I don’t think it would be a real large leap of faith to guess that the new Katy Perry album will be an artless heap of bubble gum, nor will any limbs be gone out on to guess the new Christina Aguilera album sounds vaguely like the last one… I assure you I am aware that these are blind assumptions, and I’m not even hinting at that fact that I probably have a “friend” who wouldn’t casually enjoy a song or two by either of the girls. The one thing both these albums usher in though, that is more important than a formulaic pop record, is a return of awesome album cover art by acclaimed artists. Ms. Perry’s new album “California Dream” is graced with an incredible painting by noted NY painter Will Cotton who is known for his saccharine landscapes that would resemble the set design for “Candyland: the Revenge of Gloppy the Molasses Monster” if there ever were to be such a movie. D*Face, the British street artist and Banksy contemporary lends his considerable hand to the cover of noted art collector Aguilera’s latest record to less spectacular effect. The composition seems an uneven mix of graphic and photographic work that serves no purpose other than to draw the disparate demographics that either of them skews towards together, and broaden their respective fan bases.
There is quite a history of art luminaries marrying their sensibilities with musicians, sometimes creating a perfect symmetry of sound and vision, other times creating a package that, let’s just say, won’t hold up to the test of time nearly as heartily. Andy Warhol was one of the first fine artists to dip his toes in rock ‘n roll waters, first managing the Velvet Underground, and providing the album with its iconic banana cover; later conspiring with The Rolling Stones on their “Sticky Fingers”, which was capable of making most men feel less than adequate, and at the same time making a perfect visual companion for the Stones, and arguably their most memorable cover. It was perfect, Warhol’s brand of pop art’s willingness to embrace the fact that art could not only be a commentary on consumerism and commercialism , but in fact could become a precious item that exceeded its crass placement in a store bin simply by being art and commerce, was just what was needed to join the two worlds.
Once the bridge was gapped, and both types of artists realized it behooved them to open themselves up to a different audience and maybe the work could be seen in another light if it were re-contextualized or if it were spoken in a different part of the cultural lexicon. Robert Nagel’s cover to Duran Duran’s “Rio” not only became a visual icon for them, but in some ways a symbol of the 80’s. (Not to mention about a billion nail salons) Together they were able to supercede simply being a band, or simply being a painter, and able to attain a temporal greatness. Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith achieved it with her “Horses” album, Robert Williams and Guns n’ Roses were able to tell the world they were outlaws without opening their mouths, but by simply getting the original artwork banned almost immediately. In both cases not only was the feeling of the album conveyed, but so was the world-view of both artists. Jenny Seville, Alex Ross, Mike Kelley, Yoshitomo Nara are among a legion of artists who have leant their cred to, or gotten mass exposure from working with musicians in an array of genres. It’s a mutual respect that benefits everyone involved, and enriches the product and makes it more than just a record. I can’t tell you how impactful some of these covers were to me; not only opening my eyes to certain artists, but also spurned on my own interest in art as a communicative tool, and hinted at its power.
Alright, history lesson over, here’s my top 10 and why:
Honorable mention Mayhem: “Dawn of the Blackhearts”
Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem clock in as a runner up just for the sheer audacity of photographing the scene of the lead singer Dead’s suicide and using it as a cover to the record. Youthful hi-jinx would later ensue and land a number of these kids in jail or a grave, so we can chalk this up to brilliant foreshadowing and tactless marketing.
10. Radiohead: “OK Computer”
A stark, barren landscape that still seems to hum with a life of its own. The art consists of a collage of images and words by British designer Stanley Donwood. Tom Yorke says of the cover “ Someone’s being sold something they don’t really want, and someone’s being friendly because they are trying to sell something…” well, I was sold, and it is a hauntingly good piece of work.
9. Kiss: “Love Gun”
It seems anathema to my generation of comic loving boys to hate KISS, but I really do. Whatever they lacked in musical stylings, they made up for in unadulterated ass-kicking covers. I don’t think anything needs to be said about this one that a bunch of half naked ladies covered in face paint can’t say for themselves.
8. New Order: “Power, Corruption, and Lies”
This is New Order’s 2nd album, and my favorite cover of theirs. Peter Saville designed the piece, and he is quite prominent on my list… the man is genius. The cover is just a reproduction of a Henry Fantin Latour painting, and the lush, almost Baroque feel of the flowers contrasts beautifully with the starkness of the graphic color bar and typography, which in essence sums up the album and its sound of organic and synthetic.
7. Jane’s Addiction: “Nothing’s Shocking”
This cover was emblematic as Nirvana’s “Nevermind” cover was to the early 90’s alt scene, but less literal, which is what makes it a superior piece of art. The conjoined girl sculpture was made by the lead singer Perry Farrell and his girlfriend, then set on fire and photographed. The inexplicable art was as much as a shot in the jaw as Jane’s music, and I was floored. Thankfully subtlety was never one of the band’s virtues, and all the artwork associated with them was as perfectly avant-garde as the band itself and all of it was ahead of its time.
6. Iron Maiden: “The Number of the Beast”
When I was 8 years old, this cover depicted what pure evil looked like. The painting is as awesome as it is iconic, and it scared the pants off of me, until I heard Bruce Dickinson’s almost operatic vocals, which kinda pulled them back on. I still will always love Maiden, some of their mystique was gone though, and I realized that the forbidden apple tasted vaguely like canned fruit. That day I realized a fundamental truth… image is everything.
5. Pulp: “This is Hardcore”
Peter Saville’s 2nd entry on this illustrious list finds him working with Brit-pop band Pulp and American painter of ladies John Currin. Just as Maiden’s cover was pure evil to me, this cover is pure sex. The pallor of the model works so well with the reds and blacks, that it’s almost a Pavlovian reaction to the image. Needless to say, the public cried foul on this one, saying it was sexist and demeaning-really?!
4. Beastie Boys: “Licensed to Ill”
The first album from the trio depicted perfectly the impact that these white boys would have on white America, all the while utilizing the space of an LP perfectly. The design is simple and the painting is perfectly executed, much like the album itself. I remember staring out this cover for hours, reproducing it, and just completely enjoying it. Such an amazing piece.
3. The Clash: “London Calling”
Could a more perfect pairing of sound and design be planned? With the color, font, and layout resembling Elvis Presley’s eponymous album, and Paul Simmonen smashing his bass almost symbolically through the letters, you can feel the birth of something new and vital.
2. Joy Division: “Unknown Pleasures”
The most succinct of all the art on my list, however in that minimalism is all of its power. Peter Saville yet again is responsible for the cover, and it is as legendary as the band. Though their career was short lived due to Ian Curtis’s suicide, this motif and image has been repropogated and reused so many times, that it makes you feel that there isn’t an original thought left in the world anymore. (sigh)
1. Andrew WK: “I Get Wet”
It must be something from my childhood, as I realized this is almost the same as the Pulp cover, just with a vertical composition… I’m nothing if not consistent. Sorry for the digression, WK’s first album was graced with this awesome photo that you can believe either had the singer bloodied with a cinder block to the face, or alternately, the illusion was completed with boring ol’ stage magic. Whatever got the nose bleeding doesn’t matter, just that it is. The image was a hint of the happy pummeling that you would receive upon listening, and has always stayed with me
So that’s my list, which in no way is comprehensive and is completely subjective. I would love to throw the ball to you guys now, and hear what everyone’s vote would be for their favorite album art.
Images: Capitol Records, Island, London Import, Sony Music, Def Jam, Universal, Sanctuary, Warner Off Roster, Quest, UMe, XL Recordings, Warhammer, Geffen, Sanctuary, Columbia, Roc-A-Fella, Universal Motown, Parlophone UK, Sony Legacy, Capitol, PSP Co., RCA Records