A brief history of album art

Exploring how cover art has evolved through the decades

Some album artwork is made to last.
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There’s nothing quite like a great album cover. When done right, these images often become inseparable from the music they represent. 
 
However, as streaming has grown into the predominant way to consume music, ‘the album’ has become less important to artists and consumers. It’s worth wondering if album art still matters now that the industry has shifted in favour of singles. 
 
Before Music Television (MTV) ushered in a generation of music videos in 1981, artists could only engage their fans visually through album art. Whatever image a band printed on their record sleeve acted as both a sales pitch and an artistic statement. 
 
Album art mattered back then. It’s no coincidence covers from pre-1981 have stood the test of time, remaining culturally relevant images even into 2022. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize The Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles’ Abbey Road. 
 
While those albums are packed with classic songs, their artwork has contributed significantly to them attaining legendary status. 
 
The 1980s opened new doors for music with the immediate popularity of televised music videos and the rise of the cassette tape. Nonetheless, without the Internet album art still mattered even when printed on a smaller package. 
 
Today, covers from the era’s biggest stars—like Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen—are still immediately recognizable. Thriller was certified 34 times platinum in 2021. Jackson’s sparkling white jacket on the cover is irrefutably iconic. 
 
CDs made the cassette tape obsolete in the 1990s and their packaging offered a larger 5.59 inch by 4.92 inch canvas to show off album artwork. 
 
Moody photographs replaced the more colourful and artistic images of the 1980s. The cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind may have inspired this shift—the swimming baby reaching for a dollar bill on its cover is a still-relevant image that defined an era. 
 
While the 2000s brought us no shortage of classics, the number of new and memorable album covers has dwindled since the beginning of the 2010s. 
 
This is no coincidence—non-collectors haven’t been buying physical copies of their favourite albums since the iPod and iTunes turned the industry digital. Musicians know this and many have stopped caring about album art because it doesn’t affect their sales. 
 
People used to walk into stores and buy records because an album cover caught their eye. Now, people discover new music when Spotify generates a playlist or their preferred online reviewer recommends it. 
 
This neglect toward album art has peaked in the last five years. 
 
Since photoshopping himself atop the CN Tower for 2016’s Views, Drake, the most popular artist in the world, has pumped out several low-effort covers in a row. 
 
Kanye West, once known for his eye-catching and creative covers—XXL wrote an entire story about his beloved bear mascot—released Donda last year with a black square as its artwork. Even those who loathe him for his antics cannot deny the lazy step-down. 
 
Unfortunately, this lack of passion going into the artwork for albums and singles is one reason why contemporary music feels so disposable. 
 
In this current age of over-stimulation with too much music at our fingertips, a great album cover can be something to latch onto. People need images that stay in their minds. 
 
Maybe songs are temporary, but great art is forever. 
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