Cover Stories, Old and New

Far be it from me to pretend I really know what makes for good rock ’n’ roll. Beyond the music and musicians that I like, I have no idea, really, what does or does not make sense for the rest of the listening public. But I sincerely do believe that, past a certain age, most acts really should stop releasing albums and just let their back catalogs stand as the definitive statement of who they are. There are plenty of good reasons for this, not the least of which is that the youthful theatrics of rock music are just an embarrassment when pantomimed by nearly anyone over, say, forty years old. Maybe forty-five.

Another reason is that, past a certain age — or perhaps a certain stage in a career — most acts’ new album cover designs lose that singular, epochal quality that was so common to their early releases. That is, where an act might once have released iconic albums replete with cover art that not only reflected their time but also defined it, those acts’ older, mid-life incarnations tend to release album covers that only lamely follow ripened trends.

What’s Old Is New Again

This is what I thought when I saw the cover for Elvis Costello’s latest release, “Momofuku.” It’s not the worst cover ever, to be sure, but it’s also just not that good. Its rough and ready, stencil-like typography reminds me a bit too much of the kind of retail branding found in suburban shopping malls, and its somewhat horrific color combination evokes a humorous Hallmark card more than a rock album.


Compare that to his 1977 album, the irrepressible “This Year’s Model,” which featured a young, hyperkinetic Costello looking uniquely brash and five years ahead of his time. It’s not just the photograph that makes this cover, either. It’s also the way his scrawny and yet strangely aggressive silhouette sits against a brown background — somehow making brown seem modern. The oblique, sparsely tracked-out typography, suggesting sprocket holes on a roll of film, is a perfect complement to the actual camera. The whole package is like a offhanded yet potent visual punch.


The stark comparative quality of those two albums made me think of David Bowie’s “Reality,” released earlier this decade with what is probably the worst cover I’ve seen yet in the 21st Century. There’s just no explaining this bizarre cross-pollination between the inside front cover of a Japanese schoolgirl’s notebook and a graduate thesis from the most annoying M.F.A. candidate ever. It is, I suppose, meant to evoke something otherworldly, but it seems quotidian compared to the eerily cinematic cover of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That iconic, hand-painted photographic art didn’t just hint at otherworldliness, it practically showed us documentary proof of its existence.


I feel similarly about Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times,” the songs of which actually fall under the category of ‘not that bad’ — but then everyone says the man is a genius. His covers, though, have never been particularly fantastic (Milton Glaser’s famous poster doesn’t count, because it was included inside a greatest hits album). At the very least, Dylan’s back catalog of album art dependably used photography to reflect the man’s distinctive persona and current attitude. The cover for “Highway 61 Revisited,” for instance, succinctly shows the young Dylan staring back with the same inimitable knowingness that the superb D.A. Pennebacker documentary “Don’t Look Back” took ninety-six minutes to capture. Yet “Modern Times” doesn’t look like it’s even a Bob Dylan record; set aside the artist’s name and you could easily mistake it for the dust jacket wrapping a cheap and instantly forgettable summer novel.

Face Time

There’s a trend here: youthful album covers have the advantage of showing youthful artists, which gives a record cover designer much more to work with in terms of romantically appealing imagery. Say what you will about whether that’s an indictment of popular culture, but it’s hard to deny that a photograph of, say, a noticeably older and heavier Elvis Costello wouldn’t stand a chance of grabbing the world by its collar the way “This Year’s Model” did so many years ago. It’s no accident that, as these artists watch more and more “Matlock,” they also discreetly chose to keep their faces off these covers.


What to make of U2, then, who seemingly can’t get enough of their own images? Judging by the phoned-in quality of their last album cover, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” they might as well be inching closer to a faceless strategy. Never mind the half-assed nature of the typography and layout. Four aging rock ’n’ roll multi-millionaires who can’t even be bothered to stand up for their cover shoot? It’s a far cry from the urgent, direct and still riveting portrait that adorned their 1983 album “War.” Based on this, I expect the art for their next release will show them all napping, fully reclined in diamond-studded La-Z-Boy chairs.


I have to hand it, then, to Madonna. She’s long past the point where her sexually charged musical repertoire retains the power to stir anyone’s libido, but her album covers consistently feature her photographic image, invariably looking like a billion bucks and usually exceptionally well-designed too. Even the cover of her latest, “Hard Candy,” is not without its charms in its goofy come-on. The design won’t be nearly as epochal as that of her self-titled debut (immortally art directed by my friend Carin Goldberg), what with its smirk-inducing typography and senses-working-overtime color palette. But she tries. She’s fearless on this cover, absolutely fearless. That is, the woman is completely unafraid of looking like a complete fool — which she does. That counts for something when you’re a rock star.

  1. Nice post Khoi. I think maybe part of it is that less effort is being put into album art nowadays anyway, which is a great shame. Long gone is the 12′ LP which was the (IMO, anyway) perfect platform for displaying album artwork – we’ve now gone through CD cases to tiny screens on our Ipods.

  2. I’m hoping for a renaissance in music packaging… someday soon, right? All things come in cycles. Let’s all cross our fingers!

    Hadn’t thought about the latest U2 cover… I’m a big fan and forgive a multitude of sins by the foursome from Ireland. Oh well. You’re right, not exactly mindblowing art direction. 🙂

  3. For me, the greatest album of all time also has the greatest cover of all time: Public Enemy ‘It takes a nation of millions to hold us back’. However, ever since then Public Enemy has released one horrific cover after another – unfortunately their music has also slipped a bit, but not as much as their cover art.

  4. @U2:

    in Vienna, we have a subway called U2, and a few years ago this line was closed due to construction work, which was of course communicated via large posters in the trains.

    It was the time, when this dismantling U2 record was released, and it happen

  5. Just a short comment on your first paragraph: I’m quite sure that if the music industry catered for talented musicians to release a few albums and than take on a ‘music director’ roll, they would. The reason they are still creating is probably down to two point. a) They love what they do more than they care what people thinks about what they creates. They are artists. b) They ‘have’ to because they need the money, lack education and experience in any other field or have there name on a contract.

  6. I’ve worked as a (primarily digital) designer in and around the music industry for many years, and in my experience the fluctuation in quality of album art comes down to many factors.

    The band or artist has to ‘get’ design and understand the value of good design. Spiritualized, working with Mark Farrow have managed to maintain a high standard of album art over time because Jason Pierce appreciates the value that Mark’s work has added to his band’s ‘brand’ over time.

    Limits are good. New acts often produce better covers because there is little or no budget for art direction and the designers they employ are forced to think more creatively as a result.

    As artists become successful and popular, their overall creativity can often suffer. U2’s cover for ‘How To Dismantle…’ may be vastly inferior to the striking design for ‘War’, but try comparing the two records. U2 used to be an exciting, energetic and downright angry new band once…

    Sleeves were invented as packaging for physical records. As we move towards a predominantly digital music industry they’ll become less and less relevant. I wrote an article about this last January as the inaugural post for Sleevelessness, my blog which hopes to document the changing role of graphic design in the new music industry.

    The future of graphic design and music is about much more than a little square of paper.

  7. The thing I noticed right away with the EC, Bowie, and Dylan comparisons were the foci (foci!): on the old albums, it’s clearly all about the photography whereas on the new, it’s all about the typography.

    I agree with Simon; I suspect that this is due to context. With actual albums, you’d have this big canvas to look at. Nowadays most people see cover art in a tiny iTunes sidebar or on an iPod, no more than an inch or two across. I wonder if tiny type on covers has, in general, gone away too because of this – the EC, Dylan, Bowie, and even Madonna covers have big big type. (U2 doesn’t support my theory so I’ll just ignore ’em.)

    Whereas one could spread out records all over the floor and just gaze at the covers and pour over the liner notes, now many people just don’t bother with covers nor liner notes. Websites and wikipedia kind of take the place of liner notes, but covers seem to have fallen by the wayside.

  8. Yikes!

    ‘…the youthful theatrics of rock music are just an embarrassment when pantomimed by nearly anyone over, say, forty years old. Maybe forty-five.

    Have you seen Scorsese’s ‘Shine a Light’? Watched Prince perform lately? Or Earth, Wind & Fire?

    While I agree that all of the cover art you referenced sucks, I suspect that has more to do with the general demise of the industry and less to do with the artists themselves.

  9. If that Bowie cover is the worst you’ve ever seen, then you should be happy.

    For whatever it’s worth, it was inspired by ‘an assumption that there is little reality left that corresponds to the old definition.’ If that means anything to any of you.

    Since the convenient, blanket, and unprovable accusation has been made, though not directly at him, that these artists may not ‘get’ design (*eyeroll*), it’s been my understanding that he at least is usually if not always directly involved in his art direction. (Whether that’s good or not is a separate consideration.) The jacket he wore on the Earthling art(Barnbrook): him and Alexander McQueen. I don’t know too much about what went on with the Heathen cover art, but according to Barnbook’s monograph, he did stipulate an image or two, and his image on the front, for which the photographer had already been selected. The hours… art(Barnbrook again, plus an illustrator) was apparently concepted by him(and was lenticular *bleah*). The painting on the cover of Outside was by Bowie himself. More importantly, if you’ve seen the booklet/lyrics for Outside pages and pages of this?

  10. Oops, sorry. The Reality art was Barnbrook plus illustrator. I don’t know off-hand who was behind hours… other than the photographer credited on that page.

  11. I remember reading a story a couple of years ago that showed most creative people in ANY field (from visual artists to physicists) do their most notable work before age 30…so rock musicians are not an exception.

    I believe the falloff in creativity in the album /CD covers is more a result of the ‘packaging’ of artists by their labels. Doing highly impactful design in a large organization with so many ‘approvers’ is difficult. At that point in their careers, I bet most artists just want to meet their contractural obligations and get the thing out the door…

  12. Khoi, take a detour to Other Music or Downtown Music Gallery someday. There’s an entire galaxy of independent artists and labels putting out some truly wonderful album art and packaging. And the music is fantastic too! You just have to be willing to look outside the box. I haven’t bothered with anything from a major label, with few exceptions, in decades.

  13. Dan, I totally agree with you. There’s plenty of brilliant album cover work being done out there, especially in the indie space. Which gives lie to the contention that the poor quality of these older acts’ album covers are caused by some general decline in the art form.

    Howver, this post wasn’t meant to address album cover design in general or even what’s happening in design for indie album covers. I was focused specifically on how these middle-aged rockers’ album covers are proof that they’re past their prime.

  14. I totally agree — I recently posted a similar rant about the awful Frank Black cover art since he went solo. The odd thing is, I like the music, but I don’t understand why he can’t find someone with some decent design chops to make his album art. Completely baffling.

    Another artist who’s music I enjoy despite their trundling towards retirement age is Tom Waits, and he also has some terrible album art.

    I agree with Simon that the LP having lost the limelight as art showcase is partly to blame, but really, who puts something out that has any sort of visual design to it without some thought and effort? Especially an album you spent a lot of time producing.. I just don’t get it.

  15. But I sincerely do believe that, past a certain age, most acts really should stop releasing albums and just let their back catalogs stand as the definitive statement of who they are.

    Then you include Bob Dylan among these acts. Yeesh, you are way off the mark here.

    ‘set aside the artist’s name and you could easily mistake it for the dust jacket wrapping a cheap and instantly forgettable summer novel.

    Perhaps the meaning of the title, complete with the blurry photo and the quick, thrown together verbiage of the front cover is lost on you. You do get the pensive Dylan stare on the back cover, if that is what you are looking for.

  16. I believe that the cover art for Bowie’s Reality album was done by Rex Ray, a somewhat notable San Francisco designer. I once had the pleasure of attending a talk he gave about his work and he discussed his experience working with Bowie (mostly hands off, but really concerned with how the tie looks).

    But yea, that cover’s crap.

  17. For the record (as it were), the Reality package is illustrations by Rex Ray, design by Jonathan Barnbrook. You can see the booklet layout at Barnbrook’s site.

    I also did a double-take at Elvis Costello’s recent cover art, wondering what had happened to the man who worked with designer Barney Bubbles to produce some great album sleeves when he was at Stiff. This Year’s Model is a BB design (Elvis as photographer makes us the model) and the initial pressing was presented thus:

    ‘Early issues of the album have an apparently misprinted sleeve, which cuts the ‘E’ from ‘Elvis’ off the front cover and shows a printers’ color bar along the right side. This was a deliberate mistake (a favourite technique of cover designer Barney Bubbles), as was pressing ‘Special pressing No. 003. Ring 434 32 32. Ask for Moira for your prize’ between the holding spirals on Side A.

  18. This post is interesting. Most of your posts are interesting. 🙂

    I love Dylan. I saw him in Chicago at the Chicago Theater not too long ago. It was fantastic, as are all his shows that I’ve seen. I saw Costello open for him. It was really good too. So to say that he should’ve quit at 40, is the opposite opinion of anyone who’s been to a show during the neverending tour.

    Dylan’s concert poster art strikes me as not quite right, and I’m not quite sure why it is.

    If you look at his posters, they look something like this

    or this

    They seem like he’s trying to evoke older Hatch Show Print posters (or maybe they do them still? I’m not sure), which are fantastic for the simple reason that they are Hatch Show Print and historic and nostalgic and recall great acts that made music what it is. But Bob’s posters look sort of cheesy now and I wonder why he doesn’t go farther and make them look better. But I wonder how much it actually costs to do so and if it’s worth it to the artist.

    If you watch the live show, he has a really great logo

    So he’s not clueless and he’s still got some great art and design going on for him. It must just not matter that much to artists what the album looks like and if you don’t have to go that far to sell an album by the cover, just like business, art becomes tied to revenue. 😛

    I think you missed a couple interesting album covers though, namely Self portrait, Slow train coming, and Oh mercy, all illustrated covers and all at different times in his career.

  19. The humoorously fragile ego of a the creatively imputant generation that gave us

    `samplig’ and legalized infringement of copyrights is magnified here by the pathetic appeal of the author to stifle the works of those legends who have made them look miniscule by comparison.

    Artistic ability -like everything else, improves over time and expierience.

    The crushing reality for him,however, would have to be the fact that short of Madison Avenue’s love affair with the youth at any partiular time due to the known fact that they’ve always outspent older people,no single generation(AS WE USUALLY HAVE AS MANY AS FOUR ALIVE AT ANY GIVEN TIME)will EVER(thank god)be the sole dictator of what our culture,politics or anything else for that matter will be.This one, however brings self-importance to insufferable new heights.



  20. I really hate that Bowie cover – but a year earlier he released ‘Heathen’, which has a fantastic cover. My favourite of his is ‘Low’, which (like Station To Station)m simply took a still from The Man Who Fell To Earth and made it iconic.

    And that Madonna album… put it away gran, put it away!

  21. You’re not comparing like with like. Your judgements need to account for the fact that there was a change in format – from 12 inch vastness of vinyl covers to the measly 110mm offered by CD covers – that governed much of the design decisions. Then you may want to consider the way PR and in house design (facilitated by the rise of Desk Top Publishing in the late 80’s) pushed the creatives out of the record *industry* in order to manage costs. Finally, you’ll need to place yourself, your memories, and your nostalgia under tougher scrutiny.

  22. To sound incredibly cliche, you might be judging the book by it’s cover. I looked at the cover of Dylan’s Modern Times the day I bought it and now it shows up as a one inch square on my ipod. That doesn’t take anything away from it being an amazing album. I think to say that snazzy cover art is what makes a great album is taking a sort of high school/classic rock take on what an album is. If you want to get high and puzzle over great cover art buy some Pink Floyd records and go for it. If you want to tell your ex-girlfriend/parents to f***-off, then listening to My Aim is True will work, and ultimately if you want music to make you look/feel cool, then judge it by it’s cover. But I wouldn’t write off aging artists just because they don’t focus as much on packaging.

  23. Hey dude you are maybe sort of dating yourself calling them ‘albums’ they are discs now, or maybe just downloads!

    Just rippin’ on ya nice post.


  24. I am not sure I understand the relation between bad cover design and the quality of music.

    I can agree that some of the covers you show are pale in comparison to the older ones, but that doesn’t imply that the music follows the same degradation. I think that U2’s and Bowie’s youngest efforts are fantastic: consider Bowie’s Outside album.

    I like both the experimentation and exuberance of youth, and the maturity and depth of some older folks.

    It seems that nowadays, in many aspects of life

  25. Good post Khoi. On the other hand, you still have legends like Tom Waits keepin it real. (I differ in my opinion to Nate above, with the exception of the ‘Alice’ cover which I think is horrendous)

    But take a look at ‘Closing Time’ (1973) and the 2006 ‘Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards’.

    The latter is a compilation yes, but still a dope representation of all that is Tom Waits.

  26. Despite the move to the digital age, I think there are instances where you can find cover art that matters, that defines a generation. You won’t, however, find it associated with middle aged to geriatric pop starts though.

    Most of the best cover art being done today is coming out of the experimental/independent area of the music world. I think it’s primarily because the avant-garde art world and the underground music scenes are still married – Art exhibitions share both physical and psychological real estate with performance venues in these intimate settings. This is not the case in mainstream pop, which has never been so far removed from the arts as it is to date.

  27. Kurt Wagner of Lambchop was barely known before he was 45. I won’t even get into the thinness of an argument that cover design is an effective measure of the quality of music, but they still produce stunning graphics. Yo La Tengo are all in their 40’s, and their most recent album featured cover art from Adrian Tomine. Sonic Youth has always works with great artists. On the front of making good music into your forties: Jon Langford, Stuart Staples, Lucinda Williams, Bob Mould. I mean, this is easy. The problem might not be the artists, but your incredibly pedestrian tastes.

  28. I don’t disagree with your message, and for some bands, I’m in favor of forcing them never to tour or record again (CSNY comes to mind), but I have enjoyed the new directions Elvis Costello has been exploring of late.

    Also, as someone mentioned earlier, the 12′ vinyl jackets were quite a canvas, both in the store and on your shelf as a consumer. Putting them up as equal squares here negates the impact that the originals had in the market, and gives a false emphasis to the power of a CD cover. In particular, the angry, almost abused close-up on War versus the almost snapshot sized photo on Bomb loses a lot in comparison. The canvas is smaller, so the image doesn’t have to be as iconic. I mean, really – how iconic can a CD cover be, compared to, say, Led Zepplin’s first album, or Abbey Road? It’s comparing a painting over your mantle to a snap from your phone.

    I used to have a ‘now playing’ rack on my stereo in school to showcase what was on my turntable. Who has ever done that with a CD? Maybe a local store, but you have to walk up and hold the CD cover get anything from it.

    Thanks for the post – a great jumping off point for conversations, both here and with other music lovers elsewhere!

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