Category Archives: Judging Albums by Their Covers

Judging Albums By Their Covers


Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about just what are my favourite album cover designs of all time, and while an oredered list of my preferences seems to change daily, one thing that has become apparent id that a lot of my favourite covers are monotone. Just what that says about me, I don’t know, but I thought that over the next couple of weeks I’d discuss some of my favourite ‘monotone’ covers of all time.

First up, Springsteen’s 70’s classic ‘Born To Run’. We’re probably all familiar with the superstardom he reached in the 80’s, but that wasn’t always the case. Up to the release of Born To Run, he had released a couple of albums that had received critical praise, but weren’t doing much on the charts, he had yet to transfer the energy and popularity of his live shows into any significant album sales. This was all about to change though.

With his new album, photographer Eric Meola wanted to capture the character of Springsteen from his concert persona, but not with a traditional live shot. By using a black and white photo and a plain white backdrop, there would be nothing to distract from the figure of Springsteen the performer, the eye would go straight to his movement and shape.

Meola was right on the money, the album cover has gone on to be one of the most iconic images of rock. It’s a beautiful introduction to the music on the album, Springsteen leans on Saxophonist and E-Street band member Clarence Clemens, illustrating how he had come to depend on his bandmates to help him encapsulate the full scope of his songs. The stark black and white photo and a white background of a cheeky grinned Springsteen looking back at Clemens is a perfect accompaniment to the grandeur of the albums lyrics used to describe the seemingly mundane and every day events of his songs protaganists. Ultra thin lettering lets the photo tell it’s story in an elegant understated manner, a type treatment seldom used at the time, but now a design classic.

The album is over 30 years old but still stands the test of time both musically and grapically, certainly benefiiting from the larger canvas of the vinyl album era.

Judging Albums By Their Covers

Josh Pyke: Memories & Dust

It seems to happen a lot in my life that I’ll be trundling along, designing away. I’ll look at a CD cover that I’ve down and say to myself, ‘yeah, that’s not too bad Chris, give yourself a pat on the back for that one tiger’. So, reasonably happy with what I’m producing. Then something will come along and completely blow my idea of competency in this area out of the water. This is what has happened to me upon viewing the latest cover for Josh Pyke’s album Memories and Dust.

What can I say? It’s a beautifu piecel, and the cover doesn’t even encapsulate half of it. It’s only when you unfold the sleeve and view the meticulous hand drawn lyrics on the inside do you really appreciate the artistry that’s gone into it’s production. I could weep at the care and attention that’s gone into producing this.

So how does the album measure up to such an accomplished package? Well, lets just say to begin with, that Josh Pyke had been served exceedingly well with this presentation of his debut album.

What can I say about Josh Pyke’s music? As an earnest young man with an acoustic guitar, he’s never going to be lacking for competition in the market. My exposure to him initially was through the excellent first single ‘Middle of the Hill’, nothing else on the album really comes close to the urgency and undercurrent of personal melancholy portrayed in this song, which is a shame – I was expecting more quirk, like the cover – while the rest of the album’s songs seem to follow a more breezy ‘Jack Johnson vibe – good for those who likes that sort of stuff, and it certainly has an audience.

The cover art was created by James Hancock, and he’s only 29 as well (talented and much younger than me, usually a potent mix to raise my ire or my levels of depression. He obviously enjoys the music, his enthusiasm for it is evident, and he’s listened and searched out well among the lyrics to find appropriate graphic meataphors. There’s a recurring theme of ‘sewing and ‘mending” that plays out through the album, hence the motif of buttons and ‘twiney’ lines on the album art. It’s also confessional, as most solo artist albums are, so the use of hand drawn ‘folk type’ is appropriate. Printed on uncoated stock in subdued greys and browns, it’s hand made enough to portray an independent artist, but professionally enough produced to signify what I’m sure the label hopes will become a major artist. It really stands out on the racks next to your latest Beyonce release.

First albums are hard – especially when you receive a lot of expectation from an initial successful song. The artist wants to establish a unique identity. You can tell James Hancock the artist has put a lot of himself into this work, and by the album’s top ten success, received a lot of exposure for it – it may be an unfortunate ramification that this style of his is now going to be indelibly associated with Josh Pyke.

You can view some more of James Hancock’s great work at his website, including some more music design work for artist Darren Hanlon. Below I have included the great film clip for ‘Middle of The Hill’ featuring his artwork, it has hand claps in it as well! (Hand claps are the ‘new black’)

Real World, Real Cover Changes

A couple of weeks ago I got myself out and about to a weekend of beautiful music and amazing atmosphere at Adelaide’s now annual Womad Festival. Now I loves me some World Music, this from possibly the whitest guy in Adelaide! Anyway, as usual at the event, it’s not long after being blown away by whatever throat singers or fife players are on this years bill, until I find myself at the onsite music retailer, flicking through the albums of the various performers. It was while perusing that I came across the latest release from Chinese performer Guo Yue, who was usually released through Real World Records, looking at the cover my immediate assumption was that this was no longer the case.

A little background information for the uninitiated. Real World Records was established by performert Peter Gabriel to provide talented artists from around the world with access to state-of-the-art recording facilities and to publicise them to an audience beyond their immediate geographic region. This was a fantastic idea, and a rare example of someone who was famous and wealthy actually using that fame and wealth to do something interesting and worthwhile. What drew me originally to Real World’s albums was a singular and beautiful tratment to their cover designs. Whether the cover featured a stunning portrait of the perfomer or, more often, an abstract representation of the music, they all shared one feature. The covers featured neither artist and album title credit. This was a brilliant and subtle house style, what better way to emphasise that the music crosses geographic, cultural and language barriers than to feature no type on the front at all?

So the thing that surprised me about the latest Guo Yue release? It has the artist’s name and album title (in English) on the front. When I went to the Real Word site, I discovered this wasn’t a one off anomoly, all of their latest releases were the same. It’s interesting to perhaps speculate on how this change in house style may have come about, though it’s probably nothing more interesting than a demand from suppliers and artists themselves for better recognition on the packaging.

To me it feels like a great loss to the oft-times pretty boring music design landscape. The CD designs themselves are still ok, but they have now somehow lost that original allure and mystery to be discovered in the music beyond the cover. I’ve gathered a gallery of some of my favourite covers through the years here. You can check out their latest releases in their catalogue if you want to compare.

Judging albums by their cover

Beck: The Information

Beck has always been an advocate for the use of strong, clever visual solutions for his music releases, apparently growing up, he used to pick up albums based on their cover art as well 🙂 His latest release ‘The Information’ takes it up another notch. This clever little package design contains a set of stickers that allows you to customise your own cover. Art directed by uber album design specialists Big Active, over 20 image-makers were involved in the creation of the sticker sets. It’s a fun idea to ‘value add’ the physical CD in this day and age of easily down-loadable music – the listener becomes an active participant in the album experience. So the CD package is cool, but while I was in London I managed to pick up the 7-inch vinyl single of ‘Cell Phone’s Dead’ (the revival of the vinyl single in Europe is another story) that also contains it’s own set of stickers, along with a larger cover ‘canvas’ to display them on. I imagine out there somewhere you can also purchase a 12-inch full vinyl album. So while this is all pretty clever, I imagine it’s the sort of thing that will only effectively work once, it opens up a lot of ideas and possibilities for value adding CD packages in the future though. One of the first things I thought of when I got the Beck CD was that it was a pity that the stickers, once stuck down, are so permanent, wouldn’t it be cool if they were like those old ‘colour-form’ kits from my childhood (I had GI-Joe and Evel Knievel sets!)that let you take off and re-place the stickers over and over. How about a set of rub-down ‘letraset’ images or a cover that works like a magna-doodle set? It’s highly likely that the future of physical CDs lies in different areas of thought like this. There’s a contest online for the best ‘Information’ covers put together by listeners here, oh, and the actual music on the album is pretty good too! Go out to your record shop and buy a copy.

Judging albums by their cover

Eskimo Joe: Black Fingernails Red Wine

Eskimo Joe’s third longplayer finds the band once known for quirky tunes like ‘The Sweater Song’ taking a decidedly darker and introspective turn, one I’m all for – I hate ‘The Sweater Song’ with a passion and was pleasantly surprised by the step up they took in their song writing skills with second album ‘A Song Is a City’.

They’re not afraid to change and adapt with the times which is to be applauded – with the new album they seem to be searching for a larger sound and larger audience. Lots of reviews talk about the ‘stadium sound’ of the album, I’m not convinced of that, but I can definitely hear a play for the hearts and wallets, of say, the multitude of Coldplay/Interpol fans out there. There’s certainly and earnestness to it, almost a plea to be taken seriously as sophisticated ensemble, moving beyond the realms of disposable pop into something more mature, what better way to emphasise this than to put some ‘Art’ on the cover?

Despite what I feel about some of their earliest musical efforts, the band have always had a strong visual presence in regards to their album covers and music clips. The cover to ‘Black Fingernails Red Wine’ feels like a definite and positive continuation of the beautiful artwork incorporated in their previous release ‘A Song Is a City’. The impressionistic, dark brushstroke aesthetic is quite appropriate to what you might expect to hear on the album upon hearing the first single (the title track in fact) with it’s brooding, growing intensity.

That being said, a little bit of that treatment in both graphics and sound goes a long way. Unfortunately, in both instances on this album they overstay their welcome a little. The designers have decided to ‘go for broke’ with the cover painting and cut and spliced it throughout the whole CD booklet. The type treatment on the cover feels more ‘marketing compromise’ than design intent – almost like a guy in a suit and ponytail looking at the intended cover painting and saying ‘They can have their arty shit as long as we make the title and artist name as chunky as possible! A more delicate approach to the type would have been more effective – in fact removal of the text all together, to be paced on the inside spine would have given the alum cover much more impact. The band sold 100,00+ copies of their previous album, they’ve got the fanbase there to purchase this one, they’re big enough to get away with it.

In the final analysis, and after a couple of listens, I would say the artwork as a package reflects an album that initially offers a lot of promise, but unfortunately gets mired in it’s attempts to prove itself worthwhile and deep but accessible to the major radio listener.

Judging albums by their cover

Ween: Shinola Volume 1

I loves me some Ween, I think they are an incredibly underrated ensemble who have unfortunately been labeled by the ‘novelty song curse’ with ‘Push The Little Daisies’. I love their try everything and see what sticks attitude to producing music, it quite often results in some amazing and unexpected turns in their songs. That being said, I can’t say I’m obsessive about them to the point that I want to listen to everything they have produced, so I should have listened to what my instincts told me upon first seeing the cover for Shinola.

The album is a compilation of B-sides and out-takes which probably should have stayed there. There is the occasional bright spot with tracks like the 70s-like-rocker ‘Gabrielle’ and I couldn’t help but be amused by a song with a title like ‘Big Fat Fuck’, but too much of the album coalesces into a repetitive dirge, it passes the point where playful experimentation just turns into annoying dribble.

I should have been warned by the cover. I have felt a sense of unease with Ween covers before, especially with the uncomfortable title vs imagery of ‘Chocolate & Cheese’, but to me, ‘Shinola’ is just about unbearable to look at. It’s not that the cover is poorly done, it’s just the combination of the sewage colour scheme and ‘head being eaten by maggots’ imagery that puts me off – it just looks like it has been dipped in a public toilet bowl.

So well done to Ween I guess for producing a cover, for me at least, that properly reflected the content.

Judging albums by their cover

The Dirty Three: Whatever You Love, You Are

I look at this album cover and wonder, ‘Why can’t all album covers be this beautiful?’ The best answer of course, is that not all bands are The Dirty Three. If there is one thing that separates them from the herd, in a musical sense, is their strong sense of craftmanship. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that term ‘craftmanship’ about how it applies to me in terms of expression and art (designers tend to dwell on such things, I think it’s a reaction against self-expression vs earning a wage).
When we’re young, everyone does art at school (and usually just for the fun of it). It’s the fundamental tool of learning how to express yourself, unlocking the mysteries of life through finger-paints and paddlepop sticks. It usually ends there with most people unless they have that spark or inner self determination to continue improving and experimenting with their ‘art-skills’ It’s unusual in that it’s one of the few things you partake in at an early educational level that is not carried through with. All kids play with balls, and through their years of learning, the ‘craft’ of physical education is encouraged, so at least you’re skilled enough to kick a football or hit a ball with a tennis racket. This is the same with reading, computer skills, spelling – it just seems really weird that most people stop at the finger-paints.

As a designer – I’m one of those kids that decided to carry that journey on beyond the finger-paints, to hone ‘my craft’ if you will. I was never really interested in the intellectual side of ‘art’ when I was growing up. It was more of a matter of seeing something and appreciating the skill that went into producing it, whether that was a cartoon, a comic book or magazine illustration I stumbled upon. I never thought of myself as producing ‘art’ growing up – if I even thought of putting a title on what I did, it was illustration, cartooning, or just drawing – my interest wasn’t in ‘art for art sake’ but in creating something with a purpose, my explorations were always aimed at the creation of comic books, picture books, posters. So before I even knew what I was, I was a ‘designer’ I guess. It’s amazing how much that has influenced how I look and feel upon the visual world around me. I don’t really differentiate between craft and art. I can appreciate the beauty of a well considered and thoughtfully designed annual report as much as I can appreciate the beauty of the strokes in Monet’s water lilies. What is the link that ties both things together for me then? The important criteria is that they make me feel something, before I delve into whether that annual report is actually clearly defining that year’s stats to the shareholders, or Monet’s tenants on Impressionism, I want to be moved by them before I wish to explore them more.

Which (long-windedly!) brings me back to the album ‘Whatever You Love, You Are’. The cover’s Van Gogh-like use of thick paintstrokes and gobs of colours instantly draws me into further examination of the albums contents. A listen to it makes it obvious this is a beautiful album that has been well served by a beautiful cover. The painting effectively highlights the emotional expressiveness of tracks like ‘I Offered It Up To The Stars And Night Skies’ but is still naive and rough enough around the edges to properly serve a track like ‘I Really Should’ve Gone Out Last Night’. The layered paint strokes are an indication of the added layers of orchestration that have been incorporated with Warren Ellis’ violin, but you’re still reminded that this is no grandiose symphony performance, by the subtle placement of the band’s name in the bottom right hand corner.

The cover and the music are a perfect amalgamation of craftsmanship and art – both can be appreciated for the skill involved in producing them and the means in which they can move you, that rare accomplishment, an album cover that gives you the feel of the music before a note is played.

Finding Great Australian Designed Album Covers

Some great Australian album cover design examples – some even taken from that Australian Creative article I had a dig at I must admit! Please comment if you can suggest any other examples.

Mark Gowing designs covers for artists on his own Preservation Music as well as other Australian acts such as Big Heavy stuff. It looks like he was very influenced by the likes of the ECM label and the work Kim Hiorthoy has produced for the label Rune Grammofon. A nice clean style.

Jonathan Zawada has a very annoying website (it only displays certain pieces of work at certain times of the day) but a very individual design touch for someone in his mid twenties. Try here to read an interview with him and some examples of his work.

The Sopp Collective are an example of the great design work coming out of local electronica labels. A beautiful lyrical and individual approach.

I’m not sure who design the covers for Adelaide electronica label Surgery Records, but their stylistic similarity suggests it’s the same person or studio. At any rate, the covers are excellent, nice to see such beautiful work coming out of my hometown.

Jazz music has always provided a welcome home for great album cover artwork from those 50’s Bluenote covers to the likes of covers produced by labels Verve and the above mentioned ECM. Australian Jazz label Jazzhead follow a similar flavour with their cover artwork in a staggeringly consistent, yet creative and interesting design style to their releases.

Modular have made quite a name for themselves locally as a label that consistently releases albums that capture the imagination of the public, from the likes of Wolfmother and Rocket Science. This success is echoed in some very consistently well designed album covers, the website is excellent as well.

Does Australian CD artwork suck?

Does the design of Australian CD covers suck, or perhaps to put it a better way, does the design of Australian CD covers pale in comparison to work being produced overseas? The latest edition of Australian Creative, in one of their usual indepth critiques says ‘yes it does’. The statement arises in their examination of that old chestnut, ‘does the increase in consumers downloading music online mean the death of printed cover art?’ I’ll cover my opinions on that matter in another article – but is Australia really producing substandard CD covers? Well, the obvious answer to that is of course that 90% of everything that is designed is substandard or at the very least generic. That applies to what is being produced overseas as well, so is Australia really the poor cousin in comparison when it comes to album art?

The article makes it sound like great CD artwork flows like milk and honey in the US and Europe, a fantastic nirvana where designer’s call the shots, producing cutting edge work for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Radiohead. Funny then, that’s not the impression that I get when I see the racks of blandness while walking into a Sanity record store.

The fact of the matter is that The USA & Europe are producing as much crap CD covers, if not more-so, as we are in Australia. Certainly, the likes of Stefan Sagmeister, Designers Republic & Kim Hiorthoy are producing brilliant cutting edge covers, none of it is finding it’s way onto the latest Britney or 50 Cent release you’ll notic though. While Sagmeister and The Designers Republic have designed covers for big acts like The Rolling Stones and Madonna, they are hardly the most creative examples of their work, could you name off the top of your head what album they did? Their best work has always been for independent record labels, even Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver’s covers for New Order and The Pixies were done under the patronage of independent labels.

It all comes down to economy of scale. Europe and the USA obviously have larger populations, are closer to other countries and therefore have more access to diverse markets. It stands to reason then, that they have a higher number of independent records labels, putting out more product and vying for a slice of the market. Australia has a relatively small population – hence less record labels putting out less product. So it would appear that there are less well designed CD covers produced here, but in a percentage comparison, the opposite is probably the case.

And what exactly does Australian creative consider as a well designed CD cover? One produced by a well known designer it seems, they don’t really set any base mark for their conclusions other that citing the obvious overseas big names, Sagmeister doesn’t produce work here so guess what, we’re crap!

If Australian Creative were seriously interested in examining whether Australian CD artwork really is inferior compared to that overseas, they probably should have looked into it with a bit more depth than just asking the nearest ‘bohemian’ behind the counter at the local record shop whether he can think of any really cool Australian CD covers.

Judging albums by their cover

Ben Lee: Awake Is The New Sleep

What can you say about Ben Lee? You either hate him or hate him even more. Many would like to smash Lee’s elongated face open, not just because he has previously claimed his albums to be among the greatest Australian rock recordings of all time, but also because of the amazing amount of crap that dribbles out of his month in every interview I have ever read with him.

I don’t hate him for that, it only puts him in the 99 percentile of all celebrities as far as I’m concerned – it’s the frustrating dichotomy of his existence. The fact that he’s not a very good singer or musician, yet plays to his strengths and knows his limits, that he’s not a great writer, yet his songs are habitually catchy and well crafted, the fact that he is not an actor, yet did a pretty good job of starring in ‘The Rage In Placid Lake, hell, I can even forgive him for going out with Claire Danes and not being ‘me’. No, the reason for my hate is an extremely personal and petty one, the fact that he isn’t a designer, yet does a frickin’ fantastic job of designing the cover to ‘Awake Is The New Sleep’ himself.

The cover provides the perfect aesthetic for the upbeat and likeable aura of ‘Awake Is The New Sleep’. Those expecting the album to document the little bugger’s breakup with Claire Danes with morbid musical strains will be disappointed. The album was mostly put together before that sad journey to Dumpsville: population Lee, when Danes decided to grab herself a large hunking lump of actor Billy Crudup, the only signs of their parting is in the bluesy tribute of Ache For You. For most of the album a chin-up atmosphere prevails, even the initial sad strains of ‘Gamble Everything For Love’ upon a closer listen reveals a positive affirmation of the possibilities of love. And it’s all seems perfectly encapsulated with that ‘so simple why didn’t I think of that’ cover that cuts through the pretentions that the albums title might suggest. If I was to say, it’s an album cover with the title spelt out in flowers, it would sound pretty naff, right? Yet Lee pulls it off with the restraint and elegance of a seasoned design professional, bastard.

It’s not a perfect album by any means, it’s cheeriness overstays it’s welcome by a song or two, as does that damn toy piano by about three songs in. I have to give him an “A’ for effort though. Awake Is The New Sleep is a humble album that finds Lee astutely checking his ego at the door for a change. That and a fantastic cover is enough to distract me from his ugly smug mugging, ridiculous media quotes and C grade gaggle of celebrity friends for the moment, at least until he hooks up with his next Hollywood babe.