New Order - Republic
This one wouldn't maybe be so bad if the band in question didn't have a history - dating all the way back to Joy Division's 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures - of having some of the best covers in pop music history. Like all the Joy Division and New Order sleeves that precede and follow it, Republic is a Peter Saville joint. I guess Saville lost a bet or something, and that bet probably went something along the lines of "I'll bet you can't make a record cover so ugly we could use it to scour tub grout."
As opposed to New Order, REM never had many good record covers. In fact, it's far easier to count the bad album covers than the good ones. Of the bad ones, this is one of the worst, although it's hard to say that it's objectively worse than Life's Rich Pageant or Document or Out of TIme or any of their atrocious Photoshop disasters from the last decade. But seriously, people: look at this hot mess. It's like a baby threw up, and it just happened to be baby William Faulkner.
"Hello, I'm Tupac, I like sunsets, Lakers games and catching a late dinner at Pink's. I'm looking for a girl who's looking for something on a serious tip 'cause I'm sick of having my heart broken. Enter 9898 to leave a message, and I'll holler back at ya."
This one gets extra points for the fact that the 12" vinyl pressing still has the same "2 Compact Disc Pac" sticker that the CD version had. And for some reason I always see this record for sale at Urban Outfitters when I go in looking for their clearance tchotchkes. So you know there are a ton of Studio Art / Ethnography double majors for whom this is the token artifact of "black" culture that gets displayed prominently in their dorm room.
The problem with Dylan is that when it comes to certain aspects of his career, he just could not give a shit. Dude seriously could not care less about half the shit that goes along with being a rock star. Like recording albums: it's a well-known fact that one of the reasons that he had so much trouble recording decent albums from 1976-1996 is that he hated being in the studio and really resented the fact that recording equipment got so damned complicated. He hated having to deal with multiple takes and overdubs and layered arrangements and all the methodical stuff that you have to do to record a decent sounding non-Sebadoh album. So if you go back and read about any Dylan album from this period, the story is usually something along the lines of: Dylan finds a producer he thinks he likes. Said producer asks Dylan to do another take, work on the arrangements a bit longer, teach the songs to the other members of the band before pressing "play" on the tape machine - you know, any of the stuff that goes along with actually recording a professional-quality rock & roll album. Dylan walks off in a pissy huff and the album is compiled from scraps of whatever they had sitting around the studio that Dylan didn't piss on out of spite at being asked to, you know, give a shit.
Again, you could argue that Dylan has some worse record covers. (Empire Burlesque is a cheap shot.) But I would argue that you will never find a lazier album cover in the history of pop music - at least, not from a major recording artist working for a major record company. This is seriously the most "don't give a SHIT" record cover ever pressed on a cardboard sleeve. Robert Pollard takes longer to crap out a collage to slap on the front of whichever new Circus Devils record is being released this month.
I have a strong feeling this started life as a Sisters of Mercy album cover - or maybe Killing Joke? - before getting lost behind a filing cabinet somewhere. Fast forward to 1985: Hüsker Dü need an album cover. Someone spots a lost Federal Express box behind the filing cabinet. "Hey guys, let's use this, Bob won't care." "But," someone says, "it looks all gothy." "No problem, we still have some candy letters from that birthday cake we made last week."
Yeah, OK, I know I said Empire Burlesque was a cheap shot, and if you accept that premise then Never Let Me Down should probably be covered under the same "fish in a barrel" clause that covers quite a few other 1980s-era recordings from similarly popular rock stars. (Dylan, Bowie, Neil Young, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, etc.) But I'll plead special circumstances for this one because I actually like Never Let Me Down. It's not a great album but I think there's some good material that shines through despite the awful production. Bowie himself famously hates this album, but it's not that bad. (OK, still pretty bad.)
But the cover? Man, if Dylan didn't give a shit, I think Bowie is a victim here of giving too much of a shit. Seriously, what's going on? Is he swinging on a trapeze through a flaming hoop? Is he cleaning his room? Is he being held captive by the Circus of Crime? I dunno, man. This one's a bit too "high concept" for me.
The Hartnoll Brothers have all of one decent album cover to their names - that would be 1999's Middle of Nowhere. Other than that, we're looking at a vast wasteland filled with either aggressively awful or just ploddingly utilitarian designs. This, however . . . this one takes the cake even over In Sides. This is one of the ugliest pictures I own of anything. I would rather tattoo a picture of Ed Benes to the inside of my eyelid than have to look at this thing for longer than the five seconds it takes me to take the CD case out of the drawer.
I like this album. It's one of my favorite Stones albums, right after all the ones you're "supposed" to like. It's different. They never tried to get this far out of the sandbox again, and I like that. They could probably have recorded a whole album of songs like "She's A Rainbow" and it would have been one of the best things ever.
But this? This looks like four guys who are terribly, terribly hung over, wondering why the hell they can't remember signing off on the concept for this album cover, probably because they were high at the time. But they really don't care enough to fuck with it, the whole point is to goose the Beatles and I guess you can say that, yes, the bare minimum this cover accomplishes is that it gooses the Beatles right good. (The fifth guy in the picture? That's good ol' Charlie Watts, smiling that same old Sphinx-like smile, perfectly content to show up on time and do everything that is required of him so long as the checks clear.)