21 iconic album covers and what they mean

Album covers_featured image

Behind every great album is a striking album cover. Below, we look at 21 iconic album artworks, what they mean and why they’ve been so successful from a design perspective. Let’s boogie.

Whether it’s a book, a poster, or even the wrapper encasing your favorite snack, the packaging says a lot about the product itself.

This idea is particularly important when it comes to iconic album artwork. While music has been radically digitized, in the days when vinyl and CD’s were the only way to access music, part of the entire music experience was taking home a piece of art that represented the musicians you loved. And while many people stream their music, musicians still value cover art as apart of their album’s vision, and another way to communicate with the listener.

While the famous saying goes “you can’t judge a book by its cover” the truth is, if the cover is beautiful enough, your audience is likely to pay much more attention to what’s on the inside.

01.  The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Sgt. Pepper

Arguably during one of the most exciting times in rock music, The Beatles released one of their most iconic album covers, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Designed by Sir Peter Blake, each member of the mega band wanted to choose a few muses that they were inspired by to accompany them on the cover. Stars like Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan appear as collages on the front cover.

While many modern-day album artworks tend to favor strict minimalism, The Beatles make a serious case for going bold and wacky without any type of restraint—especially when the goal is grabbing your audience's attention.

02. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground Nico

Created by American artist Andy Warhol, this album by The Velvet Underground proves that when it comes to an album cover design, there doesn’t always have to be a meaning attached to it—sometimes a bold, random image will work just as well. Word on the street suggests that Warhol found the inspiration for this iconic cover from a tin ashtray that he accidentally knocked over at a vintage store (proof that inspiration can be found anywhere!).

03. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd’s album, Dark Side of the Moon depicts white light passing through a prism to form the colors of the spectrum. The image is highly juxtaposed by a black background, making it stand out even more. According to Medium, many suspect that the rationale behind the artwork was to invite listeners to explore the music inside the album, which covers larger ideas of “alienation, loss, and materialism.”

Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, the artists behind the cover, are also responsible for creating Led Zeppelin’s iconic album Houses of the Holy. "The prism represented both the diversity and cleanliness of the sound of the music," Storm Thorgerson has said of this creation according to Mental Floss.

From a design perspective, using a black background instead of white brings the image to the forefront and would have allowed this cover to stand out on the music stands in record shops. The artwork also favors a sense of minimalism, inviting the listener to create a meaning for themselves.

04. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A (1984)

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A

Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the U.S.A is filled with songs that have become classic rock anthems for many people around the globe. While you can’t see the US flag in its entirety in the artwork, the album uses the red and white stripes, faded denim jeans and a trucker's cap to symbolize many of the themes sung about in the album. These themes included love, working hard and road trips.

Photographed by Annie Liebowitz, this cover gives us a quick glimpse at the central themes explored through Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics—thus, enticing the listener before they’ve even heard a song. From a branding perspective, the artwork matches Springsteen’s overall brand at the time—appealing to many working-class Americans.

05. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures

At first glance, Joy Division’s debut album cover, Unknown Pleasures, looks like abstract mountain peaks. However, the graphic designer who created the artwork, Peter Saville, has explained that the new band at the time came to him with a page from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, which has a similar image in it. The original image was actually of a pulsar signal. Since then, the album cover has transcended into a cult symbol for the band often adapted as tattoos, t-shirts and other merchandise as a homage to the band's artistic talent.

06. Patti Smith, Horses (1975)

Patti Smith, Horses

Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses has become a rock classic still to this day. And out of all her albums, this album artwork has had a certain lasting power—and was likely, one of the most affordable to create. Taken by one of her closest friends, Robert Mapplethorpe, the image was shot in her Greenwich Village apartment in New York. Patti told NPR in 2010 that there was only one rule for the shoot: “Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one...I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about 12 pictures. By the eighth one, he said, 'I got it'”.

Many artists choose to use simple self-portraits as album covers. In this image, we see a simplicity and vulnerability to Smith that invites the listener to delve deeper into what’s inside.

07. The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)

The Beatles, Abbey Road

Men, walking across a pedestrian crossing in unison. Who would’ve thought this simple idea could translate into such an iconic image? However, many guess that the popularity of this image is due to a conspiracy theory that was circling around the band during the album's release.

But first, the facts: This image was taken outside Abbey Road Studios in North London. The cover shot was one of six taken by Iain Macmillan. Shortly before the release of this album an American newspaper ran an article that claimed that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident and that the Paul everyone was seeing was simply a look-alike. Many believe that this album cover was actually the band’s way of communicating this idea, due to the fact that Paul is walking out of sync with the other band members, has no shoes and that the image looks similar to a funeral procession.

Whatever your take on the image is, this cover proves that an album artwork doesn’t have to cost a lot of money if you’ve got a good idea.

08. The Clash, London Calling (1979)

The Clash, London Calling

Aside from the striking color choice used against a black and white image, part of what Makes this album artwork by The Clash so iconic is that it was intended to be a homage to Elvis Presley’s first self-titled album.

Elvis Presley first self-titled album

The background image is Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage, Simonon has said of that dynamic picture: “The show had gone quite well that night, but for me, inside, it just wasn't working well, so I took it out on the bass. If I'd been really smart I would have got the spare bass out.”

09. Taylor Swift, 1989 (2014)

Taylor Swift 1989 album

Perhaps what makes Taylor Swift’s 1989 album so iconic is the vintage-feel it embodies in a time where album covers often employ more modern graphics and bold colors. Taylor Swift has said of the album artwork that while she always wanted a Polaroid image as the cover, the chosen image (which has part of her face cut off) was an accident, however, it's the one she liked best.

Taylor Swift has also revealed in many interviews that the album was inspired by pop songs written in the late 80s—so she decided to title it after the year in which she was born.

10. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here (1975)

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

On the front of Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here, there are two men in suits shaking hands. However, one of them is on fire. Surely part of this album’s iconic status comes from this bold picture (can you imagine being the stuntman?) but there’s also a deeper meaning to it. Designed by design studio Hipgnosis, the cover is inspired by the idea that people tend to hide their true feelings for fear of “getting burned”. Other sources claim that the image is a jab at the music industry and its desire to make money instead of considering what’s best for the artist and the listeners.

Perhaps what also makes this image stand out more is that it is accentuated by the use of white space around the image.

11. David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)

David Bowie, Blackstar

As the last album before his passing David Bowie’s creation, Blackstar, delves into Bowie’s struggle with terminal cancer. Fans suggest that the black star is a metaphor for mortality, as a collapsed star sucks in everything that comes near it. Designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, he told Dezeen that the black star symbolized “a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music."

12. Michael Jackson, Dangerous (1991)

Michael Jackson, Dangerous

Designed by Mark Ryden, Michael Jackson’s album cover for Dangerous is meant to reflect much of Jackson’s personal and professional life. While many sources have linked each image to a significant moment in Jackson’s life, sources also believe that the artwork depicts a circus and that this is how Jackson felt about fame and the music industry.

13. Beck, The Information (2006)

Beck, The Information

There’s bold, there’s simple and then there’s ultra-minimal, which was the case for the album artwork for Beck’s album, The Information. In the name of anti-packaging, Beck released an album cover that was a simple sheet of graph paper. Listeners were also given a set of stickers that they could then arrange as they wished.

14. Ramones, Ramones (1976)

Ramones, Ramones

When it comes to creating an album cover, sometimes the simplest idea is the best. After a disastrous shoot that was meant to be modeled after The Beatles’ album Meet The Beatles, the band decided to line up in front of a derelict wall and pose for the photographer, Roberta Bailey.

Unsurprisingly, the leather-clad group donning ripped jeans and sneakers created one of the most famous album covers to date.

15. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (1992)

Rage Against The Machine

After creating a radical and politically-fuelled album, Rage Against The Machine chose for their album artwork to make the same kind of statement.

The image for this self-titled album was taken by Associated Press correspondent, Malcolm Brown. Originally shot in 1963, the image is of Buddhist Monk, Thích Quảng Đức burning himself in protest of the oppression he felt was taking place in Vietnam towards Buddhism.

16. Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)

Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks

According to Louder Sound, the Sex Pistols late manager Malcolm McClaren has said of this album artwork that: “The only real thing about Never Mind The Bollocks was that it had to look ugly”—in an attempt to attack the idea of heavily graphic designed covers. Using stark colors and font that resembles that of a cut-out ransom note, commissioned artist, Jamie Reid ended up creating a punk-inspired cover that embodies the band's persona, and has thus been a key icon for fans still to this day.

While pink, yellow and black seem like an odd choice for a color palette, the juxtaposition of colors conveys the rebellious feel that the band wanted from a visual perspective and would have definitely stood out against the competitors at the time.

17. Rolling Stones, The Beggars Banquet (1968)

Rolling Stones, The Beggars Banquet

Perhaps what made the remastered edition of Beggars Banquet so popular was the drama surrounding its original release in 1968. Upon its original release, the Rolling Stones were forced to go with a cover that resembled a wedding invitation. However, their first choice was a photo of a graffiti-covered restroom wall that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote on.

However, both record labels in the US and the UK rejected the original cover—which also delayed the album's release by six months.

Rolling Stones, The Beggars Banquet original cover

But, in true rock style the band released the original cover 18 years later, and since, the cover has been one of the band’s most iconic.

18. The Notorious BIG, Ready To Die (1994)

The Notorious BIG, Ready To Die

It’s a stark contrast: A doe-eyed baby on the cover of an album titled Ready To Die, but many believe that this is exactly the point. Positioned in the front and center of a white backdrop, the idea of human innocence, vulnerability, and new beginnings is clearly communicated through this album cover.

This idea is accompanied by the first song titled Intro which provides the listener with an autobiographical timeline of the Notorious BIG’s life.

19. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3 (2009)

Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

Paired with songs like Death of Autotune, Jay-Z’s album cover, The Blueprint 3—which pictures an assortment of music equipment painted in white—has many believing that the meaning of this cover was a commentary on the whitewash of music.

Three red bars are painted horizontally across the album which provides a stark contrast to the white background and makes the artwork stand out.

20. Lorde, Melodrama (2017)

Lorde, Melodrama

Painted by artist Sam McKinniss, the blue-lit portrait of Lorde was inspired by the songs within the album, which speak a lot about the night and after-parties. The artwork was based on a photograph taken of Lorde in a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn.

The classic painting proves to be effective in contrast to the highly digitized album covers that are often created for the pop genre of music. There are no titles or words on the album cover, which allows it to more strongly resemble a portrait painting.

21. Frank Ocean, Blond (2016)

Frank Ocean, Blond

For an artist that hadn’t revealed much of himself during the early days of his career, Frank Ocean’s album cover, Blond, reveals most of himself with exception to his face. Fans have translated this to mean that he is still not willing to give his whole self away to his listeners. Moreso, the color of Ocean’s hair, paired with the white space used in the album, gives the photograph a modern and contemporary feel.

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