Tag Archives: IPod

Is The Album Cover-Art a Dying Art Form?


I recently read an article in the New York Times that discussed the shrinking of album artwork. The piece argued that elaborate cover art seems to be out of fashion, and its in place artists are opting for simple designs that can be fully seen on computers and iPods. The close-up of Lady Gaga’s face for Born This Way, and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s fly on a pill for I’m With You were cited as examples.

While cover-art certainly isn’t indicative of what the music is like, it does seem to be a lost art form. Has there been an album cover released in the past few years that has already become iconic? Pearl Jam’s cover for 2009’s Backspacer was pretty nifty with 9 different images from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, but it didn’t seem to represent the music that was on the actual disc. The childhood portrait of Lil Wayne on the cover Tha Carter III is visually intriguing and tells an interesting story, but I always felt the typography seemed a bit off.  The Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light seems too much like a throwback with its collage of portraits highlighted in different colors.

Perhaps the music industry and musicians themselves think that no one really cares, and they will only view it on their iPod (or perhaps not at all.) I’m not certain about anyone else, but I find it hard to listen to songs either on my computer (or iPod) if there is accompanying artwork to go with it. I recently started downloading the cover-art of albums whose covers I don’t have and then trying to import them into iTunes. It’s a long, laborious project and so far I’m only up to letter K.  I feel much better listening to The Beatles on my computer if I can actually see the cover for Revolver.

Still, graphic designers might set some of the blame on simpler cover-art. As a former student in Graphic Design, clean and simple design with lots of white space tend to gain more favor by professors and those in the actual field. While the cover of Sgt. Pepper is certainly iconic, I’m not entirely sure it would be looked on as the artistic achievement it is, if it were released now. I can also most hear somebody suggest that, “there is too much going on, your eye doesn’t know where to focus!”

As a kid, I was totally transfixed by the cover-art of certain albums. It could sometimes defined the way I listened to particular albums. I bought The Clash’s “London Calling” after reading how great it was in a British Magazine in high school. The image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass and the Elvis Presley reference in the typography was one of the coolest things I ever seen. When it came time to listen to the disc I was slightly disappointed that the music didn’t match Simonon’s anger and frustration. What was this reggae shit? It’s supposed to be punk!  (For the record, London Calling is one of my favorite albums of all time).

If album cover-art keeps “shrinking” as the Times referred to it, a valuable part of music will be lost. It’s just another casualty of the presence of digital music and furthers confirms my theory that music is becoming more and more of something to listen to in the background rather than actively listening to it for its own merits.






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The Problem With Digital Audio Files

It seems that mainstream digital files are finally getting the sonic treatment they deserve.  Apple claims that they are in the works to improve the quality of their downloads in the Itunes store, and HDTracks recently announced that they would be releasing The Rolling Stones catalog in high-resolution audio downloads.  It’s no secret that the sound quality of MP3s is inferior to that of CDs and vinyl.

While this is fantastic news, it should have been occurred earlier.  In most other areas consumers have not only expected, but demanded high quality products. Organic foods are getting more popular every year.  Hollywood has been pushing digital versions of their movies for years.  And who wants to go back to watching an NFL game on a television that’s not in HD?  So why is it, that when it comes to music, most consumers opt for a shitty low quality product?

It probably comes from ignorance of what constitutes good sound, and a preference for convenience.  Sure, an Ipod gives you access to as music as you could possibly want at one time, but you’re getting the audio equivalent of a grainy technicolor movie.  Due to the compression, some instruments in a song are either buried, or left out completely.

I’ve always been aware that MP3s give a distorted version of a particular track, but I never paid much attention to it until recently.  I could tell that an album sounded better on a CD or vinyl than it did on my Ipod.  When I received Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings as a christmas present, I really became aware of how much we settle for inferior sound.

With the exception of Bob Dylan, I’ve listened to his first eight albums probably hundreds of times.  I know most of the tracks by heart.  Listening to the Mono versions, I heard instruments on “Like a Rolling Stone” that I didn’t know existed on the song.  The songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had a warmth and immediacy that is lost on even the CD version.  On “Mr. Tambourine Man”, it sounds like Dylan is actually playing in front on you, complete with an echo that sounds a shiver down the spine.  The set came with a coupon to download high quality MP3s of the albums, and I was surprised to find out that they sounded almost the same as the CD versions.  I’ve since deleted my original copies of the album, as I can’t go back.

The quality presented on the Original Mono Recordings is for a specific group of fans, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.  Music fans deserve more than bastardized versions of their favorite songs. And perhaps, people would be more willing to pay for a product that actually sounds good.


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An Ode To the Walkman

(Weekly theme coming later.)

Sony announced yesterday that they would stop manufacturing the Walkman.  While I had no idea that they were still making them, this comes as a bit of a disappointment.  For me, the Walkman was a seminal part of growing up.  I was handed down cassette copies of albums by the Smiths, R.E.M., and Talking Heads by my older siblings.  The Walkman had a huge affect on what would eventually be my musical preferences. One year at the beach, my older Pete found a cassette copy of Chronic Town, and I must have listened to it 10 times in a row before falling asleep.

When I was 13, my sister was living in England and about to give birth to my niece.  For the trip over my older brother gave me my first actual Walkman. For years I had just been borrowing my siblings, but this trip was the first time that the portable music player was my own.  I had several cassettes ready for the flight – Weezer’s Blue Album, U2’s War, The Talking Head’s Sand in the Vaseline, Live’s Throwing Copper (hey I was 13), and R.E.M.’s Monster (which was my favorite album at the time.)

The Walkman allowed me to listen to music that my mother would otherwise disapprove of me listening to at the time.  Throwing Copper’s “Shit Towne” sounded fantastic and rebellious, and I felt a certain sense of pride when my mother was not able to hear Ed Kowalcyzk shouting, “C’mon, Motherfucker!” in the middle of “Stage”.  But cursing aside, it was during this time that I really began to understand The Talking Heads.  I had grown up with them in the background and was always a fan of “Once in a Life Time”.  “Same as it ever was”, became sometime of a catch phrase for me, even though I had to realize its irony and the disconnectedness in the way David Byrne delivered it.   But it was “Road to Nowhere” that really caught my attention on those crappy headphones on my 8 hour flight.  The song is a joyous singalong, and though I was taking my first international flight, I had no idea where I was going, or what life would be like on the other-side of the pond, even though my English mother constantly talked about returning for years.  (Of course it wasn’t until years later, that I realized that “Road to Nowhere” is probably the happiest sounding song about death.)

Soon after we arrived, I was stuck in the hospital in preparation for arrival of my niece.  I was left to my own devices, wandering around a foreign maternity ward with just my Walkman in hand.  There was nothing to read except books on pregnancy and breastfeeding, and if it weren’t for the Walkman I probably would have gone crazy.  I played the same tapes over and over again – but they never got boring.  (I did eventually have to give it up and lend it to my sister for a while.)

A couple of years later, my parents wanted to get me the upgraded Discman for Christmas. Even though it was new, and everybody I knew had one, I told them I didn’t want one.  Many of the cassettes that I had, I didn’t have on CD yet, and I had grown too attached to my dubbed versions.  I eventually did get a Discman a year or two later, when it finally broke.  I did keep a lot of my cassettes though.


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