Designing dance: The aesthetics of electronic music since the 1970s
You’ve had a long day of designing and you’re ready for a night on the town. While at the end of the day you might simply want to take off your designer hat and trade it for your dancing shoes, it is important to consider the importance that design has had on this musical style. Everything from concert fliers, club design and branding, and album covers are all affected by design work, much like what you guys do. Without some critical designs, electronic music would be a far cry from what it is today.
So lets take a trip down memory lane and see some of the more influential designs throughout the history of electronic music. By charting the themes and changes in album artwork design one can also view the changing nature of the scene and the music itself.
It could be said that electronic music, the dance variety that is, started decades ago in Germany, as a little group called Kraftwerk (translates to power plant) started using computers in the late 70s as one of their main instruments. As their first album ‘Kraftwerk’, climbed the charts, and the album ‘Autobahn’ finally topped them in Germany, England, and the US, their brand of ‘computer music’, as they termed it, was beginning to grow in popularity.
As their particular style of music was categorized by its use of machines, these electronic devices began to be featured in their album artwork.
Kraftwerk – Computerwelt (1981)
Kraftwerk was creating a future with their music, in a kind of post-human style. This translates into their album designs, where they increasingly show the band members as part of a computer, or as machines themselves. This effacing of the human for the technical helped to bring in the era of computer music and brought it to the worldwide masses.
Kraftwerk – Electric Cafe (1986)
Other groups of a similar era, like Tangerine Dream, were also some of the first to bring the idea of a computerized subject into popular music. Tangerine Dream captures this excellently in their cover art for their aptly named album “Electronic Meditation”.
Tangerine Dream – Electronic Meditation (1970)
Going to Detroit; Going to the Future
Inspired by Kraftwerk in Germany and Yellow Magic Orchestra in Japan, electronic music meandered it’s way around the globe, landing in Detroit, America’s most industrial city, a city full of machines that had fallen into a semi-dystopian disarray since the loss of auto industry jobs. This environment, surrounded by post-industrial and nearly post-apocalyptic landscapes would become the birthplace of the modern techno music by a group of young musicians who would later come to be known as the Belleville Trio (so named after the suburb of Detroit from whence they came). Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson began here a journey that would influence popular music history forever.
Inspired by their surroundings, as well as current popular and philosophical thought expounding the change from the industrial era to the information era (we know now how right they were), the trio started making a music to soundtrack this futuristic lifestyle that they were imagining. Perhaps inspired by films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Tron (1982), and books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), the album covers of this era, and far into the future of electronic music album design, were influenced by this science fiction aesthetic and made with the shifting social constructions in mind, that went hand in hand with the changing of the musician from a man and a guitar to a man and his computer, sometimes with the man not even necessary at all!
Here you can see the shift that was being experienced by Juan Atkins of Cybotron with his peers around the beginning of the 1980s. The cover shows a human man turning into a series of pixels, becoming computerized; like the music, like society. Model 500, another of Atkins’ monikers, also shows the transition to, and merging of, man and machine, as well as elucidating the music’s connection to, and the world’s rapid move toward, The Future. Starting here in Detroit, images of future and space would have a stronghold on the covers of these electronic albums for years to come.
The artistic musical tendencies of the Belleville Trio were soon blasted all over the world, turning a small group of hobbyists with synthesizers into the legends and fore bearers of entire cultures, scenes, and styles of music.
Traveling to New York City and Chicago to predominantly gay and minority clubs, electronic music morphed into house music, music played at regular club nights. Album covers like Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s Jack Your Body showcased the multi-colored happiness (a colorful trend that continues throughout electronic music design) that was the effect of this new style of music on these city clubs.
Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley – Jack Your Body (music from 1986)
You can see from this album cover the roots that house music has from disco, a genre that was quite dead at the time. House music was now the new music of the clubs.
Especially in New York, house was associated with ethnic and social minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics (and especially gays) in New York City and Chicago where this music was experienced in its post-disco glory. The music was also heavily influenced by black music forms such as soul, RB, and funk music. This history of influence from black culture, as well as gay culture, is visible in some of the album covers of early house albums, tracks, and party fliers. As the music and club scenes were an opportunity for the underrepresented to become empowered, the album covers featured minority stars, giving this new community celebrities with which they could identify.
The UK is Rave-tastic
The music, and the associated design work, continued to travel ’round the world, landing in Britain, where the kids went crazy for this new music that had been, as-of-yet, unheard of to them. This new convergence of music and party created an entirely new aesthetic for what was now being termed rave culture. However this culture would never have been possible without the design elements with which participants could attach their identity. Elements such as giant smiley faces and trippy backgrounds became synonymous with the particular kind of crrrrrrazy electronic music played in British clubs.
These designs were often not on album covers, as much of this genre was devoted to pure tracks, songs by faceless producers played by a variety of DJs on club floors. This style was not meant for home listening. However the iconography of the ‘scene’ was an element that allowed it to flourish. The community strongly believed in peace, love, and happiness, which was reflected in the images coming out.
As musical styles expanded and changed, so too did the imagery. Other trends were a more hippy vibe, which ranged anywhere from chill-out music to what was called psychedelic trance (each with their own connotations). Some stuff got as crazy as this:
These designs utilize computers not only for their music, but also to create these obviously computerized-style graphics, that elucidate the psychedelic nature of their music and their scenes.
Popular Rock Changes Pace
As electronic music increased in popularity (with some even calling 1989 the Second Summer of Love in England), certain rock bands started to jump onboard. Guitar groups like Primal Scream and The Prodigy started to join the new massively popular electronic dance music style. Their covers often reflected this change from traditional rock to the new style of synths and samplers.
Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991)
This famous Primal Scream cover indicates the same wide-eyed sunny positivism as the smiley faces of the British rave movement that it was imitating.
The Prodigy – Music for the Jilted Generation (1994)
This album cover by The Prodigy, alludes to the hardcore style of techno they were creating, as well as responding to the rumors that their assistance in popularization of electronic music had “killed house”.
Techno Grows Up
One of the main bifurcations of dance music in the 90s was the separation of pure dance electronica from what was termed IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music. IDM was intended for at-home or headphone listening, as opposed to being made for the club for dancing and partying. Along with IDM’s sister genre, ambient, these album covers often feature a return to nature and ‘the real world’ (as opposed to the computer, futurescapes, or even partyscapes). These images help to elucidate ambient’s goal of creating a sound space.
William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops (2002)
Popular in Europe, minimal house and techno began to rule the club speakers. The album covers of these works match the minimalism of the music, focusing on the simplicity of the music in the simplicity of their design. This trend is something that led from the late 80s/early 90s electronic styles of splashy colors and rave-tastic designs. Influential minimalist Robert Hood has been quoted as saying that techno had become “too rave-y”. As techno grew up, so too did its imagery.
Voices From the Lake – Voices From the Lake (2012)
Ben Klock – One (Ostgut Ton) (2009)
Ben Klock is a man of Berlin, electronic music’s new hometown.
But a lot of what we do here at 99designs has to do with branding. And branding is something that has become very important to electronic music and its surrounding culture and artistry. As electronic music became more and more popular, in all of its variety of genres, artists like Aphex Twin and Daft Punk began to use the idea of branding, much like a logo, to differentiate their musical product, and their artist identity, from the many others in the field, and to distinguish themselves from the trend of ‘Faceless Techno Bollocks’, a theme which referred to the many ‘white label’ tracks, so named for their distinct lack of artwork and their sublimated subjects and artists. These groups have gone on to become some of the most successful in the business.
Propelled Into the Stratosphere
As electronic music continues to be a strong force in the popular music industry, arguably growing larger than ever before, these trends are all continuing, and on a larger scale. As electronic music album sales rise, their covers are becoming more ubiquitous and colliding ever-more with pop mainstream. Artists like Bassnectar and Skrillex infuse their covers with images from the underground subcultures while making it palatable for more mass audiences, increasingly illustrating correlations between electronic music and entirely other genres, like the connections between dubstep and psychedelia (Bassnectar) and dubstep and metal music (Skrillex).
Superpop electronic artists of today, like David Guetta have hearkened back to the rock-era aesthetics of featuring the artist prominently on the album’s cover. This signals electronic music’s arrival in pop, in its purest form.
David Guetta – Nothing But the Beat (2011)
Other electronic artists, like experimental dub step producer James Blake, also have begun to feature their own images on album covers.
James Blake – James Blake (2011)
What Blake does here, is exhibit himself as the subject and creator of the music, however his image is distorted, much like his voice in the music, which has been altered through electronic tinkering.
On the other side of electronica’s popularization, is its full entry into the sphere of pop indie. Websites like Pitchfork, a popular music blog discussing indie music, not only features indie rock common to decades past, but also full-length albums of the electronic variety. This inclusion has caused album covers to more closely mirror indie artwork, creating a merging field in which electronic is indie and indie is electronic. These aesthetics represent the new millennium, with modernized, visually appealing images that seem to speak to a visually curious youth audience.
Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (2011) ; Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (2012)
Check out the following covers of some selected beloved albums of the past thirty years. See if you can discover the genre, trends, themes, and times of the music, without even listening to a single song. And let yourself be inspired by some of these forward thinking artists, both the artists behind the synths but also the artists (unnamed as they may be) behind these album designs that have shaped the history of a genre.
Gas – Pop (2000)
An ambient album evoking nature.
The KLF – The White Room (1991)
The KLF were one of the earlier, more popular British electronic acts. This group often created anthems that would soar to the top of the British dance charts. This album, which was the group’s first album as they veered away from hip-hop and sampling into pure dance, shows its electronic elements through its album design, including the icy blue color as well as showcasing the speakers as the ‘artists’ of the album.
DJ Shadow – Entroducing (1996)
DJ Shadow, a legend of electronic music for over 20 years, places some introspection on the scene and DJ culture, where buying records is part of the artistry, on this album cover. It particularly displays the intentions of this album, which Shadow composed entirely through minute samples from forgotten vinyls, which he presumably acquired in much the same way as the subjects of this photo do.
Trax Records – Jack 2 Jack (compilation, released 1997)
‘Jacking’ was a common theme of early New York and Chicago house music. While its meaning is hotly debated, perhaps being like jacking into an energy source or headphone outlet, causing you to tune into the music, and causing you to energetically freak out, or perhaps something less PG…, it was a popular style of dance music in these early electronic scenes, especially ones in the city. This collection of early Jacking anthems highlights this with its stark image of the Chicago skyline.
Röyksopp – Melody A.M. (2001)
Röyksopp’s ‘Melody A.M’, a home listening electronic album, as illustrated through this album cover’s evocation of space.
Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right To Children (1998)
This cover calls to mind the revolutionary era of the 60s and 70s (look how big those pants are!) This influential album reminds us of the links between the techno revolution of the 90s and 00s and the rock revolution of the 60s and 70s.
Booka Shade – Movements (2006)
German stars Booka Shade pay homage to their gear and their dancing fans on this cover.
Burial – Untrue (2007)
Burial’s famous album utilizes stark colors and ghoulish subjects to evoke the darker side of electronic, the kind of garage dub that he helped to pioneer.
House Hallucinates: Pump Up London Volume One (collection, released 1988)
A compilation of acid house tracks from the early 90s UK rave scene takes the idea of acid literally.
Plastikman – Closer (2003)
Plastikman, a star from Detroit, incorporates both minimalism and sci-fi feeling into his minimal techno album design.
Bassment Jaxx – Rooty (2001)
Basement Jaxx has lost it in space.
Trentemøller – The Last Resort (2006)
Danish techno for the forest.
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (2012)
Andy Stott: an album on many of the top of the year of 2012 lists, from both purely electronic sources, such as Resident Advisor, as well as the infamous Pitchfork, as other, more all-embracing, musical tastemakers. You can see that the album design belies what could be termed the ‘tumblr aesthetic’, featuring black and white imagery and nice-lookin’ ladies. This aesthetic that crosses genres could be termed the style of the 2010s; the musical design of our generation.
Jimmy Egar – Majenta (2012)
Jimmy Edgar brings the wheel full circle, making his 2012 album a total return to the sci-fi themes of the Detroit gang and Cybotron. Really, 2012?! Jimmy Edgar is a graphic designer, artist, and photographer in his own right, leaving no chance that this was purely coincidental. It seems as though Edgar is making a comment on electronic music’s trajectory, and the trajectory of much current music and culture overall.
There is now, as always, a yearning for the past, a reckoning for happier, purer times, and electronic music is no exception. As we reminisce on the past in today’s techno future, we have to ask ourselves, as much consumers and, of course, as designers, what the future of album design holds. Will we continue to look to the future-tinted past for inspiration, or will we create our own visions of the future? As 99designers, it is totally up to us!
- Cover Culture Blog
- Resident Advisor (everything you need to know about electronic music today)
- Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds
Do you think album design is still important in this digital era of music? What are some of your favorite album covers? What are some of your favorite kinds of music? Answer in the comments!