A good album cover is a visual extension of what both album and artist are about. The best ones are instantly recognizable: four guys in suits crossing a street, the prism and the rainbow on black, the underwater baby chasing the dollar bill. Classic album covers become a part of us, forever ingrained our cultural DNA. The opposite — the album covers so jumbled that they give us pause — may not innately have the lasting power, but they shouldn’t be passed by without acknowledgment. Thus, this list. Like any year, 2009 had its share of uncomely album covers (and we encourage you to post any we’ve missed in the comments below), but these are the 10 we think are the worst.
10 The Flaming Lips: Embryonic
The Flaming Lips’ 12th album is a mammoth, hour-plus psychedelic freakout and a welcome return to relevance from a band that has spent most of the aughts turning out increasingly rote variations on the same cosmic love song. But riddle me this: What is going on in that picture? A poor girl drowning in a sea of hair? Stranger still is the album’s special edition, which comes in a box fully encased in fur.
9 Jay Reatard: Watch Me Fall
By now, most of us are accustomed to the sight of Jay “Reatard” Lindsey in various states of undress. He appeared barely clothed and drenched in fake blood on the cover of 2006’s Blood Visions. He lay semi-nude in a tub full of 45s for Matador Singles ’08. He’s got his clothes back on for Watch Me Fall, but somehow this one’s the creepiest. That pale skin, the spooky trees and smoke in the background, that crotchety, Slanketed glare. No wonder the band quit.
8 Kiss: Sonic Boom
Calling Kiss the worst of anything in 2009 is a little unfair. Simmons and company haven’t produced much of value in most of our lifetimes, Kiss-themed coffins notwithstanding. The glory days of hard-rocking, blood-vomiting vampire kabuki shtick are over. This year they’ve come out of retirement for the umpteenth time to prey on the finances and dignity of baby boomers worldwide. And the cover of Sonic Boom, is plain terrible, even for them. It’s worse than Love Gun. Worse than Rock and Roll Over.
7 Neil Young: Fork in the Road
Most of Neil Young’s peers have fallen by the wayside, succumbing to drug overdoses, legal woes, and self-parody. But Young just keeps chugging along, releasing records just as steadily at 63 as he did when he was 23. Fork in the Road is a concept album about his electric Lincoln Continental. A documentary on the car and its technological innovations is in the works. Which sounds entirely watchable. But here’s hoping whoever OK’d that half-assed, pixelated camera-phone cover is out on the bread line right now.
6 Brooke Hogan: The Redemption
Brooke Hogan’s 2006 debut, Undiscovered, sold 100,000 copies off the strength of her family’s reality show. This year’s The Redemption has sold a tenth of that. Maybe it’s her lack of musical talent. Maybe it’s the stable of no-name hacks responsible for the production. Maybe it’s that ghastly cover, which apparently takes its inspiration from those tawdry, bootlegged Tupac and Biggie memorial T-shirts. Who knew angels wore rhinestone braziers and no panties?
5 KRS One & Buckshot: Survival Skills
OK, we get it: The album is called Survival Skills. Here’s a picture of KRS and Buckshot scaling some misty, craggy mountain and almost falling off. It isn’t the terrible perspective on the fake mountain range that ruins this cover. It isn’t the layer upon layer of amateurish cloud effects that mar the picture. It’s the faces. Kris, you’re the only thing keeping your friend from falling to his death. Buck, you’re falling off a mountain, man! Why does it look as if you guys are faintly smiling?
4 Ghostface Killah: Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
When word hit that Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah was making an R&B album, there was talk of the jig being up for him. When he announced that the title of the thing was Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, our worst fears were that much closer to being realized. Then the album art dropped. It’s hard to even unpack all the fail at work here. You’ve got scantily clad women tackily superimposed onto the field of roses, a green moat in front of the Emerald City, that weird floating eyeball above Ghostface’s name. Where to begin?
3 Flyleaf: Memento Mori
If any of you had designs on checking out Memento Mori, the new album from Christian nu-metal act Flyleaf, the band has made it much easier for you to put it back on the shelf. Just take a good gander before you do. That way you don’t miss that crusty old man with the bad makeup job in the foreground or lead singer Lacey Mosley standing in the middle of My Chemical Romance’s Black Parade. Are those little people? How’d they get black trumpets? So many questions.
2 Empire of the Sun: Walking on a Dream
“Walking on a Dream” is pretty rad. The rest of the album? Not so much. The cover? This is Sgt. Pepper’s meets Penn and Teller meets Return of the Jedi meets Liberace meets Ringling Bros. meets Blade Runner, and the pastiche sets a new standard for awful. There are elephants and tigers running on water! A tower on a volcano! Three comets! Two gaudily sequined jackets! This is the place where bad movie posters go to die.
1 Chris Brown: Graffiti
Chris Brown had a bad year. His domestic-violence incident and the resultant boycotting of his work ruined what could have been a promising singing career. But Brown subscribes to the R. Kelly school of thought: When the world is against you, just make hits. They’ll come around. And so we have Graffiti, his comeback album, whose artwork is a perfect eyesore. How can so much awful fit into one picture? The ’80s sci-fi vibe is bad enough. Add the superfluous guitar and sunglasses, and trouble is brewing. Toss in the shimmering planet in the background, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. The cornball spray can and album title combination are cheesy, too. It’s all of that plus the random gang of cartoon baddies in the corner that makes Graffiti the worst album cover of 2009. Chris, fire your publicist, fire your staff, fire everyone.
We don’t want to hoard all the fun for ourselves. Which cover do you think is ugliest this year? Let us know what we’ve missed in the comments below.