The timelessness of vinyl records speaks to many things. For one, we like tangible sounds, even as digital — and invisible — music continues its ascension. We also appreciate the artwork involved, one more layer in the sensory environment that is immersing yourself in an album.
The artwork offers a visual stamp on memorable music, sometimes taking a fantastic LP into “best of all time” territory. Simply put, any of the following would look great in a frame and mounted on the wall. The music, however, is so good you’re going to likely want it in a more accessible location, for repeated extended plays.
Sometimes, an album cover sums up the sound visually. That’s the case with Jeff Beck’s brilliant Wired record, released in 1976. It shows the fast-fingered British guitarist in blue light, vaporizing from left to right. If the brain-melting guitar work of Beck had a corresponding image, this would certainly be it.
This may be the most recognizable album in music, thanks to its simple prismatic nature. With so many possible meanings, the cover begs to be gawked at. Some argue that it’s the age-old battle between good and evil, light and dark. Others say it reflects the astrological elements of the band, or, more simply, a Pink Floyd light show. Regardless, it’s a clean and eye-catching cover that draws you in. The interior is equally cool, with the refracted rainbow streak of light morphing into heartbeats.
Created by Efram Wolff, the cover to Stevie Wonder’s sixteenth studio LP showcased the artist as a purebred visionary. Wonder is looking toward the heavens, with a beam stretching from his eyes (of added importance considering his blindness). It’s an uber-artistic way of showing perspective, something Wonder offered a lot of throughout the record, which deals with racism and evil, non-inclusive politics. He’s positioned in a box, which suggests he’s both confined and in a confessional-like setting. The earthy color scheme and incredible typography make the whole thing look as though it was carved out of ancient stone.
Sometimes, a good photo says it all. Here, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith is pictured before a mural in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Smith, king of vulnerable and hushed indie-rock, never felt quite comfortable in his glossy adopted home of LA. But the image reveals more, as Smith has stated, like the endless pursuit of perfection that a figure eight represents, while overlooking the imperfections inherent to being human. Folks flocked to the wall after the artist’s death in 2003 to pay their respects and it’s believed the painting fended off gentrification until just recently, when a gastropub opted to remove it.
Weezer’s best album is an exercise in straightforward themes. It shows the band before a simple blue backdrop, devoid of any double-meanings or mystery. For most editions, the cover cuts the quartet off at the feet, making the band look almost manikin-like, perhaps a subtle statement on the soullessness of going big in the music business. The band would go on to create albums of other color shades, keeping the theme alive.
The seminal 1970 release from The Velvet Underground shows a ghostly haze emanating from a subway entrance. It captures the hazy, druggy, cerebral essence billowing up from subcultures everywhere, especially New York at that particularly creative era. It can almost be interpreted as a visual take on Lou Reed’s departure from the band, something that happened just before the release of this album.
The Illinois album cover functions like an animated compendium. Fit with an old-timey greeting suitable for an old marquee, it incorporates the oddities of the state, from mob bosses and superheroes to paranormal activity and serial killers. The artwork by Divya Srinivasan is charming and playful, much like the record’s sound. There are even several versions of it out there courtesy of a battle with DC Comics, which didn’t like the inclusion of Superman in the original cover.
The 1986 and debut release from Beastie Boys remains a striking illustration that’s easy to stare at. The plane idea was spawned by the album’s producer, Rick Rubin. It shows the group’s 727 crashing into a hillside. By splitting up the two halves of the plane and just showing the seemingly-normal rear section on the cover, it speaks to everything from not judging a book by its cover to the reckless nature of early hip-hop. It’s a fetching rendering for the ages.
The eighth studio LP from the Beatles is a visual tapestry of sorts. The cover shows an all-star cast of cutouts, stacked like an amphitheater audience. The Beatles are there, too, in far-out military-inspired costumes front and center. It’s a magical audience comprised of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, H.G. Wells and many more, not to mention some spiritual leaders at the request of George Harrison. You notice something new every time you gaze at it. Likewise, you pick up something new just about every time you play the album.
There’s hardly a more provocative musician than Bjork. The multi-dimensional Icelandic artist touts one-of-a-kind vocals and a futuristic pop sound somehow fuses the industrial and organic worlds. Her album covers are equally complex, often featuring elaborate costumes and statuesque poses. The artwork for this 2001 record is slightly simpler, showing in black-and-white the artist in that now-famous dress, head in arms. An illustrated swan superimposed on top seems to be flying away, a spirit version of the animal Bjork wears. It’s an approach that jump-started an entire era of mixed media, illustrated photography covers. Bjork, of course, was one of the first to do it, always well ahead of the curve.
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