Best Art Books on Music

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, it may also be worth a thousand notes ~ or in the case of our cover photo, thousands of albums containing millions of notes.  The books below take us deep into the realm of collecting, from massive vinyl bookcases to limited edition packaging to the beauty of covers and concert posters.  Sometimes a band is celebrated, other times a label or genre.  One unifying theme is a love for large images, a facet of the industry once taken for granted and that in the digital era has suffered.  While some may say that music is distilled to its purest essence when presented as “just” music, we disagree; we love posters, album covers and the tactile experience.  Art books help us to celebrate what we have seen and to discover what we have not seen: rare images collected for all to enjoy.  And while these books may make great gifts, you’ll want to order copies for yourself first!

Kevin Reagan, Steven Heller and Alex Steinweiss ~ Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover(Taschen, 2015)
Over the course of his career, Alex Steinweiss produced thousands of album covers, a staggering achievement that few, if any, have ever matched.  The icing on the cake: they were good, so good that the artist is now credited with inventing the album cover.  (Earlier albums were typically sold only in sleeves.)  Everything we know and love about album art, and the very existence of the other art books on our list, is only possible because of one man’s tireless contribution.  The book is both biography and gallery; the surprise is how contemporary some of these images seem even today.

Paul Grushkin and Dennis King ~ Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion (Chronicle Books, 2004)
This is a heavy book (7.6 pounds!).  Reading it will leave a dent in one’s lap and buying it may put a dent in one’s wallet, but it’s worth it.  This is a segment of art that few have seen covered in depth.  Music stores offer the opportunity to peruse album art, but as concerts are geographical, much of the finest poster art goes unseen.  This book seeks to correct that oversight, knowing that it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The ability to connect with some of the original designers is a bonus; some may even still have copies of the art here for sale!

Stuart Tolley ~ Collector’s Edition: Innovative Packaging and Graphics (Thames and Hudson, 2014)
Collector’s Edition is a celebration of wild, creative, and over-the-top packaging, including many titles that were only produced in small runs and others whose price tags put them out of reach for the average consumer.  This makes the book a joy to peruse, because one can count all the time and money saved!  As an international journal, it offers images that few have ever seen.  The subjects covered may only have been available in limited editions; fortunately the book was not.

James Norman ~ Micro Record Label (Brian Records, 2020)
James Norman’s book is a lot of things at once.  It’s an art book; a celebration of the Brian Records label; a compendium of assorted size releases; and a manual on how to invent and operate one’s own small label, should one choose to do so.  The writing style is accessible, folksy and humorous.  The only downside: the print run was even more limited than some of the releases it covers.  Be nice to the author, buy some of his releases, and maybe you’ll be able to score a pdf.

Brian Roettinger, Mike Treff, Diego Hadis and Henry Owings ~ Touchable Sound: A Collection of 7-inch Records from the U.S. (Soundscreen Design, 2010)
With all the talk of a vinyl resurgence, the humble 45 has gotten lost in the shuffle.  Yet for many of us, this was the first format we were able to afford.  This art book provides fond memories of early collections while making current collectors salivate at the covers of discs they never knew existed.  Honoring its subject, the book itself is lavishly designed, with an eye to creating art on each page to match that within its pages.

Eilon Paz ~ Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting (Ten Speed Press, 2014)
Music obsessives: you are not alone! In Eilon Paz’s book, which started and continues as a website, he goes around to the houses and flats of record collectors. When he’s there, they will have a chat, and he will take some photographs. It balances the fine line between curiosity (how many records?!) and voyeurism (this can’t be healthy behaviour!?). Paz’s decision to stick with vinyl collections makes their size and unwieldy nature more obvious, and results in better pictures. He gives every collector, and collection, that indefinable sense of cool – no wonder people started buying vinyl again. As a bonus, you can show the book to anyone who complains about your shelves of records – See! Could be worse!

Black Fire! New Spirits! Images Of A Revolution: Radical Jazz in the USA 1960-75 (Soul Jazz Books, 2014)
Look past its unwieldy title, and Soul Jazz present you with a book that works beautifully as a visual companion to the album of the same name. It will also be a fine companion to Val Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life. It is possible that some of Ms. Wilmer’s photographs were used here, but there is a frustrating lack of image credits. Accompanied by brief biographies, however, the power of the images shines through. Some capture the musicians in full flight, while others are more consciously posed. Whether staged or actually on stage, there remains the overwhelming sense of the strength of the artist.

James Marsh, Chris Roberts and Toby Benjamin ~ Spirit Of Talk Talk (Rocket 88 Books, 2012 / 2019)
Talk Talk went from producing synth-pop hits to creating arguably two of the greatest albums ever in the space of ten years. Throughout their stylistic shifts, there was one constant: James Marsh created the artwork for virtually every release from the “Today” single to the Missing Pieces collection. Spirit Of Talk Talk collects his covers with commentary (and fan appreciation). There’s more to the book though. Chris Roberts writes an insightful biography of the band, album by album. There are lots of additional features and photographs, plus interviews with a considerable number of Talk Talk’s collaborators. The 2019 paperback was released following Mark Hollis’s death and has taken on an elegiac quality, reflected in the revised forewords and afterword.

Rob Young ~ Warp [Labels Unlimited] (Black Dog Publishing, 2005)
The Labels Unlimited books were designed to tell the stories of the more visually arresting record labels. So it made sense to start with Warp Records – and not just because they had a highly creative roster of musicians. From the beginning, there had been a close relationship between Warp and The Designer’s Republic, who were responsible for many eye-catching covers. It’s not just tDR providing the visuals here, of course. The book was published in 2005, when Warp were moving further into video with Chris Cunningham and Chris Morris; Warp Films was starting up, and the label had its own storefront in the shape of Bleep. This isn’t to overlook Rob Young’s text, of course, but it does emphasize the importance of good artwork and design when it comes to music.

Reid Miles, Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham ~ The Cover Art of Blue Note Records: The Collection (Collins & Brown, 2021)
We’ve started with a collection of album covers, so let us end with another. This edition is a reduced version of the two-volume set produced a few years back for Blue Note’s anniversary. Reid Miles, who was responsible for nearly all the iconic Blue Note sleeves doesn’t get a credit on the cover so we’ve amended the credits accordingly. Bearing in mind that Miles was working in the days before Photoshop, his output was staggering. His designs defined the label – you could almost hear a Blue Note record just by spying its cover across the room. When he left, the label carried on, but the artwork suffered.

Jeremy Bye and Richard Allen

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