Roundtable: On the importance of album art

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 - 5:04pm

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In the music world, “It’s only whats on the inside that counts,” is something that albums with unappealing covers say. The various music writers of Daily Arts understand the importance that lies within an attractive binding and how an albums cover can offer a glimpse of the story its music contains. Thus, in no particular order, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite works of album art that we hope you enjoy as well.

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Yeezus

Def Jam Recordings

Yeezus, Kanye West

Yeezus: The anti-cover. What better feature for our series about cover art than an album with no cover at all? For his sixth studio album, established hip-hop innovator Kanye West took a step toward the avant-garde, bringing the design of its cover with him. The Yeezus “cover” is best discussed in terms of a CD and case, as the digital version is simply an image of the two: With no design aside from a small square of red sealant tape, the physical Yeezus disc is completely exposed through its clear, plastic packaging. It’s minimalist, it’s raw and instead of augmenting an album’s innate qualities of mass-production and digitization with life and creativity as album art typically aims to do, it completely embraces the album’s CD-ness.

Ironically, these characteristics (or lack thereof) brilliantly mimic the tone of the album. Sonically, Yeezus differs drastically from Ye’s traditionally warm and polished sound, instead offering a chaotic array of unfiltered, digital mush. Its tracks are cold, abrasive and overwhelmingly artificial — attributes that a plain, metallically reflective compact disc perfectly embodies. For example, “On Sight” is both parts a jarring imitation of Afrika Bambaataa’s condensed electro beats of the 80s and a brilliant example of the power of gospel sampling, either section starkly contrasted without traditional regard for blend or balance; “I’m In It” boasts a gigantic, angry beat that could be classified as some corelary of rap metal with ear-piercing screeches to match. It’s only appropriate that the album’s cover breaks the mold as well.

In 2013, Ye ranted about Yeezus and its cover: “With this album we aint drop no single to radio. We aint got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we aint even got no cover. We just made some real music.” Disgruntled with the state of the music industry in 2013, viewing pop radio as uninspired, Ye indicated that an additional motivation for a coverless album was to recenter focus strictly on the album’s content. This was an especially strong decision given that Yeezus is difficult to digest upon first listen; any additional art would have made the record’s dark experimentation overwhelming and unpalatable. Instead, Yeezy let the CD speak for itself. 

— Mike Watkins, Daily Arts Writer

Revolver

Revolver Buy this photo
Parlophone

Revolver, The Beatles 

Prior to Revolver, Beatles album covers had been fairly straightforward photos of the four members, and although Rubber Soul did feature a marijuana-fueled distortion of their faces, Revolver was still a major departure. The cover consists of drawings of the Fab Four rather than photographs, intermingled with a psychedelic collage in black and white, which was a subversive artistic decision in an era where intense color was de rigueur. This was the cover art of a band who had begun to take their work more seriously, certain now that this was not just pop music — it was art.

Paul had immersed himself in the London avant-garde scene, devouring anything hip and interesting, from Stockhausen to cocaine. This included tape loop collages — a sonic innovation that would find its way onto the ultra-experimental closer “Tomorrow Never Knows” (and in a much more extreme form on John’s “Revolution 9” a few years later). On the cover Paul is looking outward, much like how he spent the Revolver era searching for external inspiration, synthesizing the innovations of his time with The Beatles’ pre-existing musical sensibilities (visually reflected in how the old images of The Beatles are melded with the nouveau illustration of Klaus Voormann).

John, conversely, had become reclusive — eating acid, watching TV and idling in Ringo’s garden. His withdrawn and contrary worldview emerged in songs like “I’m Only Sleeping” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and is also reflected in the subversive black and white cover art. When most were moving towards technicolor psychedelia, The Beatles eschewed color altogether. Lennon’s gaze on the cover is shifty-eyed and his face is partially obscured, looking with near-condescension at the older images of the mop-top Beatles, an era he was soon to reject.

George is the only Beatle to be looking directly at the viewer, coming into his own creatively on the record from his original pieces (in particular, the Indian-influenced “Love You To”) to his scorching guitar parts on songs like “She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.” The quiet Beatle began to find his voice on Revolver, and his intense gaze on the cover suggests that he intends to be heard.

Finally, Ringo is gazing upwards, a receptive pose befitting the Beatle whose role was to support the others on their creative journey — his drum-playing never missing a beat — despite the fact that he himself never instigated any of this development, from his brain-crushing thumps on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to his intense technical performance on “She Said She Said.”

The cover of Revolver is emblematic not just because it is visually engaging, but because it captures the spirit and sound of the album. It is the audacious epitome of a moment when The Beatles made their biggest leap from pop icons to art musicians.

— Jonah Mendelson, Daily Arts Writer

Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Transgender Dysphoria Blues Buy this photo
Total Treble Music

Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!

I vividly remember the first time I held the vinyl for Transgender Dysphoria Blues: Jun. 26, 2015, the same day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Against Me! had just finished up their set at Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit; frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, donning a tank top that read “Gender Is Over,” had already made her exit from the stage. Having attended the show alone, I took my time making my way out of the venue. On the way to the exit, I picked up the vinyl from the merch table, a sleeve containing a record that had held me closely for about a year at that point.

Somehow seeing that album art blown up on a 12 inch cover made me feel as if I were viewing it for the first time again. A black and white cube that resembles a mass of meat with a budding breast and nipple sitting on top. Everything about this cover screams confusion, deformity, disgust and separation. But it’s curiosity that draws the eye to Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the need to discern exactly what the band sought to achieve in the accompanying art.

In an interview with Consequence of Sound, the artist responsible for the cover, Chris Norris, explains how the art came to be: “I Googled ‘steak.’ I found a bunch of cuts of meat, and I turned one left, then turned one right and slapped the boob on top.” A personal piece of his titled “Miss Steak” that was bought by the band, the artwork is now irrevocably tied with the album and everything it stands for. Queerness, still, is a hard identity to carry, and while Transgender Dysphoria Blues touches upon this difficulty, it’s also an album that symbolizes the strength born from it.

On “FUCKMYLIFE666” (a song far less aggressive and entirely more beautiful than the name would suggest), Grace sings, “Don’t wanna live without teeth / Don’t wanna die without bite / I never wanna say that I regret it,” three lines that so acutely capture the queer experience. Like this song, the simplicity of the album’s cover speaks to the hardy otherness that is the product of queerness: different, almost incomprehensible, but altogether beautiful and organic.

Dominic Polsinelli, Senior Arts Editor 

Doolittle

Doolittle Buy this photo
4AD

Doolittle, Pixies

Doolittle by the Pixies stands as one of the most influential rock records since its release in 1989. It moves through poppy instrumentals with perfect bass lines that contrast its dark subject matter referencing biblical violence, surrealism and death.

These things melt into one cohesive album that conjure up an unsettling feeling, and Doolittles iconic album cover gives those feelings a face. Frontman Francis Black gave the album’s lyrics to photographer Simon Larbalestier and artist Vaughan Oliver, allowing them to make images directly related to the songs. They produced multiple images: everything from a stark black and white photograph of a crab and broken boot to represent the mentioned crustaceans on “Wave of Mutilation” to a chipped, broken bell that queues the “ringing bell” in “I Bleed.”

After much pondering, Black chose the uncanny and memorable image of the monkey with a halo on its head under a layer of odd geometric shapes. The image recalls the song “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” as Black’s harsh voice gives purpose to the three numbers branded on the cover: five, six and seven. Black sings, “If man is five / Then the Devil is six / And if the Devil is six / Then God is seven,” with a gut-wrenching shriek emphasized on “God” that lingers in your eardrums.

In a Consequence of Sound review, they mention a quote by Black explaining that “Mr. Grieves” is about Death in mythology. A line in the songs references Dr. Doolittle embodying Death because they are both people who pass through multiple planes of existence. Black says, “The ‘man in the middle’ is Dr. Doolittle, because if you could speak to the animals you would be the great link between mankind and the animal world,” making the monkey a symbol of the otherworldly.

The cover has a distinct feeling of distortion with its grey and red colors. They match the rustic tone of Black’s voice throughout the record, especially in songs like “Dead,” when his voice seeps into a indistinguishable abyss of sound as he sings, “You’re suffocating you need a good shed / I'm tired of living, shebe, so gimme / Dead.” The record’s constant references to death and things beyond paired with the creepy cover pushes listeners into a curious middle ground of light and darkness melting together in entropy. 

— Selena Aguilera, Daily Arts Writer

The Kick Inside

The Kick Inside Buy this photo
EMI Records

The Kick Inside, Kate Bush 

The UK release cover of The Kick Inside by ethereal songstress Kate Bush has always been one of my favorite examples of album art, from the moment I first saw it to every time it comes up on my phone to this day. A stark yellow background embellished with red details, the cover exudes the brilliant life of the record’s contents — the debut album for Bush and the first chance the world had to experience her genius. In the artwork, Bush appears to be exploding out of a watchful eye on a sail of fire, surrounded by swirling Chinoiserie fabric and a title written out in careful calligraphy. The bright contrast between the red and yellow of the cover shows the lively and beautifully alien aspects of Bush’s work in one glance, as each portion of the art works together in a strange yet innovative manner. If there was anything to describe The Kick Inside, that would be it: strange, yet innovative. Carrying her top single and most memorable song from the album, “Wuthering Heights,” the album was released to international acclaim, yet this haunting cover art did not go with it everywhere. The United States release of The Kick Inside instead bares just a photo of Bush comfortably sitting, wearing jeans and a red blouse, supposedly more appealing to an American audience who wasn’t so adapted to the intrigue of Bush’s artistic sensibilities. Nonetheless, the UK cover became the accepted version of the album, and its longevity has carried Bush’s wonderful weirdness into the hands of many since its release. This is a record you can truly judge by its cover, because the art is a perfect replication of what lays within — a lasting and memorable show of a young Bush’s prodigal talent and “it” factor which echoes into the present.

— Clara Scott, Daily Arts Writer 

Seek Magic

Seek Magic Buy this photo
Something in Construction

Seek Magic, Memory Tapes

I first came across Seek Magic during Mar. of my senior year of high school. I was a Future Islands fanatic — some things never change — and my obsession with the band set me down a winding path that ultimately led to ’70s and ’80s inspired synth-pop revival and doused-out chill wave in equal measure. I was knee-deep in the youth lagoon, if you will, encountering Twin Shadow, Chromatics, Wild Nothing, Washed Out, Craft Spells and Neon Indian for the first time.

Somehow, maybe through Spotify’s “Related Artists” feature or a 2009 “Best Of” list, I stumbled upon Memory Tapes and Seek Magic caught my eye. The album’s cover art could be mistaken for a sun or water-damaged photograph from afar, but it’s actually a painting, though it’s difficult to tell what of.

I’ve tried many times over the past three years to find information on the cover’s artist, but never succeeded. Memory Tapes has a Bandcamp page, but Seek Magic is glaringly absent, and the album’s Wikipedia page is about as helpful. Left to my own devices, I have always imagined that the artist’s goal was to challenge the border between the above and the below, the sea and the sky.

What seem to be clouds line the top of the image, while the lower two thirds consist of reflective strips, like inconsistent little pools of oil whose iridescence causes their reflections to be unfaithful replications of reality. The centerpiece of the cover is plain to see but difficult to describe. Intuition tells me that it’s an island — a distant one, certainly — either peeking out from the water or hanging in midair. Whatever the case may be, the sum total of the landscape’s features seems to represent a magical half-reality, suitable given the album’s dreamy feel.

“Swimming Field,” the album’s first cut, begins with the sound that insects make in the night at warmer latitudes. The familiar drone of bugs is punctuated by a dog’s bark even further in the background — you might miss it if you’re not listening on headphones. The effect is immediate nostalgia at its purest and most intense, and a feeling of space, like walking down an empty street somewhere in coastal Fla.. There’s no sidewalk, but no cars either, so you amble along the side of the road, appreciating more than usual both the light provided by street lamps and the space in between them.

While the album art alone might not merit the recognition I’ve given it, the interplay between the visual and aural within this album especially has always stuck with me. Lyrics are subdued throughout, and the general mood is one of longing. For me, this has always meant longing for the past, for simplicity and the space to not feel so bad about being lazy. This idea of the past as being perfectly simple isn’t an accurate one though, thoroughly colored by rosy retrospection. Seek Magic’s fantastical landscape is analogous to the places that populate my memories. It exists as they exist, certainly there but not quite real, tantalizing and comforting in that I can never quite return to the place I recall, because I was never actually there.

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer 

Talking Book

Talking Book Buy this photo
Motown

Talking Book, Stevie Wonder

By 1972, Stevie Wonder was a well-established presence in the musical world. He had started making Motown hits when he was only 11, and at the age of 22, he already had enduring singles “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” under his belt.

Then came Talking Book. Wonder’s music had already showed signs of maturation in his previous album, Music of My Mind, but Talking Book was where his innate talents truly caught up with that growth. The cover encapsulates this perfectly. The album title sits in orange letters beneath a photograph of Wonder, cloaked in a velvet afghan and sitting down among a dry landscape of brush, examining a dusty ground. It’s the first cover where he’s not wearing his glasses, and it’s miles away from his more superficial, largely commercialized presentations of himself on previous albums. Only two years previously, on Signed, Sealed And Delivered, Wonder was popping cheerfully out of a cardboard box labeled “Handle With Care.” Now he was sitting on the ground, his face turned thoughtfully to the earth, solemn and contemplative.

Any good album cover should do justice to the creativity and significance of the album it accompanies, just as any good album should have a decent cover to go with it. Talking Book was a surprising breakthrough for an artist who was already commonly recognized as a genius; it features traces of his pop background on energetic songs like “Tuesday Heartbreak” and, of course, “Superstition,” but it also has songs that are dreamy and confessional, like “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “You And I.” In every realm, Wonder doesn’t only pull the feeling off — he completely conquers it. He is sensitive and thoughtful; he is himself, and a new version of himself, at that. It’s difficult to know how to mature genuinely when you’ve been in the public eye since before you were a teenager, but in 1972, Wonder was the man for the job, and this album cover shows it. The rusty, reddish palette evokes either a sunset or a dawn — it’s hard to tell which — and Wonder himself is in the middle of it, literally grounded. He’s down to earth, intent and focused, although the precise object of his focus remains unclear. That’s because it is, after all, still an album cover; in order to come closer to understanding, you simply need to listen to the music.

— Laura Dzubay, Daily Arts Writer

Melodrama

Melodrama Buy this photo
Lava Records

Melodrama, Lorde

When I think of the summer of 2017, I think of driving and I think of Lorde’s Melodrama. My first time listening to the album in full was during my daily commute from home to campus, where I was taking classes for the summer. The most vivid memory I have of that experience is hearing “Homemade Dynamite” float through my car speakers like some sort of chilling dream: “We’ll end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling.”

Most of the albums I listen to are black and red, not just in color scheme, but also in tone. More often than not, artists will fixate on a single emotion, weaving it in and out of every single track until it positively blots out everything else, which doesn’t leave much room for nuance. Take My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge; although the pace changes slightly from song to song, anyone who isn’t particularly into the genre might not be able to pick apart the tiny differences that separate the individual tracks. My favorite part about Melodrama is how complete it is: There’s a song for every single emotion on the spectrum. Underlying it all is a somber, brilliant blue that Lorde somehow manages to balance just right. There’s the slow, heartbreaking build of “Liability” that renders it Melodrama’s ultimate sad song, contrasted with the dramatized, deceptively bright “Green Light” and the heart-racing, free-falling beat that drives “Perfect Places.” The vivid brights of Melodrama’s album art are the sights to the sound, the precise visual manifestation of how much of herself Lorde puts into her work.

On Melodrama, Lorde condenses the essence of teenage relationships in all of their turbulent glory, from the before to the during to the after,  and does it all without abandon. She leaves us with a final parting gift: an image of her at her most striking, when she’s unflinchingly staring right at the viewer. 

— Sam Lu, Daily Arts Writer

Kala

XL Recordings

Kala, M.I.A.

An album’s cover art can make or break the album. Good cover art has the power to tell a story: The wilted edges of the deflated balloon heart gracing the cover of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak reflects the crumbled emptiness of the music itself; the psychedelic mosaic, awash in bold patterns, found on the cover of KAYTRANADA’s 99.9% perfectly captures the DJ’s dizzying, always inventive trademark; and, most prominently, most importantly, the cover of M.I.A.’s Kala — with its garish shades of contrasting colors and aggressive iconography — tells a story of defiance, resistance and anger. The stark black and white depiction of M.I.A. herself in the center of the album, shades on and surrounded by a neon green border demanding all those who look upon it to “Fight on!” does not seem to give a fuck. The portrait cuts off right below M.I.A.’s shoulders, but it’s easy to imagine the rest of her stance: spine straight, feet planted, middle fingers raised to the sky.

Kala, M.I.A.’s second album, was released during the summer of 2007, and, like its cover art suggests, it was conceived mostly out of furious, red-hot indignation.

M.I.A. had just finished touring her debut album Arular in Japan and had plans to return to her Brooklyn apartment in order to immediately start work on her second album. However, after months of trying to get her visa renewed at London’s U.S. Embassy, the British Sri Lankan artist was told that she was denied re-entry to the place she called home.

So she traveled. Jumping from one continent to another, M.I.A. recorded in India and Australia, Trinidad and Jamaica, among others. Kala became a collection of different musical influences: the South Indian percussion found in “Bird Flu,” the Nigerian-born, London-based rapper Afrikan Boy featured on “Hussel,” the remix of Pixies’s “Where is my mind?” appearing on “20 Dollar.” Kala isn’t supposed to be sonically cohesive. Kala is supposed to be assertive — a series of anthems that celebrates and rejoices cultures that are oftentimes pushed to the side, musical styles that remain forgotten and people who find themselves labelled as “outsiders.”

Politically-driven, bold and brash, Kala grabs your attention and holds it hostage, and its album art does much of the same thing. The crude conglomeration of bizarre designs — their dissimilarities striking — are ostentatious. Both a statement and a party, it’s almost impossible to imagine any other image appropriate enough to grace the cover of an album that stitches together samples of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” with gunshot and cash machine sound effects

— Shima Sadaghiyani, Daily Music Editor