The 10 Most Ridiculous Album Cover Trends of All Time
Nobody buys albums based on the cover alone. At least nobody we've ever met. But like all forms of mostly pointless commercial art, album covers are subject to ridiculous fads. Selling music and creating musical trends require talent, something that the people who get paid to make decisions have very little of. What they do have is the ability to convince themselves that their choice of cover photo is what made Thriller a hit. And so, with an industry full of people getting paid loads of money to make decisions that don't matter, people are going to play it safe. Which is where you get trends like ...
The Jack Daniel's Label
For some reason, Jack Daniel's whiskey has broken ground that few other brands have: Its logo has become a popular base for album cover designs. You don't see many covers based on the Taco Bell logo, and yet Jack Daniel's is used constantly as a signifier for warmed-over country and Southern rock bands who have run out of road signs to take pictures of:
You see a lot of bands using it because the actual logo contains a bunch of information about the whiskey itself, like what type it is and where it's made. Using the modified logo for a cover means that you can tell consumers a lot about the album that would come off as weird and boring if you put it in a sensible bullet list. You'll notice that a lot of bands keep the phrase "old time," which is impossible to take negatively, and then replace the whiskey description with the genre and country of origin. This is particularly important when bands have to point out that they are not country or Southern rock:
This logo style also means that JD labeling works well for greatest hits albums, because you can put a bunch of necessary information on it and play off that it's "vintage" and "aged," just like whiskey:
At least one band has tried to jazz up the JD cover by putting a lingerie-clad woman over half of it. But then they apparently decided that covering up that much of the label might cause confusion, so to make up for it, they had the lady holding a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey herself:
And they didn't even put an infinite telescoping world of recurrent little ladies on the bottle's label. For shame, Court Jester.
My Left Hand Is Stuck to the Side or Top of My Head
This is not to be confused with covers in which the artist's right hand is stuck to the back of his or her head:
Legs Crossed in the (Same Goddamn) Wicker Chair
One day, when scientists grow tired of studying boring stuff like cancer and black holes, they're going to put their efforts toward something worthwhile. Like figuring out what exactly made the image of a musician lounging in a wicker chair such a popular one for '70s album covers.
Not just any wicker chair. It had to have a comically large back:
That had to be round ...
And God have mercy on your soul if you weren't crossing your legs, no matter how completely unsmooth you looked doing it:
This man has never crossed his legs before.
However, you had to be really chill before the gods of the '70s rewarded you with a potted plant to put next to your chair:
Fuck it, if you're Al Green, you get two.
You might have thought that all these wicker chairs were broken down and burned for fuel during the energy crisis, but enough survived to be used on at least one recent album cover. Fortunately, taking a cue from modern moviemaking, this artist has jazzed it up with a wacky camera angle:
Female Singers With Shiny Face Accessories
Since 2008 or so, Lady Gaga has been appearing on album covers with shiny shit on or around her face. Sometimes the goal seems to be to make her look like she's from the future:
Other times, to make her look like she's wearing a shiny historical artifact on her head like a fancy hat:
Lady Gaga mistakes a novelty aluminum hula skirt and a feathered Victorian codpiece for hats.
But one thing was clear to record executives: Humanity had abandoned all previous criteria for determining musical quality, and from this point forward would be making music-buying decisions based on the amount of shiny shit surrounding the artist's face on their album covers.
Jennifer Lopez went the futuristic route, and also way the hell overboard, on the cover of her album LOVE? In addition to wearing black versions of L. Gaga's face crystals on her boobs, J. Lo fell into the gap between "fashion forward" and "wildly impractical pain in the ass that will never catch on" by predicting a future where women wear all of their jewelry at the same time, and flash photography is lit by blinding nuclear detonations.
"Detroit died for a good cause."
Christina Aguilera and Janelle Monae evoked a different sort of futuristic, shiny-faced apocalypse, appearing as cyborgs on their covers:
Meanwhile, in the field of shiny face antiques, Selena Gomez showed up with what appears to be a necklace draped over her head:
In the past, everything was hats.
And in fact there has been an entire trend of face necklaces, which seems to be some manner of political statement about women and oppression and face jewelry.
"The chinstraps symbolize the wage gap."
Janelle Monae, who has already appeared in this section as the robot who isn't Christina Aguilera, decided to unite both trends with one ridiculous hat that evoked an ancient Egyptian goddess while also suggesting a futuristic colony of head lice:
It's especially embarrassing since all available evidence seems to suggest that Lady Gaga is fucking with us all:
We can't tell if she's trying really hard or totally half-assing it.
Putting a child on your album cover is a no-lose proposition for rock bands. "We are sensitive souls who feel the universal pain that runs through all things," it screams! "Doesn't this child contrast with our rough-edged image in a way that's ironic?" it asks? "We try not to think about how much closer in age our groupies are to this child than to us," it adds, while staring off at nothing in particular.
Led Zeppelin put an additional mist of creepiness on their already creepy Stonehenge vibe by setting a horde of albino children loose on a formation of stone toilets:
Unlike Stonehenge, our descendants won't give one-third of a rat's ass about what this meant.
U2 got things started with a cute 6-year-old boy on the cover of their first album. To stress the point, they named the album Boy:
Bono wanted to call it Boy Face Hands to cover all the bases, but this was back when the rest of the band had veto power.
The trend both peaked and got a new ironic twist with Nirvana's Nevermind, which juxtaposed a baby with a clear symbol of the destructive adult world:
It was a brilliant album cover because of how unabashedly symbolic it was, and because fishing for babies in swimming pools is one of those things we've all done before, but are usually too ashamed to admit. OK, so it was regarded as a brilliant album cover mostly because of the greatness of the music inside. In all likelihood, it probably didn't matter what political cartoon the band decided to photograph for their cover, a fact that was immediately and completely lost on the designers of every alternative rock album cover from that day forward. Suddenly, innocent children in ironically adult circumstances were showing up on albums accompanied by guns and gas masks:
Cracked.com only supports giving children firearms in dire emergencies or when it would be super funny.
Because how else are you going to capture the essence of the band that sings that "Laid" song from American Pie besides giving a baby a gun?
Those covers are subtle when compared to the "ironic children" album covers of Korn, whose debut album showed a young girl on a swing and a threatening adult shadow, sending America a powerful message about the underreported problem of child abduction by crab-people:
The look worked out well for them, judging from their subsequent albums, which gradually built up the idea of "innocent children surrounded by threatening-looking things":
From one-trick pony to multiple-restraining-order pony.
Their peak was probably "animal-masked adult figures ripping the head off a sad boy's teddy bear":
It was all enough to make you miss the days when rock bands like U2 knew that the only badass thing you needed to contrast with the kid was your name, and the badass baby making music inside. Of course, by the time they released their first greatest hits album in 1998, U2 was no longer the most subtle band in the world:
You can almost hear Bono yelling "The children are too young to be soldiers!" in the background.
Jesus Christ Pose
The image of Jesus Christ being crucified has stirred the souls of millions and inspired some of the most revered artists of all time to create masterpieces. It's also become shorthand among musicians as a way to signify that they are described as controversial somewhere on their Wikipedia page. If there's been even indirect criticism of your lyrics, according to the recording industry, you have earned the right to photographically nail yourself to a cross. This allows you to simultaneously frustrate your uptight critics while proving correct any whose main complaint is that you're a self-important jerkoff.
Not that you have to be an iconoclast like Ozzy or Marilyn Manson. Being in vaguely the same genre of rock music as them is good enough.
Perhaps "good" isn't the proper word to use there.
Or maybe you're just worried that naming your band Death SS isn't shocking enough on its own, and your lead singer already has a beard, soooo ...
Or you're a Spanish heavy metal band whose concept album about Jesus returning to the Spanish neighborhood Chamberi needs a cover, and you lack any sense of subtlety:
Or a complete grasp of Photoshop.
Perhaps the only artist who earned his persecution claim was Tupac, who had the common decency to release his nailed-to-a-cross album cover well after he was murdered and before he became the most widely rumored resurrectee since Elvis himself. Of course, all gravitas lent by the circumstances surrounding the album were somewhat undermined by the placement of the Parental Advisory warning over his crotch area, as if to suggest that his balls were hanging below the sash he was crucified in:
And while a disclaimer on Tupac's cover clearly states that it is not meant to be an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ, we can't help but wonder if Jesus held the in-poorer-taste copycat album covers against him:
This might piss him off more than the whole crucifixion.
Nekkid Women With Guitars
Putting pictures of naked women on album covers has been the go-to method for sweetening album sales since record executives realized they could attend the photo shoots. The idea was apparently that the mere presence of a guitar would transform a photo shoot from "the set of a porno before Ron Jeremy shows up" to "classy and shit." Some women were willing to believe that lie harder than others:
More modest nude women have appeared covered by a cello, which we have to assume is the one-piece bathing costume of string instrument body coverings:
In rare instances, the model wouldn't even use the guitar to cover her boobs, although the executives apparently went to some pretty extreme measures to make that option untenable:
This is basically the worst possible situation in which to be caught wearing heels.
Modern women appear to be getting either smarter or less turned on by guitars, because these days, the only naked women covered by a guitar we were able to find from the past few years were Ana Popovic, a Serbian blues guitarist who does not look at all sold on the idea ...
"Unconditional" refers to a legal clause in her record contract that forfeits human rights.
... and Liz Phair's famously nude-seeming album cover, where if you look at her right leg, you can tell she's actually wearing a dress:
It probably didn't help the sleazy record executives of the world when they let the rock band Boned tip their hand about what the guitar actually symbolized:
Progressive Rock and Metal's Fantastical Creatures
At their best (and worst), progressive rock and metal bring fantasy to life like no other music. So while it might seem strange that supposedly "prog-ressive" musicians would define their albums with imagery off the side of '80s arcade cabinets and Trapper Keepers, there was at least a topical tie-in.
Naming your prog rock band is as easy as opening Tobin's Spirit Guide.
And yes, it's strange that the titular Gryphon is seated in the position of a movie character who is rocking back and forth in the shower after something horrible has happened to him, but it's not going to haunt your dreams unless you spend too much time thinking about it. The same can't be said for the album covers that resulted when prog rock bands went off prompter and started creating their own mythological creatures:
At times, the prog rockers seemed to be in a race to see who could come up with the tackiest thing ever conceived on drugs:
The world may not have needed to see what Epcot Center would look like if it fucked an armadillo tank, but not all prog rock album covers were so pointless. Asia's Aqua album forever changed the black light stoner art industry ...
... and there was an entire suite of albums that doubled as warnings about the very real dangers of dropping acid inside a bird sanctuary:
Not even once.
And in case you ever wondered what it's like to be the type of high that God never intended the human mind to return from, it's like being a baby ...
... with wings that are connected to a sunfish with spindly bird legs, floating through a red sky while the moon hovers about 30 feet above Earth.
X-Rays (But Only of the Head and Neck)
X-rays make as much sense for album covers as any other gimmicky photographic format. We're sure there's a few album covers out there that are photographic negatives, too. What makes this trend so strange is how little variety there is from one to the next. For instance, here's three separate albums from three unrelated artists that all use the same X-ray:
The one on the right shook it around a little bit to make it look like he was rocking. So, y'know ... good show.
We suppose skulls and attached neck vertebrae say "spooky and luminous and sciencey and stuff," while scans of other body parts just remind people of the pictures the doctor showed them after they tripped over a cat:
Does that dude have three rows of teeth?
But if you're going to use an X-ray to summarize your album titled Bridge Over the X-Stream, why not have an axe sticking out of the neck part or something? We're not medical experts, but that guy who's taking the Bridge over the X-Stream appears to be doing just fine. Our guess would be that it's a routine dental X-ray if the skeleton in question didn't have such perfect teeth. The skeleton on the Sweet Savage album Killing Time is a little blurrier, and his face appears to be made out of cigarette smoke, but otherwise, he's no worse for wear:
"It is my medical opinion that you are wearing Kool Moe Dee glasses under your face."
But that's as ugly as it gets, for the most part. Which is baffling, until you see how badly things can go when you try just a little bit too hard. For instance, we bet the doctor freaked out when he saw this one:
Sammy, you are either the best or the worst hit man ever.
The only way people have figured out to make their album X-rays more distinctive is by including some object clearly associated with them. For instance, John Lennon's glasses, or those weird DJ headlamps the guys from Orbital wear:
Stay classy, Yoko.
As cigarette smoking has shown, nothing screams rock and roll like needlessly increasing your statistical likelihood of getting cancer.
The Sign Says "Fire Your Graphic Designer"
OK, we'll give Pearl Jam the benefit of the doubt on the Yield cover. It's the title of the album, and there's something off about the photograph of a yield sign out in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps the image of a lone car forever trying to yield to nothing suited the album's existential angst. Or perhaps it was a semen joke, like the band's name.
When the band that's named the logical equivalent of Man Chowder is the high point of an album cover trend, you know you might be in trouble. And you are. What could any of these covers possibly mean? Well, besides "merge left," "slight curve ahead" and "straight up now tell me," respectively.
There is simply no excuse for the number of times these signs have popped up in circumstances where they have no discernible meaning, other than "Hey, here are some recognizable shapes and colors":
Other covers fail by going too literal:
You're right, that is another way to go. And there was probably another, less retarded way to visually communicate that.
We're certain the Dirty Beatniks were trying to say something about the modern human condition and how we're all confused and stuff, but the message you come away with is "Driving in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey area can be a pain in the ass."
The trend gets more confusing when you consider how often nonsensical road signs are used in the genre of Southern rock:
Nothing says freedom like a sign telling you what to do.
We've never met Blip Pilot or the Skinny Rider, so we have no guesses as to who they buried there.
Follow C. Coville's awful Twitter here. Chris Holmes roams the Internet as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. You can catch him on his website or on Twitter.
For more just really terrible album sleeves, check out The 19 Most Hilariously Failed Attempts at Sexy Album Covers and The 15 Worst Album Covers of All-Time.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The 4 Least Anticipated Albums of September 2012.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see Christina's Kool Mo Dee sunglasses.
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