You may have heard the phrase, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but can the same be said for an album’s visual counterpart? Through album cover art, musicians get the chance to distill the ethos and sonics of their music into a physical representation. Here we list eight times they got it right, by collaborating with fine artists to give their fans and listeners the ability to not only hear but also see their music.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West: George Condo
In the spring of 2010, hip-hop icon and pop-culture provocateur Kanye West was self-exiled in Hawaii escaping “Imma let you finish” fallout when he placed a call to contemporary visual artist George Condo, asking if he’d collaborate on the cover art for his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. What followed was the creation of five visual representations of the maximalist, hedonistic, self-reflective album West referred to as his “long, backhanded apology.” The NSFW main cover, which, like the album, was audacious, depicts West under a naked winged harpy and was famously banned from multiple retailers.
The New Abnormal by The Strokes: Jean-Michel Basquiat
In 2020, New York–bred post-punk rock band the Strokes released their sixth studio album, prophetically named The New Abnormal. They chose the 1981 painting Bird on Money by fellow New Yorker, famed graffiti artist, and neoexpressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat for the Grammy-nominated record’s cover. Basquiat had created the painting in tribute to jazz musician Charlie Parker, which is why the piece depicts a “yardbird,” the saxophonist’s nickname and a moniker referring to a domesticated fowl that was once free. Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas told NME the album’s title refers to a “kind of threat to your reality,” an implication the painting also represents.
Colores by J Balvin: Takashi Murakami
When asked about the inspiration for his fourth studio album, Colores, Columbian reggaetón singer J Balvin told Architectural Digest, “It felt right to go back to the beginning to one of the first things I learned about and loved: all the colours in the world.” He’d been a fan of Japanese contemporary artists Takashi Murakami’s “colourful, powerful, simple” work for years, so Balvin tapped him to infuse the bright bold sound of his music into the cover art. The final artwork depicts a layered bed of Murakami’s signature 3D smiling flowers in dynamic hues of bright pink, blue, and yellow.
The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground: Andy Warhol
Pop art icon Andy Warhol not only created the cover art for The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, he was also the band’s mentor, manager, and producer at the time of its recording. Joined by German singer Nico at Warhol’s request, the album is a siphoning of New York art culture of that time, packed with sleazy rhythms and controversial lyrics that fit the bill of alternate rock before the term existed. The record was delayed in order to create Warhol’s art print turned album sleeve, a banana-shaped sticker you could peel off to reveal the fruit underneath.
Artpop by Lady Gaga: Jeff Koons
Lady Gaga’s collaboration with popular visual artist Jeff Koons made its way onto the cover of her third studio album, Art Pop, as well as on the record’s single “Applause.” In the track she sings, "One second I’m a Koons/Then suddenly the Koons is me,” as she reflects on merging art, music, and herself. Koons’s cover depicts Gaga nude with a metallic ball between her legs and portions of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus behind her. Gaga referred to the bold artwork as a “real depiction of my mind through his.”
Without You by David Bowie: Keith Haring
Keith Haring is known for his pop-graffiti street art that started in subways and made its way into museums, but he also collaborated with multiple musicians throughout the ’80s to create album art, because, as he once shared, “Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.” One of those instances was the album sleeve he designed for David Bowie’s single “Without You,” which would ultimately feature on the singer-songwriter’s 15th studio album, Let’s Dance. The cover illustrates two of Haring’s signature characters embracing against an orange background with bold lines shooting out around them.
Sonic Nurse by Sonic Youth: Richard Prince
For their 13th album Sonic Nurse, Sonic Youth worked with artist and photographer Richard Prince and used a painting from his controversial “Nurse Paintings” series called Overseas Nurse for the cover. Prince copied and reworked the covers of pulp romance novels for the series, scanning them and blowing them up on canvas then reworking them with acrylic paint. Prince’s work clearly resonated with the band, since the album also features a track called “Dude Ranch Nurse,” named after another painting in the series.
Power, Corruption & Lies by New Order: Peter Saville
This originally appeared on Architectural Digest US | Erica Campbell