Great photographs and paintings are often crafted by established artists for album covers; but just as often, they're picked up by musicians who happen to come across them. Sometimes the images are used untouched, and sometimes they are manipulated, but all are great at capturing the musician's work visually -- or a least, providing vivid, eye-catching packaging.
The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin
The Flamings Lips are like psychedelic rock stars and all, so they must do tons and tons of drugs -- after all, "The Spiderbite Song" is about Steven Drozd's heroin addiction -- so the LSD connection for their artwork seems an obvious fit. Although appropriated from a LIFE article about Albert Hoffman's dandy candy, the image is much more evocative beyond its drug reference. A lonely figure stands sullen near a wall, with shadow looming large, while the shadow of another figure nestles in the middle. It's an image of great melancholy, which much of The Soft Bulletin is about.
Atlas Sound: Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
As a sick, struggling and alienated youth, Bradford Cox, also known as Atlas Sound, escaped into the world of music. Now a prolific artist, Cox is known for releasing albums' worth of material in the span of weeks for free on his website, and for his work as frontman for the great indie band Deerhunter. For the cover of his debut solo album, Cox chose a modified painting of a medical journal he stumbled upon, where a skinny, shirtless boy is being treat by a doctor. Cox, who suffers from Marfan syndrome, connected deeply with the image. In photographing the image, the flash of the camera blotted out the boy's face. On Logos, his second album proper as Atlas Sound, Cox would deepen the connection to the image, allowing himself to be photographed shirtless against a red background, his face obscured by camera flash.
John Zorn featuring Naked City: Naked City
"Naked City" is the name of a book of photographs by Arthur Felig, also known as Wegee, who possessed almost a psychic ability to come across photo opportunities of New York City's gritty underground. He would often beat police to crime scenes and he shot spontaneous, tabloid-style images. The luridness of these images inspired a noir, a television show, and a band, led by experimental jazz musician John Zorn. The cover art for their album uses Weegee's "Corpse With a Revolver," an image that matches the rubber-band reality, willful detachment, and lurid aggression of Zorn's music.
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Is the album art better than the music? Surely 2008's most overpraised band (but hey, still good) made an impeccable choice with the cover to their self-titled debut LP. The painting, entitled "Netherlandish Proverbs" by Bruegel the Elder, depicts proverbs of the day and was chosen because of its density and sense of hidden chaos. Lead Fox Robin Pecknold explains: "There's all this really weird stuff going on. I liked that the first impression is that it's just pretty, but then you realize that the scene is this weird chaos. I like that you can't really take it for what it is, that your first impression of it is wrong." Maybe my first impression of their music is wrong, too?
Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane over the Sea
The cover for Jeff Mangum's opus comes from an old European postcard that was altered. One suspects that the face of the woman was rubbed out, leaving a blank oval in the upper-right part of the image that makes her head seem like some kind of cut fruit. This erasure is reflected in Neutral Milk Hotel's music, which is about loss of all kinds: innocence, freedom and death.
Big Star: Radio City
Also a great example of design and typography: The cover of Big Star's Radio City features one of the most vivid and disturbing photographs ever printed. Yet, it's only a ceiling with the skeleton of a light fixture and some wire. The image entitled "Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973," or known informally as "The Red Ceiling," is by William Eggleston, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Eggleston was a friend of Big Star guitarist and vocalist Alex Chilton and provided the image for the band's second album. As Eggleston says of his work, "When you look at the dye transfer print, it's like red blood that's wet on the wall. It shocks you every time."
Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers
Another Eggleston print adorns the cover of Silver Jews' funky country album released in 2005. (In fact, many of the photographer's incredible works have appeared on numerous indie albums.) Why do so many musicians use Eggleston's photographs for their cover art? Because Eggleston has fashioned a unique -- even grotesque -- visual language in examining the mundane details of society.
Cut Copy: Zonoscope
For their third album, Australian synth-poppers hijacked an amazing photo montage made by Japanese collage artist Tsunehisa Kimura. The image is a monstrous waterfall breaking through a nest of skyscrapers. The collage is also great for its stunning colors, which are brought to greater contrast by the black vignetting on Zonoscope.
Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
Photorealist Gehert Richter's Candle (Kerze 1983) adorns Sonic Youth's breakthrough 1988 album. It's a beautiful and sad image: a solitary candle against a white backdrop. Yet the painting is faint, even a little dim, and the metaphor of the candle becomes a perfect symbol of the sometimes gorgeous, sometimes noisy music on the album -- like a tiny flame flickering aggressively just before it goes out.