Back in the dark ages, before MTV and YouTube usurped our collective visual imagination, album covers were often all we had to make a deeper creative connection with the artists we listened to. As soon as I'd put the needle down on the record, I would pore over the cover, the liner notes, the album credits, and if I was lucky, the lyrics.
Sadly, much of that era of discovery is now gone, but at least the art remains, even if it shows up only as a tiny square on a handheld device (or in the case of some listed here, after an extensive Google image search).
Here are 11 of my faves, with apologies to those I didn't pick, including Led Zeppelin, New Order, Yes, Massive Attack, Björk, the Breeders, Boards of Canada, Miles Davis, Weval, the Smiths, Underworld and Elvises Presley and Costello.
With The Beatles/Meet The Beatles! (1963/1964)
Cover: Robert Freeman
It was tough for me to decide here (let alone choose just one Beatles album!) since With the Beatles wasn't widely available in the U.S. until the CD era while Meet the Beatles! is the version I grew up with. Either way, both records feature the striking, half-shadowed Robert Freeman portrait of the Fab Four, shot in a dark corridor at Bournemouth's Palace Court Hotel in August 1963. Sporting mod, matching turtlenecks and outrageous haircuts, these otherworldly troubadours looked as different as they sounded. The album foreshadowed the changes ahead, paving the way for rock artists to perform their own material (11 of the 12 tracks on Meet the Beatles! were original compositions), the sharing of vocal duties, and the advent of the LP as an art form. Aesthetically, I prefer the minimalist U.K. design, but musically, the U.S. release gets the edge for three simple reasons: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "I Saw Her Standing There" and the glorious "This Boy."
Essential tracks (on both): "All My Loving," "Not a Second Time," "Till There Was You"
Chris & Cosey
Design: Steven R. Gilmore; Art: Tamara de Lempicka, Nude With Sailboats, 1931
For a Chicago-area Gen X-er who had little affection for mainstreamers like Lionel Richie, Phil Collins and Madonna, Wax Trax Records, at 2449 N. Lincoln Ave., was a bastion of hope and mystery, both for the music as well as the eye candy. Above the treasure trove of records dangled a Cure-worthy forest of oversized posters from artists I was hungry to discover (think the huge Cabaret Voltaire poster in Ferris Bueller's bedroom; John Hughes was also a loyal Wax Trax patron). As I'd rifle through the vinyl, I was as intrigued by the unusual album art as I was by the content. That's when I started collecting covers by Steven R. Gilmore, whose distinctive graphics and type treatment epitomized the gritty-yet-futuristic nature of the electro-industrial genre and helped form a visual language for bands like Skinny Puppy, Severed Heads, Front Line Assembly, Manufacture, MC 900 Ft. Jesus and trance pioneers/Throbbing Gristle spinoffs Chris & Cosey.
Essential tracks: "Rise," "Watching You"
The English Beat
I Just Can't Stop It (1980)
Cover: Hunt Emerson
The best use of pink, black and white since the Good & Plenty box, I Just Can't Stop It was the smash debut by Birmingham's second-wave ska titans The Beat ("English" was added in the U.S. for legal reasons). The striking profiles on the cover reflect not only the vibrancy of the music but the diversity of the band members themselves, in keeping with the racial unity the U.K. ska movement hoped to promote. At top left, the über-cool, skanking "Beat Girl" went on to serve as an enduring icon of the band—and a female equivalent to the suited-and-booted "Ska Man" of fellow 2-Tone artists the Specials. The album itself consists of now-legendary ska/new-wave originals along with updated interpretations of Prince Buster gems and a couple of surprising American covers, including Andy Williams' "Can't Get Used to Losing You," a full 36 years before Beyoncé sampled the easy-listening classic on "Hold Up." The vivid art direction continues on the back cover (where we find our Beat Girl now playing the album on a hi-fi) while the inner sleeve sports pink, black and white dance-step diagrams. Go Feet!
Essential tracks: "Ranking Full Stop," "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Tears of a Clown"
Music from Mr. Lucky (1960)
Cover: Don Peters
With cover art promising a hip, Hammond-organ-filled, bachelor-pad vibe, Music from Mr. Lucky doesn't disappoint (though to be fair, I haven't actually listened to this album in a while, since it's been framed on the wall above my stereo for years). As seen in the opening graphics of the Mr. Lucky television show, a sleek one-eyed cat peeps through an airbrush-speckled night while a pair of dice allude to the series storyline: an extraordinarily lucky professional gambler owns a floating casino that attracts international fugitives and ne'er-do-wells (hey, it could happen). The music, unfortunately, has endured longer than the show itself, which was axed by CBS after just one season. Mr. Lucky was the second collaboration between Mancini and series creator Blake Edwards (the first was Peter Gunn), and their professional partnership eventually spanned 30 films over 35 years, including Breakfast at Tiffany's, Days of Wine and Roses, and the Pink Panther series. Cover designer Don Peters, a former Walt Disney background artist, later contributed to the film The Incredible Mr. Limpet and was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing The Naked Prey. Fun fact: While designing concept art for an early, ill-fated Blake Edwards Planet of the Apes project, Peters allegedly came up with the famous twist ending used in the final 1968 version.
Essential tracks: "Mr. Lucky," "One-Eyed Cat"
Chill Out (1990)
Cover: The KLF/stock photo
When my wife and I took a road trip from Chicago through the Southwest many years ago, we listened to this album almost exclusively—and the soundtrack remains as memorable as the journey itself. A landmark of ambient house, Chill Out is a masterpiece of sound design, mind alteration and unexpected (and unfortunately, unlicensed) samples. Spacey synths and haunting pedal steel guitar intermingle with moaning train whistles, church sermons, crickets, news broadcasts, Tuvan throat singers, Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto," Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore," Van Halen's "Eruption" and sheep. Lots of sheep. Intended to represent a night-time journey throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast states, Chill Out is one of the most utterly American-sounding albums I've ever heard, even though it was "Composed Compiled and Collated by the KLF" entirely in South London. Oddly enough, the album cover, a pastoral scene with (yes) sheep (inspired by Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother), might be the most English thing about it. Note: While the original Chill Out has been out of print for 29 years, The KLF just released a "reworked" version (read: no Elvis or Van Halen), Come Down Dawn, onto streaming services this past February. Start planning that road trip now!
Essential tracks: "Madrugada Eterna," "3AM Somewhere Out of Beaumont"
The Harmonicats in the Land of Hi-Fi (1959)
If you've long wondered whether it was possible to make stacks of harmonicas look sexy and alluring, wonder no more. The way the shiny, saturated reds, golds and silvers jump off this cover is enough to make even the most innocent soul horny for Hohners. I experienced a wave of unexplainable emotions (love? lust?) when I came upon this magical, mint-condition baby in a charity record bin and promptly made it my own. Sure, the music within might not be as engaging as their superior Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White LP (the pencil-mustached Jerry Murad and his 'Cats were quite astounding actually, showing the world what to do with a bass harmonica years before Brian Wilson thought to use them on Pet Sounds). But oh, what a cover. If this is what the Land of Hi-Fi looks like, put me on the next train.
Essential tracks: "12th Street Rag," "All of Me"
Design: Nancy Rose; Photography: Matt Hogan
In today's music-streaming era, it's difficult to focus on albums in their entirety, let alone album art, but a few have made it into my consciousness, like this gem from 2018. I initially got into Caroline Rose via the keyboard-saturated, roller-disco earworm "Jeannie Becomes a Mom." I then dug deeper and discovered the amazing cover. Depicting the artist having a substantial, post-Jazzercize smoke, the image meshes perfectly with the contemplative humor of the music, which takes a satirical-if-not-cynical view of American life in the early 21st century. As for the color palette, Rose is arguably the most red-centric musical artist since the White Stripes, and the scheme gets even more saturated in her follow-up, Superstar (2020), another cover for your consideration.
Essential tracks: "Jeannie Becomes a Mom," "Money," "More of the Same"
Virgins and Philistines (1985)
Design: T&CP; Photography: Peter Ashworth
To me, Terry Hall is one of music's unsung heroes. He started out in the late-'70s fronting the Specials, broke off to form Fun Boy Three, followed up with the Colourfield, and moved on to other projects all while discovering Bananarama, co-writing the Go-Go's first hit ("Our Lips Are Sealed") and collaborating with the likes of Dave Stewart, Tricky, Mushtaq, the Lightning Seeds, Junkie XL, Sinéad O'Connor, Lily Allen and Gorillaz. (In 2019, he recorded Encore with the reunited Specials, hitting No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart for the first time since 1980.) I first heard the Colourfield when my sister gave me a tape containing their quintessential version of "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" (sorry, Smashmouth) and I have cherished this album ever since. An eclectic assortment of sweet pop, garage rock, Spanish guitars, cinematic strings and even a moody cover of the Roches' "Hammond Song," Virgins and Philistines is a hard one to categorize but a masterpiece nonetheless. In keeping with the religious tone of the title, the cover portrait—shot by the legendary Peter Ashworth—bathes the beatifically grinning bandmates in the warm, saintly glow of a stained-glass window. For Hall, it's a far cry from his defiant glare on the cover of the Specials' debut, but like the music itself, he has matured and moved on.
Essential Tracks: "Thinking of You," "Can't Get Enough of You Baby," "Pushing Up Daisies"
Noah's Ark (2005)
Touch & Go
Cover: Bianca Casady
I know, I know. I could've picked from dozens of other excellent cover options that don't feature rainbow-spewing unicorns engaging in a three-way, but where's the fun in that? Fact is, the cover meshes quite well with the music: It's weird, stunted, unsettling and kind of wrong. It's also quite beautiful at times, hypnotic and mesmerizing. Featuring guest appearances by Devendra Banhart, Antony Hegarty and French rapper Spleen, there's a melancholic, dreamlike quality to the quivery, filtered vocals (Banhart sang his parts via cell phone), toy instruments, harps, clock-like percussion and operatic embellishments. The end result sounds like a mixture of Joanna Newsom, Yma Sumac, Cat Power, Yoko Ono, Björk and Maria Callas singing through a cheese grater. Like group sex among crypto-beasts, it's not for everyone.
Essential Tracks: "Beautiful Boys," "Noah's Ark," "K-hole"
Con Acompañamiento De Mariachi, Arpa Y Guitarra (1970)
I discovered this beauty at the Record Exchange on Morse Avenue when I was living in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. At the time, I had never heard of Mexican superstar Cuco Sánchez, but the cover photo, with its warm, saturated yellows and tans against a deep green background, lured me in. At first listen, I was entranced by the ringing guitars, beautiful arrangements and plaintive vocals—but what also hooked me was the use of non-traditional instruments, like the foreboding, firing-squad drum rolls in "Guitarras, Lloren Guitarras" or the "Carnival of Souls" pipe organ that introduces "La Rosa De Oro." Based on the cover style and the classic, vintage sound, I had assumed this album was from the late '50s/early '60s, but recently found out it was released in 1970—yes, the same year as Led Zeppelin III, Bitches Brew and Paranoid. Same planet, vastly different worlds.
Essential tracks: "La Rosa De Oro," "Anoche Estuve Llorando," "Siempre Hace Frio"
Tom Tom Club
Cover: James Rizzi
Call it sacrilege, but I've always liked Tom Tom Club slightly more than their mothership, Talking Heads. Even before I heard their music, I first noticed cover designer James Rizzi's child-like art come to life during the opening credits for MV3, the nationally syndicated video show (hosted by British DJ Richard Blade) that expanded my musical horizons back before MTV entered my home. Along with videos from "underground" artists like Bow Wow Wow, Romeo Void, Toto Coelo and Wall of Voodoo, "Genius of Love" always seemed to be on heavy rotation, featuring Rizzi's frenetic animation swaying to the irresistible grooves and silky female vocals led by Heads' bassist Tina Weymouth with her sisters Laura and Lani. They were fun. They were funky. And they name-checked Kurtis Blow. Whereas Talking Heads occasionally came across as artsy and inaccessible, Tom Tom Club was a party I was always welcome at—and their visual identity had a lot to do with it.
Essential tracks: "Genius of Love," "Wordy Rappinghood"