There are so many amazing album covers out there that choosing favourites seems like an unachievable task. Like the albums themselves, the way I feel about the artwork they're wrapped in changes on a regular basis.
That said, there are some which, for various reasons, I've always loved. Some of them are considered classic and some of them are barely known but all of them are, in my eyes, brilliant examples of what an album cover should be.
A visual partner to the music on the record, something that can encapsulate the sounds in a way that you can't always put your finger on but somehow just works.
1. Freddie Hubbard – Hub-Tones
Blue Note is a record label established in 1939. They've released some of the best jazz ever recorded and their entire catalogue is bursting with amazing albums. Reid Miles was employed as their art director in 1956 and subsequently changed the face of graphic design for music.
Considering the fact that he churned out over 500 album cover designs during his career, the quality of the graphic design was always second to none. Featuring pioneering typography alongside wonderfully shot photography and excellently crafted design details, nearly every Blue Note release of the 60s and 70s had brilliant cover art.
One in particular I've always loved is Freddie Hubbard's 'Hub-Tones' from 1962. Like many Blue Note releases, the sleeve was printed in two colours to save on production costs. The stark, minimal layout is deceptively simple, with a nice reference to the music (Hubbard was a trumpeter) and completely iconic.
2. De La Soul – Three Feet High And Rising
Hip-hop in 1989. EPMD, LL Cool J, Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane released albums with covers featuring, among other things, guns, panthers, jacuzzis, champagne, cars and gold chains. Seminal hip-hop hippies De La Soul, on the other hand, came out with their debut effort – 'Three Feet High & Rising'.
The bright yellow cover showed the three rappers surrounded by a pink and green circle hand-painted type and brightly coloured flowers. A refreshing antidote from the standard hip hop machismo of the time, the Prince Paul-produced album and its artwork went on to rightly be considered classic. Both the music and the look were original, fun and game changing.
3. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies
Peter Saville's design for New Order's second album is arguably more famous than any of the music on it. The pioneering designer created a colour-based coding system to spell out the name of the band and title of the album. The coloured wheel to decode the wording is printed on the back of the album and could also be used for the subsequent single releases.
The flowers are a reproduction of the painting A Basket Of Roses by Henri Fantin-Latour. Factory Records were originally refused usage of the image before Tony Wilson called The National Heritage Trust, who own the painting, to dispute the refusal. When he was told the actual owners were "the people of Britain" he famously replied, "Well, the people of Britain now want it". Thankfully he got his way and an amazing piece of design was born.
4. Primal Scream – Screamadelica
One of the great things about seminal album covers is how, purely by chance, they can capture a movement and time perfectly. Screamadelica is a great example of this, released in 1991 as the band's early indie rock sound headed onto the dancefloor and collided head-on with euphoric, pilled-up house tunes.
Add some country and gospel for good measure and you have one of the defining records of the early 90s. The visual accompaniment to this groundbreaking collection of tunes reflected this 'newness' perfectly. Bright, joyful and naîve, the happy bursting sunshine was a re-coloured detail taken from a painting by Paul Cannell, the in-house artist at Creation Records.
5. Sixtoo – Duration
Independently released in 2002, 'Duration' was the debut full length by Sixtoo. Featuring raw, downtempo instrumental beats, the album was part of the wave of experimental hip hop alongside the likes of Buck 65, Anticon and Sage Francis. The majority of covers from these kind of releases were pretty rubbish.
Then along came a strange little design outfit called EH Questionmark? They produced a number of brilliant record sleeves for Lex throughout the 00s but their design for Duration has always been my favourite. Printed in gold foil and embossed onto a rough, brown card the cover simply consists of a big fat dripping 'Sixtoo' tag and the title of the LP in minimal typography.
Beautiful. EH Questionmark? have been relatively obscure since – their website has been 'under refurbishment' for about 9 years – but they remain significant (to me at least) with this great piece of design.
6. Pet Shop Boys – Yes
Whilst I'm not particularly familiar with the music, I am a big fan of the long and productive collaborative relationship between Pet Shop Boys and designer Mark Farrow. In a similar nature to his work with Spiritualized, Farrow has created a number of boundry-pushing artworks for the band, carefully treading the line between minimal and highly conceptual graphic design (which graphic designers love) and mainstream commercial design (which sells more records).
His work for their 2009 album, 'Yes', strikes this balance perfectly. In the initial meeting the band requested something bright and positive to match the unashamedly pop sound of the record and sited '4900', the recent work of German artist Gerhard Richter, as an inspiration. Farrow created a simple tick constructed from 11 coloured squares (one for each track on the album) and used the simple graphic in a variety of ways on the cover, inner sleeves, single releases and special editions.
A box set was released which featured all of the songs individually pressed on 12" vinyl. Each housed in its own brightly colour coded sleeve. A simple and easy to understand design idea that works on a number of different levels and, most importantly, looks amazing.
7. The Strokes – Is This It
Everybody knows the deal with this album. Image played a huge role in The Strokes' success and this album cover was a brilliant example of getting it right without ever appearing to try too hard.
The arse belongs to the ex-girlfriend of photographer Colin Lane and was apparently the result of an impromptu photoshoot as she stepped out of shower in his apartment. The black glove was left around from an Observer photoshoot and added a hint of rock'n'roll sexiness. Julian Casablancas saw the shot in Lane's portfolio, though it would look cool and, as it turned out, was completely spot on. Album covers simply don't come much cooler.
8. Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
The designer Robert Brownjohn – who also designed the title sequences for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger – created the bonkers sculpture on the cover of the Stones eighth album in 1969. Stacked on top of the record spindle are a plate, a pizza, a tyre, a clock face, a tape canister and, most importantly of all, a cake baked by a young (and at the time unknown) Delia Smith.
The reverse of the enigmatic cover art shows a slice of cake missing and the record smashed to bits. What does it all mean? Possibly a comment on rock'n'roll excess? Possibly a thinly veiled attack on consumerism? I haven't got a clue. But I like it.
9. Beck – The Information
Big Active designed the sleeve for Beck's 2006 effort, 'The Information'. Well, they designed most of it and left the rest up to you. The cover is actually a blank square of graph paper and each CD is sold with one of four sticker sheets. Each of these sheets features images, icons and symbols created by 20 different artists, totalling in 250 different stickers. The thinking behind this cover is a completely customisable package, resulting in every individual copy of the album having its own unique artwork.
10. Top Of The Pops compilations
Hallmark records began releasing their Top Of The Pops albums in the early 60s. They had no affiliation with the BBC programme of the same name and were a direct attempt to capitalise on the success of the legendary weekly TV show. The songs on the compilations were hurriedly recorded cover versions by session musicians trying to pass themselves off as the real thing.
The album artworks were fairly crude affairs and followed a simple and never-changing formula – laughably cheesy typography sitting alongside a photo of an attractive young girl in hot pants/ skimpy dress/bikini (delete as appropriate). The covers were pretty terrible but have somehow become something I'm genuinely fond of.
Still to be found in abundance throughout charity shops and car boot sales all over the country, they're a consistent and light hearted reminder that sometimes a great design can be created almost by accident.
So there you have it. Musically, the quality is all over the place and there are a couple of albums that I'm not massively bothered about in terms of the actual tunes. When it comes to the sleeves however, the above list shows a few of the reasons why I love album cover designs and why I hope to see physical artwork on the front of records survive the digital revolution in one way or another.
With the creativity, thought, love, attention to detail and general weirdness poured into the design of these covers, it would be a tragedy for all future album artwork to be relegated to a tiny, pixelated square on your iPod or phone. Like me, there are plenty of designers, musicians, bands and record labels who continue to fly the flag for excellent record sleeve design and long may it continue.
Mat Dolphin is a London-based design agency. You can see their work here.
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