For me, album (or CD) covers have always been as artistically relevant as anything I’d ever see in the Cleveland museum of Art or any gallery. Why? Because in their universe and medium, like a book, they need to covey a feeling and hopefully elicit an emotion or in some cases, a “wow” factor. Before the Internet and the ability to download a song at a time, we’d spend hours at record stores, mulling through isles and isles of albums and then CD’s.
I remember flipping through albums and staring at the covers wondering what the hell some of the artists were trying to say. I remember seeing the self-entitled Prince album, the one with the light blue background and a topless black man with wavy hair thinking, “who the fuck is this douche?” I was young, so maybe not those exact words, but something along those lines. I can tell you that the emotions that cover elicited were ones of creepiness.
Others were laughably awful or just downright bad. Until my dad told me years after I’d seen the cover, I would have never known that the group Orleans with the homo-erotic cover image was the band that sang, You’re still the one, which remains a favorite song in spite of the album cover.
If you would have told me the group adorning this gem were the purveyors of such hits as Waterloo, Take a Chance on Me, and S.O.S, I would have accused you of sniffing glue. Yet here they are, Swedish super group ABBA, adorning what I’d consider to be one of the worst album covers of all time. I mean look at them, right?
Then came the early 80’s metal. Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, The Scorpions, and one of my favorites, Twisted Sister. Truly, I loved Twisted Sister, bought the albums (then tapes) and wore them out. Dee Snyder was everything rebellious that I wanted to be. He had this ungodly frock of hair that, still today, amazes me. Yet, as much as I loved them, this album cover grossed me out. It’s some sort of huge animal bone with uncooked flesh on it. Is he really going to eat that? Am I supposed to go out and gnaw on moose bones now? Love the band but hate this cover.
Topping out my short list of least favorite album covers is one that many consider to be one of the best. Yep! Controversy here we come! Nirvana’s Nevermind is hailed by many to not only be one of the greatest albums of the 90’s and maybe all-time, but also have one of the best covers. I disagree. While it’s kinda cool at first glance, logic kicks in and reminds me that there was an underwater photographer in that pool and a willing parent above it tossing their baby in the water to float freely, his little peep exposed for the world to see within reach of a symbolic dollar bill. I can’t help but feel terrible about this cover. Yeah, I know, the babies in the womb/water thing, but still. This cover screams negligence to me.
So there you have it, some of my lesser-embraced covers. Now, join me on a journey of my top fifteen favorites and what made them favorites. In the spirit of all great “best-of” lists, I’ll be ranking these from bottom to top, thereby leaving you in utter suspense wondering the whole time through what #1 could possibly be? I’ll remind you again, these are MY favorites. I’m not espousing to be a critic of any kind, artistically, musically, or otherwise. So here we go….
15. Linda Ronstadt – Blue Bayou LP
This is the first album cover I can ever remember loving. I remember it because it was the cover that offered me my first crush. I was a young, impressionable boy and when the lovely Linda Ronstadt looked at me (and only me) with those big beautiful brown eyes, she would unknowingly etch herself in the heart and mind of a young Jim Moorman for life. I dreamed of our wedding and the life we’d live out magically together. Then, sometime shortly after Linda, I discovered Olivia Newton John and then Sheena Easton. Linda, however, will always be my first crush and it is for that reason alone this album cover must hold a place in my top fifteen.
14. Jimmy Buffett – Songs You Know by Heart
I don’t normally like album covers with pictures of the musicians themselves adorning them. I prefer graphics, illustrations, and symbolic images that force us to use our imaginations and correlate the cover image to the music while we listen. This cover, however, is the exception to the rule. Jimmy is, on this cover, portraying a life and state of mind I have long embraced and longed for. Hammocks, tropics, and friendly parrots keep me company until I lazily stroll in to the cabana where a Polynesian princess waits to pour me a margarita and rub my aching shoulders after a long day of writing. Ahh, my happy place.
13. Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast
This album cover makes it on my list for the sole reason that is scares the fuck out of me. It did as a kid and it does today. It is to me musically what the Shining is cinematically – the stuff of nightmares. Congrats, Maiden, mission accomplished. You’ve emotionally scarred a kid enough that he’s carried that terror with him well into adulthood.
12. Elvis Presley – Viva Las Vegas LP
This is one my dad had when I was growing up and I loved the cover as much as I loved the man. To me, this cover embodies the dual personas of the King. It’s my mental link (visually) between the young Elvis and older Las Vegas Elvis. I also love the black and white scheme with a good blend of rock-n-roll and the glitz that symbolized what he would become.
11. The Eagles – Hotel California
It was a tough call between this and the One of These Nights Cover. In the end, though, this is the cover that resonates with me the most. It’s perfectly suited to the song, the sound, and the feel of the whole album. “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…” I can imagine cruising on a chopper at dusk with this album cover ahead of me. Darkness is about to settle in and when it does, the feel will be different, but for the moment, the dusk and cool wind through my hair is perfect.
10. Big Head Todd & the Monsters – Midnight Radio
Aside from being probably my favorite BHT album, the cover art speaks for itself. It’s cool, a little trippy, and makes me think of an M.C. Escher work. I also just like the concept of kicking back at midnight, staring up at a big moon, and just listening to the radio with the stress of the day long forgotten.
9. Grateful Dead – Steal your Face
This cover isn’t the best Grateful Dead cover as far as art, but the Steal your Face skull was born from this album and so many cool adaptations have been done over the years. The colors are simple and bold, but it still has the Grateful Dead feel to it and while I love the trippy 60’s and 70’s colorful art, this album cover still ranks high on my list as one of the grates.
8. Van Halen – 1984
When this album came out in 1984, the US was in the throws of Reaganomics and the war on drugs. Censorship was a big deal and our country’s moral fiber was still pretty uptight. I remember my mom not liking the fact that there was a baby angel smoking a cigarette on the cover. She still got it for me anyway, but made her feelings known. Like every red-blooded American kid, the fact that there was a smoking baby angel on the cover only made me want it more. Imagine my mom’s surprise and my glee when the Hot for Teacher video launched!
7. Steve Miller Band – Book of Dreams
It’s a Pegasus with rainbow wings. I shouldn't have to say anything else. It’s got that cool gradient on the front with the blue sky through a very ornate emblem looking thing and the Pegasus has the look of a mighty steed, one that even Ron Burgundy would be proud to ride. The lettering is awesome and it’s just a sweet cover. My only wish is that the artist would have hidden the bottom hoof of the horse like he did with the tail to make it look more like the Pegasus was flying out of the porthole.
6. Guns N Roses – Appetite for Destruction
Iconic, clean, cool, borrowing from the skulls of other metal bands but classing it up on a solid black backdrop. The album itself ranks in my top five and the cover probably could as well, but the skulls remind me too much of the Grateful Dead which is a hippie, folk,
rock band and obviously GNR is hard rock. It’s still an amazingly cool cover, though.
5. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
This is it. The Boss has arrived. He’s having fun. He’s the true working class hero and this cover epitomizes his brand of American rock-n-roll. While other members of the E-Street Band don’t adorn this cover, the big man, Clarence Clemmons, does. The black and white photo and Bruce’s obvious love of where they’re at in that moment in time has become an iconic rock image. The song, Born to Run, is my all-time favorite. Now, with the passing of Clarence, the cover has become even more iconic, at least to me. Clarence Clemons was to the sax what Neil Peart is to the drums – the best. Others will imitate but never duplicate.
4. Kiss – Their Greatest Hits
As a kid, I always loved Kiss and dressed up as the Cat a couple times for Halloween. This album cover is my favorite, although not at all artistically their best. I just think it's a cool, gritty representation of the band back then.
3. Michael Stanley Band – Stagepass
You may or may not have heard of them. MSB was big in the 80's especially in Cleveland. As a teenage boy in the 80's, long before the Internet, this cover was the next best thing to a Playboy magazine. It was sex and rock-n-roll all wrapped up in one slutty chick. Loved it.
2. Meatloaf – Bat Out of Hell
It really was (and still is) more a work of art than an album cover. Just the scene of a motorcycle screaming up out of the bowels of hell itself made it powerful. Then, to hear the song and have the imagery to accompany it made Bat out of Hell all that much better. The roar of the motorcycle in the song ties it to the album cover in a way that hadn’t been done before. The song and the lyrics almost forced you to see the cover image in your mind and play it out in your imagination. Simply awesome.
1. Dave Matthews Band – Remember Two Things
Yeah, remember these? The “you have to stare at them” pictures that were all the rage back in the early 90’s? Those of you who have seen Mallrats can appreciate this cover. “It’s not a schooner, it’s a sailboat!”
Say what you will, but I thought it back then and I think it now. This cover rocks because it did something no other cover did before. It literally forced you to stare at it for minutes on end. Then, once you saw the image, you were like, “that’s pretty cool! Now I know what two things Dave is telling me to remember and I will.” The cover itself is just a plain bunch of blue, green, and purple dots but it’s literally deeper than what it appears to be on the surface. I just think that metaphorically, creatively, and artistically, it’s so unique that it has to be #1, at least in my opinion.