What makes album cover art iconic? Well for starters, it is instantly recognizable. The image it displays symbolizes the band itself, or even better, music in general. It is simple, yet profound–worthy of being displayed on the back of a bumper, or framed in one’s living room. Of course, art is going to speak to every person differently, and I am not here to tell you what art was most visually stunning or held the most meaning. Rather, these are the ten most iconic album covers of all time.
1) Pink Floyd- Dark Side of the Moon-In March of 1973 Dark Side of the Moon was released. 741 weeks later, it remained on the Billboard charts, longer than any other album in history. With an estimated 45 million units sold, Dark Side may be the greatest album ever (without a doubt in my humble opinion…) Exploring the issues of aging, greed, war, and the mental illness that was inspired by Syd Barret’s LSD-fueled descent into madness, the album was one of the first concept albums to ever hit record stores. The landmark prism design was inspired by a photograph that longtime Floyd designer Strom Thorgerson had seen during a brainstorming session with colleague Aubrey Powell. Meeting Richard Wright’s request for a “simple and bold” design, the prism also harkened to the band’s famous stage lighting. It has since come to epitomize the word “iconic.”
2) The Beatles- Abbey Road- On the morning of August 8, 1969, photographer Iain Macmillan was given ten minutes to take a photo of the fab four crossing Abbey Road for the band’s next album cover. Little did he know that that negative would go on to become perhaps the most iconic group shot in all of music. A couple points of interest:
–Paul McCartney is bare-footed and out of step with the other three, later providing fuel for the “Paul is dead” urban legend in late ’69.
–The man standing on the pavement in the background is Paul Cole, an American tourist unaware he had been photographed until he saw the album cover months later.
–The Abbey Road cover is the only Beatles album cover of their original UK albums to have neither the group’s name nor an album title visible.
3) Queen- Queen II- It’s hard to believe now, but when Queen II dropped in ’74, critics were less than impressed. Record Mirror wrote: “This is it, the dregs of glam rock. Weak and over-produced, if this band are our brightest hope for the future, then we are committing rock and roll suicide.” The reviewer for Melody Maker expressed similar sentiments, writing: “It’s reputed Queen have enjoyed some success in the States, it’s currently in the balance whether they’ll really break through here. If they do, then I’ll have to eat my hat or something. Maybe Queen try too hard, there’s no depth of sound or feeling.” So how’d that hat end up going down, hot shot?
4) The Grateful Dead- Steal Your Face- To be clear, this is not a list of great albums (though all but this one are admittedly classics). If it were, this selection would be nowhere near the top 10, not even if this was a list of Grateful Dead albums. Widely considered to be the Dead’s worst live album, the record was dubbed “Steal Your Money” by unhappy fans. However, the image adorning its cover would go on to grace a billion bumper stickers and T-shirts, becoming almost synonymous with the hippie culture at large. Designed by Owsley Stanley and artist Bob Thomas.
5) The Velvet Underground- Simple. Artful. Iconic. Designed by close friend Andy Warhol, the original record sleeve featured a yellow banana with “Peel slowly and see” printed near a perforated tab. Those who did remove the banana skin found a peeled, pink banana beneath.
6) The Beatles- Sgt Peppers- The Grammy Award-winning album packaging was art-directed by Robert Fraser, designed by Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth, and photographed by Michael Cooper. The collage depicts more than 70 famous, well, icons, including writers, musicians, film stars and several Indian gurus. The final grouping includes Marlene Dietrich, Carl Jung, W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, William S. Burroughs, Marlon Brando, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and comedian Lenny Bruce. Also included was the image of the original Beatles bass player, the late Stuart Sutcliffe. Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ were requested by Lennon, but ultimately they were left out, even though a cutout of Hitler was in fact made. The final bill for the cover was £2,868 (equivalent to $72,460 today), which was roughly 100 times the average cost for an album cover in those days.
7) Nirvana- Nevermind- Kurt Cobain conceived the idea for this cover while watching a television show on water births with drummer David Grohl. Cobain mentioned it to Geffen’s art director Robert Fisher, who found some stock footage of underwater births that were then deemed too graphic for the record company. Instead Fisher sent a photographer to a pool to take pictures of a three-month-old infant named Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer’s friend Rick Elden. Geffen prepared an alternate cover without the penis but relented when Cobain made it clear that the only compromise he would accept was a sticker covering the penis that would say, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.”
8) Bob Marley- Catch A Fire- Perhaps it’s a tad ironic that the lucky 20,000 to first get their hands on this 1973 vinyl release received an album that was in fact missing this landmark Bob headshot. These folks instead received their record encased in a Zippo lighter sleeve. The sleeve opened at a side hinge to reveal the record within, an assembly operation that required hand-manufacture. Not surprisingly, the Zippo idea was deemed too expensive to mass-produce and subsequent pressings featured the Ester Anderson portrait you see here.
9) Jimi Hendrix- Axis: Bold a Love- For all the accolades this famous cover has received, Jimi Hendrix was actually a little disappointed with the finished product. Although he appreciated the symbolic design, he mentioned in an interview that it would have been more appropriate if the cover art showcased his American “Indian” heritage. The British Track records’ art department had independently chosen to use the current fad for all things Indian to create the cover, and thus the album’s cover has a photographed copy of a cheap, mass produced religious poster of the Hindu devotional painting known as Viraat Purushan-Vishnuroopam showing the different forms of Vishnu with a small, superimposed painting of the Experience by Roger Law blended in.
10) The Rolling Stones- Sticky Fingers- Andy Warhol appears yet again in the top ten with his work here for the Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The original record cover featured a working zipper that opened to reveal a man in cotton briefs. The cover, a photo of Joe Dallesandro’s crotch clad in tight blue jeans, was assumed by many fans to be an image of Mick Jagger. However, the people actually involved with the photo shoot claim that Warhol had several different men photographed (Jagger was not among them) and never revealed which shots he used. The album also features the first usage of the “Tongue and Lip Design” designed by John Pasche.
Honorable Mentions: Allman Brothers- Eat a Peach, Led Zeppelin- IV, Jimi Hendrix- Are You Experienced?, The Who- Who’s Next?, Cream- Disraeli Gears, Pink Floyd- Wish You Were Here, The Doors- The Doors, Led Zeppelin- I, Santana- Abraxas, The Beatles- Let It Be, Lynyrd Skynyrd- Street Survivors, Peter Frampton- Frampton Comes Alive, The Harder They Come Soundtrack, Parliament- Mothership Connection, Notorious BIG- Ready To Die, Nas- Illmatic, Public Enemy- Nation of Millions.