They say a picture paints a thousand words, but can it play an A major 7th? Album covers long ago scaled the heights of being considered standalone artworks, but the best pieces of LP art are those that go beyond a great image; and, instead, come to spiritually symbolize the jams within. Below are ten utterly classic covers that became iconic eye-catchers in the indie realm.
The iconic cover art for Joy Division's immortal Unknown Pleasures was a statement-maker for their label, Factory; the first longplayer on an imprint that was obsessed with visual art. Here, Peter Saville's stark design —black, minimalist, almost threatening— is meticulous, and it's been widely imitated and parodied ever since. The striking image was discovered by drummer Stephen Morris, and it marks a visual pattern recording successive pulses emitted by the first pulsar ever discovered. Armed with that information, all that blackness becomes the unfeeling void of space; which only reasserts the band's alienated, desolate, existential music.
Even amongst these other classic album covers, the pink-hued cover for My Bloody Valentine's legendary Loveless LP may be the artwork most evocative of the sound within. For starters, it shows a musical instrument on the front: a slightly-battered Fender Jazzmaster, no less, one of Kevin Shields prime tools for summoning the album's signature shoegaze sound. But peer beneath the pink haze and you can see that the artful blur is actually a movement-blurred image of a hand incessantly strumming a guitar; the ghostly, washed-out quality suggesting the music whilst the photograph actually captures sound being made. Loveless changed the way subsequent generations of guitarist would look at the instrument, and that starts with how they see it on the front cover.
Though it was a half-ironic approximation of the most over-used exclamation in advertising, German krautrock duo Neu! took their name as a fervent system of belief. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were devoted to the new; not wanting to repeat anything that rock'n'roll had done before. So their name, their music, and their artwork was all bordering on revolutionary, wanting to stand out and stand apart. Thus, their 1972 debut was emblazoned with their name/logo in simple scrawl; a simple graphic-design conceit that verily 'popped' on record store shelves. Keeping to that house style, their whole discography became variations on a theme; giving Neu! a visual currency to go with the singular sound.
Metal Box's title was a literal description. The initial pressing of Public Image Ltd.'s second album housed three untitled 12-inch records inside a metal film canister, with the PiL logo indented. They cost 75p to produce, expensive enough that Virgin only agreed to produce 50,000 canisters, much to John Lydon's ire (the record label also demanded an insert-sheet with song titles, which the band were initially against). The rationale for the 'metal box' —and the reasons behind what would grow to one of the most singular album packages ever put into production— was to make it less like an album; more a 'set of resources'; a batch of singles to be housed in a greater collection, and understood and assembled as the listener saw fit.
The cover art for Slint's proto-post-rock landmark, Spiderland grew to become a myth in the absence of facts. In a pre-internet era, very little was known about this mysterious band from Louisville who almost no one saw in their day; for so many, these young men were just four disembodied heads floating in a Kentucky quarry, smiling yet slightly uneasy, their faces feeling more familiar yet mysterious; the water both playful and sinister, as if it's about to swallow them whole. The fact that the picture was snapped by one Will Oldham only added to the intrigue, which, in turn, only added to the music. As the album's legacy and influence slowly grew over the years, so, too, did its artwork become the stuff of legend.
The infamous cover to The Slits awesome post-punk landmark Cut featured the all-girl outfit clad only in loincloths, splattered in mud. It was —like their band-name, a London slang-term whose meaning I'm sure you can glean— a gesture of defiant sexuality and radical feminism delivered with punk's sledgehammer ferocity. The album was a landmark for the way it mixed punk, dub, and reggae with an air of post-punk joyousness and experimentalism, but for many a rebellious teenage boy of the era, the sound of Cut was only half its appeal. In that long ago era, images of the naked female form were few and far between, and rarely available to minors. Many an impressionable youth came for the cans, but stayed for the jams; and, from there, The Slits legend grew.
The Smiths' inimitable frontman Morrissey was the one behind his band's series of monochromatics sleeves, which were often old movie stills cropped, made colder, starker. For their first album, Morrissey defiantly tapped in the gay subculture that his lyrics covertly stalked through; with a shirtless shot of male sex symbol Joe Dallesandro, one of Andy Warhol's 'superstars' from the Factory. Dallesandro's rippling torso was captured in the Paul Morrissey film Flesh, a queer cult artifact that made references thereto plenty loaded. The cover of The Smiths set the tenor for the band's visual career, and remains a striking, singular image that has an intimate connection to the music within.
In a career filled with pharmacological references —from the infamous Spacemen 3 record Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To to Spiritualized's punning stunt, the world's highest-ever show— perhaps the greatest shrine of Jason Pierce's love for, um, self-medication came with his magnum opus. The artwork for the five-star classic Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was a perfect mock-up of a prescription pill box; and a special limited edition even had the CD enclosed in a blister pack. "Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul," read the enclosed instructions. "Play once, twice daily or as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist. In cases where Spiritualized is used over a long period of time dependence may occur."
Tropicália ou Panis Et Circensis was a compilation album bringing together a collective of revolutionary spirits in Northwestern Brazil in the late-'60s, and turning them into a singular movement. As Tropicália introduced the scene's key players —Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes— so, too, is the compile's cover like a kind of class snapshot. Capturing such legendary figures in their '68 epoch has its own value, but it's the small details and quirky poses that've been pored over by listeners over the years; many puzzling over the held portraits (they're of Nara Leão and Capinan) and the fact that genius orchestrator Rogério Duprat is supping from a chamber pot like it's a coffee cup.
It's one of the most famous album covers in the history of recorded music: Andy Warhol's iconic banana, emblazoned across the cover with the tiny, suggestive instruction to 'Peel slowly and see' printed in tiny type nearby. The banana has been, in the five decades since the release of the Velvet Underground's classic debut album, become its own pop-art shorthand; endlessly used and re-used nearly as much as the Mona Lisa. Of course, whether or not the banana exists in the public domain is currently being debated in court (the Velvet Underground claim it is, the Andy Warhol Foundation wants to keep making a mint from licensing it to consumer products). It has, in many ways, little visual relationship to the music itself, but maybe that's why it's so striking, so singular.