The Best Album Covers of All Time (and the Stories Behind Them)

The artwork that accompanied some of the best albums of the last 50 years rarely gets the attention they deserve. So we took it upon ourselves to research the stories behind our favorites. Here’s what we found.

1. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd

Let’s start with a cover by one of the best British rock bands, Pink Floyd. Their seminal LP Dark Side of the Moon is one of the simplest, yet most recognizable sleeves ever created, despite having no mention of the band or the album title. The design, which consists of a triangle with a prism shape coming through it, was the brainchild of Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, who together made up the photography and design studio Hipgnosis.

Powell and Thorgerson approached the members of Pink Floyd for ideas regarding the design, where they were told by organist Richard Wright to “come up with something simple, a simple graphic, like a chocolate box.” Originally insulted by this direction, the duo set out to brainstorm ideas. One day, when thumbing through a French Physics text, they came across a photo of a prism on a music sheet, and the idea was born.

This simple design has for years left fans wondering about its meaning—a design that has now become synonymous with Pink Floyd. In an interview many years later, Thorgerson revealed they chose the triangle shape because “it is a symbol of thought and ambition, qualities that were integral in many of the band’s lyrics.”

2. Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet

Beggars Banquet

In December of 1968, the Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet in a plain white cover that resembled a wedding invitation, complete with the letters RSVP in the bottom-left corner. However, this was not their first choice — the one they preferred, seen above, was shot down by the band’s label, London Studios.

This photo of a dirty looking public toilet wall full of scribbles was taken by photographer Barry Feinstein at a Porsche repair shop above Hollywood Blvd. and Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. The graffiti was actually written by bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. One of the obvious clues that the photo was taken at a repair shop was the Champion Spark Plugs sticker on the seat of the toilet.

In 1984, the remastered CD of Beggars Banquet was re-released with its original sleeve.

3. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew

Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released in March of 1970, redefined Jazz music by infusing rock elements and treating genres as if they were mere suggestions, with no hard and fast rules. This fusion of different styles and instruments is represented beautifully in the cover.

Created by the German painter Mati Klarwein, the sleeve served not only to reflect the music listeners would find inside but also the different thematic elements. The push and pull of the light and dark elements not only defined the fusion of different instrumental and vocal elements but were an examination into the racial tensions of the era, seeming to suggest that opposites can be brought together to create something beautiful and whole.

As Klarwein would later say in an interview “while it’s easy to see how the cover might represent dichotomies, it is really more about tandems and shared experiences, coupled with the acknowledgment that individual perspectives can create an otherworldly experience.”

4. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Freewheelin bob dylan

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the star’s second long-player, was released on May 27, 1963, and its front is one of the most identifiable, romantic and tender album pics in history. The picture was photographed in February of 1963 on a narrow New York backstreet (Jones Street), not far from Dylan’s tiny studio apartment at 161 West Fourth Street (that he rented for a mere $60 a month). The photo portrays a hunch-shouldered, 21-year old Dylan, clad in blue jeans and a tan coat, with a smiling Suze Rotolo (Dylan’s then artist girlfriend) clinging to his left arm.

“The day on which the album cover was shot,” recalls photographer Don Hunstein, “was cold, and the slushy snow on the ground was filthy from the traffic.” Dylan, with hands in his pockets, is obviously feeling the chill in the air, and his hunched shoulders indicated his thin jacket offered little protection. The photo came about casually, and nobody could have guessed how iconic it would be come.

Years later, critic Janet Muslim summed up the mass appeal for this emblematic cover, saying “the photograph inspired countless young men to hunch their shoulders, look distant, and let the girl do the clinging”

5. Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

The cover of Elvis Presley’s self-titled LP, Elvis Presley, is one of the most iconic in the history of music. Elvis Presley was his first studio undertaking, and its striking front went a long way towards setting the tone for his musical career. It depicts a photograph of a young Elvis Presley on the guitar, with eyes closed and mouth agape, and the words “Elvis” and Presley” in big block letters on the left and bottom, respectively. The photograph was originally credited to photographer Popsie Randolph. However, in 2002, biographer Joseph Tunzi said the true person responsible for this one-of-a-kind photograph was William V. (Red) Robertson, taken at a concert at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 1955.

In 1979, the Clash paid its respects to this classic cover by reproducing the graphic design on their classic London Calling album.

6. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Rise and fall of ziggy stardust

The cover for David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars was the first introduction to the iconic alien persona of this multi-platinum artist and his innovative style of music that had never been heard before or since.

The photograph that graces this symbolic LP depicts Bowie in full costume standing outside furriers “K. West” at 23 Heddon Street in London, England, looking southeast towards the center of the city. The post office in the background of the photo (now the “Living Room W1” Bar) was the site of London’s first nightclub, the Cave of the Golden Calf, which opened in 1912.

Bowie would later lament that the “K. West” sign was later taken down. Said the singer, “It’s such a shame that sign went [was removed]. People read so much into it. They thought ‘K. West’ must be some sort of code for ‘quest.’ It took on all these sort of mystical overtones.”

7. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt Peppers

The sleeve for the Beatles’ concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the most recognizable of all time. When setting out to design it, the band wanted something that really reached out to the record-buyer, recalling how happy they felt in their youth when buying albums with interesting covers.

The composition began with sketches Paul McCartney made of each of the band members in uniform, surrounded by famous people. From there the band enlisted the services of photographer Michael Cooper and artist Peter Blake, who would help the band with the background and artwork.

According to McCartney, “we all just chose oddball things from everywhere and put them together.”

The people ranged from novelist Aldous Huxley to Shirley Temple to Fred Astaire were suggested by the band members. Recalls, band member George Harrison, “there were those who refused to be on there, saying, ‘I’m not a lonely heart,’ or, ‘I don’t want to be on there.’ Letters had to go out to get permission from everybody, and some people did turn us down.”

8. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys

The eleventh studio LP of the Beach Boys, Pet Sounds was released in the spring of 1966, peaking at #10 on the Billboard 200 after an initially lukewarm response. The photograph depicts the band members—Carl, Brian and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine—feeding pieces of apples to seven goats at a petting paddock of the San Diego Zoo. The picture was taken by the band’s photographer George Jerman on February 10, 1966.

Nobody knows for sure why the band opted for the name Pet Sounds. Some believe it was a tribute to the band’s promoter Phil Specter (P.S.), while others believe the band chose the name because they each had their own “pet sounds” in term of their singing styles and harmonies.

As rumor has it, on the day of the photo shoot the band did not exactly endear themselves to the staff at the San Diego Zoo. According to a 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times, the staff at the zoo accused the band of “mistreating the animals.” For their part, the group claimed that they were the ones being mistreated, as the goats were “pushing us all over the place.”

9. Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Never mind the bollocks

Released in October of 1977 by Virgin Records, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is the only studio album by the English punk rock band the Sex Pistols. The design, a colorful array of mismatched block letters (like a ransom note) that spells out the title, was met with great controversy due to the use of the word “bollocks,” whose Middle English definition translates to “testicles,” although the band claimed the word had a much more innocuous meaning.

The members of the band claimed the phrase, “Never Mind the Bollocks” actually meant “Never Mind the ‘rubbish’ or ‘nonsense,’ a phrase they had heard fans use in that manner. Despite this explanation, law enforcement agencies in England tried to prevent record stores and promoters from displaying it, saying it violated obscenity laws. They even went so far as to sue the band and the label to try and prevent its release.

Defense lawyers for the record label argued the word “bollocks” had other meanings in common usage, and after all the evidence was produced, the judge in the case said the following: “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchase of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty…”

10. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico

Velvet underground

The artwork features a depiction of a larger-than-life banana—the handiwork of artist Andy Warhol. Warhol designed it as a tribute to the Velvet Underground, who he managed in their early years despite the sometimes cool reception to the band’s music.

The original concept allowed fans to peel back the banana skin as a sticker, thus revealing the middle of the off-white colored fruit underneath. Seen as a sexually charged image, it experienced resistance from the MGM studio, but it was ultimately released as is due to Warhol’s mass public appeal.

In response to the resistance it received, Lou Reed said about Warhol, “In a sense, he really did produce the album because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren’t large enough to be attacked.”

11. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

Physical Grafitti

Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was photographed and designed by Peter Corriston, depicting a five-story tenement building (although only four of those floors appear due to space limitations) at 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. The front of the sleeve shows the brilliantly symmetrical building during the daylight hours, while the back depicts the same building at night.

The uniqueness of this cover lies in the fact that the windows of the building are cut out, and the inserts contain the album title, the name of the tracks and liner notes that, when fully inserted and aligned, can be seen in the windows of the building. There are also various images of people seemingly peering out from the window cutouts.

Interestingly, the building depicted on the cover of Physical Graffiti is the same building Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were filmed in front of in the Rolling Stones music video “Waiting on a Friend.”

12. The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers

Released in 1971, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers captured the true style and personality of the band. Sticky Fingers was the first release on the band’s Rolling Stones Records, whose president was Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess.

In 1969, the frontman of the Stones, Mick Jagger, approached famed artist Andy Warhol and asked him to create a simple design for Sticky Fingers. Warhol ignored this direction, however, and the result was one of the most talked-about sleeves in history.

It cover depicts a jeans-clad man, photographed from the waist down, and a “working zipper” that, when pulled down, revealed the model’s underwear. While most fans have just assumed the model for the picture was Jagger himself, the true identity of the iconic male has been a mystery for more than 45 years. According to Warhol at the time, “I held a photo shoot with a number of male models and I have never revealed the true identity of the person chosen.”

13. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

Electric ladyland

Released in October of 1968, Electric Ladyland is a double album by the English-American rock group the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the only ever produced by Hendrix himself.

The cover for Electric Ladyland depicts a blurry image of Jimi Hendrix in red and yellow hues, taken by photographer Karl Ferris, while the inside cover depicts 19 seated women who are completely naked—a fact that caused some major controversy, not just with the label, but with Jimi Hendrix himself.

Hendrix was not fond of the outside and inner sleeve that packaged Electric Ladyland. In fact, prior to its release Hendrix had written to the Reprise label to express his idea for the artwork: a color picture, taken by Linda Eastman (now Linda McCartney—married to Paul McCartney) of the band members sitting with children on a sculpture from Alice in Wonderland in Central Park. He even drew a picture of what he wanted it to look like but was mostly ignored.

Although the inner cover caused controversy in both the U.S. and the U.K and was even banned by some record stores, it was released as is in 1971.

14. Nirvana – Nevermind

Nevermind

The cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind was as talked about as it was controversial and was a brilliantly colorful affair. It depicts a young, nude infant submerged in a pool of deep blue water, while the inner sleeve shows the band members with their instruments in the same pool. The photography was the work of Kirk Weddle, who shot the pictures over three different shoots on location at a public pool in Southern California. Weddle convinced friends to have their four-month-old son “pressed into service for the cause of rock and roll,” and explained the process for the shoot in the following way: “the mom was on the left, and blew a puff of air into the child’s face. Then we dunked him in and, bang, bang, pulled him out. We did it twice and that was it.”

It was completed when the label’s art department added a fish hook (which is barely visible) and a dollar bill to the photo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

15. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead

The queen is dead

Released in June of 1986, The Queen is Dead is the third studio undertaking by the English rock band the Smiths. It ultimately spent twenty-two weeks on the UK Chart, peaking at number two.

The artwork features a depiction of the French actor Alain Delon, who had written to the Smiths and gave them approval to use his image from the 1964 noir film The Unvanquished. The offer, however, came with one caveat, as he revealed in his autobiography: “I told them my parents were upset that ‘anyone would call an album “The Queen is Dead.” His request was clearly ignored.

The Smiths use of actors for their sleeves became a common practice for the band. Big Mouth Strikes Again, for example, pays homage to the actor James Dean, depicting him riding on a motorbike; and for the song Panic, actor Richard Bradford appears in a scene from his 1960s television series Man in a Suitcase.

16. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory

Whats the story

Released on the 2nd of October 1995, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was the second studio album of the English rock ‘n roll band Oasis.

The artwork for this critically acclaimed album consists of a photo snapped by photographer Michael Spencer. It depicts two men passing each other on Berwick Street in London. The two men pictured are London DJ Sean Rowly and the sleeve designer Brian Cannon, whose back is to the camera. The band chose Berwick Street due to its musical significance—a street that was home to a number of popular record stores at the time.

17. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus

Saxophone colossus

Sonny Rollins was one of the most accomplished jazz musicians of his era, and his 5-track long player Saxophone Colossus is a feast for the senses if you’re into jazz.

The cover of Saxophone Colossus gives a hint to the soulful, bluesy music contained within. Set against a background of midnight blue, it depicts Rollins in silhouette, majestically blowing out tunes on the instrument that defines his music, and that made him a household name in the world of jazz.

18. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

<Bizarre ride

The debut of the American hip-hop band The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde was released in the winter of 1992 through the label Delicious Vinyl Records.

The artwork represents one of the few instances in music that a cover actually depicts the title in art form and the zany style of the music contained within, a process that the Art Director Slick K2S called “hit and miss.” On the brilliantly-colored sleeve, Slick’s eerie fun-house-like roller coaster, shown entering the tunnel to the “Bizarreride,” not only represents the title of this breakthrough work but the process the band went through in creating it.

According to Slick, fans who bought it could “extend the ride by opening the sleeve up to the two-panel gatefold within, filled with spooky characters and hidden messages about the songs.”

19. Sonic Youth – Daylight Nation

Daydream nation

The 5th studio endeavor for the popular American alternative group Sonic Youth, Daylight Nation is a double album that was released in 1988 by Enigma Records.

Daylight Nation features the painting entitled Kerze (Candle)—painted in 1983 by German artist Gerhard Richter, while the back image features a similar Gerhard Richter painting from 1982 (Kerze sold for $16.6 million in 2011). The four-fold inner sleeve, in both the vinyl and CD version, contains four symbols representing the four members of the band. As the story goes, these four symbols were included to pay homage to—and to create a parody of—the symbols used for the band on Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP. The four symbols used by Sonic Youth are the symbols for: infinity, female, the uppercase version of omega, and a sketch of a demon/angel holding drumsticks.

20. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

Unknown pleasures

The debut album for the band Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures was so mysterious that it later became the subject of a four-minute documentary and, more recently, an article in the magazine Scientific American.

The sleeve depicts a black and white visualization of pulsar data that resembles digital mountain peaks. The graphic designer who worked on it, Peter Saville, described the pulsars as “stars that emit repeating series of radio waves, similar to the beams of a lighthouse.” Saville got the idea from the members of the band, who gave him a page from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy depicting a similar image. He recognized the image as a “wonderfully enigmatic symbol for a record cover,” and went to work designing it.

After Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures, the mysterious symbol could be seen on the tee shirts and tattoos of the band’s loyal fans, and it quickly became synonymous with the band and its music.

21. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space

Ladies and gentleman

Ladies and Gentleman We are Floating in Space is by spaced-out rock group Spiritualized and is filled with songs about love and loss, with redemption found only in drugs. Thus, it should be no surprise that the album’s cover resembles a prescription drug bottle, even including a dosing recommendation: “one tablet 70 minutes” foremost on its background.

The design is attributed to Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce and the designer Mark Farrow, who together crafted one of the best of the 20th century. Clean, deep blue type on a white background is uncomplicated yet oddly eye-catching—an intentionally simple design that endeared a whole new group of fans to the band and their laid back music.

22. The Ramones – Ramones

Ramones

Released on April 23, 1976, by Sire Records, Ramones is the debut studio album by the Ramones, an American punk rock band.

The black and white photo features the bandmates Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee Ramone, donned in ripped, faded blue jeans and leather jackets, staring at the camera with blank faces. In the photo, they are leaning against the outside brick wall of a private community garden called Albert’s Garden, located in the Bowery district of New York City.

Interestingly, it was not the original idea for the LP. Initially, the band wanted a cover similar to the Meet the Beatles (1964), but the art director Toni Wadler and the Sire label didn’t like the way it turned out. Instead, they opted for the now iconic “brick wall” photo, taken by photographer Roberta Bayley.

23. Neil Young – On the Beach

On the beach

One of the most intriguing frontal shots in the vast catalog of American rocker Neil Young, the artwork for the singer’s On the Beach has been described as surrealist and meticulous—designed right down to the inside of the sleeve jacket, “matching the pattern of the inside of the beach umbrella on the cover.”

Designed by Gary Burden, photographed by Bob Seiderman, and graphically lettered by Rick Griffin, its anyone guess as to the meaning. A shoeless Neil Young stares out into the abyss of the ocean, wearing a yellow jacket that matches the color of the umbrella. This yellow theme is continued with a Coors beer can sitting on a table, and a seemingly out-of-place handwritten note has prompted many of his loyal fans to try and decipher some type of hidden code in the note.

The most significant item on the cover gives a hint as to Young’s political ideals and the way he felt about the President of the United States at the time: a newspaper whose headline reads “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.”

24. Art Blakey – Indestructible

Indestructible

First released in 1964 by Blue Note Records, Indestructible by renowned jazzman Art Blakey is one of the most representative of the mid-1960s jazz movement. The moody, bluesy music, punctuated with hard bop, became the quintessential style of the era—an era ruled by talented musicians like Art Blakey and his contemporaries.

The brooding music contained in every track captured the very essence of the Blue Note movement and this one — perhaps more than any other before or since — gave fans a hint as to what they would hear in the music.

The blurred, almost watery photo on Indestructibles cover portrayed a morose Art Blakey deep in thought, with an almost psychedelic script spelling out the title and the artist’s name. Seemingly staring out into space, with a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, Blakey portrayed an “almost unforgiving expression,” as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Recognized as one of the most celebrated album covers of all time, the artwork for Indestructible became equally as famous as Blakey’s soulful music.

25. The Faith Tones – Jesus Use Me

Jesus use me

We finish with this absolute gem. Released in 1964 by Angelus Records, the single Jesus Use Me by the Faith Tones became very popular among Christians in the southeast region of the United States, even rising to near the top of the Gospel Charts that same year.

It depicts the three choir members—Beverly Beecham, Vivian Wyler, and Marie Samuels—sporting their classic 60s bouffant hairstyles and garb as they smile uncomfortably for the camera—a picture described by one critic years later as resembling “three men in drag.”

The name of the Gospel trio—the Faith Tones—was supplied by an agent of Angelus Records, who went to hear the group sing at a Baptist church not long after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. At that performance, the pastor of the church, Br. John W. Buckner, praised the women in his sermon, saying they were “devout women who truly sing the inspirational tones of faith.” And thus, the name was born.

So, Which Do You Think is the Best Album Cover?

So there you have it. You’ve seen our pick of the best 25, which do you think were the best? Do you have a favorite that’s n featured here which you think deserves to be? Share in the comments and if we agree, we’ll add it.


Image Credits:

Featured image by  ღ ℂℏ℟ḯʂ ღ / CC By-2.0

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.