If it weren't for album covers, I wouldn't be a designer, plain and simple. Don't even try to hold my attention if a record store is within an eyeshot. Okay, CDs sound better, but the size and feel of a vinyl album and its sleeve… mmmm, 12-inch record, I love you.
My favorite sleeves, though, are still about the music. Form and content. Vaughan Oliver (RIP) and his cohorts at V23 are on my list of favorite designers, but there's only one 4AD album here, and V23 had nothing to do with it. Human first, designer second.
I'm also advanced enough in age that I really need 15 picks to tell this story.
Right Now! (1966)
The DNA source code for this list is Blue Note Records and the sleeves Reid Miles designed for the company in the 1950s-60s. My father was an avid bebop jazz fan and owned numerous Blue Note LPs. One of my earliest memories is being in our family room and my father joyously playing his saxophone along to the music spinning on the turntable, the album cover on the mantle above it. I could exhaust a whole column on Miles' Blue Note work alone, but Right Now! is the eyeworm that I remember and cherish most from those toddler days. The 12-inch square can barely contain it. You almost need two exclamation points at the end of the title.
The Beatles (The White Album) and Sgt. Pepper are the usual Fab Four sleeve picks, but neither has the peculiar aura of Revolver. After flipping for the Beatles from a worn cassette playing in my uncle's Rabbit convertible on a vacation to visit him in Maui, my aunt (from the other side of the family) gave me a few of her old Beatles LPs, including Revolver. If Revolver is considered the major creative turning point in the Beatles' music, that same leap happened with its sleeve design. The band is still pictured on the front cover but through a kaleidoscopic collage of photography and illustration—created by a pal of the band, Klaus Voormann—that echoes the turn-on-your-mind audio artistry within. An alternate album title could be The Beatles Through the Looking Glass. Just that finely-rendered hair alone is a wonderland.
Ghost in the Machine (1981)
Ghost in the Machine is when the Police went dark—figuratively with songs like "Invisible Sun" and "Secret Journey," and literally with the song "Darkness" and this cover art. The digital alarm clock-inspired image, designed by Mick Haggerty and Jeffery Ayeroff, was initially baffling. Was it because there were three band members? Was it half a Satanic reference? Where was the "ghost?" Not until years later, when someone pointed out that they were actually faces, Sting's spiky hair and all, that it made sense. And even knowing that now, these abstract portraits still project an air of mystery that effectively complements the most idiosyncratic music the Police made over their short career.
Wait, these albums are all called Peter Gabriel? Cool. The groovy all-lowercase typographic bug, placed in the same upper left corner position on every album? Even cooler. But that melting face? (Remember, this was before Photoshop.) Killer. Whatever you think about Peter Gabriel's music, he created a mini-visual mythology with his first three self-titled album covers, all designed by Hipgnosis and alternately called Car, Scratch, Melt. But it wasn't until 3/Melt, that Gabriel's musical vision truly transcended his earlier stint as the leader of Genesis. The "Games Without Frontiers" lead-off single and video I first saw on MTV was bats**t crazy for this early 1980s suburban kid, and 3/Melt's music and cover art delivered on that promise. It's as if Gabriel is saying, "My metamorphosis is finally complete." Forget So and its Peter Saville-designed cover. This is Gabriel's masterpiece, music and sleeve art.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
I've always asserted that the missing link between the refined sleeve design for U.K.-based post-punk and new wave bands in the 1980s and the more scrappy album art created by 1990s indie rock bands like Pavement, Guided By Voices and Bonnie "Prince" Billy is the IRS-label R.E.M. albums and one EP released between 1982 and 1987. All designed by lead singer Michael Stipe with various collaborators, these sleeves married the high art aspirations of designers like Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver with the handcrafted DIY spirit of punk rock, epitomized by Jamie Reid's work for the Sex Pistols. Drawing on the surreal and gothic facets of the American South where the band formed, Stipe created art as elliptical and mysterious as his song lyrics.
Lifes Rich Pageant is my favorite—album and sleeve. Sorry, Murmur acolytes. Is that the top half of drummer Bill Berry's face? Is it Life's or Lifes? Did they forget the apostrophe? Never mind, it was months after I bought the record before I really noticed the buffaloes. Why are the songs out of order on the back cover? "Bury magnets. Swallow the rapture?" So many questions—and that was the point. They're what endeared R.E.M. to so many of us in the band's early years. But I wouldn't have even asked the questions if I hadn't been so enamored with the visuals in the first place.
True Faith 12-inch single (1987)
I came to New Order and Joy Division late. I'd heard "Blue Monday" in the background at high school parties, but it wasn't until college and the release of Substance, New Order's first singles compilation, that they entered my musical orbit. "True Faith" was the lone new track from that collection and is still my favorite New Order song. Substance also has an iconic Peter Saville-designed cover, but I treasure his work for "True Faith's" more. Where Substance's design is all opaque, porcelain cool that keeps you at arm's length, True Faith—song and sleeve—is a longing, melancholy-blue hug.
Camper Van Beethoven
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)
For us western Pennsylvania folk, California was the promised land of the wild and weird. But I never bought into any of the prototypical hippie-psychedelic culture before or after I relocated there. The Grateful Dead's music bores me silly, and the associated visual culture—tie-dye, Victor Mocosco posters—has devolved into boring nostalgia at best, tired kitsch at worst.
Camper Van Beethoven is different. As California natives, they certainly absorbed these influences but funneled them through an anarchic Wild-West-Captain-Beefheart-post-punk flume. For the Sweetheart cover, Bruce Licher of Independent Project Press created an idiosyncratic mix of Americana, Western myth and Ottoman mysticism (?) that complements the near-perfect eclectic suite of songs within. Virgin Records even sprung for the classy uncoated paper stock and a registered deboss! Who says major labels always suck? Alas, Camper's Virgin albums are still unavailable for streaming due to a dispute between the label and the band. So… maybe they do suck after all.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Get Happy!! / Imperial Bedroom (1980, 1982)
Designer Barney Bubbles' had an ace run with Elvis Costello over seven LPs. These two are my favorites. Get Happy!! was influenced by R&B and soul music of the 1960s. Bedroom harked back to the Beatles, Phil Spector and even Tin Pan Alley. Like Costello's music, Bubbles' designs acknowledge the source material but go beyond mere pastiche and are of their contemporary New Wave time period. Happy!!'s cover is a Stax LP sped up to 78 RPM, Bedroom's is if Picasso lived another decade or two and tried to go post-punk. Sadly, Bubbles' ebullient work masked a dark depression, and he committed suicide in 1983.
De la Soul
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
This may be my favorite album of all time. The sampling alone is mind-blowing, but if you aren't smiling after listening to this record, you're dead inside. And if you can't look past all your design school indoctrination and see how perfectly this Jolly Rancher of a cover lines up with 3 Feet High's music, you're dead to me. (Art Direction: The Grey Organization)
Dead Can Dance
Spleen and Ideal (1985)
Dead Can Dance was the first 4AD band that really registered for me. I liked the Throwing Muses, the Breeders, and the Pixies well enough—I almost went with Surfer Rosa for my 4AD pick instead—but DCD's gloriously apocalyptic music from this period had a bit more allure for an angsty, sensitive college boy like myself. In the late 1980s-early 1990s, their albums were only available on import CDs and difficult to find. But there was a tiny second floor store in Pittsburgh that offered a panoply of cool stuff, including a small CD selection that included all five of the import DCD LPs available at the time. Even on CD, with Colin Gray's photo shrunk to two-thirds size and framed by a gloomy, marbled green, Spleen and Ideal's cover was still mesmerizing, perfectly capturing the dark tidings of the music within. I'm happy that the vinyl version I've bought since blows this arresting image up to full-bleed size, but did the typography have to be so badly executed? Maybe just put it on the back for the next reissue?
Franks Wild Years (1987)
Hearing Tom Waits for the first time in his Island Records heyday is jarring. The voice, the instrumentation and the surreal stories he spins clatter and clang to create a gin-soaked, downtrodden world all its own. Rain Dogs may be a stronger album song-to-song, but Franks Wild Years' aura is more strangely alluring. The cover helps this along—a photo collage that is half vintage, half contemporary, all noir, dark as the night. Waits glances askance at us as if to say, "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here. But if you do come in, have a drink."
The Chemical Brothers
Since I first heard the opening refrain of "The brothers gonna work it out…" from "Leave Home" in the mid-1990s on a dive-bar dance floor in the Lower Haight, the Chemical Brothers have produced too many rave-up bangers to even count at this point. There are some individual Chemical Brothers sleeves I like, but I'm more impressed with the entirety of their catalog as a single, evolving unit. Over nine full-length LPs and countless singles, they've established a body of work that is varied in its execution but unified in concept. Their distinct logotype always looms in a corner of the square frame, and the imagery refracts the hypnotic, trance-inducing meter of the music. Chemical beats for the eyes.
XTRMNTR (Exterminator) (2000)
Coming of age as a designer in the grunge splatter of the early 1990s, I was all but conditioned to love Julian House's work for the UK-based studio, Intro. If his sleeve designs sometimes felt at odds with the smoother hum of bands like Stereolab or Broadcast, it found a perfect complement in Primal Scream's teeth-bared, speaker-shredding 2000 release. Come for the unnerving, jagged collages; stay for the redacted, vowel-free type. PRML SCRM MTHR FCKR.
Light Up Gold (2012)
Even in an oversaturated DIY music underground, Parquet Courts' off-kilter indie rock cuts through the genre's standard feedback and fuzz. So do their album covers, and 2012's Light Up Gold is my favorite. It's almost outsider art, breaking design rules galore—Blackletter type, crappy image quality, crossing out official song titles with red pen alternatives—but still adding up to a compelling whole. The naïve illustrations and hand-lettering, also spread across the back cover and inner sleeve, are an indie-rock staple. But designer and bandleader Andrew Savage combines them to create an entire—and entirely strange—mythology for the band. A master of his craft, indeed.