Another visual retrospective aimed at the collector, this hardcover set from UK reissue label Soul Jazz focuses exclusively on the Studio One “album cover” body of work. Studio One’s history and importance is unrivaled in Jamaica, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the great record labels of the world. Reggae historian Steve Barrow gives a brief but excellent history of Coxsone Dodd, the founder of Studio One, and an overview of the music industry of Jamaica at the outset of The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records. Don’t miss it.
The piece that follows, also called “The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records” and written by Soul Jazz Records founder Stuart Baker, is less satisfying. The short text provides a brief history of the designers who worked with the label but is often vague and unfocused; it’s OK but not the ideal entry point for what follows.
And what follows is pretty impressive. This LP-sized book is divided into five sections — “Artist Albums,” “Dub Sounds,” “Calypso Albums,” “Gospel Albums,” and “Showcase Albums” — plus a section at the end called, “Version.” Reproduction quality of the album covers is very good and there’s sure to be some titles that even the hardest core collectors will scratch their heads at.
The problem is that there’s no real rhyme or reason for the selections or sequencing and no editorial is provided. Titles are presented simply with artist credits (album title, year and musicians) and designer. Some provide a bit more detail, maybe the printer, edition, or sleeve notes but it’s maddeningly inconsistent and random. The sequencing makes little sense to me as well: it’s neither strictly chronological, or grouped by creative themes or typography, but rather kind of…and sort of.
I really need an explanation as to why the horrid 1982 Lone Ranger album cover Badda Dan Dem is placed between Jackie Mittoo’s 1972 release and 1968’s Never Grow Old by The Maytals! Likewise the R&B-flavored Alton Ellis cover that sits uncomfortably next to a Cecil Lloyd Trio that’s clearly, visually, on the jazzier tip. On the other hand, it’s obvious that the Freddie McGregor title that follows Lenny Hibbert’s is a variation on a theme and it makes perfect sense.
There are some great album covers — most of the dub stuff, featuring distressed silkscreens are fantastic. And then there’s and my favorite, Blue Beat Special, which you’ll almost certainly recognize. There’s also some truly horrid stuff — Reggae In the Grass is as bad as it sounds. Oddly, the “Gospel Albums” look a lot like many of the religious handouts you still see today from a design standpoint.
But by far, my favorite section is the final one. “Version” lines up — literally — several different iterations of the same album and it’s really cool to see. Some present wildly different visions and some present similar bur alternate covers where it’s hard to choose between the two (Hot Shot Ska). Good stuff.
The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records is a worthy, if pricey, collection of eye-candy, but without any historical context and analysis, it left me wanting.
But ultimately, writing about album covers is a bit like dancing about architecture, to steal a phrase. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it. Google some of the aforementioned covers, but start with the title of my review. It’s a classic by Calypso Joe. Look out, Herb Alpert!
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