Play the Bracket Challenge
Welcome to 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.
1. 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.”
16. Introspective, Pet Shop Boys, 1988
Designer Mark Farrow thought the vibrant colored stripes adorning the synthpop duo’s third studio album would boost album sales. Indeed, it became the band’s best-selling album at the time with more than 4.5 million copies sold worldwide.
8. Hub-Tones, Freddie Hubbard, 1962
Freddie who? This entry is as much a tribute to this particular cover as it is to the graphic designer Reid Miles, who from the mid ’50s to late ’60s designed hundreds of similarly minimalist, eye-pleasing covers for the jazz record label Blue Note.
9. 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.
5. Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G., 1994
The chubby-cheeked baby sporting an afro on the cover of Biggie’s debut album is not the artist. Nor is it Bad Boy Records founder and Ready to Die producer Sean “Puffy” Combs. It’s Bronx native Keithroy Yearwood, who working for a modeling agency earned $150 for the two-hour photo shoot.
12. 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.”
4. 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.
13. The Information, Beck, 2006
Experimentation and collaboration are hallmarks of this artist, who has more than dabbled in folk, rock, funk and hip-hop – sometimes all at once. Those themes continue in The Information’s album art, which was packaged with this nearly blank cover along with one of four different pages of stickers fans could use to design their own unique cover.
6. 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.
11. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco, 2001
So ubiquitous is the association between the band and the Marina City towers appearing on this cover that Chicagoans often refer to their recognizable landmarks as the Wilco Towers. Lawrence Azerrad, who designed the cover and subsequent album art for Wilco, as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay-Z and Beck, is obsessed with the retired supersonic jet the Concorde.
3. 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.
14. Still Kool, Kool & The Gang, 2007
You can take it up with the band at their its state fair appearance whether or not its relevance today merits the moniker Still Kool. Regardless, the stylized genius of Still Kool’s cover art almost makes up for years of hearing “Celebrate Good Times” at sporting events.
7. 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.
10. The Chronic, Dr. Dre, 1992
The Chronic refers to high-grade marijuana, and its cover imitates Zig-Zag rolling papers’ logo. Trite, yes, but the record offered mainstream America a sincere look into the psyche of frustrated African Americans in the early ’90s, especially since the album was released right on the heels of the 1992 Rodney King riots. Its packaging – and tight, bassline-driven beats – provided masses the perfect hook.
2. 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.
15. Turn Back, Toto, 1981
Remember, we’re judging the visual art and not the music. Designer Tony Lane puts the band’s signature logo on its head – or a head – for the yacht rockers’ third studio album. The logo’s simple, uninspiring beginning gave way to a clever cover still recognizable today, even if none of the album’s songs are worth remembering.
1. 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.
16. Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins, 1993
If you’re buying that bassist Nicole Fiorentino, who joined the Pumpkins in 2010, was coincidentally one of the cover models for its breakout album, then I have some great- sounding recent Smashing Pumpkins material to sell you. Hoaxes aside, two seemingly conjoined sisters have never looked so cute.
8. Ramones, Ramones, 1976
Roberta Bayley went to work for Punk magazine in 1975 with a used Pentax Spotmatic, some experience working the door at CBGB’s and the sense that this emulsion of poverty, angst and creativity driving the New York punk scene was about to give way to something big. It did. The photo Bayley shot for the Ramones’ eponymous first album led to other work with the Sex Pistols, Blondie and other punk forerunners.
9. 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.
5. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, 1969
How appropriate that a band whose name translates to “lead balloon” – an idiom for something going horribly awry – would feature an actual disaster on the cover of its debut album. On May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, N.J., the passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while attempting to moor, an accident that killed 36 and was captured on newsreel and in photographs.
12. 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.
4. Hotel California, The Eagles, 1976
The edifice on the cover is actually the Beverly Hills Hotel, selected by photographer David Alexander and renowned album cover designer John Kosh for its quintessential Southern California look and great lighting. While a real Hotel California existed, in Mexico’s Todos Santos, the band had no connection to it, and instead the title is a metaphor for the excess and greed of the West Coast music industry.
13. 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.
6. 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.
11. Horses, Patti Smith, 1975
Smith befriended photographer Robert Mapplethorpe on her first day in New York City in 1967 when she wandered into his apartment while looking for someone else. This cover epitomizes his stylized black and white portrait photography. Before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1989, he helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which has raised and donated millions of dollars to fund research to fight HIV and AIDS.
3. 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.
14. Strange Days, The Doors, 1967
For the cover of The Doors’ second studio album, its frontman, the seemingly always shirtless Jim Morrison, went coy and refused to be photographed. Photographer Joel Brodsky’s solution: street performers. Except the only actual street performers on the cover shot were the acrobats. The rest? Actors and extras, like Brodsky assistant Frank Kollegy, who kept ruining shots by dropping the juggling balls.
7. 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.
10. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd, 1975
Storm Thorgerson, the genius behind Dark Side of the Moon, was also responsible for the cover of this album, whose themes of banal interpersonal relationships are summed up with the juxtaposition of a casual handshake engulfed in flames. Not so banal: the fire-retardant suit and hood the shoot’s stuntman wore under business attire and a wig.
2. 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.
15. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys, 1966
At first blush the cover seems trite and dated even for its time, especially when contrasted with a hipper Rubber Soul, which the Beatles released just months earlier. It’s the cover’s lack of style and pretension, however, that fits so perfectly with chief Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson’s desire at the time to be a studio rat free of the commercial pressures of being a rock celebrity.
1. 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.
16. Dookie, Green Day, 1994
For their major label debut, the punk trio solicited the services of another Bay area scenester, Richie Bucher. The artist was friends with Green Day’s original drummer, John Kiffmeyer, whose footnote in the history of rock ‘n’ roll should begin: “Willingly departed Green Day about 75 million album sales prematurely.”
8. 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.
9. Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf, 1977
With 43 million copies sold worldwide, it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. And yet the man who wrote the songs and even conceived its cover rarely makes it into casual music fans’ lexicon. Jim Steinman lobbied for a bigger presence on the cover but, nixed by the record label, had to settle for the cover text’s third line and third-biggest font, “Songs by Jim Steinman.”
5. 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.
12. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Flaming Lips, 2002
The childlike innocence of the cover’s protagonist, the absurdly shaped red monster whose legs have spawned superfluous additional legs, the blood-stained walls that add a touch of gravity to the otherwise gentle scene – all the work of Flaming Lips singer-songwriter Wayne Coyne, who on both the cover and within the music melds playful fantasy with heavier themes like mortality and love.
4. Kiln House, Fleetwood Mac, 1970
Sure, Rumours is the better record musically, but before that era brought the group an immense heaping of commercial success and personal turmoil, there was Kiln House and its rock ‘n’ roll revival sound. Something of a tribute to golden oldies like Buddy Holly and Elvis, the album’s music nevertheless remains original and creative if slightly quaint, just like its cover.
13. 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.
6. Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys, 1986
A pimped-out Boeing 720 dubbed The Starship was the 1970s tour bus of the skies for acts like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton and others. Licensed to Ill producer Rick Rubin conceived this aircraft cover concept, including a crashed-in front end of the jet on the record’s gatefold, as a sarcastic nod to the excesses of the rocker lifestyle.
11. 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.
3. Music from Big Pink, The Band, 1968
Bob Dylan literally put his mark on the Canadian-American group’s inaugural record by painting its cover. The contribution was apropos. Before they were The Band, the group served as backing musicians during Dylan’s 1965 tour – the band, they were called – and Dylan co-wrote three songs for Music from Big Pink
14. 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.
7. 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.
10. Back to the World, Curtis Mayfield, 1973
During the Vietnam War, deployed soldiers often referred to America as “the world,” a place that was changing without their witness, a locale free of combat and to which they would someday hopefully return. In the U.S., however, Mayfield’s “world” was one where many African Americans were still downtrodden by poverty and inequality. The two worlds – indeed, the two wars – parallel beautifully on this cover.
2. 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.
15. King of the Delta Blues Singer, Robert Johnson, 1961
Compiled from 1936 and 1937 recording sessions, the record was released long after Johnson’s 1938 passing and before any photographs of him had been unearthed. With the album’s appearance on the cover photo for Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, a cult following emerged for what would eventually be regarded as one of the best-ever blues albums.
1. 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.
16. Olé Coltrane, John Coltrane, 1962
For his last album with Atlantic Records, his ninth studio effort, the jazz saxophonist pays homage to Spanish music. The title song, “Olé,” borrows from the Spanish folk song “El Vito.”
8. 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.”
9. King of Rock, Run-D.M.C., 1985
One of the most vaunted and influential hip-hop acts, the Hollis, Queens, trio blazed trails for subsequent rappers by creating a popular mix of rock riffs, hip-hop beats and back-and-forth rhymes that flowed as smoothly as lines of text.
5. 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.
12. Vitalogy, Pearl Jam, 1994
The cover of the Seattle grunge band’s third studio album takes its design cues from an early 20th century medical book that singer Eddie Vedder found at a garage sale. Originally titled Life, the album name changed to Vitalogy (the study of life) to reflect the book’s title.
4. 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.
13. West Side Story, Musical by Arthur Laurents, 1961
Joe Caroff, creator of James Bond’s 007 logo, designed the movie posters and soundtrack cover for the 1961 film, whose opening and ending credits are also highly regarded thanks to the handiwork of Saul Bass.
6. 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.”
11. Carpenters, Carpenters, 1971
The soft pop siblings so loved the logo created for their third album that they used it on all eight of their subsequent records. Craig Braun and Associates provided the design. Braun won a Grammy for his packaging of the Who’s Tommy. And he worked with Andy Warhol on designing the Rolling Stones’ provocative Sticky Fingers cover.
3. 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.
14. The Score, Fugees, 1996
The second and final album from the hip- hop super trio was designed to look like a movie poster. Indeed, the cover’s font is almost a total rip-off of a certain 1972 “family” drama.
7. 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.
10. Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart, Imperial Orchestra Under Rich Rodgers, 1940
In 1939, 23-year-old graphic artist Alex Steinweiss revolutionized the music business by suggesting to his employer, Columbia Records, that instead of packaging records in brown paper sleeves, they should instead get their own original art. Over 15 years he’d design some 2,500 covers for Columbia, including this gem.
2. 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.”
15. Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, Frank Zappa, 1982
As far as Frank Zappa covers go, this one’s fairly subdued. (Remember, this is a guy so quirky he named one of his daughters Moon Unit.) The simple cover is the work of Richard Price, creator of the Droodles cartoon and co-
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