Ask anyone to name the images that meant the most to them in their youth, and they'll almost certainly include an album cover. At least, they will if they are telling the truth. Everyone has a favorite. For me, it was Robert Mapplethorpe's portrait of Patti Smith posing as a young, punked-up Frank Sinatra on the cover of "Horses."
When that album came out in 1975, I was 16. As soon as I saw the cover, I knew that Patti Smith was the sort of woman I wanted to become. "Horses" was instantly positioned in pride of place at the top of the pile of LP's in my room. It was the first thing anyone saw when they walked in, and if they didn't like it, well, they didn't like me.
You've probably got an album cover that meant as much to you. Maybe it's Robert Frank's grimy shot of a tattoo-parlor wall on the Rolling Stones's "Exile on Main St." or the evil comic strip that R. Crumb drew for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills." Or the baby swimming pointlessly after a dollar bill on the front of "Nevermind" by Nirvana, with Kurt Cobain's weird monkey photo on the back.
All of these covers are more than just visual representations of the music. They're compelling images with as much emotional resonance as what's inside them. Peter Saville designed the cover for New Order's "Power, Corruption & Lies," a striking juxtaposition of an 1890 Henri Fantin-Latour still life against a color-coded printing strip. Saville believes that it's the music that makes the image accessible, and ultimately meaningful. "Having encountered them through a favorite band, people don't feel as intimidated as they would by, say, a painting or sculpture," he says. "I've often thought that if 'Power, Corruption & Lies' had been a mediocre album, people might have said the cover was interesting, but they wouldn't have called it a classic. It's the fusion of great imagery and great music which makes them both seem much more memorable."
As nostalgics are wont to moan, album-cover design has never been quite as engaging since it was forced to shrink from the spacious canvas of an LP to that of a cramped CD. Even Patti Smith looks puny on the CD jewel box of "Horses." Ingenious designers have found ways around this. Witness M/M's work on the boxed set of "Family Tree" by Bjork, or the several incarnations of David Byrne in Stefan Sagmeister's booklet for "Feelings."
Those same nostalgics are even angrier about digital downloading, claiming that it has destroyed the visual side of music. And while it's true that an album cover will never mean as much to the generation of kids for whom buying music is just a virtual trip to iTunes, luckily for them, the visual aspect of music is about to be reinvented.
Go to iTunes and look at the window in the lower left-hand corner, where you now download videos. Soon you'll be able to find much more visual stuff there to watch on your iPod or computer screen while listening to the music. You will be able to click on different areas of the screen to read information about a particular artist or track, liner notes, lyrics, still images or film footage of the band playing live. That's all very interesting, but from a design perspective, the technology will really take off once musicians start to commission ambient imagery to accompany the music, most likely in the form of digital animations.
If you want to see what these animations will be like, check out the trippy, immersive image sequences on the Web sites of digital artists like Yugo Nakamura, at www.yugop.com, and Daniel Brown, at www.danielbrowns.com. Whereas music videos are made for television, often as a literal interpretation of the song's lyrics, the new digital animations will be an abstract expression of the music and will enhance the experience of listening to it.
"My idea of hell is to be trapped in a room with MTV, because the experience of watching music videos is almost always inferior to listening to the music," Saville says. "The digital animations you'll download onto an iPod will be more enigmatic and will give the music a visual dimension onto which we can project our own thoughts and meaning, just like the best album covers."