When the kind and flattering folks at Clio Music asked me to name my favorite album covers of all time, it was a struggle—just as it is every time anyone asks me that question after learning I've designed a few myself.
I consider myself more a fan than an authority, so in order to even begin to wrap my head around this, I had to cook up some self-imposed guidelines. Most important among them being to avoid proclaiming anything as "the best," ranking picks in any order, or otherwise attempting to be definitive. I'm limited by my own experience, taste and perspective, which means there are thousands of brilliant album covers I've either never seen or don't know the intent behind well enough to have a valid opinion of. So, in the end, I just stuck to what I know and love and tried to pick some things I hadn't seen discussed very often.
Last thing I should say is that while I've designed many covers and admired many more, my passion and emphasis in school was industrial design, far more than graphic, and were this a list of my favorite "album packages" rather than "album covers," I'd lean harder into the kind of conceptual physical experiences that I live for, rather than the typography and images I stuck to here.
With all that said, here's a list of some covers that inspired me, left me in awe, and changed how I felt about the music behind them. I'm sure I forgot some of my favorites, I'm sure something will come out soon I'll want to add to this list, but I'll always dig what's here.
Here's Little Richard (1957)
I was hanging out with a friend of mine, a pretty legendary Grammy-winning album designer himself, and we were listening to Little Richard's debut LP. Being a bit older than me, he talked about how shocking this was in 1957—this queer, Black dynamo screaming these these lyrics in total, glorious affront to everything white folks in 1950s America were afraid of. He picked up the record jacket and said, "... and this is the greatest album cover of all time." In the context of our conversation, I realized he wasn't being flip or hyperbolic. The bold, screaming image of Little Richard, the giant type, and even the title itself, blasts at your eyes with all the wild abandon of the music inside. Sitting on record-store shelves next to a smiling Buddy Holly (with his "Chirping" Crickets), Sinatra's effortless cool, Nat "King" Cole's polite smile, and the matinee version of Elvis gracing his first soundtrack album, this must have stood out like ... well, Little Richard. Shocking stuff, as much inside as out.
Jackie's Bag (1961)
Yeah, I get it, putting a vintage Blue Note cover in one of these lists is almost too clichéd to defend, but this one in particular—nothing like the oft-imitated, bold photo/bold colors/bold type we associate with Reid Miles' designs—had a profound influence on my own work. I can't count how many times I've painstakingly recycled this idea, either subconsciously or just plain ripping off the whole concept or a specific detail. I nicked it for the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic rebranding I did in the early 2000s, a Tim Buckley reissue, a Doors box, and the interior of the (Clio Music Gold-winning, thank you very much!) Keith Richards' Talk Is Cheap deluxe reissue, just to name just a few, but my general obsession with the "office supply" aesthetic can be seen somewhere in nearly everything I've designed. It wasn't until I took Jackie's Bag out for a spin a few months ago that I realized that my cut-n-paste analog approach all started when I bought this album—the first jazz record I ever owned—as a teenager.
Two Steps From the Blues (1961)
I've always had a thing for hyper-literal album cover art, absolutely loving the best of them but loathing the worst, which often reduce great songs to lazy puns. This is one of the best, because the pun is subtle, meticulously staged, and artfully executed. At first glance, it's just a bad-ass shot of Bobby, looking clean and mean, posed outside what could be his apartment or maybe his label's office. But dig in a little: There's an open door. Look at Bobby's feet and you'll see he's literally two steps from the landing. Look at the building, and you'll see it's painted various shades of blue. We have no idea what's behind that open doorway, but it ain't good. So, yeah, there's Bobby, literally two steps from the blues, yet there's a whole story being set up. Bonus points for the way Bobby's name and the album's selection number (on the Duke Records original cover) are rendered in perspective on the building walls, a skillful touch decades before Adobe reduced tricks like that to a few simple keystrokes.
NOTE: When ABC Records reissued the album in the early '70s, the cover was changed to black and white, which put Bobby two steps from the greys, missing the whole damn point (and to show the lack of respect for the art that typified reissues in the pre-Rhino days, MCA picked up on this mistake for subsequent reissues of the album through the '80s).
There are dozens of iconic jazz covers from the Impulse! label, but to me, none of them convey the intent of the artist and the music as perfectly and (deceptively) simply as this. As a deeply intellectual and spiritual artist, Coltrane was always searching for ways to make music that lifted souls and brought him closer to god, and this stark cover is a beautiful visual metaphor for who he was and what he sought to do with this album. The composition literally "ascends" from the artist seated in the bottom left corner to the title in the upper right. His horn—his method of expression and ascension—aims upward to the album's title. He's photographed in black and white, but the "ascension" he's striving for is written out in a prism of color, above Coltrane's name, which remains black. All of the type—even the STEREO designation—follows the angle of his saxophone, forcing your eyes to ascend from him to the heaven he's staring off toward. The entire composition is so strikingly elegant and restrained that it's easily overlooked, but reveals itself with the kind of focused intensity Coltrane's music demands. As far as the music itself, I'll admit it ain't easy or for everyone, but the cover is inseparable from it and acts as a mission statement for the album and the artist, and to me, that's what an album cover should be.
By the Way, I Forgive You (2018)
Among the many things I love about this album are its honesty, it's intimacy, and that nothing about it—not a single note, production touch or lyric—seems lazy or unintentional. And that extends beautifully to the cover. Painted by the intimidatingly talented Scott Avett, it's not just a classically beautiful piece of art, but a bracingly honest portrait of the artist herself that sets an expectation for the confessional you're about to hear. It's also a fantastic example of how artwork—not "packaging" in the more expansive (and expensive), conceptual sense that I get off on—can alone justify the cost, commitment and reward of owning a physical LP.
Having released about a thousand records going back to the early '60s (another may have dropped between when you started reading this sentence and now ... and it's probably pretty great), Willie Nelson could be the subject of an art history syllabus covering nearly every visual trend in album cover design. In the same way the albums themselves can range from outlaw country to gypsy jazz to reggae, the covers can be just as dizzyingly diverse: hokey visual puns, van-tastic airbrushed portraits, Nagel knock-offs, stately portraiture, Hatch-y typography, and some covers that you could barely call "designed" at all. Among them, however, Spirit stands out. While it wasn't the first or last Willie album to feature a simple portrait on the cover, it's by far the most beautiful, artful and ideally suited to the album it graces. It's a startlingly honest photo. The kind you can practically smell. It could have been taken in 1896, 1996 or 2096. It's stark, wisened, weary and deeply human. So is the album, a hauntingly sparse, mature meditation on love lost and found. The typography is simple and understated, giving you no choice but to stare into the eyes of the artist while you take in the decades of accumulated heartbreak and hope coming out of your speakers.
Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire's Spirit couldn't be further in tone or intent from Willie's, but both covers state the case for the artists and their music supremely. In EWF's case, the artwork's blazing combination of the ancient and the futuristic wasn't just perfectly setting an expectation for their new, multiversal sound, but for founder Maurice White's mission for Earth, Wind & Fire itself. Everything about the cover—the members' eyes closed in peaceful prayer, their yogic poses, the priestly robes, the beaming-white pyramids set on a sci-fi grid—was meticulously thought out to express Maurice's vision of a new Black masculinity, multi-faith spirituality, and Afrocentric mysticism. And the album itself? Every bit the metaphysically uplifting roadmap for humanity the cover promises.
Art of the Album is a regular Muse feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write about your favorite album covers, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please contact Michael Kauffman.