You won’t find an album on this list from this decade, and none from the ’80s or ’90s either, but that’s because nothing’s been the same since vinyl bowed out to welcome compact discs to the stage.
These days, you would never frame a CD booklet or handle it gingerly or pay much attention to it at all, but a few decades ago, album artwork was bold and beautiful. People stood around and admired it. Rock bands made some artists household names – guys like Roger Dean, who spent the ’70s constructing trippy, otherworldly realities for the album covers of Yes and Uriah Heep. That’s not to say some good stuff hasn’t come out this side of the ’70s, but we’d have to get our magnifying glass out to see it. Before we even put them on the turntable for a listen, these are 10 albums that knocked our socks off.
Which album covers are your favorites? Tell us in the comments section below. Also, check out our story on 10 Cool Albums That Feature Gibsons on Their Cover.
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
When it comes to their artistic tastes, The Beatles are a study in contrasts. In 1967, they scored a Grammy for the elaborate collage on their 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just a year later they made history with “The White Album,” so nicknamed for the blank white sleeve it came in. The work of British pop artist Peter Blake and American sculptor Jann Haworth, Sgt. Pepper’s includes over 70 cardboard cutouts of pop culture icons – everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Freud. The Beatles themselves appear on the cover, both in the flesh and as wax figures on loan from Madame Tussauds.
The Clash, London Calling (1979)
The image of Clash bassist Paul Simonon destroying his bass guitar against the stage at the Palladium in New York City has been burned into the rock and roll subconscious. On the cover of 1979’s London Calling, the moment (captured during The Clash’s 1979 tour by rock photographer Pennie Smith) is as feral and, ahem, groundbreaking as the music itself. It also serves as a tribute to the decidedly more mild-mannered design of Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut album, using the same black-and-white imagery and pink-and-green typography.
Led Zeppelin, House Of The Holy (1973)
The surrealist artwork on the cover of Zeppelin’s fifth album is a collage of several photos taken over the course of 10 days of two young siblings – Stefan and Samantha Gates – at a phenomenal natural rock formation called Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The concept came from the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel Childhood’s End, and was brought to life by British design firm Hipgnosis. Incidentally, this was the second draft offered up to Zeppelin for consideration. The artist originally hired for the project, Strom Thorgerson, was fired after presenting the band with a painting of an electric green tennis court and tennis racquet. Zeppelin were reportedly insulted by the insinuation that their music made a “racket.”
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
The dispersive prism on the gatefold LP sleeve of Dark Side of The Moon is the work of Hipgnosis, also behind the album covers of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and The Who. In author John Harris’ book The Dark Side of the Moon, he relates that Richard Wright asked artist George Hardie for a design that was “smarter, neater – more classy” than what Hipgnosis had come up with for previous Pink Floyd albums. Without any text, the album cover contained only a black triangle shot through with a refracted rainbow. This rainbow fueled the rumor that the album synchronizes up perfectly when played along with The Wizard of Oz.
The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers (1971)
Despite popular opinion, the crotch of the man wearing tight jeans on the cover of the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers doesn’t belong to Mick Jagger. Instead, it’s actor Joseph Dallesandro, one of many men who posed for photographer Billy Name to potentially make the cover of Sticky Fingers. In the original incarnation of Andy Warhol’s Sticky Fingers design, one could actually use a working zipper to expose Dallesandro wearing white cotton briefs with Warhol’s name on the waistband.
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet (1968)
When Beggars Banquet first hit stores, it was enclosed in a formal invitation-style ivory cover with cursive script, but not because that’s how the Stones wanted it. Released just one month after The Beatles’ “White Album,” Beggars Banquet invited accusations that the Stones were imitating the Fab Four. The truth was that they’d fought both their English and American record labels to use some very different cover art but were vetoed. With the album’s 1984 reissue, The Rolling Stones finally got to use their original artwork – a graffiti-cluttered wall above a filthy toilet.
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
There’s a place on this list for simple album artwork like Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. AC/DC’s Back in Black, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Weezer’s Weezer are fellow testaments to the power of minimalism. The spare, garish pop art of Bollocks is as crude and DIY as punk rock itself. Art director Jamie Reid reportedly left the band off the Day-Glo album cover “because they were ugly.”
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Velvet Undergound’s ties to pop artist and icon Andy Warhol are numerous: Not only was the band’s debut album recorded during stops along Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour, but he financed the album, produced it and designed its cover. On the album’s first edition, a bright banana invited the owner to “Peel slowly and see” the flesh-colored banana beneath. Because of the expense of manufacturing the novelty cover, later editions didn’t come with the peel-off sticker.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (1969)
Selected by Jimmy Page, the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut album depicts the enflamed Hindenburg airship (a German commercial plane built by the Zeppelin Company that caught fire and crashed in 1937, killing 36 people). The band had gotten its name from the incident, and the image worked well to herald the ferocity of what would become the most famous rock band of the 1970s. This was artist George Hardie’s first time to work with the band.
The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)
Taken on the zebra crosswalk outside London’s Abbey Road Studios at 11:30 a.m. on August 8, 1969, the photo on the cover of the last album The Beatles ever recorded is one of the most oft imitated in rock and roll. Today, a webcam keeps constant vigil of the hallowed spot. Photographer Iain Macmillan, who was introduced to John Lennon by Yoko Ono, is responsible for the snapshot. In the photo, the band walks single file, an arrangement that “Paul is dead” conspiracy theorists compared to a funeral procession.