You Can Tell a CD by Its Cover

Today, I went through a few hundred CDs looking for a handful for next week's All Songs Considered. There simply isn't enough time to listen to every song on every CD, so I listen to the first cut on most every disc. If I don't like the aesthetic of the music, I go on to the next song. There is one exception: If I like the cover art, I'll randomly go to another cut and see what else the music has to say.

Here is one dirty little secret — I don't like this, but it's true. I look at the cover art, and if it doesn't have a hint of originality, and I'm pressed for time,I don't listen to the CD.

Here are a few sure signs of artwork that foretells uninspired music:

1. Musicians with pets
2. Pyramids (except Dark Side of the Moon)
3. Women in gowns on couches
4. Men drinking alcohol
5. Skulls
6. Chandeliers
7. Bad Photoshop jobs (e.g., bands floating on clouds)
8. Multiple fonts (cursive is the curse)
9. Posed portraits
10. A guy holding a guitar and smiling

What else?
Can you tell a CD by its cover?
What are the telltale signs of a bad record?
Any exceptions to the above list?



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I won't listen to a CD if the cover is set in Arial, and it'll take a lot of work for me to warm to the idea of a CD if the cover photo is a low contrast B&W shot of a moody songwriter.

Yeah, I like that

Sent by Matthew Trisler | 5:57 PM | 5-2-2008

I couldn't agree with you more! Great cover art is essential. Does this cover pass?

Sent by Josh Preston | 5:58 PM | 5-2-2008

Hmm, interesting piece but I can think of exceptions to almost every single type you listed there... I do tend to purchase new music sometimes based on coolness of album artwork though.

It seems like there isn't any short supply of horrendous/bizarre artwork from CDs that are coming out in the coming months. Wolf Parade's looks like a devil is going to eat me, I couldn't even BELIEVE that My Morning Jacket chose THAT as their cover, and I don't even need to state how ridiculous RZA's new album cover is.

Sent by bryant | 7:16 PM | 5-2-2008

White album - boringest shit ever, until John Mayer made one.

I think "The Beatles" album (which came to be known as "the white album" was a brilliant cover. In the era of psychedelia, it looked so elegant and revolutionary. Just a glossy cover with the words The Beatles embossed on it. (it never worked as a CD cover) Instantly recognizable in a record bin despite the fact that you couldn't even see the bands name.


Sent by A. | 9:21 PM | 5-2-2008

I could say album covers that work too hard, but then there's Sgt. Pepper's (of course, they were stoned to high heaven, so maybe it doesn't count). I bought Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy based purely on the cover (at 13, what did I know about Zevon) and it turned my musical life around. Jim Blum talked about his reaction to cover art in his latest set of reviews in the blog (he gets a lot of CDs, too, and more moody singer-songwriters, so you have to feel a little sorry for him).


Sent by Ann V. | 10:19 PM | 5-2-2008

How about now going the other direction and telling us some of the best covers you've seen.
My new cd shows a shot of the world's first and only box office concerts on the planet. A part of any good album cover is doing something no one else has ever done or could do It's just guy and guitar, one of your pet peeves, but look at the surroundings!. I think it's the exception to the rule My photographer Terri Glanger is world good. Click on any song to bring up the photo. Long live the art revolution.

I like that shot Tom.

Sent by Tom Hendricks | 10:40 PM | 5-2-2008

Hmm...not sure what you mean by "Musicians with pets," but if I didn't already love Iron and Wine, I'm sure that the amazing dog on The Shepard's Dog would have made me buy it anyway!

I think that original renditions of the things on your list (i.e. The Shepard's Dog) are exceptions.

Sent by Matt | 11:47 PM | 5-2-2008

As a music based graphic designer, I couldn't be happier to read this! And as you might guess, I completely agree.

Sent by Chris Piascik | 1:01 AM | 5-3-2008

Perfectly symmetrical artwork is almost always an indication that whatever's inside is going to turn me off. (A lot of "screamo/nu-metal" bands seem to favor this type of cover image...)

Sent by Sara | 1:41 AM | 5-3-2008

I don't remember the music at all, but I think this is one of the most ... uhm, remarkable record covers I have ever seen:

Telling from the cover I'd probably never listened to The Blood Arm's "Lie Lover Lie", but it's a great record, even if it looks like the Rocky Horror show:

Sent by Lukas | 6:22 AM | 5-3-2008

On the best open source music webpage Jamendo I noticed that the CD covers that have almost naked woman on a cover gets the most downloads :D Usually it is for lounge music but still :D It's pretty lousy to get attention this way :D

Sent by Lenka Bliss | 10:51 AM | 5-3-2008

Major exception to rule #6 (chandeliers): Vampire Weekend.

Sorry, I just had to point it out.

Sent by Garrett | 7:45 PM | 5-3-2008

Exception: Bringing it All Back Home by dylan

it has: 1. Musician with pet
2. Woman in gown on a couch
3. weird posed portrait
i couldn't say i know anything about this cover, other than it's always struck me as being really strange and pretty uninspiring. Bringing it all back home is definitely one of my favorites by mr. dylan though, despite the horrible cover art

I love this comment!

Sent by Matthew P | 10:27 PM | 5-3-2008

Another exception to the "pets" rule: "Swansong for You" by The Gentle Waves.

Sent by jamesG | 11:03 PM | 5-3-2008

Oh noooo, will my cover make the grade? I do have Photoshopped clouds on it.

And I best be a-changin' my song order to make that first cut grab ya. "I Need A Man... With A Chainsaw" oughta do it.

Sent by Jannie Sue | 3:31 PM | 5-4-2008

I think the Andrew Bird album is clever, and he has a pet on it! You can recognize the simplicity of it from any distance.

Sent by Emily | 10:10 PM | 5-4-2008

what about the pets on pet sounds?

Sent by bbbbrian | 10:19 PM | 5-4-2008

Ahh the fonts! Comic Sans MS I hate in general, but if that's on an album, no way. I think most landscapes should also be avoided or close-ups of a pretty girl's face.

Sent by Elise | 6:32 AM | 5-5-2008

"Working" at a college radio station, we see a lot of cd's as well. If an album has no track list, or I can't even tell the name of the band, I will usually move on to the next album. There is some quality that has to be present in the cover, I am not sure exactly what it is, to make me choose a cd that I haven't already heard of out of hundreds of others. Brutal.

Sent by Itchy | 9:44 AM | 5-5-2008

Especially in the CD age, I just wish all covers were monotone with a contrasting color Title/Band name/Track list to make it easier to flip quickly through the bins or and read the spines. Stuff a gnarly poster inside if your muse(ic) requires a visual component.

Sent by Zeb | 2:48 PM | 5-5-2008

Exceptions- Most Bob Dylan Albums have a posed portrait of him. Not very imaginative, but still memorable somehow. I like the Hwy 61 portrait, the Nashville Skyline portrait of him smiling holding a guitar, and the profile shot of greatest hits.

Skulls- Bonnie Prince Billy- I See a Darkness.

Pyramids- The Mekons- Memphis Egypt

Bad Photoshop Clouds- Imagine John Lennon

Sent by dk | 3:07 PM | 5-5-2008

Sir, you have rang truth into the ears of musicians everywhere with this one.

As someone who makes part of their living booking music, I'll skip over bands w/ bad art and "lazy" looking press kits.

Also, Josh Ritter's latest has horrible photoshopping on the cover (look at that helmet!), but is a magnificent piece of work.

Sent by Chris | 3:08 PM | 5-5-2008

Chandelier-April by Sun Kil Moon
Cursive-Band of Horses

Sent by derek | 9:38 PM | 5-5-2008

Sent by e rock | 8:33 AM | 5-6-2008

1. Musicians with pets
10. A guy holding a guitar and smiling

Both of these describe the cover portrait of "My Own House" by David Bromberg. While Bromberg's album covers are obviously uninspired -- as I believe the multitude of self-portraits slathered across solo artists' covers tend to be -- I'd hardly attribute that description to his music. Sure his artwork doesn't compare to the plethora of skulls on John Fahey's records...

I've lost my point. I think Pantera's "Cowboys from Hell" cover breaks all but two of your rules in one sitting. I think most metal albums break your rules. I think you're right about the gag reflex in response to these covers. Still, it's not all bad.

Sent by EP | 2:03 PM | 5-6-2008

The cover art can definitely be a factor. I remember I was drawn to Of Montreal's Satanic Panic in the Attic when I first saw it because of it's colorful crazy cover ... well that AND the great title.
This is another reason why I like collecting cds. I am building a bookcase that will showcase the album artwork/store cds in almost a mosaic way.

Sent by hobbes gallo | 7:45 PM | 5-6-2008

The exceptions:
. Musicians with pets: Pet Sounds
2. Pyramids (except Dark Side of the Moon: got me
3. Women in gowns on couches: skip
4. Men drinking alcohol: skip
5. Skulls: Copperhead Road
6. Chandeliers: Didn't Nirvana have one on the Come As You Are single? Or was that just the video?
7. Bad Photoshop jobs (e.g., bands floating on clouds):Aerosmith's first album, which is pretty great.
8. Multiple fonts (cursive is the curse):skip
9. Posed portraits: Most Beatles albums
10. A guy holding a guitar and smiling:Elvis Costello, My Aim is True...although he's singing, not smiling.

Sent by Michael Oliver, Boston | 2:23 PM | 5-7-2008

Exception to #9: The Raconteurs first album, Broken Boy Soldiers has a very engaging posed portrait of the band (sporting cuts and bruises).

Sent by scurrier | 11:53 AM | 5-8-2008

wow thats intrusting ... well never judge a cd by its cover right? but ummm let me well i could kind of tell what the cd is by its cover , well isnt that the purpose of the cd COVER to show the the buyers / fans what the cd will be about? intrusting blog -)

Sent by erica n | 11:33 AM | 5-9-2008

I will buy a second hand CD based on cover and have found some amazing stuff from Eric Matthews to Erykah Badu to Andrew Bird. A cover is definately a big draw for random purchases.

Sent by Dan | 1:30 AM | 5-12-2008

Women in gowns on couches? What about David Bowie in a gown on a couch?

Sent by Elizabeth Bear | 2:03 PM | 5-13-2008

If all of this was compiled into one cover, would it be the best or worse ever?

Sent by Danny | 6:04 PM | 5-13-2008

What about Carole King's "Tapestry" from 1971? A nice mackrel tabby cat graces the cover of an album that is still praised today.

Sent by Suzanne | 2:07 PM | 5-18-2008

Images that would look at home on the gas tank of a Harley send me running. Molly Hatchet, Asia, and Nazareth come to mind.

Sent by Sean | 4:53 PM | 5-23-2008

Dylan's Bringing it All Back Home has that cat, and Nashville Skyline has Bob holding his guitar and smiling.Both great albums

Sent by tim | 1:11 AM | 5-28-2008

Anyone with a guitar on railroad tracks.

Sent by lisa witty | 4:07 PM | 8-2-2008