A wise man by the name of Lil Yachty once asked, "Am I the only one who really care about cover art?" Today, we're here to answer that question.
But before we can get there, it's important to understand the history of album art. To do that, we have to know the history of the physical album. Lots of histories, I know. Anyways, the "album" as we know it was pioneered by German recording company Odean who released Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky on four double sided discs in 1909. Eventually, other recording companies caught on and began releasing more classical music in the same format. Because of the delicate discs, packaging was needed. Originally, albums were sold in plain cardboard or leather packaging, making the importance of cover art essentially nonexistent.
Fast forward to 1938 and Columbia Records has hired their first art director. The plain cardboard or leather covers were replaced with more colorful designs, which kicked off the beginning stages of cover art as we know it. That being said, the cultural relevancy of album art didn't come until the early 60s, when artists we now know as icons used it to make their image relevant. Album art of this time was usually a portrait, making the image of the artist known. Examples of this include almost any Bob Dylan record and Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends. Was the artist a bad boy of sorts or someone you could take home to mama? Such questions were always answered on the cover art.
Unsurprisingly, the next stage of cover art comes from The Beatles who, in 1965, took the concept of cover art and gave it their own definition. With an unconventional angle and warped faces of the band, the album art for Rubber Soul is one that defined a shift. This only continued the following year with Revolver, which featured a drawing of the band instead of a photo. Artists began to experiment and soon, album art was about way more than public image.
Album art became the defining factor for how well music sold, and how iconic it became in the future. When we look at albums like The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the combination between innovative music and recognizable cover art is what makes them so iconic. Being able to recognize a band and sound by the image they presented on the album became vital.
This need for recognition in the form of album art is unique to the time period, as the 80s and 90s were all about music videos and MTV. Because of this, album art became a mixed bag in future decades. Some artists payed homage to the traditional simplicity of a portrait cover (i.e. Michael Jackson's Thriller) while others decided to mirror the subject matters and lyrical content of the album instead (Nirvana's Nevermind). This mix bag of album art continued through the 2000's with Adele's portrait style 19 and the artistically driven Viva La Vida from Coldplay.
A major shift in album art came between the years after 2010. Albums became more accessible and the digital promotion to buy albums over weighed the in-store buying experience. There was less of a need to go out to record stores and pick up what seemed interesting or what name everyone was talking about. With a push of a button, the music on the homepage of iTunes could be in your library, regardless of if the album art caught your eye or not. As a result, many artists took on a minimalist approach and put seemingly less effort into album art. This minimalist approach can be seen on the cover of Arctic Monkeys' Suck It and See as well as Beyonce's self titled album.
Just a few short years later and everything revolves around social media. Developing your "brand" or "aesthetic" is vital. The style, colors and images that you use to sell your music to the world are everything. Artists such as The xx or The 1975 treat every project as an extension of their brand, keeping a pattern in their album art. Sure, it's minimalist and simple. Nevertheless, it's intentional. Others treat every album as new opportunity to showcase the visual side of their music, creating unique cover art that while being artistic, also plays into the current resurgence in the popularity of physical vinyl. Whether it's the colorful characters that appear of Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear or the black and white politically driven To Pimp a Butterfly from Kendrick Lamar, artists are still pushing the cover art envelope.
So to answer the question posed by Mr. Yachty: No, you're not the only one who really care about cover art. That being said, the question is understandable. In a world where the nuances of musical production have changed, it's hard to see the significance of album art to be on the same caliber as the iconic albums of the past. Would certain modern albums be as successful if the cover art was entirely different? It's almost impossible to say. What we can say is that with the stress of personal branding in today's society, everything an artists presents the public with matters, including what tiny picture shows up in the corner while on you digitally stream their latest project.