The age of the fantastic album cover is dead. Discuss. Hmm. I grew up with LPs, those lovely 12 by 12 inch formats with magnificent artworks by Roger Dean for Yes (and others), and Hipgnosis for just about everyone else (Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Genesis etc). The most inventive covers drew us into the world of the music and beyond, offering a means of participating without actually playing. The move to CDs brought clarity and fidelity to the music but compromised the experience of buying, listening and exploring these extended worlds. The physicality of two sides of music, the turning of the LP from one side to the other, the immersive experience of the large covers and inside pages, was replaced by the more ephemeral format of the CD which could be left and played without intervention, on new stereo players that could be programmed to shuffle in an order not defined by the band or producer. It felt different, liberating, but the impact of the iconic cover was lost.
Now of course we have downloads, playlists, smartphones, internet radio (I love Last FM), Spotify and the ultimate in liberated, user-managed listening experiences. The consumer is king, the producer no longer exercises the same degree of control. The big record companies have suffered a fatal decline while bands like Marillion, Radiohead and almost every artist on Myspace connects directly with its audience, rather than through the medium of the dilapidated High Street.
Well, this is true, but while CD sales themselves are in terminal decline, outsmarted by the generational shift to downloads, the LP is making a steady comeback because popular music is as much a visual as a musical phenomenon. The Pet Sounds, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Grateful Dead’s American Beauty albums of the late Sixties carried iconic covers which resonated with their audience because they captured the zeitgeist. The power of these great album covers is that we hear the music as soon as we see the image, and remember how we felt. It’s hard to ignore the posed images of X-factor celebrities that focus on faddish good-looks, but truly fantastic covers can be found across the vast fields of modern listening tastes, from country, to neo-prog, death-metal, funk and electronica, there are still some fantastic covers to be discovered.
This is a personal selection, picked because of their fantasy element or mystery and intrigue. They are not meant to be the best covers, nor does their selection imply any comment on the music itself. At the head of this post is Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave featuring the amazing art of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. Below are Zac Brown Band’s Uncaged, Muse’s The 2nd Law, The Killers’ Battle Born (note the lack of driver), Donald Fagan’s Sunken Condos (Jules Verne like in its dreamy underwater scene), Dethklok’s Dethalbum III and Porcupine Tree’s forthcoming live album with its steampunky cover, Octane Twisted.