The very best of rock music is art and passion. It won’t be wrong to say that rock music has produced some of the most exciting, creative and innovative album art in the history of music. Many prominent visual artists – such as Andy Warhol, Mike Kelley, Tibor Kalman, Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, and Slater Bradley – come to mind if we talk about some of the most notable contributions to the art side of the genre.
Today’s article is by no means all-encompassing, but it celebrates some of the finest rock album covers and their creators. Scroll through the gallery to see which one catches the most attention and learn how they were conceptualized and designed.
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Aladdin Sane (David Bowie)
Aladdin Sane album cover, based on British photographer Brian Duffy’s portrait, features Ziggy Stardust in glam-inspired make-up. One of its most distinctive features is the exuberant lightning bolt over one eye and a mysterious teardrop dripping from the clavicle. Often called “The Mona Lisa of Pop,” the cover is inarguably one of the most iconic images in pop art history.
Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses)
The original artwork for Appetite For Destruction consisted of a robotic rapist based on a Robert Williams painting. After several complaints from music retailers, the band replaced it with an image depicting a cross and skulls of the five band members.
Bold as Love (Jimi Hendrix Experience)
The cover art for Bold as Love features a painting of Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell superimposed over a Hindu-art influenced painting drawn by Roger Law. The actual photo-portrait was taken by Karl Ferris and “Viraat Purushan-Vishnuroopam,” a depiction of the Hindu god Vishnu or Krishna, served as inspiration for this classic album cover.
Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
The Born to Run artwork is based on a photograph taken by Eric Meola. According to Bruce Springsteen biographers, Meola shot 900 frames in a single session spanning three hours and the photo they finally selected (pictured above) shows Springsteen holding a Fender Telecaster guitar with an Esquire neck in his left hand, while putting his right hand on the shoulder of saxophonist and fellow bandmate Clarence Clemons.
Brain Salad Surgery (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
This meticulously-designed album cover was created by renowned Swiss painter and designer, H. R. Giger. Giger was asked by the band’s Swiss agent to create a cover for an album originally titled “Whip Some Skull on You”.
The album sleeve featured monochromatic biomechanical artwork, incorporating an industrial mechanism with a human female skull modeled after his wife, Li Tobler, as well as a new ELP wordmark. The lower section of the skull’s face bears a circular screen which shows the mouth and lower face in its flesh-covered normal state.
Bringing It All Back Home (Bob Dylan)
The cover art of Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan’s first electric album,was based on a photography taken by Daniel Kramer with an edge-softened lens. It shows Dylan sitting on a couch with various artifacts scattered around the room, including a Time magazine with President Lyndon B. Johnson on the cover and LPs by his favorite artists such as The Impressions, Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar, Lotte Lenya, Eric Von Schmidt, and Lord Buckley.
The photograph also features Sally Grossman, wife of his manager Albert Grossman, reclining on a chaise lounge chair while the edges blur in a circle.
Disraeli Gears (Cream)
Disraeli Gears artwork was designed by Australian artist, songwriter and filmmaker Martin Sharp. The psychedelic collage surrounded by a floral arrangement is actually based on a photography taken by famous British photographer Robert Whitaker, who also worked for The Beatles.
Hotel California (The Eagles)
This album cover is probably one of the most controversial, yet fascinating, artworks in the history of rock music. It is based on a David Alexander photograph which features the Beverly Hills Hotel, also known as the Pink Palace.
English graphic artist John Kosh is credited with its design and art direction. The artwork has aroused much controversy over the years due to its alleged links with the Church of Satan.
Houses of the Holy (Led Zeppelin)
This surreal artwork created by Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis borrows heavily from the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel Childhood’s End. It features an apocalyptic landscape with a number of golden-haired children crawling across the rocks towards a cosmic dawn.
In The Court Of The Crimson King (King Crimson)
In The Court Of The Crimson King’s surrealistic, gothic cover art was created by a computer programmer named Barry Godber, who died shortly after the album’s release. The iconic artwork consists of a bright-red screaming face of a schizoid man, making a reference to the album’s first track – “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
London Calling (The Clash)
Probably the most iconic cover art in the history of punk rock, London Calling artwork was actually intended by Ray Lowry to pay homage to the design of Elvis Presley’s debut album. The picture of Paul Simon smashing his Fender Precision Bass has been immortalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.
One of the most influential artworks in heavy metal, this cover art – featuring the famous War-Pig (also known as Snaggletooth or The Little Bastard) – was designed by Joe Petagno of Hipgnosis. Petagno came up with this fascinating mascot after studying skulls of wild boars, gorillas and dogs.
The gothic-style lettering, with the umlaut character ö, was created by English designer Phil Smee.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Sex Pistols)
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols front cover features the famous ransom-note cutout lettering and an exuberant pink and acidic yellow color anarchic-style theme.
Designed by English artist and anarchist Jamie Reid, who intended it as an antithesis of a conventional professional design, it is probably the most imitated and influential artwork in punk rock.
Nevermind album sleeve was designed by Robert Fisher, then-art director at Geffen Records. It featured a circumcised, three-month-old male baby swimming underwater and chasing a US dollar bill on a fishhook.
Kurt Cobain came up with the idea after watching a television program on water births. He mentioned it to Fischer who selected his friend’s infant son, Spencer Elden, for the shoot.
Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin)
One of the most acclaimed album covers in classic rock, the aptly-titled double album shows a façade of an elegant New York apartment located at 97 Saint Marks Place in East Village.
Jimmy Page mentioned in an interview that he came up with the album title and sleeve’s concept and intended it as a “physical statement rather than a written one”. It was designed by British visual artists Mike Doud and Peter Corriston.
Remain in Light (Talking Heads)
The now-iconic Remain in Light cover was conceptualized by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, and designed in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Walter Bender and his MIT Media Lab team.
The first album cover in history to feature computer graphics, it shows red masks over each band member’s face. The rest of the artwork and the liner notes were provided by Tibor Kalman, one of America’s greatest graphic designers ever.
Rumours (Fleetwood Mac)
Based on a stylized version of rock photographer Herbert Worthington’s photo, Rumours’ album sleeve features Mick Fleetwood in a black velvet outfit with a pair of wooden balls suspended from a cord, and Stevie Nicks dressed up in her now-legendary “Rhiannon” stage persona.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles)
Probably the most memorable cover artwork ever created, Sgt. Pepper’s album sleeve depicts the four Beatles photographed in front of a collage of famous historical figures, sporting a psychedelic, mustached look.
Based on an ink drawing by Paul McCartney, it was designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth. Photographed by Michael Cooper, art direction for the cover was provided by Robert Fraser. The artwork, on which the band reportedly spent more than $5,500, gained controversy for its explicit display of marijuana plants and cryptic collection of personalities.
Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones)
Originally conceived by Andy Warhol, photographed by Billy Name and designed by Craig Braun, Sticky Fingers’ album cover features a sexual innuendo: a man’s “messy” crotch in a pair of jeans, with an actual working pants zipper.
Several male models were photographed for the project, among them Warhol’s boyfriend Jed Johnson and Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro.
The Dark Side Of The Moon (Pink Floyd)
A deliberate attempt to avoid the traditional pictorial imagery, the refracting prism splitting a beam of light smartly depicts the conceptual power of the Pink Floyd’s lyrics as well as the band’s famous stage lighting effects.
Drawn by George Hardie and based on a photograph taken by Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, it is undoubtedly one of the most iconic album covers ever created.
The Doors (The Doors)
The psychedelic cover art of the band’s self-titled debut album is credited to Bill Harvey of Elektra Records. It features the band members of The Doors and on top, a carefully constructed and functionally precise, geometrical wordmark that later become one of the most iconic rock band logos in history.
The Kids Are All Right (The Who)
The album sleeve for The Who’s soundtrack to the 1979 documentary of the same name was based on a Art Kane photograph, which was taken at the Carl Schurz Monument in Morningside Heights, New York City.
The group, draped under a Union Jack flag, is sleeping against a wall. Carl Schurz was a German-American political leader and revolutionary who became the first German-born American elected to the United States Senate in 1896.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (The Velvet Underground)
Arguably the most memorable album cover ever created, The Velvet Underground & Nico – also known as the banana album – sported Andy Warhol’s phallic peel-off-banana artwork with minimal typography and clean design. The early copies of the album allowed the owner to peel back the banana skin as a sticker.
The White Album (The Beatles)
The cover jacket of the White Album, comprising of a white square with the band’s name displayed slightly off center and a unique stamped serial number, was designed by pop art pioneer Richard Hamilton. His “uncluttered” design approach was in a dramatic contrast with Peter Blake’s colorful artwork for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The little boy appearing on the War front cover was a nine-year-old Peter Rowen, the younger brother of Bono’s close friend Guggi. Rowen, now a 41-year-old photographer based in Dublin, Ireland, also appeared on the artworks of Three (1979) and Boy (1970).
Where to learn more
- 100 Best Album Covers by Storm Thorgerson
- Rock Art: The Golden Age of Record Album Covers by Dennis Saleh
- The Stories Behind the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and 4 Other Famous Rock Covers
- The Most Iconic Clothing in Pop Music Illustration Series