As children of the vinyl era, we were blessed growing with vinyl and not MP3s. The album cover was an expansive canvas, and even more so if it was a gatefold. It gave visual artists the creative space to really express themselves.
These were the days of sometimes actually discovering an artist and buying an album based solely on the artwork. Sometimes the music lived up to that promise, and other times it didn't. For me, the album was a badge of honor, proudly carried under my arm, exposed for everyone to see what I was into.
The eight albums I've chosen were not only because I loved their cover but also, of course, the music. Enjoy the ride!
The artwork for Abraxas wasn't actually designed for Santana. It began its life as a painting in 1961, nine years before the album was even released. The original painting is titled Annunciation, and it was painted by the psychedelic surrealist Mati Klarwein, a German-Frenchman who had done art for Bitches Brew by Miles Davis the year before. It actually depicts his version of Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel. Around the time Santana was recording Abraxas, Carlos saw the painting in a magazine and felt the image conveyed exactly what his group was doing on their album.
For me, this is one of the greatest debut albums. It was the sound of a young, precocious genius announcing himself to the world as the "greatest bass player ever" (his words, but all true). In December 1975, Columbia Records staff photographer Don Hunstein shot the revelatory portrait for the album's cover, a stark and iconic black-and-white image of the face of the man who changed music.
Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges
Clube Da Esquina (1972)
The iconic cover photo of two little boys, one white and one black, is often mistakenly thought to be of Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges as children. Metaphorically, maybe. But the picture was taken from the window of a Volkswagen Beetle in rural northern Rio de Janeiro state by Cafi. It was also during military rule in Brazil, and many of the great musicians like Gilberto Gil were in exile. Milton Nascimento thought the picture reminded him of his brotherhood and wanted it for the cover.
I Want You (1976)
The original painting The Sugar Shack, which was later used for the front album cover of I Want You, was originally painted by African American artist Ernie Barnes in 1971. Marvin Gaye was introduced to Barnes by a colleague, which led to him buying eight Barnes originals, including The Sugar Shack. He then asked Barnes for permission to use the painting as an album cover. Barnes augmented the painting by adding references to Gaye's album, including banners hanging from the ceiling of the shack promoting the album's singles.
I had the distinct honor and pleasure to release this groundbreaking album in the U.S. The project was the brainchild of dance music production duo Love Vega and Kenny Gonzales, also known as Masters at Work. Their vision was to make an album that reflected their musical journey as children of Puerto Rican immigrants growing up in New York (hence the term Nuyorican) and all their other influences. The record featured the likes of George Benson, Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, La India, Eddiue Palmieri and Jazzy Jeff, to name a few. The album artwork was inspired by the design on classic Cuban cigar boxes. An album way ahead of its time, it sounds as fresh today 25 years after its release.
Bitches Brew (1970)
Miles' 27th album, released in 1970, was the forerunner of the jazz-rock era to follow. It featured the likes of Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinal and Jack DeJohnette, to name a few. Although the album wasn't well received when first released, it has gone on to be considered one of the most creative and influential albums of all time. The artwork is by the psychedelic surrealist Mati Klarwein, the German-Frenchman who also did Santana's Abraxas.
Freedom Flight (1971)
A name not widely recognized but an artist who influenced the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz and wrote and recorded "Strawberry Letter 23"—that's on this album. Originally released in 1971 when Shuggie was only 18 years old, this was the second of three albums he recorded when he was signed to Epic Records. Son of famous band leader Johnny Otis, Shuggie started playing with his father from the age of 11, donning a false mustache and sunglasses to pass as an adult. The cover of Freedom Flight is a photograph of a teenage protégé with a stubble of a mustache and an Afro. After Shuggie's next album, Inspiration Information, his label dropped him. He was then invited to join the Rolling Stones and also work with Quincy Jones; he sadly declined both offers. I've had the pleasure of working with Shuggie over the years from the reissue of Inspiration Information to live shows. A true legend.
Come to My Garden (1970)
Ending the list with the irrepressible Minnie Riperton, one of my favorite vocalists male or female. This was her debut album, produced by the genius Charles Stepney and featuring musicians like Ramsey Lewis and a very young pre-Earth, Wind & Fire Maurice White on drums. From the opening track "Les Fleurs" (she recorded an earlier version with Ramsey Lewis) to "Memory Band," a song she originally sang with great Rotary Connection, to "Expecting," every track is a classic and taste of what was to come. Minnie unfortunately died young of cancer, and is the mother of actress Maya Rudolph. The cover is a simple photo of Minnie in a long, white dress standing in a beautiful garden. The cover compliments the album perfectly.