When purchasing an album by a band from Seattle on the Sub Pop label in 1994, one would have had some expectations on what that record would sound like. The sludgy, punk-meets-metal sounds of grunge was the signature sound of the city, so Diary was a bit of an anomaly upon its release. The hushed, nearly whispered moments that suddenly burst into urgent, crushing rock all held together by Jeremy Enigk's angelic vocals that vacillate between fragile and furious borrowed more from bands from Washington D.C. (Rites of Spring, Fugazi, etc.) than their Seattle contemporaries. It has gone on to critical acclaim and is often noted as one of the first emo records (though it certainly can't be blamed for what that genre deteriorated into).

The artwork found on the cover of this groundbreaking album was designed by Chris Thompson, who also composed a whole series of pieces that are featured within the packaging:

He was also asked to contribute art when the band released their "comeback" record in 1997:

Each and every one of Thompson's pieces Sunny Day featured within their records is fascinating and powerful, but the one found on the cover of Diary is not only his best, but the finest album cover that I've ever seen.

Suffer is a monumentally influential record, among the most notable of punk rock in the 1980's. Not only did it re-kindle Bad Religion's career (which had been reeling since the release of Into The Unknown), but along with Operation Ivy's Energy, it breathed life back into punk rock, a genre that was fading as its practitioners quit, died, or morphed towards metal. Bad Religion's signature harmony-rich, cerebral hardcore was defined with this album, creating a blueprint that countless bands would emulate (though few could equal) birthing the So Cal punk sound. Green Day, Sublime, and others might have taken the sound to more financial success, but Bad Religion did it first, did it smarter, and did it better.

Bad Religion has always unflinchingly embraced their suburban roots, a fact that might not seem very shocking today, but at the time ran counter to the image that most punk rock had. Hardcore punk, in its early days, was the music of struggle for the youth of larger cities like L.A., Boston, and New York, even though the genre has always attracted those who are outsiders from all areas. The fact that Bad Religion was proud of being well spoken, educated, angry, and isolated men from suburbia revolutionized the face of punk rock and inspired armies of young Americans to pick up instruments, start bands, and create scenes in their hometown, no matter the size.

Jerry Mahoney's striking artwork encapsulates the energy and rage of the music of Suffer as well as all the intangibles that the band brings to the table, including their suburban roots. Many bands have indicated that this cover was inspirational to them, most notably NoFX who parodied it on an E.P.
joshthevegan: (Bassy)

Aside from being my favorite album and being critically hailed as easily one of the best albums of the 1990's, Siamese Dream boasts what I think is simply the best cover art of any major-label album.

There was an entire photo shoot done of these two young ladies dressed like fairies which yielded some pretty amazing shots, but this one is the obvious choice for the album cover. One of the predominant themes of the album is a wistful longing for days gone by when things were happier and simpler, making the old photos on which the lyrics are presented in the booklet fitting, and the vintage-looking image on the cover particularly perfect. "Mother weep the years I'm missing, all our time can't be given back" Billy Corgan sings in "Mayonaise", a lyric that neatly sums up the mood of all of Siamese Dream.

Recently, this cover art was brought back to the public's attention when the current bass player for the Smashing Pumpkins, Nicole Fiorentino, claimed to be one of the young ladies in the shot. After a bit of research, however, it was discovered that this wasn't true.
joshthevegan: (screamy)

Bad Brains' self-titled debut is arguably the most important hardcore punk release of all times. Initially a cassette-only album, it has since been reissued on CD, vinyl, and digital formats and has been hailed critically as the enduring, influential, powerful work it is. The seemingly disparate genres of hardcore punk and reggae that the 'Brains introduced on this album would not only serve as a template for the rest of their own recording career, but would inspire some punk artists to blend ska and reggae with punk and some other musicians to explore extreme dynamic differences within their compositions.

The fantastic, legendary cover art (designed by David Lee Pearsons) is one of the most immediately identifiable images in rock history. The Bad Brains had originally hailed from Washington D.C. and had been such an explosive force there, and their shows so famously chaotic, that they were literally banned from playing in basically every venue for live music in the city (which inspired this song from the album) forcing them in effect to another town to continue as a band. This is how they ended up in NYC where they recorded these tracks. But the songs, their spirit, and their lasting legacy is firmly rooted in the Washington D.C. hardcore punk scene (which the Bad Brains more or less invented and influenced). With this in mind, a lightning bolt striking one of the best known buildings in D.C. is a fitting depiction of their time there.

Pink Floyd's ninth record is a themed album of sorts, held together by criticisms of the music industry, duplicitous record label executives, and the impact this awful machine can have on performers. The seeds of this concept were the band's own experience, and specifically original songwriter / lead singer Syd Barrett whose psychological deterioration since leaving the band served as the inspiration for "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" an epic that was split into two and placed at the beginning and end of the album.

When developing the visual concept for Wish You Were Here, the band wanted to feature handshakes, the symbolic means of sealing deals. The cover photo of two men in business suits (one of whom is quite literally getting "burned" in the deal) was taken in a lot at the Warner Brothers movie studio. The original LPs hid this art behind an opaque outer cellophane wrap emblazoned with a sticker depicting two robotic hands embraced in that symbolic means of agreement.

I grew up listening to Pink Floyd as my father was a huge fan, and Wish You Were Here has always ranked amongst my favorites of theirs. In addition to amazing music, each of Pink Floyd's releases has amazing visual design, but there is no question that on this album Pink Floyd reached a creative zenith.

Phish's fourth studio album is a loose concept album about a person in the midst of relationship problems trying to sleep and getting haunted by dreams. For a recording by a band that is not particularly revered for their studio output, it is surprisingly focused and accessible making it easily their best studio album.

The artwork (created by David Welker) depicts the sleeper in the midst of his fitful slumber. Not only is it a beautifully crafted picture, but when seen in it's entirety (the front cover and back cover together), every song on the album (save one) is represented.

Some of them are more immediately obvious (it's hard to miss the maze under the bed for "Maze" or the fact that the sleeper is laying diagonal in his bed like in the song "Lengthwise") and some less so (the ice skater to represent the song "It's Ice" is seen in the reflection of the mirror off to the right) but each and every song, with the exception of "The Horse", is accounted for in one manner or another. The band would correct the omission of "The Horse" on the cover of their next album, Hoist.
joshthevegan: (Hank)

By the time Life Time (the first album under the Rollins Band banner) arrived, Henry had already released one full length and an E.P. with guitarist Chris Haskett which quelled any concern people might have had about his ability to thrive without (Black Flag guitarist) Greg Ginn. Haskett cut his teeth playing in Ginn's instrumental project Gone where he clearly learned a thing or two about atonal, jazz-influenced rock which he used as a foundation to add his own blues, funk, and soul influences. His abilities and creativity were at least the equal of his mentor, if not slightly stronger.

The arrival of bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain helped to add focus to Haskett and Rollins vision. With a rock solid, crushing rhythm section, Haskett's stellar fretwork and Hank's legendary vocals, the Rollins Band had arrived with Life Time. Stylistically, it is not a huge step away from the later Black Flag records or Hot Animal Machine, though Ian MacKaye's production lends the set a bit more muscle then it's predecessors. It wouldn't be until the next time the Rollins Band headed into the studio that hints of the dynamic funk they would gain (comparative) fame with would appear; this time around aggressive, barely contained blasts of post-hardcore rock are on the menu, and what a feast it is.

The artwork (care of Stephen Meyers) is direct and to the point, intense and unrelenting with no frills. A fitting tone for Life Time, to be sure. The band would continue with album art very similar to this (completely black and white with the same lettering for the text) for their next few releases, until The End Of Silence broke the mold for the Rollins Band, in more ways than one.
joshthevegan: (Hank)

Black Flag's mammoth debut long player (which I talked about at length over here) is notable not only because it is one of the finest (or, in my opinion, the finest) hardcore punk albums ever laid to tape, but also because of the iconic photo of singer Henry Rollins putting his fist through a mirror taken by legendary punk rock photographer Edward Colver. One of only a few releases by 'Flag that doesn't feature artwork by guitarist Greg Ginn's brother Ray Pettibon, the image of young Hank reaching a boiling point and destroying things fits perfectly with the destructive mood of the music found within. The band created the perfect soundtrack for frustration, alienation, and abandonment, and Colver captured those same emotions on film, showing just how in tune he was with the musicians and their vision.

Green Day's second album for Lookout! Records, which would also be their last released by an independent label, is a charming pop punk romp which hides a surprising level of musicianship behind bubblegum-y melodies and a lighthearted, devil-may-care sneer. When I was in my early teens and first being exposed to punk rock, the two indie albums from the East Bay's most famous punkers were practically unavoidable. I always preferred Kerplunk because the lyrical content was slightly stronger (fewer simple love songs and more introspective brooding, something that suited me perfectly at that age) and also, I have no doubt, because of the striking cover art. I must have sketched that smiling potted flower on the cover of nearly every text book I had between 9th and 10th grade, and to this day the spare, barely colored drawing is one of my favorites.
joshthevegan: (Smalls)

This fantastic image, which Zappa intended as a "direct negative" of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was created to be the cover of the Mother's third album, but was relegated to the interior gatefold because of legal action by Paul McCartney and Capitol Records (further proof that McCartney is, and always has been, a scumball).

The album itself is a brilliantly crafted lampooning of 1960's culture, and I am hard pressed to think of a way to portray that intention that tops this image. Though it was initially hidden within the album, a reissue years later would place this image in its rightful place as the cover of the album.

Screaming Trees' major label debut features artwork by Mark Ryden, whose work is always beautifully crafted and mildly unsettling. Ryden would go on to design a more high profile album a few years later, but the acid-drenched hard rock kaleidoscope that is the Trees' sound suits the tone of his art much better.
joshthevegan: (Hank)

OFF!'s debut full-length is the second album on my list to feature the artwork of Raymond Pettibon, who cut his teeth designing album covers and promotional material for Black Flag, Minutemen, and other prominent punk and hardcore acts in the 1980's. His distinctive sketches (which always come accompanied with captions that simultaneously add clarification and make the works more enigmatic) were an integral part of the punk rock scene in days gone by, so it is unsurprising that OFF! requested that he contribute art to their releases (this isn't his first piece for the group) as they are a super-group consisting of alumni of hardcore punk acts. OFF! has been making a splash for a few years now by proving that age is only a number, and with the right attitude even older punks can make some of the best music in the land. Similarly, Pettibon's art on this release is leaving offerings by people half his age in the dust.

Featuring alumni of the first grunge band ever (Green River), Mudhoney's first E.P. slated them as progenitors of that grimy, slow, metal-punk hybrid that their city would become famous for in a few years. Named for the distortion pedals guitarists Mark Arm and Steve Turner were using, Superfuzz Bigmuff has a boozy swagger and a defiant sneer permeating its six tracks which leaves the listener's ears ringing and desperate for more.

The cover art is a photo of the aforementioned guitar players on stage, and it perfectly embodies the wild, drunken antics the band was famous for in concert in those days. This is easily one of my favorite live shots of any band.
joshthevegan: (Bassy)

Beginning with (roughly) Help!, and culminating with (roughly) Revolver, The Beatles' middle era is my favorite. These recordings still exude the air of camaraderie and light-hearted playfulness of their early recordings, but it is balanced with the musical sophistication of their later works, and some hints of the psychedelic influences that would eventually come to fruition. It is really the era where all of their strongest aspects are at work at the same time. While I enjoy all of the music from this period, Revolver is unquestionably the pinnacle of not only their career, but one of the best albums ever laid to tape.

The artwork was created by Klaus Voorman, an old friend of the band. The blending of ink drawings and photographs of the band was incredibly groundbreaking in its time, and this unique piece of pop art on the cover must have drawn quite a few eyes in record stores and helped add to the already significant sales of the album.

Although nearly every song recorded by the Minutemen was a brief burst of inspired genius, few would argue that Double Nickels on the Dime is the crowning achievement of (singer / guitarist) D. Boon's short, yet prolific career.

After cutting their teeth on the underground music circuit in and around their hometown of San Pedro, California, and releasing a surprising number of singles and short albums in a brief time period, Boon, Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley set down to record Double Nickels, an album named as a typically Boon-esque stab at Sammy Hagar's infamous song about his inability to drive the newly instated federal speed limit. They found speeding to be a trite form of rebellion, and Mike Watt was quoted as saying, "The big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin' songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can't drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we'll drive 55, but we'll make crazy music."

Originally conceived as a single LP, upon hearing Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, a sprawling, double LP punk masterpiece, the Minutemen decided to expand their most artistic recording to compete with their contemporary's broad scope. Comprised of a staggering 45 songs, Double Nickels isn't just an album, it is an in-depth manifesto, and the fact that it was all mixed in a single evening and cost $1,100 to make is further evidence of the Minutmen's philosophy of "jamming econo" (economically).

For the cover art, Mike Watt drove down the local highway in his VW Beetle with a photographer in the backseat, and when they got to a sign marking the exit for San Pedro while Watt was driving exactly 55 M.P.H., the photo was taken and history was made. The usage of this image on the cover along with the title of the album help to define the unifying concept of the album, which is the Minutemen's cars. (There are even several tracks included on the record titled "car jams" which are nothing more than the sound of the guys starting up their respective vehicles).

Despite being a bit of a disappointment for the band in terms of sales and critical accolades (at least when compared to the adoration fans and critics alike heaped on their first two albums), Wowee Zowee holds a special place in my heart, in part because it was my introduction to the band, and partly because many of my favorite Pavement songs are found on this album. And I honestly might never have heard any of them if the artwork hadn't drawn me to it.

Pavement's reputation as the most innovative, quirky, and downright fun indie band had reached my circle of awareness by 1995 when Zowee hit the shelves, but I had never actually heard any of their music. Spending $15 on a CD by a band I had never heard a song by was not a practice I made a habit of in those days, but three factors made the decision for me. 1) The buzz around this band was incredible, 2) several people whose opinion I trusted absolutely adored them, and 3) the artwork for their latest release was just the kind of bizarre stuff that my 15 year old tastes went for. This third element was really what ended up pushing me over the edge and purchasing the album, and 18 years later Pavement is still one of my favorite bands, and Wowee Zowee is one of the most important records in my collection.

The art is by Steve Keene and it is a stylized take on a photograph from a 1970's issue of LIFE magazine which depicted two women sitting in dark robes near a goat. (lead singer) Stephen Malkmus chose this particular piece out of over 50 paintings that Keene produced at a live painting session.

The simple image of (Minor Threat vocalist) Ian MacKaye's brother Alec sleeping on the steps of Dischord House (the place where many of the D.C. punks were living at the time, and where Dischord Records was founded) is fantastically powerful, and has gone on to be one of the most recognizable images in rock history. Alec's shaved head, the tattered clothes, the scuffed boots, the presence of refuse (located directly below the descending script of the band's name), and the contrast the bright color adds to the black and white image all work together in such a way to portray the no frills, all business attitude that Minor Threat brought to their music.

This cover art has gone on to be so much more than the cover for a 7". Minor Threat has used it themselves again on the compilation The First Two 7"s on a 12" and then again on their career retrospective Complete Discography. Other bands have paid tribute to it, most notably an album that made this list. Even corporate America couldn't resist attempting to snag the image.

Raymond Pettibon is possibly the most recognizable artist of the hardcore punk scene of the 1980's. His drawings were used as cover art and other promotional material for several artists, most notably his brother Greg Ginn's band, Black Flag.

It is because of this association with respected underground music that Sonic Youth reached out to Pettibon to design the artwork for their major label debut, Goo. In the early 1990's, a band that had established themselves in the underground music scene making the move to a major label was completely unthinkable. Corporate rock was seen as the antithesis of the artistic, integrity-laden music that bands like Sonic Youth were making, so by choosing Pettibon to design their cover, it is an unspoken way of assuring their fans that they were not eschewing their ideals by moving to a major, but rather seeking a wider audience for their particular brand of noisey art rock.
joshthevegan: (cully vale)

Following the success of his album Harvest, Neil Young's career took a decidedly unexpected turn for the obscure. A live album of unreleased songs that went unnoticed, followed by a recorded album that his label refused to release at the time because it was too raw and unrefined (Tonight's The Night), Young offered On The Beach as his first studio recording since his breakout record. If one were simply presented with the title, the immediate thought would likely be that this is a sunshiny, shallow record of pop songs. The cover art, thankfully, reveals that this record isn't a sunny day on the shore, but rather a gray, lonely day standing in a thin, misty rain, staring at something much bigger than you will ever be. This is an absolute case where the artwork is clearly needed to express the intent of the musician when naming the album.
joshthevegan: (Smalls)

At a time when bands were either embracing electronic sounds or trying to play as hard and fast as possible, Wisconsin's Violent Femmes strapped on acoustic guitars and, in the case of their drummer, a snare drum with brushes (and that's all) and cranked out some quirky, endearingly awkward songs influenced by folk and punk simultaneously, resulting in some of the best alternative music ever made.

The cover of their self-titled debut has gone on to be one of the most iconic covers not only in alternative rock history, but of any album released in the last 30 or so years. Personally I think it is the innocence implied by the young girl peering through the window that is tainted with just a little bit of dirt and grime and is slightly weathered by age that represents perfectly the musical and lyrical content of the album.

September 2014



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