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.