Whether it’s down to the advent of iPods and MP3s and streaming music services meaning today’s consumer buying habits are more fragmented, or to illegal downloads, the simple fact is album sales are on a significant downward spiral even while music sales overall continue to rise. That the largest market for album sales is catalogue purchases of classic bands like Meatloaf and Guns N Roses, with the big spenders in the over 45 demographic. The album as a sales format is in serious trouble.
Where does that leave album art? Well, from a design perspective, online stores such as Amazon’s MP3 store mean that, much like book covers, the modern album needs artwork that translates well to a miniscule thumbnail, as that’s all many browsers will ever see unless they visit the product’s sales page. Covers like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and even Abbey Road are just too busy to shine at such a small size, so the ‘best’ album art of the future will probably be much simpler, more iconic (in the sense it will feature single images on solid backgrounds that are recognisable at, ahem, icon sizes.)
With that in mind, here are the albums Rolling Stone readers’ voted the top 5 of all time. These album covers are instantly recognizable to many people and thousands will have donned the walls of teenager’s bedrooms in the form of printed posters.
5. London Calling, The Clash
It may be something of a cliché now, but at the time, the black and white image of Paul Simonon chopping the stage up with his guitar at a New York Palladium gig was an arresting image. It summed up the anger and frustration of a generation, striking a chord with a highly targeted audience.
The album title frames the image in bold lettering, and the placement of the title over the central image draws the eye in, from where it travel up the length of the guitar. In today’s world, the image might be more stylised, with the upper background faded to a solid colour to help the central image stand out, but even at 1600 pixels square (the size Amazon browsers are presented with) it’s a clear image that capture the attention.
4. Abbey Road, The Beatles
As recognisable as the ‘paper chain’ image of The Beatles walking across the zebra crossing image is, would this be as successful today? The problem is twofold. First, the eye is drawn assay from that classic image down the road and confused by the upper background. The other is that small details, such as Paul McCartney’s barefoot walk, simple get lost at this small scale.
A modern treatment might stylise the background, or replace it with a solid colour, or zoom in to make the figures take up more of the image. It would be a brave soul who left off the title and artist these days, too.
3. Nevermind, Nirvana
In contrast, the image of a baby swimming after a dollar bill hooked on a fishing line on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album speaks just as clearly at a tiny thumbnail as it does at full size.
Possibly the only changes you might see if this album were released today might be a slight enlargement of the text to make the title easier to read, and the application of an airbrush to suit the PC crowd.
2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
When Richard Wright asked Hipgnosis designers to create an album cover for Dark Side of the Moon that was “smarter, neater, more classy,” than previous Pink Floyd covers, asking for a clean graphic image over a photographic one, he set the stage for one of the most iconic album covers, both literally and figuratively, of all time.
Despite the lack of text, it’s probably the one album cover that might survive intact in today’s design world.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
No one can deny it’s the most memorable album artwork ever, earning its place in the number one spot for Rolling Stone readers. Would it have the same impact today, though?
The problem is, this artwork is designed to go large, not to scale down. Although the Beatles text is legible, everything else gets lost. Can you recognise any of the celebrities? Probably not, at this size.
And that’s the sad part of the demise of the album, for a design perspective. Unless technology and trends change again to the point where album art (if it still exists) is again predominantly viewed at a much bigger size than what’s current today, the days of intricate artwork with rich detailed tapestries, at least supporting music, are numbered.