Cognitive dis: 21 great albums with questionable cover art (2000-2009)
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1. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (2008)
Lil Wayne obviously puts a lot of thought into his lyrics (right?), but apparently he has little time left to consider such trivialities as album artwork. (Who cares, when you’re just going to put out three mix-tapes in the following week anyway?) With Tha Carter III, Wayne was presumably paying tribute to Illmatic and Ready To Die, but without bothering to have someone with an artistic eye give it the once-over. It’s like a Photoshop nightmare, with a baby photo abused by fake tattoos and a weird suit. Still, it’s the music that matters: Carter was the top-selling album in the U.S. in 2008.
2. Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun (2001)
Why not a photograph of the alien-looking Icelandic countryside, or at least some abstract wash of color? Why represent such gorgeous bigness with a sketch of what appears to be an alien/angel fetus, still attached to an umbilical cord that goes nowhere? The cover of Sigur Rós’ breakthrough disc, Ágætis Byrjun, looks more like a local metal band’s rough draft than one of the most important discs of the decade. But don’t let it distract—there’s plenty of goodness inside.
3. Ghostface Killah, Bulletproof Wallets (2001)
Even by hip-hop standards, Wu-Tang Clan had some ugly album covers—especially when left to its own devices. (Hence the popular “Wu-Tang Blue Note Series.”) But no one half-asses it quite like Ghostface, whose artwork always seems like a lazy afterthought that was hastily assembled an hour before it was due at the pressing plant. That’s never been more true than with Bulletproof Wallets, which takes the injury of another one of Epic’s epic track-listing screw-ups and adds the insult of its baffling cover photo, featuring a half-dressed Ghostface begrudgingly serving the camera a pancake while Raekwon looks on. If it’s true that every picture tells a story, then Ghostface’s expression and open robe say this is “the morning after.” So, uh, what’s a fully dressed Raekwon doing crashing our intimate breakfast—and holding a wad of cash, no less? Way to make a listener feel cheap, dudes.
4. Ludacris, Chicken-N-Beer (2003)
Ludacris doesn’t write lyrics so much as punchlines, and it’s not as though a photo of him looking pensive at a baby grand would do right by songs like “P-Poppin’” or “Hoes In My Room.” Still, the cover of his best-selling Chicken-N-Beer—which actually features some of his cleverest disses in songs like “Hip-Hop Quotables”—is so overflowing with dumbed-down, cartoonish stereotypes (mountains of fried chicken, 40s, and “chickenheads” among them) that it crosses the line into buffoonery in a ways that would make Bill Cosby’s head explode.
5. M.I.A., Arular (2005)
Planes! Bombs! Tanks! Flags! Psychedelic color! A photo of the artist herself! What does it all add up to? A headache, that’s what. It makes sense that M.I.A.’s sizzling 2005 debut adopts an ad hoc, in-your-face, Day-Glo paste-up style—that’s how her music is, too, and this and the 2007 follow-up Kala (whose own 8-bit graphics are at least a teensy bit more coherent) are proof that it works sonically. But visually, it’s a mess, and not even an invigorating one.
6. Various artists, Poplife Presents: Poplife Sucks (2008)
This compilation is an endlessly playable party mix that ranges freely from the ’70s to the ’00s, from radio pop like The Time’s “Jungle Love” to club hits like Simian Mobile Disco’s “We Are Your Friends” to more obscure stuff from Italian comedian-singer Adriano Celentano and Erotic Dissidents. The only drawback? That hideous cover—a line drawing (in the glass-etched style of Patrick Nagel) of a dead-eyed woman with a candy cane emerging from her mouth and wrapping all the way around the CD case. It isn’t sexy or funny, just off-putting, which is particularly unfortunate, given what a blast the music is.
7. Girl Talk, Night Ripper (2006)
It’s probably intentional that this cover looks so much like something an exceptionally crappy Sunset Strip metal band of the late ’80s would package its wares with: ugly hand-drawn lettering over many small iterations of the artist’s name in a dollar-store version of the Purple Rain font. But even if you find the ADD-addled pop-song cut-ups on the CD itself obnoxious (and it’s easy to, even if you’re a fan), that doesn’t mean it needs a sleeve to match.
8. Justin Timberlake, Justified (2002)
Justin Timberlake really wanted to be taken seriously when he released his solo debut, Justified, in 2002. (Did you notice the album title? It’s not just a cute play on the name Justin.) On Justified’s ridiculously dour cover, a very serious-looking Timberlake stares out forlornly against a cloud-covered desert landscape that very purposely looks nothing like a candy-colored ’N Sync album. Fortunately, Timberlake didn’t take himself as seriously on the actual record, which produced a stream of hit singles far more fun than the post-apocalyptic wasteland on the cover.
9. Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch (2008)
Mudcrutch was a pleasant surprise—not only was it arguably Tom Petty’s most consistent collection of songs this decade, but it found the veteran rocker settling in comfortably with his pre-Heartbreakers band for the first time in nearly 35 years. (The presence of usual sidekicks Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench certainly didn’t hurt.) While the pleasures of Mudcrutch come from old friends rediscovering the joy of playing together, the casual approach didn’t translate so well to the cover art, which depicts a faceless bearded man bathed in pink, blue, orange, and yellow light. Coupled with the horrible band name, the cover of Mudcrutch gives the mistaken impression that the band deserved to stay stuck back in the ’70s.
10. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America (2006)
Was there a greater disparity this decade between a pussy-ass album cover and its thoroughly kick-ass contents than The Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America? On its third album, The Hold Steady produced an instant classic, and yet its disconcertingly awful cover art—marred by pink lettering, a sea of overly attractive hipster doofuses, and lots and lots of confetti—makes having it on your shelf sort of embarrassing. It looks like a freaking American Idol compilation, not this generation’s Born To Run. Really, it shouldn’t be this difficult to make a suitable Hold Steady cover. Get a case of cheap domestic beer, round up a bunch of sweaty dudes, and make the camera click.
11. Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)
Coldplay was one of the decade’s most popular pop-rock bands because it knew how to present simple messages—mainly “I love you” and “I’m sorry men are such assholes”— in a straightforward, totally relatable way. The group’s most successful album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, produced the monstrous piano-based hits “Clocks” and “The Scientist,” which made Coldplay the group that parents and their MOR alt-rock-loving children could agree on. There’s nothing remotely difficult or challenging about Coldplay’s music—and Chris Martin might be a little defensive about that, which would explain Head’s needlessly inscrutable album cover. As a concept—a half-assed drawing showing part of a guy’s face and his left shoulder—it’s arty nonsense that looks like something Thom Yorke ate and dropped.
12. Beta Band, Heroes To Zeros (2004)
Beta Band at least got the title of its third album right: After years of garnering increasing attention from rock critics and rock stars—including Thom Yorke, who’s spoken of covering its songs ever since the group toured with Radiohead in 2001—Beta Band abruptly broke up after the record’s release. Perhaps the album’s commercial failure had something to do with the silly comic-book cover art: The album front portrays the band members as superheroes (one of whom appears to fight with a flaming broom) fighting dozens of evil androids. Though both involve a sort of futurism, this is a stark non sequitur, given the cool, spacy atmosphere of the music. The record sounds like an ethereal drifting through the stars, but looks like a flashy, campy battle scene from Star Wars.
13. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam (2007)
Animal Collective’s seventh studio album, Strawberry Jam, is a vibrant, sticky, damn near accessible effort from a resolutely idiosyncratic band. And while its cover art certainly reflects that vibrancy and stickiness, the uncomfortably grotesque close-up of a smashed psychedelic strawberry isn’t nearly as welcoming as the warm psych-pop offered inside. Animal Collective has displayed a penchant for purposely off-putting album art—see Sung Tongs’ creepily ugly cover illustration, or the headache-inducing op-art of Merriweather Post Pavilion—but Strawberry Jam leans a little too hard on vulgar provocation for a band that really doesn’t need to resort to such tactics.
14. Deerhoof, Milk Man (2004)
It seems a bit unfair to criticize Deerhoof for reflecting in its cover art the blend of childish whimsy and creepy weirdness that makes its music so appealing, but come on. If a real kid drew something like the stark line art (by Japanese artist Ken Kagami) of a sexless humanoid bleeding from fruit-inflicted wounds, he’d get put into therapy with a quickness.
15. Mew, No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away / No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away (2009)
We’re willing to look past the pretentiously long title, because this collection of epically arty pop songs sort of deserves it, but why do all of the S’s in the artwork resemble @ signs? And that’s just the beginning of the problems here: 2006’s And The Glass Handed Kites was called out for having bad art, but Mew has outdone itself on No More Stories, which features a butterfly overlaid with a smiling, googly-eyed purple egg. Wait, it gets worse: Smaller versions of the smiling, googly-eyed egg act as the nose and what could be a septum piercing, and within the whole mess appears something approximating Mr. Hankey, South Park’s infamous singing Christmas poo.
16. The Hidden Cameras, Origin: Orphan (2009)
Origin: Orphan may not be the best album Canada’s Hidden Cameras have released, but it’s another solid entry in a discography filled with enchanting, sexually frank chamber-pop. Lyrically, it’s a little subtler than past efforts, but you wouldn’t know it from the literal cover art, which drops a camera in the middle of the bisected brain of a child with an abnormally large cranium. It looks like something slapped together by an artist who’d heard the band’s name, and nothing more.
17. Belle And Sebastian, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (2005)
Belle And Sebastian’s collection of B-sides and stray singles is as essential as any album the band ever released. But the cover is bafflingly goofy, explaining the title with some graffiti added to a “Push Bar To Open” sign, and an angry-looking barman thrown in to seal the deal. Everyone overacts for the camera, too, suggesting a band that once made its graphic elements a core part of its identity had decided to stop worrying so much, and let the music do the talking.
18. PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (2004)
“Hey Polly, it’s time to do the cover of your new album. What’s that? No, I guess you don’t have to get out of the car. Could you at least have that guy slow down so we can… No? Okay, we’ll go with what we’ve got. Thanks!”
19. Missy Elliott, This Is Not A Test (2003)
Missy Elliott’s 2002 album Under Construction was a rare bit of tastefulness in a career of puzzling graphic choices. A throwback album with a throwback image, it followed 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive—which had a cover befitting a crappy videogame in which Elliott might have battled underwater landmines—and preceded the puzzling assemblage on This Is Not A Test. Opting for a tough image to go with Not A Test’s tough sound, it stressed the point a bit too much. Not only did Elliott opt for leather and surround herself with pit bulls and some mean-looking chicks, she also brought in a camo Humvee. Point received.
20. David Bowie, Reality (2003)
David Bowie has made a career of reinvention, but this transformation into an unnerving anime character on the cover of this strong album—his last studio effort to date—looked like one change too many.
21. Common, Finding Forever (2007)
Common’s Finding Forever was another strong effort from the multi-hyphenate talent who rarely lets his other endeavors interfere with the quality of his albums. But its cover suggested that in addition to his work as an actor and occasional pitchman, Common spent a lot of time as a dungeonmaster. That lecherous look in his eye didn’t help, either, nor did the fact that his cloak (or is it hair?) appears to have been added at the last minute with a Sharpie.