I grew up in an environment where everyone was obsessed with something (don't we all?). Religion, sport, Bollywood, sex, online validation, conspiracies, getting mad hammered on really bad whiskey, and whatnot. Music was mine. I sought to expose myself to as many artists as I could, and having spent all my life in Mumbai (before moving to New York), it sparked a fire in me for all of the different ways we voice ourselves. Good album art has always been the gateway to the sounds it packages. If the artwork don't slap, I skip. Usually.
From the Mona Lisa to a Zendaya selfie, there's nothing more powerful and vulnerable than an intimate portrait. Although Tutu, as a record, may not be his best remembered, this Grammy-winning cover might be Miles Davis' most iconic. The stark Caravaggio-esque shadows serenade his skin like a sidechick, while his eyes looking away from the lens tempt me to turn back and see if I can catch a glimpse of the vision only Miles Davis ever saw. Art directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Eiko Ishioka (Art Direction), Irving Penn (Photography), Susan Welt (Design).
The BQE (2009)
What blows my mind with this one is that Sufjan Stevens drew the typography himself. And he never went to design school. The wild, kaleidoscopic type is superimposed over an image of the BQE that is so simple, you could take a similar one with an iPhone. The result is striking and serene, naive and masterful, frisky and gentle, much like Stevens' music. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Sufjan Stevens (Photography, Layout, Design, Illustration).
I can't see anyone else gracing this cover in all of hip-hop history. Alessandro Trincone's kimono-inspired piece was made to be blessed by some Thugga Swagger. The soft purple hues with Jeffery's glam pose drips a cocktail of cool and thrill. The world needs more sex, Thug and rock n' roll. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Garfield Larmond (Photography), Alessandro Trincone (Garment Design).
20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
You could argue that great record covers go hand-in-hand with the music. Well, this hand's deceiving. This album sounds nothing like jazz-funk and the image was shot at a popular suicide spot in England. Throbbing Gristle pioneered a ravaging sound that crossed generations, from Nine Inch Nails to Playboi Carti. The idea for the artwork is nothing but genius—listeners innocently picking up the record at a store based on the pleasant cover, only to be sonically annihilated, in a good or bad way, depending on your taste. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Peter Christopherson/Hipgnosis.
Iroha ni Konpeitō (1977)
A J-pop/funk album with the artist holding an inflatable dolphin in a red jumpsuit on the cover? Pass me the f*****g aux. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Bishin Jumonji (Photography).
World of Echo (1986)
Arthur Russell's enigmatic legacy only started to get the attention it deserves over the past decade. Russell was diagnosed with HIV the same year this banger dropped. The blurry, electric visual of what I think is our planet lets the super tracked out Futura Extra Black float over as if it's meditating—quite literal in its ties to the title. Like many of his ideas, the cover, with Y2K-style gradients and spacey typography, was way, way, way ahead of its time. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Janet Perr.
…I Care Because You Do (1995)
That grin, yo. Haunting. Creepy. Iconic. The self-portrait together with Aphex Twin's signature mathematical drums and vibrating melodies, leaks a savant-like energy. The strong blacks almost wrestle with the warm tones to immediately attract and hold my attention. The dark circles under the eyes and the barcode are a nice touch. This cover is only one of many striking visuals from his legendary, mysterious career. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Richard D. James (Art); John (Design).
Jesse Kanda has one of, if not the most original visual voices from the past decade. He's created a number of great covers for Arca, Twigs and Björk, among others, but this record from late last year is my favorite. He acknowledged Chris Cunnigham as an early influence, and pushed their shared love for disturbing beauty into otherworldly, angelic territories. Galatea is less unsettling than his other works, but it captures his sense of ancient-futurism the best, in my humble opinion. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Jesse Kanda.
I've been looking for this Margiela jumper for years now, even though I can't afford it (yet). Björk has a distinct aesthetic that has evolved over the years, but Debut stands out for its raw, minimalistic, no-frills (or maybe less frills) approach. Her fuzzy hair and the mohair sweater, with the modest yet composed stance captured so effectively in sepia, seems like it was a warning: Björk was about to drop heat after heat on the world. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Judy Blame (Style), Jean-Baptiste Mondino (Photography), TOPOLiNO (Makeup), Martin Margiela (Knitwear Design).
Innerspeaker resonated heavily with me at 17, with its themes of isolation and reflection. Looking back, this album was something I leaned further into my ostracization with. Now I listen to it differently—it's therapy. The saturated colors of the mountainscape, endlessly loop into infinity, as if it's been plugged into an EchoPlex and a phaser pedal. What makes this cover so successful to me is that all of the music, including the very first notes of the guitar arpeggio on "It Is Not Meant To Be," sounds exactly how the cover art looks. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Leif Podhajsky.
The Beatles (White Album) (1968)
BONUS PICK! I wanted to squeeze in one more. The White Album, as it's known, is such big d**k energy. Many artists have pulled similar moves since, but only the Beatles could do it first. A plain white cover with "The Beatles" embossed in Helvetica, sitting awkwardly off-center, make this a monolithic and timeless masterpiece. Earlier editions of the vinyl were stamped and numbered, which added to its marketing hype. Apparently, they thought it would be ironic and cheeky to number the millions of copies. But considering the countless reissues and with time, it turned out to be quite profitable to some resellers. Ringo Starr sold his #0000001 copy for over three quarters of a million dollars. Art Directors/designers/photographers (contributors): Richard Hamilton.