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Top 10 Album Covers

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Album art is something of an anachronism in these days with first vinyl and now even shrunken CDs going the way of the dinosaur. As MP3s attack, a celebration of my ten favorite album covers from the glory days of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is in order.

Click for larger version 1. Yesterday And Today – June 1966. The granddaddy of all album covers, most of its brilliance owes to inadvertent factors. Robert Whitaker’s design (based on a surrealist conception of the Fabs’ as “flesh and blood” people) was issued unfinished; in contradistinction, the Beatles claimed it was a “protest against Vietnam” only after taking the time to ponder the photo, i.e. they ad-libbed. Of course, the gruesome shot infers Vietnam (with its “baby killers”); better yet, the cover-up suggests the crude reality of wartime’s PR efforts. Setting that heavy issue to the side, however, the primary genius of Yesterday And Today owes to its participatory, even conspiratorial, medium: the “art” required nosy teenagers to seek clues where clues were never before placed. With such graphic theater, the Beatles’ mystique (and pathology) began in earnest: here is where John, Paul, George & Ringo taught a generation to look under the surface of a pop commodity.

Click for larger version 2. Power Corruption and Lies – March 1983. Although the “floppy disc” cover to New Order’s 12-inch “Blue Monday” created the initial buzz among the collegiate hip, the LP jacket was the stunner. With a message no more original than “art = product,” the simplicity and bravado of the presentation outdid Warhol himself. To Ignace Fantan-Latour’s 1890 roses, graphic situationist Peter Saville added a printer’s color alignment code (such as those under the tabs of breakfast cereal boxes) that spelled the band’s name. The modified artwork express perfectly the sounds on the vinyl: lush, precious and cynical.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Click for larger version 3. Old Loves Die Hard – April 1976. A particular pathos permeates this odd album cover by the forgotten Triumvirat. An especially inspired intersection of art and title worthy of Magritte, the Freudian quality of the image is one alienated teenagers identified with, albeit intuitively.

Click for larger version 4. E Pluribus Funk – November 1972. Here is generation gap iconography at its zenith. Manager Terry Knight catapulted Grand Funk Railroad to megastardom with a Times Square billboard that featured the band’s faces as large as those on Mount Rushmore. Pushing the idea forward, here the lads from Buick City USA usurp Thomas Jefferson on a 12-inch nickel. Considering the album “shipped gold” to the despair of every record critic in the land, issuing the record as money itself was pretty crass. And metal.

Click for larger version 5. Metal Box [UK only] – November 1978. Six years later, PiL took Knight’s idea to its logical conclusion: the metal film canister. As lavish as it is devoid of message, this “cover” perfectly represented the intransigent attitude of the band.

Click for larger version 6. Led Zeppelin III – October 1970. With its “groovy” logo and spinning wheel cover, Led Zeppelin’s third album merged the bubblegum cheap effects of Buddah’s Dial-A-Hit with the pyschedelic nerdiness of Iron Butterfly. Cute, fun and delightfully unselfconscious, too bad they go just a bit further and make this for black light.

Click for larger version 7. USA – November 1971. Another generation gap classic, and a fine example of the indefatigable comic book style, Bloodrock’s fourth album cover features Satan blasting the plasma out of some hapless hipster’s head. On the back, we see the cause of all the distress: The US White House. Illustrated by John Lockart, who contributed to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

Click for larger version 8. Blonde On Blonde – May 1966. It was radical enough to use a blurry picture of the recording star, but to omit his name and the album title, as well… was pretty stoned for ’66. The most distant and honest of all the Dylan portraits, Jerry Schatzberg captured the demon poet intensity well.

Click for larger version 9. No Earthly Connection – April 1976. Leave it to Rick Wakeman to scheme up the ultimate prog indulgence: an anamorphosis album cover. Complete with mirror silver foil cone to view the extra-terrestrial keyboardist. Like, freaky.

Click for larger version 10. Astro Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 – March 1969. The Sgt. Pepper of lounge, this bachelor pad classic blends Queen From Outer Space tackiness with easy listening insouciance. The cover’s perspicacious design merges the pet font of 1993, a go-go girl worthy of Captain Kirk and the ubiquitous 101 Strings logo. Proto-Stereolab.

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  • Clubhouse Cancer

    Mr. Stoller, your observations about that Beatles cover are illuminating and well thought-out. I had never considered that cover as anything more than an oddity, but I never considered it as the harbinger you make a fine case for it being. Is this the first step in the path toward Bed-ins, gurus and Instant Karma?

    You’re also right about the trangressive power of that New Order cover, which is punk rock at its most perverse. Who was expecting that in ’83?

  • zingzing

    peter saville is the genius of record cover design. the cover of new order’s next album, low life, is also pure genius: four portraits of the notoriously private, nameless, faceless band members. 1986’s brotherhood was a picture of a metal surface with just some numbers on it… but my favorite just now may be the cover of 1982’s temptation: just a speckled surface… the reason why i like it so much right now is because i was looking at the floor of a seattle bus the other day… same speckled surface…

  • Shark

    Good stuff.

    Shark’s Picks:

    West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band — Vol. iii by artist John Van Hamersveld

    Matching Mole’s Little Red Book — a variation on a Mao Tse Tung commie propaganda poster

    Soft Machine, Volume I — which had a die-cut w/circular insert you could turn — exposing various band members and one nekkid babe!

    Jimi Hendrix – Axis Bold as Love — c’mon, this is one of the greatest ever!

    Rolling Stones – Her Satanic Majesties Request — the Stones answer to Sgt. Pepper — the original was “3-d”!

    Touch – by the great band “Touch”

    =====

    Sorry, you’ll have to google the others; got a “too many URL links in comment” error…?!

    xxoo
    S

  • Shark

    FWIW: Van Hamersveld did some of the greatest album *covers and psychedelic concert posters in history. He’s still producing, too.

    *Blue Cheer, Jef Airplanes “Crown of Creation” — et al

    Check it out.

  • J. P. Spencer

    My favorite album cover is the gatefold sleeve of the Love album “Out Here”.
    The CD reissue of the original cover doesn’t do it justice, trust me on this one.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    The basic explanation I’ve always heard for the infamous Yesterday and Today cover makes more sense for its immediacy. The whole album was made up of cuts whacked off their original intended albums. Thus, this picture was a bit of commentary on the record company butchering their albums.

    Don’t know how true that is, but it makes sense.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    I thought this post was about the top anal bum covers.

  • J. P. Spencer

    I think Al’s right on this one.

    As a matter of fact, some of these shipped with ONLY the butcher smock cover without the 2nd cover overlay. Some of the first pressings got out to the public. Those that were recalled had the second cover pasted over them. Subsequent pressings had only the “Paul in a trunk” cover.

  • http://serenadeingreen.blogspot.com/ Stephen V Funk

    just thought I’d put in a plug for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” album cover design…

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    “The basic explanation I’ve always heard for the infamous Yesterday and Today cover makes more sense for its immediacy. The whole album was made up of cuts whacked off their original intended albums. Thus, this picture was a bit of commentary on the record company butchering their albums.”

    Nope.

  • http://jeliel3.blogspot.com JELIEL³

    Tsk Tsk Tsk

    No mention of any TOOL album covers… what a shame…

    I’m suprised by the mention of LZIII. It’s considred by most and Robert Plant, as a horrible album cover. (But it contains some of the greatest led zep material put on record)

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    I forgot to mention, Craig Braun engineered the E Pluribus Funk cover and worked on Led Zeppelin III (a cover that really should have gone to Iron Butterfly). Braun is most famous for his realization of Warhol’s ideas for Sticky Fingers and his design for School’s Out (with the panties) came very, very close to making my list. No doubt I love gimmicks and Braun was there for the best of them.

    Tool? I’m too old for that stuff.

  • http://gohah.blogpsot.com GoHah

    Like Al, it was my understanding that the Yesterday and Today cover was a commentary on Capital’s slice ‘n’ dice butchering of the American releases to squeeze out extra LPs. In any case, I’ll never forget when I steamed off my “official” cover to discover that I had the butcher block one. Good list.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Really some excellent choices, but I think a few other Beatles covers deserve mention because until the point I saw each of them I never had seen anything else like them before:

    Rubber Soul on which the Fab Four look very weird and stretched out almost.

    Revolver has quite an interesting design that I think has gone unappreciated.

    And my favorite is….

    Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is simply the best cover (in my opinion) ever for a band reinventing itself and in fact even literally burying its old image right there in living color.

  • Baronius

    Yes – Fragile. I thought this was acknowledged as one of the greats. It’s immediately recognizable, and established the band’s style. It’s also quite groovy: it reminds me of the days when environmentalism was called “ecology”.

    The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper. I don’t especially like the music, but I agree with Victor about the cover.

    Rush – Exit Stage Left. This might not show up on anyone else’s list, but so what. It’s a live album: you can see the stage, and behind the curtains are each of the band’s previous albums personified, waiting to take the stage.

  • Shark

    re: Beatles — The great John VanHamersveld did the great “Magical Mystery Tour” cover.

    …and can’t forget the original Blind Faith cover — topless 12 year old — talk about “arresting” image!

  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Wait, blurry photos are ok? I’m so gonna go into the record cover industry now with my photo skills, or lack thereof.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Three Arresting Covers

    Here are some that spring to mind for one reason or another, although I’m sure I’m missing some.

    Love, Forever Changes. This great record could have only been made in 1967. The cover, true to form, is a true psychedelic relic.

    I love covers that tell a story, or at least suggest one — something to make you sit up and say “What’s going on here?” That’s the first question on anyone’s mind when they first see Bob Dylan’s ground-breaking Bringing it All Back Home.

    Another kind of story is going on in the cover of Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, which almost looks like a still from an Antonioni movie. There sits the love-lorn romantic anti-hero, cowering slightly from the hint of temptation at the opposite end of the park bench. A rather abstract image, and far removed from the well-crafted, hook-heavy commercial pop inside the sleeve.

  • Vern Halen

    Free – Heartbreaker

    Mott the Hoople – Brain Capers

    Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely

  • Shark

    Coupla points:

    Forever Changes has some pretty decent music inside, also.

    Forever Changes artist was illustrator Bob Pepper; he also did art for Dragonmaster et al games, and many Ballantine books, including the “Gormenghast Trilogy”.

  • Red

    Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, featuring the guy with balls stuffed in his mouth.