Great Album Covers

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Once upon a time the music industry packaged recordings in plain, brown wrappers, just like pornography. Alex Steinweiss did away with all that when he created his first album cover back in 1938.

Steinweiss’s marquee design put across a recording of Rodgers and Hart show tunes and revolutionized the industry. Album and CD artwork has run the design gamut ever since. From 2D and 3D designs to punk, funk, junk, psychedelia and all things avant-garde. There’s no categorizing every variation, but some looks are more representative than others.

Top: “Ufabulum” (studio cover), designed by Tom Jenkinson, 2012.

Groovy Sex Photography:
Whipped Cream & Other Delights,”
Designed by Peter Whorf, 1965.

Whorf pictorially captured the 1960’s with a design that had it all: a celebrated headliner in Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, a groovy, period font, a pretty face, alluring cleavage, and plenty of shaving cream—cans and cans of the stuff (whipped cream melted too easily and was only used on the head and fingers). Model Dolores Erickson was 29 at the time of the shoot; she was also pregnant, but hadn’t started to show. The artwork remains a hit decades later. Alpert often announced during concerts, “Sorry, but I can’t play the cover for you.”

"Ufabulum," Designed by Tom Jenkinson, 2012.

Op Art and Simplicity:
Ufabulum” (special edition cover),
Designed by Tom Jenkinson, 2012.

Avant-garde electronica musician Tom “Squarepusher” Jenkinson had a vision, a deep desire to marry audio and visual art. That obsession led him to devise a monochrome LED light show for his “Ufabulum” tour. He consciously developed the display in concert, pardon the pun, with the development of the music. Both are reflected in his black and white cover that harkens back to those crazy, minimalist and op art pieces from those crazy 1960’s. The simplicity of this work is striking and inviting, like something you’d see on a gallery wall.

"Underground," Designed by John Berg and Dick Mantel, 1968.
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Set Decoration:
Designed by John Berg and Richard Mantel, 1968.

Album artwork hit some kind of height in 1968. Think “White Album,” “Cheap Thrills” and “Bookends,” just for a start. But don’t forget Theolonious Monk. The market for jazz records dwindled at the end of the decade, including audiences for the “underground” pianist himself, so Columbia records got Berg and Mantel to create this tour de force in all its Hollywood-ish, set decoration style. The imagery approaches dazzling, evoking themes ranging from WWII to 1960’s youth protests. The album’s press release put it this way: “Now, in 1968, Theolonius Monk has once again become an underground hero, this time as an oracle of the new underground.”

"Rage Against the Machine," Photo by Malcom Browne, 1992.

Photojournalism and Blink Art:
Rage Against the Machine,”
Photo by Malcolm Browne, 1992.

Cheap thrills or political statement? Rage Against the Machine made a whole bunch of statements with its debut record cover. The photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk torching himself shocks and rivets—this is album art as car crash. The 1963 photo by Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne received the World Press Photo of the Year award. The cover demands attention, screams political awareness, then haunts you after you turn away.

"The Velvet Underground and Nico," Designed by Andy Warhol, 1967., peeled banana "The Velvet Underground and Nico," Designed by Andy Warhol, 1967., peeled banana

Gimmicks and Novelties:
The Velvet Underground and Nico,”
Designed by Andy Warhol, 1967.

Think “The House of Wax” in 3D. Think scratch ‘n sniff. Think anything you like because, after all, it’s Warhol. The pop artist with the blond mop managed the band formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in 1964, one more nebulous responsibility in the Warhol lifework.

For this debut album, Warhol spun the idea of album cover as plaything, an overtly suggestive banana that could actually be peeled back to reveal a pink version underneath. Never known for subtlety, the pop art guru printed the instruction nice and obvious: “Peel slowly and see.” Even more staggering is the blatant “Andy Warhol” in large font just below the yellow image.

Warhol’s album design conformed to his typical one-two punch of an approach to art: hit the audience over the head while remaining as obscure as possible. The bare presentation of the banana and his name fairly screamed without mention of any band. For all you knew, you were buying a recording of Warhol reciting recipes from the Chiquita cookbook.

All photos © respective owners.

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Ben lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois. When he's not dabbling in the Scene 360 scene, he pens a monthly, hard-boiled detective series. Subscription info, samples and more can be found at Follow the author @ and view more articles.

October 28, 2013 Design Music Special Feature