Vinyl Treasures: 9 Objects of Art You Can't Stream

The audiocassette killed the LP. The Compact Disc killed the audiocassette. Downloads have all but killed the CD. And it looks increasingly as if streaming is killing downloads. Yet vinyl resurges, confounding the wing of audio punditry that has long asserted its flaws ought to make it stay dead. Me, I love good analog as much as I love good digital, and I also love the tactile experience of handling LPs. Once in a while I pick one off the shelf and marvel at what a beautiful artifact it is. Following are some of my favorite LP artifacts, with emphasis on unusual design and manufacturing gimmicks that make them especially pleasing as physical art objects:

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—Déjà Vu: Of all the quirky LP jacket designs, this one is the most outrageously luxurious. The chocolate-brown gatefold has a deluxe leather-like texture—there's nothing else in my library that looks or feels like it. The artist names are in a gothic font stamped in gold, which contrasts with the restrained sepia portrait of band members dressed for the Civil War era. This bold combination of retro elements practically whips the beholder into a time warp, befitting the music's timeless beauty. The sheer imagination of this design by Gary Burden still inspires awe every time I play this album. His jacket designs for the cream of the California rock posse—including Joni Mitchell, the Doors, and the Eagles—got him a Grammy and several nominations.

Gentle Giant—In a Glass House: This progressive-rock masterwork—unjustly denied a U.S. issue at time of release—comes with a transparent plastic panel inset into the black jacket. Polarized black & white photos of band members are printed on the plastic. Beneath the plastic, a cardboard insert has a different set of polarized B&W photos, forming a collage. The first CD issue mimics the LP design, with the jewelbox lid replacing the plastic panel and the paper booklet replacing the cardboard insert, making this one of the few quirky album designs that's equally pleasing in both formats. The photography is credited to Martin Dean though it's unclear who was responsible for the design. Gentle Giant albums often feature striking jackets, including the diecut round-cornered playing card of The Power and the Glory and the diecut octopus-in-a-jar jacket of the U.S. edition of Octopus, which inexplicably (but interestingly) displaced the handsome Roger Dean art of the U.K. edition. The music was always as creative as the jacket art.

Various Artists—Haydn Edition: The Telefunken linen boxes, with fabric-covered stock on the box lids, have a way of standing out in a row of shelved LPs. The lettering is stamped in gold on the spine and on the front, surrounding a glued-on paper panel with a painting of the composer. My first Telefunken linen-box prizes were the three sets of Haydn piano trios (early, middle, and late) performed by the Vienna Haydn Trio. Several other installments of the Haydn Edition, including Rudolf Buchbinder's traversal of the piano sonatas, use the same design. Karl Engel's Schumann Edition of solo piano works breaks from the pack with a rust-colored linen box. The performances and analog recordings on these blue-label Telefunken LPs are typically of the highest quality and many of these boxes can be purchased in excellent condition at modest prices. They're a great way to beef up your classical record collection.

Gustav Holst—The Planets (Steinberg, BSO): A friend and I recently went to hear David Robertson lead the New York Philharmonic in this work by Gustav Holst, which has been strip-mined for many movie soundtracks, including Star Wars (which borrows the "Mars: Bringer of War" theme). My friend had somehow gotten through life without ever hearing The Planets, so a few days before the concert, I whipped out my Deutsche Grammophon foil-wrap LP with the reference-standard recording by William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A few other DG releases used the shiny silver foil stock, including Carlos Kleiber's peerless recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Michael Tilson Thomas's lovely meditation on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 (Winter Dreams) with the BSO.

Keith Jarrett—Sun Bear Concerts: The pianist commemorated a tour of Japan with this massive set of improvised solo piano performances (and there's not an ounce of fat on it). Rather than pack the 10 LPs in a lidded box, this set takes a mega-gatefold approach, with the records in bound side-load sleeves made of thick plain blue-green stock, with record-preserving rice-paper innersleeves. Handling the package is the vinyl equivalent of a Japanese tea ceremony, as I take the weighty object off the shelf in a cautious two-handed operation, then flip through it to decide what to play. What shall it be tonight? Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, or Sapporo? Jarrett's ruminative improvs let me escape into a floating world beyond the mundane cares of daily life. The sheer weight of 10 LPs places a strain on the binding, which has detached from the spine of my copy, despite the attempt to protect the binding from the effects of gravity with a U-shaped piece of thick cardboard that wraps around the bottom. I guess I could glue the spine back together, but I'm reluctant to tamper with an artifact, and the LPs are still well protected. In fact, I have several other large box sets of more conventional design that haven't survived the ravages of time nearly as well.

Jefferson Airplane—Long John Silver: The Airplane's penultimate studio LP comes in a "humidor pack" from Ernie Cefalu's design studio Pacific Eye & Ear. The three-panel gatefold opens up to reveal slotted pieces. When folded in accordance with the instructions, the LP jacket becomes a humidor. The thick innersleeve is printed with images of cigars, while beneath it, the interior of the gatefold shows a stash of marijuana. A printed legend on the front refers to "9 fine blends of fragrant weed" while the interior of the gatefold promises a "perfect dream—made from natural tobaccos—taste the difference." The combination of cigar and weed imagery appears to anticipate the Philly Blunt. This may be the only LP jacket in history explicitly designed to serve as drug paraphernalia. By this point in the band's career it was releasing on its own Grunt label—but RCA, its former label, was still acting as distributor. How I would love to have been a fly on the wall when this humidor-box-jacket, including the giant weed pic, was discussed with RCA. (For the record, let me state that I'm not advocating the use of illegal substances.)

Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin III: Here is the most interesting jacket from a band whose choices in artwork were often piquant. The gatefold, open at both ends like a double-LP jacket, uses the front slot for a "vovelle," a cardboard disc that rotates on a spindle. As you turn the disc, a dozen holes diecut into the jacket's top surface show pics of the band and other odd pieces of art. Inspired by crop rotation charts, this design was a collaboration between Jimmy Page and Richard Drew of Zacron Studios. Page was initially happy with the results but later felt it looked "teeny-bopperish." For others, especially those inclined to use Long John Silver as a humidor, it may evoke more of a psychedelic feel as you turn the wheel and images drift among the holes.

Rolling Stones—Their Satanic Majesties Request: More psychedelia. Keith Richards summed up the feeling in the band when he referred to this album—the Stones' answer to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper—as "a load of crap." But the art is more successful than the music. The gatefold features a pasted-on 3D plastic panel that uses embedded lenticular lenses to make the faces of the band members flicker between two separate underlying photos. The panel is surrounded by a handsome blue-and-white frame with wisps of cloud; a red-and-white version is used for the innersleeve. Original issues are collector's items because the lenticular panel was deemed too expensive to continue producing. Later issues replace the 3D panel with a 2D photo. Following the original release, only a limited edition LP reissue from the '80s and a Japanese SHM-CD used the 3D version. The design is attributed to Pictorial Productions, Artchie, photographer Michael Cooper, and the Stones. Andy Warhol's notorious zipper jacket for Sticky Fingers is just as novel and remained in production longer than the lenticular panel. That darned zipper ruined a lot of records. A little too late in the game, I inserted a sheet of cardboard into the jacket to protect the LP from the zipper, but not before "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" acquired some loud pops in Mick Taylor's dreamy lead-guitar excursion.

Traffic—The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys: This distinctive jacket lops off the upper right and lower left corners and uses perspective to give the remainder the appearance of a cube. This website explains the symbolism of the cover painting: "Designed by Tony Wright, the cover is intended to describe what Traffic's music sounds like. The checkerboard dance floor represents rock n' roll (the grounding of the band and a point of departure). The walls are elemental, the clouds on the left representing water in its most ethereal form (the endless transition of day to day life), while the marble on the right represent the earth at its most enduring (indestructible 'spirit'). And of course there is no ceiling on the cube—the 'sky is the limit,' leaving the impression of the endless possibilities of life." The album went platinum and the cube design was deemed worthy of an encore for the followup, Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.

The thumbnails pictured here don't do justice to the artifacts themselves. If you want to know what CSNY's leather jacket, Gentle Giant's window collage, Telefunken's linen box, DG's foil wrap, Jarrett's hefty book-bound album, the Airplane's fold-up humidor, Zep's rotating wheel, the Stones' 3D panel, or Traffic's corner-cut cube really look like, get yourself to the nearest (or better yet, largest) possible secondhand vinyl store and see for yourself. You need to hold these objects and touch them to appreciate them. I'll bet you won't be able to resist taking home at least one of them.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.