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Judging Music By Its Cover 

Despite smaller format, the lost art of album art alive and well

At the advent of the CD age, it was widely believed the new format would spell ruin for the whole field of album art. But if there was a decline in work, it wound up only in frame-size. People simply adjusted to the smaller format, and as the recent explosion in richly detailed reissues proves, the art still matters. Maybe, if you're like us, and spend more time than healthy pawing through new and used discs at the local record retailer, you've given records a shot on the listening station based on the cover alone. Voila -- the power of good album art. Whether the music matches the quality of the artwork is another aesthetic question, but it seems like a good, if imperfect, yardstick to begin with. After all, nothing says, "ugh, keep looking" like a crap cover -- warring font styles, unintentionally cheesy photos, lackluster graphics. So CL looks at a few trends you too may have noticed, and maybe some you didn't...

Sex Sells Where else to begin? From Elvis' swiveling hips to the raunch of Girls Gone Wild hair metal and booty-centric gangsta rap, sex is key in the rock & roll equation. It began with double-entendre album titles and risque pouts in the early days, advanced to the air-brushed skin of the Ohio Players' catalog and Roxy Music's suggestively S&M record covers, and is now often one-step away from you-are-there porn, like Pulp's no-kidding-around This Is Hardcore. Indeed, most red-blooded men and women will pause, however briefly, at the mere sight of an erogenous zone. For anyone who thinks the woman covered in whipped cream (actually shaving foam) on the front of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' Whipped Cream & Other Delights didn't help sell records, here's a dunce hat and copy of The Joy of Sex.

PsychedeliaAlways great for rolling joints due to their large size and slick surface, the 1960s album cover soon became a handy little piece of mind-expanding artwork to pore over as the record played and the tabs took effect. In much the same way that Meet the Beatles became Sgt. Pepper's, 60s album cover art went psychedelic as the decade wore on, with mind-bending covers from the likes of Santana, Mahogany Rush, Nektar, and Yes (more on them later) becoming part of the accepted norm. The psychedelic cover has since become something of a retro item, even though bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and others still use them occasionally by way of paying homage.
Gimmick coversThe goal of an album (after such hogwash like "artistic expression") is to get it in the hands of potential buyers. And what better way -- besides sex -- to do this than to give the music shopper something to play with? Led Zeppelin were the kings of the gimmick sleeve, employing a spinning picture wheel on Led Zeppelin III, a die-cut apartment cover on Physical Graffiti, and several different versions of their record In Through The Out Door, which came packaged in a brown paper wrapper to encourage collector frenzy. The Rolling Stones also used a gimmick cover from time to time: see the famed "zipper sleeve" on Sticky Fingers, the hologram cover on Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the lawsuit-addled Some Girls release of 1978.

Punk OffIt's as famous an album cover as there is: Clash bassist Paul Simonon executing a spontaneous coup de grace to his favorite bass at New York's Palladium, caught by Pennie Smith with the last shot in the roll. It captures all of punk's back-to-basics fury and Day Zero aesthetic (the letter font and layout on London Calling purposefully recalls Elvis Presley's first record), and was a shot over the bow to the fantasy world escapism practiced by the Roger Deans of the world. Ransom-note fonts (the Sex Pistol's Never Mind the Bollocks), plain brown wrappers, generic labels, shocking photos (the Dead Kennedy's Holiday in Cambodia) reflect punk's DIY aesthetic. And it was all (ideally) a reflection of the bare basics inside the sleeve, the human condition reduced to its rawest needs and wants, rock & roll stripped down to its essence.

The Label LookCertain labels developed a reputation for a specific look and stuck with it. They may have opted for familiarity, but the best were able to produce some of the more memorable covers -- why fix it if it ain't broke? At Blue Note, designer Reid Miles worked with one of jazz's best photographers (Francis Wolf) to create hundreds of memorable covers that reflected the label's commitment to the music. Famous for breaking previously sacrosanct design rules -- "hmm, what if I crop the photo in the middle of his head?" -- Miles' covers are aped to this day. ECM, primarily known for its modern classical catalog, creates subtle covers and packages that mirror the music within -- stark and beautiful. Titles on the rock label 4AD -- no matter the band -- are instantly recognizable for their adventurous artwork: the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, or The Mountain Goats could hardly be more different musically, but the cover art says 4AD every time.

The Serial Artist EffectMany musicians, pleased with a particular artist's album cover art, have enlisted the services of said designer for their subsequent records. From Yes and Asia (Roger Dean) to Calexico (Victor Gastelum), Steve Earle (Tony Fitzpatrick) and the Drive-By Truckers (Wes Freed), the ever-popular serial artist effect shows no signs of slowing down. For many bands, aligning themselves with an artist they admire is a way to establish a mood or theme, with the added benefit of making the records instantly recognizable to potential purchasers. Roger Dean is probably the Babe Ruth of the serial artist category, able to make a fine living designing logos and album covers (and now, even houses -- see for well-heeled musicians.

Logo-based coversGot a swell logo you paid a guy some good green for? Use that mother! The band Chicago took this idea to silly extremes, releasing some two dozen albums with the band's name in the very same cursive script (go to and punch in "Chicago," and you'll see what we mean). Interestingly, metal bands caught on, seeing the logo-based cover as an easy way to denote power and strength, as well as giving kids something convenient to doodle in their high school notebooks (see: AC/DC, Van Halen, or any number of the hundreds of acts located under "logos" at Logos are still popular -- especially with nu-metal acts -- but the logo as central cover image probably died out with Chicago XXXVII.

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