Album Covers: What Should They Include?
The cover of an album should give you a sense of how the album sounds. Although it seems odd, the artwork on a record can often affect one’s perception of the music within – either subconsciously or explicitly. Some of the best album covers of all time are made in a way for us to understand the music within, through the image of their cover.
It could be an elaborate piece of commissioned art. There may be just the right kind of moment captured in the picture. No matter what the sleeves look like, we know a great one when we see it because it ties our emotions to it.
Of course, just because an album is hugely popular doesn’t necessarily mean it has a legendary cover. For example, when it comes to listing the most iconic album covers of all time, Michael Jackson won’t make the cut since his album covers are just that: extremely popular. This kind of topic is meant to spur discussion, so let’s get into the “most iconic album covers of all time.” What made them legendary and why do you still love them?
1. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin (1969)
When Led Zeppelin released their debut album cover, it was shocking.
This now-famous band got its start with George Hardie’s ink drawing of the Hindenburg airship (adapted from a photo taken by Sam Shere in 1937).
It was brave to include an image from the Hinderburg disaster. It makes you wonder, would something this controversial be well received today? There’s no way to know for sure.
It’s now been revealed that Hardie (who was paid $76 to create this now-famous drawing) wished he’d thought more about his choice of image.
2. Pink Floyd: Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
It’s another iconic cover for an iconic album. The dark background contrasts with white light passing through a prism to create bright colors that are reflected on the other side.
This cover was conceptualized by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (who also created Led Zeppelin’s House of the Holy artwork), and it was executed by George Hardie.
In one of their many brainstorming sessions that lasted until early in the morning, they came up with this cover.
It’s on t-shirts and posters everywhere and has become an icon for Pink Floyd and one of the best album covers of all time. Even though the band didn’t do much promotion, their album was a smashing success.
3. The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)
It shouldn’t surprise you that this Beatles album made our list. This is a classic for a reason. A classic album musically, but also a classic in terms of artwork.
A famous photo of the Beatles walking down London’s Abbey Road was captured by photographer Iain Macmillan.
A lot of people consider the Beatles the biggest band ever; they totally started the boy band craze. They’re responsible for the notoriety boy bands have today, like One Direction and the Backstreet Boys.
4. The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready To Die (1994)
The Notorious B.I.G.’s album cover was the start of a remarkable career for the then-22-year-old.
A strong cultural impact has been made with this album, which shows his lyrical prowess. East Coast hip-hop is said to have gotten a big boost from Biggie’s album.
It’s a stark blank canvas with a small child wearing only a diaper that represents innocence, new life, and vulnerability. Everything leads back to the album’s concept: the life cycle of an artist.
Here’s a fun fact: that kid on the cover turned 29 this year.
5. Prince: Purple Rain (1984)
In the mid-80s and throughout the decade, Purple Rain was an unavoidable image (and album), introducing Prince as an enigmatic figure who could disappear into the night at will, all Little Richard pompadour and a wry smile, as if in on a joke that nobody else could ever figure out.
Previously, Ed Thrasher snapped Jimi Hendrix on a motorbike (a shot that appeared on South Saturn Delta, the posthumous compilation album). Moreover, if you look closely, you’ll see a sign of androgyny on the bike, which later echoed Prince’s “Love Symbol.”
6. Nirvana: Nevermind (1991)
Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of their best-selling albums, and you’ll recognize the iconic cover.
The baby on the cover is a representation of innocence, just like the baby on the Notorious B.I.G. album. His reaching for money is a symbol of the superficial values we pass on to children in our society, just like Nirvana.
A water birth program allegedly inspired Kurt Cobain, the band’s frontman, to come up with the concept.
It wasn’t expected that Nevermind would be so big. It’s just the right album cover for Nirvana’s energy.
7. The Velvet Underground and Nico: The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
There’s no denying this classic design by Andy Warhol is one of the most memorable. As well as managing the band, Warhol designed the artwork for the album cover.
The album cover of this album might even be regarded as more famous than the actual album itself in some circles. Upon its release, the album didn’t exactly go straight to the top. The album was a major flop, so the band broke up and fired Warhol.
A lot of people recognize this album (and its cover) as one of the best-known albums in the history of music.
Peeling back the banana revealed a flesh-colored banana – very phallic, very Velvet Underground.
8. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971)
This cover perfectly captures the Rolling Stones’ music and persona. It was the first album released on the Rolling Stones Records label, which was their own record label.
This album’s artwork was designed by Andy Warhol (who also designed the Velvet Underground album cover). This design was created by Craig Braun and the photography was done by Billy Name.
The original cover design for this album included a working zipper that opened to reveal a pair of white boxer briefs. This feature is very reminiscent of the Velvet Underground album that Warhol also designed.
Notably, this was the first album that featured the iconic tongue and lips logo that later became the central icon for the band.
9. Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956)
One of the most iconic album covers in music history is Elvis Presley’s self-titled LP. This was Elvis Presley’s first studio album, and its striking cover set the tone for everything that followed.
On the left and bottom are big block letters saying “Elvis” and “Presley”, respectively, next to a photo of a young Elvis Presley playing guitar.
It was originally credited to photographer Popsie Randolph. This one-of-a-kind photo was actually taken by William V. (Red) Robertson at a concert in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 1955, according to biographer Joseph Tunzi.
The Clash recreated this graphic design on their classic London Calling album in 1979.
10. The Roots: Things Fall Apart (1999)
The majority of hip-hop album covers at the beginning of the Millennium were not a suitable medium for social commentary. They were still somewhat of an underground act at the time, but that was about to change with the release of their seminal album and provocative cover.
In the Philly outfit’s album, five photos of famous failures in society were featured, from the murder of a mafia boss to a burning church, a baby crying in the rubble after WWII in Shanghai to Somalia’s famine in the 90s, and a riot in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in the 60s, showing the police chasing two women.
The Roots’ previous covers featured the band, but Things Fall Apart took an important step toward social activism.
11. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
In the spring of 1966, the Beach Boys released their eleventh long-play record, Pet Sounds, which charted at #10 on the Billboard 200.
At a San Diego Zoo petting paddock, Carl, Brian, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine are shown feeding goats apple pieces. George Jerman, the band’s photographer, took the picture on February 10, 1966.
It is unclear why the band chose the name Pet Sounds. There are some who believe it is a tribute to the band’s promoter Phil Specter (P.S.) and others who believe it is because all five members have unique vocal styles and harmonies.
According to rumor, the band did not exactly endear themselves to the San Diego Zoo staff on the day of the photoshoot.
An article in the Los Angeles Times published in 1966 claimed the band was mistreating the goats at the zoo. On the other hand, the band claimed the goats didn’t behave.
12. The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Smiths released The Queen is Dead as their third studio album in June 1986. The single peaked at number two after spending twenty-two weeks on the UK chart.
An image from the 1964 noir film The Unvanquished is used on the cover of the album, which depicts French actor Alain Delon. As he revealed in his autobiography, the offer came with one caveat: “I told them my parents were upset after hearing a record called “The Queen is Dead.” The request was ignored.
As part of the Smiths’ practice, actors appeared on the band’s sleeves frequently. For instance, it pays homage to actor James Dean in Big Mouth Strikes Again. A scene from Richard Bradford’s 1960s television series Man in a Suitcase appears in the song Panic, in which he is seen riding a motorbike.
13. The Clash: London Calling (1979)
The Clash’s “London Calling” is a sprawling punk record that includes unapologetically political messages while also flexing and stretching the boys’ abilities.
A perfect illustration of their energy can be found on the album cover, where bassist Paul Simonon smashes his guitar right on stage. Joe Strummer and designer Ray Lowry disagreed with photographer Pennie Smith’s initial assessment that the image was not usable.
What about the big colorful lettering? Taking inspiration from Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut, the album uses the exact same aesthetic. Taking inspiration from rock’s past and rewriting its future at the same time? In our opinion, it adds an extra dimension to this genius album cover.
14. Neil Young: On the Beach (1974)
It’s one of the most intriguing front shots in Neil Young’s vast catalog. On the Beach’s artwork has been described as surrealistic and meticulous, right down to the pattern on the inside of the jacket’s sleeves. This pattern matches the inside of the beach umbrella.
A design by Gary Burden, a photograph by Bob Seiderman, and graphic lettering by Rick Griffin.
In a yellow jacket that matches the umbrella, the shoeless Neil Young stares into the ocean. In keeping with the yellow theme, a Coors beer can is on a table, and a seemingly out-of-place handwritten note has prompted fans to try and figure out a hidden message.
A newspaper whose headline reads “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign” gives a hint as to Young’s political ideals and his feelings about the President of the United States at the time.
15. The Ramones: Ramones (1976)
Ramones, the debut studio album by The Ramones, was released by Sire Records on April 23, 1976.
Bandmates Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee Ramone are pictured in black and white, wearing faded blue jeans and leather jackets while looking blankly at the camera. Their backs are against the outside brick wall of Albert’s Garden, a private community garden in New York City’s Bowery district.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the original plan for the album. The Sire label and art director Toni Wadler were not pleased with the cover, which was originally intended to be like Meet the Beatles (1964). As a result, Roberta Bayley’s now-iconic photograph of the “brick wall” was selected instead.
This isn’t a contest for the greatest album covers of all time, but a selection of great ones selected by us. We will attempt to cover as many legendary covers as possible by making additional parts.