With the increase in online music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, physical albums are no longer as beloved as they once were. 32 million CDs were sold in 2018, compared to 100 million more than a decade earlier. That said, many do still collect records. It’s often argued that vinyl creates a different experience—for one it’s something you can physically hold and treasure, with album artwork playing a large part in the process.
Record sleeves reflect the music you’re listening to. Design is often carefully thought out, and the musicians and creative team involved take great pains to represent the tone and style of the album and artist. Musicians create their album covers in different ways—Grimes designed her own, while The Velvet Underground famously worked with pop artist Andy Warhol for the sleeve of their legendary debut. Album artwork can even define an era, with some bands’ sleeves coming to mind more easily than some of their songs.
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The universally-recognised cover for The Velvet Underground’s debut album was released during the height of sixties rock. Yet, as Brian Eno once said, “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” Despite this, the vivid yellow banana on its cover has become iconic. The famous print was designed by postmodern pop artist Andy Warhol, who came into contact with the band after they participated in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of The Moon (1973)
This cover, showing a beam of white light passing through a prism to form the bright colours of the spectrum, is arguably the most iconic of all. This artwork became a huge symbol for Pink Floyd, who were reluctant to show their faces on their record sleeves. On Dark Side, neither the name of the band or the name of the album were displayed. There’s something to say about their status when a musician can successfully pull that off. The cover was designed by regular collaborators Hipgnosis, artists Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, who were old schoolfriends of the band’s.
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)
Brian Duffy is the photographer behind this iconic cover, capturing one of Bowie’s most recognised looks. An extraordinary musician and artist, Bowie played up the notion that his Ziggy Stardust persona came from another planet. Though the album artwork portrays the character, this was the album that ‘killed off’ Stardust, introducing a darker more disturbing persona.
Prince – Purple Rain (1984)
Prince had a one-of-a-kind style, imaginative with his looks and inspired by those working in fashion, film, art, and music. Dressed in an iconic purple suit on the cover, Purple Rain was his sixth album and served as the soundtrack to his first movie. The photo was taken by Ed Thrasher, who took the equally famous shot of Jimi Hendrix on a motorbike. Purple Rain went on to sell 20 million copies, remaining at number one for 24 weeks.
Destruction – Eternal Devastation (1986)
The artwork for Destruction’s second album has an authentic eighties metal vibe with bold hairstyles and a fiery depiction of devastation. This cover was designed by German artist Sebastian Krüger, who had earlier painted the likes of The Beatles, Alice Cooper, and Mick Jagger. Krüger’s work as an album artist is what made him famous having made an “early career painting VHS cover artwork”.
NWA – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
NWA helped define the gangsta rap genre and made the West Coast matter in hip hop. Their iconic album cover came under scrutiny when photographer Eric Poppleton stirred controversy about the presence of a firearm on the cover. Poppleton said about the process of shooting the cover, “I couldn’t say for sure whether it was ready to fire, but it was definitely a real gun.” This imagery made NWA famous, and drew people to buy the album—a politically charged collection of songs about violence and police brutality—in droves. A biopic about the band was produced in 2015, sharing its name with the album and further enhancing the group’s iconic status, and grossed $200 million worldwide.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
The album which broke punk, Nevermind was legendary for dethroning Michael Jackson from the top of the US album charts. But even more iconic was the naked baby that appeared on the album’s cover art, floating in a swimming pool with a U.S. dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach. Only 4 months old when the photograph was taken, cover star Spencer Elden, is now 27. He has since said that “It is a weird thing to get my head around, being part of such a culturally iconic image.” Elden’s father was a friend of photographer Kirk Weddle, who set up the shoot, and made Spencer one of the most famous cover stars ever.
Nirvana’s inspiration came from Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl’s interest in a documentary on water birth, while having him appear to chase a dollar bill came to represent the band’s anxieties around signing to a major label. On its release, the album came under scrutiny, as Cobain refused to censor the image, however a compromise was made by covering the offending part of the photo. In typically outspoken fashion, though, the sticker which did so read “if you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile.”
Blink-182 – Enema of the State (1999)
At the height of the pop-punk resurgence, Blink-182 released Enema of The State, courting controversy with the explicit image on its cover. Adult actress Janine Lindemulder posed as a nurse with the American Red Cross’s logo prominently shown on the nurse’s hat. According to bassist Mark Hoppus, the organisation demanded the logo be removed claiming it would be “in violation of the Geneva Convention”. Despite the controversy, Enema of The State became a defining album of the genre, thanks to hits like ‘What’s My Age Again?’ and ‘All The Small Things’.
Blur – Think Tank (2003)
Known worldwide for his philosophical graffiti, it’s a surprise the Banksy took the commercial route by agreeing to let Blur use one of his images for their seventh album Think Tank. Depicting a pair of divers trying to kiss underwater, it’s an image so archetypally Banksy it would be difficult not to notice. The album’s success did wonders for the Bristolian enigma’s profile, with Think Tank hitting number one in the UK album charts, and earning a nomination for best album at the 2004 Brit Awards.
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
With her voluminous hair, bold makeup, and sleeve tattoos, Amy Winehouse’s personal iconography helped create her brand, becoming inseparable from her music. The cover of Back to Black, her second and final studio album, shows a vulnerable side to the singer, as she sits on a wooden chair looking directly into the camera. Photographer Mischa Richter spoke about Winehouse being “four hours late” on the day of the shoot, having been out partying all night. Richter took the photo in her London home, in a room with black carpet and a black chalkboard, which serves as the image’s backdrop. A deeply personal, heartbroken album, Back to Black defined her legacy, thanks in no small part to its iconic cover.