There's a certain sense of ownership one feels for their hometown heroes. Whether it's the starting lineup that carried your high school basketball team to the state championship or the drama student who eventually went on to do a three-episode arc on Law and Order, we carry these people close to our hearts even long after we've left our hometown. For me, this was the Ann Arbor-based indie band Mason Proper. As a 15-year-old, I was their biggest fan, their most vocal proponent. They weren't merely a band from my hometown, they became my band.
This obsession became such that I would pester them constantly, emailing them to ask for the guitar tabs for their songs, or when they planned on playing their next all-ages show. One of these requests was of particular urgency to me: An album of theirs in my iTunes library (the highly sought-after "Demos & B-sides") hadn't come with any artwork. It was a blank space in an otherwise beautiful mosaic of color and imagery, a missing brick that threatened to topple the wall I had so meticulously built. I asked if there was anything they could send me that would set this right—even a scan of a sharpied CD-R would put my mind at ease. Instead I received a reply that said simply "Here, you can use this." The following image was attached.
This image is in my music library to this day, and I think it speaks to the significance of the role of the album cover. The idea that a collection of songs can exist without some sort of visual representation—even the most hastily grabbed and absurd—is almost unthinkable. To listen to an album bearing that anonymous grey music note graphic is to have an incomplete musical experience.
While a movie's poster or a book's cover may change a dozen times as it's distributed over the years, this almost never happens with music—we think of the artwork as a part of the album itself, inseparable from the music it represents. In that spirit, the following is not just a list of the "best" album covers in my library, nor is it a list of my favorite albums (although quite a few of them are on here). As I pored over my music library and record shelves, I tried to select examples where the music and artwork together are greater than the sum of their parts, where the music plays with or against the artwork in such a way that it elevates the work as a whole.
Frankly, I don't think I've ever had more fun with an assignment. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The Gun Club
While Fire of Love is The Gun Club's most well-known work, I find myself listening to its follow-up, Miami, more often. Tonally, it has a somewhat softer, staid quality—the edges not so much sanded down as worn away. It sounds like Chris Isaak if his house were haunted. It features a killer cover of "Run Through the Jungle," and listening to the closing track "Mother of Earth" feels like driving through the desert alone in the middle of the night.
I love the strangeness of the album artwork: the seasick color palette, the strangeness of the composition, but most of all I love the depressive aura dripping off of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. His lyrics are often disturbing, his voice haunting, and he looks deeply, deeply unhappy to be in Miami.
Bill Evans and Jim Hall
Sometimes an album has a cover so intriguing, you have to buy it regardless of the music it contains. Such was the case with Undercurrent. This album was my introduction to Bill Evans' work, and while it's by no means my favorite of his, the arresting album cover alone is enough to draw me in. The danger of just barely having one's head above water juxtaposed with the serenity and weightlessness of the scene makes this an image I've never been able to shake.
I'm ill-equipped to write intelligently about jazz. It's a genre that I, like many others, found intimidating in my youth. As I've grown older, however, I've come to realize that you can enjoy a work of art without having to "understand" it. You can watch a film by Tarkovsky or Bergman without being able to write a thesis on it, you can enjoy a nice wine without knowing if it's from a good year or bad, and you can like jazz without being able to articulate how groundbreaking its composition is. I love Bill Evans' music because it relaxes me. It's the perfect soundtrack for a rainy morning with a hot cup of coffee and good book. And while that may sound incredibly reductive to someone who knows what they're talking about, it doesn't matter. It's just music, after all.
London Calling (1979)
When Pennie Smith snapped a photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass at the end of a set in 1979, she likely wasn't aware that she was capturing what would become one of the most recognizable, revered and parodied images in rock history. She didn't even want it to be used as an album cover at the time; in a story that she's clearly sick of retelling, she complained that the image was out of focus and the band should choose something else. The Clash, however, were nothing if not great visual storytellers. They instantly recognized in Smith's photograph everything their music had come to symbolize: rage, rebellion, energy and determination. And while the group had previously taken an irreverent posture toward rock 'n' roll idolatry ("No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones" they sang in "1977"), the visual reference to Elvis Presley's debut album showed their newfound appreciation for their musical ancestors. They had gone from party-crashers to torch-bearers. This is equally evident in the music of London Calling. It plays like a guided tour through all the music that had shaped them, while at the same time creating something entirely new.
London Calling has always been, and will always be, my favorite album. I own five copies of it on vinyl (and one CD languishing at the back of a bookshelf somewhere). I've read books (plural!) about it. I've watched documentaries about it. Its cover has been splashed across my wardrobe, college apartment walls, and desktop backgrounds (though not, to my mother's great relief, my actual skin). It's no longer an album I listen to every day, or even every month. It is, however, an album I return to again and again, like an old friend.
The Argument (2001)
Fugazi are, to my mind, the very definition of artistic integrity. From their famously affordable ticket prices to their refusal to sell merch, they seem to embody an unfaltering idealism that one might have expected to wane after the heyday of Dischord and the revolution summer. But throughout their entire career, their music embodied the same urgency and conviction that came blasting out of town halls, church basements and DIY spaces at the beginning of the '80s. The Argument currently serves as the group's swan song, as they went on indefinite hiatus the year after its release. It is the capstone to a 16-year career, during which they never put a foot wrong.
Fugazi's album artwork is often fairly oblique, but The Argument is especially so. With no title or name gracing its front, it features only a relief of one hand holding a torch, and another empty. When asked about it, frontman Guy Picciotto simply stated: "You'll understand the meaning in time." I've turned the image over in my head for years now, but as I sat down to write this, it suddenly occurred to me that the image looks an awful lot like the passing of a torch. This is quite possibly an overly simple interpretation, but I think it makes a fitting metaphor for the group's grand finale.
No one captures the frustration, bewilderment, rage and occasional joy of living in our time as Jeff Rosenstock. He is, and I say this without an ounce of irony, our generation's Woody Guthrie. Worry covers a broad emotional spectrum, from the blistering, fuming hardcore of "Planet Luxury" to the heartrending sincerity of "While You're Alive." It's filled both with broad appeals to our collective moral conscience and intimate reflections on personal relationships. In a time when cynicism feels like second nature, Jeff's music manages to be world-weary and angry without feeling defeated or downtrodden. He exudes a positivity and excitement through his music, even when railing against a seemingly unstoppable machine.
The artwork for Worry is the perfect distillation of this spirit. Beneath the title (rendered in a fittingly worried font) is a simple black-and-white photo of a crowd at small gathering, maybe a wedding or a Kiwanis club mixer. The expression on the face of the young man at its center is one of unencumbered, almost manic glee. Just beneath the surface, however, is a simmering sensation of nauseated anxiety. It's the face of someone white-knuckling it on a roller coaster, of someone in the passenger seat of a car being driven a little too fast. It's a face that says "I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm OK."
If I could choose a time and place in which to have come of age, it would be D.C. in the early '80s. The amount of energy, talent and excitement coming out of that scene at that time is just astounding, and it was coming from kids. Bands sprung up left and right, labels were born in bedrooms and trafficked via a network of mail-orders and zines, and shows were held in any public space that would admit the (mostly underage) bands and fans. At the center of this scene was Dischord Records and its flagship band, Minor Threat. This EP collects their first two 7-inches (one of which also shares this cover, along with their Complete Discography), showcasing their explosive energy and disaffected idealism. The immediacy of their music reflected that of the youth movement surrounding them. It was music that met the moment.
The term iconic is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but if any album cover earns it, it's this one. The image of Alec MacKaye (brother of frontman Ian and a talented singer in his own right) sitting on a step with his head buried in his arms is one of the most recognizable in the genre. Endlessly copied (famously by Rancid and infamously by Nike), it still retains the visual jab it had when I first came across it as a straight-edge high schooler. While the feeling of being a downcast youth doesn't resonate with 32-year-old me any longer, that youthful, furious energy never gets old.
Mission of Burma
In addition to one of my favorite album covers, Mission of Burma's V.S. also has one of the best opening tracks of its era. "Secrets" starts with a simple three-chord stomp that gradually builds, recedes and eventually explodes. If you've never heard it, go give it a listen—it'll make you want to get up and run around.
The artwork is beautiful as well—small blue morning glories winding their way through a chainlink fence is an image that any city dweller will recognize and appreciate. It could be meant to evoke the constant battle between nature and development, or maybe it's a commentary on the artificiality of borders. Maybe it's just about appreciating beauty where you can find it. Whatever its meaning, I've always wanted an aloha shirt with this artwork printed on it.
All Rise (1986)
All Rise holds a special place in my heart. When I was 16, I played my first-ever show as the guitarist of a punk band I had started with my high school friends. It was a 2 p.m. matinee at the now-defunct Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Our set (which featured not one but two Misfits covers) was so short, the organizer made us play it twice, back to back. After our 15 minutes had elapsed, I spent some time talking with the frontman of Mazinga, veterans of the Ann Arbor punk scene and one of the show's headliners. When I asked him for some recommendations to expand my punk-rock musical horizons, he pointed me toward two albums, both of which I still count among my favorites all these years later. The first was Singles Going Steady by the Buzzcocks, and the second was All Rise by Chicago legends Naked Raygun.
I love the mood of album's cover. It's dystopian in that Repo Man sort of way, emblematic of punk rock in the Reagan era. Truthfully, I don't have much to say about the artwork itself. Sometimes the reason a piece of music or a movie stays with us is because the memories we attach to it—in this case, an artist I looked up to taking the time to chat with a wannabe punk-rocker from the suburbs and recommend him some music. He likely doesn't remember this conversation, but I'll think about it every time I put on All Rise. So thanks for the rec, Marc.
Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)
I'm not even going to pretend that my love for this album isn't resting solely on the shoulders of the opening track. "Age of Consent" is possibly my favorite song. It will be played at my wedding. If I have any say in the matter, it'll be played at my funeral, too. If you've never heard it, my god, please go listen to it. It's simultaneously life-affirming and heartbreaking. It's as beautiful as it is catchy. It's one of the most danceable tracks there is.
The artwork for Power, Corruption & Lies hardly needs additional praise, as it's one of the most celebrated album covers of all time, but a little more can't hurt. Going all the way back to their days in Joy Division, Hook, Sumner & Co. clearly put great care in the imagery that accompanied their music. And while a great many of their albums could easily feature on this list (Movement and Technique in particular come to mind), it's Power, Corruption & Lies that most perfectly encapsulates the tone struck by their music: austere, romantic and wholly modern.
The Seer (2012)
My relationship with Swans the band is similar to my relationship with swans the birds: a mixture of admiration and fear. This similarity is no accident—Michael Gira chose the name because it embodied the music he wanted to create: beautiful, but with a nasty temperament. As anyone who has listened to the sprawling, mesmerizing and disturbing music that Swans has produced over the last 40 years will agree, I think he nailed it.
The Seer begins innocently enough, with a softly repeated chord and a simple descending melody, but it doesn't take long for it to spiral downward into something terrifying. The chanting vocals at the center of "Lunacy" feel like stepping in on an ancient ritual, the kind that promises to fling open the gates of hell. The 32-minute (you read that right) title track surges and swells under Gira's groaning and mumbling, and the central lyric ("I see it all, I see it all, I see it all…") reads like deranged scribblings on the walls of an abandoned mental hospital.
The album cover for this two-hour opus is characteristic of Swans' outlook. It's an image that, on paper, should sound benign (a painting of a smiling little terrier), but the longer you look at it, the more unsettling it becomes. Something just feels off about it. Then you notice the dog has human teeth. And the smile isn't a smile so much as a snarl. This motif of contorting the mundane into the upsetting runs through all of Swans' work, especially recently. It's probably not an album I would put on during a party, but it's perfect for this time of year. Sometimes you want to be a little scared.