Here's What Makes Bad Album Art Awful, According to the Guy Who Wrote the Book

"We look for any cover design which sets out to achieve a particular end result — and misses! The further it misses by, the more we like it."

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jan 17, 2024

Every year, it gets harder to assemble our annual list of the worst album covers. Countless artists self-release albums from their bedrooms, many of them teenage artists with no training, experience or budget. How does one judge the amateur (and often intentionally ugly or ironically sloppy) artwork such artists use for their albums?

Exclaim! caught up with British album cover connoisseur Simon Robinson to discuss this very conundrum. Robinson is something an expert on the subject of ugly album covers: he wrote the text for the book The Art of the Bizarre Vinyl Sleeve, which was released in December 2023 through Easy on the Eye Books, and draws on the extensive record collection of Steve Goldman.

Goldman's collection of weird album sleeves is so impressive that he has even held public exhibitions, while Robinson has designed album covers himself. Their book presents over 300 album covers, offering analysis and research that explores how these oddities came to be.

Speaking with Exclaim! over email, Robinson discussed his personal criteria for what makes an album cover bad, shared some of his all-time favourite terrible sleeves, and even critiqued our choices for the worst album covers of 2023.

The Art of the Bizarre Vinyl Sleeve is available to order here.

What are your criteria for judging a bad album cover?

The collection on tour here in the UK is primarily from Steve Goldman, who started picking them up a few years ago. I try and offer him new suggestions from time to time; now the book is out, he is continuing to add to his collection! Basically we look for any cover design which sets out to achieve a particular end result — and misses! The further it misses by, the more we like it.

I think the Dawn sleeve (for 1973's Tuneweaving) is a great example. The idea of turning a photo of the trio into an embroidery is quite a good one, but the further they got with it, the more obvious it must have been that it was not turning out very well. And the end result is terrible! Of course, by then, budgets would have been spent, deadlines had expired, and so it went ahead. Any sane record label executive (is there such a thing?) would have swapped it over for the nice photo on the back…

We live in a world where anyone, no matter how untrained, can record an album at home and upload it themselves with a self-designed album cover. In a world like this, how does one distinguish a truly terrible album cover from all the cheaply made amateur ones?

I guess the Mac Classic and Abode PageMaker turned everyone into a designer back in the late 1980s. For the book, we stuck to vinyl sleeves, so this problem didn't arise. Certainly, I rarely bother with music online and only buy CD or LPs. If an image is associated only with a digital format, then it isn't something we can use, as it isn't a real record sleeve. Steve has included some CD covers in his exhibition, but we decided to stick with vinyl for the book. I'm not dissing the CD format; most of my own cover design work has been for CD, but it's technically quite hard to scan a CD cover and enlarge it for a full page in a book.

Does a bad album cover change your perception of the music contained inside? Are there any albums you love that have terrible covers?

I like all sorts of music, albeit mostly C20 output, and there are lots in my collection which I would suggest do not have great covers. If I like the music, it isn't an issue, but I would always wonder why! 

My own criteria for judging a good sleeve is simple: would it look great framed on the wall? If so, job done!

Take Robert Plant, I really like a lot of his work over the past 30 years or so, but cover-wise, many of them are not very good. And don't get me started on Jeff Beck's last album cover.

What are the five worst album covers ever, in your opinion?

Just five?! Today they would be: Deep Purple's Perfect Strangers, Queen's "Fat Bottom Girls" / "Bicycle Race" single (many of their sleeves are poor but this one was awful), anything by Whitesnake, Area Disaster's Walhalla (web search it!) and Ken Barrie's "The Christmas Pudding Song" (easily the world's most racist sleeve). Tomorrow, I would likely come up with five completely different covers.

In collecting bad album covers, have any of the artists reached out to you or responded?

I did approach a few when we researched the book and got some interesting comments, but a lot of the covers are so vintage or obscure that we couldn't trace people. We were most disappointed, I think, when King Size Dick didn't respond to our emails. He is still out there in Europe touring under that very name, but ignored us.

You've read our list of the worst album covers of 2023. What did you think — were there any that you particularly thought were awful, or that you didn't think deserved to be on the list?

We tend to find fewer albums fit the "worst" or "bizarre" criteria these days, so it was good to see your lists. I felt a lot of the ones selected were just lacklustre, but a few stood out. I'm no Taylor Swift fan, but reckon quite a few of her sleeves are fairly good, yet those photoshopped seagulls and crappy typography ruin this one! The Bombay Bicycle Club one really stood out, and I have suggested we add it to the collection if we can track a copy down. 

Måneskin is an astonishing throwback to the sexist days of yore, but then Italian musicians have a long tradition of this sort of thing. However, Steve tends not to include these in his collection.

I did find the U2 one very underwhelming as well; as you say, they must have the biggest sleeve budget around, and yet it looks so desperate. And yep, how dare he wear a Ramones T-shirt. I don't remember U2 offering New York's finest a helping hand when they were struggling to make ends meet. But, then, it probably wouldn't be tax deductible! Anyway, we both look forward to seeing what your team turn up for next year.

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