The art of album liner notes

 Liner Notes contain an inside glimpse into an artist along with creative art work which add life to the music.

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album liner notes

From the 2005 album “Wikked Lil Grrrls,” by Esthro.

The booklet that accompanies a CD is, at first glance, all about the words. Lyrics, acknowledgements and credits. But the liner notes (which can also be printed on the cardboard sleeves of Digipacks and vinyl packages) offer up an opportunity for more than just a lot of type face.

In fact, the design possibilities are great enough that a Grammy for Best Album Notes has been awarded since 1964. This year’s winner was singer, actor and music historian Billy Vera for his work on the Ray Charles box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles.

album liner notesOne of the nominees who Vera was up against was Holly George-Warren, who worked on Janis Joplin’s The Pearl Sessions. That album collected studio conversations and outtakes from Joplin’s recording work. It “was so surprising to find out how active of a role she took in the studio, in the making of the album,” George-Warren told Southern California Public Radio.

That’s kind of the experience we all have with liner notes, though, right? They enhance the record, adding another layer of meaning. An insight to the process and to the personal life of the artist. Or, if not the personal life, than the contrived life. The super-cool posed-to-look-candid shots, the pencil-scrawled lyrics, sometimes an artfully-scanned in coffee cup ring.

album liner notes

Pretty on the Inside by Hole

One of my favorites, in my high school hippy phase was Carly Simon’s 1971 Anticipation  album. I loved the record’s breathless final track, but more than that, I loved the easy Bohemian vibe that the artwork telegraphed. The black and white Peter Simon cover photo — Carley herself, posting at a wrought iron gate, with sunlight filtering through her diaphanous skirt — was pitch perfect. But it was the sleeve photos of Carley and her band rehearsing and just hanging out that really spoke to me.

The dream of the lifestyle is conveyed through imagery, but the dream of the songs lives in the words. Having lyrics typed onto an album sleeve is a bonus; an accompanying book (especially with a download) is sometimes even better. There’s more space in a book. Room for credits and extras. Josh Ritter’s latest album, The Beast in its Tracks, included a limited run of booklets with handwritten lyrics. With doodles, too, in Josh’s hand. Not that a listener needs to see a pen-and-ink doodle of an airplane or whatever, but every scratched out word choice and stick figure adds to the personal feel of the music. And what is music if not a personal experience?album liner notes

Songs are, after all, written, most often, in solitude. Often listened to in solitude – through headphones – as means of shutting out the outside world in order to enter the internal world. Liner notes are the road map to that personal world. They’re as close as we get to a diary entry.

Of course there’s an  art to liner notes: don’t squeeze in too many words or make the font too small, are some tips offered to liner notes writers. Designer Justin Gammon was tasked with working on a package for the KMFDM’s remastered back catalog. His job, he explained on his blog, was to establish visual similarity “by creating a universal graphic standard for the organization of the liner notes, lyrics, photos, credits, etc. This new graphic standard has been carried out through each modern KMFDM release to date.”

album liner notes

Common’s album, Be (designed by Gravillis, Inc.)

But, ultimately, it’s about offering the listener a different or deeper perspective. A savvy musician or designer takes the opportunity (and the sleeve or booklet space) to offer up an intellectual and visual treat.