I love year-end lists. And I especially love year-end music lists. But when it comes to year-end Best Album Art lists, there is always something missing. I dunno, maybe the art director? The designer or the photographer or the painter or the illustrator? Those behind-the-scenes collaborators who are so integral to our experience of this music.
One can debate that in the age of the Spotify and Apple Music thumbnail mini, who gives a shit about music artwork anyway? But it's clear by the mere existence of all those year-end lists, accompanied by the artwork that will forever be associated with them, someone clearly does.
So here is a modest sampling of iconic cover art that influenced my career and touched my life. Roll credits.
Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart
Richard Rodgers and the Imperial Orchestra
Columbia Records (1940)
In 1939, a 23-year-old illustrator and designer named Alex Steinweiss was working at Columbia Records in the advertising department when he had an idea. Up until then, records were typically packaged in dull paper or cardboard sleeves that either had the name of the producer on it or the name of the retailer who was selling it. Steinweiss grabbed a photographer and the pair headed down to New York's West 45th Street, outside the city's famous Imperial Theatre. Looking up at the building's distinctive marquee, they both knew they had something. And thus was born the modern record-cover art. Now, some may say they've seen this graphic trope a million times on record covers, and they have. But Steinweiss thought of it first. Almost a century ago.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Columbia Records (1959)
S. Neil Fujita's art studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he was forced into an internment camp in Wyoming. He subsequently volunteered, serving in Italy and France. As a young art director at Columbia Records in the 1950s, Fujita was influenced by the work of Paul Rand, Paul Klee, Picasso and Georges Braque—which is evident in his own painting for arguably his most iconic cover, The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. He was once quoted as saying he worked back in a day when "I didn't have marketing people making suggestions."
Blue Note Records (1963)
Reid Miles was not a jazz fan. Which is ironic considering Miles designed more than 500 covers for Blue Note Records and, together with photographer Francis Wolff, defined the visual branding of the label for over a decade. His unique entwining of playful type and photography was creative, bold, modern and asymmetrical, bordering on gravitational. It defined the essence of a time and place in the history of jazz. An arbiter of cool and graceful sophistication.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground
Verve Records (1967)
I can't say anything about Andy Warhol that hasn't already been said, except that as a young upstart illustrator in New York, he would freelance for Blue Note Records. And Reid Miles. (See Blue Lights by Kenny Burrell.) Though he provided the banana artwork for the Velvet Underground's debut record, along with his imprimatur, Acy R. Lehman actually designed the packaging that instructed the consumer to "peel slowly and see." When peeled, it would reveal a flesh-colored banana underneath. It was notable, among other things, for being the first gatefold design to house only a single LP. Special manufacturing methods were needed to create this on the early versions of the LP.
Reprise Records (1971)
Gary Burden was Neil Young's art director for almost 50 years. He created covers for the Eagles, the Doors, Crosby Stills & Nash, Jackson Brown, My Morning Jacket and Kurt Vile. His oft collaborator, the photographer Henry Diltz, took the famous Morrison Gallery image of the Doors. A Marine Corps veteran, Burden came relatively late to rock 'n' roll. He was working as an architect in the late 1960s when a client, Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas, suggested he stop renovating houses and start designing album covers. "I'd never been interested in being a graphic artist or any of that stuff," he said. "But she insisted that I do it, and she was right. She handed me a career."
4AD Records (1989)
Vaughan Oliver was an artist. Period. Full stop. I mean, just google him. He was my art school hero in the '90s. He was as much of an artist as any he would work with during his 20 years at the indie cult label 4AD. And they were myriad: This Mortal Coil, Lush, TV on the Radio, Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Ultra Vivid Scene, Throwing Muses, His Name Is Alive, the Mountain Goats and the Breeders. His work was a unique mélange of surrealism, painting, collage, religious and sexual iconography, eyeballs, body parts, and yes … eels. Like any great artist, his work demands that the viewer meet it halfway. He once remarked, "Record sleeves are ephemeral, and I always wanted to make them more than that."
Ready to Die
The Notorious B.I.G.
Bad Boy Records (1994)
Cey Adams grew up in New York City in the late '70s and early '80s. Tagging subway cars as a young graffiti artist and exhibiting his own early paintings alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He eventually met Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, becoming Def Jam Records' first in-house creative director. The unofficial "Fourth Beastie," Adams has also worked on cover art for RUN D.M.C., Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z. Of the art for Ready To Die, Adams said: "Its everything hip-hop is not … it's soft and cuddly. It's about the juxtaposition."
Is This It
RCA Records (2001)
After graduating from the Alberta College of Art & Design, Brett Kilroe moved to New York City to begin a 20-year career in the music industry—eventually working with the Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, Missy Elliott, Taylor Swift, Robert Plant and Alabama Shakes. Though arguably his most iconic cover is of Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version in 1995, a close second is the Strokes debut album, Is This It. A photograph by Colin Lane of an ex-girlfriend taken in his apartment graced the cover. A last-minute band change almost nixed it from history, but luckily the product had printed and shipped already. It would become the cover for the international release. An alternative was used for North America only.
Young Turks (2014)
As creative director at the U.K. indie label XL Recordings, Phil Lee has worked on projects for Adele, Frank Ocean, Kamasi Washington, the XX, M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend. His diverse tastes are matched only by the creativity and curiosity of the artists with which he works. "It's instinct and constant reevaluation," Lee has said. "The landscape is always changing, so what I was looking for five years ago is not what I am looking for now."