10 Iconic Album Cover Designs

In today’s world of iPods and MP3’s, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the impact of album cover designs. Before the CD era, when music was distributed and sold on 12 inch vinyl discs, artists and musicians had a whopping 288 square inches of space as their canvas. The vinyl disc cover was a veritable billboard compared to CD covers, and the tiny bits of artwork that appear on iPods and other MP3 players.

The most iconic album covers not only had artistic merit, but they conveyed some sense about the band and the music on the inside of the cover. At their purest and most successful, album covers would have a profound emotional impact on the viewer, especially when the visual on the cover was in close synchronization with the music on the disc.

If we accept the definition of iconic as “representing a particular idea or ideal”, then we would look at these album covers as representative of what the artist – both the cover artist and the musical artist – was thinking at the time the artwork and music were created. These thoughts are the basis behind the concept of branding, which seeks to create a sense of self-expression and personal identity for both the artist and the consumer.

Yet the chief purpose of the vinyl album cover was to entice the consumer to buy the product. Without buying the product, consumers would be unable to make the connection between the artwork and design of the cover and the musical experience inside. For example, London Calling by the Clash is one of the best examples of how an album cover successfully conveys the same feelings – aggression, social unrest, and cynicism – as the music on the disc itself.

Here are 10 iconic album cover designs, in chronological order:

The Velvet Underground sprung out of the New York art scene in early 1967. Andy Warhol lent his considerable talents as a cover artist, manager, and promoter. Their debut album featured an image of a banana, courtesy of Warhol himself. Early pressings of the album featured a removable vinyl banana, revealing a somewhat phallic pink banana underneath. These early pressings are rare and extremely collectible. To this day, any time I see an image of a banana – or just a banana for that matter – I think about the Velvet Underground, which is the ultimate expression of brand marketing.

In late 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released Axis Bold as Love. The cover invokes images of both Hendrix himself, whose face was quickly becoming an icon, and Indian religious mysticism which was a common theme of the 60’s. No album cover I have seen captures the spirit and feeling of the 60’s like this one does.

The debut album by Led Zeppelin (also known as Led Zeppelin I) was released to the public in January of 1969. Featuring a highly original blend of the blues and what would come to be known as “heavy metal”, there was no music quite like it at the time. The album cover was instantly recognizable as Led Zeppelin, the band’s name being taken from a famous German airship. From a thematic perspective, this image on the cover did an excellent job of foreshadowing the sex, calamity, and explosiveness of the music inside.

Abbey Road by the Beatles hit the record stores in the fall of 1969. The album cover depicts the band crossing Abbey Road in London. As this was the last of the albums the Beatles recorded together, there was much speculation about the symbolism of the image of the band. Rumors of Paul McCartney’s death soon surfaced, based chiefly on his not wearing his shoes in the picture. Abbey Road is also one of the most parodied album covers of all time, with versions having been lampooned by Kanye West, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Ren & Stimpy.

The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers came out in 1971, featuring another album cover designed by Andy Warhol. The Sticky Fingers title was reflected in the actual working zipper on the cover that could be opened to reveal a cotton fabric that was supposed to represent a man’s briefs. In fact, as a result of retailers complaints about the zipper damaging neighboring records while packed in transit, the zippers were manually unzipped halfway prior to shipping. There was much conjecture over whether the man in the jeans was Mick Jagger, but it was later reveled that the subject was Joe Dallesandro, a Warhol friend and underground film actor. Sticky Fingers was also notable in being the first album to make use of the famous Rolling Stones “Tongue & Lips” logo.

Released in March of 1973, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon went on the become one of the best selling albums of all time, staying on Billboard’s Album Chart for a whopping 741 weeks. If one measure of an album cover’s effectiveness is how many units are sold, this design was an unqualified success. The simple and bold design of the prism on the cover was meant to represent the band’s stage lighting and lyrics. The absence of any text on the front cover was also notable. Practically anyone who was alive when Dark Side of the Moon was released will quickly recognize this image for what it is.

Roxy Music’s Country Life came out in late 1974 to little commercial fanfare. However, the image of the two lingerie-clad women on the cover sparked controversy, and versions of the album sold in the US, Spain, and the Netherlands had a censored cover that simply featured the bushes in the background without the women appearing in the foreground. The band selected the album title and the image of the two women because they felt like it symbolized English upper-class decadence, and had undertones of the famous John Profumo Scandal of the early 60’s. Photo archivist Michael Ochs called the censorship of Country Life “the most complete cover-up in music history”.

The Talking Heads released More Songs About Buildings and Food in the summer of 1978. The cover art was conceptualized by singer David Byrne who attended the both the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute of Art, and was trained as an artist. The photo mosaic was assembled using over 500 close-up Polaroid photographs of the band members. The overall effect of the cover is striking, and is an excellent example of the influence of the New York Art Scene on popular music of the 1970’s.

Unknown Pleasures was the debut album of Manchester, England’s Joy Division, and was released in June of 1979. The cover design was the work of English artist and designer Peter Saville. The image is what is commonly called a “stacked plot”; in this instance, the plot represents the energy pulses over time from the first pulsar ever discovered – called CP 1919. The overall effect of the plot is a stark representation of what appear to be mountain peaks. Unknown Pleasures shares much with Dark Side of the Moon with respect to the album cover. Both covers featured science-themed images on a black background with no cover text. Saville’s designs were subsequently featured on the covers of albums by Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, and Wham!

Released during the final months of 1979, the Clash’s London Calling was originally sold as a two-disc set for the same price as a single-disc album, at the insistence of the band. London Calling received much critical praise, and is considered by many writers and critics to be one of the best rock albums of all time, and one of the best two-disc albums as well. The image of bassist Paul Simonin smashing his instrument during a concert in New York is perfectly consistent with the musical themes of anger, frustration, and disaffection heard throughout London Calling. Interestingly, the color and typeface used on the cover was a close copy of Elvis Presley’s debut album cover called Elvis Presley. The album cover for London Calling was also among ten album covers chosen for a set of “Classic Album Cover” postage stamps issued in the UK in 2010.

Although album covers are slowly becoming extinct, they can still be iconic, and can serve as a creative inspiration for fine artists and graphic designers alike.