The art of album covers has kind of been lost in the past few years, because technology has made them obsolete. It’s like letter writing. If you’re buying your albums from iTunes or not even considering the album at all and going straight to the songs themselves in the VEVO channel on YouTube, then there’s really no need for album cover art. Or if they do have them these days, then they’re just not inventive. It’ll be a black and white digital photograph of Ed Sheeran holding a guitar or something lame and unoriginal like that. It’s the same with movie posters. Digital photography and Photoshop have made artists lazy. Back in the day, people would paint actual artwork for an album cover. You’d go out to a record store and actually pick up a physical copy of an album and examine the artwork on the cover. You’d stare at the artwork while you were listening to the record, wondering why it was all black or what that metallic beast attacking Queen was or why John and Yoko decided to strip down for the cover of their album. Album covers used to be as ripe for artistic interpretations as anything you’ll find in the Louvre. Somewhere along the way, the art of crafting cool, interesting, thought-provoking, visually stunning album covers died a death. At least we have the ones that we have to look back on. Here are the 10 coolest album covers of all time – and the albums themselves aren’t half bad either!
Anyone looks cool smoking a cigarette – especially if they’re an angel. And so goes the cover artwork of the Van Halen album 1984, which houses some of the most famous and iconic of the band’s songs, including “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot for Teacher.” Christians fear that rock ‘n’ roll is the music of the Devil and that anybody, no matter how devout or young or wayward they are, can be corrupted by it. Van Halen combine all of those things beautifully in one single image: a baby, the most young and impressionable of all the Christians in the world, who also happens to be an angel, the symbol of Christianity and goodness and God and Heaven, who is puffing on a cigarette, the defining mark of the bad boy, and looking off into the distance with a look of James Dean coolness, listening to some Van Halen. It’s like George Carlin’s book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? – the comedian called it that, because he knew it would offend all three major religions. It’s like the band – or rather, their album cover designer, Margo Nahas – went out of their way to offend everyone who hates rock ‘n’ roll. 1984 is also important in that it was the last Van Halen album with the involvement of David Lee Roth for almost thirty years afterward.
9. Born in the USA
Bruce Springsteen, also known as “the Boss,” is the ultimate American musician. His music and his style perfectly capture the essence of Americana, and his lyrics encapsulate the struggle of the working classes. Springsteen is the quintessential voice for the American blue collar worker, and the cover art of Born in the USA reflects that excellently. He’s wearing blue jeans with a white shirt, with a belt around his waist bejewelled with Texan designs and a baseball cap sticking out of his back pocket, shot against a backdrop of the American flag – it’s the most beautifully American image that one could think of, photographed by the great Annie Leibovitz. You may wonder why Springsteen’s face isn’t on the album cover. Well, Leibovitz did take some pictures of his face for the cover, but according to Springsteen, “The picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, so that’s what went on the cover.” Sounds like a pretty good reason to us. Born in the USA is one of the best selling albums of all time, with over 30 million copies sold over the past three decades and critics calling it a reminder that “what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn’t that it was catchy or even rhythmic, but that it just plain sounded good.”
8. News of the World
The cover artwork of Queen’s News of the World album is so hauntingly beautiful that they made an entire episode of Family Guy about Stewie’s terrified reaction to it. The album itself is one of Queen’s best, as it’s home to some of their greatest and most beloved hit songs – including “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” and “Spread Your Wings.” News of the World went quadruple platinum in the American market, with over six million copies in total sold across the globe. American sci-fi artist Frank Kelly Freas designed the frightening cover art, although Freas himself was not familiar with Queen’s music at the time and was more a fan of classical tunes. And he only actually listened to them until after the design was complete, “because I thought I might just hate them,” so he didn’t want his hatred of their music to cloud his judgment – but then, as it turns out, he actually ended up liking their stuff. The album cover art is based on a previous design by Freas from the cover of an issue of Astounding Science Fiction from 1953, which saw a huge, sad-looking robot holding just one man’s corpse with the caption, “Please…fix it, Daddy?” The band got Freas to agree to change his design to include the corpses of the band members instead of just the one guy, but it’s more or less the same design. What’s great is that it works as a piece of art on its own.
7. Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine’s self titled debut album reached the number one spot on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, which is no easy feat when your music makes a lot of aggressive points against the government. In keeping with the anti-establishment style of the band, the photograph of the cover of the album has a very rich and significant history behind it. The picture was taken in Saigon in 1963 (which, notably, was the year that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated), and it depicts the martyrdom of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was protesting Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm’s government for marginalizing and pushing down the Buddhist community. Back in the ‘60s, the picture drew a lot of attention across the world – it even convinced Kennedy to pull America’s support for the Vietnamese government, which was a huge move at the height of the Vietnam War. Associated Press reporter Malcolm Browne is responsible for the picture, which Rage Against the Machine decided to appropriate for their very first album, since their tracks always make strong political statements. The album has a section labelled “Thanks for Inspiration,” which acknowledges the influence of the Black Panther Party and the IRA on the band’s politics.
6. Straight Outta Compton
This title may seem more familiar to younger audiences as the title of the 2015 biopic of the hip hop group NWA, but decades before that, it was the title of their debut album. The self proclaimed “World’s Most Dangerous Group” burst onto the scene in the late ‘80s as an early forerunner to the rap boom that would shortly follow. Straight Outta Compton was one of the first ever gangsta rap albums, and the new style is encapsulated by the image of the band members looking down at the camera ominously, dressed in the style of the streets. The bright blue sky of California makes a bold background, as it serves to juxtapose the sunny weather of Compton with its seedy criminal underbelly. The album itself is considered to be massively influential in the world of hip hop music (particularly gangsta rap), it’s been chosen for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, it’s been certified triple platinum, and it was the first hip hop album to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It got extra publicity when the FBI sent the group a letter asking them to censor their music, which they refused to do – and they became icons in the fight against police brutality and racial profiling because of it.
Nirvana’s Nevermind has one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Its image of a naked baby boy reaching for a U.S. dollar that is just out of his arm’s length as a fishhook pulls it away from him has been copied and parodied and homaged in every corner of our culture for more than twenty years now. This could be seen as a perfect visual metaphor for the capitalist rat race – we’re always chasing the almighty dollar and we’re always so close to it and we never manage to reach it. Kurt Cobain came up with the idea when he was watching a documentary on TV about water births with Dave Grohl. The fact that you can see the baby’s penis was the subject of a lot of controversy, but Cobain’s only compromise was the cover the penis with a sticker that said, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” How lovely. The album itself is important, as it introduced the grunge movement to a wider audience than ever before and made it the most prominent and popular musical style of the 1990s. It was also the first Nirvana album to enlist the services of drummer Dave Grohl, who would later go on to front the band Foo Fighters.
4. Bat Out of Hell
Bat Out of Hell was the second studio album by Meat Loaf, and by being his first to be released by a major record label, it made his name a musical institution and launched him into the murky waters of superstardom on a flying motorcycle. The cover of this album – apart from looking freaking awesome – perfectly captures the imagery that appears in your head when you’re listening to a song by Meat Loaf. He has a really epic, almost opera-like sound, but he applies it to rocking heavy metal. It’s really unique and awesome, and it’s never on display more than it is in Bat Out of Hell, the first of a series of albums of that title. The cover art sees a man riding a motorcycle out of a grave and into the sky, while a giant bat perches on a tombstone, watching him. Richard Corben is responsible for designing this awesome cover. Corben is a comic book artist who has drawn books about such iconic Marvel Comics characters as the Incredible Hulk, the Punisher, Luke Cage, and Ghost Rider. This is clear from his awesome Bat Out of Hell design, which looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a Hellboy comic or a Hellblazer comic. The album sold incredibly well, with over 43 million copies sold across the world.
3. Appetite for Destruction
The debut album of the heavy metal band Guns ‘n’ Roses to this day stands as one of the greatest albums of all time. There is scarcely a single song on there that isn’t a stone cold classic. There’s the ones that everyone loves, even if they’re not a rock fan, like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and then there’s the underrated masterpieces like “Rocket Queen” and “Nightrain” and “Mr. Brownstone,” and then there’s the aggressive hits like “Out Ta Get Me” and “You’re Crazy.” Appetite for Destruction is a perfect example of a rock album that hits all the right marks. The cover art reflects the fact that it’s the debut album, as it had a simple design featuring the band on full display, telling you: these are the guys. It’s a haunting image of the band members, depicted without skin on their faces but still hair, on a cross against a stark black background with beautifully designed banners for the band name and the album title. This artwork was designed to replace the original, which was deemed too controversial by the record label. Considering it’s a Plan B, it’s a hell of a cover.
2. The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd still stand as one of the only bands in the world to have a truly unique sound. Their blend of psychedelic and experimental sounds with some genuinely awesome rock ‘n’ roll is what made them the leading musical voice of the 1960s prog rock scene. The Dark Side of the Moon is one of their strongest albums, as its themes of dealing with mental illness and crying out for help have a tragic connection to band member Syd Barrett, whose mental health was deteriorating during the production of the album. Pink Floyd had a lot of great album covers during their time, like the black and white cover of The Wall or the cover of Animals with the pig flying over an industrial plant or the thought-provoking photograph on the cover of Wish You Were Here in which two businessmen are shaking hands and one of them is on fire. All of these album covers feature powerful symbolism, but none of them are perhaps any more powerful than the cover of The Dark Side of the Moon, whose stripped-down, simplistic cover art captures the psychedelic feel and nihilistic voice of Floyd perfectly. The image of the prism spectrum is bold and unique. A beam of light going into a glass prism in the middle of a black abyss and emerging as a wide range of colors encapsulates Floyd to a T.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Before Sgt. Pepper, there was pretty much no such thing as a concept album, so it was a trailblazer in that sense. It also marked a huge shift in the Beatles’ music. They’d already made seven studio albums at this point, so for their eighth, it was natural that they would change artistically. This album came after their visit to India had them moving more and more in an avant garde creative direction. As with all creative changes made by popular artists, this could’ve easily failed – but it didn’t! In fact, this album has one of the greatest legacies of all time. It won a ton of Grammys, it’s been selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry, it’s one of the highest selling albums of all time with over 32 million copies sold worldwide, and Rolling Stone magazine placed it in the number one spot on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The cover reflects this, as it is just as iconic as the album itself. By blending pop culture and high art, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover artwork is a perfect example of a postmodernist piece. This was 1967 – Warholian pop art was on the rise. The collage of cultural icons includes Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, Sonny Liston, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll – the list is endless! It might just be the greatest and most iconic album cover artwork of all time.