Don’t judge a book by its cover. Well, we all do it anyway but the same could be said about album covers. The 19th-century Tin Pan Alley period is credited for introducing the world to popular music, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the front packaging of a commercially released album became as memorable as the actual music inside of it. According to the New York Times, American graphic design artist Alex Steinweiss was hired by Columbia Records as their advertising manager and became the originator of artistic album covers. Steinweiss’ original concept of the modern day album cover completely changed the music industry.
While there’s certainly been some great artwork to come from albums released over the last 75 years, there’s also been some controversial designs. From Guns’N’Roses’ original cover art for Appetite for Destruction to Tool’s original artwork for their sophomore album Undertow, some albums show a bit too much freedom in the creativity department. Album artwork should compliment the themes and sounds of the music produced inside without completely distracting the audience.
With the rise of digital music, album covers have become a bit of a lost art. The aesthetic value certainly depreciates when you compare looking at a JPEG on your smartphone to an authentic LP vinyl record. But, whether it’s a marketing tool or a creative expression, the cover has become an important part of the listening experience. Whether it’s politics, social issues or artistic expression, these ten album covers won us over by challenging the idea that one should not predetermine the worth or value of something simply based on its outward appearance.
Honorable mentions to Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures, N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton, Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here and Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.
10. A Tribe Called Quest – Low End Theory
The Low End Theory was released by American hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest in 1991. The album artwork was reportedly inspired by an old Ohio Players’ album covers featuring a variety of sensual images of women. The Low End Theory’s unforgettable cover features the silhouette of a naked woman painted with neon body paints. Tribe’s sophomore album was a huge success as one of the first albums to fuse hip hop with a laid-back jazz vibe while touching on everything from consumerism to social issues. As for the beautiful woman on the cover, she returned two years later looking slightly different on the cover of Tribe’s third and final album, Midnight Marauders.
9. Led Zeppelin (I), Led Zeppelin
45 years ago, Led Zeppelin debuted Led Zeppelin I setting a high standard for all future hard rock albums. Released in early 1969, Zeppelin’s front cover features a photograph of the LZ 129 Hindenberg, a German commercial airship that caught fire and crashed in the 1930’s. This album brought us classics like “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” that quickly put Led Zeppelin on the map. However, honorable mention must be credited to Houses of the Holy album cover, which was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction novel Childhood’s End.
8. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
American rock band The Velvet Underground released their debut album in 1967. According to Rolling Stone, the iconic banana, courtesy of infamous pop artist Andy Warhol, is so well-known that the album is actually often referred to as the Banana Album. At first, early copies featured a peel-off sticker revealing a flesh-like banana. Nico, a German vocalist added to the band by manager Andy Warhol, came together with The Velvet Underground to collaborate on one of the greatest albums of all time.
7. The Roots – Things Fall Apart
American hip-hop group The Roots released their fourth studio album with 5 different covers available to purchase for a limited time in 1999. The most famous cover (above) released was taken from the Civil Rights Movement and quickly became the most common artwork featured on the cover of the album. Two African-American children are seen running through the streets absolutely terrified by the police force behind them in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The other covers featured an homage to Mob boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, a burned down church, a baby sitting in rubble in Shanghai’s South Railway Station and a crying young boy in Baidoa, Somalia. With the 15th anniversary having just passed in February of this year, Things Fall Apart remains a major catalyst for The Roots and underground music.
6. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
American rap metal band Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album featured the infamous photograph of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in Saigon in 1963. The album was released in the United States in November of 1992 to critical and commercial success as a politically-charged album. According to Rolling Stone, singer Zack de la Rocha‘s radical politics and guitarist Tom Morello‘s epic guitar made this album unlike anything anyone had heard since MC5 and The Clash. Honorable mention: The Battle of Los Angeles (1999).
5. The Clash – London Calling
Voted best album of the 1980’s by Rolling Stone, London Calling was the third studio album released by English punk rock band, The Clash. The album hit the UK charts a little over a week before Christmas 1979 and was released in the US a month later. The artwork on the cover could be considered as symbolism for the ultimate rock-n-roll moment. Out of control. The recurring subjects of unemployment, racial conflict, drug use, and the responsibilities of adulthood throughout the album reflect the cover photographed by Pennie Smith and designed by Ray Lowry. The photograph was an homage to the design of Elvis Presley’s debut album.
4. The Beatles – Abbey Road
First issued in 1969, Abbey Road was the last album the British pop band ever recorded. The simple photograph features the band walking single file on a crosswalk outside of the studio. The image has sparked controversy when fans noticed that Paul McCartney was barefoot and out of step from the rest of the band questioning a secret meaning or symbolism. Regardless, it’s a classic photograph to cover a great album that brought the world “Her Majesty,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Come Together” and “The End.”
3. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
English progressive rock band Pink Floyd released their eighth studio album The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. Recorded at London’s Abbey Road, the album was an instant success and is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time. According to Billboard.com, the album holds the record for most consecutive weeks — over 800 — charted on the Billboard 200. With a great album, came a great cover and the prism sleeve designed by Storm Thorgerson is bold and simple.
2. Nirvana – Nevermind
Nirvana’s sophomore album was released to surprise success in 1991. Nevermind came at a time when the music charts were being dominated by the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Metallica before Nirvana completely flipped mainstream music on its back. As significant as this album was in popular culture, the cover is the most iconic album artwork of the last 25 years. According to the Huffington Post, the infamous naked baby photo was actually a “fluke.” The band’s original concept was to photograph an underwater birth but they couldn’t find a suitable shot so their Austin-based photographer, Kirk Weddle, had another idea. Weddle’s friends in SoCal were willing to use their four-month old baby boy for 2 takes at an underwater photo shoot. Finally, Nirvana had a cover. There was initial controversy over showing the infant’s uncircumcised penis that Cobain reportedly would only compromise on if a sticker was placed on the cover stating “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” Fortunately, the sticker was left out.
1. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The eighth studio album from the famous British rock band was released in the summer of 1967. Sgt. Pepper was an instant success, both critically and commercially. The album artwork was designed by English pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and it featured the Beatles — as the fictional Sgt. Pepper band — in front of a cut-out collage of famous celebrities and historical figures. The only people still living from the cover are Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dion DiMucci and Bob Dylan. The Beatles reportedly spent over 700 hours working on this album and it clearly paid off tenfold. The album spent 15 weeks at number one the American Billboard 200.