Sunday, March 15, 2015

Great Album Art From the CD Era

For those of us who take our music seriously and also who remember the (original) days of vinyl, the art and packaging of the album as a self-contained work of art is as important as the music contained within.  While the art of the original vinyl era of the 1960s and 1970s and even the new vinyl that is being released now is highly regarded, it's also used as further proof that vinyl beats all other formats.  Now, I've written about my love of vinyl and the personal experiences and memories I have of it and those feelings will never change. However, as someone who grew up in the peak period of the CD age and whose collection is predominantly on CD (1000+ CDs and counting), I also need to defend this assertion that only vinyl albums have worthwhile art and packaging.  Since you're currently reading this, it's obvious what my intentions are with this post, so without further ado let me set up what I want to share with you.

While interest in CDs and sales of the format are at an all time low, for many of us who are old enough to remember an era before digital music, physical formats will always trump digital-only collecting. I like having my most beloved music in a physical format for a variety of reasons, chief among them because I value the art and packaging as much as the sounds and, God forbid my ipod or hard drive crashes (and it has happened to me...twice), I still have copies to fall back upon. When bands still released their music primarily on CDs, many of them took as much care and effort into the artwork and packaging as their foreefathers in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s did.  As someone whose musical tastes spans the early 1960s to the present, I've seen this firsthand and so I want to share some of my favorite examples from my own massive CD collection.

(***A NOTE*** I am not taking into account reissues of albums from the 1960s and 1970s on CD which include the original artwork/packaging/booklets/inserts/etc. Not because they're not great...they are! But these are CD versions of the original vinyl albums. I am only focusing on albums released during the CD era, which I am defining as 1985-present, when the primary/only format bands released their albums on was CD***)

***...and please keep in mind that this list is purely subjective; these are simply some of my favorite examples!*** 


...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

One of my favorite modern bands also happens to be one of the leading lights when it comes to keeping the flame of great album packaging burning bright.  Trail of Dead play a bombastic mix of noisy alternative and grandiose epic progressive rock and their album art always has the cinematic scope to match the music.  Part of the reason is that they are fortunate to have a fantastically talented artist in Conrad Keely, who also happens to be the chief singer/songwriter/guitarist/creative force within the band.  Keely is responsible for drawing and/or painting all of the album covers and inserts, as well as writing the accompanying liner notes and librettos.  As a fellow lifelong comic book fan, Keely's approach really appeals to my sensibilities and these albums could just have easily have been released in the 1970s or 80s and fit right in.   All of their albums have great art but the ones below are my personal favorites from their discography.  

The first album of theirs to have truly elaborate art was 2005's Worlds Apart, with a Marvel Secret Wars-inspired front cover, an elaborate triptych gatefold, and a booklet with illustrated lyrics.


The inner triptych


Their 2009 album, The Century of Self, had artwork from Keely that was drawn 100% in blue ballpoint pen which is very intricate and striking.




2001's Tao of the Dead was a gorgeous package where there was more to the story than just the music.  Several of the tracks on the album are part of a story Keely is working on called "Strange News From Another Planet" and the album art incorporates characters and scenes from the story. Also included in the package is a graphic novel containing the first part of the story (the rest is supposed to be forthcoming as a standalone graphic novel in the future).





The mini graphic novel
Inside the mini graphic novel

For 2012's Lost Songs, the CDs are housed in a thick book containing a 180-page story (with illustrations) by Conrad Keely. The CDs also contain the album in two versions: one version as discrete tracks, the other version as one continuous, segued piece of music.


That is a thick book to come with some CDs!


Their latest album, from 2014 and entitled IX, continues their tradition of elaborately designed artwork and illustrated booklet.



Some fans and critics consider the band's presentation to be ostentatious and over the top, but that's one of things I love about them. Besides the music, they understand that the experience of an album involves more than just the music; it's an appeal to the imagination and to the senses.


Radiohead

While Radiohead is well known and highly regarded for their ambitious music, they also have very interesting artwork for all of their albums (except for maybe their debut), which is due to their collaboration with artist Stanley Donwood. Each of their albums have interesting presentations, but the ones below are my favorites.

2000's Kid A had very stark, ominous artwork which in and of itself was cool, but there was something else hidden underneath the CD tray...


What's that under the tray?

...why, it's a second album booklet containing some very interesting, bizarre, and disturbing artwork and writing.

Pop off the tray and voila! Bonus booklet!

Lots of weird clues and things in this one...

Their 2007 album In Rainbows was notorious because the band let fans name their own price to download it before the physical version was released in stores. However, if you're like me and you must have the physical version, you were in for a treat with the packaging.


The package folds open to show a bunch of goodies...


...including the CD in slipcase as well as stickers and inserts in order to create your own jewel box version of the album (if you so desire).

Construct your own jewel box, complete with stickers and inserts

2011's King of Limbs, while a rather disappointing album (my opinion), has neat packaging, being presented like an old vinyl album. It opens up into a gatefold with the CD held on the right hand side.



The Smashing Pumpkins

I distinctly remember buying this mammoth double album when it came out in 1995; I'd been a fan of the Pumpkins from their first album and after the exquisite Siamese Dream I was curious where they would go. What they ended up releasing was a sprawling epic that was 1990s American alternative rock's version of The White Album, and that included the packaging.


Each disc had its own title and theme and the album came with two booklets.


The first booklet contained elaborate color art that loosely (maybe?) related to the music but was nonetheless interesting to look at.



The second booklet was made to look like an old manuscript and had the lyrics for all of the songs accompanied by little drawings and doodles.


Beck

Beck's 2006 album is great musically, while artistically it was a blank slate...literally. Apart from a sticker with his name on it, the album cover was nothing more than blank graph paper. This was because... 

Where's the cover art?


...Beck invited his fans to create their own unique album cover! His thinking was that no two covers would be alike and in order to accommodate this, there were six sheets of stickers with different graphics and logos.

I've never had the heart to use the stickers, but it's still cool to look at them every once and a while


Mansun

You all know Mansun are a favorite band of mine for their music, but I also have always enjoyed the artwork for these two following albums.  Their second album, 1998's epic Six, is one of the lost masterpieces of the 1990s; a quasi-prog rock album with layer upon layer of complexity that somehow was categorized as BritPop when it came out!  The striking album cover is full of clues and references to the music contained within, as well as items of personal meaning to the members of the band.



The album was set up to be listened to like two-sided vinyl, complete with an interlude track halfway through. The booklet has lots of great photos of the band as well as the lyrics to the songs and is more like a theatre program than an album booklet.


Finally, I've always liked the painting on the rear cover of the booklet...the other half of the day for the cover's central figure (and it also happens to be a reference to my favorite song on the album, "Television.")



Mansun's fourth and final album, Kleptomania, was released in 2004 (after the band split up) due to fan pressure from a petition that was signed and submitted to Paul Draper and EMI/Parlophone. It was a 3CD set, with the first CD containing the final album, the 2nd CD containing popular singles and B-sides, and the third CD made up of rarities and demos. I just really like the presentation of the package, from the clear slipcase to the way the black and white lettering looks when the case is unfolded. The booklet is again a thing of beauty with notes about each song from Paul as well as lots of great photos and a potted history of the band.








The Bluetones

Last but not least, the second album from another favorite band of mine; this is probably also my favorite album of theirs. In keeping with the theme of the title, the booklet for 1998's Return to the Last Chance Saloon is hidden behind mini saloon doors which need to be opened before you can get at all of the lyrics and recording info. Neat!





Miniature saloon doors!



There you have it, some examples of what I think are great album packaging and art from the CD era. There are many more within my collection and I have a feeling I'll be doing at least one more post like this as I happen to go through and pull some of those albums out in the future, but these were the examples that came instantly to mind when I thought of doing this post. I hope you enjoyed it and would love to know what you consider some examples of great CD-era album art from your own collection.  Please share in the comments below!


5 comments:

  1. Imagine how much more impressive that same art would be in a vinyl LP format. It's not just the art itself which counts, it's also the method of delivery. In that context CD's will always be the inferior medium when compared to vinyl.

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    1. Well, I'll agree with you that CDs will always be inferior to vinyl in terms of size...12"x12" is always > than 5"x5"! But I think in some ways CDs have the advantage over vinyl where you can get creative with the gatefolds and the booklets and inserts. In either way, I think we can both agree than when an artist puts time and care into the packaging and artwork, it's a great thing, yes? :)

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  2. I agree I prefer something physical whether it be book, cd, or dvd & probably always will. I guess if you want more bells & whistles you can always go for CD box sets, which usually throw in some extras.

    For historical music like my VoxBox 3 CD sets, Music for Harp & Music for Lute, & Guitar & Mandolin, a booklet of references & history is always nice to peruse as you listen. One thing that CDs have over vinyl is with classical production. These old VoxBox sets on vinyl are horribly produced, the music on the CD, however, is the best ever. I bought a Charles Ives box set once on vinyl, and again it was horribly pressed, as many of them were. So for classical and even a lot of the jazz releases, CDs for me, is the way to go as far as the sound quality.

    I don't have a lot of CD packages that fold out, though I do have some gatefolds. Some of that got pretty experimental and just didn't work. Remember the eco-friendly packaging that was just a miniature vinyl album cover? A lot of those didn't come with a paper sleeve so the CD could just slip right out. I prefer something that actually holds the CD in place.

    I have a Brian Eno January 07003--Bell Studies for The Clock of the Long Now (not one of his better efforts). At any rate the CD has a weird design where the inner cover has a booklet, but the way it's designed you end up tearing up the CD cover trying to get the booklet out. Bad design.

    Peter Townshend's Who Came First in the Limited Edition Deluxe package came like a small booklet. It's also a very good album of music. It's remastered with 6 bonus tracks and a 64-page booklet mostly talking about his religious influence, Meher Baba. The song, Sheraton Gibson, is one of my fave Townshend songs.

    The Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan--In Sessions comes with a booklet and a separate DVD which is pretty spiffy.

    I always thought Sting's, Soul Cages, was once of his nicer presentations. The music inside too is one of his better efforts, though I think I prefer his first two albums, and then Soul Cages. But the artwork really goes well with the melancholy, introspective music.

    Krautrock band, Embryo's later CDs have unique packages and I like some of the music as well, which is sort of ethic, for lack of a better description. Their earlier stuff is more rock orientated, but they soon started traveling the globe and picked up all sorts of influences and jammed with various other musicians. Of that era, probably Apo Calypso is the easier to get into, plus cool packaging. The same could be said for Ibn Battuta where they play odd instruments like oud, tabla, harmonium, etc. Invisible Document is pretty a pretty nice live effort too.

    I picked up Miles Davis & Gil Evans, The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, which came housed in a nice sturdy sleeve and a metal gold spine. It contains Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, etc. Though the sleeves that house the CDs are not the best, again leaving the CD the probability to roll out at times, you just have to be careful. Also comes with a big booklet of liner notes.

    Poco's, The Forgotten Trail is a good 2-CD retrospective of their greatest hits, with a booklet of history and such. The music on it is great too!

    Cluster's, one hour, is the most minimal packaging I've ever bought. Mostly white cover with a few paint splatters, on the back it clues you in for you're buying--One hour is one continuous piece of music, which has been programmed with index marks for programming purposes. It's mostly a live performance, but it's recorded really well.

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  3. Mike Watts', Ball-Hog or Tugboat, came housed in an odd packaging sort of long box, but they've since changed it. The music isn't the greatest--too inconsistent, I much prefer something by the Minutemen like, Double Nickels on the Dime, but it does have an extended cover art listing all of the artists that appear on the release, an 8-page "Pedro Speak" booklet, which is a glossary of Watt's lingo

    Planet Soup and Planet Squeezebox on the Ellipsis Arts label both contain various artist and each are 3-CD sets, with booklets about the musicians contained therein. Squeeze box is multiple artist playing the squeeze box or accordions, bandoneon, concertina, etc. from France, New Orleans, polkas, Zydeco, Mexican, classical, jazz--really across the board music, but if you want to hear and get exposed to a lot of stuff, and hear something out from the ordinary, worth a buy. Soup is more about ethnic music and various cultures around the world.

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  4. I'm familiar with those Townshend and Davis/Evans packages, I agree...very well done! In a lot of ways, it seems as though in order to compensate for the smaller size of CDs when compared to vinyl, artists that really care put a lot of thought and effort into it. Plus, it's a lot easier (and cheaper) to cram a lot of info and pictures into a smaller booklet than a larger one.

    It's win-win for us fans, isn't it? :)

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