Album art is an invitation: "Listen to me!"
Whether gazing upward at the rack of local top radio singles in my hometown record store, or browsing the racks during the last days of Tower Records, or swiping through the thumbnails on my playlists … the medium keeps evolving but the importance of visual storytelling remains the same.
Artists' branding is more sophisticated than ever, and the album cover perhaps plays a smaller role within an artist's visual world than it did in years past. But it's nice to reflect upon how some of the best albums are the ones you both hear and see.
So here are nine in which I think the audio and art work in perfect concert. I see it when I hear it, and I hear it when I see it.
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley
(Self-titled, Capitol Records, 1962)
Nancy Wilson is one of those magical singers whose voice is so timeless and works in so many different contexts—so down-to-earth yet prodigious. Every song on this album is fun to sing … but for this conversation—you can spot this album from a mile away with that yellow dress. I love the stance of the two of them with all the white space. Who knows what other kind of art got pitched for this, but I love that what became the cover truly pairs these artists as peers.
Pet Sounds (Capitol Records, 1966)
My parents bought me a handful of CDs for one birthday when I was young; my dad made the selection based, in part, on some compendium of top albums of the 20th century … and as I unwrapped them, he shared that he'd read about some band called Nirvana but that album art gave him the creeps (😂). My angsty teen response: Why did my dad get me this ugly green album with goats on it, with these guys in sweater vests? It sat on a shelf for a few years before I finally understood. I truly think this art is so terrible, but it's become iconic in my mind over time.
The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin, 1995)
I only ever had this on cassette, but the title was perfect … the font was perfect … the shade of blue of the background was the perfect … Takes me back to 1995 but still holds up. (I will say that the album art of another 1995 classic, No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom, does not still hold up, to me! But I'll cherish how it felt to see Gwen Stefani on that cover forever.)
Black Action Figure (Blue Note, 1999)
An album of nearly all original music, with this shot of young Stefon leaping over a heap of vibraphone parts against a yellow backdrop. I mean, that was as rock star as it could get in jazz at the time. I feel like this defines that "young lion" era of artists that got me and my peers so excited about instrumental and improvised music.
Odelay (DGC, 1996)
I don't even think I realized for years that was a dog on the cover. I thought it was a mop, or something. I guess I just didn't think about it much at all—the image just had motion and irreverence that I loved. (Clearly this list has become an exercise in nostalgia.)
Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia, 2016)
Beyoncé's visuals are so impeccably considered. I love this shot, and how it's the only album of hers with her face obscured on the cover (and we know how record labels love going to that close-cropped beauty shot for most female artists). It tells a story that was so different from anything she'd done before.
Vespertine (One Little Indian/Elektra, 2001)
It's wistful, unearthly, romantic … the swan dress is iconic in its own right—but it's so obscured in this art with the overlaid line drawings that I tend to just take in this cover as pure gossamer texture.
(Self-titled, Loma Vista/Republic, 2014)
This is someone just seated in their power. I first heard St. Vincent's record Marry Me via mutual friends who knew her from school and thought, fuck, that's so good. But without even listening to the music, you can just look at those two covers—released seven years apart—and see growth. An artist who went from spark to a full-on blaze.
Purple Rain (Warner Bros., 1984)
To me, this cover is such authentic camp; modern artists can try it, but no one will ever embody this vibe on this level again. Same goes for the music within.