Play the Bracket Challenge
Welcome to round two of the 2014 Mensa Bracket Challenge. This year, we're turning the amps up to 11 while these 64 works of album art duke it out until only one remains.
The bracket is constructed like the NCAA basketball tournament’s — at least before they junked it up with all those play-in games — with four regions (Minimalized, Lens Flair, Artist's Rendering and Textual), each seeded 1 through 16. The entries are paired with one another and based on your voting will either be eliminated or proceed to the next round until we have a winner. First-round voting begins Oct. 13, and we’ll advance one round each week.
If you believe in an infinite multiverse, then somewhere, sometime, everyone gets their own perfect collection of album covers. In this particular dimension’s version, however, we’re liable to have some disagreements. Glaring omissions, inexplicable inclusions, poor classifications — there will be no shortage of legitimate objections. Let us know what’s missing and what doesn’t belong by emailing us.
Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973
The prism-refracting-light image was created by a childhood friend of Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour. Now deceased graphic designer Storm Thorgerson would later design multi-platinum-selling album covers for Led Zeppelin, Muse and Peter Gabriel. In one of his last interviews, with the U.K.’s The Independent, he called the Dark Side cover “not a favorite.”
Eat a Peach, The Allman Brothers Band, 1972
Despite legend, the peach truck on the cover of the band’s third studio album does not match the vehicle that guitarist Duane Allman fatally struck on his motorcycle three months before the album’s release. He hit a flatbed truck carrying a lumber crane. Nor does the peach truck represent an omen of bassist Bruce Oakley’s subsequent fatal motorcycle wreck, barely a year and three blocks removed from Allman’s. He hit a city bus.
Radio, L.L. Cool J, 1985
It was the quintessential hip-hop artist accoutrement of the ’80s: the boom box. And for a guy who emphatically declared he could not live without his radio, L.L. Cool J picked the perfect image for his debut album’s cover. The simple design complements the record’s raw, stripped-down sound, so minimalized that producer Rick Rubin’s credits on the album read, “Reduced by Rick Rubin.”
Graceland, Paul Simon, 1986
A Christian St. George is depicted in this 15th century Ethiopian icon, a nod to Simon’s 1986 sojourn to South Africa to record the album with black musicians. Simon violated a U.N.-supported boycott in traveling there and was poorly received by anti-apartheid protesters despite his advocacy for racial harmony.
Ghost in the Machine, The Police, 1981
A seven-segment display, young readers, is an electronic device composed of seven segments that form alphanumeric characters by illuminating the different bars. It’s also the inspiration for The Police’s fourth album. When the band could not decide on a cover, they opted for this digital rendering of themselves: from left, Andy Summers, Sting with spiky hair and Stewart Copeland and his fringe.
At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash, 1968
It’s the album that rejuvenated The Man in Black’s career. The cover was shot by then Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who had to lobby the paper to let him cover the show. Dubbed by Annie Leibovitz as “the rock ‘n roll photographer,” Hilburn’s shots adorn more than 500 albums.
Annie: A New Musical, Original Broadway Cast, 1977
This one’s a bit of a cheat, since the recognizable title font comes from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip created by Harold Gray. The cartoon first appeared in New York’s Daily News in 1924 and was soon thereafter syndicated to papers around the country. Gray took the character from the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie” written by James Whitcomb Riley.
The Beatles (AKA The White Album), The Beatles, 1968
A stark departure from the band’s previous record cover, the icon-laden Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a white canvas is adorned with only the embossed text “The Beatles.” The first two million copies of the band’s 9th studio album, a 30-song double LP, also included a small serial number. Pop artist Richard Hamilton provided the minimalist design, seemingly one of the few creative decisions agreed upon by the group’s then-diverging four members.
Abbey Road, The Beatles, 1969
Like the very best of the Beatles’ work, Abbey Road’s cover borrows from both John’s and Paul’s creativity. Paul envisioned the image and sketched multiple angles of the shoot. John provided the photographer, a friend of his and Yoko’s. Iain Macmillan shot the iconic image with a Hasselblad camera with a 50 mm wide-angle lens, aperture f22, at 1/500 seconds.
Queen II, Queen, 1974
Queen II cover shooter Mick Rock has a name – his real one – that practically begged him to be a rock ‘n’ roll photographer. Destiny was obliged, as Rock’s extensive client list reveals: David Bowie, Motley Crue, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, just to name a few. Rock is still at work today and has proven equally capable with contemporary artists: Lady Gaga, The Killers, the Black Keys and other big acts.
Nevermind, Nirvana, 1991
Frontman Kurt Cobain’s original concept for the cover was a mother giving birth under water. The compromise – snapping a baby swimming underwater – led photographer Kirk Weddle to the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, Calif., where a friend’s four-month-old son was chosen among a dozen or so infants briefly dunked in the water and photographed. Several parent-of-the-year candidates, as well as a certified diver, were present.
Aladdin Sane, David Bowie, 1973
No longer a cult figure but a full-fledged rock star, the flamboyant, often odd and sometimes androgynous David Bowie was captured for the cover of his sixth studio album by fashion and rock photographer Brian Duffy. At Duffy’s north London studio, the two were joined by only French makeup artist Pierre La Roche, and the three decided upon the lightning bolt makeup at the shoot.
Tutu, Miles Davis, 1986
Only our third-favorite record cover from the great jazz trumpeter makes the list. The first had the B-word in the title and the second featured art of a woman’s exposed breasts. This PG-rated compromise, however, is no slouch. Art director Eiko Ishioka received the 1987 Grammy for Best Album Package for Tutu. Renowned portrait photographer Irving Penn shot the cover and lists among his other subjects Pablo Picasso, W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968
It wasn’t the cover Hendrix had in mind. He had expressly told his label, Reprise Records, he wanted to use a color photo by Linda Eastman (later, Linda McCartney) that showed his band sitting with kids around an Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park. Wisely, they instead opted for this grainy, light-bathed photo taken by Karl Ferris.
Who’s Next, The Who, 1971
Just four chums, hanging out in an old English mining town, urinating on a concrete piling that brings to mind the dystopian 2001: A Space Odyssey, protesting the ugliness of monolithic human progress. Because some band members were not hearing nature’s call that very moment, the photographer was forced to substitute rainwater from an empty film canister to get the desired effect.
Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen, 1984
A strong voice for the American working man since the ’70s, The Boss personifies him on the cover of an album that, much to President Reagan’s chagrin, is less a paean to the American dream as it is an indictment of a dream deferred. Even in photographer Annie Leibovitz’s distinguished collection of credits, this one stands out.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles, 1967
Sure, that’s a photograph on the cover, but the collection of cardboard cutouts accompanying the band – each of them people the Fab Four admired – make this practically a temporary installation piece. The concept was Paul’s idea. Some of John’s cover character choices were nixed, including Jesus, Hilter and Gandhi. George chose Indian gurus. And Ringo, true to form, was content with whomever everyone else selected.
1984, Van Halen, 1984
Artist Margo Nahas originally turned down the band’s commission to illustrate this cover, befuddled by their nebulous idea of four dancing chrome women. But when her husband, who had connections at Warner Bros. Records, passed along her portfolio to the band, the already rendered photo-realistic baby smoker was an instant hit.
Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones, 1969
Automatic Changer was the album’s intended title when Stones guitarist Keith Richards charged his friend Robert Brownjohn with designing the cover. Brownjohn, aided by future celebrity chef and author Delia Smith, sculpted a cake layered with a tire, a clock face, pizza, a film canister and figurines of the band resting on frosting. The album’s title would eventually change but not the cover.
In the Wee Small Hours, Frank sinatra 1955
The loneliness, introspection, depression, regret and late-night contemplation reflected on the cover of Sinatra’s ninth studio album – designed by the veritable father of album covers, Alex Steinweiss – perfectly renders the personal demons with which the singer was then wrestling, in particular a series of bad romantic relationships.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John, 1973
Artist Ian Beck was only 26 at the time he illustrated the cover, along with some direction from cover artist guru John Kosh, and it would be his last. Beck instead turned his attention to magazines, greeting cards, commercial packaging and children’s books.
And Justice for All, Metallica, 1988
Singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer/music-sharing wet blanket Lars Ulrich conceptualized the lady justice-styled cover, drawn by Stephen Gorman. The Roman goddess is depicted in statues around the world, including at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in D.C., whose aluminum Spirit of Justice statue had its exposed breast covered by velvet draping during John Ashcroft’s reign as attorney general.
Aoxomoxoa, Grateful Dead, 1969
Trippy facts about the jam band’s third studio album: the title contains the ambigram “we ate the acid”; Aoxomoxoa is a palindrome; the cover’s designer, Rick Griffin, designed the masthead for Rolling Stone magazine; and a five-year-old Courtney Love (formerly of Hole and Kurt Cobain’s widow) appears on the back cover. Her dad was one of the band’s managers at the time. Far out.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground, 1967
The release of this, The Velvet Underground’s debut album, was delayed due to complications in manufacturing the cover. The banana print was the work of an already famous Andy Warhol, who was serving as the band’s manager and benefactor. On the original cover, the fruit’s skin could be peeled like a sticker and revealed a flesh-colored banana. Later versions ditched the effect.
Back In Black, AC/DC, 1980
After lead singer Bon Scott’s death from alcohol poisoning in February 1980, the group considered disbanding. Instead, the Australian rockers pressed on with their seventh record, and five months after Scott’s death released what would become the fourth-best-selling album (now sixth) in the U.S. Considered a tribute to Scott, the dark, mourning cover almost resembles a tombstone.
Hail to the Thief, Radiohead, 2003
Don’t let the bright colors fool you. Hail to the Thief cover artist and longtime Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood likened the work to an ominous shroud of fog. “All these colors that I’ve used are derived from the petrol-chemical industry,” he told music commentary website Pitchfork. “That’s how they get the pigments. None of it is natural. It essentially comes from black sludge.”
American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash, 2002
By 2002 Cash had 86 albums under his belt, and his collaborations with super-producer Rick Rubin had nurtured a hipster cult following that would make Wes Anderson blush. He needed little introduction. And having dispatched the outlaw-style typeface of earlier albums, the heavy sans serif adopted for his American series covers agree with his stature.
Chicago XIV, Chicago, 1980
Say what you will about the long-running soft rock group and this, one of their least commercially successful albums. Chicago is a master of brand continuity. Only two of the band’s 7,000 albums (rough approximation) go without their ubiquitous logo, which was inspired by Coca-Cola’s.
The Doors, The Doors, 1967
Creative Allies, an online community for developing band, film and event art, sums up the band’s logo aptly on its blog (articles.creativeallies.com): “The simple, bold geometric shapes; the reflective double-O’s; the tiny but essential psychedelic ‘THE.’ That simple one-color logo is by now one of the most recognizable images in rock history.”
Elvis Presley/London Calling, Elvis Presley/The Clash, 1956/1979
It seemed unjust to include one and not the other. They mirror well considering both acts were once regarded as rebellious. The shot from the cover of the King’s debut album was taken at a 1955 performance in Tampa, Fla. And on the copycat London Calling? That’s Paul Simonon wrecking his bass on stage at a New York City show.
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, 1954
Cover designer Tom Hannan moved from Michigan to New York in 1950 to attend the Hans Hoffman school, an institution especially known for its connection to abstract expressionism. Hannan helped found a reputable Manhattan art gallery, designed album covers for Prestige and Blue Note, and in the ’70s moved to Vermont and, along with his wife, embarked on a prosperous career selling furniture.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Sex Pistols, 1977
The newspaper clippings and ransom note style of the punk band’s first singles and only studio album were the design of English anarchist, artist and sometime editor Jamie Reid, who said about the Bollocks cover: “It wasn’t the pop phenomenon that interested me. I saw punk as part of an art movement that’s gone over the last hundred years, with roots in Russian agitprop, surrealism, dada and situationism.”
All images are copyrighted to their respective artists and labels.