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The Greatest Album Cover Art In Music History

Abbey Road - The Beatles | © Ian Burt/Flickr
Picture of Rohini Aggarwal
Updated: 13 February 2016
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There are two parts to the perfect album: the music and the cover art. We explore ten of the most iconic album covers in music history, from Warhol’s peelable banana cartoon to the most famous zebra crossing in the world.

The Velvet Underground And Nico

When: March 1967

Who: Manager of the band and pop artist Andy Warhol.

Warhol’s iconic banana print began as a peel-back sticker that revealed a flesh-coloured version of the fruit beneath. To strengthen this phallic image further, Warhol added ‘Peel slowly and see’ to the cover. Warhol’s art director Ronnie Cutrone revealed the arduous process behind the unique cover: ‘Someone had to sit there with piles of albums, peel off the yellow banana skin stickers and place them over the pink fruit by hand.’ Though this meant a delayed release, MGM covered the cost inefficiencies, expecting a rise in sales due to the Warhol connection. However, due to the band’s disappointing sales figures, by 1968, the peelable banana had been dropped. Thus, the rare nature of this original design, and the band’s eventual popularity, transformed the cover into a collector’s item (costing up to $500 each). The image became so significant that almost 50 years after the album’s initial release, the band and the Andy Warhol Foundation fought legally over ownership of the banana symbol.

The Velvet Underground And Nico cover

Abbey Road — The Beatles

When: September 29, 1969

Who: Ian Macmillan was a freelance photographer and friend of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Abbey Road was the first Beatles album that did not state the name of the band or album. Despite this, Abbey Road has arguably become the most recognisable of the Beatles’ albums due to the enduring image on its cover. It has even put this once ordinary crossing on the tourist map of London, with flocks of people visiting the underwhelming site to reconstruct the famous image. In the UK, the album stayed at number one for 17 out of the 81 weeks it was present in the charts. Across the pond, the album remained number one in the US for a total of 11 weeks. Singles pulled off the album include ‘Something’ and ‘Come Together’.

Dark Side Of The Moon — Pink Floyd

When: March 1, 1973

Who: The famous album cover was designed by Storm Thorgerson, an English graphic designer and music video director, who also produced work for artists such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Biffy Clyro.

Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album cover features a prism dispersing light into colour. It is said to represent the band’s stage lighting, this particular record’s themes (including mental illness said to be inspired by recently departed Syd Barratt) and band member Richard Wright’s desire for a ‘simple and bold’ design. And they definitely achieved the latter – the bold design still endures today, 22 years after Pink Floyd initially split. With singles featured including ‘Money’ and ‘Time’, The Dark Side Of The Moon reached dizzying heights, remaining on the charts for an unbelievable 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988.

The Dark Side Of The Moon cover

Houses Of The Holy — Led Zeppelin

When: March 28, 1973

Who: Aubrey Powell co-founded the album cover design company Hipgnosis with Strom Thorgerson in 1967 until 1982. He worked with artists such as Paul McCartney and Black Sabbath. The company was nominated five times for Grammy awards, including for this very cover in 1974.

Supposedly, the cover for Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album was inspired by Arthur Clarke’s conclusion to his novel Childhood’s End. The numerous children pictured on the sleeve were actually modeled by only two siblings, Stefan and Samantha Gates, whose images were then multiplied. Neither the band nor album’s name was included on the cover, perhaps making it all the more striking. Yet manager Peter Grant allowed Atlantic Records to add a paper title band for US and UK copies to hide the children’s stark nakedness on the shelves of record stores. The album was banned in many parts of southern America for numerous years. However, the album entered the British chart in first position, and in 2012, it was named 148th Greatest Album Of All Time by Rolling Stones.

Houses of the Holy

Aladdin Sane — David Bowie

When: April 1973

Who: Photographer Brian Duffy.

Throughout the course of his career, Bowie moved from alter ego to alter ego, constantly changing and reinventing his image and sound with every album. Many consider that his sixth album Aladdin Sane, and the persona created in conjunction with it, turned him into the legend we mourn today. This was perhaps proven by the flood of Facebook tributes appearing soon after his death and containing the powerful image of the lightning bolt, connoting electricity and current, cutting across his face. Bowie said the bolt was ‘An electric kind of thing. Instead of, like, the flame of a lamp, I thought he would be cracked by lightning [speaking of his alter-ego] as he was sort of an electric boy. But the teardrop was Brian Duffy’s, an English artist-photographer. He put that on afterward, just popped it in there. I thought it was rather sweet.’ Singles from this number one album include ‘Time’ and ‘The Jean Genie’.

Aladdin Sane cover (cropped photo)

Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols – The Sex Pistols

When: October 28, 1977

Who: Jamie Reid, The Sex Pistol’s art director who was trained at Croydon College Of Art.

Johnny Rotten explained that the number one album’s title, conceived by lead guitarist Steve Jones, was a working-class expression meaning ‘stop talking rubbish’. London police threatened action under the 1899 Indecent Advertisements Act if record stores displayed posters of the ‘offensive’ album cover. However, eventually, the word ‘bollocks’ was legitimated due to businessman Richard Branson’s approval of the sleeve. This album’s name has found an enduring legacy, combined with punk band Buzzcocks, in the music-based quiz show ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, which ran on BBC 2 for almost 20 years.

Reid developed the ‘powerful ransom note and newspaper clipping style’ that became iconic in relation to the band. Perhaps this was influenced by his purchase of a printing press and his subsequent publication of a controversial community paper. The controversial nature of the band and their art director made it unnecessary to exhibit their faces on the cover, as Reid said, ‘They were ugly anyway’. So the simple design stuck.

Never Mind The Bollocks cover

Nightclubbing — Grace Jones

When: May 11, 1981

Who: Jean-Paul Gaude is a French graphic designer, photographer, illustrator and advertising director. He has worked as Esquire magazine’s art director and created campaigns for brands such as Chanel and Kodak.

The portrait on the cover of Grace Jones‘ fifth studio album reflects the artist’s image as described by lyrics of featured single ‘Pull up to the Bumper’: ‘Feeling like a woman/Looking like a man’. A powerful image consisting of sharp edges and an Armani jacket with masculine widely built shoulders simultaneously reveals Grace’s strong womanhood through the jacket’s plunging neckline or her plump, glossy lips beneath cutting cheekbones. The image encapsulates Grace Jones’ statement style, which combined fashion and art with her music, altering the face of modern pop. In this way, she can be viewed as a predecessor to contemporary icons such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Nightclubbing cover

True Blue — Madonna

When: June 20, 1986

Who: Shot by fashion photographer Herb Ritts, known for his black-and-white portraits.

This album cover is host to one of Madonna’s most recognisable images. Marilyn Monroe-esque, the photograph emanates the glamour, poise and style for which Madonna is known. With the photograph framing only Madonna’s side profile and cutting off any clothes, many see this image as goddess-like, fulfilling her persona of ‘Madonna’. Jeri Heiden, part of the team on this cover art project, stated that Madonna ‘was already highly aware of the value of her image and was in control of it.’ The colours, in line with Ritts’ signature style, are mainly grayscale with shades of blue creeping in to reinforce the album’s title, True Blue. The author of Madonna: Like an Icon made the link between this artwork and Andy Warhol’s pop art, furthering the 1950s Marilyn Monroe style of the cover. The album received immediate international success and became number one in 28 countries, a world record at the time. It also became the best-selling album of the 1980s by a female artist.

True Blue Cover

Nevermind — Nirvana

When: September 24, 1991

Who: Art director Robert Fisher.

Kurt Cobain’s creative idea was ignited when watching a documentary on water births with fellow band member Dave Grohl. Passing the idea over to Robert Fisher, they ran into problems with images of water births being considered too graphic for commercial resale. Therefore, Fisher settled on sending a photographer to a pool for babies, and the product was the famous image of three-month-old Spencer Elden, son of the photographers’ friend. Concern soon emerged about the baby’s visible penis and an alternate cover was produced with the penis erased. However, Cobain’s only permissible alternative to an unaltered version of the photograph would have been covering the penis with a sticker stating ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile’. Thus, the full image was maintained. Despite low commercial expectations from the band’s record label, success with their first single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ shot the album to number one in the Billboard 200 chart.

Dangerous — Michael Jackson

When: November 26, 1991

Who: Artist Mark Ryden who was once said to be ‘the godfather of pop surrealism’.

Michael Jackson‘s dense, colourful and complex cover design of his critically acclaimed album Dangerous has attracted much speculation about its hidden meanings. Beneath all of these ‘symbols’ lies Jackson’s face, whose piercing eyes and perfectly striking eyebrows stare back at you. The most common interpretation of this was Jackson’s feeling that he hid beneath unfounded speculations about his life imposed upon him by outsiders looking in. This perhaps reflects his struggles in finding comfort with fame and his desire to be shaded from the intruding camera lens. Featured singles on this album include some of his most famous hits including ‘Black Or White’ and ‘Heal The World’.

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