9 Great Album Covers, Chosen by Jason Dopko of Lost Planet

Nirvana, Placebo, Nina Simone and more

Growing up in the Midwest could sometimes get a little boring. Actually, it could get really boring. Luckily, just a few miles from where I grew up was one of the best record stores in the state. For a bored, music-minded kid like I was at the time, that was pure gold. This record store had the most eclectic, diverse and deep inventories I had ever seen. Why did they stock every Current 93 album? Why did they have every John Cage recording? I often thought: no one around here is going to buy that. I ended up working at that record store in college, a dream come true, and I asked the manager why they stocked all this stuff that barely anybody bought. He said it was a matter of principle. If you're going to have a record store, have a record store. I was exposed to a lot of great music working at that store and it shaped the way I see art, music, film and the world to this day.

Alice Coltrane
Ptah, the El Daoud (1970)

Looking at the cover of Alice Coltrane's Ptah, the El Daoud, you'd think it was some sort of mystical document. That’s because it is. Alice Coltrane was primarily a piano player but also played the harp. Jazz and harp may sound incompatible, but Coltrane's virtuosity allowed her to create complex transcendental sound collages that seemed to defy gravity. Check out "Blue Nile." Alongside saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson, she created one of the greatest spiritual jazz albums of all time. Cover art by The Institute for Better Vision.

Muddy Waters
After The Rain (1969)

In the late '60s, Chicago blues label Chess Records started a smaller imprint called Cadet Concept that focused on psych and rock acts. It was also in the middle of the blues revival, and label owner Marshall Chess had the brilliant idea to "update" old blues artists with psych and rock influences. You know, for the kids. After The Rain was the second attempt at updating Muddy Waters sound, the psychedelic Electric Mud being the first. Most of the psych elements are gone on this one, and what's left is a stripped-down version with fuzzed-out distorted guitars, big drums and Muddy belting out distinctive versions of some of his old classics. Muddy's droll sense of humor is evident on the cover—one of his best. Cover Art: Design: Hurvis, Binzer, & Churchill, Inc. Photography: Victor Skrebneski.

Roky Erickson and The Aliens
Roky Erickson and The Aliens (1980)

Following the end of his garage psych band 13th Floor Elevators and being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Texas singer Roky Erickson spent about three years confined to various state mental hospitals and given electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatments. After his release, he embarked on putting together a new band and recording new material. This new album, produced by Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was made over a decade after his last recording. The psych influences are all gone, and now it's a heavy rock sound with oddball references to sci-fi, horror, satan, and the occult. "Two-Headed Dog," "I Walked with a Zombie," "Don’t Shake Me Lucifer." What? It's one of the weirdest comeback records of all time and one of the greatest album covers of all time. Cover Art: Captain Colourz.

The Cramps
Bad Music for Bad People (1984)

If you forced me to pick my favorite album cover of all time, it probably would be The Cramps' Bad Music for Bad People. This compilation of singles and b-sides was a cash grab by the label after they left IRS Records for greener pastures. However, it's a great place to start if you're curious about one of the greatest bands of all time (in my opinion). It's just badass. Check out "Garbageman." The striking cover art by Stephen Blickenstaff really personifies the sly humor and attitude of the band.

Ball of Eyes (1971)

By looking at the cover of Placebo's 1971 album, you would think it was some sort of challenging experimental prog rock album, but in actuality, it's just a fun jazz funk record from Belgium. Led by Belgian keyboardist Marc Moulin, it's a laid-back, sophisticated, funky mix of electric piano, electric harpsichord, melodica and horns. Check out the cover of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" and the complex horn arrangements of "Aria." Cover design by Micheline Stainier.

Billy Harper
Capra Black (1973)

Billy Harper is one of the more underrated and unrecognized saxophonists of his time, and his debut album shows that. Influenced by John Coltrane, Harper transcends those comparisons and creates a big band sound with just a small group of musicians and the occasional appearance of a choir. The result is powerful compositions that are filled with high drama and tragedy. On "Cry Hunger," the choir refrains over and over "There'll be enough someday." Cover art photography: Richard Mayeda

The Age of Quarrel (1986)

Sometimes, covers perfectly reflect the sound of the album within, and that's the case with the Cro-Mags. The thing about '80s hardcore music is that there was an element of social awareness and self-improvement in the lyrics. It wasn't just a bunch of dumb aggro punks. It was a bunch of thoughtful aggro punks. The Cro-Mags lyrics were all that with an Eastern influence of Hinduism and Hare Krishna. Musically, it's a mix of hardcore and thrash metal with big epic riffs and an even bigger production sound. Check out the opening riffage to "We Gotta Know."

Nina Simone
Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967)

Nina Simone was one of those artists that music just flowed out of her effortlessly from her very being. She was also a bit volatile. She once tried to shoot a record label exec in a cafe in France who had stolen her albums and refused to pay her royalties. She missed. This innate talent and volatility always led to exciting, eclectic albums with a hodgepodge of styles on each one. Nina Simone Sings the Blues is a more focused album with her unique interpretations of blues classics. Check out "Backlash Blues," written by poet Langston Hughes.

Bleach (1989)

In the late '80s, if you turned on the radio or MTV, all you ever heard was hair metal. It was everywhere. You couldn't escape it, and I hated it. At some point around 1990, I came across Nirvana's Bleach, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen or heard up to that time. Photographer (Kurt Cobain's then-girlfriend) Tracy Marander's reverse negative shot of the group mid-headbang captured the essence of the band, the album, and the grunge movement itself. I was like, now THIS is how music should be. (Note: I actually like hair metal now.) Design: Lisa Orth.

Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.

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