Halloween may be long gone, but its never too late for a good scare. However, for music lovers, scares often come shrouded in irony: sophomore slumps, musicians turned actors, celebrity meltdowns. All of these can be quite frightening, although its usually unintentional. In the realm of sonics, the best place to turn to for a genuine scare, for an artistic statement that is meant to jar you or get under your skin, is the album cover.
Now there are two types of creepy album covers: the so bad its accidentally appalling (Weezers Weezer (The Red Album), Toby Keiths Unleashed, R. Kellys Chocolate Factory – the list goes on), and the sincerely macabre; artwork or photographs that were created to illicit a gasp, silence, or shudder. The following list is comprised of those albums, the ones with the images we just cant shake no matter how hard we try. Some are explicit, some are vague, some are simply atmospheric. But all of them know how to go bump in the night.
10. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
The drab cover design taken straight from the Cambridge Encyclopedia is a series of measured pulses from the first discovered pulsar. Boring, right? But science can be sinister, and this plain yet punishing image takes on many faces. Is it a lonely mountain range? Is it a boxcutter blade being melted? Looking both vicious and vaginal, the cover for Unknown Pleasures is like the mask of Michael Myers; so simple it allows you to broadcast your own version of evil onto its blank design.
9. Pinback – Pinback (1999)
As beautiful as Pinbacks layered chamber pop is, the band sure knows how to commission an eerie album cover. While many of their later works are striking in their detail, their debut image scares us with its confusion. The old couple appears to be waving at each other from a close distance, but the blank smiles on their faces suggest they are in separate worlds, the unsettling blue haze from the mountains hinting that something isnt quite right.
8. Aphex Twin – Come To Daddy (1997)
This one loses points for using an image pulled straight from the title tracks music video. But that doesnt change the fact that its disturbing. Featuring a row of small children with Aphex Twins (a.k.a. Richard D. James) sneering British mug, this photo plays all sorts of twisted games with age identity. And as pedophilic as the juxtaposition is, you cant help but think it would be creepy even without James face, or without the childrens bodies for that matter.
7. L7 – Hungry For Stink (1994)
The only thing more frightening than L7 frontwoman Donita Sparks pulling out her bloody tampon at the 1992 Reading festival and ordering the mud-slinging crowd to eat it is this album cover. Serial killers are scary enough. Serial killers traveling cross country brandishing a an oversized hunting knife and a bloodstained rabbit mask? In the famous words of Del Preston, thats a different story altogether…
6. Korn – Life Is Peachy (1996)
While their music has gotten worse over time, Korn has always boasted some of the most insane album covers ever created, even with their most recent release, 2007s Untitled. But nothing takes the poison cake like Life Is Peachy. The pale, antique boy straps up his Sunday best, dressing himself in darkness and foreshadowing the ink black, twisted creature he will become. Maybe his reflection was an omen for the bands career.
5. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - F?A?? (1997)
One look at the pitch, plainly ominous country landscape and you understand why most of the albums second track, East Hastings, served as the opening to 28 Days Later. Everything about this rotten chestnut screams apocalypse, from the album cover to the stark guitar twangs to the spoken word lyrics about blood pouring out of your wallet. It doesnt get stormier than this.
4. Frank Zappa – Thing-Fish (1984)
You could whip up an entire list of creepy album covers from just a third of Frank Zappas discography. But the top spot would still go to Thing-Fish. Based on the Tuskegee Experiment, where the U.S. Public Health Service refused to treat syphilis for a community of black men in order to study the diseases effects, Thing-Fish is a loose concept album that, in true Zappa fashion, pushes the terrible events to something surreal and politically hard-hitting. Syphilis (a government issued substance called Galoot Cologne on the album) transforms its victims into Mammy-Nuns, bizarre, humanoid racial caricatures that prevent them from living any sort of normal life. As complex as the story becomes, it can all be summed up by its album cover. Half botched B-movie experiment, half cross-dressing, mutated Uncle Tom, Thing-Fish is disturbing not only because of its physical appearance, but because of the unfathomable racist event it personifies.
3. The Rolling Stones – Goats Head Soup (1973)
2. Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero (2007)
Another concept album, Year Zero imagines a dystopian, totalitarian future where a hand-shaped entity called The Presence frequently shoots down from the sky. Is it a glimmer of hope? Or is it the government closing down on anyone who opposes them? My guess would be the latter. Not only does The Presence (exhibited in all of its shadow glory on the album cover) look menacing as hell as it towers over scenic Americana mountains, its outline also resembles a person. The interior view of the car is completely normal; calm even, clashing with the terrifying shape, and reminding us that no matter where we go, no matter how serene our vacation spot, it is always there. Always watching.
1. Jethro Tull – Aqualung (1971)
For those still sore at flute/rock fusion artists Jethro Tull for stealing the 1989 Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance from Metallica, look no further than Aqualung for evidence of the bands dark credentials. Pulled from miserly, lurking archetypes like Fagen and The Wandering Jew, the hunched over, ragged thing on the cover is the stuff of true nightmares. How can you look at him and not think hell snatch away your children? And whats he got under that coat? Wonderfully painted in archaic strokes of sludge, mud, and fog from the streets of London, the cover of Aqualung proves that for all their flute whistling whim, Jethro Tulls guts have always been grim, gravel, and gothic.