready to overthrow the establishment. On the back of the LP are four fighter jets. So much better than the A.I. portraits that are currently destroying my Instagram feed. Design by Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz in collaboration with Walter Bender and Scott Fisher at MIT. Graphic Design by Tibor Kalman.

Knock Knock (1999)

NO COMMENT. Just a great weird album cover for a really great set of songs. How could you see this and not listen to it?

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Isaac Watters
Isaac Watters is an artist's artist and in addition to music has a robust career as a visual artist. He started his career working with the legendary architect Frank Gehry on low-income housing projects in Los Angeles. Most recently he designed the sets for Don't Worry Darling.

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