The Sad Demise of Album Art

DAVID HOLLAND laments the demise of proper album artwork, after the release of the beautiful ‘The King Of Limbs’ got him thinking: will the music of this decade be remembered with the monochrome image of Adele scratching her head?

album art Art artistic best album art cover art David Holland graphic Music nirvana Pink Floyd Radiohead stanley donwood the beatles the king of limbs the tab thom yorke tkol worst album art

Music used to be heavily associated with its accompanying artwork. Once, an album’s cover image was the only way of truly visualising the music: An hour of sound, a year of writing and recording, six months of mastering and promotion, and at the end of it a single image to accompany the work.

Creating this image was a noble endeavour. The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, which cost a hundred times the average price to produce, has become an instantly memorable image known worldwide. That is the power that album art can have. A great piece of cover art has the potential to become part of the imagery of a generation.

Dark Side of the Moon, Nevermind, The Velvet Underground & Nico – these titles conjure the imagery instantly into your head. The graphics of great albums become part of icons of an era or a movement, just as much as the music itself becomes part of history.

The great artists of yesteryear were masters of producing iconic imagery: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Rage Against the Machine, all understood the power of creative visuals. Today, the only major label artist I can think of that still produces brilliant art is Radiohead.

The arrival of The King of Limbs limited edition ‘newspaper’ album  recently is what inspired this piece. Working closely with the graphic artist during the recording process of their albums means Radiohead consistently produce imagery that adds to their music. Stanley Donwood (pseudonym) has been collaborating in this way with the band since 1994, even winning a Grammy in 2001 for best recording package for his work on Amnesiac. The poster for Thom Yorke’s phenomenal gig in Cambridge last February (with art by Donwood) still takes pride of place on the wall above my bed.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Art by Chris Bilheimer

The King Of Limbs’ packaging is depictive of a Sunday paper, wrapped in a polythene bag with supplements that fall out as you unfold it; even the CD itself comes in the sort of thin card pouch used for CD giveaways. The print is a collection of lyrics, art, photography, poetry, and prose; its interesting, relevant, and, most importantly, an addition to the music.

It is also unusual for its ephemeral nature; you can’t really keep and treasure it, most newspapers are made from chemically treated paper that removes the lignin. The King Of Limbs will absorb light, turn yellow, curl, age, and decay; it is a truly organic piece of art. It is this level of detail and imagination that is missing from almost all other music-art.

Prince’s Lovesexy is simply hideous. Kevin Rowland’s My Beauty is just vile. I can’t even show Scorpion’s Virgin Killer for ethical and legal reasons. But, at least they tried. At least someone (however misguidedly) put the thought and effort in to try and create something unique and interesting.

Scanning through the album chart in HMV is a display of monochrome blandness; picture after picture of gurning, idiot pop stars glaring at you from behind their porn-star fake smiles. To make an ‘arty’ album cover these days all you do is shoot the band in black and white. On a beach. At sunset. ‘Arty’ album covers these days look more like bad, polygamous marriage proposals.

I miss having art with my music, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Please, please bring back original and interesting album art, lest the music of this decade be forever being associated with the monochrome image of Adele scratching her head.

Radiohead – Kid A – Art by Stanley Donwood & Tchock