Monday, July 23, 2007

An Essay About Packaging

For a bit of a change, I'm going to write a little essay here. I'd like to say a few words about something about music that I think is important: packaging. Packaging and liner notes, and printed lyrics, and little associated essays, and photographs. Good liner notes, that's what I like. Some well done cover art goes a long way, and I like reading lyrics along with the album. Notes, credits, photos, and so on are not entirely necessary but awfully nice when present.

For me, a big part of buying albums is getting the packaging. This is why I don't like buying digital albums (or just copying or illegally downloading music). I really like to be able to hold the artwork and look at it thoroughly. I like to get to know albums I buy, and it's hard without packaging.

I hate buying CDs from the early 90s that just have no packaging. You get the regular old jewel case, the CD, and the tiniest liner notes possible: just a single sheet, folded once. Maybe it contains lyrics to one song and the credits. I mention the early 90s, but really it started in the 80s when CDs first came out, and when albums were being issued on CD for the first time, often the record company just shrunk the 12" vinyl artwork and crammed it into the 5" CD case.

Some of the worst examples are a few of the Cure's albums, like Boys Don't Cry (1980) (actually an American compilation basically consisting of their first real album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979) and their first three singles), Devo's Duty Now for the Future (1978) (containing literally nothing on the sleeve but a catalog listing from the record company), Moby's self-titled debut (1992), or Electronic's self-titled debut (1991). (I should note that many of the Cure's later albums have much better liner notes, like Disintegration (1989) and Wish (1992).)

[The Cure – Boys Don't Cry (1980). Not much more here than the bland, non-band-approved art.]

[The Cure – Disintegration (1989). A major improvement – interesting, plus lyrics and more art inside.]

Plenty of albums, new and old, just don't have much packaging. Sometimes that's fine. That defined New Order, for example. Actually, any band whose album covers were designed the Factory artist Peter Saville (namely, Joy Division, New Order, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, Ultravox, and a handful of others) is nearly guaranteed to have been given a great design. New Order in particular was known to have a sort of mystique, and the lack of descriptive liner notes was part of that. It's still a bit bothersome, but their style was so good that it's hard to complain. Some artists and bands get away with less and it's not so bad (Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) has such a great cover but limited liner notes), but sometimes it feels like some bands just don't care.

[New Order – Power, Corruption, and Lies (1983). This is the original cover by Saville; later CD reissues added the band name and title. A great cover picture.]

[Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979). Another of my favorite Saville covers. Some of the inside art available only on the vinyl version inspired an oil painting I did in high school.]

[OMD – Dazzle Ships (1983). Another Saville work. The vinyl version has a unique design with small holes designed to let the different colors of the inner sleeve come through while pulling the inner sleeve out. A great design.]

[Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). Simple, but I love that shot so much, and the way it was printed made it grainy in a sort of good way.]

Some bands just get it right. I apologize for my incessant talk of the Smashing Pumpkins, but it happens a lot, and I'm going to mention them again. They liner notes are superb. Gish was weak, but all four subsequent commercial albums (and the outtakes collection Pisces Iscariot and the b-sides box set The Aeroplane Flies High) all have great liner notes. The albums all have full lyrics, plentiful artwork, photography, full credits, sometimes special notes from the band... it's good stuff. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness even had two booklets (but it was a double album) – one for lyrics will little clip art-ish (only better) drawings, and one for weirdo collages and the actual credits.

[From the sleeve of The Smashing Pumpkins' Adore (1998). This has always been one of my favorite shots; I painted my own version. The sleeve is thick due to several pages of photos and complete lyrics in different fonts and arrangements.]

The Smiths always had good liner notes too – full lyrics and pictures from any number of Morrissey's favorite movies, TV shows, or whatever. Radiohead have been masters of album art for years now. They may or may not print their lyrics, but the interesting arrays of artworks are never disappointing. They make each album and EP really feel like an item of value.

[The Smiths – "This Charming Man" single (1983). Morrissey always found interesting shots of his favorite actors and models, and this was always one of my favorites.]

[Radiohead – Kid A (2000). This art was mind-blowingly arty and thus great.]

I don't remember exactly when bands first started releasing CDs in packaging other than jewel cases, but that can often be interesting. It's more popular with reissues these days, but Neil Young's Mirror Ball (1995) has a cardboard-ish slip sleeve sort of thing, and it's not bad. I like the nontraditional slip sleeves in that it's at least something different. It helps.

[Neil Young with Pearl Jam – Mirror Ball (1995). A great cover that doesn't even include words.]

Vinyl in general is an entirely separate story. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the New Order albums had the same limited packaging when first released on vinyl, but the artwork was bigger. Some albums on vinyl merely have the cardboard-ish outer sleeve and nothing (maybe a bland white sleeve) on the inside, and that's sad. Some would fold open or have elaborate inner sleeves, or just something extra, like John Lennon & Yoko Ono's Wedding Album (1969), which came with photos, articles, drawings, and a copy of the couple's marriage certificate. Genius. Part of my problem with vinyl may be that I'm a music collector of the 21st century and thus the vinyl I buy is always used – so pieces may be missing. However, my father's collection seems to indicate that this is only rarely the case.

[John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Wedding Album (1969). Whoever took this photo had a Japanese edition with all the inserts, which are displayed here.]

Most 60s and 70s material, when first put to CD, seems to be a bit simple – maybe some lyrics or photos or a little write-up. Think of every Beatles or Doors album, or even the Violent Femme's self-titled debut (1983). These aren't too bad, just uncreative and plain.

The best thing is when albums are reissued, usually with remastered sound and bonus tracks. Not only do I love bonus tracks, but these reissues usually have full lyrics and little essays and period photos. I adore these reissues. Echo & the Bunnymen's reissues are notable for all the above, plus an extra paper outer sleeve, but no lyrics (which is even weirder considering the original CDs had printed lyrics). The Cure's reissues (and the reissue of the side project The Glove's Blue Sunshine (1983, reissued 2006)) are fantastic: a whole second disc of bonus tracks, lyrics, photos everywhere, little essays and notes. Wonderful. The Byrds' reissues lack lyrics but have song-by-song notes. Not every band gets it right, though: Psychedelic Furs and Siouxsie & the Banshees reissues are disappointing for the lack of much of anything but a few bonus tracks and notes.

[Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain (1984). I love this album and its cover. The packaging of the reissue helps, but lyrics would've been great.]

[The Glove – Blue Sunshine (1983). In case the name of the band wasn't clear, the cover makes it clear that this is a Yellow Submarine reference. The reissue keeps the design up throughout the entire lavish liner notes booklet.]

I know I may sound like a hypocrite for questioning the Smashing Pumpkins' $22, 76-page booklet version of Zeitgeist, but my version has a dozen or so pages anyway, and I didn't want to pay around ten cents a page for photography that wasn't even that great. I don't like overpaying, but I like a bit of effort to be put into something. If an artist can spend so much time making the music, how hard could it be to put together a package to make it physically pleasing in addition to the auditory enjoyment?

I could mention many more bands and reissues, but I figure that's enough. Feel free to make suggestions for notable good or bad packaging that I failed to cover.


Anonymous said...

The art direction for Adore was pretty awesome. I just watched an interview of Trent Reznor ( where he talks a bit about album packaging. Pretty insightful stuff.

Patti said...

Good call there. I wouldn't expect any less from Reznor. I like that the musicians I tend to like tend to share many of my beliefs and thoughts.

He also mentions song sequencing and the nature of an album, which are two things that are important to me. I mean, my point with this essay was that as much as I love having mp3s of my entire music collection on my computer, I simply like having CDs more. It's not even the quality, since I can hardly tell the difference; it's mostly just the packaging.