In our never-ending collective effort to rank and rate every musical artefact on the planet, we must constantly expand beyond all logical parameters. It's not enough to try and contend with the slippery criteria that determines the greatest songs ever, the greatest albums ever, the greatest bands/artists/musicians ever, we need to push on and know who has the best snappy lyric or the best album cover until all music is created just to further this pursuit of statistical perfection. But there's probably a few years to go before it gets to that stage. So now is the time to assert ourselves as contrarian pedants, I'll go first! Forget The Music, What's The Album Cover Like? - Deflating over-rated album covers It seems like whenever album covers are put into some sort of order of greatness that there's confusion between what the album meant culturally and what the cover actually looked like. How else could Rolling Stone dutifully place The Beatles White Album (header image) at #3 in their list of the 100 Greatest Album Covers? A place behind the garish cover for The Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks and not far from the phallic symbolism of the Velvet Underground's debut (thank you very much Andy Warhol). How can the cover of the White Album ever be considered great? At least Q had the good graces to omit it from their own list completely. It's a great album for sure, and the cover is witty in the same way 'The Beatles' is a witty name but surely nobody goes around thinking 'that blank space with just the name of the band on it is one of the greatest things I have ever seen on the front of an album'? The only reason the cover looks like that is because they couldn't get all four members in the same place at the same time to agree on an image for the cover. Does this deserve to be held in higher esteem than the work of artists that actually you know, put some effort in? Hell no!
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The Sex Pistols are another example. Nice iconic imagery and everything but not all that impressive really, when you think about it. Take it out of context and you're left with some horribly unsightly colour clash with a (very tame) dirty word on it, it's essentially the inspiration for French Connection's re-branding. Both good albums but without the covers to match. Similarly The Velvet Underground and Nico is an excellent album but the cover is clearly just a piece of fruit on a white background, Warhol got the idea after he dropped a banana on his kitchen floor, that's true, honest.
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These covers don't deserve to be enshrined as high watermarks of human creativity just because they happen to be very, very good albums. Frank Zappa said many things but one of the things he said that happens to be relevant to this article is that an album cover should ideally give some clue to what is inside, none of the given examples do that. There's no songs about fruit on that Velvet Underground album! No jokes please.
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The Clash's masterpiece London Calling is a perfect example of what an album cover can be at its best. You see Paul Simonon smashing the shit out of his bass guitar and it also looks a bit like an Elvis album, tells you all you need to know, there's angry young men afoot and the good times are gone! They don't even want to smile and look handsome like Elvis did. They want to take fairly expensive pieces of equipment and hit them against things. You can get all that just from looking at the cover! What can you say about the White Album cover? Nothing! Because there's nothing on it! Hard-Fi's second album Once Upon a Time In The West gets slated partly because it's a Hard-Fi album but partly because of the ridiculously self-aware cover consisting solely of the words 'No Cover Art'. As awful as it is, had Hard-Fi been one of the defining bands of the 21st century, with Once Upon a Time In The West variously hailed as 'this generation's Pet Sounds', 'a modern day Pet Sounds' and 'a Pet Soundsfor the new millennium', would we be looking back in thirty years describing that as one of the greatest album covers of all time? Maybe. And then all of this would have been for nothing. Rather than the devastatingly important crusade it is just now.
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Yes, I know, none of this really matters. The sole purpose of album covers is so you can tell where the good ones are when you're picking them up from the bedroom floor and if some of the greatest albums ever made have terrible covers, it makes no difference to how great the music is but if society is going to insist on rating these things let's have some genuine evaluation of the artistic quality of the cover, not some confusion just because it also happens to be a great album....please?