On the Sanctity of the Album Cover

Once upon a time, album covers had the right to earn the title ‘artwork’. Records by acts like The Beatles, PInk Floyd and Michael Jackson attained iconic status not only for their musical content, but for the instantly recognisable image that adorned the front cover. The image that would be viewed every time a record was pulled out of its sleeve; the image that would adorn posters on bedroom walls; in many cases the image that would go on to be replicated, parodied, and become a staple icon for countless items of memorabilia for decades to come. Sadly, it appears that this custom has become a thing of the past. Allow me to explain.

Cast your eyes over the top 40 albums in your local music store today – as I did this morning in HMV. Not only are there a distinct lack of recognisable covers on the albums, but much to my horror, quite a few have multiple covers. The new Rihanna album sits as a two-piece; original and deluxe edition, with two covers that have such drastically different moods they were obviously taken from different shoots. The difference between the two albums? About 3 songs. In fact, considering you can also have non-explicit versions of both, effectively there are 4 versions. All were released on the same day, last week. This is an album which has thus far had just one single. This is either obscenely pretentious, or a ridiculous marketing ploy (a pointless one, I might add, if anyone at Def Jam thinks teenage girls are going to try and collect them). Either way, the album is lost on the shelves; it seems unsure of itself, let alone what anyone else will make of it.

But the ridiculousness does not stop there. A crime much worse has been committed, and I am sad to say it has been committed by not one, not two, but three of today’s pop acts. JLS, One Direction and The Saturdays have released multiple covers for their albums, with one for each of their respective members. So you can have Jukebox with Aston on the front. Or Up All Night with Harry on the front. And joy – On The Radar with Molly on the front. Ever wondered what a pop music travesty looks like? Behold – like a grotesque musical pic n mix, here it is folks.

I have nothing against re-releases, or repackaging if an album deserves such glorification. For example, even before her untimely death this year, a deluxe version of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black was released with an additional disc boasting session outtakes and various cover versions which she performed during the album’s promotion – ‘Valerie’, most notably. Considering this is the best selling album of the 2000s, this was an entirely justified release, with material which could be of genuine interest to people who already have the album, and to those who are buying it for the first time. Everyone’s a winner. As for the cover; did she fuck with the artwork and have new photos taken? She did not. The cover is pure black with nothing but the album title in the white font that was used on the original edition; instantly recognisable as some form of special edition of her album, and yet the original cover remains intact and unrivalled in people’s minds. Well done.

I suppose it’s the ‘take your pick’ element of this that riles me most. An artist is revealed as weak when they give their audience options. Their incapacity to create a unified piece of work for all and say ‘take it or leave it’, seriously diminishes their credibility. In fact, one might say many of the acts who are indulging in this commercialism (some of whom are likely having no say in any of this whatsoever) are not artists at all. They are as much instruments of marketing as are the posters, t-shirts and dolls that bear their faces and names.

But let me not neglect my overall point. Album covers should be treated with the highest integrity. A cover should encapsulate the entire mood of the record as much as the title itself. Artists should aspire to create covers worthy of the iconic stature that have made them a form of art in themselves. In the face of dwindling album sales and the era of iTunes, I beg you, keep the tradition of the great album cover sacred. That is all.

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