The album cover is like a poem. It has to do so much with so little. It must evoke a mood. Give a glimpse into the subject matter of the album. Capture the essence of the artist or band. And ultimately, beg someone to surrender their ears, their mind and their soul to the contents within. It's art, communication and commerce. All wrapped up in a tidy square piece of real estate.
There are so many great ones to choose from. Of course, there are the usual considerations—Nirvana's Nevermind, The Beatles' Abbey Road, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, Dave Brubeck's Time Out and Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. But for me, the truly special ones do something more. They grab hold of you the instant you see them. And they never let go. Even if years have gone by since you last looked at them, you can close your eyes and trace each line, color every corner, exactly as they were. It's a powerful thing, to leave that kind of imprint in one's mind. Here are a few that have done that for me.
Billie Holiday Sings (1952)
This was Billie Holiday's first album with original material. And you can hear her talking through songs directly to us. Even David Stone Martin's painting of Holiday seems to be a direct line into her emotions. The vulnerability of it, the blue cast of her figure, the hand holding up her downcast head. You feel it in the technique of Martin's pen and brush strokes. The loose, haphazardness of it. The coloring falls outside the lines, creating the sense that her emotions are spilling over, uncontained and all-consuming. I could stare at this cover forever, feeling the emotions emanating from it.
This was considered by many to be Mac Miller's magnum opus. In Faces, he takes us on a deeply personal and honest journey into his struggles with drug addiction and mental illness. The cover's Dali-like drooping dreamscape is the perfect backdrop for this album, its exploration of jazz and R&B samples, and the chasm-deep-dive into his mind. Design by Miller McCormick (Mac's older brother).
A red rose on black and a hand-written "Violator," all in lowercase lettering. It was iconic, distinct, simple, stark, breath-taking and perfectly matched the mood of the album. Anton Corbijn described his approach and how he worked with Depeche Mode in Interview Magazine to develop the cover design. "Depeche Mode is different. They're not very involved. They say, 'Can you do the album?' and I come up with an idea. With Violator, I just painted a flower red and nailed it to a wall and wrote under it 'Violator.'" So that was it. Simple, stark and powerful.
Nite Versions (2005)
As you crack open Soulwax's Nite Versions, before even diving into track 1, you're hit with a surprise—a 51-second hidden track. It's an opening declaration to the listener to be ready for an album full of the hidden. That things aren't what they may seem, as Soulwax takes us on a remixed journey of the material from their third studio album, Any Minute Now. And like Nite Versions, designer Trevor Jackson plays with the concept of the hidden. Just try moving your head around, moving side to side as you look at the album cover. You'll go from being able to barely see the type to not at all to very clearly. It's a playful game of hide and seek, just like the audio tapestry Soulwax weaves throughout.
Secret of Elements
German composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Johann Pätzold merges two genres of music—classical and ambient electronica—together to create something entirely new and perfect. It's like the first time chocolate and peanut butter were brought together. It's so right and somehow seems like it should have been this way all along. In determining the cover for Chronos, he worked with painter Alice Sfintesco. She would send various works to Pätzold as they explored how to embody his unique sound and vision for the album. When this painting, titled, "Kiss," arrived, Pätzold said right away this was it. It represents the fusing of two entities. The colors mixing together, one fading into the next. Free, flowing, yet perfectly controlled. In exactly the way his unique music swirls together.
At The Paris Olympia (1961)
This album marked a grand return for Edith Piaf. She'd endured a serious two-year illness prior to this live performance at L'Olympia in Paris in 1960. Doug Davis' painting captures a more inward and reflective Piaf. Yet, the colors that surround her are vibrant and full of life and energy. Davis' contrast perfectly describes the performance itself. The crowd was roaring and cheering throughout, literally shaking the rafters, so energized by her return. But Piaf sang from a place of having endured a truly significant, dark struggle.
The Mountain Will Fall (2016)
When DJ Shadow embarked on The Mountain Will Fall, as critics later noted, he took a more ambitious scope, leaving behind his trademark sample-heavy, mostly instrumental hip-hop. Here, he incorporates a rapid, electronic style with heavy textures, beats and gritty rumble. He experiments with joyful abandon, like a mad scientist at recess, trying out new sounds, throwing out unconventional samples, unafraid of failure. It's almost as if the album's title and subsequently titled first track are a dare and challenge to himself. The cover art works as a visual metaphor for what all artists in their careers have to face when they decide to branch out. When following the techniques that have made them the kings and queens of their genres are no longer enough. (Notice the little crown flying off the figure in the bottom corner.) To be courageous enough to face their own previous musical success. It's a striking, graphic image that tells the story of the daring needed for any creative journey. Art by Paul Insect; Design by Will Scott.
Pet Shop Boys
Introspective was Pet Shop Boys' third studio album. The band took a different and unconventional approach to it as they began development. Normally, Pet Shop Boys and other bands of this genre would release radio-friendly versions of the longer-form songs they wrote and performed for the clubs they played in. But in Introspective, every song lasted six minutes or more and was the pure, unaltered dance club version of the song. So when designer Mark Farrow went about creating the cover of the album, capturing this unconventional approach was essential. He described taking inspiration from the vertical color bars of a test card, the television test signal used when a station isn't broadcasting. It might have been Farrow's way of suggesting this album wasn't following a normal frequency. In any event, his vibrant alteration of the test card color bars creates a pulsing, vibrating dance club energy, which is everything this album delivered.
Velvet Underground & Nico
Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Andy Warhol's cover for Velvet Underground & Nico was so powerful and iconic that it has become deeply embedded in people's psyche and is often what people picture when they think of the American Rock group. The original cover had a peel-off sticker, encouraging people to "peel slowly and see." It was such a perfect invitation to the listener as they journeyed into the experimental alt-sounds of Velvet Underground. A fun fact: a special machine was needed to produce these first covers of the album, which due to the complexities, caused a delay in its release. Reissues of the album do not feature the peel-off sticker, so today, original copies are rare and fetch quite a price.
The Final Cut (1983)
When we think of great Pink Floyd cover designs, likely The Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall come to mind. Even Wish You Were Here, with the businessman who is engulfed in flames. But the historical context surrounding The Final Cut and the subtle way the cover design references that context makes it stand above all the others for me.
As they were writing and recording this album, the United Kingdom was entangled in a ten-week undeclared war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. And nuclear tensions were reaching a fever pitch between NATO and the Soviet Union. NATO had conducted a routine exercise to practice a nuclear war simulation. The Soviet Union interpreted the exercise as an actual signal to the beginning of nuclear war and nearly retaliated. The world was quite literally teetering. So, war was very much on the band's minds. This cover design by Storm Thorgerson captures this in such a wonderfully unconventional way. No images of war and its destructive powers, just the oddly cropped elements of a military uniform and a subtly placed portion of the red poppy, which stood as a symbol of remembrance for those lost in war and the hope for a peaceful future.