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New York in Album Covers

DESIGNERS SEEK TO create visually pleasing work but they also provide the opportunity for a viewer to identify with that work, to become emotionally connected to the form and the experience. We see this in architecture as much as we do in branding. In album covers, it’s the auditory experience that is emotionally conveyed, and perhaps more than in any other city, New York and its rich architectural history can be narrated through the lens of seminal music covers. Here's a journey from 1898 to the present day via 6 New York album covers. 


To the 5 Boroughs – Beastie Boys, 2004

With the consolidation of Brooklyn in 1898, New York became the complete city we recognise today, with 5 densely populated boroughs. First published for Random House in 2001, Matteo Pericoli’s single pen drawn New York skyline was later used as the cover of the Beastie Boys’ album ‘To the 5 boroughs’. For the city, the consolidation of the boroughs spurred a rise in population and a subsequent economic growth. Buildings such as the Flat Iron, The Singer and The Woolworth were given the financial aid to be constructed, beginning the high rise New York skyline we see today. 

Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin, 1975

With that furious growth, came the need for broad housing in Manhattan. As an immigration hub, the tenement blocks here were poorly built, with crumbling communal buildings populated by mostly immigrants seeking the American Dream. ‘Physical Graffiti’, designed by Peter Corriston and Mike Doud, features two, five storey brown tenement buildings of St Mark's Place which became a predominantly cultural street of East Village. The designers chose an intricate die-cut cover with interchangeable inner layers, which can be seen to be representative of the nature of the flats and their interchangeable tenants. With the Tenement Housing Act of 1901, the authorities were forced to build better homes, although it wasn’t until 1920 when the majority of tenement houses were demolished. 

Breakfast in America – Supertramp, 1979

Prior to the Wall Street Crash, modern architecture was filtering itself into New York City with its clean lines and limited material palette. The crash saw the American economy dip to an all time low and so much so that Diners were one of the few popular business opportunities. Aspects of this kitsch motif appear on the Supertramp album ‘Breakfast in America’ designed in 1979 by Mike Doud. Architects in New York, following the crash were forced to design practically and functionally thanks to lower budgets. Despite that depression, New Yorkers belligerently soldiered on, and the skyscraper era continued, typified by the building of the Empire State Building, throughout the time of that financial crisis.

Mermaid Avenue – Billy Bragg & Wilco, 1998

Residential architecture across New York City changed following the Housing Act of 1937, which offered government loans for public housing at long term yet low cost rates.


Across Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island was seen as a peninsular escape from the city by the masses of Manhattan in the hot summer months, well known for its theme parks and glorious sandy beaches. However, its lesser-known single-family residential architecture is compelling, pictured here on the album Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. The title was based on the song “Mermaid Avenue” by legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie who lived on that particular street with his family in the 1940s. The cover image perfectly defines the affordable housing which symbolised low social mobility and the under realisation of the 'American Dream' in the modern era. Following his short time on Mermaid Avenue, Guthrie and his family moved to an apartment in Brooklyn owned by Fred Trump, a real estate investor and father to US president Donald Trump. In Guthrie’s song “I aint got no home” he sings of the racial inequality of the modern apartment blocks:


“Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just cain’t pay this rent!
My moneys down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
… Where no black ones come to roam!
No No No Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

Zonoscope – Cut Copy, 2011

Cut Copy’s album “Zonoscope”, its cover designed by the montage artist Tsunehisa Kimura, depicts a surrealist New York City consumed by a giant waterfall. The cover is said to symbolise the new synth heavy sounds of the band compared with the more electro style of their previous albums, seen also through the juxtaposing modernist and post-modernist New York architecture.


New York architecture has started to take a more futuristic turn within the last decade, possibly due to the growing density of the city. We see the rise in playful sci-fi architecture such as 41 Cooper Square or the Transportation Hub along with numerous conceptual designs that are yet to be realised. Such projects like Analemma from Clouds AO, and 41 West 57th Street by Mark Foster Gage Architects.

Sonic Highways – Foo Fighters, 2014

Of all the design we see explored through album covers today, it’s this futuristic surrealism that’s most prevalent. As well as with Zonoscope, albums such as Foo Fighters’ ‘Sonic Highways’, designed by illustrator Stephan Martinière continue the theme. It features New York along with buildings from other major American cities, which represents the travels of the band prior to creating the album.


This particular pick-and-mix vision of future America speaks of the regionalisation of power and influence as people move out of New York and into smaller states with more land. New York City’s apparent density has an architectural downside both financially and spatially, as it is incredibly expensive to live and to build there. It is a victim of gentrification and the starchitect generation and as a result, there seems to be a rise in ground breaking American architecture found elsewhere. New York City continues to maintain its high-rise integrity within the architectural world but it may be losing its mantle as America’s principle city.