Monday, September 27, 2010

Favorite Album Covers

Seeing as how I've finished my video game list and am currently working on my list of favorite albums, I thought this would be a nice bridge between the two. In the evolution of rock & roll, album covers have come to help define its mythology and represent its artistic heights. I thought I'd let the elite few who visit this site take a look at the album art that makes me HNNNG the most.

20. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan
A defining image of the early 60's Greenwich folk scene and the young singer-songwriter who first represented, then transcended it, Freewheelin', which depicts Bob and then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking down a wintery MacDougal Street, captures a certain innocent spontaneity and romance that wouldn't survive the 60's.
19. Horses - Patti Smith
This is just a cool photograph. Presaging the punk revolution in its androgynous attitude, the cover of Patti Smith's debut album is one of the most subtly striking images in rock.

18. Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin have always been keen to a certain aesthetic, mixing raw American blues with folky British mysticism. On the cover of their greatest album, the hard-rockers perfectly capture the style they'd been chasing for years in their music, in the homely but timeless image of an old man with a bundle of sticks on his back.

17. Kid A - Radiohead
On its own, the cover art to Radiohead's Kid A isn't terribly impressive. However, when put in the context of the album's chilling themes of millennial dread, those cold, flat, digital mountains set against a red sky gain a new level of frightening specter.

16. Is This It - The Strokes
At once classy and highly suggestive, the black & white cover of The Strokes' energetic debut embodies all the youth, anxiousness, style, and sex that Julian Casablancas distortedly croons about on the album proper.

15. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
I've always liked this image. For all of its irritating pretentiousness and suffocatingly sterile sound, you can always count on prog to have some sweet album art. The two men shaking hands, one of whom is on fire, is the absolute pinnacle of that tradition.

14. In The Wee Small Hours - Frank Sinatra
A pensive, fedora-wearing Frank, cigarette in hand, leans against a brick building on a dimly lit nighttime street: the heartbreaking isolation is palpable.

13. Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are known for being raunchy. To that end, Sticky Fingers is their masterpiece.

12. Closer - Joy Division
The second and final Joy Division album, released posthumously only months after lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide, Closer was destined to be a downer. Accordingly, its cover is just as dark, dreary, and full of mourning as the gloomy post-punk music itself.

11. There's A Riot Goin' On - Sly & The Family Stone
Where Stand! was all cheery, anthemic 60's optimism, Riot is abyssal 70's pessimism straight from the ghetto. Something about that American flag doesn't sit right, radiating a sick sense of foreboding that would come to prophesy the entire decade's dark times.

10. Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon
On Lennon's first and (by far) greatest solo album, the disillusioned ex-Beatle sings about loneliness, love, faith, and nostalgia. The image of two lovers sitting underneath an oak tree might seem dull on one of today's whispery indie releases, but coupled with the gut-punching emotion present on Lennon's cathartic recording, this docile scene becomes something truly affecting.

9. Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
At first glance, there's nothing particularly special about the cover to Dylan's 1965 LP. Look closer though, and you might see traces of a fiery, rebellious, superior rage in Bob's face indicative of the "angry young man" phase he was in during the recording of the album. It's a simple photograph, sure, but it resonates with enough subtle badassery to represent the unspeakably cool music within.

8. Beggars Banquet / Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones
Yeah, it's a tie. Yeah, I'm probably "cheating", but how could I separate these two? Beggars Banquet, with its grimy, graffiti-covered bathroom, is a heartwarming visualization of the band's eternal mindset. Let It Bleed's photograph, featuring a dadaist tower of pancakes, paper clocks, tires, and cake, is just as amusing. Both covers faithfully embody the clever wordplay, potty humor, and outlaw personality of their respective albums.

7. Abbey Road - The Beatles

Possibly the image most immediately associated with the Fab Four, Abbey Road's uncomplicated photograph is as iconic and unforgettable as they come. There's really not much else to say.

6. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground
Leave it to Andy Warhol to come up with a graphic that suits Lou Reed's taboo, hedonistic lyrics. In case you didn't know, a small space on the original cover reads "Peel slowly and see". The banana skin could of course be peeled back to reveal a fleshy surface underneath. Classy.

5. London Calling - The Clash
The choice in lettering was not an accident: Elvis Presley's Elvis Presley decades earlier had featured the same typeface, layout, and color scheme. In the 50's, that hip-gyrating white boy took black music and used it to scare the wits out of good old Christian folk. 20 years later, the punk movement, with its lethal hairstyles and snot-nosed rebelliousness, began worrying the parents who had grown to accept the Beatles. London Calling's cover signifies the bold new direction rebel music was heading in, with its lettering as an homage to the past, and its energetic black & white photograph (of Paul Simonon recklessly laying waste to his bass guitar) as a wordless mission statement for the future.

4. Revolver - The Beatles
The Beatles (that would be drummer Ringo Starr, lead guitarist George Harrison, rhythm guitarist John Lennon, and bassist Paul McCartney in case you've never heard of them), emerging from the folk-rock of Rubber Soul into their early psychedelic days, commissioned their buddy in Germany, Klaus Voorman, to craft the cover to 1966's Revolver. Kudos to Mr. Voorman; Revolver has some of the most memorable and well-composed album art of any LP, with its goofy black & white photo collage and eerily drawn depictions of the Fab Four.

3. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
I really don't think I need to explain anything here.

2. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth used German painter Gerhard Richter's photorealistic Kerze ("Candle") as the cover to their greatest work, Daydream Nation. The minimalist yet highly lifelike design is eye-catching without relying on gimmickry, intense colors, or extraordinary subject matter. It also fits perfectly alongside the album's evocative title. Hell, there's even a track on the album called "Candle." Album art just doesn't get any better. Well, except for...

1. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
A black background and a picture from a science textbook. That's all it takes for brilliant graphic design. The jagged white lines, seeming to form an alien mountain range, are actually the radiation readings of the first discovered pulsar. Pasted in the middle of a dark abyss, the resulting image captures (all too well) the dark pit of depression that Ian Curtis could not climb out of: the 23-year-old singer-songwriter killed himself less than a year after this brooding post-punk debut. If one of art's chief purposes is to generate empathy, then the unsettling image that graces the cover of Unknown Pleasures is some bona fide art. I feel like shit just looking at it.


  1. That's right, we are the "elite few"

  2. Nice iconic art choices. And a lot of great music therein. I think it's going to be a classics night at my house.