100 Best Photo Album Covers

100 Best Photo Album Covers

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Andrew W.K.: I Get Wet**** (2001) Believe it or not, the unsightly cover of this debut album helped propel it to the top of Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. But Roe Etheridge’s photo of the artist’s bloody nose — reportedly obtained by self-flagellation with a cinder block and then the addition of pig’s blood — caused the album to get a big black-bar sticker in many retail stores. Fans bought it just to peel the bar off and see that bloody face. — JC Andrew W.K.:** I Get Wet (2001)
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Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha**** (2007) For the cover of his third solo album, Andrew Bird abandoned his usual (and beloved) illustrations by Chicago-based artist Jay Ryan for a photo from a series by Lynne Roberts-Goodwin titled Bad Birds. The images consist of stuffed bird specimens from the Department of Ornithology at the Australian Museum in Sydney, turned away from the camera and photographed against black seamless. While some have criticized the pun on the artist’s last name as a little obvious, we like to think the images were chosen for their unsettling mixture of scientific precision and unknowable mystery — a favored dichotomy in Bird’s music. — MJ Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha (2007)
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Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now ****(2005) For the cover of his band’s second album, lead singer Antony Hegarty honored photographer Peter Hujar by using Hujar’s image of famed transvestite and Andy Warhol cohort Candy Darling. In a 2007 homage to the photographer for the_ Guardian,_ Hegarty described arriving in New York City in 1990, when much of the city’s art community had succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses — Hujar included. The melancholy of that era is palpable in this haunting image, as well as in the music. — MJ Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now (2005)
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Beck: Odelay**** (1996) With a groundbreaking album close to completion and in need of a cover, Beck picked this picture of a high-jumping dog (no, it’s not a mop) from a photo book on dog breeds; the hairy canine is a Komondor. “It was chosen almost at random,” recalled art director Robert Fisher. “The viewers could read into the cover whatever they wanted.” — JC Beck: Odelay (1996)
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Beirut: Gulag Orkestar**** (2006) For Zach Condon, the face behind Beirut, photographs obviously have the power to inspire music. He found this image — a yellowed frame of two women leaning against a car by the obscure Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov — in a book, tore it out, and kept it taped to his wall while recording his debut album. “I always kind of felt like, ‘It’s got to sound like that. It’s got to sound the way that looks,'” he explained in a 2007 Pitchfork interview. Beirut’s second album, The Flying Club Cup, also took shape from a surreal and historic image. — MJ Beirut: Gulag Orkestar (2006)
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Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk**** (1996) This Scottish indie pop band has cultivated a specific look in their covers: one or more 20-something hipsters caught in a half-private, half-mugging moment, the black-and-white snap tinted red or green or gold. The prototype for this style is our favorite; Tigermilk sported a barely blue-tinted image of a topless Joanne Kenney (now a promotions executive for SonyBMG) apparently breastfeeding a stuffed tiger (some say Tigger). The image spoofed a legendary banned ’70s cover with a suckling kitty, Mama Lion’s (see Preserve Wildlife in the Shocking & Censored Album Covers), but the music bore little resemblance. — MJ Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk (1996)
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Bjork: Homogenic (1997) Along with photographer Nick Knight, designer Paul White, and computer manipulation, this Icelandic genius created an eye-grabbing image with antenna-like hair buns, spiked fingernails, an elongated neck, stretched facial features, and an oversized kimono. The alien look fit her emotionally complex music. Bjork: Homogenic (1997)
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X-Ray Spex: Germ Free Adolescents**** (1979) From a band said to “emphasize the lighter side of UK punk,” this album is fun but by no means lightweight. Trevor Key is credited with this cover image, inspired by the title track. “The cover was thought up by a design company in Covent Garden,” recalls founder and lead singer Poly Styrene. “I wasn’t very well at the photo shoot and I don’t really like my photo. The rest of the band looks great.” Aw, Poly, you look great too. — JH X-Ray Spex: Germ Free Adolescents (1979)
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Bjork: Volta**** (2007) Just one year old, this cover has already made an impact and inspired quite a few spoofs. On first glance, it looks like a Photoshop effort, especially given the white border around Bjork’s costume. But no, that’s actually the artist (looking remarkably normal) inside a bizarre sculpture by famous fashion designer Bernard Willhelm. Bjork wanted something colorful and upbeat. This photo and design by M/M — also meant to evoke pagan femininity — is just that. The white border? Because it’s a sticker, of course. — JH Bjork: Volta (2007)
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Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children**** (1998) When Boards of Canada, now one of the big names in trip hop, came out with their small-run, personally produced 1998 debut album, no one knew their name. Many people undoubtedly picked up the album because of its beguiling photo, aged and wrinkled, of an eerily faceless family on vacation. The image matches the duo’s slightly nostalgic sonic landscapes, layered with spoken-word tracks and ambient noise. — MJ Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
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Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (1965) This record launched Dylan’s electric phase, as he churned out increasingly surreal songs and improvised in the studio. Photographer Daniel Kramer captured the blur of changes by posing the bard with cultural artifacts (and Sally Grossman, wife of Dylan’s manager) and by swirling the edges of the frame in the darkroom. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
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Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy (1981) Between Blind Faith’s controversial cover and Miley Cyrus’s shoot with Annie Leibowitz was Bow Wow Wow’s interpretation of Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe,” which caused quite a ruckus as lead singer Annabella Lwin — just 15 at the time — appears nude. Nothing naughty is showing, but it raised eyebrows. Lwin’s mother tried to prevent the photo from being published, but Malcolm McLaren pushed it out on European releases. A different image was used for the US and UK releases of “See Jungle!” but this shot did appear on the group’s Last of the Mohicans EP in 1982. It was later used as an Anthology cover. Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy (1981)
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Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (1984) After the stark Nebraska, Springsteen set out to make a commercial album and hired Annie Leibovitz for the cover. “We took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face,” he said. The flag backdrop fueled a misperception that the angry title song was blindly patriotic. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
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Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969) This album’s avant-garde stew of psychedelic rock, raucous blues, and free-form jazz had an equally bizarre cover, featuring Cal Schenkel’s photo of a fish-head apparition (long before Tony Soprano ever dreamed of one) that drew on the lyrics of the Beefheart tune “Old Fart at Play.” Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969)
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Carly Simon: Playing Possum**** (1977) Simon has said she showed up for the photo session for this album wearing “pretty daytime wear.” After a couple of glasses of wine with photographer Norman Seeff, she revealed that she was wearing lingerie underneath. Thankfully, she was also wearing leather boots. The pose, she says, was not meant to be suggestive. Rather, she was dancing when Seeff snapped. “I think it’s the containment that’s exciting about this particular picture,” she said. — DS Carly Simon: Playing Possum (1977)
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David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (1973) Having reached superstardom after creating his Ziggy Stardust character, Bowie felt ambivalent about fame, reflected in this makeup job and image (by Duffy Design and photographer Sukita) in which glittery lightning seems to split the singer’s head in two. A lad insane, indeed. David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (1973)
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Debbie Harry: KooKoo**** (1981) Harry’s first solo album was not received well by critics or fans of Blondie. But in breaking away from her former band she masterfully commented on her own image of cool blond glamour with a cover image by famed Swiss artist H.R. Giger, best known for the dark, creepy sets he created for the movie Alien. With some computer work, Giger’s image literally punched holes in Harry’s icy facade. — DS Debbie Harry: KooKoo (1981)
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Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls**** (2003) The Dresden Dolls’ penchant for Weimar-era cabaret and pastiche is perfectly captured by this black-and-white image by Lisa Gordon. Though it starts with a photo of the duo (Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, as usual in white pancake makeup) at a seaside cafe table, invoking among other things the lost heyday of Coney Island, the finishing touches include rose buds and leaves pasted around the edges. — MJ Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls (2003)
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Electric Light Orchestra: Eldorado**** (1974) An English band that wanted to bring the sweep of strings and horns to rock, as the Beatles had once done, ELO became a bigger hit in America than it ever was in England. The band’s fourth LP was a concept album about dreams. And what is the most famous dream of all? That’s right — the one Dorothy had about Oz, witches, and ruby slippers. The album’s cover featured a pivotal still from the 1939 film. — DS Electric Light Orchestra: Eldorado (1974)
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Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (1978) Of course we love Elvis with a Hasselblad! Photographer Chris Gabrin simply set up Costello as a mirror image of himself, asking the singer to copy his exaggerated gestures. The rocker reportedly put on an Eagles album during the shoot. “I bloody hate them,” Costello said, “but I want to look in a really bad mood.” Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (1978)
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Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley**** (1956) If not the center of rock-and-roll’s Big Bang, this album spread the explosion. Presley’s debut LP for RCA was the first rock-and-roll album to reach #1 and heralded the King to much of the world. The cover featured a spirited photo by William S. “Popsie” Randolph and a wacky pink-and-green type treatment that’s been copied by the Clash (see London Calling in the Super 30 Album Covers), Tom Waits, and k.d. lang, among others. The King still rules. — JC Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956)
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Fatboy Slim: Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars**** (2000) The title is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde quote — “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” — and the photo is striking on its own. Combined, the interplay of words and image make a powerful statement on the role music plays in human sexuality and desire. Even if you’re not familiar with the cover art, odds are you remember the video for “Weapon of Choice” from this album, featuring Christopher Walken dancing up and down walls. — JMH Fatboy Slim: Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (2000)
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Feist: The Reminder (2007) This is a new cover on the block — how can an image become “iconic” after only one year? We’re mesmerized by the rainbow swash (or is that a nerve chart?) behind Mary Rozzi’s backlit silhouette shot of the artist, signifying her colorful singing and many-mooded songs. Feist: The Reminder (2007)
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Fleetwood Mac: Rumours**** (1977) Is it Mick Fleetwood’s lanky frame, or the interplay between him and Stevie Nicks, or the crystal ball, with its inlay of another Fleetwood Mac cover, that makes this photo compelling? No … it’s really those curious spheres hanging from Fleetwood’s belt. The album was a document of discord in the band’s couples: “Chris and John broke up, and Stevie and Lindsey broke up, and then I fell in love with Stevie, and it was a damn mess,” Fleetwood recently said. “If you could take a picture of that, you would have a genius shot.” This is as close as anyone came. — JC Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1977)
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Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace**** (2007) That strange object on Foo Fighters’ sixth album is a WWII torpedo blended with a vintage guitar amplifier tube. “The [combination] was, in many regards, an accident,” said designer Don Clark. “I had the half image of the torpedo placed on the cover and I wanted to juxtapose it with another object that traditionally wasn’t associated with war or violence. As I was scrolling through my folders of images, I happened upon the tube shot . . . and that was it!” — JC Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)
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Frank Zappa:****_ Hot Rats_ ****(1969) Zappa’s first album not credited to the Mothers of Invention, this was yet another from the legendary mad artist that divided fans. The cover featured a surreal infrared photo of Miss Christine (Christine Frka), a member of the groupie-group the GTOs, who had been signed to Zappa’s label. The photo was by Andee Nathanson, the model’s roommate at the time. Miss Christine also happened to be the girlfriend of another Zappa cohort: Alice Cooper. — JH Frank Zappa: Hot Rats (1969)
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Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981) A case could be made that the ironic look of femininity in the 1980s — big shoulders, angular androgyny — started here. Photographer Jean-Paul Goude hand-colored the photo with a bluish tint for effect. “Her image would suggest a strange menacing alien,” he later said, “when all I had wanted to do was sublimate her African roots.” Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)
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Hair (1968) In 1968, the idea of a Broadway musical based on the era’s antiwar activism and hippy idealism seemed otherworldly, just like the color-saturated, mirrored picture on the original Broadway cast soundtrack. It’s been going in and out of style, but the play, like the image, was built to last. Hair (1968)
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Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965) Frothy, sexy images have graced many covers, but this one takes the cake. Model Dolores Erickson posed for photographer Jerry Whorf wearing a sheet slathered with shaving cream; she later said her pregnancy accented her pulchritude. “I thought, ‘Just another job,'” she recalled — but it was far from just another picture. Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965)
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Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power**** (1973) Though hardly noticed upon release and soon followed by the breakup of the Stooges, this album went on to attract a rabid cult following and to help inspire punk rock itself. Mick Rock’s cover shot of Iggy Pop conveyed the mood: defiant, bizarre, stripped-down, and ready to burst. — JC Iggy and the Stooges: Raw Power (1973)
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Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul**** (1969) Considered a landmark in soul music, this album’s title was coined by Stax Record’s Al Bell on a flight back from Jamaica while reading an ad for hot buttered rum. The cover shot by Christopher Whorf is all about Hayes’s bald head, what Whorf called “an in-your-face declaration of blackness.” — JH Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
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Ivy: In the Clear**** (2005) With songs like “Nothing but the Sky” and “Feel So Free,” this New York trio put together a travelogue of smooth ambiance and moody escapism for their fifth album, reflected in photographer Chase Jarvis’s cover shot of an airplane interior. The Onion called the album “simultaneously exciting and relaxing” — not unlike a comfortable overseas flight. (First class.) — JC Ivy: In the Clear (2005)
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Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking (1988) Perhaps nothing’s shocking except nude Siamese twins with their heads on fire. Bandleader and photographer Perry Ferrell dreamed up this image, created the twins out of plaster using his girlfriend as a model, and experimented with flames until he got his shot. Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking (1988)
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Jens Lekman: Night Fall Over Kortedala**** (2007) The cover of Lekman’s third album references the track “Shirin,” about a friend who cuts his hair. “Getting my hair cut is just a very special moment for me,” the Swedish bubblegum troubadour told The Onion. “I don’t know exactly why, but it’s such an intimate, almost religious experience.” With the clouds collaged in and the hand-tinting, the image also captures the guileless yet melancholy romanticism of the music. — MJ Jens Lekman: Night Fall Over Kortedala (2007)
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Joe Jackson: Look Sharp!**** (1979) New-wave singer Jackson and photographer Brian Griffin set out on a dingy London November day for a photo shoot, with Jackson wearing a snappy suit and white Denson shoes. “When we came around the corner and saw this shaft of light I just pointed the camera down at Joe’s shoes,” Griffin recalled. “It was a rare and magical moment.” — JC Joe Jackson: Look Sharp! (1979)
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John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins**** (1968) One spring night in what they called “the glow of love,” John Lennon and Yoko Ono made a series of wacky avant-garde recordings before consummating their relationship for the first time. Then they posed in the nude, using a time-released shutter. Then they set out to release their noise montage as an album with the nude photos on front and back. All hell broke loose. A small run was released in Britain and the U.S. on obscure labels with brown paper covers, and thousands of these were confiscated as indecent. The artists said the title reflected that they were “two innocents, lost in a world gone mad.” — JC John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968)
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Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976) A painter before she was a singer, Mitchell illustrated many of her album covers; here she art-directed a photomontage of road scenes and a portrait by Joel Bernstein, echoing the album’s themes of wanderlust and self-reflection — what Mitchell called “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976)
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Joy Division: Closer**** (1980) This post-punk band’s second and final album appeared two months after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. Eerily, the cover (selected by designer Peter Seville before Curtis’s death) featured a photo of a family tomb, by Demetrio Paernio, in Genoa, Italy. The austere, haunting image echoed the bleak yet mystical feel of the album. — JC Joy Division: Closer (1980)
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Laurie Anderson: Big Science (1981) Wearing opaque white glasses during one of her performance pieces, Laurie Anderson was photographed by video producer Greg Shifrin in a grainy, fuzzy still shot. She liked it enough to try to restage it with another photographer, with no luck. So she heavily retouched Shifrin’s image, adding a sci-fi visual to the album’s experimental vibe. — JC Laurie Anderson: Big Science (1981)
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Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy (1973) The design firm Hipgnosis wanted to illustrate this album title with innocent children climbing rock formations at sunrise. But the weather on location in Northern Ireland was dreary, so a black-and-white image was colorized. Three children posed in various shots; the rocks hid the edges of the joined frames in a pre-Photoshop montage. Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy (1973)
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Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville**** (1993) Phair’s debut was intended as both a retort to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and a middle-fingered salute to Chicago’s male-dominated rock establishment. Nash Kato of Urge Overkill is credited with this picture (reportedly taken in a photo booth), which mirrors the raw sexuality and defiance found on the album. Phair recalls that Kato encouraged her to take off her shirt but leave the necklaces, put lipstick on her nipples (one of which is visible lower right), and get over her shyness. — JH Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (1993)
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Lyle Lovett: The Road to Ensenada**** (1996) For his sixth album, Lovette lightened up a bit with tunes such as “Don’t Touch My Hat,” spoofed in this Michael Wilson shot that crops out Lovett’s trademark bouffant. But Lyle also ponders the woes of love, having recently cycled through his whirlwind marriage with Julia Roberts. What we’re left with is a piercing gaze and crooked half-grin. — JC Lyle Lovett: The Road to Ensenada (1996)
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Madonna: True Blue (1986) Having quickly mastered the art of image making, Madonna asked her friend Herb Ritts to shoot the cover of her third album. His black-and-white vertical photo was cropped square and hand-tinted by designer Jeri Heiden. “It was like she was floating,” Heiden said of the result. “She took on the appearance of a marble statue, goddess-like.” Madonna: True Blue (1986)
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The Mamas and the Papas: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears**** (1966) The bathroom setting on this pop group’s debut cover was deemed indecent by retailers because of the toilet, so the label quickly put out a new cover with a scroll and a song list on the right side of the shot, rendering the originals collectible. The list changed as hit tunes (including “California Dreaming”) were added, and later a black border completely surrounded the band’s faces, eliminating any visual evidence of the bathroom. — JC The Mamas and the Papas: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966)
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Marilyn Manson: Mechanical Animals (1998) My my, what a guy! (we think). Manson cemented his androgynous and freakish image with this portrait by Joseph Cultice, in which the nearly nude singer wore prosthetic breasts (the nipples were later retouched out), a plastic cup, and a coat of latex paint. Not to mention the sixth finger added onto his left hand. Marilyn Manson: Mechanical Animals (1998)
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Miles Davis:****_ Tutu_ ****(1986) Photo legend Irving Penn made this portrait of Davis, with the cover art-directed by famed designer Eiko Ishioka. Though the album’s musical direction, utilizing synthesizers and electronic instruments, divided many fans, this striking and unconventional image lends Davis his deserved aura as an American institution. — JH Miles Davis: Tutu (1986)
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Moby Grape: Moby Grape**** (1967) The rumor goes that drummer Don Stevenson was bored and annoyed by the photographer after a long day of shots and locations and indicated his displeasure with the simple hand gesture pointing to the washboard. After the offending digit was discovered by the band’s label, Columbia, it was airbrushed out for subsequent pressings — until the 1973 re-release on the UK’s Edsel/Demon Records restored the photo to its original state. — JMH Moby Grape: Moby Grape (1967)
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N.W.A: Straight Outta Compton ****(1988) Probably not the sort of scene you’d want to find yourself staring up at, this shot by Eric Poppleton announced to the world that Niggaz With Attitude were here. (This was actually the group’s second album, but the first was largely ignored.) Straight Outta Compton also introduced the general public to the genre of gangsta rap, though the group preferred to call it “reality rap.” — JH N.W.A: Straight Outta Compton (1988)
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Nirvana: Nevermind (1991) As an obscure indie band prepared its major-label debut, singer Kurt Cobain imagined a cover photo of an underwater birth, which was deemed impractical. How about a baby in a pool? Chasing…a dollar bill? With an underwater housing, photographer Kirk Weddle shot little Spencer Elden on his first swim — Elden’s dad held him but was removed from the image, and the dollar and fishhook were added. Nirvana: Nevermind (1991)
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Notorious B.I.G: Ready to Die**** (1994) As gangsta rap evolved, the genre’s violence and feuds escalated, with East-coast artist Biggie Smalls becoming one of it’s most notorious victims. Here, the cool innocence of Butch Belair’s portrait of an afro-coiffed toddler stands in sharp contrast to the title and content of of the album — and of course it has a strange poignancy given the rapper’s fate. The baby photo was put against a dark background for the posthumous re-mastered album, but it is the original cover that’s most striking. — JH Notorious B.I.G: Ready to Die (1994)
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Ohio Players: Honey (1975) A continuation of the group’s sexy album covers, this foldout sleeve featured Playboy playmate Ester Cordet and a honey jar, with the interior photo even racier. (A daft urban myth grew around the model and an audible scream in the band’s hit “Love Rollercoaster.”) Shot by Richard Fegley, the cover won a Grammy Award but got the album banned in many stores. Ohio Players: Honey (1975)
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Patti Smith: Horses (1975) Before either was well known, Patti Smith asked her pal Robert Mapplethorpe to shoot her debut cover. “We always dreamed of becoming successful together,” she recalled. This photo launched both careers — hers as the poetess of punk, unkempt but elegant; his as the artist who had the uncanny sense to pose her under a triangular stream of sunlight. Patti Smith: Horses (1975)
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Pearl Jam, Ten**** (1991) This cover folded out into eight additional squares to reveal the members of the group doing a giant high-five, in a photo by Lance Mercer. The album title doesn’t match the number of tunes (11) or band members (five) — but rather refers to the jersey number of basketball star Mookie Blaylock, whose name was used by the band until they were forced to change it to Pearl Jam (in honor of Eddie Vedder’s great-grandmother, Pearl). — JC Pearl Jam: Ten (1991)
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Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (1980) A hyper-creative guy who couldn’t be bothered to name his early albums outdid himself, visually, with his third one. Hipgnosis designer Storm Thorgerson suggested the melting effect, obtained by prodding a Polaroid print as its chemicals were developing. Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (1980)
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** ** Pink Flloyd
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Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975) This LP originally appeared in navy plastic wrap (black in Europe) to accent its themes of “nothingness” and the fallacies of fame. But the Hipgnogsis cover shot inside led many a stoned space-rocker to wonder: Is that real fire? It is, according to stuntman Ronnie Rondell (right), who wore a wig to save his scalp in the photo shoot. Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975)
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PJ Harvey: Rid of Me**** (1993) For her second album and first on a major label, PJ Harvey wanted to show that she wasn’t going to be what people expected. This cover shot of a wet-hair-slinging Harvey by visual collaborator Maria Mochnacz certainly achieves that. The back cover was a closeup of Harvey with apparent rope burns. Nope, not your average female singer-songwriter. — JH PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (1993)
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Prince: Sign o’ the Times**** (1988) When photographer Jeff Katz arrived on set to make the cover image for Sign o’ the Times, he realized they needed a backdrop and borrowed one from the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s production of Guys And Dolls. The line of foliage running down the middle of the set references a line from Prince’s song “The Cross”: “Ghettos to the left of us, flowers to the right.” — MJ Prince: Sign o’ the Times* **(1988)
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Prodigy: The Fat of the Land**** (1997) As an urban-sounding heavy rock band that lived in the countryside, Prodigy titled this album in reference to their rural lifestyles. Designer Alex Jenkins thought a crab fit the title, as well as the band’s aggressive attitude. He found the photo, by Konrad Wothe-Silvestris, in an Images of Nature stock library. The background was given a zoom effect using Adobe Photoshop and a photocopier. — JC Prodigy: The Fat of the Land (1997)
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Radiohead: The Bends ****(1995) This band’s acclaimed second album features a cover by longtime collaborator Stanley Donwood, whom singer Thom Yorke met at college. Though Yorke had hoped to use an image of an iron lung for the cover, he apparently lost the picture. At the last minute, Donwood morphed Yorke’s visage with a photo he had made of a resuscitation dummy: “It had this strange mix of agony and ecstasy on its rubbery face,” he recalled. A perfect visual counterpart for The Bends. –JH Radiohead: The Bends (1995)
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Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine (1992) This heavy rock band appropriated a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1963 photo by Malcolm Browne of a Buddhist monk self-immolating in protest of Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnamese government — a powerful cover for a politically driven debut album. Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine (1992)
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Roxy Music: Country Life (1974) Bandleader Brian Ferry met two beautiful women at a bar on holiday in Portugal, and he asked Eric Boman to photograph them in a garden. “We thought it would be nothing but a holiday snap,” recalled Evaline Seeling (left). “We shopped for sexy underwear.” Many stores banned the record; an alternate cover appeared with only the hedge. Roxy Music: Country Life (1974)
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Scorpions: Lovedrive**** (1979) Ah, Scorpions — the band the censors love to hate. They first got in trouble with their absolutely tasteless cover for the German release of Virgin Killer, featuring a nude young girl, which was quickly replaced (we’ll steer clear of that one). They also caught heck for 1980’s Animal Magnetism. The Lovedrive cover, by famed design firm Hipgnosis, got the paper-wrap treatment on release and was also replaced, following complaints. “We weren’t in any way being demeaning to women,” insisted designer Aubrey Powell. “It’s just a weird picture,” he added of this bubblegum shot. “I don’t think it would have looked the same if it had been coming off an ear.” — JC Scorpions: Lovedrive (1979)
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Sigur Ros: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust**** (2008) The English translation of this title is With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly — and who wouldn’t? To reflect the album’s playful spirit, the band used an image by art photographer Ryan McGinley, which initially got more attention than the music. The shot — which McGinley used to promote his show I Know Where the Summer Goes — arrived in the e-mail inbox of singer Jon Por Birgisson just as the band was looking for a cover. — JC Sigur Ros: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (2008)
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Steve Miller Band: The Joker**** (1973) Here we have an enigmatic and somewhat scary portrait of The Space Cowboy, The Gangster of Love, or Maurice (take your pick) — each references to some of Miller’s earlier personas. The album marked a turning point in the bandleader’s career, a move away from his blues roots toward a more commercial, poppy sound. Rock photographer Norman Seeff created the image based on Miller’s many-faceted personality. — JH Steve Miller Band: The Joker (1973)
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Supertramp: Breakfast in America**** (1979) Looking at sketches to illustrate this title, the members of Supertramp settled on a drawing of the Statue of Liberty holding a glass of orange juice; designers Mike Doud and Mick Haggarty took the concept from there with a waitress and a miniature Manhattan built out of plastic condiments and cutlery. The first models brought in — both young beauties — were vetoed by the band in favor of this more matronly waitress, dubbed “Libby,” hired from the Ugly Model Agency. — JC Supertramp: Breakfast in America (1979)
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Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense**** (1984) The most memorable sight in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed concert film of Talking Heads was David Byrne’s Big Suit — drawn by the singer on a napkin, created as an oversized emblem of mundanity, then put to great use on the movie poster in a photo by Adelle Lutz. For the soundtrack LP, her shot graced a picture booklet that was shrink-wrapped around the black-and-white cover. — JC Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984)
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The Art of Noise, In No Sense? Nonsense (1987) Photographer Alan David-Tu created this image sans computer; he shot a mannequin, distorted the image while printing, then pasted on hair after cutting it into an odd shape. Art director John Pasche added acetate and a feather to evoke a party noisemaker. “I was doing strange stuff,” said David-Tu, “and John let me get on with it and do my own thing.” — JC The Art of Noise, In No Sense? Nonsense (1987)
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The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969) In ’69 the Fab Four decided to name their last recording after the street in front of their studio and pose there. They gave photographer Iain McMillan about ten minutes. Most frames didn’t work — but one was perfectly symmetrical, except that McCartney was out of step and he’d shed his sandals (which led to lots of “Paul is Dead” hogwash). Fittingly, the guys are walking away from the studio (at left) rather than toward it. The shot capped a decade of brilliance. The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)
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The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) A lot of people call this the Greatest Album Cover Ever, whereas we didn’t even name it as the Beatles’ best sleeve. Why? It’s more about set design than photography — a meticulously composed montage, albeit a brilliant one. Designers Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and album mastermind Paul McCartney deserve most of the credit, but Michael Cooper captured it with his Sinar 4×5. And a splendid time was guaranteed for all. — JC The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
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Minor Threat, “S/T” If you’re a fan of punk or hardcore music, there are few images as iconic as Ian MacKaye’s younger brother Alec, hunched over his boots. The cover of the first Minor Threat EP has been imitated time and time again by countless punk bands and even some major corporations like Nike. The photo itself is nothing to write home about, but it’s quick-and-dirty approach fit the band’s aggressive sound perfectly. The cover was printed in a wide variety of colors, some of which are now worth thousands of dollars on the collector market. Minor Threat, “S/T”
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The Beatles: Yesterday and Today**** (1965) At the height of their popularity, the Beatles’ labels (EMI in Britain, Capitol in America) tended to let them create as they pleased. Yet the stateside versions of their albums were chopped into different song lists for commercial reasons, much to the musicians’ dismay. As a comment on the “butchering” of their “babies,” the Beatles posed for this outlandish shot (brainchild of photographer Robert Whitaker) with dismembered dolls and chunks of meat. On the album’s early, limited release, a public outcry indicated that this time the lads had gone too far. A pressing of 750,000 was recalled and many became collectors’ items, as did thousands of sleeves on which a bland replacement shot was pasted. (Resourceful collectors figured out how to steam off the new cover.) — JC The Beatles: Yesterday and Today (1965)
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The Black Crowes: Amorica**** (1994) Among other things, the Black Crowes’ third album will be remembered for its controversial cover featuring pubic hair. The image, taken by photographer James Baes, originally appeared in a 1976 U.S. Bicentennial issue of Hustler. Responding to public (or is that pubic?) complaints, the record company later put out an alternate cover that obscured the skin, showing only the flag-themed bikini cloth on a black background. — DS The Black Crowes: Amorica (1994)
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The Cars: The Cars (1978) The debut album of this new-wave group sported a blown-away beauty at the wheel — either a muse for the band or part its target audience. The 17-year-old Russian-born model, Natalya Medvedeva, later posed for Playboy, wrote poetry, sang in her own band, and died in 2003, but her young smile is immortal. — JC The Cars: The Cars (1978)
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The Clash: London Calling (1979) This image almost didn’t become a cover — photographer Pennie Smith fought it because it was grainy — but the Clash liked the nihilism of Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage. The type treatment copied Elvis Presley’s first RCA album sleeve. “It was intended as a genuine homage,” said designer Ray Lowry, “to make plain the obvious sources of our insanities.” The Clash: London Calling (1979)
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The Dead Kennedys: Plastic Surgery Disasters ****(1982) If one photo illustrates why Eric Reed Boucher chose the stage name Jello Biafra, this is it. The DK singer’s moniker is meant to expose the hypocrisy of junk food affluence (Jell-O) with mass starvation (the short-lived African nation of Biafra). Mike Wells won Press Photo of The Year in 1980 for this image, called “Hands,” of a starving boy with a missionary in Uganda. The photo was entered in the competition without Wells’s consent by a publication that had sat on it for five months. Wells was not amused, being against profiting from the suffering of others. — JH The Dead Kennedys: Plastic Surgery Disasters (1982)
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The Doors: Strange Days (1967) With a freak show of performers on a Manhattan side street, this picture by Joel Brodsky looked strange indeed in 1967. “We didn’t want anything psychedelic as we weren’t that kind of band,” said keyboardist Ray Manzarek. What Brodsky gave them was weirder, befitting the album’s darkly carnivalesque mood. The Doors: Strange Days (1967)
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The Edgar Winter Group: They Only Come Out at Night (1972) Would you buy…anything from this man? Winter pioneered the gender-bender cover with makeup and jewelry to accent his albinistic features. The image — which also evoked the 1910 film Frankenstein, name of the band’s monster hit — was out of character for both Winter and designer/photographer John Berg. But it sold millions. The Edgar Winter Group: They Only Come Out at Night (1972)
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The Five Keys: On Stage!**** (1957) Unlike many artists on this list, this R&B vocal group put out this album cover with no intent to provoke. Some time after its release, however, complaints poured in about the appearance of a (rather small) digit protruding below the waist of lead singer Rudy West (far left) — which turned out to be his right-hand index finger. The offending digit was airbrushed out for subsequent pressings and the originals became collectible. — JC The Five Keys: On Stage! (1957)
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The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland**** (1968) The British version of this landmark album — designed quickly by Track Records to meet a production deadline — had a foldout cover shot by David Montgomery of some 20 women in the nude. It was both praised and panned, but Hendrix hated the cover. His request to use a shot of the band by Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) had been ignored. The U.S. label, Reprise, put out a sleeve with a head shot of Hendrix, which later became the international CD cover — partly as a posthumous nod to the artist’s wishes, and partly due to the nude cover’s hoopla. — JC The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (1968)
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The Pixies: Surfer Rosa**** (1988) The Spanish bar on the cover of the Pixies’ full-length debut was built specially for the shot after photographer Simon Larbalestier couldn’t find a location that bestowed the right “atmosphere.” The woman is not an authentic topless flamenco dancer either (if such things exist), but a friend of a friend of the band. At one time the album was to be called Gigantic, but the band feared unintended assumptions about how it related to the cover image . . . and Surfer Rosa was born. — MJ The Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988)
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The Police: Synchronicity**** (1983) Amid great interpersonal tension, the Police made their biggest-selling and final album. “For this record we have each been photographed separately, choosing our own images to illustrate our idea of synchronicity,” recalled guitarist Andy Summer in his memoir. “We won’t see one another’s pictures until the album is released, but it seems sadly symbolic of the inner life of the group.” Many of the images were shot by Duane Michals. Originally the album appeared in 36 variations, with different color and photo combinations, before one was standardized for CD. — JC The Police: Synchronicity (1983)
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The Ramones: Ramones (1976) Photographer Roberta Bayley lined up four former juvenile delinquents from Queens against a wall and started a movement. The graphic, gritty, no-nonsense cover shot perfectly fit the raw sound of the genre-busting album, which Spin later described as “Britzkrieg pop stripped down to its 1-2-3-4.” The Ramones: Ramones (1976)
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The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet**** (1968) Considered by many as the Stones’ finest record, Banquet was delayed for several months over this picture. After a lengthy battle with their label, Decca, over Barry Feinstein’s shot of a graffiti-laden toilet scene, the group finally gave in and put the album out with a plain white sleeve that mimicked a dinner invitation. (Unfortunately, the rival Beatles had put out their own White Album a month earlier.) But the darkly menacing mood of Banquet did come through in Feinstein’s interior shot of the band — and the toilet cover was restored when the CD came out in 1984. — JC The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet (1968)
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The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971) For their first album cover on their own label, the Stones tapped Andy Warhol, who proposed a shot of a guy’s crotch — with a real zipper, which caused distribution trouble because it damaged albums in their bins. The model was Warhol Factory performer Joe Dallesandro. The band’s famous tongue logo debuted on back of the sleeve. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971)
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The Roots: Things Fall Apart**** (1999) This landmark album was released for a limited time with five different cover images, all in black and white and all of social disasters. This one — of white police officers chasing black teenagers through Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the era of the Civil Rights Movement — is by far the most striking and perfectly fits the intelligent, socially-conscious ethos of the music (also embodied in the album titled, taken from Chinua Achebe’s archetypal African novel). — MJ The Roots: Things Fall Apart (1999)
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The Smiths: The Smiths**** (1984) The strapping torso on the cover of the Smiths’ eponymous debut belongs to American actor and gay sex icon Joe Dallesandro. The still was taken from Andy Warhol’s 1968 film Flesh, which was called one of the year’s best films by Rolling Stone. The Smiths, and especially lead singer Morissey, became underground gay icons in their own right, and soon Rolling Stone would be lauding their music, not just their cover art. — MJ The Smiths: The Smiths (1984)
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Tricky: Blowback**** (2001) Ok, so maybe the cover of Blowback, featuring this English rapper having smoke blown back into his mouth, is a bit literal. But it’s done with the subtlety and palpable light we’ve come to expect from music photographer Anton Corbijn, who’s shot covers for U2, REM, Bruce Springsteen, Depeche Mode, Metallica, and John Lee Hooker. The inside of the Blowback packaging contains a nice selection of outtakes from the Tricky shoot. — MJ Tricky: Blowback (2001)
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The Strokes: Is This It**** (2001) The debut album of this American alt-rock band was a success in the U.S., reaching number 33 — but especially in Britain, where it reached number 2. Could this be due to the cover art? The British (and international) version featured a naked behind and a gloved hand; the model was the girlfriend of photographer Colin Lane. “I walked out of the shower and I was completely naked,” she recalled. “I was walking around the house, and he was like, ‘Put this glove on.’ I walked over — boom, that was the shot.” But for the more prudish US market, a tamer (and less alluring) photo of particle collisions was put in place. — DS The Strokes: Is This It (2001)
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The White Stripes: _White Blood Cell_s (2001) Who are the intruders on the White Stripes’ third album? An inside photo reveals them to be paparazzi. The double edge of the duo’s fame was reflected in Patrick Pantano’s cover shot. “A lot of the lyrics are paranoid,” said Jack White of this album. “It does kind of match all these figures coming at us on the cover.” The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (2001)
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The Who: Who’s Next (1971) Driving north of London for a cover shoot with members of the Who, photographer Ethan Russell noticed some otherworldly slabs in a slag heap and thought of posing the group in a Space Odyssey-like scene. But as they approached, one of the lads peed on a slab, and the others followed suit. They decided the shot fit their image. The Who: Who’s Next (1971)
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Tom Waits: Alice**** (2002) For an album ostensibly based on Alice in Wonderland and described by Allmusic.com as “saturated with tenderness,” this one has a spooky cover. Born of a stage collaboration between Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and playwright Robert Wilson, this set blends exotic sounds with passionate songs; Matt Mahurin’s eerie image adds yet another dimension. — JC Tom Waits: Alice (2002)
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Mama Lion: Protect Wildlife**** (1972) This shot of lead singer Lynn Carey nursing a lion cub became much more famous than the album’s middling blues-rock music. The cover was actually a foldout, with the naughty bits covered by a window until the viewer opened the front sleeve, but it was soon banned and altered by label execs. Carey, touted as a Janis Joplinesque singer, had previously bared all for Penthouse. The photo was parodied by, among others, Belle and Sebastian in their debut (see Tigermilk in the Stylishly Alternative Covers). — JC Mama Lion: Protect Wildlife (1972)
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U2: War**** (1983) For their 1980 debut, Boy, U2 posed five-year-old Peter Rowen as a picture of innocence. Three years later, they put a more troubled-looking Rowen (photographed by Ian Findlay) on this record about the destruction and aftereffects of war. Rowen also appeared wearing a soldier’s helmet on U2’s The Best of 1980-1990. “It didn’t make any difference to my life,” said Rowen, now 32 and a photographer, “except it was a day off school.” — JC U2: War (1983)
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Van Morrison: Astral Weeks**** (1968) Drawing on Morrison’s blues and Irish folk roots, as well as the jazz and classical leanings of his studio band, this album sounds like none other before or since. Its mysterious air comes through the cover montage with a portrait by Joel Brodsky, best known for his work with the other Morrison (Jim) and the Doors. Never again would Van look so youthful — or sound so gorgeous. — JC Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)
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Wes Montgomery: Road Song**** (1968) Working mostly for jazz artists, photographer Pete Turner helped elevate album-cover art to a new level of bold elegance, as seen in this shot for Wes Montgomery’s last recording. “I saw this freshly painted picket fence that went on forever,” Turner recalled. “Just a picket fence and brake lights: the suggestion of a road more than the road itself.” — JC Wes Montgomery: Road Song (1968)
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Wilco: Sky Blue Sky**** (2007) The image that graced Wilco’s seventh album — “Sky Chase” by Italian photographer Manuel Presti — also found its way into National Geographic in July of the same year. Yet 2007 was not the first big year for this distinctive photo of a flock of starlings being attacked by a peregrine falcon in Rome; in 2005 it beat out more than 17,000 entries to help Presti win the prestigious title of BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. — MJ Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (2007)
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World Party: Goodbye Jumbo**** (1990) Bandleader Karl Wallinger found visual inspiration on the back cover shot of Tim Buckley’s Greetings from L.A., in which Buckley holds a gas mask as protection from the city’s smog. An avid environmentalist, Wallinger added elephant ears (made of plaster of Paris) to heighten the alarm, though the backdrop in Steve Wallace’s photo simulated a sunny blue sky. The frame — a zany pastiche of mementos and corporate clutter — had to be reprinted after some companies balked at the use of their trademarks. — JC World Party: Goodbye Jumbo (1990)
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X: Los Angeles ****(1980) This burning X motif, which came to symbolize the LA post-punk legends, was shot by photographer and sometime actor Frank Gargani, who had a long artistic association with the group. Produced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors, this acclaimed album paints a bleak portrait of X’s home city. Gargani’s cover mirrored the album’s ominous tone. — JH X: Los Angeles (1980)
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Black Flag, “Damaged” A milestone record in the history of hardcore punk. Many of Black Flag’s albums used illustrative art, but the gritty realness of the photo matches the unbridled intensity then-frontman Henry Rollins brought to this record. By modern standards, it’s a very rough photo, but it perfectly matches the DIY ethics and angry attitude embodied by the music itself. Black Flag, Damaged