Monday, March 22, 2010

MUSIC'S ALL-TIME 15 BEST ALBUM COVERS

Alright, let's admit it right from the opening bell: this is obviously a very subjective subject. Ask 101 dudes and dudettes "What are the 15 best album covers of all time?" and the odds are you'll wind up with 1,515 different choices. Since there is no way to prove which 15 are truly the best, I'm merely stating that the following 15 selections are my own personal choices. That they also happen to be, unequivocally, undebatably, without a doubt, the 15 best album covers ever created is pure coincidence. In making my selections, I jus' got lucky.

Truth be told, there really aren't a lot of great album covers. There are many that are pretty good, many more that are just OK, and innumerable covers that ain't very good at all. The truly "great" ones? They are few and far between. Most music album covers just feature a photo of the musician or the band and rarely display much creativity or originality. A lot of them are decorated with artwork, but most of it is immediately forgettable.

Some old album covers have, over time, achieved iconic status, but a cold, detached, unsentimental examination of them will, more times than not, reveal them to be rather pedestrian. For example, an album cover like the one created for 'Meet The Beatles' is immediately recognizable - it inspired countless other covers by other bands - but it really isn't anything special. The same goes for Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' - while it is considered by many to be a classic because its triangle/prism symbol has become so identified with the group, I seriously doubt that many teenagers who bought that album when it was first released in the 1970s immediately thought: What a great album cover! I was certainly one of those teenagers who purchased it within a few years of its release, and I know that I never thought the cover was anything especially unique or "bitchin'" (as we would have said back then).

A fair number of album covers which I admired back in my teenage years have failed to hold up over the decades. I imagine that had I compiled this list back when I was 18 years old, Emerson, Lake & Palmer's cover for 'Brain Salad Surgery' would have made the grade. The same for one or two 'Yes' and 'Uriah Heep' album covers. But time changes our perceptions.

So, what was my criterion for selecting the 15 below? Well, it was pretty basic, really: Which album covers are supercool and/or superclever? I figured the most memorable ought to readily present themselves to my mind without a whole lot of thought 'n' searching. And they did.

I believe I could have extended this list to 20 or 25 selections, but after that, the drop off in quality would have been quite noticeable. This goes to show how, in my opinion, few truly "great" album covers have ever been created. Here are my choices for the Top 15 in no particular order.
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WHIPPED CREAM & OTHER DELIGHTS
Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass (1965)
The album cover that launched 100,000 prepubescent fantasies (and that's counting only my own!) My Grandpa had this record when I was just a tot. I remember staring at it often, wondering what was beneath all that whipped cream, and thinking that I would certainly be willing to eat my way through it to find out.
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ON YOUR FEET OR ON YOUR KNEES
Blue Oyster Cult (1975)
Man, this is just the creepiest album cover ever conceived. It's even creepier than that one by Black Sabbath with the witchy-looking woman standing before that haunted-looking house. This is definitely horror movie material!
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CHICAGO X
Chicago (1976)
My Ma mostly hated my music way back in the day; she was always yelling at me to "Turn that racket down!" But she later admitted that she loved this album cover. She told me it was all she could do to keep from taking a bite out of it.
..



















THE DIRTY BOOGIE 
Brian Setzer Orchestra (1998)
"Cool Lounge" cover for the neo-Swing crowd. Great illustration in "cool" colors and great music behind the image, too!
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THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN
Bob Dylan (1963)
A Jewish boy "doin' his best James Dean." The girl is just hangin' on for the ride (and what a ride it turned out to be!) I love the Old School 'Americana' of the Greenwich Village buildings and the fabulous automobiles of a bygone era! How cool was that?
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ASTRAL WEEKS 
Van Morrison (1968)
When I first put this Blog Bit together, I had 'Waylon Jennings' Greatest Hits' in this spot. And although that album does include a really great cover featuring "The Nashville Outlaw" looking his coolest and cockiest, I realized shortly afterwards that I had overlooked Morrison's 'Astral Weeks'. This was a particularly odd oversight in light of the fact that I have always considered 'Astral Weeks' to have one of the best covers ever conceived.

Well, as you can see, I have corrected my unfortunate error. Here we have a deep, dreamy and introspective cover for an album of deep, dreamy and introspective music. An eye-catching photograph that perfectly illustrates what the buyer can expect to hear on the record.
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NILS LOFGREN
Nils Lofgren (1975)
The colorful, flamboyant atmosphere of Rock And Roll is expressed in the circus painting background and in Nils' T-Shirt. The punky attitude of Rock comes across through the black leather jacket. And the youthful rebellion that is Rock music is illustrated by the singer swilling 80-proof Grand Marnier right out of the bottle. Everything that is Rock 'N' Roll can be found in this album cover! For my money, Rock music's best cover ever. (How do I know that's Grand Marnier that Nils is tilting? I axed him. "Read all about it.")
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WILLOW IN THE WIND
Kathy Mattea (1989)
The black and white color combination expresses the sturdy Country-Western outlook. But the flowing willow branches and the pretty, delicate pattern of Kathy's dress speak of her lovely femininity. If only more modern women felt this comfortable with their femininity, and stopped trying to pretend that they are men, then maybe more men like myself would consider marriage.
.

.AMERICAN GARAGE
The Pat Metheny Group (1979)
Remember seeing those 'silver bullets' On The Road? What a perfect cover for an album that includes song titles such as 'Cross The Heartland', 'Airstream', and 'The Search.' Songs and a photograph which celebrate life on the open road. It's not Metheny's best recording but it is his best album cover.
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TEQUILA
Wes Montgomery (1966)
The wood patterns in the table, guitar, and knife handle contrast beautifully with the clear, smooth glass of the bottle and shot glass. The title and the lime wedge add just a touch of bright color. A very artistic concept. Tequila itself is a poison extracted from a certain type of cactus and it nearly always leads to jail time. Avoid real tequila like it's the plague (you're even better off taking your chances with deadly absinthe), but the music is great. And Wes Montgomery is without question one of the best guitarists of all time!
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THE CALL OF THE WILDEST
Louis Prima (1957)
One of only two covers on this list with a sense of humor. My Pa owned this record when I was a kid and I spent what seemed like hours upon hours staring at it. I don't know why it appealed to me so much back then, but I know why it appeals to me now. Prima wasn't even really there - a close examination reveals that his image is merely superimposed over the background.
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But even if Prima had been there, his safety was guaranteed: those animals couldn't have eaten another bite; they were stuffed! But my favorite aspect of this cover is that the photographer deliberately gave it all away: Study the bottom left corner and you'll notice that it's a potted plant there. Ha! Funny stuffs! How Primaesque! Great tunes inside, too, including one of the funniest songs ever recorded: 'There'll Be No Next Time.' (Right, Mr. Paulboy?)
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RUNT: THE BALLAD OF TODD RUNDGREN
Todd Rundgren (1971)
Take it from a guy who used to wear a gold noose charm on a chain around his neck, this is a classic cover. However, it's unfortunate that Rundgren didn't save this idea for his album 'The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect' released twelve years later.
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GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, N.J.
Bruce Springsteen (1973)
Springsteen's debut album reproduced an illustrated postcard from the area where he first made a name for himself. A pretty clever idea for a New Jersey chucklehead.
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EVEN IN THE QUIETEST MOMENTS...
Supertramp (1977)
Although released the year I graduated from high school, a time when I was buying a lot of music, I have never actually owned this record but I always appreciated its cover. A cool photo in more ways than one.
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RHAPSODESIA
The Ultra-Lounge Series; Vol. 6 (1996)
An ultra-clever cover from the Ultra-Lounge folks! A compilation of lounge music for the Vegas Barfly inside ya. Dim the lights, light a cig, make yerself a martini, play 'Rhapsodesia' and pretend that you and your lady friend are at The Algiers cocktail lounge, sharing a booth with Deano, Sammy and Frankie.

OK, those are my choices for 'Music's All-Time 15 Best Album Covers.' How'd I do? Did I score a 100% on this test, or what? 

CONSCIENCE-CLEANSING CONFESSION: 
Yesterday, Brother Nappy and I went to an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. In a weak and famished moment, I ate a piece of spinach quiche. And as if that weren't bad enough, I later stopped at a grocery store and purchased a box of fabric softener sheets for use in my dryer. These unmanly acts have been eating away at me for over 24 hours now (I could hardly even sleep last night). I just wanted to come clean about these things and assure you all that I have already agreed to attend meetings at my local 'Quiche-Eaters, Fabric Softener-Users Anonymous' organization. Please don't judge me too harshly.

Whew! I do feel better. That's a huge weight off my mind. 

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 
For Your Information, the next thing I intend to post here at 'Stuffs' is a Blog Bit about reincarnation and The Holy Bible. After that, I am going to compose a Bit about my all-time 15 favorite music albums, music-wise rather than cover-wise. In conjunction with that, I will be asking all of you friends of mine (you know who you are) to list your own 15 favorite "Desert Island" music albums. I WILL even call you out individually by name if necessary, so you might want to start giving some thought to your own music list now while it's still early.

Of course, it's also possible that on a whim, I might post a bunch of other stuffs here at 'Stuffs' before I get around to composing these aforementioned "Coming Attractions." After all, it's a doggone quiche-eating, fabric softener-using girlie-man's prerogative to change his/her mind. 

.~ Stephen T. McCarthy 

YE OLDE COMMENT POLICY: All comments, pro and con, are welcome. However, ad hominem attacks and disrespectful epithets will not be tolerated (read: "posted"). After all, this isn’t Amazon.com, so I don’t have to put up with that kind of bovine excrement.

11 comments:

arlee bird said...

Sissy Boy McC-- Now you're back to doing what I loved from the Amazon days--displaying your depth in music. And as always good taste, albeit somewhat obscure in some cases. "Whipped Cream" definitely an all time favorite -- I guess I still have a copy somewhere. But you picked some really fine covers there. I guess I would have leaned toward some of the novelty covers like Jefferson Airplane's later covers or those odd shaped ones from Traffic. But your picks are simple and tasteful.

And how in the world can I come up with 15 favorite albums -- it changes from one day to the next. I guess I can try. Look forward to those upcoming posts.

Lee

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

`
rLEE-b ~
>>[I would have leaned toward some of the novelty covers like Jefferson Airplane's later covers or those odd shaped ones from Traffic.]<<

Yeah, Traffic's "The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys" and "Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory" featured unique covers. I owned both on LP and played the former frequently for a few years.

Which Jefferson Airplane covers did you have in mind?

I think Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" cover definitely deserved to be on my list, but what then to remove? There's also a Beach Boys cover that greatly appeals to me: "Greatest Hits, Vol. 3; Best Of The Brother Years, 1970-1986." It features a painting of an American Indian on horseback atop a cliff overlooking the ocean with the sun setting behind it. Very nice!

Well, as I said, I think I could have extended this list by 5 to 10 covers without a significant reduction in quality.

>>[And how in the world can I come up with 15 favorite albums -- it changes from one day to the next. I guess I can try.]<<

All I ask is that you try. Besides, I won't be etching it in stone anywhere, so it's not like you will be eternally committed to it.

And believe me, I know how difficult a challenge like that is for a real music lover. I've given it some thought already and while the first 14 are easy, when I'm left with just that final spot to fill, it becomes maddening because I can think of at least 4 albums that simply MUST occupy that 15th and final slot! So, don't think that I won't be torturing myself right alongside my friends.

~ Sissyboy McC
<"As a dog returns to his own vomit,
so a fool repeats his folly."
~ Proverbs 26:11>

arlee bird said...

stmc -- Okay I'll take the Jefferson Airplane cover thing back based on the way you've picked the choices you made, which were outstanding. At a glance the Airplane covers were not that great to look at, but in certain states of mind the covers as a whole had a lot of fun stuff to look at, where interesting to mess around with, and time wasters. Long John Silver especially had an interesting design with the cigar box theme.

15 all time favorite albums to come soon-- I'm thinking on it.

Lee

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Just checked out "Long John Silver". I had never seen that one before (was never much of an 'Airplane' fan).

You've got plenty of time to think up yer Top 15, Brother; I probably won't get to that for at least a couple of weeks.

~ "Lonesome Dogg" McMe

Mr. Paulboy #VI said...

Ola, StMcC-boy

I am getting ready to run. In fact, you might say I was "Born to Run". But I will not pick that one as one of my top favorite covers. If I had time I might try some sort of email/post that includes thumbnails of the chosen covers. But I don't have time and probably would fail anyway.

Here goes:
Two of yours also make my list:
1) Whipped Cream
2) Call of the Wildest.

If I had told you that two of yours matched, I am sure you'd have guessed them.

Here are the rest:
3) Jethro Tull- Thick as a Brick
4) Blind Faith - European version (pushed the envelope too far)
5) Santana - Santana
6) Yes - Yessongs
7) It's A Beautiful Day
8) Jackson Brown - Saturate Before Using
9) Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five
10) Ringo Starr - Goodnight Vienna
11) Hendrix - Axis: Bold as Love
12) Steely Dan - Katy Lied
13) Carly Simon - Anticipation (for obvious reasons)
14) Monty Python - Another Monty Python Record
15) Just about any Zappa cover, like Sheik Yerbouti,
Weasels Ripped My Flesh, or Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar

There are obviously albums covers that were monster records that had a huge impact, like Beatles "Sgt. Pepper" or "Abbey Road" These covers we all remember from our yoot. I tried to leave those out, but could not help myself when including the cliched Axis and Santana.

I can think of dozens of covers that were well done, but these I really liked and I'd fight for them!

I'm looking forward to seeing the postings of all of the FFF-Friends (Stuffs readers, all)

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Paulboy VI ~
"Thick As A Brick" - wasn't that the newspaper-like cover? My buddy at work, The Great L.C., mentioned that one in conversation. Yeah, that one was different. Tom Waits did a newspaper cover too ("Heartattack And Vine") which I think I liked even better.

I'm not sure what the European version of the Blind Faith cover looked like but the one with the topless underaged girl was not right.

"Santana" - that's the one with the line drawing of a lion's face, right? Eh.

Yes, I considered "Yes" but the (Roger Dean?) illustrations just don't appeal to me as much as they did back in the day.

I applaud your "Saturate Before Using" choice; that's a unique one.

I know the Dave Brubeck cover was really popular in its day but, like The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper", it's just too busy for my tastes.

Your "It's A Beautiful Day" choice reminded me of another cover which, had I thought of it earlier, might well have made my Top 15. It was a Western stagecoach painting for the band "Quicksilver Messenger Service". Not sure of the album title (maybe it was even a self-titled debut?), but you probably know which one I have in mind.

"Katy Lied"? Eh. Great music though. "Anticipation"? Ha! Well, I see your point(s), but...

"Axis" - was that the one with the naked women lyin' about? Or was that the colorful one with an East Indian kind of motif?

I'll have to look up some of the others you listed, but "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" I know, and that's certainly a memorable one.

Hey, have a great, safe trip, Roadboy, and Yak when Back.

~ "Lonesome Dogg" McMe

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Prodigal Paulboy ~
I "misremembered." I just checked and the Quicksilver Messenger Service album was called "Happy Trails" and there was no stagecoach illustrated. Uhp!... Anyway, after revisiting that cover I gotta say, "No way" on making it onto my Top 15 list.

~ "Lonesome Dogg" Mcboy

#VI said...

OK. I won't fight for all of my covers.

I remove the Blind Faith cover, because as I was hastily choosing covers before my trip, I sort of mixed up my criteria of important/talked about covers with those that I thought were good.

The Blind Faith cover WAS the one you mentioned, and it caused a giant stir. I personally did not think the cover THAT controversial, but some people did. I actually bought the other one - without the girl - and that one is the one that is hard to find now.

Anyway... that one is gone.

As for the Hendrix one, Axis is the one with the indian motif. I had a poster of that one on my wall.

The Santana lion cover has other images worked into the art, if you look closely.

The Brubeck cover had modern art that I think perfectly suits the music and the time. I cannot think of another cover that gives me a clearer feel for the era.

The Yes covers (you did mention in your blog your diminished fondness for them) were similar, but the Yessongs cover has at least four folds of continuous art. I love that one. I think the "Avatar" movie creators must have liked it too.

Katy Lied was funny to me, because the insect is a katydid... but you knew that, I am sure, and it just was not as funny to you.

Anyway, you must admit this is a very subjective survey... and mostly just for fun. Thanks for thinkin it up.

adios!

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

`
ROADBOY VI ~

>>[The Santana lion cover has other images worked into the art, if you look closely.]<<

Ahh. I didn't know dat. I tawt it was jus' a drawing of a lion's head. I'll have to look into that one a bit more deeply. I retract my "Eh" and replace it with an "Ahh."

>>[The Brubeck cover had modern art that I think perfectly suits the music and the time. I cannot think of another cover that gives me a clearer feel for the era.]<<

Yeah, I get that. And I know that it was such a popular cover at the time that many people actually decorated walls with posters of it. I'm just not a big fan of abstract art to begin with, and in fact, I find that particular painting somewhat ugly. But your reasoning is valid and your opinions are just as correct as mine.

>>[Katy Lied was funny to me, because the insect is a katydid... but you knew that, I am sure, and it just was not as funny to you.]<<

Yup, I did know it. And you're right, I just didn't think the joke was worth putting an insect on the cover. But hey, The Dan did, and who am I to argue with their money?

And yes, some covers have lost their appeal for me over the decades. I never owned it, but at one time I was really fascinated by the cover for "Best Of Peter, Paul & Mary: Ten Years Together." On a couple of occasions I very nearly bought the album just because I loved the cover so much. Looking at it now I think: Eh.

>>[Anyway, you must admit this is a very subjective survey... and mostly just for fun. Thanks for thinkin it up.]<<

Oh, No! This is serious business, Bro!

Yeah, yeah, of course it's totally subjective so there can be no right or wrong answers. Although if someone suggested the covers for, say, Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends" or Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" I'd have to reply with a loud "WHY?!"

>>[I sort of mixed up my criteria of important/talked about covers with those that I thought were good.]<<

Yeah, the thing I'm after here is personal choices, not evaluations on what the person thinks are the most famous covers. Because often the famous content alone makes the cover famous (think "Dark Side Of The Moon").

If it were just a question of notoriety, then certainly "Meet The Beatles", "Abbey Road", and even "The Beatles" ("White Album") would have to be included on everyone's Top 15 list. But I argue that none of these covers stand out as special when totally divorced from their content.

Aw, you know what I'm sayin'.

~ "Lonesome Dogg" McBoy

DiscConnected said...

Well Stephen, a couple of your cover surprise me. For example, you dismissed DSOTM as nothing special but went with Miles Davis which from the thumbnail is a lot less eye-catching.

I know you had to have a Waylon cover on there, but the GH suprised me a little too. But I couldn't have a best-of-anything-to-do-with-music lsit and not have a nod to Todd, and I don't know if Waylon has any other covers that would better fit your criteria.

And as for the BOC, I don't know if I agree or not-so many of their covers are so cool that I would have a hard time picking one.

I do think that the Chicago cover best illustrates your selection criteria.

Of course, I don't know how you can do a top album covers list and not mention at least one Ohio Players cover....I was a little young for the whipped cream cover, so "Honey" appeals to me more.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Toddfan Discman ~
The Miles Davis cover says "Cool" and "Jazzy" to me, which perfectly mirrors the album's musical content. The symbol on the "Dark Side Of The Moon" cover really doesn't say anything to me at all; it's just an abstract symbol.

Nah, there is no other Waylon cover that I could have even considered including on this list. I think Waylon is "masculinity" personified and he just looks so confident and "outlaw" in that photo that it really appeals to me.

I think the "Agents Of Fortune" and the "Spectres" covers are pretty good, but "On Your Feet..." is the only truly "great" BOC cover.

And funny you mentioned "Honey" by the Ohio Players because that is a cover I specifically considered when compiling my list. I even went to the Amazon site to check it out again and refresh my memory. In the end, however, it just didn't make the final cut for me, but it was indeed in the running.

~ Stevieboy
"As a dog returns to his own vomit,
so a fool repeats his folly."
~ Proverbs 26:11>