The Timeless Power of Album Art
A vinyl DJ usually spins through 30-40 records in a standard three hour set. Their crates are jam-packed with tunes ready to curate a vibe – one album or single after the other with merely a cover sleeve to tell them apart. In this high octane, high risk setting, it’s the album art that speaks to each track’s identity, sound and vibe.
Outside of the club and into our homes, the artwork of each record sings to us from the shelves. Tony Bennett even said of the perennial draw of the album sleeve: “you felt like you were taking home your very own work of art”. Whether it’s a 12” vinyl record, CD, cassette or a Spotify stream, the design of the album cover is a powerful signifier of the music within and also its place in history.
Like the music it stands for, album art is ever-evolving, traversing physical and digital formats to bring soundwaves to life.
Don’t judge an album by its cover
You’ve heard the old saying, but an album’s artwork is simply asking to be judged – designed to be judged. It can turn heads and pique familiarity, yet it can also misrepresent the music inside or bore the listener. For the last century, album artwork and design has remained much a part of a record as the sound. But why?
- Visual representation
Album art serves as a visual representation of the music contained within. It provides listeners with an initial glimpse into the style, mood and atmosphere of the music. A well-designed cover can effectively convey the essence of the artist’s vision and create a strong connection between the music and the audience.
- Branding, identity, marketing and promotion
Album art plays a crucial role in establishing an artist’s branding and identity. It helps create a recognisable and cohesive visual identity that extends beyond the music itself. This outlines the artwork’s part in successful marketing and promotion, as it’s a visual hook that attracts potential listeners and stands out in a crowded (mainly digital) music marketplace.
- Collectability and physical appeal
For physical music formats like vinyl records and CDs, album art takes on an additional dimension. Good album art can enhance the collectability and desirability of physical releases, making them more than just a medium for music but also an artistic object. The cover art can contribute to the overall aesthetic appeal of the physical product and add value to the music listening experience. Some bands, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, release the same album with multiple cover variations to capture the collector crowd.
Album art through the years
It’s been almost a century since the advent of the long-playing record (LP) which brought with it the concept of album art. In that time, design trends have encompassed everything from simple typography to psychedelic freakout colours and digital manipulations. Artists, photographers and graphic designers have all played their part in album art’s eclectic evolution.
Simplicity and minimalism marked the album cover designs of the earliest shellac and vinyl records. Typography featuring the artist’s name, album title and song titles was prevalent, as were simple hand-drawn portraits and illustrations.
The post-war era saw bebop and modal jazz come to the fore, and with it a rise in photographic album covers. Illustrations simultaneously became more surreal and caricaturistic. The music was getting a little more complicated – so was the artwork.
Coinciding with the widespread adoption of LSD and other hallucinogenic substances by counterculture communities throughout the United States, conceptual and psychedelic album art became the norm in the 1960s. Psych rock and pop was all the rage, with its trippy tunes matching beautifully with an array of surreal, vibrant and raw album artworks. Punk also began to show its angry, raw face.
Gatefold covers became popular in the 1970s and allowed for larger and more intricate designs. Often featuring four panels, these covers let panoramic artwork that extended across the inner and outer sleeves breathe, creating a more immersive and conceptual experience.
The 1980s embraced the future – Blade Runner style – as electronic music steadily became mainstream. Album cover designs often incorporated elements of technology and science fiction, with neon colours and airbrushed artwork front and centre.
In-line with the meteoric rise of hip-hop and rock’s grungier, grittier side, the 1990s saw raw album covers dominate the shelves. Hand-drawn illustrations, collage-style artwork, distorted or lo-fi photography and crude digital designs were common, reflecting the DIY and “street” ethos of the era.
The 2000s marked the moment vinyl and CDs were overturned by MP3s. Digital music and online distribution was now the norm, and album covers became more focused on eye-catching thumbnails. Minimalist designs with simple typography, bold colours, and symbolic imagery became popular.
Retro-inspired album art was intrinsic to the 2010s music scene. Vintage filters, polaroid pictures, pastel colours and throwback typography were often used to evoke a sense of nostalgia or revolution.
Album art in the 2020s has come to reflect the genre-bending madness of our modern world of music. It’s typically eclectic, with designs often combining multiple artistic styles such as photography, illustration and digital manipulation.
A world of design waiting to be explored
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