Given how many bands are born of art school, it makes sense that there would be some kind of follow though in terms of album art. In the days of vinyl-only, cover art was king, the images becoming as influential as the songs themselves. The format might be getting smaller as we progress from vinyl record, to CD cover, to thumbnail icon on a digital file, but the inspired pairings continue to come through. Here is a selection of classic and contemporary album art collaborations.
The Velvet Underground & Nico – s/t. Cover by Andy Warhol
Warhol famously co-opted Velvet Underground as part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events and designed the enduring and deliciously suggestive banana image on their self-titled debut record. He was so closely affiliated with the band at that point in time that their name doesn’t even appear on the front cover at all, although it’s now such an iconic album that it doesn’t need to. It’s an interesting symbiosis – the idea of Warhol’s banana belongs as much to Velvet Underground in the public imagination as it does to him, to the point that the band brought a lawsuit against the artist’s estate over its later use.
Patti Smith – Horses. Cover by Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe is perhaps most famous for his explicit portraits of underground gay and BDSM scenes but his photographs of Patti Smith are intimate in an entirely different way. They were inseparable collaborators and early supporters of each other’s work, friends then lovers and then friends again. You can see that ease and get a sense of their history in the beautiful, stark polaroid that he took for the cover of her first album, a powerful distillation of a woman at the frontline of what would become a profound cultural shift. The proto-punk movement never looked better.
Sonic Youth – Goo. Cover by Raymond Pettibon
Sonic Youth have a solid history of pairing up with very good artists – probably most famously Richard Prince for Sonic Nurse, and Gerhardt Richter for Daydream Nation, with Mike Kelley’s sinister stuffed toys also turning up on Dirty. But my favourite is Raymond Pettibon’s sublime graphic teen-dream created for Goo. Based on a paparazzi shot of key witnesses in a murder trial, it evokes every cinematic idea of deadly young lovers on the run and exactly the sense of cool rebellion that Sonic Youth represented in the early 90s.
Lady Gaga – ARTPOP. Cover by Jeff Koons
Lady Gaga leaned in to the avant-garde and formalised her flirtation with the art world with her 2013 album ARTPOP, collaborating with Jeff Koons, who is surely her plastic platonic ideal. He loves a spectacle and she’s turned up at award ceremonies dressed in raw meat so it’s pretty much a match made in extrovert heaven. She’s now releasing jazz records and making time with Marina Abramović so it’s anyone’s guess as to where she goes from here.
Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Cover by Gregory Crewdson
Gregory Crewdson’s elaborately staged set pieces are all spot-lit isolation and small town melancholy, a terrific fit for this low-key masterpiece of a record. He has a Lynchian affinity for uncovering the oddness in the every day, creating photographs that are ever so slightly off balance. There’s an understated cinematic quality to both the album and the art, and it’s comforting to imagine the warmth of Yo La Tengo soundtracking the late night lives of Crewdson’s subjects.
Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze. Cover by ESPO
Street artist Stephen Powers aka ESPO created a large-scale mural in Philadelphia’s Fishtown district, referencing the faded commercial signs of the neighbourhood and the lyrics of Vile’s spacious and intricate album. It’s lively and joyful, and must be a knock-out to see in person, particularly from the adjacent elevated train line on your daily commute. The mural was photographed for the cover of Vile’s album Wakin on A Pretty Daze, pulling double duty as promotional billboard and cover art.