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10 Iconic Album Covers

CD cases and album cover art

What makes a music album “iconic”? There are some greats. There are the memorable. And certainly you’ll find some of your favourites in a top 100 list. Why do this? I was watching an episode of ABC’s Art Works programme and host Namila Benson was show casing album cover art. It is a fascinating genre of art that is being lost. To me, it’s true human creativity. Nowadays, I feel that album covers might be designed by a committee who have studied the psychological reactions of focus groups, and have decided on colour schemes, themes, and iconography that will attract the most sales.

Recently, I was talking to some people when I realised they haven’t understood much about album artwork, and hadn’t considered that album artwork could be interesting in itself. There are album covers that were made as mixed-media, using coloured pencils, crayons, and markers, and they look amazing (for instance Fela Kuti, No Agreement [1977]). Other albums were created with amazing oil paintings (Paul Ryan’s art on Bill Callahan’s Reality [2022]).

So, in artistic terms, what makes the best or most iconic album covers? Originality. Doing things that are different. Ok, a lot of artists use photographs of themselves on the cover. But, is there anything original about the photograph? Is there anything special to talk about? Let me break it down:

10. Grace Jones

Island Life (1985). I cannot name a single song from this album. But look at it. One, can you even do that pose? Two, do you have the long-limbed lanky body that can make that pose look that natural? Three, do you even have a zero-sized waist to look that good? As I said before, photography for album covers is too common, so what originality can you bring to it?

This pose was actually impossible for Grace Jones; which apparently was the point. I don’t get it.

This is a composite photograph by Jean-Paul Goude completed in 1978. She had to stand there (naked) doing her best to approximate the pose. Goude assembled the pictures into parts to bring all the limbs into a consistent position. Remember, in 1978 the concept of having photographs on one of those electronic brains (some call “a micro processor computer”) had not yet been thought of. The dark room work of the photographer was extraordinary. I’ve learnt how to develop my own film and manually print photos and bathe and dry them. How Goude did this for this composite? I can only begin to imagine.

Finally, I love the roughness of it all. There is nothing glamorous about the bare wood boards. The painted wall looks a bit worse for wear. The microphone cable is clearly showing, and it’s plugged into a power outlet?! Why? Why is she naked? Why is she standing on the blue cloth? What is that thing wrapped around her ankle. The more I look the more “why” questions I ask.

9. Sex Pistols

Never Mind the Bollocks. Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977). Never mind the bold anarchic album art, here’s Malcom McLaren. I love the band name. I love the concept of not giving an F and just doing things that are anarchous – just for the sake of keeping society from straying into boring and sameness.

One of my favourite people is Malcom McLaren. He was the creator and manager of the Sex Pistols; and he named them. Since he was getting a bunch of punk teenagers together, he thought about their penises. I don’t know why. He assumed that since they were still young, their penises would be small, like a pistol. So he named the band as such.

Why is Malcom McLaren one of my favourite people? He spoke about education and against the current education system in the UK. He came from an era that if you wanted to be an artist, you went to an arts college. If you wanted to be an engineer, you went to an engineering college. If you wanted to be a teacher, you went to a teachers college. He witnessed in the early 1970’s the amalgamation of these specialised colleges into polytechnic high schools and into the mega universities we have today. All high school children then weren’t able to focus on the practical skills they needed for their chosen profession; instead, they had to learn a bit of everything. McLaren argued that this mass-production of secondary education led to a mono-culturalisation of skills and a loss of expertise. When he spoke about this, it was in his last few months before he was diagnosed with severe, quick, and terminal cancer. He had a brilliant, creative, analytical mind.

8. Gorillaz

Demon Days (2005). These are probably the coolest virtual people on the planet. They have far more cool oozing from their pixels than I can muster in my little finger. I love the sharp lines, vibrant but subdued colour palate. What I love most is the musicians’ choice to use cartoon characters. What I love second is the moods and expressions shown on each character that speaks volumes of their personalities. There is focus and consistency of each of the characters portrayed here, as they are also portrayed in the music videos. The composition, suggesting these are mugshots, also speak to the character of them all as a group. I love the messaging the artist gives us.

7. Lady Gaga

The Fame Monster (2009). It was the music that defined someone else’s generation. It was here that I realised I might be different to many of my peers. Whilst they were all still listening to AC/DC, Metallica, Madonna, U2, and other greats of the 1980’s and 1990’s, I had moved on. I loved The Fame Monster lyrics, I loved the soundscape; but noted the disjointedness of the two. That is, the gentle audio aesthetic didn’t match the intensity of the lyrics.

The cover photo: Who does black and white? Who hides their face? Especially if they want fame? I love that the way to draw people into anything, you give them hints, you don’t show all, you defy what they want. I think everything about this photo defines Lady Gaga’s philosophy of that time she was in. I feel the more I look at this cover, the more I listen to the music, the more I’ve psychoanalysed her, and can empathise with her. By the nature of black and white, they not only contrast but are also disjointed.

6. Taylor Swift

1989 (2014). Anyone know who this “T.S.” is? Here is amazing thinking in this album design. I love the fact that she denies us her whole face. It’s on Polaroid – a very retro tech that no one used in 2014. The writing on the bottom of the Polaroid is exactly what we would have done with Polaroids back in the 1980’s; very emblematic of 1989. The quality of photo is amazing: the over saturated tones, harsh flash light and shadows (but very thin lines of shadows) all speaks to the quality of the photographer to replicate the 1980’s aesthetic. The shirt and the print she is wearing, will of course left her with sleepless nights of indecision before this particular photo was decided upon. I assumed a bunch of different outfits were tried. I wonder why she chose seagulls? Did she need freedom back then?

Everything about this album cover defied trends, defied standard ideas of beauty, defied the insta-perfect selfies, it defied, defied, defied. I love it.

5. Black Eyed Peas

Monkey Business (2005) and Elephunk (2003). It was hard to choose between the two album covers. Both are amazing. They do include photos of the artists posing at their glamorous best. However, there is so much more detail to get absorbed in. The choice of fonts. The stylisation of the fonts. The colour choices, and the vignette used on the Monkey Business album. The background patterns too. All amazing work. Like Paul McCartney who had an icon for each of his solo songs, The Black Eyed Peas chose to add animal icons to their albums, which helped to define an era in their careers. Well done.

4. Alanis Morissette

Jagged Little Pill (1995). It was a coming of age teenage angst album that hit the zeitgeist of 1995. X-Files was at its peak, “Screaming from the top of my lungs, ‘what’s going on?'” wasn’t enough. Yeah, it was an album for girls, but this is still great music. It was the album that helped people “process some stuff”.

Like many other artists, Alanis wanted us to see what she looked like. I suppose the producers hoped the hot chick on the cover would help sell the album. However, they went way beyond that. I can’t even begin to imagine how they created this composite image back in the days of film and paper. The colours are fantastic. The transitions between photos is seamlessly and very skilfully done. The stylisation of the courier font on the word “Alanis” also hints at something being disjointed – so don’t expect the contents of this album to be like a Brady Bunch sing along.

3. Blink 182

Enema of the State (1999). I am not a fan of Blink 182; however, the photography stands out. It’s amazing. When most musicians want their faces on the album cover, they wanted a hot babe. When most album cover photos had gentle light, this had harsh light making light and shadow areas contrast, highlighting her sharp nose, sharp jawline, thin neck, and accentuating the cleavage. Added to that, a nurse would never wear high-arousal makeup. And what kind of nurse would appear to take joy in putting on a latex glove. The pose and facial expression creates uncertainty in the viewer for what is to come next. In the viewer, there is tension between wanting the 11/10 hot babe, and fearing for their safety. This album cover defies all logic.

2. Santana

Supernatural (1999). It is striking. I’d never seen reds and blues so wonderfully compliment each other before. The striking imagery and the details are amazing. I’d never seen anything like this art before. The memory that this image elicits is Rob Thomas singing Smooth. When that song came out I was living in the idyllic seaside town of Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales. I remember the people, the sunshine, the motorbike adventures, the seakayaking I did. Life was a joy. Oh, and I remember the cute girl who worked in the local pharmacy; she was my smooth muse.

1. Prodigy

Music for the Jilted Generation (1994). I know this is the most surprising choice to be a number one. Let me explain. Music hits the emotional centres of our brains. It has a feeling and memory. Seeing the album cover hits the memory of a time, a place, and a mood. That is, any time I see this album cover, I can already hear the Intro track, the eerie music, the typewriter, and the husky voice saying, “So, I’ve decided to take my work back underground. To stop it from falling into the wrong hands”. Following that is the beat and snare of the first song, Break and Enter. Even as I type this, I hear it all in my head.

I was living in South Korea in the small city of Cheong-ju in the year 2000. I was still young. It was a new album to me (I finally had the money to get it), and summer was approaching. On my days off from work I’d excitedly put the CD into my walkman, slip the walkman into the front pocket CD pouch of my backpack, and thread the earphone cable through the earphone cable hole and connect it to the player. I’d then set out from my inner city flat, and walk into the sunshine to the Cheong-ju city centre with this filling my ears. I then discovered The Prodigy’s Dirt Chamber Sessions, I loved the cadence of that album and that became my go to for a fast walking pace. It was such a cool feeling. Such positive vibes and memories.

So, what album covers do you like most and why? What memories do they elicit? What features of the artwork makes it unique or striking for you? Be the first to comment on this blog.

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