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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Top Five Album Covers of the Rock Era

Following my last four posts of album covers which I consider the top of the art form, here are my five favorites of all. Each of these images has the power to pull me in no matter how many times I look at them. They can either make me laugh, impress me, beguile me, or even freak me out. Hope that they're at least interesting to some of you!

With the Beatles, 1963

Robert Freeman's cover photograph wasn't planned. He caught up with the band in a hotel on a British tour, constructed a makeshift background, and shot them in the black clothing they were wearing off-stage at the time. Shot in August 1963, just into Beatlemania and only a few months prior to their U.S. breakthrough, this cover captures them in what one could consider their last stage of innocence.

The stark black-and-white image is, of course, iconic--it's been parodied by many artists--and, in its shockingly high quality, mirrors the Beatles' growth as artists from their first album (
Please Please Me) to the second. The group had several great photographers, including Robert whitaker, Iain MacMillan, and Ethan Russell, shoot their covers, but did any of them have such great source material to work with?

And dig the lettering...lovely 60s lower-case type, but jumbled and off-center. How groovy is that?

As for the boys themselves, they look fantastic--young and confident, sexy and cool, and Ringo even a little sad and silly--but they're not smiling, not light-hearted, not interested in playing your game.

That the Rolling Stones and Pretty Things were able to convince people that they were somehow "cooler" than the Fabs because they were "tougher"...well, the evidence doesn't really point that out. It's a retrofit at best. As has been written elsewhere, the Beatles had to create the center before anyone else could go left (or right).

This image is so great that even tinted funny (and given a truly ugly banner) for the U.S. market's
Meet the Beatles, it was still an amazing introduction to the world's best band.

The Supremes A' Go-Go, 1966

Whaaaat? A Supremes album?

While much credit is given (and deserved) to Atlantic and Stax for their fine album covers of the 1960s and early 1970s, Motown sleeves don't usually get a lot of kudos. But there are some terrific ones; the Supremes always looked good, the Temptations had some great images, and of course the Jackson Five were cartoon-beautiful even before they were cartoons.

This sleeve is simply the happiest, bounciest invitation to dance, sing, and laugh that I've ever seen. Horace Junior designed it; Frank Dandridge, an accomplished magazine photographer, shot it. But the sassy "check me out" of Mary Wilson on the right? The beguiling but shy swinging of the lovely, tragic Florence Ballard in the center? The spirited boogie of Diana Ross on the left? Nobody could have created that but the girls themselves.

The typography is brilliant--the arrows on the two "G"s means
action, and the blue background goes great with the pink cover. It's feminine, as are the girls' up to-the-minute fashions, but ripples with pure energy. And indeed, this album is full of foot-tappers and booty-shakers. This ain't no set of Broadway tunes.

Forever Changes, Love, 1967

Love's first two albums featured nearly identical front covers of the moody, frankly unpleasant group hanging around their Los Angeles hangout, a big house with a castle-like design.

For their third album, a grand statement from Arthur Lee (who believed he would soon be dead) about his adopted Los Angeles in the alternately glorious and gloomy psychedelic summer of 1967, Elektra hired Bob Pepper to illustrate the band as a five-headed organism.

Ironically, this was the album where the group began deteriorating due to the anomie, hard-drug abuse, and assorted mental anguish afflicting its members. But never did a collapsing group sound so together...and never did a cover better epitomize the color, vivacity, and beauty of the best music of its time.

This is simply a gorgeous piece of art, laid simply on a stark white background, with the band's inimitable logo--maybe the coolest band logo ever?--just large enough to serve as an effective inducement. Pure genius all the way around.

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973

While this is a terrific album, I almost wish that the cover image wasn't such a ubiquitous hot-button for classic rock. DSOTM's sleeve is almost a victim of its own effectiveness; these days it's tough to see with fresh eyes what an amazing image this is.

Dark Side's cover's beautiful use of color AND black, and utterly simple delivery of a complex (and, in fact, physically impossible) image could befit any number of artists.

Experimental ambient guitar groups, sunshine pop combos, progressive house DJs, modern folk revivalists, etc. etc., all do music that could fit an image like this very well. But who did it? Pink Floyd, who were in 1973 a fully established, popular rock group which had already topped the charts in England and established a strong following in the states.

Only Floyd, among contemporary groups, were egoless enough--or smart enough--to consistently keep themselves off their album covers. The Floyd, not sharp dressers or great lookers (David Gilmour aside), hadn't appeared on a sleeve since 1969, and that's the way the quartet wanted it. As a unit, they were uninterested in rock stardom but very interested in creating entire packages that fit together, from music to album covers to tour visuals.

Groups that followed in Floyd's wake never quite got it, and even Hipgnosis, who designed this cover and others by the band, never duplicated the magic with other artists, because Pink Floyd's music worked in a special way that strongly affected what it touched.

You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, Orange Juice, 1982

I suppose this one will be somewhat polarizing. Some people will get it immediately, while others will say, "what's the big deal?"

But from the moment I saw it, I knew I had to have this album without having even heard the band.

First off, the image of the dolphins was extremely unusual. Let me put it into context.

1982 was a weird time in music. Punk was over. Post-punk, with its rough industrial images, was in vogue in Britain. In America, the corpses of stadium rock bands, and sappy MOR drivel, littered the charts. What was new and interesting generally had a new wave or punk-oriented sensibility. The fluffy groups featured silly retro-futuristic images or prettified portraiture to accompany their insubstantial songs. The "relevant" groups were usually self-consciously arty.

An album cover with an optimistic image--a playful, bright, splashy image rooted in nature--was highly unusual among the Dexys and Loverboys of the time. That's why I wanted to hear what this band sounded like.

And I wasn't disappointed. Glasgow's Orange Juice delivered on everything that could have been promised by people who had enough space in their hearts for the Buzzcocks, Al Green, the Velvets, Chic, and the Beatles.

While big-mouth leader Edwyn Collins blabbed about how 'tunnel vision' was good, his own music belied his brave punk-inspired words, evoking the angularity of early Talking Heads as well as the lovely melodies of a McCartney, the harshness of Nico and the bounce of Motown. Love songs for skeptics; funk songs for the Scottish; pop for punks.

Anyway, I love this sleeve, right down to the obviously faked water splash on the bottom, the understated graphics, and the brilliant use of the 'infinity' symbol instead of an "a" in the word "can't." Pure genius, alternately smooth and amateurish, done in a way that beguiles rather than bludgeons. And I'd rather be seduced than brutalized any day of the week.

I wish that the quality of this particular image were better.

As always, thanks for reading!!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Favorite Album Covers, Part 4

Here are my favorite album covers from the past 20 years or so...

Crashing Dream, Rain Parade, 1985
I always found the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind quite disturbing. I don't particularly need to see a child's penis, OK? But water can make for a fascinating surface through which to view a subject. Here, the members of this underrated LA band are seen at the bottom of a very nice swimming pool. The idea of being drowned in west-coast culture is a central theme to the album.

Recurring, Spacemen 3, 1991
What does it mean? I dunno. But it looks amazing under a black light. Its druggy simplicity perfectly matches the music inside.

Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet, 1991
This album was originally going to be called
Nothing Lasts, but Tuesday Weld (that's her) didn't want her photo to be associated with such a negative title. So it became Girlfriend, which is far more appropriate anyway.

Every Man and Woman is a Star, Ultramarine, 1991
A breezy, surprisingly organic-sounding album of techno, house, and even prog-rock influences,
Every Man could have had a cold, crisp cover like other electronic music of the early 90s. But instead, this Canterbury duo showcased a cornfield under blue skies rather than a cartoony spaceship or computer graphics or some other trite image like most digital acts used at the time. Much of the music here reflects the sounds of camping, hiking, and swimming in nature, making the cover a natural fit.

Love Deluxe, Sade, 1992
Sade's covers have always been immaculately done, which puts some people off. I guess her detractors want to see Ms. Adu in jackboots, or sneezing, or something. But here, she's literally a bronze goddess, frozen in place or cast in metal in a passionate but oddly constricted pose. It's their best album, too.

The Decline and Fall of Heavenly, 1994
This cover image for a nice, but somewhat twee, pop band--albeit one beset ultimately by the tragic suicide of its drummer--is almost too cute for words. Almost. (Sorry about the size of this one.)

Ray of Light, Madonna, 1998
While no expense is ever spared on Madonna's covers, many of the resulting images are just transient, meant only to show off her newest persona. Here, she's wearing clothes and hair that she might be expected to wear on an everyday basis, but the image is interesting enough to keep you looking. Why is she to the left? Why is she dissheveled? The graphics are understated and simple and add rather than detract.

Salt Rain, Susheela Raman, 2001
This is Ms. Raman's first album. While many beauty queens are splashed all over CD covers in close-up, rarely is a woman not "conventionally" beautiful (in a white Anglo-Saxon context, anyway) shot so intimately. Of Indian ancestry and raised in England, she has hair vibrant enough to push the very boundaries of the frame, and in addition she is showing off what is either an un-made-up skin-color variance, a shadow, or a black eye.

American Idiot, Green Day, 2004
Here is one of the few releases on these lists o'mine that features a drawing. A band trying to break out of the punk-pop ghetto and do something they felt was more lasting needed a great cover image, and this is it: a man ready to toss a heart-shaped grenade.

We'll Never Turn Back, Mavis Staples, 2007
As if anyone needed a reminder of the struggles of the civil rights movement...this is a perfectly realized concept, with superb typography that announces but does not overpower the image.

Thanks for come the top five of all.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Favorite Album Covers, Part 3

In which I look at my fave LP sleeves of pop/rock history. This is part 3, going from 1975 through 1981. Part four will cover the 80s through the present, then I will present my all-time top five, making 45 total covers in all. As always, thanks for reading.

Relatively Clean Rivers, 1975. A psychedelically-inspired 70s album that only sold a few dozen copies, at best, RCR's recent rediscovery is our gain, not least for its stony, well-structured California rock as for its funny and extremely eye-catching and eye-popping sleeve. Who is this guy? What river is this? I want to know!

, Tangerine Dream, 1975. Just a lovely photo.

Blondie, 1976. The standard "pretty girl in front" tactic gets an interesting spin: Debbie Harry is not only in front, she's almost blocking the rest of the band! You can see bassist Gary Valentine--soon to be an EX-Blondie--shifting his head, trying hard to be seen, while the other fellas seem to accept their fate with some resignation. Each album, Blondie changed its typeface, and never had a distinct logo; this is my favorite lettering of theirs and overall my favorite American new-wave cover.

This Year's Model
, Elvis Costello, 1978. I prefer the British image of the album, where you can see him speaking to you as if you are the object. Having him interacting with you, photographing you, while he's being photographed is, I think, the very point of the exercise. One of the most effective and, to me, inviting shots ever on an album. The four-color bar on the right, simulating a photo proof sheet, is a nice little piece of detail.

Jesus of Cool
, Nick Lowe, 1978. Nick Lowe, for many years rock's resident wit, decided to take the piss out of his contemporaries for his first solo album. The American version (retitled 'Pure Pop for Now People' to save our virgin ears, perhaps) had a few different shots.

One Step Beyond, Madness, 1979. This is among the best images to come out of the punk and postpunk movements. It sums up this fine pop band's indomitable spirit of fun.

Wild Planet
, the B-52s, 1980. I like this even more than the shot from their debut album. The electrifying red, which makes everything pop out at the viewer, is appropriate for an album including songs about the Devil, strobe lights, wild parties, nuclear energy, and being lost in space. All five of the '52s look primo, half-real and half-cartoon. The inner bag, of a leopard print on green, is cool too.

Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, 1980. For a long time I thought this was the best album cover ever. It still holds up extremely well for its perfectly executed palate of bright pop colors and its almost crass triple-portrait of Costello. The ringwear on the British album cover is almost too cute, but it works here because it's all of a piece.

Pretenders, 1980. While the basic leather/black/white/red color scheme wasn't especially new, the quality of the band's faces and poses was jarring enough to be eye-catching, and the art deco lettering kept it from being either too "New Wave" or too retro-60s. Most of the Pretenders' sleeves feature faboo no-bullshit portraits.

The Flowers of Romance, Public Image Ltd., 1981. What is this woman doing with a pestle? Is she going to bash my brains in with it? Don't those thorns hurt? Whatever...I'm intrigued. While it has little to do with the content, this cover image dovetails perfectly with the sometimes amateurish, sometimes aggressive, but very beautiful music inside.