Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then NothingS

CDs originally came in long boxes with amazing art. Word went around that they'd go away, since hippies—like Sting—were pissed off about killing trees, but I was sad. Music packaging says a lot about music.

Album art used to be a serious pursuit, as if it was equally important to catch both the eyes and the ears of the music shopper. Perhaps, we don't need the allure of album art anymore, since we can instantly gratify our need to hear the music we want to buy or steal. But when I was growing up, it was vital.

Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then Nothing

Vinyl albums - The mama pajama of album art came from the cardboard, paper and sometimes tissue wrapping around and within 33rpm records. A favorite of mine was Prince's Purple Rain, because the lyrics were printed on the outside for easy sing-along access. ("Ain't gonna let the elevator break us down, oh no, let's go!") More often, lyrics would be found on that easily torn inner sleeve. The best album covers were the ones that opened, with a booklet of photos and lyrics inside. That was the jackpot.

45s, which I actually bought quite a few of in the early to mid 1980s (cuz they were cheap and I was a kid), they usually came in almost no protection at all, just a thin paper wrapper with a hole in the middle to see what was what. The way you could tell the best 45s was, a full-color photograph covered the whole glossy envelope—and there was no hole.

Memorable records:
• Queen - Flash Gordon Original Soundtrack
• Weird Al Yankovic - In 3D
• Pat Benatar "Love Is a Battlefield" 45

Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then Nothing

Cassettes - This was a dark time for album art and music packaging. Cassettes were frickin' ugly, especially those standardized ones released by Columbia Records, with the red block lettering on the side, and like zero information within. Sealed tight with cellophane, we were first introduced to the concept of needing tools to open our own music. (Though the really cool record collectors sliced open the easily torn plastic wrap, to protect the art within, I always thought of that as the equivalent of Granny covering her couch with plastic.)

As cassettes dominated vinyl, labels put more info into the packs, so that you'd get a piece of paper folded 97 times, out into this long thing. That was it for tape evolution, though—a frickin' long long piece of paper with tiny photos and even tinier lyrics. Folding it back in took origami ninja skill that I didn't have.

I enjoyed cassette singles (or "cassingles") because they were cheap, and only had the songs I cared about. Still, they came in a sleeve that was open at both ends, so the damn tape would always fall out.

Memorable cassettes:
• Steve Winwood - Roll With It
• Hall and Oates - H2O
• Prince - "Alphabet Street" cassette single

Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then Nothing

CDs - They actually started shipping in long rectangular boxes, so they'd take up exactly 50% of the rack space of a vinyl album. I think this was on purpose, so record stores didn't have to retool their shelving. The upside was lots of surface area for cover art, and the early days of the CD were like a return of album art. These long skinny boxes had huge busts of Jim Morrison, huge prints of the famed Zeppelin explosion that launched a band into stardom. The boxes were also wrapped in easy-to-tear plastic, so getting into your CD, though it took a few steps, was pretty easy.

But then the green freaks got their way, and the cardboard boxes were discontinued. Jewel boxes—and their never-too-popular "eco pac" brethren—just got thicker and thicker booklets, and more and more digital features. Worse, they came increasingly hard to open, to the point where record stores literally started selling specialized tools to open CDs. That's just wrong, but nothing is more wrong than the mercifully short-lived "dogbone" security wrapper, that scarred your jewel box for life.

Memorable CDs:
• Don Dorsey - Beethoven or Bust
• Paul Simon - Graceland
• Dire Straits - Communique

Cool Album Art and Packaging: Records, Cassettes, CDs Then Nothing

Digital downloads - And so we reach nothing. Not totally nothing, as it seems like every album still requires a 6-inch square illustration to validate its existence. But there's no series of photos, long lists of musicians and instruments and lyrics and writing credits. We're doing with less and less in the way of local information about our recordings—those booklets that told us who played sax on tracks 2, 3 and 7, they're disappearing. We can use the web to gather specifics when really necessary, but label-controlled artist websites really don't help. Some bands put out those digital booklets, but not many. And as far as track metadata, the details are scant. And the gratification is so quick, I almost yearn for the days when I needed a special knife to cut into my new CD.

Memorable downloads:
• Jack Johnson - On and On (first time I skipped the CD)
• David Gray - Life in Slow Motion (first "digital booklet")

I came across this excellent site, the Album Art Exchange, when thinking about this subject. If you want to get a sense of the history and the elaborate nature of album art dating back to the 1960s, I suggest you hop on over.

Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.