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From Nick Cave to Sonic Youth: The 6 most memorable album covers of all time

An album’s artwork should never be taken for granted. It is the window and the portal that allows the listener to enter the world of a musician’s work. Sometimes the artwork found on the front and back of a vinyl sleeve, wrapped around a cassette tape or plastered flat on CD covers, is a complete representation of the music contained within. Sometimes it is artfully deceitful, creating a beautiful disconnect between what the person sees on the cover versus what they hear on the imprinted record. 

Before the listener ever puts the record on – what happens before? It doesn’t just magically appear in the listening device. Sometimes it’s because the listener is a fan and they have been in eager anticipation for the piece. Other times, a new listener is intrigued by what they are seeing; either way, the cover artwork remains dutifully imperative. The artwork, like the music it represents, is as the name suggests, an art form.

Just as much detail and effort that is put into the creation of the music, just be equally applied in the creation of the artwork. Graphic artists and illustrators are at times employed; the likes of master painters have been employed before, such as Salvador Dali, or even Banksy. Sometimes the musicians themselves strike up the image. Other times, it is a fluke, a chance meeting, a serendipitous moment that captures the heartbeat of that moment in time, perhaps, in turn, providing a snapshot of its particular zeitgeist. 

Album artwork has been around for over 80 years now. Documents tell us that, in 1938, Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss as the very first director of art, according to Solo Press. Steinweiss is accredited with creating the album cover artwork. Born in 1917, Steinweiss came from a family of hardworking artists who created beautiful but practical artisanal objects which we now take for granted. His father was a woman’s shoe designer, and his mother was a seamstress. Steinweiss would repeatedly say as a child, that he was destined to be a commercial artist.

To dream of being a commercial artist requires a whole other kind of breed of person. It requires the same type of dedication as a painter, writer or musician, but in addition, they are selfless in their art, they create works for everyone else, and not them. As Alex Steinweiss is recorded to have said, “So I said to myself, ‘If someday I could become a good sign painter, that would be terrific.”

The first piece artwork for an album that would garner America’s attention was Nat King Cole’s record King Cole Trio. The image, while the implication was revolutionary, was slightly unimaginative for today’s standards. It features a crown that wraps around three instruments – guitar, upright bass, and a piano – set to a red backdrop. 

With all this in mind, we decided to take a look at the six best album cover artwork, the ones that strike the imagination in the most fruitful of ways, the ones that entice the mind’s eye in the way that the artist’s intended. With the intention of only capturing some of the most intriguing covers, as there are countless ones that have been elevated into the realm of timelessness, we focused on ones that perhaps don’t always get as much attention. Having said that, they are still timeless in their uniqueness.

The 6 most memorable album covers:

Push The Sky Away – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 

Starting off with an album that contains fairly minimalistic artwork for its cover, Push The Sky Away, was released in 2012 and is the 15th album from the Australian gothic poet, Nick Cave. Cave described the album beautifully: “If I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push The Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s loops are its tiny, trembling heartbeat.”

The artwork features Nick Cave in a whitewashed room, which his bedroom. The long victorian-style shutters are painted white with a burst of sunlight attempting to breakthrough. The photograph was taken by Dominique Isserman, and it features Nick Cave in his usual attire. While his arm is outstretched, in mid-motion to open the blinds for more light, it does look like Nick Cave is pointing away from his naked (actual) wife, giving the impression that he’s telling her to leave. 

Cave’s wife, Susie Bick, as mentioned, is stark naked and is tiptoeing around with her head sunken so that her jet black hair is covering her face. The photo was taken on a fluke: Cave and Bick were in their bedroom, while Isserman was photographing Bick for a photo shoot for a fashion magazine. Nick just happened to be there at the time helping esPrit. As Cave began opening the shutters, Dominique Isserman snapped the scene. This would eventually be chosen as the album cover.

Sonic Nurse – Sonic Youth

This album was released in 2004 by Geffen Records. This collection of music, as beautifully worded by Jarry Jacobs Summers for Truth About Nursing in his review, “(Sonic Youth) uses nursing imagery to explore troubling aspects of women’s lives, perhaps seeing the profession as a busy intersection on the boulevard of broken female dreams.” 

This particular album sees a band really capitalise on the artwork found on the cover and connect it to a recurring theme throughout the songs. Perhaps a reason for this is that Richard Prince’s painting had already been created and a separate project. Sonic Youth stumbled across Prince’s Nurses series and decided to choose one of his paintings for the cover art.

The influence that Richard Prince had on the band is fairly palpable, to the point where the New York City art punks would write a song completely influenced by his work: ‘Dude Ranch Nurse’.

The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground

The quintessential album artwork, Andy Warhol’s banana, placed on the grainy white background, is one of the most iconic album artworks in the history of music. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol ran an art hub that was a force of creative energy and would meet regularly at their headquarters known as ‘The Factory’. The factory served as the perfect meeting place for freaks, nerds, artists, and outcasts. During the best of times, it produced the most avant-garde of art. In less than good times, it produced work that reeked of the sycophant. This dichotomy was the make-up of Andy Warhol’s aura. 

Controversy, publicity, and mystery followed Warhol everywhere he went, so it wasn’t surprising that Lou Reed would partially credit Warhol for the influence that the album had. With Warhol’s American pop art aesthetic, Reed’s poetry, John Cale’s mystic avant-garde, and the factory’s S&M-like playground – the culmination of all these things – would forever place a mark on the public’s imagination.

Think Tank – Blur

The 2003 album Think Tank by brit-pop pioneers, Blur, saw the British post-mods further explore unchartered territory, on a voyage that began with their previous, 13. Sat at the helm in the engineering booth for production and creative input was Ben Hillier who had help from Norman Cook, AKA Fatboy Slim, and William Orbit. Damon Albarn, Blur’s chief songwriter and visionary, would state that the album was about “love and politics.” Albarn himself is an outspoken pacifist but became known for writing about other topics in Blur’s earlier and more seminal work. Think Tank would mark a significant shift in this. 

Along with this new exploration into politics and socio-economic issues as it pertains to everyday living, who else better than Banksy, to design the Album cover? Bansky is known for his signature graffiti through stencilling style of subversive street art. He became known for his public installations, diverting every aspect of commercialism. 

Graffiti art is illegal in Britain, so when journalist Simon Hattenstone came to meet Banksy at a pub for an interview for The Guardian, you could imagine his difficulty when he tried to find someone who operated in almost complete anonymity. It begs the question, did Damon Albarn get the idea for his initial anonymity in the Gorillaz from Banksy?

Maggot Brain – Funkadelic

Maggot Brain’s cover art is on a whole other level in terms of imagery. The striking image of the cover instantly pulls you in, wondering to yourself, what this ever could sound like, horror-funk? While not of the horror genre, the illustration immediately shifts the moment the guitar-rocket of the title track begins. Our initial impression of something shifts when seen for the third or fourth time, but with a newly added variable to the mix. For example, the model seen on the cover is Barbara Cheeseborough, and she does such a good job at playing scary that it seems like she scared herself at how convincing she played the part. After some digging, the album’s atmosphere began to reveal more of the record’s nature; rather than reeking of decay as the maggots might suggest; while it does take its inspiration from the experience of death, it is more of a coming to terms ritual or a therapeutic experience. The album was inspired by George Clinton’s discovery of his dead brother, who remained, for a time, inside his locked apartment.

George Clinton was on LSD while recording. Not only that, but he also said something very haunting to the band’s guitar player, Hazel and the outcome would yield positive results – the guitar playing is haunting:

“I told him to play like his mother had died, to picture that day, what he would feel, how he would make sense of his life, how he would take a measure of everything that was inside him.”

The Queen is Dead – The Smiths

As mentioned before, there are thousands of great album covers to choose from to represent a collection of the most beautiful artwork that has fused with music. We would be remiss if we didn’t include what many would call the greatest album of all time. While I think it is a far cry to call it the greatest album of all time (The Smith’s bandwagon is a popular one – it spawned many pimpled, bespectacled indie kids who thought maybe they could forgo life by just quoting Morrissey and Oscar Wilde and write poetry) it is still a force to reckon with.

Ever wondered where Belle and Sebastian got their album artwork style from? Look no further, The Smiths, whose albums were all designed by the silver-tongued Mozzer himself. The cover features Alain Delon from the 1964 french film, L’Insoumis. Morrissey often employed the personage of film and pop stars on his covers.