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What makes a great album cover?

What makes a great album cover? — We look at the history of album art from the Velvet Underground and the Rolling stones to Nirvana and Prince

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Seen any good albums lately? Don’t be Shocked if the answer is no. When the compact disc began annihilating the LP about five years ago, the era of the glorious 12-by-12-inch album cover began a meltdown. Label art directors and LP fanatics alike voiced concerns about the switch: Now that covers would be the size of a coaster, what would happen to the splashy, suitable-for-framing covers of old? What would we all obsess over while we listened to the music?

In some ways, those fears have proven valid: Most CD covers are depressingly unimaginative, apparently intended for the nuance-impaired. The standard is a portrait-studio shot of an artist (as seen on the latest Luther Vandross and Gloria Estefan discs) that makes the cover resemble an oversize postage stamp. Basic lettering, which could be effective on LP jackets (remember the ransom-note Sex Pistols cover?), is reduced in CD form to blunt advertising; Aerosmith’s new Big Ones is a typically hideous example. Even when designers opt for a simple, artful image, something is lost in the transferal: What’s with the fuzzy bear on R.E.M.’s Monster, the murky photo adorning Eric Clapton’s From the Cradle, and the devilishly boring Rorschach blot on Danzig 4? You’d almost welcome a parental-advisory sticker to add some zest.

Still, just because the space has shrunk doesn’t mean art directors (and sometimes the artists themselves) can’t work visual magic with a CD cover. As we await the imminent arrival of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, to be packaged with a 35-page booklet (!), here are some keys to success based on recent releases.

Go the Comics Route. And that doesn’t mean the moronic cover of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle or the crude doo-doo jokes on Green Day’s Dookie. Instead, recruit an underground cartoonist like Daniel Clowes (who created the martini-swilling demon on the Supersuckers’ The Smoke of Hell) or Coop (the satanic nymphs on Lords of Acid’s Voodoo-U or the beatnik’s nightmare on the alterna-compilation Jabberjaw: Good to the Last Drop).

Sign With an Innovative Label. At 4AD, the label home to alterna-rockers from the Breeders to Dead Can Dance, head designer Vaughan Oliver and his staff create elaborate, intricate jackets (the stark photos for This Mortal Coil, for instance) that are museum-ready. Meanwhile, the jazz label Verve has released a limited-edition version of the compilation The Jazz Scene (complete with period photos) that is housed in a miniature, spiral-bound hardcover book. Designed by Lisa Po-Ying Huang and Nichell Delvaille, it may be the first coffee-table CD.

Jump Into the Baby (Sonic) Boom. Perhaps it started with Nirvana’s instant- classic cover of Nevermind, but an awful lot of babies have been drooling atop albums the last few years. Putting a suitably demented twist on the trend is Hugh Syme’s digitally assembled photo on the front of Megadeth’s latest, Youthanasia: Who is that old lady in the pink fuzzy slippers, and why is she pinning all those babies to a clothesline? Macabre and funny.