Thursday, December 24, 2015

LP Album Cover Art – Images that spoke as eloquently as the music

Amongst the most cherished possessions I recall from my childhood home is a superb collection of long playing (LP) records that my father had. This collection of vinyls opened up the world of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to me. It also introduced me to ABBA, John Denver and Neil Diamond amongst many others.

To consider the music of this extremely diverse vinyl collection will require a book-length treatise. But in this article, I pay homage to the wonderful LP cover art that this collection had. Images of composers, instrumentalists, conductors, singers and bands that provided my young mind a visual reference point and launch pad into the music.

At the height of the LP format's popularity, great LP covers were art collectibles in themselves. The cover design and the liner notes for these vinyls were the focus of significant attention of the recording studios. This is understandable given the fact that the LP album packaging format provided the industry with 30 sq. cm. of real estate with which to entice and engage customers.  In fact, the LP cover as a cultural symbol drew the interest and involvement of a number of serious painters, illustrators, graphic artists and photographers, leading to the creation of some of the most iconic examples of album cover art. And those musicians with visual art skills invested much of their own time and effort in making their LP album covers a unique visual commentary on their music. A classic example is the great Canadian singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, who being a painter herself, designed her own album cover art right through a long and illustrious career.

Flicking through the LP collection at home in my mind's eye now, I must admit that some LP cover art there was ordinary. But the great ones remain for me indelible visual signposts of a world of music that has been a ‘changeless friend’ to me all these years.

The LP - as a recording format - died a slow death starting from the 1980s, by which time cassettes and later compact discs emerged as default formats for recorded music. The pleasant surprise though has been the resurgence of the LP in this age of digital downloads (even if the number of new vinyls released is negligible and mainly focused on catering to DJs and audiophiles).

Fortunately for all fans of album cover art, the age of digital music has not meant abandoning visual packaging entirely. Album covers remain - only no longer on a physical product and certainly without the luxury of the 30 sq. cm. canvass.

There is a lot that excites and inspires in cover art across genres – rock, pop, jazz, folk, country…virtually every type of music. Some shock with their in-your-face bravado both in image content and design. Some astound with the brilliance of their imagery. Some speak to us in subtle and hushed tones. But to celebrate the amazing power of great LP cover art, I have selected for this article a few examples from the catalogue of just one artist - Herbert von Karajan. These are examples from LPs recorded by not only one of the greatest conductors of all time, but an artist who instinctively understood the power of the visual in the world of music and used it effectively on his way to becoming the most successful recording artist in classical music history.

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