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The 5 Best “Black Albums” in Music History
Five classic albums that have shunned cover art, from Metallica to Prince.
By Alex Heigl
Maybe your record label got pissed at your carefully selected cover art, maybe you’re taking an oh-so-fashionable shot at the Beatles, or maybe you're just edgy like that, and so your hypothetical power pop/R&B/dance band is releasing a “black album” — no cover art, just an inky abyss. Whatever the reason, you’re in good company. On the twentieth anniversary of Metallica’s classic, we take a look at other notable “black albums” in music history:
5. Neu! ‘75, Neu!
This list, like any good list, begins with experimental German rock music from the ‘70s. The Krautrock duo Neu! sprung from the womb of dancey, trancey Kraftwerk, but most of its songs sound like John Lydon singing over Brian Eno instrumentals — though of course this album pre-dates either of those guys by several years. In any event, Neu!'s metronomic, trance-inducing, pre-techno wound up influencing everybody from Joy Division to David Bowie.
Nicknamed “the black album,” (you know, because of its cover), it’s a great gateway drug in to the deep, exclusive world of Krautrock — don’t be surprised if you’re suddenly struck by an urge to drive at high speeds over long distances while listening to his album, possibly while wearing a beret. The album is an essential touchstone in the “black album” genre — many of the bleak, eccentric, German stereotypes in pop culture, from Mike Meyers’ “Sprockets” skit on SNL to the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski can be traced to Krautrock’s black turtleneck-shrouded thump and long stretches of sterile, Autobahn-inspired sounds.
4. Smell the Glove, Spinal Tap
Smell the Glove was originally released with a cover that featured “a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man's arm extended out...holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.” Unsurprisingly, it was deemed sexist (prompting guitarist Nigel Tufnel to wonder “What’s wrong with being sexy?”) and replaced by a literally all-black cover. When he received the new cover art, singer and guitarist Christopher St. Hubbins was less than thrilled, remarking that “This is something you wear around your arm — you don’t put this on your fucking turntable.”
The cover to Smell the Glove was a parody of the controversy surrounding Whitesnake’s Love Hunter album and also coincided nicely with the release of AC/DC’s Back in Black in 1980. The joke quickly outgrew This is Spinal Tap — when Metallica released their own “black album” in 1991, an accompanying long-form video released by the band featured a scene in which Tap confronted James Hetfield about his alleged plagiarism, saying, “We need to talk about the black album.”
Listen: "Hell Hole"
3. The Black Album by Prince
Though a disappointing record compared to Sign O’ The Times (and let’s face it, what isn’t?), The Black Album is one of Prince’s most direct records: funky, dirty and at times, nearly industrial. The album was more or less panned by critics, but super-fans can still enjoy the trademark Prince devices of the time: drum machine, insistent groove, and vaguely creepy lust — mostly directed at Cindy Crawford, in the form of “Cindy C.”
However, The Black Album lives up to its name with the dark, downright creepy “Bob George.” Prince had in the past altered the pitch of his voice on recordings, notably affecting a chipmunk-on-helium tone he called “Camille” for songs like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” but for “Bob George,” he takes the opposite route, slowing down his voice to a menacing growl. The song is basically a violent, misogynistic monologue, and it’s hard to parse whether Prince is being sarcastic or just purposefully offensive, but at one point, the narrator refers to Prince as “that skinny motherfucker with the high-pitched voice,” making it at once scary and meta. Double-score!
Listen: "Bob George"
2. The Black Album by Jay-Z
Touted (apocryphally) as Jay-Z’s final album, The Black Album would have found Jay going out on a high note. Cuts like “Change Clothes” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” feature Jay-Z’s trademark eloquence, and show that he hadn’t lost his affinity for poppy hooks — a la “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” This might be a black album, but it’s pretty damn catchy.
Though sampling the “Are you not entertained?” speech from Gladiator on “What More Can I Say” is an appropriately grandiose gesture that Metallica would have approved of, the most metal moment of the record is undoubtedly “99 Problems,” a song scientifically proven to compromise the structural integrity of any building it’s played in. Inexplicably featuring professional d-bag Vincent Gallo in the video (whose presence is redeemed by that of Rick Rubin, apparently now fully graduated to boddhisattva), “99 Problems” is the real star of The Black Album, featuring some of Jay’s most memorable lines: “You know the type, loud as a motor bike / But wouldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight.”
Listen: "99 Problems"
1. Metallica by Metallica
Metallica was never a band that thrived on subtlety. However, by 1988, the band had reached the absolute nadir of their 80s-era angst with ...And Justice for All — not a single track is under five minutes, and the titular song hit a complex and overblown peak that’s either everything that’s great about metal or boring as all hell, depending on how many patches you have on your denim vest.
The band returned three years later with Metallica, an album featuring slower tempos, varying dynamics, and shorter songs — basically, it's the dividing line between Metallica fans and, well the rest of the world. Long-term fans felt betrayed, claiming the band had altered nearly everything about their sound to appeal to a larger audience, and everybody else just tried to get the riff from “Enter Sandman” out of their head. The barely-noticeable coiled snake on the cover (and the accompanying track “Don’t Tread on Me”) suggests that Metallica was anticipating the controversy the album would stir up and was ready to defend their right to change their sound: the album has since gone platinum fifteen times. It seems their ebony album has been vindicated.
Listen: "Nothing Else Matters"