by Michael Faris
What makes a good album cover? It’s a weird format, being square, which can be circumvented by a clever artist (by using background tricks to “reformat” it into a rectangle). It should somehow be visually related to the band and the music. It should somehow reflect the zeitgeist of the times or at least the music itself. It should have the name of the band and a title on the front (there are many good exceptions, but they could have had these somewhere and been just as good). The font used on the cover should “match” the artwork somehow, or at least be somehow clever or ironic. Even if the band has a particular font or iconic band name image, these concepts should mesh.
So why are there so many mediocre or just plain bad album covers? There are many reasons: cheapness on the part of the recording company; bad artwork made by a brother-in-law or other friend or relative; bad decisions made while reproducing good existing artwork; the band deciding to get involved because they know better than the artists (i.e. see all album covers with the band on the front not wearing shirts); and the art-by-committee concept that has caused so much unnecessary censorship and confusion down through the years. There are probably other reasons, but these are certainly some of the most common and often, the most spectacular.
You are going to notice that most of the covers from this list are from the 1970s. Why would this be? Does the author have a certain age-bias based on his Rock and Roll peak years? Maybe. However, there are other factors at work here: the advent of LP sales really didn’t get going until the 1960s, so albums weren’t important until then; people buying TVs and watching Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s shows in the 1960s and 1970s meant that photos of the bands didn’t necessarily need to be on the covers of the albums, which broadened the options for artwork; mass printing got a lot cheaper in the United States in the 1970s due to new tech, which made the albums easier to produce; as music became a big money industry in the 1960s with the Brit invasion, the bands and the labels could afford to spend money on better artwork; and the so-called end of albums, due to cassettes and then CDs, eventually meant the end of album art after the 1980s.
Anyhoo, here they are, in reverse order. There are thirteen instead of ten, because your author can’t control himself.
- Minor Threat, by Minor Threat, 1984. This cover features a photo of Minor Threat lead singer Ian MacKaye’s brother Alec (also a musician) sitting on a curb with his head buried in his forearms, looking defeated. It’s a great photo, and the sideways use of the name of the band is well-done.
- Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles, 1967. This cover isn’t so much a great photo as it is an interesting Pop Art stage set. Life-size cutouts of famous people were intermingled with wax figures, flower arrangements, a bass drum painted with the title of the album, puppets, fake plants, and the real Beatles dressed in brightly colored, pseudo-military uniforms. Robert Fraser was the art director, Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth built the set, and Michael Cooper took the photo. There were all sorts of postcards and other little toys inside the original album, which are now probably worth a fortune. I don’t love this album cover. In retrospect, I also expected more from the Beatles in general. They had all the money in the world, all the access to artwork, a team of photographers following them everywhere, and their album covers are mediocre at best. Why?
- The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, by Traffic, 1971. This cover is a rhombus, not a square, in an attempt to make it appear to be a cube, which is kind of rare. The artwork emphasizes the linear perspective of the cube somewhat, which is pretty interesting. The Superman font is a little dated, but whatever.
- Sticky Fingers, by the Rolling Stones, 1971. This cover was made by yer boy Andy Warhol and his crew. It’s the one with the real zipper on a black-and-white photo of jeans. This is a good place to state that the Stones, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and Grace Jones usually had really good, innovative album covers, and people really appreciate that.
- Physical Graffiti, by Led Zeppelin, 1975. They ALWAYS had good album covers. Others might pick another Zep cover, but this is a great cover. This is a greenish photo of a tenement building with the windows cut out so the liner pictures show through. It’s a double album, so you have all sorts of choices of what shows through the windows. The song Boogie with Stu kills. And yes, I’m holding up devil’s horns with my right hand right now.
- One Step Beyond, by Madness, 1979. This cover has a black-and-white photo of the band doing their crazy group Ska dance. So funny! Night Boat to Cairo is on this album. Give it a listen.
- Unknown Pleasures, by Joy Division, 1979. This is the black album cover with the white image of radio waves from a pulsar named CP1919. So cool; it really reflected the spirit of fledgling computer-generated art at the time.
- Brain Salad Surgery, by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, 1973. This cover has a typical biomechanical skull/face morph with scary background by the late, great painter H.R. Giger, the guy who did the artwork for the Alien movies. The term “brain salad surgery” is apparently some sort of reference to oral sex. Giger stated in a book that he was never paid for the artwork on this album.
- The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, 1973. This is the prism with the rainbow it creates on a black background. This was created by the design group Hipgnosis, who made many album covers. It is included because it is such a beloved, iconic image. They had several good album covers, but I think this is the best.
- Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, by the Sex Pistols, 1977. This is their only studio album. The cover is a mishmash of fonts and cutouts in weird colors that somehow works and became an exemplar for diy Punk fonts and artwork. You can see it across a room and know what it is.
- Some Girls, by the Rolling Stones, 1978. It’s a little like Physical Graffiti, with cutouts changing when you flip the liner. The liner faces match up to cheap wig advertisements on the cover. It is reminiscent of those ads in the back of magazines in the 1960s. It was a real scandal when it came out because they didn’t bother getting permission from some of the celebrities they used on the liner, so lawsuits and hilarity ensued. Wonderful.
- London Calling, by the Clash, 1979. This album cover features the greatest Rock photo ever, that of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the stage of the Palladium in New York City. It also channels the first Elvis Presley album by using the same font and font colors. Much love.
- The Raven, by the Stranglers, 1979. I know: “Who the hell are The Stranglers?” Well, they were mostly popular in England, but they were pretty big in the Punk/New Wave days. This lenticular cover has a big raven in the foreground and a landscape and sky in the background. Lenticular printing is that 3D-looking stuff that changes as you look at it from different angles (like Their Satanic Majesties Request, by the Rolling Stones). You might have had rings or something with lenticular images on them when you were a child. I normally don’t like it much, but it really works with this cover. The clouds and leaves move, and the feathers seem to blow in the wind. It’s cool.
About the Writer
Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com.