Don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge an album by its art.
But feel free to judge the art itself. These choices matter because:
1. Many people will indeed pass up or pick up a record based on the way it looks, and ...
2. It says a lot about the band. Were I making an album cover, I'd go hyper-minimal. I'm drawn to that sort of thing and I also have no confidence in my ability to create or choose something more elaborate. My artistic cajones are shriveled and small and maybe a little lopsided.
Anyway, just looking at the piles of CDs on my desk, I see trends I love and hate, and some that are just meh.
Let's start with a regionally specific one.
OH ARE YOU A COLORADO BAND? Well, thanks for making it clear with that scenic mountain view.
In general, landscapes are a snooze, even if you slap some Instagram-like filters on there. It's painfully unimaginative, and that goes for West Coast bands using a beach sunset and New York City bands using a gritty-looking block, too.
Recent exceptions that jump to mind: Vampire Weekends' Modern Vampires of the City and the foggy mountains used by Denver's The Uncommon Cold.
I can understand why someone might be tired of this trend, but I still find it endearing.
Push it too far into kid-drawing territory and it's saccharine, but do it in a whimsically low-budget way, and it's great. Right now I'm looking at Professor Murder and Whiskey Shivers covers that do this well. Take it a step further and make it a detailed hand-drawn masterpiece, a la the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs cover, and you've really earned the word "art."
This goes along with landscapes in the Zzzzzzz.... category.
A photo of the band or a band member, done right, can maybe work if it falls into the minimalism category (think Japandroids and Cults).
As I said, I'm drawn to this stuff. Sleigh Bells' white bloody sneakers on a white backdrop, Kanye's transparent jewel case, Deerhunter's glowing neon Monomania sign, the zombie hands and chain of Run the Jewels.
Keep it simple and it's hard to go wrong and not too hard to get it very right.
Trippy as fuck / Abrasively crazy
I love M.I.A. and enjoy the neon assault of her visuals, but it also makes my eyes hurt. Then there are images like the psych-colors and green-eyed stares of Wampire's Curiosity or the glitchy, cut-and-paste look of Twin Peaks' Sunken.
These are the album covers you love and hate at the same time. It's annoying and sometimes feels like the artist is trying too hard, but you can't look away, either. Half the time I'm yelling "WTF is even going on" in my head.
Photo + filter
I mean, sure. Instagram does crop things into a good album cover shape. Cool.
When I make a record, the cover is just going to be white.