Album Cover Revival

By Anna Barker, MusicWorx Intern

“What are some of your favorite album covers?”  A simple question with a common response.  First, the quizzical, hard thinking face accompanied with a request for a further explanation.  Next, a version of the response “I don’t recall many album covers.”  Afterwards, the search begins via the internet or Spotify and, within a few minutes, more than one “cool” album cover suggestion arises. 

During this past year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and Khruangbin’s Mordechai (2020) inspired and challenged me to pay attention to cover art and to think deeply about its impact on the music held within.  I’ve considered the social impact of purchasing a record player, collecting record albums, and encouraging guests to pick out an album to play during social gatherings.  What conversations would arise as a result?

The purpose of this blog is to get you thinking about and notice album cover art.  I will use the following terms interchangeably: album cover(s), album cover art, cover art.

(Khruangbin, 2020)

Brief History

First, let’s explore the four main purposes of album covers:

  1. Protection: The most important and basic role of album covers is to protect the record inside.  Whether it’s a cardboard sleeve or a plastic case, album covers are an essential part in making sure the record doesn’t break from the distributor, to the store, and to your home.  This transition began in the early 1930s.  Prior to this time, records were both distributed and sold without packaging — yikes!
  2. Advertisement: We’ve all judged a book by its cover and cover albums are the same way. Listening to the music beforehand wasn’t an option, so catchy and creative designs helped to strike curiosity and maintain the attention of the consumer.  Even with the recent push in online streaming, album covers remain crucial to an artist’s role in standing out.  More on online streaming and cover art to come.
  3. Accompaniment:  This includes, but is not limited to, photographs of the performer and lyrics listed inside of the sleeve thereby promoting active listening (concentrating more intentionally) and active music making (e.g. physically making music such as singing).  The result?  An enhanced musical experience given the additional knowledge about the record.
  4. Commodity: Yes, individuals can buy an album cover solely for the artwork itself rather than the record inside.  Examples of popular artists with album cover art include Roger Dean and Derek Riggs.

“Covering” the Decades

“Covering” the Decades

  • 1910s: Records sold in plain paper sleeve with circular cutout to be able to see the producer or retailer’s name.  Records were fragile and easily broke in storage.
  • 1920s: Introduction of “record albums” which allowed consumers to store multiple records in protective sleeves within one album.
  • 1938: Alex Steinweiss is credited with pioneering the use of cover art on albums.  He was Columbia Records’ first art director and revolutionized the music industry through his fresh and innovative designs.  Say goodbye to dull, paper and cardboard sleeves!
  • 1940s: All major record companies integrated cover art onto record albums.
  • 1950s & 60s: Utilizing photographs of artists and band members becomes a new trend for album covers.
  • 1960s:  In addition to photographs, the rise of psychedelia during this time period means a shift towards conceptual designs on album covers.  Musicians become more involved with designing new and bold cover art.
  • 1970s & 80s: Bands, especially heavy metal bands, begin implementing logos and mascots, taking on a “brand-focused” approach.  Beginning of digital age art work.
  • 1990’s – today: Integration of mixed media and digital artwork, paired with innovative thinking in a time of CDs, mp3s and the resurgence of vinyl.
(Various Artists, 1965)
(Boston, 1976)

Cover Art & Online Streaming

Given the consistent quizzical responses of the people I talked with, cover art is becoming a lost artThe advent of online streaming services is easy to blame for the lack of cover art awareness.  Rather than hand picking out an album or CD in a store, consumers can hand select their own playlists with songs from various artists and various albums via phones, ipods, etc.  Playlists can last several hours in length and once finished, a consumer can search and stream another without needing to pay attention to many details.  Quite a stark contrast compared to physically moving a record, CD, or cassette tape once it’s reached the end of the album.  Consider the conversational differences between showing a friend a new album you physically bought at the store vs. an album you discovered on an online streaming service.  How would the conversations surrounding the music experience be different?

Nevertheless, the concept of cover art is equally as important in online streaming services given how streamlined the display of the product (e.g. Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music) looks.  View the screenshots below from the album Mordechai (2020) and Con Todo El Mundo (2018) by Khruangbin.  Notice the only creative visual difference between the albums is the small box provided for cover art, regardless of if it’s a single, an EP, or an album.  In an online playlist full of multiple songs by multiple artists, cover art is a bridge linking a listener to the album where the song originated from.  Just as cover art served as a brand and marketing tool for artists, today it remains the same.

Music Therapy Integration

How does this all tie into the profession of music therapy?  One integral component of music therapy is the music experience itself.  Cover art enhances music experiences because it represents the music it is protecting and vice versa.   Music therapists intentionally engage in lyric and music discussion with clients/consumers for reasons such as to promote active listening, socialization, and emotional processing.  What if we began to push beyond the lyrics, the instrumentation, the chord progressions, and explored the music through the lens of its cover art? 

Here are a few ways to integrate cover art into music therapy sessions:

  • Ask consumers/clients about their favorite album covers & explore the music on these albums
  • Acknowledge cover art during lyric discussion
    • How does the cover art relate to the music on the album?
    • How does the music on the album influence the cover art?
    • What are the implications of cover art? Could you not like the art, but appreciate the music?  Vice versa?
    • Does the cover art include any of the following: Album name, performer name, and/or a picture of the performer(s)?
    • If you could redesign the album, what would it look like?
  • Look up cover art & use as a music improvisation experience
  • Have consumer/client design an album cover as part of a songwriting experience
  • Art therapist around? Great co-facilitation opportunity!
(Kendrick Lamar, 2015)

Additional Resources

Curious to begin your own cover art adventure?  Check out these resources below for recommendations of album suggestions, fun videos exploring cover art, and additional articles to read.  Feel free to drop suggestions of your favorite album covers below!

Happy un-‘cover’ing art!

Album Suggestions (*per family & friends)


Books & Articles


Album cover. (2021, February 19). In Wikipedia.

Boston. (1976).  Boston [Album]. Epic.

Chilton, M. (2021, February 23).  Cover story: A history of album artwork.  uDiscoverMusic.

Gibson, M. (2015, January 13).  Vinyl: Why record sales are booming and digital declining. Time.

G, A. (2016, July 9).The evolution of album cover art. Sostre News.

Inglis, I. (2001). ‘Nothing You Can See That Isn’t Shown’: The Album Covers of the Beatles. Popular Music, 20(1), 83-97. Retrieved February 23, 2021

Kendrick Lamar. (2015). To Pimp a Butterfly [Album]. TDE | Aftermath | Interscope.

Khruangbin. (2020). Mordechai [Album]. Dead Oceans, Inc. | Night Time Stories.

(2018, September 18).  The evolution of album covers.  New York University Abu Dhabi.

Seydel, R. (2016, May 15).  Cover art will always be crucial for success.  LANDR.

The Deer Hunter. (2015). Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise [Album]. Equal Vision.

Various Artists (1965). The Sound of Music [Album]. RCA Victor.


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