Some artists just aren’t satisfied with traditional covers for their albums. It’s one thing to hire a talented artist to design something eye-catching, but refusing to settle for a simple sleeve opens a world of possibilities. Of course, in the digital age, unique packaging can be a way to get those who have forsaken physical media to make an exception to their rule. But this trend goes back much further than that — from the 1960s to this week’s Wu-Tang Clan announcement, here are nine releases that helped reinvent the concept of the record sleeve.
We could write a whole book on Sgt. Pepper’s influence on the popular culture of music, but the Beatles’ album packaging was almost as innovative as the music. It took an entire team, led by art director Robert Fraser, to create it; the cover was designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, and Dutch artist collective the Fool created an abstract inner sleeve far more colorful than consumers were used to. Rock-and-roll photographer Michael Cooper shot the band with the cardboard cutouts of famous figures (whose permission they all needed to obtain), and, in addition to all the accolades for the music, it also won the Grammy for Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts.
Even people who have never heard the Velvet Underground’s music could probably tell you that Andy Warhol created the iconic banana that appears on the cover of their debut album. That banana was peel-able on first printings, creating great expense for MGM Records, who hoped to capitalize on the Warhol name.
But in the post-vinyl era, few people know that Warhol also did album artwork for the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers was their first album for Atlantic Records, and the bigger budget gave the band the luxury to implement Warhol’s idea of a working zipper that revealed the model’s white underwear when unzipped.
Pearl Jam’s third album would be the band’s first that explored new ways of presenting a CD that wasn’t an impersonal jewel case. The artwork for Vitalogy was inspired by an 1899 medical textbook, and by combining the band’s lyrics with imagery and text from an era with outdated ideas on the study of life, Pearl Jam created a booklet that involved its audience and supplemented the listening experience. The band was so committed to the quality of the packaging that the extra fifty cents per CD came out of their end.
The evolution of audio formats not only included CDs, but also, as some audiophiles preferred, the 3-inch mini CD. A special collector’s edition of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was released as a blister pack resembling the pill packaging that pharmaceutical companies use for some treatment regimens. The album came as twelve individually-blistered discs (one for each song), meant to be popped from their foil packs in the order they were meant to be played. It even included “medicine information,” outlining possible side effects of listening to the band’s music. In 2009, a special anniversary edition of the album was released in a similar format, along with a numbered “prescription” signed by Spiritualized founder Jason Pierce.
Few major-label artists are as conventionally weird as the Flaming Lips, who have gotten away with writing a hit song about a girl who finds alternate uses for Vaseline and releasing a four-disc album that demands that the audience listen to all four CDs at the same time. But in 2011, Wayne Coyne and company outdid themselves by releasing a 4-song EP on a USB stick inside a huge, seven-pound edible gummy skull. The Gummy Song Skull EP was released in limited quantities, with frontman Coyne personally delivering the first copies to an Oklahoma record store. He immediately sold out, and had to return home to get more. They didn’t stop there either — the band followed this release with the even more bizarre Gummy Song Fetus.
In the digital music era, it helps if your physical medium of choice also serves a useful purpose. To promote Julian Casablancas’ album with his new band the Voidz, the Strokes frontman is offering MP3s of the tracks in a USB stick that also doubles as a sleeve for a mini lighter. It’s a clever way for an artist to incorporate their album into an object some fans never leave home without, encouraging discussion (and promoting the album) from anyone asking to borrow it. The next time you ask someone for a light, you may find yourself inadvertently learning about new music you missed through more traditional advertising channels.
Wu-Tang Clan, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (2014)
For more than 20 years, Wu-Tang Clan have been known for their confidence and audacity, and with literally one single copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin made and sold to the highest bidder, it’s arguably the most confident and most audacious of any album ever released. The album is planned to hit galleries and museums where audiences will pay a fee to gather with others and listen to the music, the same way we pay for a ticket to watch a movie in a theater. Wu-Tang’s RZA claims to already have an offer of $5 million on the table for the record. Time will tell if it’s as brilliant as their other material, but the quality of the music is almost beside the point. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is already raising new questions about the legitimacy of music as art, and how art can be consumed and commoditized.
Meanwhile, the group just announced yet another novel offering — their next album that will be available to the general public, A Better Tomorrow, is getting its first release in the form of a portable “Boombot” speaker. A Better Tomorrow Special Play will not only get to fans before the full album release, but will even include an exclusive track that won’t be on the final album.
What other album releases have impressed you with the creativity of their packaging? Let us know in the comments!