Remember when you bought a physical copy of an album and could not peel yourself away because of the amazing album cover, or the art inside the booklet? And even years after you bought the album you’d still be intrigued? I have albums of which I like the album art more than the actual music. But with all this downloading and streaming we do these days, is album art still relevant? My answer to that is a confident yes.
Finding new, amazing music has become a lot easier in this age of online music services. But still, before you buy anything first of all you need to be aware it’s out there. And a visually appealing album cover might just do that trick. You might see something floating on Facebook. A friend might have posted something about a new album, or the artists themselves do. But before you hear you often see. My most recent example of being intrigued by album art and not knowing the artist on the album was Nothing But Thieves’ self-titled debut album. And now, they are one of my favourite bands. The enigmatic horse on their cover, created by Steve Stacey, caught my eye and I felt that an artist with such a cool album cover must have cool music. And I was right!
Even if Spotify, for instance, opens up an infinite music catalogue, when a new album drops and I don’t know the artist, I still look at the album art before I have a listen. And only then do I click on it, wondering what the album might sound like. Sometimes the album art makes me a new fan of the artist who made it — or a cover intrigues me because it is something I know and love. Look, for example, at The Script’s 2014 release No Sound Without Silence. The cover art for this album is based on a 3D sculpture by Adam Martinakis, called the “Last Kiss”. Martinakis’ work, in cooperation with AMP Visual is featured in the album booklet and also the single covers. Same goes for 30 Seconds To Mars’ latest release Love, Lust, Faith + Dreams. The cover of this album is a 2011 gloss on canvas work by renowned artist Damien Hirst called “Isonicotinic Acid Ethyl Ester” and the booklet features more of Hirst’s work. Coldplay’s 2008 album Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends features the iconic painting about the French Revolution “Liberty Leading The People” by Eugéne Delacroix. I started listening to this particular album because I love Delacroix’s work, not because I was a Coldplay fan. I am not completely sure why Coldplay chose this particular cover, but Viva La Vida covers topics that relate to death, war, love, freedom, which are addressed in the painting too.
Album art can say something about the complete package and concept of the album. It enhances the music if it’s good, in a similar way as a music video. Not just the ear wants to be pleased; we need something to feast our eyes on too. Sia’s This Is Acting does just that. If you look at it for the first time it might throw you off. But seeing this is an album filled with songs that Sia wrote for other artists, which they rejected, the cover already makes more sense. Sia’s music is moldable, it’s adaptable, like a mannequin. And just like the title says, it might feel like acting at times. The title of the album, the cover, and the songs match each other beautifully. Lifehouse’s Almeria is actually a good example too, even if I never really liked the cover. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad album or cover. The cover captures the Americana feel of the album, with four cowboys ready for a fight. The bright yellow consumes the entire scene, like a blazing sun at high noon. Their deluxe version shows the cowboys still waiting for a standoff at night time. It’s a fun and meaningful substitute for a band picture. One Republic took the generic band picture to another level too for their 2013 album Native. Instead of their faces, the band members are animals, each an individual in their own rights with specific characteristics, which complements the name of the album.
Sometimes album covers become so iconic that they appear all over the place, t-shirts, mugs, pictures, umbrellas, you name it. The covers, as entities on their own, become more famous than the actual music. This happened for The Beatles, Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, The Ramones, and so many others. The Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road is an album, but it’s also a site of tourism now with people flocking there from all over the globe. Many people won’t recognize the albums featured on a shirt. But what better way to be introduced to new music than “hey man, I like your shirt. Is that a band?” Perhaps you will even find the (musical) love of your life that way. Album art can be that powerful.