With most music being rendered digitally, only a few stalwart souls, like Jack White, even release albums, much less care about their cover art. Though few if anyone buys a piece of vinyl, a CD, or a cassette for the art on the box, that isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some striking work done on the liner notes and sleeves of albums throughout the years. A look back at the omnibus of cover art shows how music evolved, and helps to express how a visual, combined with a sound can drive the emotional power of a piece.
If you want to see how the landscape of the recording industry has changed, looking back over 22 of the most influential album covers will show you in a way that hours of listening never could.
The Beatles – Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
A complicated picture to put out, simply because getting the rights to all of the influences represented, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a complex love note to a complex time that many consider the greatest album cover ever made.
2 Live Crew – As Nasty As They Wanna Be
The first album to be actually tagged as officially, legally obscene, 2 Live Crew’s cover still raises hackles as most claim it is openly misogynistic, others claiming it is nigh-pornographic, and still a third set saying it’s actually about female empowerment.
Autechre – Draft 7.30
Odd and esoteric, Draft 7.30 combines music with drawing with sculpture in a way that also manages to capture the sound of the progressive electronic group, and create a feeling all its own.
The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico
At the time of its production, this self-titled album confused many, leading them to believe that pop-artist Andy Warhol was actually in the band. In truth, it’s simplistic, but its manipulative nature has given rise to many unknown musicians seeking works from known artists.
Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley
A plain album cover, but for the time it was a revolution. The sexy, arousing, gyrating rocker graces the front, with a guitar taking center stage; effectively ushering in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Who – The Who Sell Out
Playful and nakedly pointing out the pervasive nature of capitalism and advertising, the cover offers up deodorant and beans in a satirical stab at consumerist culture. Poignant in a world where Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” was played over vacation commercials.
Grateful Dead – Aoxomoxoa
Beastie Boys – License To Ill
Originally showing a 747 crashing into a mountain, with the “3MTA3” tag on the side appearing to read “Eat Me” when viewed in a mirror, it’s “l33t speak” before the moniker existed, and a strong anti-technology message that inflamed many.
Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell
The bombastic Mr. Loaf has always been about as subtle as a thunderstorm, but this rebellious and iconic cover managed to meld the grimness of metal albums with a sensibility that was more relatable than was the thrash rock of the era.
Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser – Wanted! The Outlaws
One of the most popular country albums ever to hit the shelves, this proved that country crooners could be as hard-core as any rocker. It appealed broadly to the old and the new, changing how many dissenters viewed musicians of the type.
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane
Coming on the heels of the Ziggy Stardust era, this album introduced a whole new Bowie character “Aladdin Sane” (A lad insane). Burying his past and redefining himself again, the entire anthem is a plea to other musicians to never stop changing and growing.
Small Faces – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake
Resembling a tin of tobacco, the art of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake created a stampede of artists who stopped making their album covers look like album covers, and instead stood as an example of doing whatever the hell the band wanted, however odd, to go with their music.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
While artists like Bob Dylan defined the sound of the ’60’s, Blind Faith managed to capture the spirit in a single image. A nude maiden appears on the cover with a silver spaceship in her hand. The message bottles the decade of moon landings and the Summer of Love in gentle relief.
The Clash – London Calling
True, this is just a rip-off of Presley’s first album pictured previously, but the message is very different. Instead of rock coming to the mainstream, this is it dying in cacophonous splendor with the guitar clearly about to meet its end on the stage of a show.
The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks
Simple yet unforgettable, the brash, bright coloration of the album, along with the ransom-note lettering tells you all you need to know about the decidedly brutal, tacky, unpretentious, violent Sex Pistols and the punk scene they embody.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
While the destruction of the Hindenburg was long before, showing such a disaster on an album would be like a burning twin towers on a box of cereal. It got attention and said in a single photograph: Nothing is sacred.
Madness – One Step Beyond
There isn’t much to this piece of art, but it came at a time when the music world was deadly serious about the death of disco and the rise of punk and metal. Here we can see everything that would come to define much of ’80’s pop music. The kitschy look would also inspire such bands as Devo, The Aquabats, and everyone from Peter Gabriel to Roy Orbison to the Ska of the mid-’90’s.
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Surrealist art is a difficult mistress to capture, and is done badly far more often than done right. To put it onto the wandering genius of Miles Davis shows how timeless and subconscious the power of jazz truly is.
The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
Blatantly sexual and showing the outline of a man’s penis right through a pair of jeans, this is an aggressive objectification of men and a nod to the sexual revolution.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery
Fans of Tool, Alien, and the artist H. R. Giger will recognize this as the progenitor of odd and uncomfortably industrial artworks gracing the front of many records. Metalheads will see many emulations of this on countless albums, but this uniquely bio-mechanical look started right here.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Though other bands used album covers with little or no decoration, the simple Dark Side of the Moon graphic art ushered in a time of minimalist symbolism that few dare to try to replicate.
Buzzcocks – Orgasm Addict
About as post-modern as it gets, the semi-sexual yet utterly disturbing world presented by both the mishmash imagery and the odd word arrangement draws the eyes in several directions; none very pleasant, but all piquant.