Art Record Covers, book review: A comprehensive look at some of the most memorable artworks in music history

From The Velvet Underground to Patti Smith, Kanye West and Lady Gaga, record covers are a piece of affordable art for the everyday music fan

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An insightful, intriguing and comprehensive look at the extensive history of album artwork arrives in the form of Art Record Covers [Taschen]. 

In its introduction, author Francesco Spampinato – who is currently completing a PhD at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris – explains how records are an opportunity to remove some of the sacredness from contemporary art and can be viewed as the artist’s way of escaping the constraints that are imposed by the art world. 

The book was borne out of Spampinato’s interest in the relationship between art and pop culture; his dual approach to music and sound “from the perspective of both a contemporary art and visual culture historian, and as an enthusiast, listener and music collector”.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘It’s Blitz!’

It examines a staggering array of covers by famous artists – from Banksy's graffiti for Blur, Damien Hirst’s skull for The Hours, Warhol’s Velvet Underground banana and the Dali butterfly on Jacke Gleason’s Lonesome Echo.

A section on how Banksy’s art has been used notes that the majority has been featured unofficially and often without authorisation, because the artist is so difficult to get hold of and so in demand.

A rare case where Banksy willingly offered his work as album art was for his collaboration with Danger Mouse, following the pair's guerilla stunt where they illegally placed 500 copies of Paris Hilton's debut record in shops around the UK. 

The book also features interviews by the artists and musicians themselves: one particularly relevant one asks Shephard Fairey of Obey Records how he brings the rebellious, provocative attitude of genres like punk and hip hop into his own work, in order to reflect it back on the music.

Another looks at The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album that turns 50 this year and which boasts perhaps the most iconic and recognisable work of album art of all time. 

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The Velvet Underground & Nico's eponymous 1967 album, with artwork by Warhol (who is also credited as producer)

Artwork itself, spanning 500 different covers in a 448-page tome, is richly coloured, diverse and lovingly arranged so the reader can enjoy either flitting from page to page to find their favourites; or to allow for a closer analysis on the history of each work and its respective artist, showing how pop art, postmodernism and contempary art have informed the spread of images over the years.

Of course it takes a look at the classics – Mapplethorpe’s exquisite portrait of Patti Smith for Horses is just one example – but it also avoids reiterating what has already been said by also looking at the likes of Jeff Koons for Lady Gaga, and Takashi Murakami for Kanye West.

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Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ from 1975
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Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ from 2013
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Takashi Murakami designed the cover for Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’

In a year where vinyl sales are set to rise once again after a record-breaking year in 2016, this is an important look at how the physical record format is an affordable, but nonetheless precious, piece of art for the everyday music fan. 

Art Record Covers is out via Taschen on 3 March. Pre-order your copy here

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