Sure, the real reason you pick up an album is because the music on it strikes your fancy. But in the days before digital downloads, before everything was on Spotify, in the bygone days when people roamed a music store in search of inspiration, an album cover might be someone’s first introduction to a particular artist or band. For most groups, the album cover was just a means of getting across the pertinent nouns — namely, the band and album title. In some rare instances, however, the art on the album cover served not only as an eye-grabber, it also helped accentuate the music on the album itself. In these beautiful moments, music and visual art worked in tandem to perfectly encapsulate some of the greatest music of all time. Here, for your consideration, are some of the most iconic album covers of all time.
16. The Beatles, ’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
The weird eclectic cohesion of the first-ever concept album was mirrored exquisitely in the album cover, a who’s who of icons and thinkers, with the boys from Liverpool snugly at the center. Only the best band in the Universe could have gotten away with it.
15. Grace Jones, ‘Island Life’
Sure, there may not be anything iconic about the actual music in Island Life, but the cover is a perfect encapsulation of a woman who has fascinated photographers for decades.
14. Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’
This collection of covers released just before the legendary singer’s death showed a profoundly talented soul mourning the loss of his friends and his love while reflecting on a life lived in turmoil. The somber image of a man bowed in thought is a perfect reflection of that.
13. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the USA’
This is pretty much the only album cover you can expect from an artist who oozes red, white, and blue collar charm. Springsteen said that they took several pictures of him facing the camera, but “the picture of my a— looked better than the picture of my face, so that’s what went on the cover.”
12. Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’
You could really make the case that most of Michael Jackson’s work during the eighties could qualify as iconic, even the album art. We’ll have to give it to Thriller, though.
11. Queen, ‘Queen II’
You may not realize that the album cover for Queen II preceded the Bohemian Rhapsody video by a full year. Originally, the group didn’t want to use the shot, but the designer, Mick Rock, convinced them to go with it for two reasons. One, Rock believed that it captured the group’s ostentatious style. Two, it made Queen seem like a bigger deal than they actually were at the time.
10. Green Day, ‘Dookie’
When they originally released Dookie their biggest concern was letting their parents know that they were discontent. Also, the rest of the world was bullsh-t. The punk trio was happy to drop a bomb on society to let everybody know just how unhappy they were.
9. N.W.A., ‘Straight Outta Compton’
NWA rode to fame on a tidal wave of suburban fear. Not only did the band know that, they reveled in it. That was never clearer than in the group’s debut album, which showed the sextet crowded into the frame and staring down at the camera. It’s a clear sign of aggression and a play on the way they knew they were viewed.
8. AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’
The sparse album art of AC/DC’s Back in Black is a perfect compliment to the group’s high energy anarchy. In this case, it was also fitting that the group’s first album after the death of lead singer Bon Scott was somber.
7. The Sex Pistols, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’
It’s appropriate that the Sex Pistol’s only album is bright, neon, and still somehow deranged. Like the handiwork of a really optimistic serial killer. It’s a great reflection of the Sex Pistols’ politically charged, yet homegrown punk rock.
6. Bob Dylan, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’
When he was coming up, Bob Dylan was a man who was trying to speak for every person. Perhaps that’s why this naturalistic photo of the brooding artist and his lady friend, Suze Rotolo, has endured across the decades.
5. The Ramones, ‘Ramones’
Credit to artist Robert Bayley for her ability to turn the empirically unattractive Ramones into some of the coolest looking nerds on the block. The four dudes leaning against a run-down brick wall has been aped so many times it’s impossible to count.
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’
Here’s a rare instance in which the band itself could have been total crap and the album cover would have still been immensely popular, thanks to the fact that it was conceptualized by arguably the most popular artist of the latter 20th century, Andy Warhol.
3. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’
Kurt Cobain and his Seattle grunge group, Nirvana, were all about being lured to their deaths by a consuming capitalist spirit. That’s probably why the definitely doomed baby diving after a single is still considered so connected to the group.
2. Pink Floyd, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’
Album designer Storm Thorgerson was specifically asked to try his hand at graphics when he was commissioned to do the cover for Dark Side. Thorgerson decided to take on the challenge, eventually connecting the band’s music to the eclecticism of a light show and a symbol of thought and ambition, the triangle.
1. The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’
This single image of the Beatles crossing the street not a block away from Abbey Road Studios in London is so iconic that tourists still hold up traffic every single day in order to get the perfect recreation. Some brave souls even take their shoes off. Motorists are mostly lenient, except during rush hour.
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