Art of Vinyl:
Iconic Album Covers

Could an iconic album cover even be created in today's music industry?

Sure, an artist or band might do a limited run of vinyl releases for their latest concept album, but the target audience for something like that is only the most super-dedicated of their fanbase. Most artwork for music designed for mass consumption, i.e., for modern streaming on sites like Spotify or iTunes, is optimized for your phone or other small devices (the former of those two even puts a bigger emphasis on hyper-short-form video content in the form of a song's canvas). Such a small visual medium lacks the size and tangibility seen on some of the best vinyl – or even compact disks – album covers released as recently as 15 years ago.

To avoid sounding too "Things were better back in the day," I'll counter by arguing that nothing can be labeled as a timeless album cover or iconic album artwork by contemporary critics or fans; that responsibility falls solely on the shoulders of future generations. We can undoubtedly say that Hozier's 'Unreal Earth' or Taylor Swift's '1989 (Taylor's Version)' are some of this generation's most incredible album covers. But timeless or iconic? I'll save that for the next generation of music fans after the artwork – and the stories behind them – have had a chance to simmer for a few decades.

With this in mind, it would be doing a disservice to the generations who have jammed before I not to take a moment to comment, critique, and share the stories behind the small list of albums we deem as the most iconic album covers of all time.

So, let's dive into, in no particular order, our short list of “the art of vinyl” and the stories behind some of the most iconic album covers of all time.

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

In 1973, Pink Floyd's album "The Dark Side of the Moon" became iconic for its cover art, which featured a simple graphic of a light ray passing through a prism against a black background. The artwork and concept were created by the British graphic design firm Hipgnosis, more specifically by the designers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. This design, like the Beatle's album above, omitted the band's name and album title, became synonymous with Pink Floyd, and has been widely used on so many different types of merchandise that it wasn't even surprising at the time to see basic postage stamps sporting its iconic imagery.

Inspired by a magazine article on light refraction, Thorgerson proposed the prism concept, which the band immediately embraced!

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Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind is known for its groundbreaking music and provocative artwork, which features a naked baby in a pool chasing a dollar bill on a hook. This image has become one of the most recognizable in music history. The cover was the brainchild of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, inspired by a television program on water births. Despite the initial reluctance from Geffen Records, the band's major label, to use such a controversial image, Cobain's vision prevailed.

The baby pictured, Spencer Elden, was photographed by Kirk Weddle after a stock image proved too costly. Elden, who received $200 for his participation, had expressed mixed feelings about his unwitting fame from the album cover, highlighting the oddity of being famous for an image taken as an infant. The cover's concept reflects the societal chase for money—a central theme in the album, linking the art directly to Nirvana's broader commentary on society.

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The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Billboard recently named Andy Warhol's design for The Velvet Underground and Nico's 1967 album the best album cover ever. This cover features a distinctive banana image and is noted for its interactive design, where the banana's peel could be removed to reveal a pink fruit underneath. This feature, combined with the provocative tagline "Peel slowly and see," hinted at more adult themes, aligning with the inflammatory nature of the album itself.

Despite its iconic status today, the album did not succeed commercially after its release. It only reached #171 on the Billboard 200 charts between 1967 and 1969, earning a mere $22,000 in royalties. Warhol, who managed The Velvet Underground and introduced the band to singer Nico, played a significant role in the album's creative direction.

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David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)

The album cover of David Bowie's "Aladdin Sane," created in 1973, represents a notable milestone in visual marketing, blending advertising finesse with cultural influence. The cover was conceptualized with high-budget production values, directed by Bowie's manager, Tony Defries, and executed by photographer Brian Duffy. Defries aimed to secure Bowie's position with R.C.A. by driving up investment, making it financially challenging for the label to sever ties. Duffy employed luxurious techniques for the cover, including a costly Kodak dye transfer process to achieve vibrant color depth suitable for detailed airbrushing, with components produced in Switzerland.

The cover features Bowie with a bold lightning bolt across his face, inspired by the Taking Care of Business logo, symbolizing drama and androgyny.

Initially, only one image from this shoot was widely recognized until 2010, when alternative shots were released, broadening public access to the session's entire range. These photographs have since been showcased in exhibitions and publications, underscoring the legacy of Bowie's artistic expression encapsulated in the Aladdin Sane cover.

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The Clash – London Calling (1979)

The Clash, prominent figures in the British punk rock scene during the late 1970s and early 1980s, greatly shaped the genre by blending reggae, funk, and rockabilly with their music. This clever approach helped them establish a substantial fanbase, particularly in the United States, where their third album, "London Calling," achieved platinum status.

Its cover, featuring bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass during a 1979 New York City concert, embodied the band's rebellious spirit and was captured by photographer Pennie Smith in a moment of true frustration with concert security.

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Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

The cover of Joy Division's debut album "Unknown Pleasures" is renowned for its distinctive white-on-black waveform design. This image represents the radio emissions from a pulsar, specifically CP 1919, discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish in 1967. Each line on the cover depicts individual pulses from the rotating neutron star, varying slightly due to long-distance travel and interference from space.

The design, derived from Harold D. Craft Jr.'s Ph.D. thesis at Arecibo Radio Observatory, was initially published as a stacked plot in Scientific American in 1971, derived from Harold D. Craft Jr.'s PhD thesis at Arecibo Radio Observatory.

Craft adjusted the alignment of each pulse to create a visually appealing slope reminiscent of a hillside. The plot was later reproduced in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, capturing the attention of Bernard Sumner, a graphic designer and member of Joy Division. Inspired by the image, Sumner suggested it for the album's cover, which was then executed by designer Peter Saville for Factory Records in 1979.

Saville chose to invert the band's requested color scheme, enhancing the cover's enigmatic appeal to match the album's title, "Unknown Pleasures." This iconic design, symbolic of scientific discovery rather than cosmic phenomena, remains a significant part of music and design history.

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Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)

Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album "Rumours" is one of the most successful records ever, having sold over 45 million copies. The album art, featuring Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood, captures the complex and tumultuous relationships within the band. The cover depicts Nicks in dark robes and Fleetwood with a foot on a stool, clutching two wooden balls, symbolizing the mysterious and complex dynamics of the band during a time of personal upheavals.

The relationships among the band members, particularly the crumbling partnerships of John and Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, and Fleetwood's divorce, fueled the album's themes of discord and rumor.

"Rumours" is a narrative of these personal conflicts, with the cover art enhancing the album's mystique and drawing listeners into Fleetwood Mac's world. This cover remains a distinctive icon, intriguing fans with its complex symbolism and the story of a band marked by peace and strife.

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Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)

The creation of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album cover is a story of fate and artistic vision, vividly told by photographer Dick Zimmerman. During the photo shoot, Jackson, initially unable to find suitable attire, was captivated by Zimmerman's white suit, which he wore for the cover.

The session unfolded over six hours with multiple setups, capturing Jackson's transformation from subdued to electrifying as he practiced his dance moves during breaks. Zimmerman recalls Jackson's professional diligence, ensuring each frame was meticulously reviewed.

The final cover selection happened swiftly when producer Quincy Jones identified the defining image among the shots. Months after the album topped the charts, Jackson thanked Zimmerman in a crowded restaurant!

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Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

The iconic "Purple Rain" album cover featuring Prince captures the artist astride a 1981 Hondamatic Honda CM400A motorcycle, clad in a striking purple suit, set against a smoky backdrop. This picture, which also served as the movie poster for Prince's rock musical drama "Purple Rain," was taken under the creative direction of Laura LiPuma and photographed by Ed Thrasher and Associates/Ron Slenzak.

The set was the Warner Bros Studio backlot in California, designed to resemble a New York apartment complex.

The "Purple Rain" cover, with its detailed and dramatic elements, stands out as a milestone in Prince's career. It beautifully intertwines his music and cinematic works.

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

Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." album cover is not one you easily forget. It features Springsteen in front of an American flag with a ball cap tucked in his back pocket. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz and Andrea Klein, this image was chosen somewhat serendipitously, with Springsteen explaining in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview that the rearview looked better than his front.

The cover has spurred various interpretations, including misconceptions about its political implications; however, Springsteen clarified that no hidden message was intended.

Released in 1984, "Born in the U.S.A." marked a pivotal point in Springsteen's career, embracing a pop sound that propelled the album to commercial success. The album and its title track offer a subtle take on the American Dream, blending critical perspective with a sound that resonates with patriotic fervor. The cover reflects the album's themes and pays tribute to personal elements of Springsteen's life, such as the baseball cap from a friend meant to honor his late father.

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The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)

The Rolling Stones' album "Sticky Fingers," released in 1971, stands out not only for its musical hits such as "Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses," and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," but also for its provocative album cover designed by Andy Warhol (A familiar name to this list already). Warhol's design featured a close-up of a man's jeans with a genuine zipper that could be pulled down to reveal underwear beneath, an innovative yet costly feature that impacted the vinyl's quality.

This led to later versions of the album cover being simplified to just the photo without the working zipper, though it retained its bold appeal.

The cover, featuring possibly model Joe Dallesandro rather than Mick Jagger, encapsulated the era's rock and roll ethos intertwined with overtly sexual imagery, making it a memorable piece of art and advertising combined. "Sticky Fingers" remains one of the Rolling Stones' most celebrated works, showcasing their enduring influence in rock music.

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

The album cover of Bob Dylan's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," released on May 27, 1963, captures a candid moment with Dylan and his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo in the chilly streets of New York. Photographer Don Hunstein, who previously worked with Dylan on his debut album cover, opted for an outdoor shoot this time. A portrait of James Dean inspired the iconic image chosen for the album and exuded a raw, spontaneous vibe that contrasted sharply with the more staged album covers of the time.

The photo session was held on a cold February day in 1963 near Dylan's apartment in Greenwich Village. Hunstein captured the couple walking down the slush-covered streets despite the freezing temperatures, resulting in intimate and evocative photos. Rotolo wasn't initially planned to be part of the shoot but contributed immensely to the timelessness of the image.

This album cover, featuring Dylan with his hands deep in his pockets and Rotolo clinging to his arm, became a symbol of youthful hope and challenge amidst harsh conditions. The simplicity of the cover design underscored the authenticity and spontaneity that the photo conveyed.

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Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

The album cover of Led Zeppelin IV, also known as the "Untitled Album," is an influential message by the band, emphasizing their music's value over celebrity status. Released in 1971, this album by Led Zeppelin came without a title, artist credits, or cover title, a deliberate choice to counter critics who dismissed the band as a mere fad. The cover features an older man carrying sticks, an image chosen by Robert Plant, which contrasts old traditions with the modernity depicted by skyscrapers on the back cover.

This design choice was part of the band's broader intent to let their music speak for itself, free from the influence of their prior commercial imagery. Inside the album, the artwork continues with a representation of the Hermit from Tarot, symbolizing a quest for truth. The record sleeve features Arts and Crafts style typography for the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven," meticulously recreated from a vintage typeface by Jimmy Page. These artistic elements reflect Led Zeppelin's dedication to blending deep, meaningful symbolism with innovative music.

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Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)

Released on December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre's album "The Chronic" is a milestone in the West Coast rap scene. It introduced the world to the distinctive sound of G-Funk and artists like Snoop Dogg. The album's cover art, designed by Kimberly Holt, features a clever adaptation of the Zig-Zag rolling papers logo.

"The Chronic" was crafted amid the cultural backdrop of early 1990s Los Angeles, a time marked by the L.A. Riots. The album's imagery and sounds embodied this era, blending aggressive lyrical content with smooth, funky percussion borrowed heavily from Parliament-Funkadelic. This fusion defined a genre and broadened rap's mainstream appeal.

It has since achieved multiplatinum status, securing its place in the annals of music history. The album cover has become iconic, symbolizing the era and Dr. Dre's impact on the music and cultural landscape of the early 90s.

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Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)

Released in 1986, the Beastie Boys' debut album "Licensed to Ill" made a bold statement in the music industry with its irreverent and energetic style. The album cover, designed by Steve Byram and created by artist World B. Omes, effectively captures the spirit of the band's vision as a whole. Inspired by Rick Rubin's reading of "Hammer of the Gods," a biography detailing Led Zeppelin's rock excesses, the cover features an airplane crashing into a mountain, a nod to the infamous Starship airliner once rented by Led Zeppelin.

This choice of imagery serves a dual purpose, symbolizing rock star excess while also recognizing the tragic history of music stars and plane crashes, such as the deaths of Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The cover is filled with dark humor and intricate details, including a tail number that reads "Eat Me" backward and a logo reminiscent of Harley-Davidson, reflecting the band's playful yet cutting-edge approach.

The album's title, a pun on James Bond's "license to kill," ties into the broader cultural references that pepper the era's music scene.

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Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)

Blondie's 1978 album "Parallel Lines" showcased the band's miscellaneous musical style, blending pop, punk, and disco, highlighting internal anxieties during its production. The cover, intended to represent this mix of styles, became a topic of contention between the band and their manager, Peter Leeds. Leeds, who wanted a more rebellious look, manipulated the band's image, pushing for a cover where band members expressed differing emotions—contrary to their desires.

Despite the disagreements behind the scenes, the cover and the album eventually earned the status of a New Wave classic. Blondie, often mistakenly considered just the moniker for lead singer Debbie Harry, gained substantial recognition in England. However, they faced initial resistance to the U.S. Management's strategies, including an exhausted Harry's charm offensive, which helped soften their image and win over American audiences.

Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)

In 1986, Don Brautigam created the iconic cover art for Metallica's album "Master of Puppets." The image set in a graveyard captures a theme of morose and undying societal manipulation (with a heavy religious tint). Brautigam, renowned for his illustrations for Stephen King and Dean Koontz, was tasked by Metallica's management to conceptualize the cover without hearing the album. The artwork reflects the album's themes with a graveyard for soldiers, linking to the antiwar track "Disposable Heroes."

The idea, originating from a sketch by band member James Hetfield, emphasizes the control over individuals portrayed as puppets on crosses. The album, marking the last appearance of bassist Cliff Burton, became a multiplatinum success, further immortalizing Brautigam's work, which he completed in just three days using acrylics.

Brautigam's contribution to the album's legacy continued to be celebrated, highlighted by the sale of the original painting for $35,000 at Christie's in 2008, a year after the artist's death from stomach cancer. His initials, discreetly placed in the artwork, mark his lasting impact on music and art.

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Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast (1982)

In 1982, Iron Maiden released their groundbreaking album, "The Number Of The Beast," featuring artwork that became nearly as notable as the music itself. The cover was created by British artist Derek Riggs, known for designing the band's zombie mascot, Eddie, who first appeared on their 1980 debut album. For this project, Riggs was inspired by a character he saw in a documentary, which he transformed into a symbol representing the wasted potential of youth, adding more intimidating features over time.

While Iron Maiden underwent significant changes, including introducing Bruce Dickinson as the new lead vocalist, Riggs continued to be a pivotal part of their visual identity. The cover for "The Number Of The Beast" was produced under tight deadlines, which Riggs noted limited its polish compared to other works like the "Killers" album cover.

The artwork, depicting a devilish figure amidst a stormy backdrop, was adapted from a comic book Riggs had read in the 1970s. Riggs aimed to match the album's intense and dark themes rather than convey a specific mood. This image became so revered that Iron Maiden chose it for a series of signed, limited-edition prints. Riggs' contribution to the album's visual representation has become a lasting part of Iron Maiden's legacy, cherished by fans and the band's management.

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AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)

"Back in Black" by AC/DC is a legendary rock anthem released in 1980 as a tribute to Bon Scott, the band's former lead vocalist, who passed away earlier that year due to acute alcohol poisoning. The song features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history. It celebrates a significant moment in the band's journey, encapsulating their solidity and commitment to continue after Scott's death. Bon Scott had been a pivotal member of AC/DC since 1974, and his final performance was recorded just days before his untimely death.

The black cover of this album is a sign of mourning for Scott, purposely kept minimal for this exact reason. Oddly enough, Atlantic Records disliked the album cover on first impressions and was only convinced to move forward with the design on the condition the band outlined their logo in grey.

The track was crafted by the remaining members of AC/DC and the new lead singer, Brian Johnson, who joined shortly after Scott's passing. "Back in Black" was intended as a joyous tribute to Scott, focusing on his life's vibrancy rather than mourning his loss. Johnson co-wrote the lyrics, celebrating Scott's daring spirit and enduring impact on the band.

Upon its release, "Back in Black" received widespread acclaim, reaching number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 and contributing to the album's sales of over 50 million copies globally.

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Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon & Garfunkel, released in 1970, swiftly became an emblematic track of the era, resonating deeply with its listeners. This song, influenced by the gospel music Paul Simon admired, mainly the Swan Silvertones' 1959 "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," incorporates profound gospel elements that enhance its dynamic intensity. Simon crafted the lyrics to offer comfort and support, symbolized through the imagery of a bridge offering safe passage over turbulent times. Notably, though Simon penned the song, he chose Art Garfunkel to vocalize it, a decision he later reflected on with mixed feelings due to its immense success.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" achieved monumental acclaim, topping charts globally and securing five Grammy awards in 1971, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Its lyrics speak to the universal experience of facing hardships and finding solace and support, a message that has allowed the song to remain relevant for decades. It has been covered by numerous artists across various genres, each adding their touch to this timeless piece. The song's enduring appeal is a testament to its deep emotional connection and its ability to resonate across different periods, providing a soothing presence amidst life's challenges.

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The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)

The Abbey Road album cover features The Beatles crossing a zebra line outside E.M.I. Studios on Abbey Road, captured by photographer Iain Macmillan on August 8, 1969. With a simple yet memorable composition, the photo shows John Lennon leading the group, followed by Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Notably, McCartney is barefoot and slightly out of step. Despite E.M.I.'s concerns, the cover's distinctiveness only added to its fame, proving no title was necessary for the world's then-most-famous band.

This album cover sparked various cultural discussions, including the "Paul is Dead" conspiracy, suggesting the photo symbolizes a funeral procession. In the scene, a white Volkswagen Beetle also appears, later sold at auction in 1986. The Abbey Road crossing remains a significant site, having gained grade II listed status in 2010, acknowledging its cultural impact.

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