How Many Voltas Does It Take? Album Art and You

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of The Moon cover design by Hipgnosis

No matter what it is I’m doing, I almost always have music playing. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mars Volta. I’m not sure I’m even a fan of this band, but I can definitely appreciate their music. I have no idea what the guy is singing about but the intensity of his voice and the music surrounding it have me convinced that whatever it is, it’s really important and deserves my attention. Plus, it’s great music to do anything to. Try crocheting to the song Vermicide and you’ll see what I mean.

Alas, this is a design blog, so I mustn’t stray too far from the topic at hand. Came across this review of For The Love Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis on Speak Up this morning. As the title suggests, it’s a monograph featuring the work of Hipgnosis, a now defunct design firm that created HUNDREDS of album art from the sixties through the eighties. Don’t know who they were? It’s okay, neither did I, but you definitely know their work. They were responsible for Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover, which was rated the fourth best album cover of all time by VH1, the venerable pop culture museum and the de-facto authority on all things countdown-able. While Hipgnosis is no longer in existence, one of its founding members, Storm Thorgerson is still working today. In fact, he designed the cover for Mars Volta’s 2004 release, De-Loused in the Comatorium, one of the albums in heavy rotation in my workspace right now.

Originally, this post was going to be a compilation of my favorite album covers growing up. I was specifically going to find covers from the late eighties into the nineties, and only ones that I found striking, not because of the lore surrounding it, but simply because I dug them. I sat to brainstorm but after coming up with four albums, I couldn’t think of anything else. What happened? Were there no iconic album covers done in my lifetime? I seriously doubt this is the case, however, what is true is that album covers no longer have the same power as in the past. There are obvious reasons for this: the ‘death’ of vinyl, the rise of the mp3, and the enormous amount of music being released today. While many album covers are well designed, and thoughtfully considered, they no longer serve as the Point-of-Sale advertising they used to. Instead, they are more a supplement to the music. This means less is riding on the album artwork, and thus it often goes unnoticed. There are definitely exceptions to this. The cover for Bjork’s Volta comes to mind. Tons of great new album covers have also been produced by folks like Non-Format, Hort, Karlssonwilker, and many others, but outside of the design community, much of it isn’t even given a second thought.

I’m wondering if there’s a way to elevate the album cover back to where it once was, not just something a handful of designers care about, rather something that captures the imaginations of everyday people. Maybe it’s through large-scale exhibitions, monographis, and yes, even VH1 countdowns. I suppose the key is to get people talking about NEW album covers, and not just the classics. If album art is no longer helping to sell the music, maybe it could help sell itself.

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