23 Album Covers that Changed Everything

Written by Mangesh

There are several reasons I loved working on the Saints and Sinners Issue. It’s the only magazine I’ve ever seen with Madonna and Gandhi elbowing for cover space, it’s the first issue we ever got the fantastic authors John Green and Michael Stusser to write for, and it had this piece by Chris Smith. It’s just 23 quick notes on 23 important album covers, but it’s one of my favorites. Enjoy!

wearing their art on_their sleeves:
23 album covers that changed everything by Chris Smith

Long before MTV, performers expressed the visual dimension of their art through their album covers. Every music fan has his/her favorites, but several covers stand out for their brilliance, their impact and their ability to make as much of a statement as the music they represent. Every art form has its giants, and album cover art is no exception. The work of the designers featured here spans over 40 years of music.
THE SIXTIES: Before the 1960s, most albums featured portraits of musicians, instruments or musicians playing instruments. But the 1960’s spirit of exploration and experimentation found its way into music and, consequently, onto album covers.

1967 The Beatles, Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

sgt_pepper.jpgThe Beatles’ album covers act as a kind of scrapbook for their mythmaking career: a serious With the Beatles, a hippie-esque Rubber Soul, a stripped down The White Album, and a funeral procession on Abbey Road. Each is a testament to the band’s creativity and insight into their culture. Yet no single album cover defines its era and its artists more than 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As with any good cult artifact, stories built around the album: Was Paul McCartney dead? (No.) Are the figures cardboard cutouts? (Yes.) Are those pot plants? (No.) The album was also legendarily difficult to execute-securing the faces of the band’s heroes and influences, from Alistair Crowley to guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-was a logistical nightmare. Finding photographs of everyone, blowing them up to specifications and tinting them with color all turned out to be well worth the effort, however. The album became the single most recognizable (and, according to many, the greatest) album cover of all time.

1965 Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream & Other Delights

herbf.jpgThis concept album pushed the 1960s envelope all the way to the fridge. Every song on the album is named for some kind of food, something the cover model seems to be enjoying in a more than metaphorical way. This was Herb Albert’s most successful album, but whether the songs or cover sold the album has yet to be determined.

1969 Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa

2031738.jpgIt’s an iconic example of psychedelic art by one of the giants of the genre, graphic artist and California surfer, Rick Griffin. The band met Griffin backstage after a concert and fell in love with his style. In fact, they were so sure of his talent that they gave him total artistic freedom for the cover. Griffin also designed the first masthead for Rolling Stone.

1967 The Doors, Strange Days

51VV3VKNQML._AA240_.jpgWith this album, The Doors touched on the decade’s surrealism with a Fellini-esque circus, but still escaped the psychedelia that typified its generation. The cover’s zoo of characters were a mix of professionals, amateurs and friends. The juggler is the photographer’s assistant. The trumpet player in the background was a cab driver who agreed to pose for $5 right before the image was shot.

1969 Blind Faith, Blind Faith

410FJRY7ARL._AA240_1.jpgBy the end of the decade, idealism had given way to cynicism, yet this album offered a strange vision of hope. A maiden in the nude, holding a silver spaceship matted onto a pastoral setting, forms a metaphorical union of innocence and achievement, life and knowledge, uncharacteristic of the decade that spawned it.

THE SEVENTIES: The stylistic fragmentation of the 1960s continued in the 1970s. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Led Zeppelin claimed music-and their respective album covers-were definitely a trip.

1971 The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers

41D56JD6YEL._AA240_.jpgRock n’ roll is sometimes used as a euphemism for sex, so it’s no wonder that the crotch has been the centerpiece of countless album covers. Yet, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is the most famous and innovative example.

Sticky Fingers stands out as the best album cover of the decade. The cover features an Andy Warhol photograph of a well-endowed young man (contrary to legend, it was not Mick Jagger). A working zipper on the man’s pants could be opened to reveal another shot of the model, this time in his skivvies. The zipper left its mark on the album cover genre. Unfortunately, it also left its mark on the record itself (right in the middle of “Sister Morphine”).

1973 Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

e90917w9hct.jpgThe classic simplicity of the prism on Dark Side is partly derived from a textbook illustration designed to show how light passes through a prism to form a spectrum. In a science book, however, a prism spectrum has seven colors. The album cover only has six; they got rid of indigo simply because it looked too much like purple.

1977 Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols

g40130e1tkg.jpgNothing sums up the punk ethos better than this album. Like the record itself, the cover resembles a ransom note (actually designed with cut-up newspaper bits), boldly proclaiming the Pistols had stolen the music industry’s thunder ? and didn’t plan on giving it back. The album was first refused in record shops because of the word “bollocks,” and the issue was later taken up in court.

1979 Supertramp, Breakfast in America

f32520v6fj8.jpgThis album reflects the English band’s move to the United States and the cynicism that went along with it. A view of the Manhattan skyline, uncannily recreated with salt shakers, creamers, coffee mugs, egg cartons, napkin dispensers and silverware, stands behind a friendly waitress named Libby who offers you a tall glass of OJ-all through your airplane window. Good morning, indeed.

1979 The Clash, London Calling

d95264o1973.jpgPunk thrust a rusted safety pin into the nostril of the bloated music industry with this one. London Calling juxtaposed the concept of a 1956 Elvis album with a blurry image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass. Incidentally, during the shoot, he smashed his watch in the process. That’s the price you pay for ripping on Elvis.

THE EIGHTIES: The 1980s offered an interesting contrast: Musically, the decade was both an extension of the excesses of the 1970s and a reaction to it. So what was the product of this conflict? The ability to stir up some controversy.

1988 Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking

1927.jpgThis album was shocking in every way. A pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip and shoulder (actually plaster sculptures built by lead singer Perry Ferrell himself) sit naked on a love seat, their heads on fire.

According to Ferrell, it’s harder to get big flames burning on plaster twins than one might think. Nine national record chains refused to stock the album.

1980 Gamma, Gamma 2

f55492e9yd5.jpgThis cover perfectly illustrates the fear that 1980’s punk rock brought into the otherwise serene suburbs of America. Originally, the pair of feet in the bottom right corner of the cover were only those of a woman, but Electra Records felt the image might seem inflammatory to certain female customers. At the last minute, a pair of male feet were added to the cover.

1988 Prince, Lovesexy

f61458f9n0i.jpgWhile heavy metal and punk were making waves in music during the 1980s, Prince pushed the envelope in a different direction. Celebrating both sexual freedom and ambiguity, Prince combined a feminine pose with overt phallic imagery. Believe it or not, the shot was spontaneous: the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino suggested Prince go nude just before the session.

1983 Def Leppard, Pyromania

c33511kk8d2.jpgThis album made Tipper Gore’s “filthy fifteen” list when she crusaded against “porn-rock” in the mid-1980s. By organizing the Parents’ Music Resource Center, she encouraged the Recording Industry Association of America to adopt an explicit content labeling policy to protect minors.

THE NINETIES AND BEYOND: By the 1990s the CD had replaced the old vinyls of yesterday. While the classic square shape was back, the smaller size meant designers didn’t have as much space with which to work. Time will tell what images from the 1990s will stake their claim as classics. Some are immediate standouts.

1991 Metallica, Metallica

alb263.jpgThe rock band reflects their stripped-down sound with this none-more-black cover, known to fans simply as “the black album.” The album marked the band’s transition from heavy metal to mainstream.

1990 Pixies, Bossanova

Pixies_Bossanova_large.jpgThe Pixies took their listeners to another world with Bossanova, mixing the old with the new and the new with the kitsch and retro. Pixies’ vocalist Frank Black claims he saw a UFO as a child and was always infatuated with outer space. In fact, the band’s founding members decided to form the band while on a trip to New Zealand to see Halley’s Comet.

1996 Beck, Odelay

images7.jpgOne of the decade’s strangest covers comes, fittingly, from one of its strangest artists. Beck’s album shows a Komondor, (a Hungarian sheepdog with a dreadlock-like coat), leaping over a hurdle. It’s almost impossible to tell it’s a dog, but it’s even harder to forget.

1997 Prodigy, Fat of the Land

4d4e224b9da00f3409a3c010._AA240_.L.jpgThe rise of electronica brought acts like Prodigy to the fore, which featured a crab with brandished claws, symbolic of their aggressive beats and attitudes. The image was chosen at the last minute as an illustration of the album title: a crab coming out of the sea to enjoy the bounty of the land.


Andy Warhol: 1967 The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

f86637hbo58.jpgDespite what it insinuates on the cover, the album’s title is not Andy Warhol. Rather, the then-unknown The Velvet Underground used their well-known album artist’of Warhol’s name created a persistent myth about The Velvets. Everybody thought Andy Warhol was the lead guitarist.”

Reid Miles: 1962 Freddie Hubbard, Hub-Tones

f87257icfkw.jpgReid Miles produced almost 500 graphically striking covers for Blue Note Records jazz acts like Freddie Hubbard. Apparently, Blue Note often didn’t have the budget to print full-color album covers, so Miles was confined to using two colors. With his creativity and resourcefulness though, you’d never know.

Neon Park XIII: 1970 The Mothers of Invention, Weasels Ripped My Flesh

f07169ewhes.jpgA painter, whose name is as colorful as his work, Park produced quirky paintings for Little Feat and the Beach Boys, and the infamous Weasels Ripped My Flesh for Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention. This one was based on an ad for an electric shaver from a 1950s Life magazine.

Roger Dean: 1973 Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans

c85091rj7bo.jpgInfluenced by John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis-which argues the entire earth is connected via a single prehistoric ancient culture-and by P. Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Dean imagined otherworldly dreamscapes for prog-rock groups like Yes and Asia. In 1970, Dean also designed the first logo for a new record label, Virgin.

Hipgnosis (A British design pair led by Storm Thorgerson): 1975 Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

e423395we8t.jpgHipgnosis produced widespread cover art, including Led Zepellin’s Houses of the Holy and over 20 Pink Floyd covers. In Wish You Were Here, the burning man shaking hands actually is on fire. At the photo shoot, the stunt man wore an asbestos suit and a wig, then doused himself with gasoline and lit a match.

From “Nevemind” to “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” to “On the Corner”, we definitely left a lot off the list. Be sure to tell us which ones we should have included in the comments below.

29 thoughts on “23 Album Covers that Changed Everything

  1. mme

    I am suprised that Patti Smith’s “Horses” cover is not displayed here. That cover has become a symbol in aritstic independance and her sticking her tongue out at the producers (and society) who wanted her to dress sexy and wear make-up. Of course she refused. This audacious move sky rockted her into the seat where she is today, as the Priestess of Rock and in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. As far as that cover changing everything, I think it sent quite a shockwave out into the rock world and made a statement that women don’t have to be sex objects to rock and roll.

  2. James Clark

    Gotta throw Nirvana’s Nevermind cover in there. Baby floating in a pool getting lured but a fish hook with a dollar bill. Says so much of where the grunge genre came from. Plus the album blew apart the rock scene.

  3. Tom Whitmore

    Pink Floyd got two covers, both by Hipgnosis: which says more about Thorgerson than about the band (whose albums from this period I deeply love). They’re the only record cover designers that I ever wrote a fan letter to; and I cherish the very nice response I got from Thorgerson. I’d guess they probably didn’t get a whole lot of fan letters….

    I honestly think there are earlier albums that need to be included: something out of “The Firehouse Five Plus Two” catalog (much of the band was Disney animators); probably some early Elvis, whose albums I’m not personally familiar with; the first Yma Sumac album; and many more.

    And even further back — what was the first album of 78 RPM records with a pictorial cover? Albums used to be compilations of disks that lasted a bit longer than a single: and before there were such collections, most of the records have plain brown paper covers with a space for one to be able to read the label. That one changed the world more than any of the ones you list!

  4. Izabael DaJinn

    Even though this was a fun read, the list is rather arbitrary. I have many issues besides the ones in the comments before mine:

    No Led Zeppelin covers except for a brief passing mention?

    And no mention whatsoever of Black Sabbath? What about the cover of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath? HELLLO?

    What about Tool’s innovative album covers?

    What about Abbey Road?

    What about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or their self-titled. These are still influencing album covers today–i.e. pretty much every White Stripes cover.

    Other mentions, any of the good Bowie covers, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, one of the cool Kiss covers, Axis: Bold as Love, and OK Computer.

    How about a rap album to represent? Maybe Straight Outta Compton. (I’m not on firm ground discussing rap, but it seems like this album cover is still influencing rap album design.)

    Oh, and no mention of Iron Maiden? Eddie Iron Maiden is going to climb out of his grave and eat you.

    And as far as Metallica covers, Master of Puppets is better. “Black album” is just a rip off of Spinal Tap.

    This is going on forever. I should just write my own blog with my own choices ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. JW

    If you’re gonna throw in information about the bands check and make sure it’s correct. I don’t know about all of the info here but the Pixies info is horribly wrong. Writing “the band?s founding members decided to form the band while on a trip to New Zealand to see Halley?s Comet” is completely wrong. Charles Thompson was going to go to NZ to see the comet but decided to go back to the US to start a band with Joey Santiago after corresponding with him while in Latin America.

  6. Bill

    The list is incomplete without these 90s classics:

    Nirvana – Nevermind
    R.E.M. – Automatic for the People
    Blur – Parklife

    Honourable mentions to The Stone Roses’ debut and Radiohead’s The Bends.

  7. AustinPheiffer

    I think this list might have slowly fallen off-course from the projected topic of “Album Covers that Changed The World” and ended up as a list of “Popular/new/crazy Albums That Maybe Had Cool/Funky Covers”.

    Also, I would have liked to see credit given to the people who designed these “world-changing” covers, not just the musicians (i’m not understating their role at all, though).

    That being said, it is a sweet list, but that sweetness is in the albums for some, the covers for others.

    Rage Against the Machine
    ?Evil Empire
    ^^^Both ridiculously well-designed and thought-out covers.

    Also, check out Milton Glaser’s (renowned graphic designer and illustrator) work for Bob Dylan.

  8. Michelle

    LOL Andy Warhol the lead guitar player of the Velvet Underground :p .
    Very interesting list and even more interesting details about them ๐Ÿ˜‰ Especially about that trumpet player on Strange Days.

  9. Sean Tyszler

    What abot Tool’s 10,000 Days. You can view the artwork in 3-D with the glasses provided on the album cover?

  10. Jeffrey Scales

    Just a correction; I (With Mick Haggerty) made the photograph for the record Gamma, Gamma 2, 1980

    What was added at the last minute was not “a pair of male feet”, but a man’s arm with the female feet on the chaize lounge. The whole chaize was re-photographed and stripped in mechanically.

    Jeffrey Scales, 2011

    Gamma, Gamma 2, 1980

    ‘This cover perfectly illustrates the fear that 1980?s punk rock brought into the otherwise serene suburbs of America. Originally, the pair of feet in the bottom right corner of the cover were only those of a woman, but Electra Records felt the image might seem inflammatory to certain female customers. At the last minute, a pair of male feet were added to the cover.”

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  12. Sean

    I think you forgot several very well known album covers, consisting of, 1st. Abbey Road,2nd. Nevermind, Nirvana,3rd. Pink Floyd, The Wall. But other than that, pretty well writen and thought out list

  13. Fred Read

    Hi, I’m looking for an album cover pic from the 50’s or 60’s that has a picador on the cover. Not sure if the album is Decca,RCA or other???? It has Toreador music,some Flamenco,possibly Andalucia also. Any help in finding this album pic will be appreciated, Thanks, Fred

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