By Nathaniel Nelson
In most instances, we see an album’s cover art before even listening to the music within. While far less significant towards overall quality than the music itself, and rarely a make-or-break element, cover art is the marker by which albums are visually remembered through time. Consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Bitches Brew, or Abbey Road—the “Come Together” bassline might pop into your head, but you’re also seeing that iconic picture in your mind’s eye. It’s not easy to determine what makes album art good or bad, as it’s largely subject to personal opinion, but in a few cases, the quality is hard to dispute. Here are some iconic examples from the ‘90s that have stood the test of time:
The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
A dreamy manifestation of the Tribe’s Afrocentric jazz, the painted lady became perhaps the most widely recognized unofficial mascot in hip-hop. The figures on her hip recall the playfulness of the Tribe’s earlier, lighter People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), as she channels the spiritual energy of Makonde sculpture and the passive sexuality of a Renaissance nude.
The Division Bell by Pink Floyd (1994)
The first of two Storm Thorgerson entries in this list, The Division Bell features two hulking metal structures that are just trippy enough for a Pink Floyd album. While they’re understood to be two individual heads as well as one combined head, I like to think that it’s all three heads at once, all talking to each other about how boring it is to be metal statues in an open field.
Dangerous by Michael Jackson (1991)
I imagine this is what an MRI of Michael Jackson’s brain would look like. Hate it or love it, the Dangerous cover, openly sporting bestial, racial, religious, and childhood motifs, is a carnival of all things magnificent and disturbing about the world’s greatest popstar. It looks like the Rococo-Steampunk lovechild of Neverland Ranch and the Saudi royal family. The path leading into the madness lies directly under Mike’s seductive eyes, suggesting, for better or worse, that we’re about to enter him.
Illmatic by Nas (1994)
In a vacuum, the Illmatic cover isn’t much. But as a representation of the contents inside—perhaps the greatest contents to have ever graced hip-hop—it works masterfully. The hardened look of a child exposed to too much at such a young age, superimposed on his home neighborhood of the Queensbridge projects, the image has the grainy, sepia quality one might mistake for nostalgia. The image foreshadowed Notorious B.I.G.’s cuter yet biting, tongue-in-cheek cover for Ready to Die, which arrived later the same year, and future Nas albums many times over.
Nevermind by Nirvana (1991)
After Michelangelo’s “David,” Nevermind features arguably the most proliferated penis in modern pop culture. The image of the infant swimming towards a dollar bill on a fish hook threatens pretentiousness, yet is too funny to be considered anything but great. Even a baby, without a clue as to a dollar bill’s value, or even that there is a word “value” and that it represents a very significant concept in human society, is somehow still drawn to it, like it’s some sort of sustenance. Chasing it may be the only thing preventing him from drowning.
Bizarre Ride II by The Pharcyde (1992)
Oddly not the only entry in this list to sport imagery recalling a Freudian return to the womb (see: Dangerous), this rollercoaster looks crazy and fun in all the ways the music inside feels. That said, there’s also a bit of queasiness to it—the group members, drawn in a gaunt, proto-Boondocks fashion, approach the wooden, man-eating vagina with the reckless abandon of Imani’s slip-slides on Oh Shit, or Fatlip’s skip-skopping on Soul Flower.
Surrender by The Chemical Brothers (1999)
What does this arena sound like? It must smell awful, and be unbearably hot. The scene is sublime, with countless figures of seemingly no regard for any central point (a stage?), and there’s much to be read into the ghostly, tracksuit-wearing, Adidas-sporting main figure: a primal, raging energy completely of the moment. Surrender to the greater universe, above all relaxing heads.
Bury the Hatchet by The Cranberries (1999)
The very first entry in Pitchfork’s “The Worst Record Covers of All Time” list. As they say, though, one pretentious website’s trash is another pretentious writer’s treasure. I’m here to claim back the Bury the Hatchet cover as among the greatest cover artworks of all time. A 2001: a Space Odyssey aesthetic in nu-Photoshop, I imagine this is how a goldfish feels on a daily basis. It’s totally uncomfortable, but also a little magical, and its headlining of Pitchfork’s list can also be read as a testament to the power of the image.
Things Fall Apart by The Roots (1999)
One of the most inspired album artwork campaigns in music history, for a limited time Things Fall Apart sported five different Civil Rights-era photograph variants for its album covers. The longest-lived image, and the one most associated with it today, featuring two young African-Americans being chased down a sidewalk by a group of police officers, is a lot to stomach. Like, damn…
Loveless by My Bloody Valentine (1991)
Just sort of perfect in the exact way you’d want an album cover to be. There’s nothing else to say.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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