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Importance of album art

By Kathleen McWilliams
On April 10, 2014

When we talk about music, we discuss the artistry of the musician's compositions, but we rarely think about the album art. The album art can often tie the whole album together with the visual aspect, if it isn't just a picture of the recording artist. The trend of having a portrait on the front of an album is thankfully dying out in favor of unique creative work on the cover. There is absolutely nothing eye catching about a still photograph of a musician.
What is eye catching, however, is the amount of attention and detail that goes into actual artwork. For example, The Shins' album "Wincing the Night Away" has a tan background and black fur balls? Lorax trees? The whimsical design is futuristic, childish and thought-provoking, not unlike the album itself. The ambiguous nature of the art mirrors the album's sound perfectly. It's interesting and fun, but completely incomprehensible.
Illustration, such as the one on "Wincing the Night Away" is just one way to make a statement with album art. Photography, not necessarily of one's self, is another venue for expression. The Beatles' "With the Beatles" album made use of standard photography quite well, but they added the twist of wearing all black so that their bodies fade into the darkness on the cover. Much like Andy Warhol's pop art, this modernist, monochromatic photograph made a statement that they were serious musicians with an affinity for visual art. On the monochromatic side of things, "The White Album" is possibly one of the most genius works of album art. Yes, it is simply a white cover, but the majesty in being able to pull off something so unconventional is exactly what The Beatles were all about.
Warhol has contributed a lot to the way artists and producers think about album art. His iconic cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico was as minimalistic as things can go before hitting "The White Album." A simple painting of a banana on a white background was all it took for people to understand that the band was all about art and music colliding.
On the more modern end of the spectrum, bands have been leaning towards using more digital media on their album covers. While minimalism can still be seen on covers such as Beyonce's "Beyoncé" album, the overwhelming theme has been for whimsy. Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" album cover is a favorite of mine. I love the way the group combined classical, historical art with graffiti writing. It's edgy, it's thought provoking and it reminds me of Banksy. Arcade Fire's "Funeral" takes a terracotta and sage color scheme and creates an album cover that cannot be forgotten once you look closer. From afar it looks as if there is only a hand waving a feathered pen, but as you look closer you see the waves sucking the hand under, giving the album's title much more weight.
The album art is often the first step towards drawing in a potential purchaser. I know I'm not inclined to buy an album that has a boring pop star's portrait on it. Instead, I'll look for engaging art that tells me a little something about the music I'm about to hear.

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