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Monday, August 23, 2010

Under the Covers

EXERCISE TIME! Think of your favorite albums of all time. Now, think of the album cover of each one. Are these covers memorable? Can you remember colors, facial expressions, or other details of the cover?

Album covers are a very important part of the music world. Average ones are often overlooked, and some music labels certainly select an image based on its marketability. But covers serve a purpose beyond catching the music browser's attention. The cover can be an extension of the album, showcasing a feeling or message through the cover. Join me in my latest Monday Music Moment as we look at different album covers and analyze how they impact us as both music lovers and consumers.

Some Background

Album art wasn't prevalent in the music industry until the late 1930s, when graphic designer Alex Steinweiss was hired by Columbia records to design art for album covers. While Steinweiss was not the first artist to ever create an album cover, he is credited with spreading the concept and turning the art form into an industry standard.

As a young music fan who is somewhat in tune with older music, I think I can be a somewhat reliable caliper of what album art has 'passed the test of time.' Whether found on the internet, in magazines, or in another medium, some timeless album covers pop up frequently enough that they are even recognized by youngn's like myself. Whether you're 21 or 50, you've most likely come across some famous album covers from artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac.

While it's clear that exposure plays a huge part in memorable album covers (Dark Side of the Moon is the third best-selling album of all time, Rumours is the tenth), we see from this limited set of covers the various types of album covers, and how they can be successfully done.

Artist Portraits

One of the most common types of album covers, there are clearly marketing advantages to using the artist's likeness on the cover. Although I sometimes question the true effectiveness of this cover (will a straight man attracted to the naked Katy Perry on her Teenage Dream cover actually buy the album if he's not a fan of pop music?), using the artist's image does make the album easier to process for potential fans. Browsing old albums in record stores, a music fan may skip over more creative album covers while pausing to examine albums with recognizable faces on the cover.
While some covers certainly present the artist in an interesting way (such as the forlorn looking Joni on the Blue album cover), the problem with this cover is that it's been done so many times that covers can often become boring.

But while the artist portrait album covers can seem quite stale at times, other artists present their likenesses in interesting, creative ways.

While I might not pay much attention to Lauryn Hill's face staring at me from an album cover, I definitely take a second look when I realize it is scratched into the top of a desk (Miseducation... get it?). This is one example of an album's cover relating to the content of the record, which is filled with short conversations that sound as if they are recorded in a classroom, where the students discuss the concept of love. This direct tie to the music makes the cover more meaningful for listeners and in extension, more memorable.


Some very famous album covers, like The Beatles' The White Album and Pink Floyd's The Wall, present covers with little text or pictures. While such albums may be viewed by some as 'boring,' with the amount of flashy covers currently found in a record store, sometimes it is the minimalist album covers that capture our attention, like the following examples from The xx and Damien Rice.


Many artists/labels seemingly evade the task of creating album art by using someone else's art on their cover. Photographs and paintings have been used in the album art of acts such as Coldplay, The Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell, and the following two examples (my personal favorites) from Brand New and Antony and the Johnsons respectively.

Both of these album covers are successful to me because the art is somehow reflected in the music. The cover to Antony's The Crying Light features one of the most striking images I've ever seen, at once twisted, sad, and even a little frightening. And the music on the album, and even Antony's unique voice, could match all of these adjectives as well. I always welcome a good 'artful' album cover when an artist can find an image that seems to perfectly capture the tone of the music.


Some artwork that I love does not fall under the above categories. Some less narcissistic artists chose to use models or other people on their covers (perhaps because they are more-attractive, marketable, or endowed--as is the case with Sticky Fingers--than the artist). Here are three such examples, all from the Goo Goo Dolls.

All three covers are interesting and eye-catching while still seeming to have some relationship with the music (especially Dizzy Up The Girl). And honestly, I'm much happier to see these strangers on the cover than Johnny Rzeznik and co.


What's next? Some claim that album art is dead while I think that album art will always have a place in the music industry. After all, you are forced to see the album cover when you download music from iTunes or Amazon, and are often given artwork when you import music into such music players. While the CD may die soon (though I hope not), I don't think that album art will die with it.

And of course, these are just my opinions of what makes good album art. Feel free to share your favorite album covers in the comments!


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I have a favorite album cover. There are definitely some I like, and there are certainly some that I absolutely hate -- either because they're just artistically ugly (to my eyes) or because there is something unpleasant, nasty, misogynistic, or whatever (misogynistic album covers used to be a lot more common than they are now). If an album cover is nasty or ugly it does affect my liking of the music to some (minor) extent and I think may possibly even make me less likely to play the music.

One thing about album covers that I'm insanely anal about is making sure that all my downloaded/ripped music has album art associated with it. I will and have spent hours on it. And this can be quite a tiresome and time-consuming task: iTunes will only automatically fill in album art for that music you can BUY on iTunes, and will actually REMOVE albumart you already have associated with songs if they're not on iTunes, so I never use their "Get Album Art" capability. Instead, I search for the cover via google images and pick a reasonable size and manually set it on all the songs on the album.

I own a fair number of CDs that have no album covers available on the web -- mostly classical, but also a few obscure pop CDs. For those, I actually have scanned the CD covers in and saved them as album art. Again, a very time-consuming job.

So I guess for some reason, album covers are very important to me -- even if I haven't put a millionth the amount of thought into them that you have in this (again, as per usual, excellently-written) post. They are part of the pleasure of the music for me. And I love paging through the album cover flow on my ipod touch. :)

goblinbox said...

I went to Spokane over the weekend. I rode with my drummer. He texted in advance and said, 'Bring CDs if you want.'

I don't have CDs. I have a music library in electronic format. I have one copy on my computer, and another copy on an iPod. CDs? Who keeps CDs? They eat space like goats eat laundry.

Suffice it to say that all of my album cover art is also electronic. And yet it's so important that I will scour the Internet looking for missing cover art, or, in a pinch, choose my own image to use for cover art.

P.S. I think you mean caliper, not calibre.?

P.P.S. A self-portrait is an image of oneself created by oneself.

P.P.S.S. I am an annoying grammar Nazi.

hoteltuesday said...

I want cover art for all my albums too!!! I hate those transparent-esque album covers with the music note on them. UGH. I sometimes invent album art if the song is a live version or has no album art for some reason.

GoblinBox: Thanks!

Michelle M. said...

My favorite album cover of all time will be on the joshrico CD!

These are my runner ups, though:

Anonymous said...

I hope album art doesn't die, one of my favorite things to do is look thru the art work as soon as I get a new CD!

And how come you didn't feature any MC covers she always puts herself on her covers?

TJ/ Talita

Chris D. said...

Album art has not traditional played a large role in my musical experience, however I find the idea of a visual companion to music to be a powerful notion.

Back when I only had CDs I tended to listen to the same CD for a period of time and then switch it with another because it was a slight pain to physically find and re-file CDs. I also tended to listen to CDs in the kitchen, away from my collection in my room, so it would require planning to change CDs often. Eventually I got a multi-CD jukebox player, which just made keeping track of CDs more complicated. I didn't really see the album art much at that point.

Then I got a 20GB Archos Jukebox before iPods were all the rage. Albums were just folders of MP3s and didn't have any album art associated with them.

When my Archos Jukebox died I couldn't find another music player that didn't annoy me, so I just dumped all my MP3s on to my hard drive at work. I still don't have cover art for most of my ripped MP3s. Heck, I have not even ripped all my CDs. Hmm... I should work on that.

I think album art should be important, but it just didn't fit into my musical listening experience.

When I release my first album I not only want it to have cool album art, but I want each song to have art. I think it may be a kind of folk-rock opera, so there will be a story to it.

You may find this concept of an "illustrative score" of interest .

Tam said...

I'm not big on the picture of the artist covers. They are pretty boring and celebs are so over-exposed these days with pictures EVERYWHERE that I don't want to see you anymore looking all airbrushed and perfect. I kind of like the minimalist ones, but if you aren't sure about who the group is or their music, it leaves you in the dark.

I think the ones that show some connection to the music on the album are more effective as you noted. If the album is a fun pop album, then have artwork that depicts that, not some dark depressing cover and vice versa. You then associate the cover with the music within rather than necessarily with the artist personally. We all know J.Simp. is pretty, but what's the feel of the album? Pretty? Blond? Ditzy? Maybe, but I like to see more.

Anonymous said...

Chris - "when I release my first album" -- is that purely facetious humor or is there a musical side to you I have not yet become aware of? :)

As for ripping your CDs, believe me I know how daunting that is, having just ripped almost 800. I found it so overwhelming a job that I simply didn't do it for years.

But it's not that bad. You can just do it while working. You just have an inbox pile and and outbox pile (I actually used real cardboard boxes for my outbox piles). As you work, you just keep feeding new CDs in. It takes weeks or months to do if you have a lot, but it's not hard at all. The only hard bit for me was filling in all the album art manually.

I wonder how many "hold you own boob" or "having your boobs held" album covers there have been. **LONG** before Janet Jackson made the genre famous with this album:, Roxy Music had their Country Life album

Roxy music had a lot of deameaning-to-women album covers :P

john said...

I think album art is a dying form, but not dead yet. I am glad that iTunes included it as option because otherwise I think it would have died.

I don't collect album art, it takes up hard drive space and to me, it isn't as important as the music. I rarely look at my iTunes or iPod as they play, so it isn't important to me.

Some covers that stick with me:
Glow, by The Innocence Mission:

Led Zepplin, III:

The Rolling Stones: Goat's Head Soup

Chris D, said...

Justin: My aspirations may exceed my talent at the moment, but I am always trying to learn and grow into a more effective person. Fragments of poetry or song lyrics come to me. Eventually I would like to release an album, but I have a long way to go. It is not at all about fame or fortune to me. It would just be another way to touch other people in a meaningful way. I want to be another soothing voice in the dark, calming all who struggle to find there way in this world.

that's J-O-S-H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
that's J-O-S-H said...

Loved dis entry. I always pay attention to album art and I HATE when artists I like many mediocre cover decisions [see: Taylor Swift's "Speak Now," Cobra Starship's "Hot Mess" & The Used's "Lies for the Liars"].

Here are some of mah favo album covers: "Funhouse" by P!nk, "Diamond Eyes" by Deftones, "Mad Season" by Matchbox Twenty & "Amnesiac" by Radiohead:

David said...

Thinking of album covers, my mind went immediately to ELO's Out of the Blue concept album, which not only had super-cool cover art of the signature ELO spaceship, but it opened up in a double-album-style (though it was only a single record) to reveal the interior of the spaceship with all the band members pictured at various stations.

that's J-O-S-H said...

PS...probably my least favorite album cover of all time:

hoteltuesday said...

Michelle: I love the Ken cover!

TJ: I was going to originally include MC's debut cover (and how Leona Lewis ripped it off) but the entry was too long!

Chris: I love the idea of art for each song... Too bad the only person I know who did it is Lady Gaga. Ugh.

Tam: I agree about the airbrushed, perfect-looking artist covers. That just seems vain. But I love weird ones with the artists, like Kate Bush's cover for Never For Ever. FUN and crazy!

Justin: I prefer Janet's, as someone else is holding her boobs. That instantly makes it more interesting.

John: Those album covers are all cool... but not as cool as some of Kate's!

Chris again: Contact me and Josh for backing vocals (and give us 90% of the profits!)

Josh: I was going to include Funhouse and Speak Now in this entry before it got too long!!

David: I love when the album art extends into the album sleeve or anything like that (like Panic! at the Disco's first album). I'm glad the GRAMMYs gives an award for an album's packaging. It's important!

hoteltuesday said...

Josh: I WAS GONNA INCLUDE THAT TOO! What a stupid cover. Like all her covers/songs.