Any books claiming to list the 100 best examples of anything are bound to be subjective. And, even when written by respected designers and Hipgnosis founders Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, a selection of One Hundred Best Album Covers is likely to cover familiar ground.
So it proves with Dorling Kindersley’s latest release. A large proportion of the selection can be guessed before you open the book: all you need to know to refine your guesswork is the age of the authors.
In this case, the results include a lot of The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Emmerson, Lake & Palmer, Supertramp, Jefferson Starship, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and The Rolling Stones. You’ve got it: Thorgerson and Powell are probably the same age as your parents.
In any avenue other than rock and roll this would not be a problem. Any Best of… selection has to look at the whole life cycle of its medium. But there is little from pre-1960 in this book, and only a few covers from later than the mid-Eighties. The selection seems to be stuck in a time warp – a noticeable problem in the fast moving world of popular music.
Maybe a Top 100 for each decade would be more appropriate, if an audience with all its own teeth is to appreciate it. These books are read, as well as written, subjectively. Few people born after 1970, except those with world-tour T-shirts and long hair, will admit to liking Pink Floyd, or their album covers. We’ve never liked Led Zeppelin, and Rod Stewart has been a parody of his own haircut for years. These album covers have not aged well.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces are always in lists of the best album covers. Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling Stones, is included here even though the working zip on the front cover used to scratch the vinyl inside. It is hardly a contender for a design-effectiveness award.
There is even a selection purely for fans of spoof “rockumentary” Spinal Tap, in the form of the cover of Gamma 2 by Gamma. The image features shark fins emerging from a suburban lawn, bringing to mind the “reviews” for Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich LP. One two-word review reads simply, “Shit sandwich”.
There are some interesting asides in the brief histories: several covers were banned in the US, the land of the free, because you could see nipples on them. The US release of Country Life by Roxy Music ended up with a picture of some bushes on the front, while the rest of the world was able to see the bushes with two scantily clad women in front of them.
But, on the whole, the book remains a disappointment. It’s certainly no Stairway to Heaven.