Following two outstanding (though largely monotone) records, Rancid's third offering is a smorgasbord of styles, tones, and moods. It is the first record that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman had included ska styles on since their days in Operation Ivy, and it is also the first album where guitarist Lars Fredriksen seems to feel at home within the band. These are four guys that clearly love playing music with one another, and sincerely adore what they are doing. The sheer enthusiasm is infectious, and it makes this not only one of the best records of Rancid's career, but one of the best punk rock records of the 1990's.

The cover art is clearly paying homage to the legendary cover of the first Minor Threat E.P., on which Ian MacKaye's brother Alec is sitting on a set of concrete steps with his head down. In this case it is Fredriksen, and his mohawk and tattoos mark the difference between the scenes and generations in which both of these bands came from. This album cover became so instantly iconic, that many people might not have even known the fact that it was a tip of the hat to an older record cover.


For better or worse, Rage's self-titled debut is one of the most influential records of the last two decades. Although the rap/metal genre is largely saturated with music that is mildly annoying at best and unlistenable at worst, this early example of this blend of genres is incredibly successful and still sounds great today.

The cover art features a picture of Thich Quang Duc's legendary protest in a busy intersection in Saigon. His protest against the Roman Catholic oppression of Buddhists in South Vietnam consisted of dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself ablaze, during which he remained completely motionless. Photographs of this act (especially Malcom Brown's, the one included on the cover of this album and for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) circulated around the world, raising awareness of the struggles of Buddhists in that region of the world, and ultimately led to the assassination of the head of government in South Vietnam. This powerful image immediately portrays to the potential listener what they can expect from this record.
joshthevegan: (woody)


Around the time Pearl Jam was recording the follow up to their hugely successful debut, Ten, the members were involved in a number of struggles with the powers that be, most famously singer Eddie Vedder taking on Ticketmaster. In addition to these real conflicts, the media was painting a contest between Pearl Jam and fellow Seattle-ites Nirvana, which Pearl Jam has vocally said was a complete fabrication. It is for these reasons that they titled their sophomore effort Vs. (initially Five Against One for similar reasons).

The cover art, a black and white photograph of a sheep taken by bassist Jeff Ament, is representative of the way the band felt at the time. While they were grappling against things they found unjust with all their might, they still often felt like they were trapped in a cage.

On a personal level, I was 12 when Vs. came out, and the older guys that I hung around with at the time were all huge Pearl Jam fans, and they were among the 1.3 million people that purchased copies the first week the record was out. Seeing copies of this CD going around, I couldn't help but be drawn to this powerful image. It also didn't hurt that some of the best music ever recorded also happened to be included on the bright orange disc.


As I've mentioned in the past, my feelings about Nirvana are atypical, to say the least. Knowing that I would more likely cue up In Utero than Nevermind, it should come as no surprise that my personal favorite of Nirvana's covers is the one for Bleach. Sure, it's not as iconic as the baby swimming after the dollar (which, to be honest, is pretty damn great), nor is it as intangibly disturbing as the cover of Incesticide. But there is something about the negative of the shot of the band all rocking to the point their mop-tops happen to be flopping in their face at the same moment speaks to me about what I like about the early grunge scene, and Nirvana's first record specifically.
joshthevegan: (Roland in Tull)


Betty came on the heels of two fantastic albums and an appearance on a high-profile movie soundtrack (The Crow), successfully putting Helmet into the major leagues. It is their most experimental album, as it blends their crunchy, start-stop post-hardcore sound with elements of jazz, blues, and funk. These seemingly conflicting influences make Betty one of their most exciting listens, and sets it amongst the best post-hardcore records of its time.

The cover art seems immediately to be at odds with the grindy power-rock contained within the album, effectively expressing the unexpected nature of the record.
joshthevegan: (woody)


Bob Dylan's sophomore release, aside from being one of his most important and enduring works, features a cover image of Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo walking down the snow-covered streets of Greenwich Village where they were living.

The casual, "candid" photo was so different from the incredibly staged photos of artists that appeared on records of that time, that it practically screamed out loud. This iconic image went on to re-define what a cover of an album could be, and opened up the door for the possibility of every other entry on this list.
joshthevegan: (Roland in Tull)


Easily one of the most provocative album covers in the last decade-or-so, the photograph of Justin Sane's niece dressed in U.S. military garb was so controversial at the time of it's release, that some stores simply refused to carry the record with that cover, and a censored edition was created (with a now-dead URL listed to explain the censorship). The image becomes even more powerful when the artwork found on the inside and back of the packaging is seen.





This particular choice in my list is one that is here not because of the cultural impact it had, nor because of the impressive artwork, this one is here simply because of how it affected me in my adolescence. I clearly remember walking into record stores and seeing posters for this album hanging about and just thinking that the Beastie Boys looked so damned cool. I can't explain exactly what it was about the image that grabbed me so hard, but it did. Turns out there is some pretty damn good music on the record too (it's my favorite of theirs, as it is the middle ground between their punky roots, their funky instrumentals, their old school rap style, and the rapping style they developed in the 1990's).


Oklahoma's acid-drenched neo-psychedelic Flaming Lips have released an impressive catalog of fantastic music since their formation in 1983. Each and every one of their albums is worth exploring, but the ones that have been offered since the late 1990's are particularly excellent. 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is possibly their creative pinnacle, as they found the perfect balance between surrealist psychedelia and superb musicianship.

Yoshimi plays like a concept album (even though singer Wayne Coyne has stated emphatically that this was not the intention of the group), and the cover art of our titular heroine taking on one of the pink antagonists is a fantastic interpretation of that idea.


Descendents' first long player is credited with being one of the first (if not the first) melodic hardcore records. The blending of catchy melodies with speedy tempos topped with goofball lyrics about girls and conformity was a new formula in the early 1980's southern California hardcore scene, but it has gone on to become one of the most copied formulas in the genre.

The cover art was inspired by drawings that were made of (lead singer) Milo Aukerman in his childhood. A classmate would draw pictures of him depicting him as the class nerd, exaggerating his big, thick glasses and goofy hair cut. This caricature of Aukerman would be used as a template for many of the Descendents' subsequent releases, and has become one of the most immediately recognizable images in rock music.


I was first introduced to Tool's debut full-length album when I was in junior high. A friend of mine brought a copy of the album in to school to lend to me, and at the time I was not familiar with Tool's music at all, let alone this particular release. Even before I took the CD home and was wowed by the dark, grimy metal, I was totally affected by the artwork.

Nearly every aspect of the art from Undertow is unsettling. From the pictures of the band members with pins stuck into their heads, to the naked people embracing inside the booklet, to the "secret" picture found under the CD tray, the artistic theme of the album is incredibly dark, with most of the pictures washed in a deep sepia tone. The obvious centerpiece visually for this album is the bright red, stylized ribcage found on the cover. While looking at the booklet, one's eye is constantly drawn back to the cover because the red is the brightest color in the entire pallet, and the ribs seem (to me, at least) to be groping to embrace you, and there is something imperceptibly unnerving about that.


Social Distortion's 1983 debut blasted onto the hardcore punk scene, and stood high amongst the strongest releases in the genre at the time. Frontman Mike Ness' songwriting was incredibly powerful even at this young age. He was constructing songs of life on the road, alienation, and longing that wouldn't sound out of place amongst folk and country music greats of the earlier part of that century.

Social D was playing music that was more mature than their years with lyrical content a shade deeper than most of their peers, and the cover art for Mommy's Little Monster is also a bit more sophisticated than many of the images found on other hardcore albums from the early 1980's. There is no question that the cover of Bad Religion's How Could Hell Be Any Worse? is iconic (for example), but the apocalyptic imagery found on the sleeve of Ness and Company's debut is a fantastic achievement nearly as important as the music found inside.


Screeching Weasel's fourth album is one of their weaker albums, especially when compared to the fantastic releases that flank it. While the music that is found on Wiggle is not their best, few albums have artwork that is as instantly recognizable. The liner notes have this to say: "Front cover: Careful! This could be you someday!"


While the fourth and final studio album from the Kennedys is musically their weakest, the album art is far and away their best. The intricate, super-busy art looks like something out of the sketch book of an incredibly talented, albeit a bit disgruntled and hyperactive artist. Which is pretty fitting for the Dead Kennedys.

The artwork is even better once it is fully folded out:

joshthevegan: (woody)


Fugazi's fourth full-length marked the beginning of their journey into more avant garde music. They began experimenting with styles that they hadn't tried before, and in order to ensure the ambient sounds and textures would shine through, they took on the production responsibilities themselves. The result is an exciting, unique record that re-defined what it meant to be a "punk" band in the mid 1990's. The enigmatic cover art fits perfectly with this offbeat achievement.
joshthevegan: (Bassy)


The Grateful Dead might not be a choice that many people would expect to see on my list, but my tastes are far more eclectic than I sometimes let on. Workingman's Dead was the band's first foray into American roots-oriented music that they would reach much acclaim with on their next album, and it is one of my favorites from the Dead.

The story goes that Stephen Stills was staying with drummer Mickey Hart for a few months around the time of the recording of the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album was being made. The band was so impressed with CSN's vocal stylings, that they sought to emulate them. Combining their newfound desire to let their vocals be as impressive of a musical aspect of their songs as their instruments with Jerry Garcia's love of country and blues music and financial troubles that were plaguing the band led to a very quick recording session (only 9 days). Their last few studio outings had been phenomenally expensive, state of the art (for the time), lush psychedelic pastiches, so the major contrast of recording music of this nature caused Garcia to remark, "this is like the Workingman's Dead version of the band", and thus the title of the record was born.

Given the title and the music found on this album, there couldn't have been a more perfect album cover. The yellowy, vintage looking black and white photograph of the members of the band (including songwriter Robert Hunter) dressed as workingmen types waiting for their ride to work makes it very clear that this is not going to be the same Grateful Dead that offered the towering, acid dripped Aoxomoxoa.


Mad Season was a supergroup consisting of members from some of Seattle's best known bands at the time, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees. Their sole release, Above is an under appreciated gem. Mike McCready's bluesy guitar work paired with Barrett Martin's melodic percussion work create a great back drop for Layne Staley's enigmatic vocals, the complete package of which is exciting and sounds nothing like any of the participating artists' main projects.

The artwork for the release was all designed by Layne Staley, and it is so immediately recognizable and memorable that long before I ever heard the record, I was completely aware of the art.


This one is pretty self-explanatory. The goofy title of this album (which was the less-offensive version of the original title they had slated) is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the respective heritages of the members of the band. This is a classic slice of So-Cal '90's punk, and the cover art is among the most memorable of that genre.
joshthevegan: (Bassy)


Ryan Adams is prolific nearly to a fault. It can be positively exhausting attempting to keep up with his output, though the quality of his work rarely wavers, so the journey can be ultimately rewarding.

In 2005, Adams released three full-length albums, one of which was a double album. It's no surprise, then, that many people were burned out on Adams by the time 29 was released in late December of that year, and therefore they missed this under-appreciated gem.

Constructed as a loose concept album about his twenties with each song representing one of the years of that decade of his life, the largest portion of these songs were written in the studio, and many of the versions of the songs that ended up on the album were first takes. This is Adams at his loosest and most confessional, which is both this album's charm and it's downfall. At times it is a bit over-indulgent and Adams' obsession with emulating Morrissey's mope-rock can get a bit tedious, but the moments that gel together into a cohesive vision of the artist's life are pure magic.

The cover art is from the hand of Adams himself, and it perfectly expresses the looming doom that permeates the entire album. My eyes are first drawn to the host of reapers storming the gate of the estate, but then the soft glow from the windows where the people inside look out (presumably in terror) grabs my attention, and from there I'm unable to look away.


I talked about this record quite a while ago (here's a link). Monster was a huge success for R.E.M., and it is amongst my favorites of their huge catalog. The glaring orange cover with the slightly out of focus drawing of the bear is incredibly iconic, and one of the best of the 1990's.

September 2014

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