July 11, 2010

Cover Story: The Great Albums of Prince

So. Today in the UK - f America, right? - Prince releases yet another tinny album with terrible artwork. There was a time when not only was his music the best in the world, but the accompanying album packaging was stunning. In the 80's, Prince had the finest production team in popular music. His album art was usually done by Warner Bros. creative director Jeff Ayeroff and Jeri McManus Heiden, who were always able to merge something really cool with something iconic and commercial.

In 1985, Prince followed up his breakthrough Purple Rain with an enigmatic album (Around The World In A Day) that had cover art casting him as Hendrixinan-neo-urban-folkie-spiritualist. Which is a wordy way of saying it's very 60's:

In 1986, he made a U-turn toward complete fashion glamour with Parade:

In 1987, he released the double LP opus, Sign O' The Times, which has this mysterious image, again kind of mining psychedelic rock imagery:

And in 1988, he shocked everyone with a (literally) cheeky, phallic Jean Baptiste Mondino image. There was a time when Prince was inspired by something other than his Photoshop skills at home in Minnesota.

Even his Paisley Park label cohorts received gorgeous visuals. The Family - in this case, Susannah Melvoin and St. Paul Peterson - were photographed by legendary fashion photographer Horst for this elegant album cover. Like a 1940's dream.

Interestingly enough, the decline in music quality was signaled by a dip in artwork quality. Jeff Ayeroff was out the door as Prince began the feud with his label that would literally tear apart his career. What's done is done, but there is a perfect era pre-1990.


Trunk Guy said...

I agree. Prince has had some of the most iconic and controversial album covers. Not any more.

Mind you isn't album art kinda dead generally?

John said...

I guess I always assumed that the Sign O' the Times artwork was borrowed from the stage show that accompanied that, but they would have had to stage it well before the album came out. BTW, that is one of my favorite stage sets out of all the concerts I've seen (both live or on video). Of the four you posted, I think Lovesexy is the only one that didn't have a direct video tie to it.

Jason said...

I was at Target yesterday and they had a giant stack of "LotusFlower" for $4.99. No sale.

The only way I'll ever buy anything else that Prince does is if WB releases some remasters with bonus tracks...

xolondon said...

I just don't get why he wants to give it away in Europe and the expects us to pay here. Purple prick.

Glad he cannot control the Warners stuff on itunes or young people would never discover him. He's already closed off youtube to that concept. Stupid.

xolondon said...

PS Trunk guy - I think album art is dead b/c labels are run by businessmen who think it does not matter in the digital age and who think fans are too stupid to know who an album is by if the cover is not a blowup of their face. That said, every year there is some brilliant artwork and the re-emergence of the LP MAY help? Surprisingly, the Goldfrapp cover looks great on LP and on an ipod.

countpopula said...

Thanks for the memories. It's funny when you look at places like rateyourmusic.com and see how Lovesexy ended up at the top of the worst album covers ever list (men afraid of male sexuality filling up those votes, perhaps?).

The last album of his that was OK was 3121, and it had a much better visual image. Even some of his better 90's records like Gold Experience and Emancipation had either silly imagery, cheap fonts, or both. His last really amazing album for me was Crystal Ball, and that was mostly derived from unreleased 80's material. Can you imagine how much stuff sits in his vaults from that time period that has yet to be heard? It could rebirth his whole career and cement his legacy much more than this latest attempt at relevance has. Seriously, the last Wendy & Lisa album beats any Prince album from the past decade.

As a big Prince fan, the thing I have grown to like the least about him is his business model. Being somebody who works in music retail, I find him to be one of the worst, most arrogant offenders in the release of music through exclusive channels. In fact, Crystal Ball was one of the first records to do that, being sold exclusively by the Sam Goody chain. He's gone on to sell albums exclusively online, give them away with concert tickets, give them away with newspapers, and use stores like Target to sell music without giving anybody else a chance. Hell, he doesn't even care about America anymore, as the UK consistently gets these "free" albums before he's even settled on a distribution method here. Where are you from again, Prince? These shenanigans make it extremely hard just keeping up with an artist's career. I remember the first time he did this, and many independent retailers pulled his music off the shelves in protest.

In effect, Prince "the capitalist" has sold his soul for big advance paychecks while praising God as a Jehovah's Witness at the expense of those who cared most about his music in the first place. Prince "the artist" has suffered equally, and this doesn't even touch his methods of removing youtube links and suing fans. It's hard for me to even appreciate an artist's talent when I have such little respect for them as a human being (see also Garth Brooks).

That being said, the new one sounds marginally better than the last couple...MARGINALLY.

(Sorry about the length here--I could go on, obviously)

countpopula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hatzij said...

Love the selection of iconic covers, but Dirty Mind is far and away the best!

Yuяi said...

It makes you think, doesn't it? What the hell happened to Prince? White hot in the 80s, and now he can't even give his shit away in a newspaper?

The Around the World In a Day cover is still brilliant to this day.