Here! Now What’s Your All Time Top 20 Album Covers?

One could wonder why make a top twenty list about album covers now that people are buying less and less records, and prefer to listen to an unlimited variety of songs on the Internet. Or, one could stay that, for this exact reason, it is the perfect time to talk about albums.

More often than not, I find myself listening to albums rather than playlists. Albums have overarching themes, a distinct style, and an atmosphere that give direction to the music and tie everything together. The order of the songs is carefully planned so they flow perfectly from one to the other. Listening to an album means getting the whole artistic experience, every vibe, every symbol, every feeling the band wanted to convey. And the cover is the final touch, the icing on the cake. Translating an entire musical experience into an image, a single image, can not be the easy task.

I want to do my part and salute artists who care enough to produce beautiful and memorable covers. So what do you say, let’s bring albums back to the forefront, and the front of albums at the forefront of discussions : the album cover, a forgotten piece of art.

Once again, don’t expect the usual top 20 list… although it’s not completely out there either. And don’t hesitate to comment and share your own choices! Mine keep changing anyway.

#20. Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch

Now there’s a good combination! This brilliant and hilarious droodle (doodle + riddle) by Roger Price is the perfect cover for Zappa’s 1982 release. Listening to Zappa’s intricate wacky cool song at the same time is just perfect, and completely trippy. Once again, here’s proof that you don’t need big production, just a really clever and fitting concept.

#19. London Howlin’ Wolf Session

Looking at that cover, I feel suddently immersed in the 70s. I’m walking by in my funky elephant pants, and I see these guys hanging out on a sunny day in London. Perhaps Howlin’ Wolf or Clapton starts stroking his guitar, and a nice vibe starts to flow around. Yeah… I really miss the “organic” feel of pencil drawings, now that images are always generated by computers. These “real” drawings feel warmer somehow.

#18. The Ramones, The Ramones

A simple concept that fit this debut album perfectly : The Ramones, in black and white, standing against a brick wall. Four guys in their leather coats and blue jeans, standing around unimpressed. So… what makes it special? It’s all in the attitude.

#17. The Wailers, Burnin’

Burnin’ is the last album by the original Wailers, and on the cover, there’s an illustration of their faces “burned” into wooden planks. All six of them, in a bouquet, like the six sides of the Wailers. The result is splendid, and once again, there’s an “organic” feel here that I appreciate a lot.

#16. Weezer, Pinkerton

What a superb 19th century japanese print by Hiroshige, taken out of the illustrious series Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido. As pretty as this scenery is, with its nice contrast between the black night and the white snow, it’s still a cold and lonely landscape… Indeed, things don’t turn out too well for the unpleasant Pinkerton, or for the Weezer guys as far as I can tell from the unfortunate encounters depicted in these songs.

#15. Eric’s Trip, Love Tara

A young couple in the corner behind the stage, lost in a heartfelt hug, unrecognizable from their 90’s style long hair mixing together. This lovely black and white cover by indie alternative band Eric’s Trip looks just like the album sounds : genuine, relatable, moving… with lots of distortion! Ah, the energetic and uncompromising feelings of youth…

#14. Led Zeppelin, Four Symbols

This artwork is actually an oil painting, affixed on a degraded wall. I read it’s supposed to reflect the contrast between country and city. So the country is represented by a picturesque landscape, while the city is represented by a wall with peeling paint… But is it really a painting, or is it a window?…

#13. Janis Joplin, 18 Essential Songs

This is one of the best pictures of Janis that I know of, a spectacular image, and a great choice for an “Essentials” compilation. This cover captures both the intensity and authenticity of Janis’ performance, the singular movements of her body, and the nice lighting effect.

#12. U2, War

This is a remarkable cover. A back and white photo of a naked child, hurt, who’s looking straight into the camera, or straight at us the viewers, with an intense, accusing look. War brings pain, resentment, and loss of innocence.

#11. Nirvana, Nevermind

Here’s another memorable image. Do you remember the impact of that cover in the early 90s? The complete picture shows a naked baby in a shark tank. Someone dangles a one dollar bill in front of him as motivation. After the wild flaky money-crazy 80’s period, Nirvana tore the place down with that cover, which launched the “grunge” period.

#10. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

Ten years later, Radiohead chose to expose another type of societal peril : over advertising, and the use of fear to control people and increase consumption. Advertisements are indeed attractive, colourful, and this image is very beautiful. But one cannot help but feel discomfort when looking at this carefully. That discomfort is accentuated by the fact that the words are taken out of context, and stacked together like floors of city buildings that eventually fade away and disintegrate like darkish smoke.

#9. Nina Simone, Fodder on my Wings

What a beautiful and somewhat unsettling painting by Gabriel Jarnier, meant for a truly unique artist.  The level of detail, the choice of colours, and the elegance of it all, it’s quite impressive. Jazz legend Nina Simone is a tragic queen, but an undeniable queen nevertheless.

#8. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

This album cover is a piece of art by Efram Wolff, which brilliantly shows Stevie Wonder, who became blind shortly after birth, as someone who can perhaps see better than most people. This is of course in connection with this album’s socially charged lyrics. This artwork has a special warm sunny aura about it too.

#7. Jethro Tull, Aqualung

This famous Burton Silverman painting on the cover of the no less famous (and rather epic) Aqualung album is amazing for several reasons. The realism of the scene, the precise and haunting look in the man’s eyes, his body shape and arm position leaving the spectator to wonder… Silverman and Jethro Tull managed to created a character, a very intriguing character, to illustrate the story being told in the Aqualung song. That’s quite an added value for an album.

#6. The Beatles, Abbey Road

Legend has it that photographer Ian Macmillan had just a few minutes to take this picture, while a cop was stalling trafic… How nice it is to be stars. This image is wicked cool. But it inspired the wildest of theories and drove people completely mad (notably one interpretation that the real MacCartney had died and been replaced by an impostor… What? can’t you see the clues on the cover?). That’s quite an achievement for a cover!

#5.The Clash, London Calling

This photograph is a punk classic. Raw and pure intensity, live from a punk show! The Clash’s bassist is caught right before everything goes flying. Time is standing still, and we hold our breath. Apparently, Simonon smashed his bass because bouncers wouldn’t let people stand up out of their seats. I wouldn’t have expected people to sit still either, but I think I would have kept my bass. 😉

#4. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine

Forceful. Troubling. Unforgettable. This Pulitzer-winning picture of a Vietnamese buddist monk self-immolating to protest oppression can be found on a debut album, Rage Against the Machine’s debut. What a fierce, daring, and loud debut. Yes, Rage’s arrival on the american musical scene was anything but quiet, and the band clearly let us know, with this cover, how it was gonna be with them starting right now.

#3. The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico

This is the classic amongst classics. Andy Warhol’s image of a simple yellow banana, on the cover of the enigmatic and atmospheric Velvet Underground’s debut album, has fascinated fans for generations. “Peel slowly and see”, it said, as people uncovered a skin-coloured banana underneath… Once again, a great fit between the songs and the cover artwork.

#2. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Ziggy Stardust, beamed down from another planet at 3 AM, straight into an american back alley. Standing there over a pile of cardboard boxes, in a dominating pose, debonair, yet ready to show us his monstrous alien power with a powerful powerchord… Utter genius.

#1. Pink Floyd, for their cumulative body of works!

And there’s plenty more where that came from! Thank you, Pink Floyd, for your obvious interest in visual arts, for the time and effort you put in your musical and visual arrangements, and for your complex and sometimes quite disconcerting images!

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Fleetwood Mac: From Then Till Now

I have been listening a lot to Fleetwood Mac these days… perhaps because Christine McVie finally came back for their new tour, perhaps because Stevie Nicks released a new album, perhaps because for some reason I finally saw their 1997 live show “The dance” and I got totally into it and became a bit nostalgic… But perhaps, it’s mainly because I went back, way back, to their early years, back when this band was composed of only british people playing some pretty nice blues-rock tunes. Peter Green sounds SO great (both vocally and musically, on the guitar). Really, what a bluesman.

And then, many talented musicians came and went, and two fiery americans ended up completing this band, which then created history with their music, their intriguing and charismatic personas, and their bizarre (dare I say disfunctional?) yet very productive group dynamics.

So they are all in their sixties/seventies now, and they seem to be enjoying themselves and each other a lot more now that they’re older, wiser, sober, and that some of that famous heavy emotional bagage has disapeared or at least toned down. Indeed, the intensity and pain in Lindsey Buckingham’s 77 live performance of “Go your own way” is palpable.

And if you watch interviews and documentaries like “Destiny rules” about the recording of their 2003 “Say you will” album, you can see that the lasting “tension”, especially between Stevie Nicks and Buckingham, is not just a gimmick for the fans. While it is obvious that the band and/or their managers like to exploit the Nicks/Buckingham so-called neverending soap opera, I personally don’t mind it because I think there is a genuine connection there that allows for some wonderful emotional performances, such as the ones on “The dance” live album/DVD, the band’s first live show in ten years (aside from the presidential campain of course). Buckingham once said that, as they wrote much of their songs about each other but never really reunited after their break up, Nicks and himself get to “live out their love affair on stage”. That’s the feeling I get while listening to “Silver springs” live : the ending is so intense on Nicks’ part, it’s almost scary. Scary, but great!

Lindsey Buckingham is underrated, he is a great musician (plus he gets points in my book for playing the old fashion way – no guitar pick!).

As good as “The dance” is (their vocal harmonies are better than ever), to me, the 70’s performances remain the greatest. They feature long versions of the songs we love, played and sung with fury and raw emotion, which pulls at the heartstrings.

That being said, I’m very glad I discovered the oldies too as I’m a big blues-rock fan, and I encourage you to check them out as well.

More Fleetwood Mac videos (“The Chain” and “Rihannon”) in this previous post: https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/a-few-70s-songs-by-fleetwood-mac/

I got the same old blues : J.J. Cale vs Lynyrd Skynyrd

This is gonna be a tough one. The toughest one yet?

J.J. Cale is the coolest underrated country-rock-blues artist ever. “I got the same old blues” is yet another wonderful laid-back tune from electric guitar wonder  J.J. Cale. And the lyrics… oh yeah… I love the ending too. I’m not telling!

American country-rock-blues band Lynyrd Skynyrd does a whoppin’ cool version of this song. It’s similar to the original, but musically, it sounds more powerful, probably because of the “group” effect. And this song is perfect for them, right up their alley!

But I love J.J. Cale’s smooth and pleasant vocals. The tone of his voice and the emotion conveyed fit the song really well. And his solo in the middle sounds awesome.

I honestly cannot decide. They’re both perfect. What do you think?

 

Enjoying Ben Harper’s slide guitar on this cold day

Man, it is cold out. Polar vortex, you say? While Stephen Colbert wears a huge red winter coat over his perfectly pressed suit, I intend to keep warm today by listening to Ben Harper’s “Fight For Your Mind”. And perhaps a few other songs from Ben Harper. I am ashamed to say that I know only a little about his music aside from “Fight for your mind” which I have listened to intensely. The Bob Marley fan that I am loves how it starts, with the smooth reggay-infused “Oppression”. And then, the good stuff just keeps coming: Another Lonely Day, Burn One Down, Excuse Me Mr., People Lead, Power of the Gospel, God Fearing Man, … This album’s got mature, socially-conscious lyrics, musical and vocal prowess… another cool album of the 90’s.

I found a Montréal 1996 concert that I just had to put a link to. I also added a live performance of the simple yet wonderful “Another Lonely Day”. In the last video, Ben Harper is playing alongside buddy Jack Johnson who’s performing his song “Flake” on Leno (check out the cool slide guitar solo!).

 

J.J. Cale, underrated yet so cool

When I was a kid, my friend’s dad had the biggest collection of 70’s rock music. He was the first person I knew who bought a CD player. I was so amazed at the difference in sound – at the time, I was constantly listening to my mixed tapes (BTW I still love and respect my awesome mixed tape collection; I made these tapes with such care, the musical experience is still worth it even if the sound is terrible). My friend and I spent so many hours listening to her dad’s amazing CDs and as a result, I ended up discovering a few interesting artists I had not heard of, like J.J. Cale.

J.J. Cale is a great american singer/songwriter and musician whose music is strongly influenced by the blues and country genres, among others. His guitar playing is very “laid-back” (indeed, his style is often described this way, and it’s true!). Many artists have covered his songs like Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you like, you can just listen to these really cool songs: “Changes”, “River runs deep”, and a live version of the original “Cocaine” song!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan vs Jimi Hendrix)

I will soon be posting about Bob Dylan. While looking for great live performances to add to my post, I came up with the idea to follow up on the Hurt vs Hurt (NIN vs Johnny Cash) showdown with yet another heartbreaking choice.

Bob Dylan wrote and sang the original version of All along the watchtower. I personally love this version, which offers great vocals, guitar and harmonica playing. Definitely got the Bob Dylan feel. A soft yet dramatic rendition of the song. But Dylan himself has allegedly said that he loves Jimi Hendrix’s “heavier” version. Jimi definitely made this song his own, and his evocative vocals and guitar playing make this a very intense version. When I was younger, I would have voted for Jimi’s version, no question. But now I’m torn.

A little help?

Awesome guitars solos : Does anything beat Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing?

Maybe, maybe not, I admit I haven’t given this too much thought. 😉 But this may just be my favorite of Jimi’s. The melody goes straight to the heart. Stevie Ray Vaughan did make a 10 minute-long instrumental cover so I guess this goes to show just how strong the music is.

And my friend used to play this song all the time on his guitar while we were hanging out in his parents’ basement, back in the day. Ah, the memories!

Enjoy!