Thanks for having me! As a filmmaker, I always turn to music for creative inspiration and motivation. But I'm also intrigued by what inspires others in my film community. I decided to employ the help of some of my industry friends and make a diverse, wide-spanning curated playlist of our collective favorite album covers and why they are special to us.
Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)
—Nina Meredith / Director / Rattling Stick
I'll kick it off with a landmark album by a towering music legend. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation was an influential cover and pivotal era for the iconic artist. It was a total smash hit that garnered extreme success upon release in 1989. I love the visuals. I love the music. I love the symbolism. I'm drawn to the dramatic, severe contrast of the black-and-white artwork (check out the MV, too—the choreography is mesmerizing) and militant expression she chose as a political response to the social issues of the time. Janet Jackson is a sensation, a trendsetter and a mover. She hands down paved the way for every female artist who came after her.
Oh, No! It's DEVO (1982)
—Amber Schaefer / Writer-Director / 3arts + O Positive Films
When it comes to a band with sonic, visual and mythical cohesion, my first thought is DEVO. "Oh, No! It's DEVO" isn't my favorite DEVO album, but the album cover perfectly embodies what makes DEVO so great.
Mark Mothersbaugh is a Spudboy—a man of the people—but his glasses give a cartoonishly evil arch, perhaps a nod to the way in which their satire of capitalism and fasicsm were consistently mistaken for an endorsement of them. Mothersbaugh presents the meta-album cover apologetically; the critics have already spoken: "Oh, No! It's DEVO!" Meanwhile, Mothersbaugh and the Spudboys hover over Spudland in their potato bodies and Spudrings—committing to the bit, sure, but asking us almost gravely: How could you possibly take us seriously?
Switched-On Bach (1968)
—Johanna Cranitch / Associate Creative Director / Massive Music
Not only is the record incredible (Bach pieces interpreted by the musings of Carlos and her Moog!!???) but it has a great moody image of a man dressed up as Bach, standing in front of Wendy's synths. Fun fact. The original cover has the man seated, and the synth isn't set up correctly. Meaning it wouldn't have played. The clown-like nature of the man's expression, paired with that set-up fact, had Wendy pulling it and redoing the picture. After Carlos came out as a transgender woman in 1979, reissues of Switched-On Bach amended the artist credit to reflect her name, as was the case with the rest of her discography up to that point.
—Lauren Sick / Writer-Director / RESET
My good friend's older sister introduced me to this record when it came out in '98. There's something so timeless and modern about it—I love the type, the composition, and the unexpected combination of a gnarly looking insect given a high-fashion treatment. While up until this point in my young life music always made me feel things, I think this was the album that made me really imagine and visualize things. It was one of the first times I remember music making me think cinematically. It's also the first album to be stored using genetic information—apparently millions of copies were put into spray paint using synthetic DNA, which is pretty sick.
360 Degrees of Billy Paul (1972)
—Carol Dunn / Executive Producer / Human Worldwide
My taste in music is varied, and my connection to music distinctly divides the chapters of my life. There was BD and AD. Before Divorce and After Divorce. Both my mom and dad's houses had vinyl collections. I would lose myself in the records. It's hard to choose a favorite, but this album cover always stuck out. The image tied so closely to the message Billy Paul clearly wanted to share. I specifically remember the lyrics to the track "Am I Black Enough for You" making me feel empowered and begin to question my own small place in society even at a very young age. I was able to find strength and direction in these lyrics. The image cleverly shows the depth and nuance of a Black person's perspective. Back then and still today, I find myself being the lone Black person in overwhelmingly white spaces. This song—then and now—elicits those around me to not only see me but also answer their question of what my Blackness means to them.
Freetown Sound (2016)
—Cath Daly / Associate Producer / The Mill
One of my favorite album covers is Blood Orange's Freetown Sound. The image on the cover was made by Deana Lawson, titled "Binky & Tony Forever." I've always found Lawson's work to be visually arresting and emotionally palpable. When Lawson speaks about this image in particular, she discusses how important it was to her to depict the woman's gaze as the central power of the image, how key her support is in upholding the relationship depicted. The resulting visual is so tender and arresting, on top of being immaculately composed.
When he asked Lawson if he could use the image, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) shared that he spent time looking at her work and her contact sheets when making the album, and had returned to "Binky & Tony Forever" again and again. Her work was part of his process and his inspiration. Deana agreed to share the image because she felt that Dev's mission, integrity and aesthetic were shared with hers. I find this mode of collaboration to be so ethical and beautiful, which is no doubt part of why this album cover has resonated with me for the past six years.
Secos & Molhados
—Mah Ferraz / Film Editor / Cut+Run
This is an iconic album cover from a Brazilian band called Secos & Molhados (Dry & Wet). This was their first album cover in the midst of a dictatorship in 1973. The cover was shocking at the time for its aggressive boldness. In the cover, they are placing their heads on a silver platter because they know their music and message will be aggressive and they may go to jail or die for it. Around them are "dry" food (bread, coffee, crackers, etc) and "wet" drinks (wine and other alcohol) that represent the name of the band that came from these small bodegas that used to exist in Brazil where you could only get these sorts of products.
They were defying the conservator norm and were revolutionary with their message, music and look. It was controversial for the times yet a huge success, selling almost 1 million records at a time when 100,000 gave you a "gold record." I listened to this album with my dad, who grew up in the dictatorship and heard from him about its impact. This album and its cover were a mark in Brazilian music. The band doesn't exist anymore; only one member, Ney Matogrosso, continued making music. Ney is a gay symbol to this day and was ranked by Rolling Stone as the third greatest Latin American singer of all time.
—Samantha Scaffidi / Writer-Director / SMUGGLER
Music has the power to instantly and viscerally move me. It has accompanied many writing sessions and acting roles in which I had to get into a certain emotional state to channel the material, as well as turn me inward. It helps me address some of the most complex emotions that my conscious mind can't seem to sort out on its own. But beyond the present moment, it has aided me in transcending time. I've been transported back to some of my fondest childhood memories. In one instant, the year became 1998. I am 9. I am in my family's grey Jeep. My mother is driving. Both of us sing: "Just before our love got lost you said 'I am as constant as a northern star.' And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness. Where's that at? If you want me I'll be in the bar.' " The singer is Joni Mitchell, the song is "A Case of You." It is the Blue album.
These days we can look past the album and head straight for the songs without realizing that this is what makes this piece of art whole. The album art tells you exactly what you are in for before you've listened to the words. It also, for me at least, deepened the listening experience. This album visually represents, almost to perfection, the haunting, raw vocals of Joni and the sadness that accompanies such rich and complex emotions when one turns their attention inwards. It will forever remain one of my favorite albums.
Things Fall Apart (1999)
—Vanessa Beletic / Director / Rattling Stick
Things Fall Apart, released in 1999, was the breakthrough album that made my favorite hip-hop band, The Roots, visible in the late 1990s music scene. The cover—Black women running away from the police in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn during a riot in the 1960s, was so gripping and emotional—clearly had something to say. I thought it to be such a bold and cinematic choice—so much emotion and action in a single frame! For a limited time, the album came with five different covers, each a display of humanity in its darkest hours. I love the decision to say something with an album cover that potentially has nothing to do with the content of the album, but more about arresting the people who see it at first glance. GUTSY!
—Magdalena Górka / Director of Photography
I first saw this album cover as a teenager in Poland and it blew my mind. I hadn't seen anything that bold before, and it made me think of the myth of the American Dream. I loved the juxtaposition of innocence and greed and how from an early age we are being told that success is measured in monetary values. This image pops into my mind every time I have to make a tough choice of picking vacation over a work offer.
Friends That Break Your Heart (2021)
—Jane Qian/ Director / Knucklehead
I'm obsessed with this album. It's hauntingly, beautifully sad. I love listening alone, blasting it loud in my apartment and letting the acoustics bounce through the walls. I'm equally in love with the album cover. It's painted by Stockholm-based artist Miles Johnston. It shows James Blake with a fragmented body, lying motionless in the woods as his eyes stare straight at the viewer. It's surreal, creepy, uncomfortable and absolutely brilliant!
The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers (1971)
—Cristina Dunlap / Cinematographer / Gersh Production
I had this album on repeat in my early teenage years and the matching poster in my bedroom. It felt scandalous to have that poster on my wall as a young teen, and I loved that it had a working zipper, even though it's actually a terrible design because it scratched the record through the cover when it was in a stack with other records. Despite that, the controversial imagery suited the band and cemented it as one of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums of all time.
Them Changes (1970)
—Shannon Palmer / Cinematographer
This album cover never ceases to put a smile on my face. His style, the "don't-F-with-me" attitude that he exudes, is nothing short of iconic. On its face it's such a simple album cover, but to me it's undeniably timeless—just like every single song on the album.
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.