Given her popularity and critical acclaim, can you imagine a Top 25 list of anything related to Texas music that doesn’t include Beyoncé? Welcome to our world, where even covers like Lemonade and Beyoncé didn’t make the cut. Oh, both were considered — we debated whether either release deserved inclusion. But in the end, our crack team couldn’t justify Queen Bey’s presence … at least not here.

In terms of methodology, we first elicited from our writers the covers they believe deserve to be placed on a best-of list. (The list was impressive both in size and in scope.) We then voted, whittled the items down, then turned to our three authorities — Richard Skanse, Texas Music’s first editor; Tom Buckley, the magazine’s current editor; and Kirstin Cutts, our creative savant, who’s a museum educator at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio — to decide on the Top 25.

Any list is fair game, of course, so feel free to let us know where we succeeded and/or where we might have missed the mark. Most of all, though, enjoy this collection of seminal artistic achievements.



Lightnin! (1977)


Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins catches you coming and going with his 1977 double album. After decades of playing Houston bars, the East Texas bluesman experienced a massive career renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s, thanks to a trendy interest in “authentic” folkways and determined ethnomusicologists. His success is underscored with an album cover designed by Milton Glaser, another artist of considerable output and influence. The heavy outlines and chaotic color fields combine in a sort of psychedelic-colonial woodcut, where the longer you look, the more unsteady you feel. What is he laughing at — oh God, is it me? It might well be: Hopkins was famous for his ruthless business sense and keeping clear control over any session he played in. And, being a consummate bluesman, the man knew how to write a devastating innuendo. Lightnin’ knows, but that doesn’t mean he’ll tell. — Kirstin Cutts



Picnic (1997)

Robert Earl Keen

Any Robert Earl Keen fan familiar with his seminal No. 2 Live Dinner album knows the story about how the young Aggie and future songwriting legend’s car was destroyed in a grass fire at the second Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic, held at College Station’s Texas Motor Speedway in 1974. The story itself is practically one of Keen’s greatest hits (all together now: “That’s my car, man!”) — so much so that he went on to name his next studio album Picnic, complete with a historic cover shot of the fateful fire (and his poor car) taken by a fellow A&M student named Michael Sabin. Fun fact: upon first seeing a poster for the album, up-and-coming hotshot Jack Ingram — irked by a recent Keen comment he’d interpreted as a jealous dis — took revenge on his older hero by penning “Mustang Burn.” Ingram still plays the incendiary song today, despite acknowledging that he and Keen have long since become friends. Which makes one wonder if Keen just never had the heart to point out that his car, whose license plate number,“RHP 997,” is both a key punchline in the story and clearly readable in the photo, is actually the one burning next to the Mustang. D’oh! Richard Skanse



Old No. 1 (1975)

Guy Clark

The songs, of course, are unassailable. That much had been established even before RCA released Guy Clark’s debut album in late ’75, thanks in large part to Clark’s pal Jerry Jeff Walker’s advance work introducing canon classics like “Desperados Waiting for the Train,” “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling” to the progressive country hall of fame. But it was Old No. 1 that served notice that even the best Guy Clark covers would always pale in comparison to hearing them straight from the source. There’s just something about the way Clark and his smoke-toasted voice fit those songs better than anyone else that would always make them feel more broken-in and lived in — just like the old blue shirt Clark wears on the cover, standing next to a painting by his wife, Susanna, of the very same shirt. Clark himself isn’t in that painting, but it’s a portrait of him just the same. And as if that visual metaphor wasn’t striking enough, there’s also this: No OG Texas troubadour ever looked cooler on a record jacket than that Guy, and damned if he’s not even trying. RS



Live Shots (1980)

Joe Ely

Capturing the original Joe Ely Band in peak form giving their friends the Clash a helluva tough act to follow (on the legendary punk band’s home turf in London, no less), Live Shots holds its own among the greatest live albums ever made. And its eye-popping, poster-style cover by Austin artist Guy Juke is one for the ages, too. “I think it’s brilliant,” raves Ely, noting how Juke’s clean lines, sharp angles, and bold lettering evoked the “electricity” of the era’s Texas rockabilly revival and its intersection with punk and early New Wave. He adds that there were once two versions: one red, for the original Europe-only pressing (and later for the CD), and a purple variant when the album was first issued stateside a few months later. But no matter the color, Ely unabashedly calls the cover “probably Guy’s best work, out of millions of great pieces.” His count’s not too far off, either: As a member of the “Armadillo Art Squad,” Juke was responsible for designing countless museum gallery-worthy flyers documenting the storied history of the famed Armadillo World Headquarters. RS



Lubbock (on everything) (1979)

Terry Allen

This double-album opus may be epic in scope with its 21 songs sprawled across 83 minutes, but it’s all the little details Terry Allen packs into each of those songs — or often as not, mischievously leaves out — that really make Lubbock, well, everything. And that’s what makes its cover so archly perfect. According to the liner notes in the 2016 reissue, the cactus chair belonged to producer Lloyd Maines’ grandmother, and it was Allen’s wife, Jo Harvey, who snapped the photo during a post-recording party at Caldwell Studios. But because Allen also happens to be a world-renowned visual artist, it’s hard not to see the whole tableau as a multi-dimensional art installation. There’s a story or metaphor to be deciphered there, surely, but like a plume of black smoke rising from a truckload of burning art just off the highway, nobody knows what it means. Not even longtime Allen aficionado David Byrne. “What’s the leather chair on the cover mean? I don’t know,” he admits in his own essay in that aforementioned reissue. “There have to be some mysteries left unexplained, I guess.” RS



Spirit (1996)

Willie Nelson

Although its Top 20 status on the Billboard country chart meant Spirit was hardly Willie Nelson’s lowest-profile record of the decade, it was by design a whisper on the wind compared to the bigger bang of 1993’s guest-heavy Across the Borderline and ’98’s Daniel Lanois (and Emmylou Harris) showcase, Teatro. But 25 years on, Spirit holds up as Nelson’s best album of the ’90s, if not his whole career. Composed entirely of Willie originals and produced by Nelson himself, accompanied in the studio only by his sister Bobbie, Jody Payne and Johnny Gimble, it’s a starkly beautiful work of Zen minimalism that sounds exactly like its sepia-toned cover portrait by photographer Chris Buck. Nelson was just barely into his sixties at the time, but he looks older than Yoda and wiser than a whole pantheon of ancient gods. RS



Pearl (1971)

Janis Joplin

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Pearl is a bittersweet album. Joplin was still recording the tracks when she died at age 27; the album was released three months later. It’s hard not to think about that when looking at the cover: Joplin slouches on an ornate loveseat, cradling a drink and a cigarette like they’re heavy with foreshadowing. We know the story, so we can look at the wrinkled backdrop and left-hand shadow and see the imperfect promises of glamour and fame, the looming darkness ready to swallow our heroine. But Joplin didn’t know that was coming. She just knew she was cutting a new album with a new band, one she liked playing with. When you listen to “Mercedes Benz,” her final recording, she sounds like she’s having fun. The Pearl cover looks like the photos you take of your friends when you’re just having a good time with each other and no one knows there’s a camera. She’s relaxed, looking off and smiling like someone’s telling a great dirty joke just out of the frame. She’s leaning into the light. — KC



KMAG YOYO (& other American Stories) (2011)

Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll, After going for a classic FreewheelinBob Dylan kinda vibe on the cover of his breakthrough third album, Trouble in Mind, Hayes Carll went full-on The Jerk for his even better follow-up, KMAG YOYO (a military acronym for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own”). The James Minchin III shot finds our hero looking for all the world like an alien abductee unceremoniously dumped not in a corn field but on top of downtown rooftop. There he stands solo against a dark cityscape, wearing a look of hopeless befuddlement, a stars-and-stripes sweater tumble-dried on high too many times, jeans and black socks (with boots laying in front of him like a crime scene). All that’s missing is a broken lamp and sad little paddle board. Pair that with KMAG YOYO’s equally intriguing subtitle — “(& other American Stories)” — and it’s like a movie opening with its protagonist caught in the middle of the most precarious (and ridiculous) situation imaginable, and breaking the third wall to address the camera straight on: “How did I get here, you ask? Funny story …” — RS



Cuz I Love You (2019)


Given how omnipresent Lizzo is today, it’s a little surprising to remember that Cuz I Love You, bursting with bangers, came out in just 2019. The image here is on theme with her earlier releases — Lizzo, photographed against a solid background — but is much more revealing from the past head-and-shoulders portraits. The decision to pose nude is never free from risks and implications, certainly not when a woman outside the narrow limits of socially condoned attractiveness makes that decision. This stark composition, with its almost-hesitant vulnerability, throws us for a loop when we hear the brassy, high-energy tracks that get you on the dance floor before you realize your hips are swinging. Lizzo isn’t deer-in-the-headlights frozen; she’s poised and ready to leap. The title cut is the closest we get to a ballad, and it’s clear that “Cuz I Love You” isn’t a plea but a promise: big, powerful voices come with big, powerful feelings. — KC



La Futura (2012)

ZZ Top

That legendary little ol’ band from Texas has had its fair share of album covers that could be considered essential. But with the recent passing of bassist Dusty Hill, it’s the original trio’s final 2012 album, La Futura, that made our list. The group’s best album after 1983’s Eliminator, it’s something of a return to their roots that doesn’t simply rehash their early successes. That timeless yet new feeling is perfectly illustrated in the art design by Grammy-award-winning Joe Spix. The album’s cover captures the trio’s iconic image in side-profile silhouette — those two beards and Fedoras (courtesy of Hill and Billy Gibbons) on each side of the clean-shaven and hatless Frank Beard, just under the band’s name, surrounded by a bed of roses. It’s simple, striking and timeless, much like the band itself. — Linc Leifeste



Honky Tonk Heroes (1973)

Waylon Jennings

Honky Tonk Heroes was Waylon Jennings’ first album after successfully demanding full creative control from his record label, and he flexed that freedom like a boss: by recording almost an entire album of songs by a scrappy unknown wildcard from Corsicana, Texas, named Billy Joe Shaver. Chet Atkins and the rest of the RCA brass weren’t thrilled at the gamble, but Jennings knew a damn good song when he heard one, and Shaver just happened to have a whole sack of ’em destined to become outlaw country classics. Jennings bucked the Nashville system by using his own road band on the record, too, and the cover photo by Jimmy Moore offers a fly-on-the-wall view of just how much fun all them good ol’ boys must have had in the studio — despite all the times Shaver and Waylon reportedly butted heads over song arrangements. One bum note, though: although “We Had it All,” the one song on the album not written by Shaver (Waylon’s lone concession to the label), wasn’t necessarily a dud, slapping its name on the cover in a glaring red button feels a tad passive-aggressive. RS



The Last of the True Believers (1986)

Nanci Griffith

On her 1988 live album One Fair Summer Evening, Nanci Griffith introduces a song by telling the Anderson Fair audience about her love of discount stores, going back to her high school days in Austin when her daily bus-change schedule allowed her just enough time to dash inside a downtown Woolworth’s to buy a Vanilla Coke, flip through the record bin, and wink at the boys. That’s the sweet nostalgia she tapped into so memorably for “Love at the Five & Dime,” which made its debut on The Last of the True Believers and inspired the album’s equally evocative cover. Shot by photographer Frank Golden, it finds Griffith (clutching a biography of Tennessee Williams) standing outside of a Woolworth’s and flanked by four friends: music writer John T. Davis and Paisley Robertson playing the couple on her left, and Dianne Warren slow dancing on her right with some long, tall gent named Lyle Lovett. Lovett notes that the Woolworth’s was in downtown Houston, not Austin, but no matter, because as Griffith later explained at Anderson Fair, “Woolworth’s are the same all over the world.” You can practically smell the popcorn and used chewing gum. RS



Hi How Are You? (1983)

Daniel Johnston

Jeremiah the Innocent came into the world in 1983. Ten years later, the frog was on a mural at 21st and Guadalupe; today, he’s as entrenched in Austin’s visual culture as the capitol and the “I Love You So Much” wall. But his beginnings as a hand-drawn illustration on the cover of Johnston’s cassette album Hi, How Are You? are hardly quality Instagram content. Johnston openly struggled with his mental health, and claimed he wrote and recorded this album in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t diminish the impact of the ruefully simple lyrics. Is it inspiring that a crude, possibly alien frog introducing us to songs with titles like “Despair Came Knocking” became an Austin ambassador, or does it suggest a more superficial engagement? That’s up for debate, too. Jeremiah might be an icon of an Austin of the past, but his friendly face still offers some comfort that when we’re submerged in our deepest, darkest feels, someone out there will listen to us. — KC



Masseduction (2017)

St. Vincent

St. Vincent, never truly predictable, got a little weird(er) with Masseduction. The title is clearly an innuendo, but to what isn’t clear. From a distance, or at a smaller resolution, the cover might just be an abstract of shapes against an aggressively fuchsia background. Up close, when we realize we’re looking at a figure, it’s almost embarrassingly, clumsily sexual. Is this supposed to be hot? The awkward pose suggests not, and the dissonance of the pink tights against that background makes it too uncomfortable to linger too long in voyeurism. It’s a weird tease for a weird album, where Annie Clark’s precise soprano depicts the furthest extremes of West Coast hedonism through layers of distortion and crunchy synths. — KC



Townes Van Zandt (1969)

Townes Van Zandt

Even during peak season for moody, contemplative singer-songwriters, Townes Van Zandt stood apart. His image-heavy songs could be startlingly bleak, evidenced by the selections on his self-titled album. Four of the tracks had already been released on For the Sake of the Song, and Van Zandt was famously unhappy with the layers of ornamental production bogging down the lyrics. They definitely hit different: “Waitin’ Around to Die” transforms from a swingy saloon number to a sparse dirge, best accompanied by drinking alone. The cover art communicates that same exhaustion, with the singer seated at a kitchen table, eyes closed, head in hand. It’s a dramatic change from the challenging, head-on eye contact on Our Mother the Mountain. Now he seems far away and withdrawn, letting the minimal arrangements amplify the gloomy honesty of his songwriting. No Western props, no cowboy hat: just Townes Van Zandt. — KC



We Cant Be Stopped (2007)

The Geto Boys

Besides being one of the best rap albums by a Texas ensemble, the Geto Boys’ We Cant Be Stopped is legendary for its graphic cover, shot by Cliff Blodget, co-owner of Rap-A-Lot Records, the label that created the group. Featuring the late Richard “Bushwick Bill” Shaw in the hospital after being shot in the face by his girlfriend, the cover picture is even more shocking than the musical contents. The other bandmates — Willie “Willie D” Dennis and Brad “Scarface” Jordan — actually removed his IV and eye bandage to increase the shock value. Over the years, members have had regrets about taking this photo. “I really didn’t understand why that picture was so important — important enough to take the IV out of my arm and endanger my life,” Bushwick Bill said. “I could have been blinded for life.” Added Jordan: “If you look at my face, you can tell I didn’t want to be a part of that photo shoot,” he said. “It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.” — Darryl Smyers



Guitar Town (1986)

Steve Earle

By the time his MCA debut — destined to reach No. 1 on the country chart — hit the racks in the spring of 1986, Steve Earle was hardly some fresh-off-the-bus rookie with naive notions of making an instant splash on Music Row. He’d already spent the better part of a decade in Nashville marinating in the heady company of fellow Texas refugees Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, all the while burning through several publishing deals and even a short stint on another major label that yielded four singles and a shelved rockabilly record. He was 31, battle-scarred and jaded, but still too stubborn, hungry and cocky to ever be mistaken for broken and defeated. All of that rebel verve comes across loud and clear from Guitar Town’s opening gambit (“Hey pretty baby, are you ready for me?”), and it’s all right there on the throwback album cover, too. Snapped by photographer Alan Messer on Lower Broadway (Nashville’s infamous “Honky Tonk Highway”), it captures the guitar-slinging Earle looking like a swaggering gunfighter spoiling for a fight and ready to give the country music establishment a “great credibility scare” for the ages. RS



Texas Tornados (1990)

Texas Tornados

What do you get when a guitarist, an accordion virtuoso, a steel guitar prodigy and Mexican Elvis gig in San Francisco? How about a Grammy-winning supergroup? The Texas Tornados blended conjunto, Texas rock ’n’ roll, and country into a modern Tex-Mex style. Well-seasoned by the early ’90s, each member — Flaco Jiménez, Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender — had successful careers prior to the Tornados, once prompting Fender to remark, “You’ve heard of New Kids on the Block? We’re the Old Guys in the Street.” But that didn’t stop them from bringing an invigorating approach to the musical styles that influenced them. The group’s self-titled debut album, released in both English and Spanish, earned the band worldwide exposure and a Grammy for the track “Soy de San Luis.” The album’s cover forecasts impending doom while Jiménez jams on his accordion, the others boogieing, caught in a moment of authentic joy — dance music for the apocalypse — a perfect encapsulation of a band that was all Texas and no pretense. — Candice Harrell



Same Trailer, Different Park (2013)

Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves honors plenty of requisite country music conventions: narratives spun out of idioms, cowboy boots in the cover photo. Her status as country-music disruptor doesn’t come from rejecting the classic symbols of the genre, but she’s not ostentatious about them either. Her songwriting is subtle enough that when she subverts symbols and clichés, you might not pick it up on first listen. The title and image for her major label debut is, at first glance, pretty simple: a fun country twist to a familiar phrase and a photo of Musgraves looking demure in the scrubby suburbs. It’s almost too generic, but the songs are anything but: small-town existentialism, delivered wryly, but never snarkily. Musgraves continues the tradition of country-music truth-telling without falling into syrupy self-indulgence. She never overdoes the irony, either sonically or visually. It’s a smart choice for a debut: the light is still great, and so are her boots. But now you notice that concrete approximation of a white picket fence, and it looks awful uncomfortable. — KC



Places in Between (2000)

Terri Hendrix

By the time Hendrix released Places In Between — her third album — she was already typecast as the perky, upbeat songstress sporting a luminescent smile and aw-shucks overalls. Texas Monthly boasted she was “a walking advertisement for sunny confidence and boundless enthusiasm.” That characterization, however, overlooked the depth of Hendrix’s songwriting and her behind-the-scenes struggle to achieve major-label certification (something that proved serendipitous as she forged an extraordinarily successful DIY operation). “Oh, why bother at all?” she sings on “Wish,” one of the album’s stark takes. “Get your hopes up / Just to feel them fall.” The album cover, displaying equal parts poignancy and authenticity, served as a shot across the bow for anyone trying to pigeonhole the talented wordsmith as a purveyor of zip-a-dee-doo-dah. This was the real Hendrix: unvarnished, complicated, courageous, always graceful — offering a more reflective and intimate collection of songs that confronted her fears. Tom Buckley



The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)

The 13th Floor Elevators

While “Texas music” and “psychedelic” aren’t typically used in the same sentence, we may need look no further than the Lone Star State for psychedelic rock’s origins. Austin’s own 13th Floor Elevators, whom Rolling Stone called “the most important early progenitors of psychedelic garage rock,” are top contenders for OGs of the genre. The group’s debut release, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, claims the first use of “psychedelic” in reference to music on an album, and features their hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” The album’s mind-bending sound embodies the hallucinogen-induced mind expansion of its time. So does its cover art. Before a note of music is played, the colorful, swirling, Illuminati acid trip promises a quintessential ’60s experience. The songs make good on that promise. The cover was designed by Austin artist John Cleveland, and unlike many iconic covers of the style and time, whose chaotic elements evoke a bad trip, the art of The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators has a simplicity not found in later iterations of the style. — CH



This Land (2019)

Gary Clark Jr.

A charcoal silhouette of a man surrounded by white. No name, no title — just suggestions of black letters, erased. The cover art for This Land, Gary Clark Jr.’s third studio album, is an apt visual for its title track. Inspired by an incident with a neighbor who refused to believe Clark owned a 50-acre ranch in Austin, the song confronts the injustice and invisibility of being Black in America. “This Land” responds to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land,” an homage to America’s greatness that claims this land for all her sons and daughters. “This Land” challenges the truth of that message. As Clark repeats the refrain, “This land is mine,” you can’t help but feel his frustrated exhaustion. After such a powerful start, the album meanders through Clark’s rock ’n’ roll, reggae, soul and hip-hop influences while staying true to his characteristic blues foundations. With such a range of style and sentiment, it’s no wonder that between the album and title track, Clark went home with three Grammys in 2020. — CH



The Houston Kid (2001)

Rodney Crowell

Crowell’s finest album serves as a pseudo documentary where fact and fiction are interwoven in a powerful, disturbing narrative of his youth on the wrong side of the Houston tracks, and where survival instincts are put to the test in an environment of alcohol and abuse. The intensity of Michael Wilson’s cover shot, which features an anguished Crowell perhaps praying, perhaps wringing his hands — or, likely, both — is haunting, shades of darkness disguising his expression but not his torment. “Momma’s on the sofa with a big black eye,” he sings in “Topsy Turvy.” “I cross my heart and tell myself I hope they die.” A masterpiece of intimacy, The Houston Kid, which Crowell bankrolled himself, eschews commercial concerns and finds the singer wrapping his confessional tales in uncommonly light and easy vocals, negotiating his perceived reality with grace. As the cover conveys, The Houston Kid possesses the aura of an old pro meditating on his past, aching for resolution. — TB



Ven Conmigo (1990)


San Antonio’s McNay Museum recently closed Siempre Selena, designed and debuted in-house. The original exhibition featured John Dyer’s photographs of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, taken for magazine features in 1992 and 1994. She wears checkered, cropped jackets, bedazzled bustiers and red lipstick, part of the look she began cultivating as she started to cross over from Tejano music to more mainstream charts. The challenges of making such a move in the early ’90s are obvious, but it wasn’t the first uphill climb of her career. Selena won her title of the Queen of Tejano despite resistance and rejection from the genre’s gatekeeping machistas. Her portrait on 1990’s Ven Conmigo suggests an acknowledgement of these battles, and an affirmation that she’s ready to meet them. It’s a much tougher image than her other albums: instead of dreamy soft-focus, we get a leather jacket, spiked hair and big earrings, all in black and white. It isn’t inherently a challenging shot, but she’s prepared to stand her ground and finish whatever gets started. Ven Conmigo, or get out of the way. — KC



Ornette! (1962)

Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth, where he was expelled from his high school band for improvising during a march. It was a pretty clear harbinger of his career to come: he pioneered the avant-garde or free-jazz style, rejecting the conventions of chord progression and consistent tempos in favor of pure improvisation. So how do you interpret that visually? You could take the easy way out and use a portrait of the performer; or, as on Ornette!, you can go full-on graphic. Coleman and his quartet challenge any listener to find a clear or predictable meaning, from the song titles (initialisms of Sigmund Freud writings) to the jagged, minimalist cover. Blue and yellow are complementary colors, which should connote musical harmonics, right? But the composition is erratic and uneven, each letter interrupted by fields of rough contour. Is it a landscape? Is it the aftermath of an explosion? It’s jazz, baby. — KC


Click here to read more stories in our Fall 2021 issue, including how James McMurtry carries his father’s storytelling legacy in his music, a Q&A with Parker Woodland’s Erin Walter, the story of “The Blind Whistler,” and an excerpt from a collection of interviews about songwriter Mickey Newbury.