Science dictates that we see things before we hear them; music is no different. While some of the best songs ever made are remembered for the music alone, the visual accompaniment adorning its sleeve is essentially the equivalent to a book’s front cover, aimed at capturing the listeners attention before a note is even played.
We currently find ourselves in an age where a limitless pool of new music is only a click away, which has meant the archaic culture of sifting through waves of vinyls, CDs and tapes at your local record store is largely a thing of the past. Instead the introduction of the streaming platform has made consumers lazy and spoilt, requiring them to filter through millions of tracks has dampened musics status as a multi-sensory affair. The importance of artwork still remains, serving as a portal into the world of the artist, the use of imagery and colour becoming an opportunity to make the right first impression with the listener; especially given the technology available in the current digital landscape.
Below are what we believe to be the the greatest pieces of artwork ever made, combining themes of impressionism, modernism, expressionism and the abstract, to portray the various emotions and values of the artists involved. Some have been chosen for their significance to music history, others for their conspicuous colour schemes and use of technology; following the history of album artwork.
Demon Days – Gorillaz
Released in 2005, Demon Days was Gorillaz second studio album, showing a darker side to pop music as we know it. The artwork may be simple but it epitomised their originality as the first commercial virtual band, giving us a stylistic glimpse at the digital characters that would become worldwide icons. Albarn has stated in the past that the album is meant to be a depiction of a journey through the night in which each track represents a confrontation with a personal demon. Notable collaborators include Roots Manuva, Ike Turner, De La Soul and Shaun Ryder from Happy Mondays, insuring a body of work described by Sputnik Music as ‘a strong foray into the melding of hip-hop into pop and rock music’.
Backspacer – Pearl Jam
As their ninth studio album, Pearl Jam’s BackSpacer is by far their most elaborate piece of cover art, yet at 37 minutes it’s by far their shortest. Handled by editorial cartoonist Dan Perkins, who goes by the pen name Tom Tomorrow, each pictures paints a vivid scene in both an abstract and completely subjective nature; described by lead guitarist Stone Gossard as “bizarro otherworldly dreamscape.” The album itself personifies Pearl Jam’s versatility, from hard-hitting rock anthems like ‘The Fixer’, to slow intimate ballads in “Breath”, the feeling of positivity is layered throughout. Vedder’s throaty yet silk-like vocals paint a personal battle against your own mental state, sinking through the obvious punk rock influences that made Seattle’s music scene the envy of the world. The colour scheme and vivid imagery within each individual square create something altogether unforgettable, a fine piece off art alongside what I believe to be one of the best albums of all time.
Supermodel – Foster The People
Described by Foster as “a woman vomiting in a back alleyway surrounded by photographers capturing her moment of weakness”, Supermodel was created by designed by Young & Sick, the same artist who did the artwork for the band’s debut studio album Torches. The juxtaposition in its original meaning and ostentatious nature means it has a place on my list, capturing the fragmented and often fake world that those in front of the camera face. Not only does this piece raise a problem within society, the design itself wouldn’t be out of place at the Tate Modern; depicting the smokescreen within the world of fame through an ironically glamorous cover is why Foster will be remembered for years to come.
Carrie And Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Though this choice may not capture the wild imagination, it does ooze with sentiment, portraying Sufjan’s family values in choosing to promote his childhood as the story for each individual track. The record is layered with nostalgic photos, with the cover showing the titular Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, posing contently in the family home. The inner sleeve depicts a young Sufjan eating a banana at the breakfast table, a vivid memory in the eyes of the performer, allowing us as fans to gain an insight into his life. As Sufjan is known to be extremely meticulous as an artist, the artwork would be no different, as the back cover contains a lyric sheet that features the songs out of order from the way they actually appear on the album. The album opener ‘Death with dignity’ encapsulates a beautiful body of work by one of the most versatile artists around, rounded off by a poignant choice of artwork that is in my opinion, one of the most noticeable around.
In The Court Of The Crimson King – King Crimson
Labelled as the band that will live forever, powerhouse prog rockers King Crimson’s first studio album Court Of The Crimson King contained one of the most bizarre and eye-catching front covers of all time. Painted by Barry Godber, the image depicts the 21st Century Schizoid Man in haunting detail, immediately grabbing the eye and compelling you to want to further investigate the record. The industry has changed a lot since the 60’s, however Crimson’s creative legacy has remained, with artists like Kanye West sampling their old material to give their own creations an old school feel; highlighting their presence within an ever-changing industry. Unfortunately for many of their fans the band have refrained from offering their music to any streaming service, but that could change at any moment.
Future Islands – Singles
Though no album could ever fully exhibit the intensity of their trademark live shows, Singles comes the closest of all. The album’s oceanic artwork suggests an calculated pursuit for change, deviating from abstract and instead reflecting an original take on the surrealist work of Magritte and Dali, offering strong overtones of nostalgia. The concept of love throughout creates a personal collage within a separate universe: maybe one where our ‘headless beach lady’ puts her dress on properly and grows the necessary anatomy to live a happy life. Personally this is the most gallery-worthy piece of all, blending the almost budget cut-and-paste style with a beautifully illustrated background, alongside the surrealist figure creates something ultimately enticing.
Tame Impala – Currents
After their first two albums ‘Innerspeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ gained relative commercial success, Tame Impala’s third instalment ‘Currents‘ smashed through the industry wall and cemented its place as one of the best albums of all time. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, the Australian based psychedelic-pop collective have retained a reputation as pioneers in reviving a 70’s resonance through contemporary instrumentation. For me this album has too many highlights to pick out individually, instead it should be enjoyed as a body of work, a sonic journey into the cosmos if you like. Artwork designer Robert Beatty based the image on ‘vortex shedding and turbulent flow — basically the way a gas or liquid travels around an object’. While the albums title may portray the idea of flow and continuity, the artworks ripples denote a more chaotic theme, leaving the songs within it to be interpreted not understood.
Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant
Sharing roots with ’60s folk-rock, Fleet Foxes offer an organic taste of what I would call ‘archaic soul’, combining beautifully orchestrated harmonies with plucked, unkempt guitars; a swooning and rejuvenating mix. Though this technically counts as an EP, the sheer detail and transcendental nature of it’s cover meant it had to feature on the list. The contents of the EP itself made waves Europe and the U.K, where it went platinum and landed the No.1 spot on many of the years best-of lists. Though the origin of the artwork itself remains a mystery, it’s theme represents a departed age dating back to Babylonian times; the primitive sonic theme within the music is portrayed within the static imagery. Sonically, Sun Giant ticks so many boxes, the highlight being the beautifully crafted Mykonos, however the artwork is also a triumphant example of imagery and creativity.