I suppose album covers were my first real experience with commercial "art," when I realized color photography, type and illustration could create a mood that could move you. And that the best ones ... they really could tell you a story in five seconds.
I'd buy cheap records with my pocket money from second-hand stores when I was a kid because I just liked the look of the covers (you really couldn't lose for 99p), and sometimes I even got to like the music inside, which was a bonus. And that's one of the reasons my musical taste is all over the map.
I stuck the sleeves on my walls, left gatefolds open leaning against the floor, basically worshipped them, and eventually mourned the loss of them when CDs came out.
It's really hard to pick my top 10, and even harder to pick purely for the cover art, not just the music, but here we go….
Slave to the Rhythm (1985)
The mark of a great album sleeve is memorability and context. In the '80s, in the dying embers of New Wave and a depression which engulfed the U.K., out came a Trevor Horn-produced piece of dub/pop/funk perfection from Grace Jones, which cut against the grain.
The sleeve is brilliant, iconic and unforgettable.
Designed by Jean-Paul Goude, her boyfriend at the time, it almost looks like the image got stuck in a fax machine, and who knows, maybe it did. Happy mistakes and all that…
In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
The album art still gives me the chills, petrifying, unnerving and again …unforgettable. So for those reasons, it's in.
It's a horrifying piece painted by Chelsea art student Barry Godber.
A cousin of mine had this on his wall in the mid-'70s, and whenever I went round there, the 8-year-old me made a mental note not to look at it.
What is this fella so scared of?
Maybe he's just stubbed his toe?
Or forgot he left the iron on and he's on the bus to work.
That's what I want to tell myself, anyway.
P.S. If you don't like pretentious, overly long prog-rock and verbose lyrics, I wouldn't bother listening, as well as not looking, either.
What's Going On (1971)
If a cover sums up what's inside the cover, then this is it.
Defiant, cool, beautiful and intelligent.
Another record that had a huge influence on me as a teenager, and another record sleeve with instant recognition.
It's all about the cropping of that pic.
All about the angle of his face saying "screw it" to the rain.
It's all about the crazy gothic typeface that makes no sense with the image, but at the same time makes every sense.
And it's all about the context of when this album came out.
Wonderful record, wonderful sleeve.
This is another sleeve I've always loved.
And one of the happy-accident records I bought for a couple of quid.
I've always been a sucker for multilayered photographic imagery.
And this is an early exponent of it, shot by the incredible Norman Seeff and all done pre-Photoshop.
Again, it perfectly sums up the music inside—Joni, Jaco Pastorius and Larry Carlton conjure up slightly cosmic, slightly folky, slightly I'm not quite sure what it is … masterpiece.
Worth noting, the font has that American initial caps thing going on that a lot of long-copy press ads had back in the '70s.
Definitely another good thing.
I could have picked one of a hundred Stax record covers from Booker T, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes etc., ... but I'm going for this one from Stax stablemate Albert King when he defected to Tomato Records. He was one of my heroes when I first bought a guitar, and this record was usually facing outwards on the floor in my bedroom, so there's a lot of nostalgia and memories wrapped up in this.
This cover is as simple as it gets; it totally sums up Albert King and his music for me. Big.
Soul Mining (1983)
Whilst I'm on a nostalgia trip, I couldn't not put this sleeve in.
This record sums up the summer of 1984. My friend's sister was a trendy student and had this record. We'd steal it and play it to death: weird Arabic and African rhythms mixed with funk and lyrics filled with anxiety and uncertainty.
Designed and illustrated lino-cut style by Andy Johnson, the brother of Matt Johnson, the cover just sums up the sounds of this record.
And the subject in the image is Fela Kuti's wife, smoking a ciggy.
Just a brilliant sleeve and a brilliant record.
The Man Machine (1978)
This shouldn't be anywhere near a list of great album covers.
But it's 100 percent in.
My brother had this record in red vinyl when I was about 10.
Like King Crimson, it's unnerving.
They're supposed to be mannequins in this picture, but I've never seen mannequins like this.
The design kind of rips off El Lissitzky, the Russian constructivist, but it's almost like they actually couldn't be bothered to go "Full Lissitzky."
It shouldn't work, but it does.
And the music inside? Like the photograph and design … I'd never heard anything quite like it.
Some of the best covers don't match the music, and this is one of them.
The primitive nature of the cover art, a depiction of a romantic tango by Buenos Aires artist Israel Hoffmann, compared to the overproduced quasi-disco sound of Steely Dan's last really good record, awaits the listener. The album is all about the excesses of the L.A. showbiz scene of the late '70s, as far away from the Argentinian Gaucho scene as you can get.
I love this cover so much that it's tragically my screensaver on my phone and laptop. And I've listened to the record on a loop for over 30 years.
This record wouldn't be complete without this cover, and the cover wouldn't be complete without the music.
I just always loved this image. It's a still taken from the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, and it signifies another huge shift in Bowie's persona. It's so anti-everything that had gone before him, all the glamour and extravagance, and then this … so stripped back and simple, like the music inside. It's just magnificent and original.
This look also became ubiquitous, a wedge haircut, flick and duffle coat, it spawned a thousand imitations across the bars, clubs and football terraces of northern England.
But nobody was ever, or could ever, be quite as cool to pull it off like Bowie did.
Power Corruption & Lies (1982)
The juxtaposition of the old and the new is the genius in this sleeve.
An 1890 renaissance painting by Henri Fantin-Latour, with no credits for the band or any reference to who it is, other than a code of digitized colored boxes on the right-hand side of the sleeve.
Once decoded they read "New Order."
Designer Peter Saville was given free rein by the band and record company to basically do what he wanted for over 20 years. Over that time he created some of the smartest, more innovative and ground-breaking artwork ever seen in the music business.
Disclaimer: I'm not a huge fan of the music.
Blue Train (1958)
I would be remiss not to put a Blue Note sleeve in my top 10.
I could have put hundreds of them in, such is their influence on modern graphic design. I've plumed for this one, as it's one of my favorite records of all time. It has all the classic trademarks of Reid Miles—minimal aesthetic, monochrome photography, sparce but beautiful use of type (I swear they only seemed to have ever used three fonts: Clarendon, Grotesque and Baskerville, but made them work hard), leaving a legacy of design and style probably unparalleled in music and sleeve art.
Art of the Album is a weekly feature every Thursday 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.