There are numerous things that technology has rendered obsolete nowadays, especially when it comes to the means of music consumption. From Walkmans to vinyls to CDs, they’re all viewed as beacons of an era that is way past us, symbols of nostalgia. Therefore, something that might be hard to realize for the people that didn’t grow up in the time when those physical mediums were still the mainstream, is the importance of the album cover. Back then album artwork not only guided how people felt about the music, but it also prepared them for what they expected to hear and in consequence, it was an integral part of how they shopped for music.
If you had a conversation with my dad on the topic of album covers, I’m certain his list of “iconics” would not miss those of Blue Train by John Coltrane and Nevermind by Nirvana. If you asked me, I’d extend his list by adding the covers of You’ve come a long way baby by Fatboy Slim, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, and Malibu by Anderson Paak -among others. Whether you place lots of importance on the cover of an album or take it as a given when listening to music, it is an undeniable truth that it constitutes an integral element of the multi-sensory experience of music consumption. The album cover acts as a visual guide for the listener and prepares him for the world he’s about to emerge into.
An indication of the significance musicians place on album artwork is the great lengths they go to in order to get their cover just right. From the cover of Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen shot by Annie Leiboviz to the artwork for The Velvet Underground & Nico featuring Andy Warhol’s work, many notable artists have accepted the challenge of translating musicians’ works into visuals so as to tell their tale through another medium. Another great example of this, and a personal favorite of mine, is the artwork of Horses by Patti Smith. The photograph that perfectly captures Patti’s intriguing aura was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe under natural light on his polaroid camera. That cover not only confirmed Smith as a musician and poet, but it also beautifully encapsulated the intimate relationship between the two artists.
You would be forgiven to -and my introduction might have misled you to- think that the digitalization of music rendered album covers obsolete, and in a way, it did. If the move from vinyl to CD downsized their impact, digital rendered them so tiny you have to squint to see them. Yet album artworks still retain an allure for fans, designers and the musicians themselves, and many contemporary artists still go to great lengths to produce iconic visuals to accompany their records. The idea still remains the same: the artist still wants someone to look at the album cover and appreciate the aesthetic of the image and let it guide their listening experience.
Take the George Condo painted artwork for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which depicts the rapper, nude, in the company of an also naked, winged creature. The cover was designed by the contemporary American artist with the intention to create controversy, and it did indeed succeed in its mission. Not long after the release the cover ended up getting censored in the US. The monochrome bright red border combined with the provocative imagery reminiscent of the artist’s figurative paintings and the recurring theme of darkness in the album’s songs make it easy to understand that there’s more to this cover than meets the eye. This collaboration wasn’t the first one Kanye has made with an artist. For his 2007 Graduation album, the rapper worked with Murakami to create the ever-famous artwork featuring cartoonish teddy-bear creatures with a dark twist that represents West’s music. In 2018, West repeated his collaboration with Murakami, this time for the cover his and Kid Cudi’s album Kids See Ghosts, for which the artist turned a traditional Japanese landscape watercolour into a psychedelic scene.
One of the most discussed albums of the last two years, Blonde by Frank Ocean, is another one to make it on my very long list of albums (and album artworks) that I classify as masterpieces. The picture on the cover was taken by the famous photographer Wolfgang Tillmans whose photographs vary from still life to portraits and often deal with the themes of variety, death and sexuality. Among the numerous interpretations given to this album cover by fans, a persisting one seems to be highlighting the dichotomy between the album’s former title ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and the cover image that depicts Frank Ocean covering his face with his left hand, struggling to hide his tears. For his return to the spotlight, Frank confidently showcased himself in a state of great vulnerability, once again [possibly] critiquing the traditional concept of masculinity. The cover is also said to be an homage to The Carpenters album ‘Close to you’, although Tillman’s words on the shoot reveal that the image might have not been as intentional as many want to believe. “…. At the end of the sitting we did some final pictures in the shower and, as it was January and a sunny day, the light coming through the window was super warm. That’s when the album cover image happened”, revealed the photographer in an interview he did not long after the album release.
It’s therefore clear that even though album artwork is now (mostly) reduced to a tiny tile on our screens, it’s still such an important aspect of the creative process of creating a world for a particular album. Many artists have repeatedly emphasized the importance of visuals on their work. When you listen, you see – and when you see, you listen. And while you do those, you don’t stop being. Listening to music gives us the ability to travel, to be transported to another time, another place, another moment. Nothing can take you back to a memory like a song can. And having a visual associated to a song or an album, only enhances that experience. So, in order to answer the question of whether album artwork is still important, I’ll leave you with a thought:
Imagine what it would be like, if all of the CD’s, Vinyls and digital albums you own didn’t have any artwork on them.
WORDS BY IRA TASSOULI