10 Great Album Covers, Chosen by Nate Thompson of Amplify

Steve Hillage, Orbital, Divine Styler and more

I was born in Northern Ireland in the '70s into a society divided by religion and marred by violence. The school system followed the lines of division that separated communities, adding to a culture of suspicion of the other side. Fortunately for me, my parents were hippies and decided that meditation and marijuana were a suitable escape from the bombs and the bullets. Their alternative approach led them to send me to the Rudolf Steiner school in Holywood (Northern Ireland), the first integrated school in the country. Hippy parents, hippy school and hippy pals shaped the music I grew up with.

I have taken a look through my collection and pulled out 10 albums that have stayed with me throughout the years.

Led Zeppelin
III (1970)

An interactive album cover! I loved the fact that this album was so illustrative, explorable and had the ability to interact with it. The album marked a shift for the band from rock to a more folky feel to it. It also includes one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, "Since I've Been Loving You." The live performance of that from The Song Remains The Same at Madison Square Garden is fantastic with Jimmy Page on top form with one of the best blues guitar performances I've ever heard. Picked up my own copy in Clocktower Records, Bridport, last year.

Steve Hillage
Fish Rising (1975)

A rather striking album cover that definitely catches the eye. It screams psychedelia and when "Solar Musick Suite" kicks in on side one it settles you down, picks you up and throws you about for 16+ minutes of the most intricate composition of music around. It feels like an album in itself and is comprised of four parts. It's genius. The rest of the album gets a bit weird and feels more akin to his previous work with Gong. But that one song is something I'll never get tired of listening to.

Pink Floyd
Animals (1977)

This is such an iconic image. Living in Northern Ireland I had no knowledge of Battersea Power Station, but the name, the striking image of it against the skyline, with the evening sun casting shadows, made it even more dramatic. The four towers, coughing smog into the sky and this small but giant pig floating between them. It's equally dystopian and surreal, perfectly matching the album's concept that focused on the social-political conditions of mid-1970s Britain. For me, it features some of the best performances of all their albums from Gilmour and Wright.

Fun fact: the pig broke free on the second day of the shoot and was blown over to Heathrow, resulting in panic and cancelled flights.

Talking Heads
Stop Making Sense (1984)

With A24's recent release of the live performance of this album—is there anything they do that isn't a must-see?—it's the perfect time to bring this back from the vaults. Without a doubt, one of the best live-performance films ever made. It's fantastic. Beautifully shot, lit, choreographed. It starts and builds and ebbs and flows like nothing I've seen. I went to see it recently at the Hackney Picturehouse and it blew me away. Slippery People has one of the best backing vocal performances of any song I've heard. My Dad played this a lot. No wonder. Back to the cover! Pretty straightforward, featuring the iconic suit from the performance.

III (1991)

Not strictly an album, not even a song I listen to a lot, but it represents a huge change in my life and Northern Ireland. Up until 1989, the majority of the music I listened to was from the past. Hendrix, Floyd, The Doors. But in 1990 that all changed. I left school at 16 and found myself involved in a world of new music via a growing rave scene. At that time Protestants and Catholics were still divided. It was a brutal time of tit-for-tat killings. But if you had the right intel you could drive out to the middle of nowhere, follow a rough track or stumble through a forest, and find a rave.

It's widely accepted that the influx of ecstasy at that time played a part in breaking down barriers between young people who attended the raves and clubs in Northern Ireland.

Orbital were one of the few bands that agreed to come and play in Belfast at the time. Many refused. They had such a good time and were given a hero's welcome and the trip left such an impression on them they named a track they had been working on at the time after the city.

Dummy (1994)

One of those occasions where the album cover looks like the record sounds. Mysterious, timeless, slightly sinister and eerily beautiful. This album still sounds fresh today. A blend of hip-hop beats, jazz guitars and velvety keyboards. It's comfortably uncomfortable.

In 1995, I took the National Express coach from my flat in Liverpool to London, then onto Bristol and hitched to my first-ever music festival, Glastonbury. Climbed over the fence and spent the next five days listening to Oasis, Prodigy, The Cure, Orbital and much more. Despite the caliber of the main stage acts the performance that went down in Glastonbury history was local outfit Portishead playing in the acoustic tent.

The story goes they were offered the pick of the stages after winning the Mercury Music Prize that year but opted for the low-key acoustic tent. The performance was anything but. "It crackled with electricity" Paul Stokes wrote in the NME and that's the perfect way to sum it up. It was heaving, with thousands stuck outside. I was on my own, but felt right at home amongst a crowd that felt they were seeing something truly unique. The best live music experience of my life to this day.

DJ Shadow
Endtroducing (1996)

The Jimmy Page/Hendrix of the sampler. Huge claim yet easy to understand why. Endtroducing was a breath of fresh air in the trip-hop world and released on the pioneering Mo' Wax label. A cinematic masterpiece that blends found sounds from records from every era and genre. The LP cover, shot by B+, an Irish-born, L.A.-based filmmaker and photographer, features a few of DJ Shadow's mates in Rare Records in Sacramento and in the same way an album cover could feature musicians, the vast array of records nods to the source and inspiration behind the album, vinyl.

Jurassic 5
Jurassic 5 (1998)

The album cover features the logo of the band and was designed by Chali 2na, a graffiti artist and one of the four MCs in the band with music coming from Cut Chemist and DJ Numark. I first heard this on cassette on my old pal's car stereo on the way to a gig we were DJing at in Belfast. It was like nothing I'd heard before. It had funk loops that made it impossible to not nod your head and vocal performances that played off each other and combined for infectious choruses that made you happy. This was released amidst the boom of gangster rap and offered a nostalgic funk-filled return to hip-hop's roots.

Psyence Fiction (1998)

A second outing for DJ Shadow, drafted in to work on the UNKLE album and another mention for Mo' Wax. Featuring the iconic artwork of Futura, an American street art legend and a pioneering graffiti artist, the gatefold edition is still a stand-out release. The gatefold opens up to reveal little booklets fixed inside that feature different artwork by Futura featuring his signature alien Pointmen, who look like they have landed on Earth from the world the music came from. It has all the Shadow hallmarks of samples, cuts and that cinematic feel but features vocal performances from the likes of Mike D, Richard Ashcroft and Thom Yorke.

Divine Styler
Def Mask (2014)

Divine Styler doesn't make many albums, but when they come around they are worth the wait. Def Mask, released on Gamma Proforma in 2014, followed the label's consistent approach of matching underground music and art. This time out Will Barras takes the reins with a dystopian-themed limited edition gatefold. Barras' work is always full of intrigue. He builds worlds full of depth, drama and characters that draw you in. You can't help but wonder what is going on in each scene. They are static moments, yet full of movement, revealing a moment from stories that you yearn to dive into. In this case, the artwork perfectly reflects the science fiction laden vocals and production.

Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.

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