Extraordinary album covers

The album cover is as important as the album itself, right? Well maybe not quite, but it certainly isn’t far off. A good album cover stands out for generations. It means something. A terrible album cover gets panned and overshadows the music. So yeah, it is pretty important. Here are some of the best…

Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart

Smash Song Hits

Early albums were covered in plain paper, to protect the record inside. Designer Alex Steinweiss suggested Columbia Records add images to the covers.

In this era of big band music the first illustrated cover was for an album by composers Rodgers and Hart and featured a theatre marquee with the duo’s names in lights. The experiment was a success and more graphic covers followed. These reportedly increased the company’s sales by over 800%. Meanwhile, advances in technology enabled more music to be included on an album. It not only revolutionised the music industry, but also increased the cover space available for artwork and sleeve notes.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

When his debut LP was released Elvis was already famed for his exuberance. The cover is notable for its unstaged photo which captures that energy.

Elvis broke barriers between black and white music, and went on to global stardom. His vibrancy, highlighted in the cover’s image, was matched by the album’s ground-breaking bold pink and green typography. This outrageously hip cover was just a taster of the culture-changing music inside. In 1979 The Clash paid homage to the iconic cover by replicating the distinctive typeface over a monochrome photo on their album London Calling.

Blue Train by John Coltrane

Blue Train

One jazz music label, Blue Note, created a cool, recognisable house style and this strong identity was summed up on John Coltrane’s Blue Train.

The image encapsulates what music listeners found on the album: cerebral, stylish and complex nocturnal jazz. Graphic designer Reid Miles created over 500 covers for Blue Note and his work became synonymous with the label. Using an image on the cover that summed up the band’s sound became something many other bands did in next decades, notably in progressive rock. But in the 1960s, the arrival of psychedelic rock would take album covers in a whole new direction.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

beatles 5

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band experimented with music and had a cover that did the same.

Artists Jann Haworth and Peter Blake created a sprawling collage of famous faces from Marilyn Monroe to Karl Marx. The cover deliberately reached out to fans by giving them, for the first time, a cover they could pore over, one that could hold the attention as long as the record itself. This followed on from The Velvet Underground and Nico’s Warhol-designed banana cover for their eponymous debut LP, which brought concept art into the mainstream.

Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by The Small Faces

Ogden's Nut Gone Flake

A traditional tobacco tin was the inspiration for this Small Faces cover.

While bands experimented with artwork post Sgt Pepper, Small Faces played with the size and shape of packaging.

The LP was originally released in a metal, circular cover designed to replicate an over-sized tobacco tin. Unconventional and not entirely successful – the tins tended to roll off shelves – it was an expensive venture and later pressings of the album were released with an alternative gatefold cover. However it launched a series of unusually shaped covers, notably a whisky glass for Rod Stewart’s Sing it Again Rod, and a hinged sleeve in the shape of a lighter for Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire.

Horses by Patti Smith

Horses

Patti Smith’s defiant stare signalled a step-change for the image of women in rock music.

By the mid 70s, women’s lives were changing so Patti Smith used a photo of herself to convey a powerful woman looking defiantly at the world.

Smith emerged from New York’s creative underground. The Horses cover was a stark contrast to sleeves from other female artists of the era. In the same year it was released, Carly Simon posed in lingerie on the cover of her LP Playing Possum. Smith is unglamorous and androgynous, defiantly staring directly into the lens. This snapshot, taken by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, became one of the defining images of women in rock. However, an even more startling cover was on its way.

Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division

In the aftermath of punk, Joy Division led a change in musical direction. The artwork on their first album mirrored their sparse sound.

The cover, by designer Peter Saville, showed a diagram of radio waves coming from a pulsar star. This artwork on this dark post-punk album contrasted with the post-hippie rainbow prism on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon LP. Saville’s stylish work provided the perfect visual complement to Joy Division’s moody, slightly industrial sound. In his later work for Factory Records he designed a cover for New Order’s Blue Monday single which was so expensive to produce it lost the band money.

Rio by Duran Duran

Rio

By the 80s, a new slick look and sound appeared and was summed up by one band – Duran Duran.

A new culture of style emerged. The visuals became as important as the music. Bands began to rely on videos and airplay on MTV. The cover of Duran Duran’s Rio album has become as bound up with the 80s in the collective cultural memory as the Sony Walkman and shoulder pads. Designer Patrick Nagel’s illustration of a glamorous woman combined with on-trend stylish graphics by Malcolm Garrett combined to make a look that is identifiably 80s and well suited to this image-fixated age.

Before you have an inspirational album cover you obviously need an inspirational album to cover! And before you have an album you need to come and study Music here at The Sheffield College. Capiche?

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