As a musician, a philosopher (with a bit of a mystical streak) and a strategist, I like to think about the album cover in several different modes. It's amazing to me how it can be so many things and work in so many different ways.
I'm one of the lucky ones who began consuming music in the '90s (before the all-devouring force of content, before the illegal piracy of file sharing networks became the legal corporate piracy of Spotify and streaming), so I grew up listening to music only after first studying the art on the front and back of a record. I spent countless hours in record shops, attempting to befriend older and cooler record store clerks who knew about bands I'd never heard of, trying to play it cool enough to get access to some of their gate-kept wisdom. There was an almost ritual aspect to this dance: I'd pull a record I thought was cool and gauge the clerk's response. They'd say, "if you like that, you might like this," etc. This was not a smooth recommendation algorithm, but an infinitely subtle IRL interaction. This record store dynamic was really important for my development. Every once in a while, the clerk would throw me a bone—"hey kid, check this out"—and I would be granted access to something amazing.
The clerk would hand me a CD or a 7" record, and immediately the album art appeared as an invitation. "Will you find your tribe in this musical world?"
Then, after digesting the music, the art sometimes became a sort of keystone: A single, sturdy image that functions as an aegis under which the often amorphous thoughts and emotions stirred by musical sound could live. I stuck dozens of album covers to my bedroom wall to show the world and to show myself the constellation of thoughts and feelings within which I was trying to echolocate my developing self.
Is the album cover a portal? Portals control entry or exit. While portals often symbolize the entryway to something celestial, there is perhaps nothing more terrestrial and portal-like than a cave entrance. To get to heaven, to get into the earth—you've got to go through a portal.
When I first saw it, I had no idea what I was looking at. A conventional image reframed to reveal pure hue and form, a word cut in half, recast at the edge of illegibility. The music is, for all intents and purposes, completely conventional. And yet… it's somehow vexing, just like Valentina Magaletti's drumming. An album cover can frame a record or, it can reframe it, pushing you off balance from the jump.
Roped In (2020)
In a trilogy with its predecessor Going Steady and the brand new Long Cool World, my friend Patrick McDermott's ambient folk guitar record, Roped In, is some of the most played music in my house. Psychedelic and playful, the art is from Brian Blomerth—whose work is genius. Blomerth's book-length projects Bicycle Day and Mycelium Wassonii are brilliant.
So intimate and close—not even enough room for spaces between the words. When I first heard this record of beautiful tones and melted synths and weird half-singing, I learned a lot about just how far you could push the limits of music, about just how idiosyncratic self-expression could be, about what masculinity is and is not, etc.
The Heart Pumps Kool Aid (2021)
A stirring, impressionistic record from More Eaze and Seth Graham, the album art is a painting Seth made of a photo of an eccentric yard-sale set-up, including the finger slightly covering the lens on the left side of the image. Such a unique and beautiful record and a truly puzzling image!
This profound and profoundly sweet album is accompanied by perfect artwork from Claire Barrow. Tender transcendence. Infinite, melted symbolism, childlike and intellectual, the perfect interpenetration of the sacred and the mundane, just like Bladee's spiritual-emotional rap pop.
Chief Keef & Zaytove
Regal, sad, intoxicated, glitzy, kitschy, commercial, countercultural. A kid's toy with a face tat and a double cup. Chief Keef and Zaytoven together.
I Was Born by the Sea (2022)
Harrowing and intense. Richie Culver is not the man pictured here. Richie Culver is a visual artist who understands quite well how images work. This image is in some ways a diversion, insofar as the person pictured is not the artist. Yet, his look, the intensity of his look, is a challenge to the listener: Do you want to see what he sees? Do you want to be seen with a look so severe? It's a truly unique record, a transformed and mutant kind of rave music that only Richie Culver could make.
The Practice of Love (2019)
Mystical and magical, with verdant forms taking shape in the background. Jenny Hval is one of my all time favorite artists—she manages to balance intelligence and feeling, abstraction and directness, cheekiness and earnestness in ways that no one else can.
Antony & the Johnsons
The Crying Light (2009)
The album art is simply a photo from 1977 of Kazuo Ohno, pioneering Butoh dancer. I'm not sure I could overstate how Anohni's music and the art of Ohno has shaped my creativity and my heart.