Much like the humble book cover, the artwork on the front of an album is often forgotten about. In a world flooded with visuals – from magazine spreads and paparazzi shots, to videos and stage performances – who’s bothered about one lowly little image? Who even cares about albums anymore?! Most people get their music from an invisible source; streamed on the radio or downloaded from the infinite abyss that is the World Wide Web.
But ironically, a record’s cover is one of the only opportunities we have for a bit of real insight – whether it’s into the lyrics, the overall theme or even just the crazy and creative whims of the singer or band: it’s the artist’s chance to illustrate a body of work with a single snapshot.
The days when you had to go out, browse the aisles and buy a tangible album to play on an actual record player might be long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still appreciate the artwork (albeit in pixelated form). There are thousands to choose from, but here’s a small selection of some of my favourites. (Not of all time or coolest EVER, just mine).
Supertramp, Breakfast in America
For me, the best album covers are the ones that stick in your mind. But even better is when they depict something far smarter or creative than first meets the eye. Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’ is so full of intricate detail; positioned as if you’re looking through an aeroplane window, it depicts New York’s skyline as a breakfast table, with waitress ‘Libby’ replacing the Statue of Liberty and even a glass of orange juice for the flame. Genius.
The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
An obvious choice, but Sgt Pepper is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most famous covers in music history. With the rather simple theme of “people we like”, it depicts a diverse collection of the Beatles’ favourite faces including everyone from Dylan Thomas to Shirley Temple. I love the fact that it’s designed to make you look closely; you’d probably put the record on and then spend a good amount of time just marvelling at the cover.
You don’t often see a female album without a photograph of the artist on the front, and that’s fine, but nowadays it’s quite rare to see one without the artist scantily clad or posing sexily. Chapman’s self-titled debut is the antithesis of this – like the record itself, it is a beautifully simple photo of an almost reluctant performer.
Coldplay, Viva La Vida
I’m not an art lover generally – it’s just a medium that doesn’t do much for me – but stick a painting on the front of an album and I’m a sucker for it. Coldplay used the painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by French artist Eugène Delacroix to illustrate 2008s ‘Viva La Vida’. With themes of revolution and love, life and death throughout the record, it is a perfect fit.
In the battle between Blur and Oasis, I was always in the latter camp. But when it comes to creative covers, Blur definitely deserve a shout out. For ‘Parklife’, they chose a striking photo of greyhounds racing round a track. Why? When you think about it, it’s probably one of the most iconically British pastimes; a perfect reflection of Blur during their nineties Brit-pop heyday.
Michael Jackson, Thriller
A pretty average cover for such a seminal album, don’t you think? That’s exactly why I love it. It’s just Michael Jackson, when he still looked like Michael Jackson, posing in a white suit. Even better are the outtakes of him playing with a tiger. I wonder if he knew he’d made one of the biggest albums of all time and that’s why he looks so nonchalant. This is also one of those records I remember knocking about when I was a kid which is probably why I’m drawn to it.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
‘Rumours’ is one of my favourite albums of all time, but this bias isn’t the only reason for its inclusion. The image of Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood is so intriguing; are they dancing? Engaging in some kind of courting ritual? What on earth are those balls dangling from his belt?! Throw in the inter-band relationships and songs full of emotional and romantic dysfunction and you’ve got yourself a classic. It’s a beautiful image, and its strangeness (plus their awesome seventies get-up) makes it all the more enchanting.
I know, I know, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ isn’t on the list. But ‘nor is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’! There really are so many which are worthy of a mention; it’s just a shame I can’t think of any real belters from the noughties onwards. Fingers crossed the great art of the album cover hasn’t been lost just yet.