What Makes A Great Album Cover

Harvest/EMI Records

Harvest/EMI Records


Since 1977, Battersea Power Station has been more than just Battersea Power Station. For almost 40 years, this power station in South West London has been closer identified with Pink Floyd and a giant flying pig. That’s because it was on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals.

As someone who still mainly listens to music in an album format, the cover is important to me. It is an important part of the album as a whole. The music is the most important part, but if an album has a lackluster cover, I might think twice about buying it.

In many ways, the album cover has become one of the most important genres of pop art for the last half century. From the Beatles crossing Abbey Road to the Old Hollywood fantasy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road‘s poster-like cover or Andy Warhol’s simplistic print for The Velvet Underground And Nico, album covers have provided us with images that are burned into our cultural lexicon that will become touchstones of their eras.

So what separates the best album covers from the rest of the pack?

Since it is a piece of visual art, the cover of an album has to aesthetically work. It has to work visually. You have to want to look at it and be interested in it or think about it. The best album covers can be hung up on the wall and framed like a painting, print, photograph, or poster.

But an album cover is also an accompaniment to the music itself. It has to convey, or at least hint at some of the themes and sounds of the album. It has to feel right with the music. A perfect example of this is The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love.


MCA Records

MCA Records


Axis: Bold As Love is an explosion of blues-rock psychedelia, and the cover perfectly conveys that. The musical and visual aspects are very much in sync with each other. When you listen to the music, you are encouraged to look at the cover. It’s all part of the experience.

The focus on cover art began in the mid-1960s, right as the album underwent its large expansion as a format from a group of singles with some extra filler to a larger, more cohesive artistic statement. So the art had to keep up. For example, this is what a Beatles album looked like in 1963:


EMI/Parlophone Records

EMI/Parlophone Records


And here’s what a Beatles album looked like in 1966:


EMI/Parlophone Records

EMI/Parlophone Records


The album cover became a prominent artistic force, especially after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its iconic cover art. The cover became a limitless canvas, able to purvey any message that the artist wanted to make about the music. They became wilder and more ambitious. Soon, the artist didn’t even need to put their name or the title on the cover of the record, letting the cover completely speak for itself.

Over time, artists and labels have learned the art of the album cover and how they can tell the message of the album all by itself. A perfect example is James Taylor’s 1970 album Sweet Baby James.


Warner Bros. Records

Warner Bros. Records


The cover of this album tells you everything you want to know about the album without actually listening. Its up-close portrait of Taylor’s face, as well as his denim shirt, conjure up a feeling of stark, personal intimacy and back-to-the-land plainspokenness. These messages perfectly cultivate Taylor’s singer-songwriter image.

The best album covers tell the story to the listener before the needle hits the record, as well as add to the album’s story. In one image, the best album covers tell an artistic statement that sheds a little light where the music couldn’t quite get to, as well as send the listeners’ imaginations spinning with visions of the music in their heads.

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Dressing The Part



A little over a year ago, I bought a Levi’s denim trucker jacket. I bought it with a purpose. I wanted to tap into a zeitgeist. The trucker jacket was introduced by Levi Strauss & Co. in 1962, and quickly became a staple of modern fashion of the last five decades. It wasn’t the first denim jacket on the scene, but it became the benchmark to live up to.

The trucker jacket, and the Levi’s trucker jacket in particular, has become one of the most distinctive pieces of fashion in rock and roll. It became a symbol for a very rock and roll brand of rebellion and roughness. It showed the working-class roots and appeal of rock and roll re-appropriated to have an anti-establishment edge.

There are tons of clothes that speak to rock and roll. One of my particular favorites is the band t-shirt. I go absolutely nuts for t-shirts of my favorite bands. I pretty much wear a band t-shirt every day. I see it as a reflection of and a testament to my love of that band. So when I wear that t-shirt, that band’s image, as well as the image of their fanbase, becomes part of my identity.

As my love of music expanded, the desire to embody that image became stronger and stronger. The band t-shirts stayed, but along with them came flannel shirts, a fringe jacket, an army jacket, roughed-up blue jeans, black skinny jeans, black Chuck Taylors, Chelsea boots, a mountain of buttons, and eventually, the Levi’s trucker jacket. I had formed my rock and roll image, a mix of ’60s mods, bohemian and folk singer-songwriters, ’70s rock, ’90s grunge, and a touch of modern hipster. But whatever the look is, it has to ooze rock and roll. It has to look like I wouldn’t look out of place onstage or in the audience for whichever band I’m jamming to that day.

But what my “rock” aesthetic almost always looks like is a band t-shirt, jeans, and a flannel. It’s become a uniform, saying “I want to rock and roll” as loud as you can by just walking into a room. It’s worked forever, and it will always work. It is the populist statement of rock and roll. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival got so cozy with the flannel shirt that there’s even a John Fogerty flannel, as well as his flannel-patterned guitar. It is a social statement as much as it is a fashion statement.

Now, with the entirety of rock and roll history at our fingertips and easily traceable sonic and aesthetic influences from generation to generation, it’s possible to have a much wider array of fashion choices that fits into a “rock” canon. That means that these rock styles can blend together aesthetically, just like in the music itself.

Which brings it all back to that jacket. The denim jacket has been used a million times, constantly shifting to look dangerous, rebellious, and cool  in a completely different kind of rock and roll. Now more than ever, the denim jacket and the roots-y look it works in tandem with has been co-opted by mainstream country music to serve their needs, as rock has fallen out of the center of the pop sphere. In country music, the jacket is supposed to make the singer or the audience member look like a cowboy, but in rock and roll, it’s supposed to feel like a true outlaw statement.


So when Andrew Jackson Jihad sing about dreams of rock and roll, of course they mention a “sweet dick denim jacket.” It feels so naturally “rock and roll” that the jacket does all the heavy lifting on its own.

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A Love Letter To My iPod

Zach's iPod


Dear iPod,

We’ve been together for quite a while now.  Our relationship has been great. I’ve had you, in one iteration or another, for years. You’ve been my companion on many a ride on the public bus. You’ve provided some of my favorite moments of musical self-reflection. You’ve been the last friend I’ve said good night to many a night during the long nights in my tiny bed at summer camp. You’ve held thousands of songs, spanning decades and genres far and wide. I can clearly remember so many times that I’ve sat and scrolled through so many menus of artists, albums, songs, and playlists to find just the perfect song, and when I didn’t expect it, in some small way, you’d deliver. Something would show up and spark my imagination for that very moment and it felt great. I’ve had those moments many a time, and I’ve been able to have them all to myself. You’ve given me the ability to make every moment a musical moment.

But as time has gone by, you’ve fallen a little bit out of use. I haven’t been using you as much as I could. You spend most of your time sitting on my desk, waiting to be unlocked and played. You’ve began collecting dust, and not from the many rugged terrains you’ve accompanied me on. This is a much sadder dust: the dust of time.

It really should have seemed obvious at some point that something like this would happen. The writing’s been on the wall for a while now. You’ve practically become a collectors item. You can hold up to 40,000 3-minute songs, but the cloud can do so much more. The last time I gave you a nice bump of new songs from my recent acquisition of new music, I finally reached the point where you couldn’t fit all of my songs. As the long march to the sea that is cloud-based device integration continues, you were caught in the crossfire of obsolescence.

It’s still weird to have an alternative. I’ve been playing songs off my cloud-connected phone, but it doesn’t have the same magic. The weak, distant blare of my phone’s speaker will never have the same personal feeling of putting in my headphones and hearing the first song start up, feeling right there with me.

Now, the iPod is a subculture. It probably won’t get a vinyl-like revival, because there is something inherently awesome in vinyl that is different from any other format of recorded music. But there will be people who will hold onto their iPods for dear life because that was what they grew up with and because they still work. It’s our personal music library, and there will always be something vaguely romantic about getting on the bus and plugging in, the accompanying sights and sounds of an iPod-assisted hike, or the unfiltered fun of an iPod-DJ’d party.

It saddens me to know that eventually, your time will come. You will be gone forever, and there will be nothing to do about it. There won’t be spares in the back of the Apple Store that I can replace you with when this version of you dies out. You will no longer be able to be a 160 gigabyte musical Lazarus. You’ll just be gone.

So while you’re here, I’m going to savor our time as much as I can.



A devoted listener


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The Eternal Majesty of David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, and “Lady Stardust”

Bowie on stage with Mick Ronson in 1972 ITV/Rex Features

Bowie on stage with Mick Ronson in 1972 ITV/Rex Features


It’s impossible to not be blown away by David Bowie. From the first moment one of his songs blasts into your ears, it’s like a transformed state. He demands your attention, pulling you into his musical world.

My favorite period in David Bowie’s long and illustrious career was the Berlin period, where Low, Heroes, and Lodger let Bowie get weird and show off his truly artistic side. But his most captivating, most transformative phase by far was Ziggy Stardust. From 1972 to 1974, it was impossible to look away from David Bowie. The Ziggy character, an alien who came to Earth on a wave of phase and became a rock star/sex machine felt real, ready to burst right out of the TV screen or or stereo.

Dressed in bright colors, bold outfits, and sporting bright electric red hair, Bowie looked unlike anything anyone had ever seen. He wasn’t psychedelic, he wasn’t pop art, he was something far out in a whole new way. He looked like he would’ve shown up on an episode of Star Trek just to rock Mr. Spock, sweep Uhura off her feet, and teach Captain Kirk that while space can be lonely, it can also be pretty groovy.

Bowie’s glam phase is his biggest, most recognizable phase, and for good reason. His four albums of the period, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, and Diamond Dogs, are all brilliant, inventive, provocative, and rocking in their own different ways. But Ziggy Stardust is the cream of the crop. It has sex, love, bisexuality, aliens, drugs, rock and roll stardom, and certain death. But more than any of David Bowie’s album, it yearns. With the rest of his albums from the glam period, Ziggy became a cocksure, prophetic rock star who had the world in the palm of his hand and a slowly building flock of freaks and weirdos who looked to him for their day in the sun where they could turn and face the strange.

But on Ziggy Stardust, neither David Bowie nor Ziggy Stardust was there. In 1972, Ziggy Stardust fell to Earth. He was completely aware of his power and the future to come, but at first all he could do was dream. He had to look out at the stars, see where he came from, set out to conquer Earth, looking fabulous the whole time. All he has is his love of love, and he has to find the rest. In “Starman,” Bowie matches the yearning of looking out to the stars and waiting for an alien the come down with a big, open chorus, embracing it with joy. By the time the album reaches “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” roll around, Ziggy achieves his goal, becoming a leper messiah for the kids who clamored for a rock and roll savior. These two songs don’t have the yearning acoustic guitar strumming or soaring strings of the beginning of the album. It’s straight, balls-to-the-wall glam rock, with Mick Ronson’s electric guitar at full force. But then, once Ziggy is atop his throne, he brings himself to yearn, to dream, one more time, to call out to the huddled masses and tell them they’re not alone. As he tears himself apart onstage, he gives all of himself to the audience.




Bowie’s other glam albums are great, but they don’t yearn. It’s fine that they didn’t but that yearning, that desire for love and something beyond, was part of what got me hooked on Bowie. It got me hooked on “Five Years,” “Soul Love,” “Starman,” “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” and many other of David Bowie’s songs, regardless of what album.

But my favorite song on Ziggy Stardust, as well as one of my favorite songs of Bowie’s whole career, has to be “Lady Stardust.” More than any song on Ziggy Stardust, it feels so eternal. It feels graceful and romantic. There’s something beautiful about it, but it also feels somehow tragic. Mick Ronson’s guitar is notably absent, with Ronson instead playing piano.

“Lady Stardust” is one of those songs that makes you want to fall in love. It shows David Bowie, as well as Ziggy Stardust, staring out and yearning. If there’s any song that I’d like to crystalize the magic feeling of listening to David Bowie in, it would be this one.


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Today’s Song I’m Fixated On: Led Zeppelin – “If It Keeps On Raining”

“When The Levee Breaks” is one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs. It is a behemoth of a song, closing their hard-rocking fourth album with a hurricane of guitars and one of the most propulsive backbeats in rock history.

Over the last several years, Jimmy Page has been slowly overhauling Led Zeppelin’s catalog by remastering all of the band’s albums and providing a bevy of bonus tracks with each release. This project has just finished with the rerelease of Presence, In Through The Out Door, and Coda, the band’s final three albums.

Coda, itself a grab-bag of previously unreleased tracks, perhaps got the most interesting studio outtakes, grabbed from throughout the band’s history, seeming to want to close the series out with a bang.




The most interesting alternate take is “If It Keeps On Raining,” an early version of “When The Levee Breaks” that presents the song before it became the epic it was destined to be.

It is evident from the first second that this song is going to be a completely different sonic experience from the version of “When The Levee Breaks” we’re used to. Instead of hearing John Bonham’s drums crash through at the beginning of the song, the drums and bass begin to settle themselves into a steady, driving groove. John Paul Jones’ bass is much more forward and audible than on the original version, and Bonham has not yet developed the iconic drum beat that the song is most known for. The parring down of Bonham’s drums turn this song less into a hard rock onslaught and more into the realm of a blues-rock stomp.

Adding to the contextualizing of this more as blues is Robert Plant, whose vocal is more toned-down and dark, blending more into the mix. Plant sounds more like a bluesman on this take, warning of the flood ahead instead of being part of it.

Overall, this song is a close sibling to the master version. It sounds like after a few takes, Led Zeppelin left the studio to debut the in-progress song at a small club gig. The song feels alive, cohesive, and more in harmony with itself than the original version, making it a very nice alternative that still rocks.

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Today’s Song I’m Fixated On: Steely Dan – “Dirty Work”

Some bands are very easy to get into. Some bands can take a long time to form a lasting bond with their work.

It took me a while to get into Steely Dan.

My interest with Steely Dan started with very small steps. They were another band with an album in a crate with a bunch of other records I wanted to listen to. They were one or two songs I heard on rotation on classic rock radio.

When I saw that they were playing at Coachella, I decided to give them a try. I ended up standing in the second row, completely enamored by the musicianship and the careful precision of the songs. But they also knew how to make a fun show that could rock.

Then, I thought it was finally time to start doing some digging into their catalog. Starting out with Aja, I started to dip my toe into their work. I was casually listening, trying to just get a grasp of what this complex music was. After listening to Aja a few times, I dipped into their first record 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. It was noticeably different from Aja‘s pristine, mellow vibes.

The song I immediately clung to was “Dirty Work.” There is something in the vibe of the song that just made it rise above the other songs. The wail of the organ in the beginning of the song, jumping out of the mellow, almost McCartney-esque electric piano chords, sets the mood for sultry self-reflection. It’s able to ride that electric piano groove throughout the song, including a saxophone solo that seems like the perfect fit.


Vocally, the song isn’t that amazing. David Palmer, who was only in Steely Dan for this record, sounds like a million early-’70s singer-songwriter or soft rock singers. His lead vocal, and the harmonies on the chorus, could have easily been ripped from an Eagles or CSN record of the time. But the music and lyrics, a low-lit scene of lovelessness disguised as love, keep this from being your run-of-the-mill soft rock tune.



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Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself


I’m Zach, and this is my music blog. I play music, sometimes write music, write about music, have a radio show, study music and spend a vast majority of my time listening to or talking about music. This blog was created so I can talk about what music I am listening to and what I think about musical things. This is going to be fun!

There will be some music reviews, as well as just some other thoughts about music. Enjoy!

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