Like waxing lyrical about cassettes or minidiscs, discussing the greatest album covers of all time seems like a debate for a bygone era. The download age means our experience of album artwork is depressingly limited to the postage-stamp-size design in the bottom left-hand corner of the iTunes display. The strange stories behind such epochal sleeves as the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed (with its cake baked by a certain Delia Smith) are confined to distant memory as the romance and artistic integrity of the designs are consigned to the history books. Or at least, that's the fashionable view.
Andrew Heeps, though, likes to think differently. His framing company, Art Vinyl, set up the Art Vinyl Awards in 2005 to give modern sleeves the recognition they deserved. Five years on, the awards - and the designs they champion - garner worldwide publicity. This month, Muse took the top accolade for their most recent album cover, The Resistance. Or rather, the designers La Boca did, and their work - along with the runners-up Jenny Saville for the Manic Street Preachers' Journal for Plague Lovers and Martin Ander for Fever Ray's eponymous debut - will take pride of place at five exhibitions in the UK, including Selfridges in London.
"Our philosophy is simply this: records are affordable art," says Heeps. "Take, for example, the Hours' album See the Light [20 in the poll]. The sleeve is a piece of work by Damien Hirst. You could buy that on vinyl for, say, £15 (Dh90), and put it in one of our special frames. Now, I don't know where else you'd be able to get what's essentially a limited-edition Damien Hirst on your walls so cheaply."
It's a message that runs right through the Art Vinyl Awards, where industry experts nominate their favourites before the public decides via an online poll. In second place, Jenny Saville is a Young British Artist whose Lucien Freud-esque paintings are much admired by Charles Saatchi. The photographer Rankin also joins the party, on Jarvis Cocker's Further Complications album, while another modish photographer and filmmaker, Anton Corbijn, designed Depeche Mode's most recent release.
Such fashionable names would seem to suggest that the record sleeve is actually in rather rude health. However, Heeps does admit that it's really only the continued interest record collectors have in buying vinyl - that romantic notion of putting the needle on the record - which is keeping the idea of the album cover as a thought-provoking, sizeable artwork alive. So has he seen the quality of the sleeves fall as vinyl becomes more and more marginalised and downloads take over?
"Not really," he argues. "The album cover is still an important part of the process of getting music out there. The band's identity really does become associated with the sleeve of that particular release they're promoting. They might be covers that most people see as a very small image on iTunes these days, but they end up on T-shirts, posters, even become the backdrops at gigs. " So perhaps the debate about the death of cover art might have to wait a few years. Surely, though, the days are long gone when a Smiths fan would rush home with his new copy of Strangeways, Here We Come and pore over the sleeve on his lap as he listened to the music?
"Oh yes," Heeps agrees. "In this day and age music has become a commodity just like any other. The activity has changed from, as you say, having that record on your lap, to having it on in the background as you sip a cup of coffee and read the Sunday papers. So what we're championing is this way of bringing the two back together. I think throughout history, art and music have always been associated."
Ironically, the very week Art Vinyl announced its poll, the Royal Mail released a new set of stamps in the UK - featuring album covers from the past 40 years. Everything from Let It Bleed to Primal Scream's Screamadelica and Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head was chosen. So just as Art Vinyl is encouraging people to think bigger than their iTunes virtual postage stamp, the Royal Mail was producing them on, well, postage stamps.
"The timing was quite funny," laughs Heeps. "But they made some fine choices - I have London Calling by The Clash on my own wall." Of course, Heeps has not stuck a stamp on the wall - it's the full-sized sleeve in one of his company's frames. But even the man who won the Art Vinyl Award this year, the Muse cover designer Scot Bendall, has to admit a depressing reality: most people won't enjoy his work that way.
"Though it is very important to us that a sleeve has some sort of presence even at thumbnail size," says Bendall, who works for La Boca Design, "it still has to be recognisable. But Andrew's right. Seeing covers at this size can lead to the artwork losing much of its connection with the music, and leave the sleeve feeling quite separate from the sounds it's supposed to represent." But it's not all doom and gloom. Bendall is looking forward to a time when digital packaging will be more advanced than it is currently (if you download the new Vampire Weekend album, the accompanying "digital booklet" is essentially 13 pages of dull PDFs), with graphics and videos integrated more fully with the music files.
"You have to hope that this will once again allow us to create a visual and emotional connection between the listener and the music, much in the same way as the battered vinyl sleeve did for past generations," he says. But there's still one crucial question. Do people still buy albums based on what the sleeve looks like, as perhaps they used to? As I did back in 1991 with the brilliantly colourful sleeve for Screamadelica that somehow suggested more about the music inside than any snippet about Primal Scream's new direction I might have heard on the radio.
"Well, when you've got choices, when you've got that £15 to spend and two records in your hand, personally I think I'd go for the one with the pretty sleeve," says Heeps. "You get more pleasure from your record purchasing that way." For Heeps and Bendall, the pleasure is visual, as well as aural. View the full top 50 list at www.artvinyl.com.