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TERMINALLY UNIMPRESSED cynics like me pointed out in the '80s that CDs would just be a transition between vinyl and something else. Whether or not iPods eventually become that something else, we'll see. I sold off a good portion of my records long ago, but about a thousand of them still inhabit boxes in my mom's garage. And because of the new version of the Michael Ochs book 1000 Record Covers, I'm just inclined to sniff through all those boxes and whip out Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell just to look at the artwork on the cover.

Ochs is the kingpin at Michael Ochs Archives, a gargantuan library of millions of music photographs and records in Venice, Calif. Basically, if you're a journalist or graphic designer and you need to access a photo of, say, Wendell Packard & the Half Notes, Ochs is the guy you get it from.

1000 Record Covers is one of several re-releases to celebrate publisher Taschen's 25th anniversary. Taschen is renowned for publishing over-the-top glossy art books, and this one is no different. But most importantly, it brings up a discussion that is taking place more and more often in these days of ubiquitous iPods and youngsters who've never seen a vinyl LP in their lives: the entire concept of the album cover as an art form has fallen by the wayside. Of course, this discussion is not new—pissed-off graphic designers were complaining back in the '80s that with CDs, cover art was now reduced from 12 inches to 5 inches. Nowadays, folks are downloading a zillion tunes and either burning them onto their own CDs or filling up iPods. The whole concept of cover art has been decimated. Folks don't realize that with LPs, the cover artwork and the packaging were completely part of how one experienced the music. Who could imagine listening to Sgt. Pepper without knowing what the cover looked like?

Enter Michael Ochs again. Last year he came to SJSU to speak at an art show he curated with designer Craig Butler. The show was titled "The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were." Here's what Ochs and Butler did: they contacted 100 established graphic designers and fine artists and asked them to paint or draw a hypothetical album cover for their favorite artist. No boundaries were to be imposed on the work at all. The artists had free reign to do whatever they wanted. It was an ingenious concept.

"Much to our surprise, the response exceeded our expectations," Ochs explains on his website. "Many of the most renowned artists in the graphic and fine arts fields loved the concept and came on board. For generations, the 12-inch album cover was the standard iconography for music and it was more sorely missed than we thought."

Ochs says it's "life in the past lane" and the nostalgia will not go away. Mark Pothier, a senior assistant business editor at the Boston Globe, shared that nostalgia in an uproarious piece for the Mercury News recently. In an article I really wish I had written, he lamented the days when you could go home with a potential lover and then scope out the person's record collection to determine whether you wanted to continue the relationship.

"It used to be easier to judge people unfairly," he said. "A cursory scan of their record collection revealed secrets. Telltale copies of REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity were known to wither budding relationships overnight. Soul-deep conversation and physical attraction could not compensate for the nagging doubt planted by Frampton Comes Alive. 'I must have been really drunk at the time' did not explain away Air Supply's Greatest Hits."

So what's the next step? Well, think about it. If people are going to download 20 Jimi Hendrix tunes and burn them onto their own CD, why not download cover art and packaging also? Well, that's exactly the grandiose scheme that Ochs has, but he said he doesn't know if it will ever happen.

So next time you see someone walking down the street with an iPod and those evil white cords stuck in his ears, don't rip the cord out of his face and strangle him with it. Instead, go down to your favorite thrift store and drop one dollar for a vinyl LP just for the cover. Don't even listen to the music, just buy it for the cover. Please.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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