Growing up in the late '70s to early '80s, I really wasn't much of a music aficionado. I didn't have an older brother with an epic record collection to thumb through or a super-hip mom with an amazing stash of vinyl next to the hi-fi. But that period of time, pre-compact disc, was a golden era for album cover art, and I remember many from that time that piqued my curiosity, inspired me or outright frightened me.
As I got older and learned to appreciate music, and graphic design, I realized how my feelings about a band were based not just on their music, but on their album art as well. Great album covers enhance the artist and the music, adding new dimensions and depth to what the artist is trying to convey. The 10 album covers I'm going to highlight weren't necessarily from my favorites artists, though many were, but all stand as examples of artwork that I think really capture the artist and also say something to the potential audience.
As a marketing professional, I think about not just the band but the brand, and these covers stand as strong examples of not just music, not just art, but also a manifestation of how an artist can be a brand.
I didn't discover the Smiths until college, a little after they had already disbanded, but when I fell, I fell hard. I probably owned 30+ albums, singles and bootlegs from the Manchester outfit, whose image was so carefully curated by frontman Morrissey. The lyrics, his personal style, and those album covers—also so uniquely Morrissey and the Smiths. The cover of their self-titled debut, designed by Morrissey himself, featured American actor Joe Dallesandro in a cropped still from Andy Warhol's 1968 film Flesh. At a time when British pop bands sported names like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Kajagoogoo, the Smiths were purposefully anonymous, not even appearing on the cover of their debut album. The choice of Dallesandro and Warhol also speaks to Morrissey's childhood obsession with America. Everything about this cover art shouts the exact opposite of what you would expect from a debut album, a fitting harbinger to the spectacular if short career of the best British band of their generation.
Belle & Sebastian
If their music weren't enough to invite comparisons to the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian left little room for doubt where their inspiration came from with one glance at their album covers. Understated font? Color saturation? Unknown cover star? B&S ticked all the boxes first set forth by the Smiths. But it would be unfair to simply say Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of the band and the photographer for many of the bands cover shots, was simply aping Morrissey. Belle & Sebastian's covers tended to have an element of humor and intimacy that was missing from the Smiths' covers. Similarly, their music was often a lighter touch as well. That's Murdoch's then-girlfriend Joanne on the cover of Tigermilk, the band's debut. Stuart took the photo; his friend Andy Symington did the design.
Coltrane "LIVE" at the Village Vanguard (1962)
Any conversation of album covers has to acknowledge jazz and the iconic Blue Note covers of the 1960s. John Coltrane's Blue Train ranks among the pantheon of those works of art. But I'm somewhat partial to "Live" at the Village Vanguard. Gone is the quiet, introspective Coltrane, replaced by an urgent, almost desperate figure, yearning to pour his very soul into the next note. This is a musician at work, plying his craft. While Coltrane was accompanied at this performance, we are witness, via this cover, of the virtuoso brilliance of the solo performer. You can smell the combination of smoke, sweat and cheap alcohol in the room. You can sense the cramped, dimly lit space. While the Blue Train cover captures an almost timelessness, this cover captures a specific moment. Cover design by Robert Flynn, photograph by Pete Turner.
Kid A (2000)
Like many bands, I came to Radiohead late. But in retrospect, I imagine that if I had loved "Creep"-era Radiohead, I'd probably have been pretty upset with Kid A. But I missed out on all the B.S., and several of the songs on this album rank among my all-time favorites. Befitting a band that can be enigmatic at times, the cover art for Kid A seems simple, but packs hidden meaning. While other bands (see U2 below) were more direct with their anti-war statements, Radiohead chose a more suggestive approach. Designed by lead singer Thom Yorke and frequent artistic collaborator Stanley Donwood, the Kid A cover was inspired by the effects of climate change on the polar ice caps, and also by a photograph of the Kosovo war. To me, it harkens back to the iconic Joy Division cover for Unknown Pleasures from a ground level as opposed to a bird's eye view. The end result—the impressionistic mountain ranges, the BD Plakatbau font and the dark, muddy sky—all create a feeling of unease, as if you are out of place in both time and space. Unlike many of the other albums on this list, it doesn't seem to be speaking to a particular audience, or working hard to sell the product, and perhaps nothing could be more "on brand" for Radiohead.
Piece of Mind (1983)
Heavy metal is perhaps more reliant on imagery than many other genres. And it stands to reason that a band making music that primarily appeals to teenage boys would employ a cartoon character. For a period of time in the early '80s, few images associated with popular music were more iconic than Eddie, the "face" of Iron Maiden. Perhaps best described as a lunatic skeleton, Eddie—brought to life by artist Derek Riggs—appeared not only on most of Maiden's album covers but also at their live concerts, video games and countless other media. The Piece of Mind cover captures the spirit of Eddie, and what to expect from Iron Maiden's sound, perhaps more perfectly than any other iconic image associated with a band. It says, "Our music is so loud it wakes the long-dead and turns them insane." It would be hard to think of a more enticing advertisement for the 17-year-old white male target audience, who wanted nothing more than to annoy the living hell out of their parents.
Along with Iron Maiden's Eddie covers, the other hard rock album cover that is absolutely scorched into my mind is Blackout by Scorpions, featuring a self-portrait of artist Gottfried Helnwein. Released when I was 12, this is just an incredibly arresting album cover. Are those forks covering (gouging?) his eyes. Did he just undergo brain surgery? What sort of demonic hell-scream did he unleash which apparently shattered glass? Like the Iron Maiden covers, this one does just an incredible job of selling the product. If you were looking for an album whose sonic output could best be described as insane intensity, this is the album cover you would design. This album cover is almost a dare. "Are you sure you can handle this music?" it seems to be asking. Just incredible marketing.
The ArchAndroid (2010)
One of the truly great aspects of art is that it allows the artist to become someone else. I'm not sure anyone has done a more thorough job of world-building in the last 20 years than Janelle Monáe. In The ArchAndroid, Monae becomes Cindi Mayweather, the titular ArchAndroid in an Afrofuturistic alternate reality. It would be reductive to simply say Monáe is gorgeous, and she is that. But she's also an artist who transcends time—or perhaps is just wildly ahead of her time. The cover here gives off vibes of both Grace Jones and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. This is the type of album cover that spurs so many questions, to the point where you feel compelled to buy the album in the hopes of finding the answers.
Hip-hop, perhaps more than any other genre, is overflowing with artists who have adopted a nom de guerre. In many cases, it's more than just a name; the artist takes on an entire persona. Few have managed the trick of blending a unique persona with the essential hip-hop element of cultural appropriation as well as MF Doom. This cover, for Doom's collaboration with Madlib, called Madvillainy, has that incredible tension between being stripped down yet flush with potential meaning. His stare is almost reminiscent of a 1960s jazz musician's album cover. The cover's designer, Jeff Jank, who used a shot by photographer Eric Coleman, felt it had a resemblance to Madonna's debut album cover. Then, of course, you have the mask. Doom is a nod to the Marvel Comics supervillain Doctor Doom, and his albums often feature samples from 1970s cartoons that featured the character. The image here of MF Doom seems at once stripped of all pretense, yet also still remains a mystery at its heart.
Before they became the biggest band in the world, and subsequently a parody of themselves, U2 was a band that captured a sense of urgency in the early '80s like few others. War, their third studio album, features some of their most political tracks. The cover image—a photograph (by Hugo McGuinness) of the younger brother of one of Bono's friends—still takes me aback. The stare. Anger, defiance, contempt, a loss of innocence, it's all there, bringing the feelings, and repercussions, of war to you in a way you can't avoid. Just try lookng at that cover and not getting locked into a staring match with that kid. This is a different type of cover, perhaps related to the Smiths' Meat Is Murder and Rage Against the Machine's self-titled album, that isn't trying to entice the consumer to buy the album, but rather says, "We're making a statement. Are you with us or not?" That can be just as powerful to some people as a beautiful model.
The phrase "a transformational artist capable of reinventing herself" sounds like a description of Madonna, but is just as apt for Björk. On this cover for Homogenic, designed by Alexander McQueen, she is almost unrecognizable from the Icelandic pixie of earlier records. A high-fasion sci-fi that looks like the template for the Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace, Björk's look foretells of a new sound inside the sleeve. Björk, along with '90s Radiohead, captured the combination of the coming digitization of society, and the dark undercurrent beneath it, better than anyone else. I also love how the image speaks to influences from around the globe—the neck rings from African and Asian culture, the hair in a traditional Native American (Hopi) style and the Japanese style dress.