I know nothing about popular music. I haven’t listened to an album released since 1978, despite having been born in 1981.1 I had to Google the difference between “Album of the Year” and “Record of the Year.”2
So you’ll believe me when I say, few people are more qualified to judge an album only by its cover than I am. This year’s Grammy nominees are Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes, To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, Traveller by Chris Stapleton, 1989 by Taylor Swift and Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd. I’m sure these are all wonderful, worthy albums. Me? I’m just gonna listen to “Beast of Burden” on a loop while I write this.
Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd
Let’s start with the premise that most people are going to see this image in a thumbnail on their iPod. In its small form, Mr. Weeknd appears to be trapped in one of those torture contraptions from the Saw movies. Does something horrible happen to this guy if I don’t listen to the album in time?
Blow up the image and you see it’s just a torn photograph. Phew. But no matter how much you zoom and enhance, you’ll never find the title of the album, nor the name of the artist. This is kind of a basic principle of marketing: tell the people what they’re buying.
But let’s give the listener some credit, and assume they saw the track listing before looking at this cover. I’m still not sure what they’re supposed to get out of this image. Is he the Beauty? The Madness? Perhaps he’s behind something?
To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Again, a no-text cover. Unless these albums are instrumental (unlikely, given the parental advisory), I disapprove of this trend.
But at least this image says something. You’ve got a group of African Americans posing in front of the White House waving money at the camera. It’s playful and disruptive at the same time. There’s no single tone among the figures—some are angry, some laughing, some bored or confused. I expect to experience a range of emotions listening to this.
Close examination yields unexpected surprises, as well. There’s a man with a gavel (not traditionally related to the executive branch of government), with his eyes X’ed out; a child’s raised fist appears to be pixelated (censoring the black power salute?); some dude is eating his money.
I don’t know what any of it means, but color me intrigued. If only I know the title of the damn album.
Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
At the other extreme, here’s an album that’s all text and no image. It’s called Sound and Color, but it looks like a silent movie and is black-and-white. I see you what you did there Alabama Shakes! This definitely seemed clever when the band was smoking out in the recording studio.
“Dude! What if it’s called ‘Sound and Color,’ but, like, there’s no color?”
“And the album is completely silent!”
“Too far, dude.”
I may want to reconsider my stance on placing the band name and album title on the cover, when the band name includes a verb. How exactly is Alabama shaking sound and color? Seriously, people: read the cover out loud at least once before you send it off to the printer.
Traveler – Chris Stapleton
This might be the most generic country album I’ve ever seen. Cowboy hat, open land, plaid shirt. I bet that’s his wife leaving him in the semi-truck in the background. Unless this guy is a rapper or classical violinist, I don’t even know what to say.
1989 – Taylor Swift
Did somebody kidnap Taylor Swift? All this photo needs is a currently-dated newspaper and a ransom demand.
Setting aside the weird hostage vibe, this cover probably strikes the best balance of the nominees between conceptual image and, y’know, actually telling you what the album is. It pulls off the retro feel3 not just in the choice of a Polaroid picture, but also in the costume and make-up. The sloppily hand-written title provides an air of authenticity: I could honestly believe Taylor Swift(‘s assistant) wrote this herself.
You can’t really judge an album by its cover, but T.S. does her very best to convince me to at least give her a chance.
And the Grammy for best album (cover) goes to…
1989, by Taylor Swift. It’s not quite as bafflingly unique as To Pimp a Butterfly, but nor is it as aggressively vague. And, sure, maybe it looks like a leftover prop from Memento, at least it accomplishes, at the most basic level, what an album cover is supposed to, i.e. sell the album.