10 Diverse and Beautiful Album Covers to be Thankful For
I was a nineties child. One of the defining moments of my youth was the day I bought my first record, aged nine, in 1996. After rigorous deliberation, I made an affirmed choice in the shape of Blur’s The Great Escape on cassette. I vividly recall the cover; the tip of a mysterious female body glides into an ocean beneath a clear azure sky, while two hunky onlookers watch from a speedboat.
Many an hour was spent pondering the meaning of this photograph, and even at this tender age it provoked the question, why? How does this relate to my beloved music encased within? What’s the story?
This tape signified not merely a material possession, but something sacred and life-altering as it formally initiated me into the world of music, forging a life-long love affair that would go on to shape my lifestyle and identity.
While our parents and grandparents have their twelve inches to reminisce of, the youth of today it seems have had part of the physical experience of music removed from their lives. Both society and industry have suffered several compromises at the hands of the digital revolution, as not only have sales plummeted, record shop culture become all but extinct and sound quality devolved, but album artwork, it seems, is fast becoming a dying artform.
There is a simple mortal pleasure in holding a physical object that surpasses the convenience of an Mp3. Not only does one bask in the beauty and craftsmanship of the artwork, but the pleasure to be gained from owning a tactile object, to hold and to covet, honor and protect, makes a collection of kilobytes downloaded and played at the click of a mouse feel cheap and disposable, and in turn this devalues the record. Indeed, beautiful album covers act as artifacts, they make the record feel more valuable, more precious, and spur us on to cherish them for the long haul. Would you buy the fine Belgian chocolates if they were wrapped in loo roll? No, (or at least I hope not) because psychologically there is equal value in the packaging as in the product itself.
Album artwork has evolved over the decades from a commercial necessity into an artform of its own, providing a platform for many already famed artists to showcase their work. This rings particularly true for a string of pop artists, which seems only natural for whom a multi-million selling commodity provides the perfect context for their themes. From Andy Warhol’s infamous Velvet Underground cover, to Robert Raushenburg’s Talking Heads LP, to Richard Hamilton doing the Beatles White Album and more recently, Julian Opie, who designed Blur’s iconic The Best Of album in 2000, many big-time artists have embraced this format.
But it’s not only the pop artists who’ve had a go, some of the worlds leading graphic and product designers have created pioneering album sleeves. In 1993 Pentagram’s Daniel Weil designed the packaging for the Pet Shop Boys 5th album, Very. This absolutely stunning CD design features solid orange plastic casing with a lego-like embossed texture, something fresh, unique and eye-catching, even today. And prior to this, Barney Bubbles, one of the great geniuses of British graphic design, made waves with his stunning punk album covers. With a career in album artwork resting on three decades, Bubbles splashed electrifying graphics and eye-popping typography across the sleeves of some of the coolest bands of his day, raising the bar to scarcely matched heights.
These days album covers are most commonly viewed on an iTunes thumbnail or an iPod screen, which not only distances the physical connection with a record but also limits creativity, as designers are increasingly forced to consider these limitations in the creative process. Intricate masterpieces that would have looked fantastic on 12” (think Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club) are being dropped in place of ultra-simple works that simply show up better on a cramped, pixelated format.
So what does the future hold for this, quite literally, shrinking artform, and is there a future at all? A recent resurgence in vinyl bears a shred of hope, but the reality is that it’s still very much a niche market which in all likelihood will be swallowed up once more by the cycle of fashion. It’s this foreboding prospect that inspired me to celebrate with you a short selection of some of the most interesting, ground-breaking and diverse album cover designs from some of the finest artists and designers of the last century, whose work helped bring credibility to album art as an art form in its own right, and who helped add meaning and value to the experiences of their listeners.
Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues, 1983
World-renowned artist Rauschenberg was asked to design the limited edition LP version for this record, for which he won a Grammy award. The 12” product was comprised of a trio of transparent plastic vynils, each printed with coloured collages which layer up when stacked. A true work of art.
Ian Dury – Spasticus Autisticus, 1981
Just one of many great covers from legendary designer Barney Bubbles. You can see more examples from this great in the book, Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles, by Paul Gorman.
Grace Jones – Island Life, 1985
Highly influential cover created by Jones’ then-partner, graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude. The image is in fact a montage of several separate images, which culminate to produce this striking yet anatomically unlikely image of Jones.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces, 1979
Though the actual album cover was illustrated by Tom Pogson,Barney Bubbles was responsible for the concept and overall art direction. The focus here is not on the actual cover, but on the interior packaging, which unfolds into a magnificent menagerie of Pollock, Pop Art and Mondrian-inspired graphics. A true keep-sake.
Pet Shop Boys – Very, 1993
Stunning packaging design from Argentinean-born architect and industrial designer Daniel Weil, whose career has spanned 30 years and includes a partnership at Pentagram.
Blur – The Best Of, 2000
A modern icon from artist Julian Opie.
The Beatles – The White Album, 1968
Head-turningly minimalistic, and surprisingly futuristic for its era, this stark contrast to Peter Blake’s vivid cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was created by pop artist Richard Hamilton.
Miles Davis- Bitches Brew, 1970
One of the original great album cover artists, Mati Klarwein was commissioned by countless musicians across the sixties and seventies for his stunning paintings drenched in surrealism and psychedelia. This awe-inspiring gatefold cover features coordinating front and back, night and day imagery.
Pulp – This is Hardcore, 1998
Controversial artwork born from a collaboration between the infamous Peter Saville (Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures), and figurative painter John Currin, reflecting the raw, cynical tones of Pulp’s music and lyrics. Howard Wakefield also contributed to the design.
King Crimson – The Court of The Crimson King, 1969
This haunting painting was the one and only album cover from Barry Godber, who worked as a computer programmer until his death. Both the album and artwork won critical acclaim but sadly Godber passed away just months after its release.