As a kid, I got super into music, as tends to be the case for adolescents, especially coming of age in the '90s. Growing up in Hong Kong before the internet and having slightly below-the-radar taste, finding music was tough. I'd go to second-hand stores and pick out whatever had a cool cover. I'd find even more music by reading liner notes of records I liked. Who did this band thank? They must be rad, too!
I loved poring through the packaging that came with CDs and records. There were sweet fold-out covers, lyric arrangements, and of course the thank-you lists. When I moved to New York, I was amazed. They had record stores dedicated to specific types of music! My friends and I would hang out at Generation Records, digging through the new and used items.
Nowadays, when music consumption happens with a click or tap, artwork is relegated to a large thumbnail at best. It's a bummer for the hardworking designers creating that album artwork, but maybe that craft is coming back to include things like designing Spotify Canvases, etc.
So, here's 10 covers that I like.
Coup De Grace (2007)
This album is so much fun—super '70s inspired, boozed-out stoner rock—and the cover fits so well. The homage to old horror comics is so much fun and pairs well with the driving, menacing nature of the music and lyrics. Plus, it's just a super fun image and I love the color contrast. This album also serves as my obligatory Frank Kozik inclusion—one that deviates from his signature style as seen on so many Melvins records.
Pray for Haiti (2021)
This album is a masterpiece—part Brooklyn braggadocio, part love letter to the artist's birthplace. Mach seamlessly switches from Creole to English and cements his place as an iconoclast within the hip-hop zeitgeist. The cover is a remix of Basquiat's Fishing with the addition of Hommy's signature bandana and a pose riffing off the artwork for the album executive producer and label head Westside Gunn's own love letter to a culture, Pray for Paris (designed by Virgil Abloh, RIP). It's a perfect representation of the album and its creator(s)—shamelessly referential (self- and otherwise), unequivocally Haitian, incomparably fly.
Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground were managed by Andy Warhol, so it's no surprise he also designed this album cover. So of course it's provocative, thoughtful and extremely in your face. It's a giant banana on an off-white background. The original album allowed you to "peel" the banana, revealing an uncomfortably flesh-colored fruit. This artwork—with the interactivity of the cover, mixed with Warhol's signature provocation-filled style—really is a symbol of its time.
My War (1984)
We've had the obligatory Kozik inclusion. Here's the obligatory Raymond Pettibon one! This one is very much in the signature style of the artist and is probably one of his most definitive works. This cover is an entire vibe unto itself: sinister with the threat of violence and a general sense of creepiness. There's also a little bit of what is it? Is it a puppet? Is it cosplaying? Is it holding the knife or is someone threatening it? It has little to do with the music other than matching its polarizing nature.
This cover works on so many levels. The main litmus test for me is the fact that when I see the image, I immediately hear the sampling of the subway on the album intro, and when I'm listening to the album and close my eyes, I see the cover. A young Nasir Jones's face is superimposed onto the place he was raised, the Queensbridge housing projects, showing how identity and environment are inseparable. It's the perfect cover for an album full of brilliantly constructed rhymes about life as a youth in QB projects.
Heavier Than Heaven, Lonelier Than God (2008)
I just love this photograph so much. I know nothing about the theory of photography or what makes a good or bad picture. I just know I really, really like this because it captures a specific feeling that I've struggled with and carried my whole life—isolation. Specifically, the struggle of handling and dealing with constant mental isolation while also searching for some peace and an escape in a world that feels more crowded with each passing day. This album was the start of a more experimental run for Philadelphia's greatest-ever hardcore band and tackled exactly those themes.
Master of Puppets (1986)
Metallica had some fantastic album covers in their earlier years, and this is my favorite of the bunch. It represents the manipulation of the public to their own and our detriment and death, while the puppet masters—i.e., the government—flourishes. Certain details really push this from good concept to great execution: The singular soldier's helmet draws the eye briefly (and the singular dogtag is so small you might miss it), but the fact there's only one speaks to the image's broad relevance beyond the military. The use of the bright orange in the center creates a sense of inevitability, that we're all hurtling towards the glow of destruction. Coincidentally, the title track features heavily in the Stranger Things Season 4 finale in an epic scene with a similar color scheme and its own themes of futility, mortality and—well I don't want to spoil it by saying more. This cover will never be more relevant, and sadly, is unlikely to ever be less relevant.
'Weird Al' Yankovic
Off the Deep End (1992)
This cover is hilarious. It will randomly pop into my head as a thought and I'll instantly start giggling like an immature teenager. It's so ridiculous: the expression on his face, the fact that it's Weird Al, basically naked. And the doughnut … of course he's chasing after a doughnut … who wouldn't? Ultimately, this makes me smile and that's why I love it.
My Bloody Valentine
The relationship between album covers and the music is interesting. Sometimes the connection is based on lyrical themes and concepts. Other times, it might be based on the artist themselves and what the audience knows (or doesn't yet know) about them. In the case of Loveless, the relationship is about the overall sound of the record. The cover is an intense wash of pinks on an image of a hand furiously strumming a guitar. The music itself is a lush blanketing wall of melodies so intense, loud and distorted that they veer into the uncomfortable. The entire experience—both sight and sound, music and cover—teeters right on the edge of being too much, but ultimately balances itself masterfully on the precipice.
Piece of Mind (1983)
In a roundup of album covers, Iron Maiden's mascot, Eddie, is inevitable. The zombified mascot is a pop-culture icon in his own right, gracing the cover of every Maiden album—around 30 at last count. Here, we see Eddie straight jacket-bound and chained to padded walls, playing on the album's title. What makes this cover so memorable for me is the first true shift in styles when compared to the band's previous covers. Here, artist Derek Riggs leans into yellows and greens and provides a stark, repetitive background. Previous covers were awash in blue and featured more detailed, ornate settings. Eddie, too, is restrained, while in previous covers he was free to menace and threaten the viewer. And of course, the most polarizing change of all … Eddie was now bald. And honestly, bald Eddie is the superior version.
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.