There are certain album covers that stick out in our memories. The artwork, the photos, the…zippers. We hang them on our walls, tape them back together year after year, and wear out the records inside.
But which ones are the best album covers ever? That’s a matter of opinion, but here are some of the contenders.
Dark Side of the Moon
The 1973, 8th album from Pink Floyd is forever recognizable. The band’s graphic designer, Storm Thorgerson, normally did photographs for album cover art. He pitched a cover that would show the Silver Surfer as a woman, but the band rejected it. So he decided to something different than usual, and looked to the Pink Floyd light shows for inspiration. As for the triangle?
“The triangle, which is a symbol of thought and ambition, was very much a subject of Roger’s lyrics.” Storm says in an interview. Combined with the light, “The prism belonged to the Floyd.”
The Beatles 11th album (1969) features an iconic, and often recreated image of the band. Originally the album was going to be called Everest, and they were going to fly over the mountain in a private plane and take a picture. When time became an issue, Paul McCartney suggested they just go outside, take a picture, and name the album after the street. They only had ten minutes and took 6 shots, ultimately choosing #5, the perfectly in-step image. You can see candid outtake photos of the fab four from the shoot.
Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin‘s fifth album (1973) made a lasting impression in many ways, including with the eerie photo on the cover. It was shot in Ireland and inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. The children on the cover were rumored to be Robert Plant’s kids, but that isn’t the case. To read more about who they were and where they are now, read our other blog about people on classic album covers. Led Zeppelin I is also an incredible cover, featuring the Hindenburg burning.
Born in the U.S.A.
Bruce Springsteen captured Americana in one much-imitated image. His seventh album was released in 1984 and involved songs about his hometown , so the workin’ man against an American flag was perfect. The album encapsulated ‘heartland rock.’ Rumours were it depicts him urinating on the flag, which The Boss denies.
“The picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face,” He told Rolling Stone. “That’s what went on the cover. I didn’t have any secret message. I don’t do that very much.” Pure and simple, it’s a classic for a reason.
Back in Black
AC/DC were in mourning when they made their first album without lead singer, Bon Scott. After Scott’s death, they disbanded, but after encouragement from fans and Scott’s parents, AC/DC reformed, with new lead vocalist Brian Johnson, and made this album as a tribute to their former bandmate in 1980. The stark, respectful cover speaks volumes with one title and colour.
The Clash cover strikes an instant mood. The black and white guitar smashing photo and Elvis-inspired lettering combined what ‘old-school’ music was with the new wave of aggressive punk. Photographer Pennie Smith took the photo in mid-smash, not knowing how famous her image would become. Paul Simonon was pissed off and smashed the guitar because he didn’t feel a good energy from The Palladium (New York City on 21 September 1979). Later, looking through her photos Joe Strummer saw this shot and said “That one.” Pennie has later said she almost didn’t go to this show- she’s likely glad she did. We all are.
Van Halen released their sixth studio album with a controversial cover. The smoking putti (baby angel) had stickers placed over the cigarettes in the UK. More info about the making of the cover, and who the real baby was, is also in our people on classic album covers blog. Fun fact: the baby was photographed with candy smokes, then the image was painted over. The image is memorable and creative, and the music on the album was the best-selling Van Halen made. The single “Jump” and the song “Panama” are on the album.
Their first album didn’t take off like they wanted, so Queen agreed to try an eye-catching photo for the cover of their second (1974). They hired Mick Rock, who had created “glam” images with Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. He wanted them to be in a diamond shape, heads tilted like Easter Island statues. The cover, he claimed made them look like a bigger deal than they were- as big a deal as they deserved to be. The image became the poster image for Queen when it was reused in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols only released this one studio album, and made a sudden impact. The cover is like their sound- aggressive and unpolished. It grabs your attention. With songs like “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen” the band received backlash, which is just what they wanted. The album’s use of “profanity” led to intense censorship attempts. The phrase came from two fans who Steve Jones overheard saying it to each other, to say “forget about the rubbish.” ‘Bollocks’ is actually an old English word loosely meaning ‘priest.’
The censorship ruling? “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits, we must reluctantly find you not guilty…” The words used in the verdict must have been music to Johnny Rotten‘s ears.
The Rolling Stones wanted to do something original for their ninth studio album (1971). The suggestive cover featured a working zipper that opened to reveal white briefs. The cover was banned in Spain and oddly changed to an arguably more disturbing image. Designer, Craig Braun (in an interview with the NY Times) said the original shipments of the US albums (stacked together) dented the vinyl right on ‘Sister Morphine,’ so the zippers had to be slightly undone to met in the center of the albums. “I got this idea that maybe, if the glue was dry enough, we could have the little old ladies at the end of the assembly line pull the zipper down.”
The now iconic image of the lips/tongue was also introduced on this album, designed by Andy Warhol. Warhol also did the classic album cover (the banana art) for The Velvet Underground featuring Nico. The artwork was inspired by Hindi goddess, Kali’s mouth (and possibly Jagger’s own recognizable mouth). Getting the famous artist to design the album was a win, and Mick Jagger was enthused about the image. The lips/tongue has since become the ‘logo’ for the Stones.
There are MANY more that could be added to this list. One thing remains certainabout these covers; a big part of why they are iconic is because of the groundbreaking and lasting impact of the music they came with.
What are some of the covers you think are the most iconic?