It is impossible to say exactly what it is that makes a great album cover. Something that perfectly captures the moment in both the band’s history and the popular cultural history at that time, as well as being a unique and captivating image, perhaps?
The photographers behind many of the most iconic album covers will often say that they had no inkling as to just how popular their image would become because it is usually hard to predict the success of an album before its release.
Whatever it is that makes for a truly iconic album cover, there are undoubtedly plenty of masterpieces to choose from. Researchers at creative resource Design Bundles have compiled a list based on the sales of an album and the influence it is regarded to have had on music and pop culture.
Using Design Bundles’ research, we are going to take a look at some of the greatest and most popular album covers from across the decades.
The most popular album art through the decades
The most popular band of all time are The Beatles, who have sold upwards of 600 million records since their first release in 1962. So, naturally, we have two entries from the Fab Four on our list.
Of course, there are also countless records by incredible artists that didn’t make our list. David Bowie, Kate Bush, Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, to name just a few. But we have chosen truly iconic album art that played a role in both musical history as well as history itself.
So let’s jump in and take a look at the most popular album art through the decades.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the eighth studio album by The Beatles. Released in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s is writ into music history lore as one of the first concept albums of all time, as well as being the unofficial soundtrack to the summer of love.
The album is as well known for its tracklisting – which includes ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, and ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ – as it is for its album art. The front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s features a host of faces from politics, history, and pop culture gathered around the burial spot of The Beatles. Karl Marx, Marlon Brando, Sigmund Freud, Marilyn Monroe, and Oscar Wilde are just a few of the 71 people who appear on the album sleeve. There were also some rejected names such as Hitler and Jesus, who were deemed inappropriate to depict.
The album art for Sgt. Pepper’s remains iconic in its blend of pop culture and high brow references, which was also a reflection on the content of the album.
The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground and Nico
Famously brought together by the maverick artist Andy Warhol, the eponymous album title The Velvet Underground and Nico was the first collaboration between the New York rockers led by Lou Reed and the German poet/musician Nico.
The artwork for the album was designed by Warhol and features a cartoonish drawing of a banana with his signature beneath it. The first editions of the album came with a label that invited listeners to ‘Peel Slowly and See’. The print of the yellow banana was on a sticker that could be peeled back to reveal the same image but in a fleshy colour.
The image has become iconic both because of the success of the album and for its simplicity, which encapsulated the core philosophy of Warhol’s Pop-Art movement in the 1960s.
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
The Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd’s eighth album. Released in 1973, it is widely regarded by many critics, listeners, and music historians as one of the greatest albums of all time. It is a concept album that features a continuous piece of music on both sides of the original vinyl, which are divided into songs.
The album cover depicts a glass prism reflecting light into rainbow colours. The triangulation of the prism is said to represent three elements: Pink Floyd’s famous lighting shows, the themes of the album, and the Keyboardist’s (Richard Wright) request for a bold and simple cover.
Although Pink Floyd were already well known in the UK, The Dark Side of the Moon propelled them to international stardom and sealed their status as rock music legends. The album cover was instantly recognisable the world over and it remains iconic to this day.
Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A
Straight Outta Compton was first released in 1988 and was the debut record of N.W.A. The album began the careers of Hip Hop legends Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E, and heralded a new era of hardcore, gangsta rap music. A multi-platinum record, Straight Outta Compton is praised for its hard-hitting lyrics, innovative production, and thematic content.
The album art features the six band members in a circle staring down at the camera with one of them pointing a gun. The provocative image along with the heavy content of the lyrics led to controversy in the music industry, leading to N.W.A being dubbed the most dangerous band in the world. The album received very few radio plays and the group were even sent a warning letter by the FBI for their lyrical content.
Despite its controversy, the album cover remains a stark and powerful image that stands unafraid of depicting the harsh realities of life for young African-American men in Los Angeles at that time.
Nevermind – Nirvana
First released in 1991, Nevermind was Nirvana’s second album and its surprise success shot them to stardom. The album is a cornerstone in the grunge rock genre but is also well known for the moment that it captured in the development of MTV and its power to make hits.
The front cover features a naked baby boy in a swimming pool seemingly trying to reach for a dollar bill dangling on a string. The nudity of the child was highly controversial and a peelable sticker was placed over him on many of the earlier editions. The baby featured, Spencer Elden, unsuccessfully attempted to sue the band in 2021 for the use of his image in such a pose.
Due to its controversy, the subsequent success of Nirvana, and the tragic death of lead singer Kurt Kobain, the album cover for Nevermind is now seen as one of the most iconic in the history of popular music.
Definitely Maybe – Oasis
Released in 1994, Definitely Maybe is the debut album of rock and roll megastars Oasis. The album was an instant success both commercially and critically and signalled the dawn of the cultural movement known as ‘Cool Britannia’ as well as being a seminal entry into the Brit-Pop canon.
The photograph on the front cover was taken in guitarist Bonehead’s front room. It features lead singer Liam Gallagher lying on wooden flooring with a glass of wine by his head. Singer-songwriter, Noel Gallagher is stood at the end of the room, and the rest of the band are variously scattered around with similar nonchalance. The band were all asked to bring objects that had personal meaning to the shoot, which included pictures of footballers, musicians, and characters from Sergio Leone films.
The warped wide-angle lens lends an almost psychedelic quality to the image which, along with the laid back positioning of the band and the scattered references to popular culture, perfectly marked the arrival of Oasis and foresaw many of the musical trends they would give life to.
Rumours – Fleetwood Mac
Rumours is the eleventh studio album of Fleetwood Mac. First released in 1977, the album is widely regarded as the band’s masterpiece and as one of the seminal albums of the 1970s. Much of the content of Rumours concerns the various romantic break-ups within the band and their heavy drug use at the time.
The front cover features Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks in a black and white stylised photograph. Fleetwood has his foot on a stool and is dressed in 18th-century clothing. He also has a crude allusion to his own anatomy between his legs – but we won’t go into that here! Nicks is holding Fleetwood’s hand and is dressed in her Rhiannon stage persona. Her leg is draped over Fleetwood’s and she is in an almost balletic pose.
The front cover of Rumours has mystified listeners and fans of Fleetwood Mac for decades. But the bizarre image has now become something of a legend in the history of rock music.
Abbey Road – The Beatles
Yes we know we’ve already had an entry from The Beatles, but when you are the biggest band in the history of the world it is hardly surprising, is it? Abbey Road is the eleventh studio album from the Fab Four and is considered by many to be among their best.
The album cover features John, Paul, George, and Ringo crossing the road on which their studio was based – Abbey Road – at a zebra crossing. John leads the pack in an all-white suit and shoes, followed by Ringo in an all-black suit and shoes, then Paul in a blue suit with no shoes and a cigarette, and finally George in all denim and white shoes. Much has been made and written about the imagery contributing to the rumour that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a body double. Of course, these were just rumours.
To this day, fans flock from all over the world to recreate the iconic cover image and the zebra crossing itself has become a grade II listed monument, meaning it is formally protected by UK law.