Sorry, We're Closed

Monday, August 31, 2009

Album Covers, Part 2

Here is the second installment of 40 of my favorite album covers. These next ten (of 40) cover the years from 1967-1975. (My all-time top five will be discussed in a separate post.)

Once again, my excitement in sharing these with you is tempered by the teensy size of these photos, which in several circumstances keep from properly conveying the majesty of these sleeves. Nonetheless, hope you enjoy!

Mr. Fantasy, Traffic, 1967
I find this one of the few psychedelic covers to really capture the mystical, druggy bent of the time as well as the sense of adventure of "getting it together in the country." This was shot in Traffic's communal house in the Berkshire countryside, where the album's music was written and created, minds were blown, and lives were altered.

The Beatles, 1968
Things are seldom what they seem, in the words of W.S. Gilbert. "It's just a white sleeve!" some whined at the time. Well,
no. First off, coming out of the splashy psychedelic age, a return to simplicity was a masterstroke. Plus, "The Beatles" is raised in relief on the cover. The original pressings were numbered (starting at #0000001). And the typography on the back is stunning in its deco simplicity. Once you got inside, there were pictures and a foldout poster with lyrics and candid shots. It's a triumph for British pop-artist extraordinaire Richard Hamilton.

Abbey Road, The Beatles, 1969
Including Beatles sleeves here is almost too easy, but objectivity forced me to remove some which are either too busy (
Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour) or just not that appealing in the long run (Rubber Soul, Revolver). This has the advantage of being an arresting, crisply executed image of a moment in time that has often been imitated, usually poorly. Are you listening, Paul is Live?

Space, Modern Jazz Quartet, 1969
The veteran jazz group's second and last album on the Beatles' Apple label features a harsh, almost orgasmic abstract painting of fiery reds, purples, and black and white slashes. The painting also has inlaid metal balls, the largest of which reflects the photographer shooting it. Genius. I wish I had a better copy to show you. The only negative is the inclusion of the apple in the upper right.

Live Peace in Toronto, The Plastic Ono Band, 1969
Maybe it's a simple image, but it's a gorgeous simple image, one that contrasts markedly with the often chaotic music inside.

The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, 1970
Chess Records of Chicago (and associated labels Cadet and Checker) put out a lot of great soul, jazz, and funk albums (with superb covers) around this time. This one features Ms. Ashby, a hard-partying funk-inspired singer/harpist, playing a Japanese koto on a huge oriental rug. Putting the artist in the upper left corner and giving most of the shot to the rug itself couldn't be much cooler. The album itself, a series of songs inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam, is rather amazing.

Abraxas, Santana, 1970
Many late 60s/early 70s album covers just look like technicolor vomit. But this one is special. Artist Mati Klarwein, a brilliant "primitive" before the term had been defined, painted 'Annunciation' back in 1961, when Carlos Santana was still playing with tinkertoys. Like the gorgeously textured and lovely music inside, the cover is almost an embarrassment of riches both sacred and profane. Mati himself is shown wearing a straw hat on the left. Wish this picture was bigger. Seeing it on a foldout LP is tremendous; on a CD, not so much.

Talking Book, Stevie Wonder, 1972
When my mom got this album in the early 70s, I didn't even know that Stevie Wonder was blind. I just thought it was cool that he was wearing this great robe and sitting playing in the dirt. Knowing that this was just his second album free from the Motown machine, a journey of self-discovery made public, it takes on extra resonance for me...I love that he is searching for answers and information in the earth.

Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne, 1974
Many 70s L.A. album covers exude an unearned sense of terminal coolness. This Magritte-inspired image, however, perfectly balances surrealism and ultra-realism. The daytime sky, night street scene, and perfectly appointed vintage car fuse into an unreal tableau of beauty and uncertainty. Placing this scene in a fashionable neighborhood is necessary to maintain the altered reality of the situation.

Bob Marley and the Wailers Live!, 1975
Reggae covers aren't always the most interesting in the record racks. But this one bursts with energy. The use of the red, green, and yellow is not particulary groundbreaking, but Marley's exuberance is palpable and the entire package just explodes.

Next time, we move into the new wave.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Album Covers, Part 1

After all these years, I figured it was time to talk about album covers. Vinyl records have never really gone away, and now the younger generation seems to be discovering the joy of vintage music packaging. I'm glad.

So I've been sorting through my own faves and decided to come up with a list, which will (one hopes) invoke discussion.

Everyone has different tastes in what they like in album covers. The choices on this list are informed by interests in mid-century modern art, minimalism, and pop.

As a result, you'll see no Yes albums featuring Roger Dean's adolescent space fantasies. No hair-metal pretty-boy-in-makeup shots. No silly wet dreams of priests drowning in thunderstorm-swollen rivers, leering skeletons, fly girls in lingerie, rappers in mall gear, or three-breasted vixens eating alien hedgehogs. Sorry.

In addition, most of these sleeves hold records that I love. That's probably because of shared sensibilities. Of course, plenty of albums high on my musical list have covers I consider unsightly (
Buffalo Springfield Again, most of REM's and the Velvets' oeuvre, all of Juanes' LPs, and the Beach Boys' Friends are particularly egregious offenders).

Many new groups' releases feature cartoons or "naive" drawings, which as album cover art generally aren't my cup of tea.

In addition, I can't claim to know much about LPs from around the world, so these selections are limited to North America and the U.K.

So what makes a good album cover? It's not just an arresting image, although that's critical. For me, it's the way the cover works with the music inside; whether it's a cool image that I'd want to look at repeatedly; and the circumstances from which it came. Yes, I'm one of those annoying history geeks.

So, anyhoo, I compiled 40 great ones, and then five others that I considered my all-time favorites. To drag out the suspense interminably, I'll list the first 40 of them chronologically. Once I've gone through the 40, the all-time top five will then follow.

Off we go.

In the Wee Small Hours
, Frank Sinatra, 1955
Most of Sinatra's drama came from the sense that it was just he and you alone in a room, him singing his heart out for a woman who's gone away. The loneliness of the music in this great album is even more palpable than the utter desolation of the cover.

Elvis Presley, 1957
Some people prefer the Clash's
London Calling to this. I think that this shot of Elvis, from his first album (not second--thanks Bob), is FAR more interesting than one of Paul Simonon smashing a perfectly good bass guitar. And shouldn't originality count for something? This has inspired dozens of parodies.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963
Many Dylan covers lend themselves to parody because the images are as strong as the music inside. This is my favorite. Suze Rotolo and her guy are walking confidently not on the sidewalk, but rather through the middle of a slushy street. There's a message there, no?

Please Please Me, The Beatles, 1963
What a punch in the gut! Here's an incredibly charismatic bunch of young men--none older than 22--looking down with total confidence from a modern British office building. Far above what other pop performers were doing at the time, and still shocking today.

Getz-a-Go-Go, Stan Getz, 1964
The smoky, sexy music inside this foldout cover is perfectly complemented by the pictures and graphics. Getz, directing the band, was a master of his instrument, and it really is his show. The colors, type, and images are just perfect.

I Like God's Style, Isabel Baker, 1965?
An album that even most music freaks haven't heard, and one that even fewer people could stand to listen to. Isabel Baker, a gravel-voiced teenage girl from Orange County, did this devotional album in the mid-60s to show her love for Jesus. That's fine, but just bathe me in gold and purple and tell me more about the mod-dressed blonde playing that guitar!

Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds, 1965
Oddly enough for such a groundbreaking band, most of the Byrds' sleeves are conventional and, ultimately, disposable. For their first album, though, the distortion of the fisheye lens puts the band, which explored the tension between distance and passion in its music, at the forefront of 1965 rock design. Making the photographic technique part of the cover itself inspired ensuing sleeves by the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Pink Floyd, and Captain Beefheart, to name just a few. It's ineffably cool.

My Generation, The Who, 1965
The Who may not have been qualified to win beauty contests, but this shot from their debut album spells out exactly what they were: sharp-dressed, aggressive, uncompromising, and a perfect mix of street smarts and art school hip. Bands still try to look like this.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Pink Floyd, 1967
Interesting looking band + great clothes + good pose + interesting photographic effect = one of the signature sleeves of its decade.

Between the Buttons, The Rolling Stones, 1967
Of all the Stones' "company front" covers, I like this one the best. It's a harsh image, borrowing the worn-down star look from 'Beatles For sale' and bringing it one step further, deep into the Stones' hard-partying world of winter 66/spring 67 and the effect that the lifestyle was having on most members of the group.

British minimalism, Chicago jazz funk, and eight more coming in my next post! Thanks for coming by.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


...available now in stores and on the web. Thanks.