A Scientific Approach To Determining “The Best” In Album Cover Art

Details on the U.S. Mensa Society’s “Best Cover Art” Bracket Challenge

American Mensa “Best Cover Art” Bracket Challenge Artwork

By Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com 

Earlier this month, I learned about an interesting poll looking to discover “the world’s best album cover”. While these polls are typically done by music/art/photography/lifestyle publications (and something that I summarize in a yearly report on the topic (here’s a link to the one from last year – https://albumcoverhalloffame.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/best-and-worst-album-cover-art-lists-2013-summary-and-analysis/), I was intrigued by the organization behind this most-recent poll – the U.S. outpost of the Mensa Society which, to the uninitiated, is an international organization made up of people of all ages who, according to their site, ” share only one trait — high intelligence.” To qualify for Mensa, applicants were required “to score in the top 2 percent of the general population on an accepted standardized intelligence test”, making Mensa members – who include engineers, homemakers, teachers, actors, athletes, students and CEOs – well-equipped to develop a method (their “bracket challenges”) via which the “best ofs” in many categories can be determined (past challenges have include “best” heroes, inventions and toys).

This year, the group decided to throw their focus to determining, in a totally subjective, slightly-scientific and non-definitive way, which modern-era album cover is “the best”. On October 14th, I contacted the organization to find out more about their methodology and heard back from Chip Taulbee, who serves as the Editor of the Mensa Newsletter for the American Mensa organization and, based on this back-and-forth between myself and Chip, I think that they’ve come up with a strong approach that will, in the end, probably start more heated discussions than serve to satisfy any music fan’s appetite to know “what’s best”. Even so, I have to laud the group for their efforts and look forward to seeing the results when they’re posted early next year. For your review, here are my notes from my discussion with Chip:

Sent from ACHOF Curator/Editor Mike Goldstein on October 14th, 2014 to Mensa HQ –

“Dear Chip – Greetings from Portland, OR and the AlbumCoverHallofFame.com site. I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve seen an organization like yours take on this subject and, as such, I’d like to be able to write about the process you used to select and categorize the record covers that are being voted on in this survey. Can you share a bit about who did this review (if not their identities, perhaps some info on their qualifications/experience in the area) and the methodology that was used? Anything you’d be willing to provide would be greatly appreciated.

I have to tell you that you’re much braver than we are here at the ACHOF – our goal is to provide information on the people that make album art/packaging – we don’t ever get involved in “best of” or “Top 10″ lists ourselves, as we feel that there are plenty of other groups who are eager to get in the middle of these efforts to evaluate – and then enumerate – items in terms of their beauty, timelessness, meaningfulness, etc.. In any case, I hope that you’ll help me with this information. I will certainly be reporting on the results of your voting when it becomes available – please be sure to include me in any related press releases that you might put out on the subject in the meantime.”

Reply rec’d 10/15/14 from Chip Taulbee –

“Hi, Mike. Thanks for reaching out. I’m the editor of the Bulletin and led the selection efforts, though it was a staff collaboration, to be sure. I’ll confess, our selection process was rather informal and not dictated by any specific rubric or guidelines, which is why we in no way believe this is a definitive list. Nevertheless, I can shed some light on how we made our choices.

Coming up with four categories was our first step. The four categories are pretty standard in our construct of one of these annual bracket challenges. Our natural inclination was to consider musical genres or time periods, but we quickly moved away from those designations because we wanted the challenge to emphasize the visual, rather than auditory, art. Our preference all along was for folks to eschew their musical preferences and make the selections purely on the cover art and, so far, the feedback we’ve gotten is that this is what participants are doing. Perfect example: I saw a comment on social media yesterday where a guy said he couldn’t believe he was voting for Kool & The Gang over Johnny Cash because he much preferred the latter’s music but had to confess that Kool & The Gang had a better cover.

The categories – photography, art, minimalism and text – gave us some direction in selecting covers, but they’re yet another reason our list isn’t definitive. Some categories were easier to cull than others, and without those groups the selections would’ve been different. We still liked the categories, though.

Musical genres were a consideration insomuch as we wanted diversity. Mensa members vary wildly in ages and interests, and we wanted our contest to reflect that. Another factor in catering specifically to Mensans is the fact that we have many young members, which forces at least some censorship. Some very good album covers that could’ve otherwise made the bracket were not included simply because we did not to offend, say, the mom of a 7-year-old Mensan. This includes gems like Bitches Brew (Miles Davis) and Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones). We made some selections based probably as much on an artist’s body of work as a specific piece. Not that it was hard finding worthy album covers by Storm Thorgerson, Reid Miles and Alex Steinweiss, but I couldn’t imagine a list of best covers without at least one of each of their works represented.

Finally, I’d like to highlight that neither myself nor anyone else on staff who worked on this is by any means an expert in this field. We know there are some good covers we missed and would’ve included if we had to do this over. But again, this list is not meant to be definitive. And our results won’t prove anything either. This is merely a parlor game and conversation piece meant to be enjoyed.

We release the results in the January Bulletin.”

Based on Chip’s initial reply, I sent him some follow-up questions later that same day (10/15/14) –

“Chip – thanks for the reply and explanation. As with the many other “best of” lists that have been assembled over the years, it is always interesting to see how folks go about this, and it will also be interesting to see the results when they’re published…

I do have a couple of quick follow-up questions for you –

1) How did you decide which record covers should be put in head-to-head competitions (ex. Dark Side of the Moon vs. Introspective)? I understand the way contestants are bracketed, but I’m not really clear as to how DSOM qualified as #1 and the Pet Shop Boys’ record coming in at #16)…

2) Are there going to be two separate tallies – one representing the selections of actual Mensa members and one representing the votes of the general public – or are all the results co-mingled?

Thanks again – looking forward to your reply.”

Here’s the reply that I received from Chip the next day –

“Thanks, Mike – Let me see if I can help with your questions. Regarding the head-to-head matchups, after we identified the covers for the given categories, we ranked them, again using our subjective, arbitrary judgment. The rankings correspond with the albums’ seeds, which then dictate the matchup – 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15, 3 vs 14, etc. That led to some interesting matchups, which are mostly happenstance. Mostly. This has been the construct of our Bracket Challenge since we started it five years ago.

To answer your second question, we will have one tally for all voters.”

So, there you have it – it seems to be a well-thought-through approach, so we’ll need to see what the results of this effort produce. In the meantime, if you’d like to see the 64 record covers – organized into “Madness-style” brackets of 16 in each of four categories – and add your vote, please visit their site at http://us.mensa.org/play/bracket-challenge/ Voting began last week and will advance one round each week (I just added my votes for my favorites in Round 2), and the final tallies and winner will be announced in the group’s January 2015 newsletter, so may the “best” cover win!

4 responses to “A Scientific Approach To Determining “The Best” In Album Cover Art

  1. Pingback: Album Cover News Recap – October, 2014 | Album Cover Hall of Fame.com

  2. Thanks for posting the correspondence, Mike. Fascinating.

    Particularly fascinating was that an organisation celebrating intelligence should choose such a flawed process devoid of a defensible logical basis.

    For example, the four categories – photography, art, minimalism and text. Unless there are equivalent numbers of covers in each category (unlikely and impossible to tabulate) then the ‘tournament’ is skewed from the start.

    Subjective seedings? When there is a body of literature and experience available with even minimal research?

    Thirdly, how can you claim to survey art and in the same breath reveal that you have censored major examples? I understand the dubious rationale (the parent of a mensa child couldn’t explain Sticky Fingers? Really?) but the starting principal of censoring art I find disturbing.

    I could go on, but won’t. It’s a project of head-shaking absurdity that is, in the end, deeply reassuring. If mensa can create such an unscientific dog’s breakfast, there’s hope for us all.

    • Glad you liked the post. As I said in my notes to the Mensa team, I am always somewhat surprised when anyone takes on an effort to determine a “Best of” or “Top 10” in ANY review of art, music, film, etc…These efforts always end up disappointing readers and fans, since everyone’s opinions of what belongs in any lists like these (look at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for example!) are mostly based on very personal reasons. I think that this particular effort, regardless of the outcomes, surely just goes to show that Mensa members have emotions, too (just like the rest of us)! I’m eager to see the results, in any case. MG