As an avid music collector since my youth, I remember going to record stores and discovering new music and new artists by how flashy their album art was. Sadly the era of collecting album art is fading away.
Album art evolved from just a simple tool used to protect a record, to a beautiful form of expression that was not only aesthetically pleasing, or used to convey an albums feeling but pure and simply magnificent, high-concept art. Album art often become as important as the music it was protecting itself.
We’ve picked 10 of the most iconic album designs ever created. Who do you think we’ve left out? Let us know in the comments below.
Stay tuned for our 10 Iconic Hip-Hop Album Covers of All Time.
Santana - Abraxas
Designer: Mati Klarwein
The cover for Santana’s Abraxas album is a hypnotic, surreal, psychedelic wet-dream. Taken from a Mati Klarwein painting the art was inspired by the Biblical story of the Annunciation, it shows a naked, black Virgin Mary surrounded by images of fertility, a winged and tattooed Gabriel depicted sitting a conga drum, pointing towards a Hebrew Aleph symbol (signifying beginning), and the chanting of the Wodaabe african tribe in the top left corner perhaps representing the Three Kings, and an image of Mati himself.
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane
Designer: Brian Duffy
Aladdin Sane, finds a shirtless David Bowie, embracing his rock god status, featuring his iconic lightning bolt representing the duality of mind, and his red mullet - this is Bowie in all his glam glory. The artwork also marked the end of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona to him being born again into the schizophrenic Aladdin Sane.
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton
Designer: Helane Freeman
Compton, California’s N.W.A did not hold back with their debut album art - it was revolutionary to say the least. Nothing instills fear in rightwing white America as much as seeing a group of armed angry black men. The art conveys the groups we don’t give a fuck attitude; it shows the self-described World’s Most Dangerous Group standing over the viewer, as Eazy-E brandishes a gun and prepares to finish off the listener.
Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Designer: Storm Thorgerson
The Dark Side of the Moon is not the only legendary album art from Pink Floyd but perhaps their best known. The simple but effective cover was meant to convey the band’s stage lighting and the album’s lyrics. To get this message across the band settled on this image of light emanating from a prism. The cover has been so successful that it even considered as one of the most widely known images in music.
Nirvana - Nevermind
Designer: Kirk Weddle and Kurt Cobain
Nirvana’s 1991 underwater shoot, which resulted in the iconic “baby swimming after a dollar” photo for the band’s album Nevermind, shot by photographer Kirk Weddle is without a doubt one of the most recognized album artworks ever.
According to Cobain, he conceived the idea of The Nevermind while watching a television program on water births with Grohl. After researching stock images of underwater births but they were deemed too graphic by the record company. After the photoshoot with Kirk Weedle the band settled on the image of a three-month-old infant named Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer’s friend. However, there was some concern because Elden’s penis was visible in the image. Nirvana’s label Geffen prepared an alternate cover without the penis, as they were afraid that it would offend people, but relented when Cobain made it clear that the only compromise he would accept was a sticker covering the penis that would say, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.”
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Designer: George Condo
For My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West teamed up with iconic artist George Condo for a series of paintings, that matched the album’s genre bending music with contemporary art. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s magnum opus so its only fitting that an album of this caliber to have exceptional concept art that showcases a demonic West being straddled by a nude angel - its an interesting dark fantasy indeed Mr. West.
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Designer: Sir Peter Blake and Jann Haworth
In this iconic cover, The Beatles are accompanied by dozens of historical figures — actors and actresses, musicians, writers, philosophers, athletes — including Karl Marx, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan and Sonny Liston, as well as wax figures of themselves in their trademark Beatlemania-era mop tops.
Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures
Designer: Peter Saville
Aesthetically speaking Joy Divisions album cover for Unknown Pleasures is without a doubt my favourite. It’s album art is ahead of it time - there is zero branding such as the bands name or its album title - just an beautiful abstract image as its centrepiece. The image was found in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy in 1977 and depicts a set of successive pulses from the first pulsar discovered, PSR B1919+21.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
Designer: Denis Rouvre & Vlad Sepetov
Although this album was only released in 2015 the artwork will go down in history as one of the most provocative album art works in history. The vivd imagery showcases a large group of black men standing unified in defiance on the lawn in front of the White House. This controversial image is especially significant due to the albums subject matter in conjunction with the ongoing extensive racial profiling and murders of unarmed black youths in America by police officers. The final nail in the coffin is the depiction of a presumably dead white judge – who represents everything wrong with the american justice system laying at the feet of the men.
The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Designer: Andy Warhol
The Velvet Underground & Nico went all out by tapping legendary artist Andy Warhol to design their cover art. This iconic cover of a banana picture came fitted with the cheeky “peel slowly and see” instructions that included a peel-off sticker revealing a flesh-colored banana beneath - sadly this was deemed to costly by the record label and the modern version do not have this quirky feature. As expected the original is a highly sought after collectors item.