on the cover: illustrating music II (1990-2019)

By Carol Arán

The end of the 20th Century brings the decline of vinyl which is basically reduced to club culture and DJs. Album covers’ artistic expression is downsized to the discrete CD format, however CDs do bring about an amazing multiplicity of techniques and styles. Bubbling new technologies flood as far as the eye can see, becoming commonplace. They share the scene with every possible discipline: “anything goes” was the prolific 90s motto.

The decade kicked off with perhaps the most iconic cover of the alternative scene, cue “Goo” (1990), Sonic Youth’s sixth studio album. The cover illustration, penned by Raymond Pettibon, was based on a 60s photograph from the British press. The image, which has since been replicated and exploited time and time again, represents two of serial killer Myra Hindleys’ relatives in a car on their way to court to stand as witnesses. New visual languages bring us jewels like Michael Jackson’s mysterious “Dangerous” (1991) cover, a complex and fascinating sample of Mark Ryden’s work, known as one of the founders of the Lowbrow movement. Over a period of 6 months and using old circus posters as the foundation concept, Ryden shapes Jackson’s ideas to create one of the most unforgettable album covers of all time. The Grunge movement with its anti-commercial, countercultural mood filters through and makes itself visible in uncomfortable cover illustrations such as the one on Nirvana’s “Incesticide” (1992) which was drawn by Kurt Cobain himself. Another great example is Green Day’s “Dookie” (1994) cover, created by Richie Bucher in a complete underground style. The cover of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (Smashing Pumpkins, 1995), brings us the more delicate and vintage aesthetic side of the alternative scene. Illustrator John Craig followed the instructions of the band’s leader, Billy Corgan, to create a collage of classical and celestial inspiration. Miguel Ángel Martín’s work for the Subterfuge label are great examples of how Spanish album covers are also brimming with creativity. The enfant terrible of Iberian comics claims victory over illustrated covers with his unmistakeable clean lines and themes such as violence, technology, pornography and childhood.

From the year 2000 onwards, wheels start spinning again and the vinyl record returns to the delight of romantics and fetishists. The new century dresses in conceptualism, it leaves photography in a supporting role while graphic design and illustration dominate cover art now that software use has settled in. A clear example of the new approach is Sølve Sundsbø’s design for the cover of “A rush of blood to the head” (Coldplay, 2002). This distinctive cover is fruit of technical fate: the 3D scanning of a model was limited to 30 cm segments and generated an accidental image of a bust cut off in the middle of the face, this unexpected turn of events gave way to the perfect imperfection for this iconic album cover. However the most novel project in the intersection between music, visual arts and technology is undoubtedly virtual band Gorillaz, created by musician Damon Albarn (Blur) and the multidisciplinary illustrator-artist, Jamie Hewlett. The band is made up of four fictional musicians, cartoon characters animated and developed by Hewlett, bringing about a surprising multiple creation piece that combines illustration, music and animation, started in 2000, the project is still ongoing. The more usual collaboration between musicians and visual artists with a consolidated style generates covers like Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” for Led Zeppelin’s “Mothership” (2007) album, or Takashi Murakami’s work for Kanye West.

Digital tools close at hand, the new decade kicks off in 2010 with a return to the creative and artistic imagination aligned with the 60s movement. Pictorial proposals travel through sound with interesting covers such as “Forever Dolphin Love” (2011) by Connan Mockasin, a self-portrait painted by the psychedelic pop musician himself. Unexpected collabs surface such as the one by urban artist D*Face on the cover of “Bionic” (Christina Aguilera, 2010), and artistic disciplines seem to mix and tune in more harmoniously than ever. Argentinian illustrator Jorge Alderete pours his pop retro, trash and underground influenced work onto vibrant album covers for Los Fabulosos Cadillac or Andrés Calamaro. In the Iberian territory, illustrators and musicians team up to create a fresh and original vocabulary that emanate from the current peak in illustration. Creators such as Sergio Mora, Joan Cornellà or Ricardo Cavolo produce personal and creative covers for bands like Love of Lesbian, Wilco or Vetusta Morla.

To our amazement at the height of the digital era, the record is still spinning, groove after groove. Fortunately, our nostalgic spirit has not let this marvellous invention escape, regardless of the wild technological revolution that surrounds us in nothing but zeros and ones. Undoubtedly one of the most powerful reasons for the peculiar continuity of vinyl is the added value brought by each record cover’s artwork. The magical cherry on the cake, the key that makes us fall in love over and over again with the format that is the delight of our music collection.