The visual impact of album covers is not to be underestimated: their images are forever imprinted into our memories and associated with the emotions and sensations that the song or album gives to us. For such unique eye-catchers, graphic designers, advertising agencies and even the musicians themselves pour a lot of their creative energy. For many artists, album art decisions are more difficult to make than musical ones. Easy to understand. After all, it is about sales-promoting artwork in a square format, which has nothing to do with composing music. Here are 10 examples of album covers that have made it to legendary status…
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Beatles were not only groundbreaking musically, but also in the design of their covers. By 1967, choosing an album cover that took album sales into consideration was no longer of interest to the band, they had a feeling that they would sell millions of copies anyway. A picture with a total of 70 personalities was created for Sgt. Pepper’s. For this, their doppelgängers from Madame Tussauds wax museum were used. In the photo-realistic collage, they aimed to symbolise a community of “new free people”. Placed in front of this, in a flower bed and surrounded by a wide variety of utensils, is the name BEATLES composed of hyacinths. What resulted was a message of diversity, earthly contrasts and common ground.
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Andy Warhol, known for his eccentric presentations, also wrote design history with The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album from the early days of Lou Reed and his bandmates at Velvet Underground was almost entirely produced, designed and marketed by Warhol. It was to become one of the pioneering milestones of underground music and later independent and punk music. Because of the striking motif, the album is often referred to as the banana album, which is by no means derogatory. On the first pressings (and some newer reissues like in the video below) the pop art banana could even be peeled, revealing a… (what, you think we’re gonna spoil it?). Some say the album cover is a commentary about the dark side of modern consumer society.
Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)
The cover of Deep Purple in Rock should not be missing from this list. The 4th studio album by the British rock pioneers is also known as “In Rock“. The album cover shows the portraits of the band members as gigantic stone sculptures. The depiction is based on the Mount National Memorial, a monument completed in 1941 with monumental portrait heads of the four most symbolic American presidents of the time. The rock legends simply swapped their heads for those of the presidents. In 1970 Deep Purple in Rock silenced the ’60s and helped pioneer hard rock. This year the album looks back on 50 years of history.
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge over Troubled Water (1970)
Bridge over Troubled Water by soft rock and folk duo Simon & Garfunkel is in millions of households. The song won multiple Grammy awards and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The cover itself shows Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who stand together quite well. So far so good. From the designer’s point of view, it is actually the opposite of “exceptional”. However, there is an optical illusion built in, and no one knows whether this happened accidentally or on purpose: if you hide Paul Simon’s face, his hair suddenly becomes Art Garfunkel’s flowing chin beard. Ever tried to look at it this way?
Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)
A few years later, another design idea by Andy Warhol was a big success. The idea with the zipper on the cover of Sticky Fingers comes from the pop art legend. The main motif shows the lower body of actor Joe Dallesandro in tight jeans from the front and back, with his genitals clearly showing. A working zipper was incorporated into the first edition, behind which was a picture of white underpants. And that’s exactly where the music was. For the first time, the Stones’ logo with lips and tongue from the pen of graphic designer John Pasche appears on this album. The logo should reflect the anti-authoritarian attitude of the Stones with deliberate sexual provocation.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
At the beginning of the 1970s, the band members of Pink Floyd were annoyed by the fact that their music provided almost exclusively an atmospheric background mood for the drunk. They were in a deadlocked image dead end. Founding member Syd Barrett had to leave the band in 1968 because of mental deterioration due to his excessive drug use. Roger Waters & co. wanted to position themselves with other important world issues and these concerns were also reflected on
the album cover: graphic designer Storm Thorgerson placed a triangular prism in front of black background. A white light beam hits the prism, whereupon the light diffracts into the spectral colours of the rainbow. The spectral colours fanned out to form the rainbow are
part of the cover and thus illustrate the heartbeat, which is heard at the beginning as well as at the end of the album.
The Police – Can’t Stand Losing You (1978)
As explosive as provocative, The Police, around bandleader Sting, put their finger into a tabooed sore. “Can’t Stand Losing You” is about suicide. And the cover showed their drummer, Stewart Copeland, hanging from a noose above a melting block of ice. The BBC banned the single from their airwaves until an alternate cover was arranged. Being blacklisted by the BBC generated a lot of high-profile publicity. Also the band had managed to bring the taboo topic of suicide more closely to the public eye, a much needed move in society.
Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1978)
One of the most famous covers in music history is the album Breakfast in America from Supertramp. The British band, at their zenith, had been alive and well for a few years already in the USA. Although the reference to the partly curious American way of life by members of the band, one does not quite get the suspicion of irony: The cover shows the view through an airplane window on Manhattan. In the foreground a hysterically cheerful waitress with a glass of orange juice in her right hand and a menu – a very different Statue of Liberty. A parodic allusion to the American dream? To this day this can only be assumed, albeit with a smirk.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
A four-month-old infant dives towards a dollar bill and is completely naked. Already the design of the Nirvana cover for Nevermind caused heated discussions. After all, the penis of the baby is clearly visible. The record company feared a sales-damaging scandal and wanted to avoid public displeasure. Kurt Cobain was prepared to make a value-conscious compromise and suggested: A concealing sticker should have been placed on the cover, which should name as pedophile those who take offence at the natural naked truth of a baby. In the end the cover was released without a sticker.
David Bowie – The Next Day (2013)
Always ahead of his time was David Bowie, a man of many faces, who revolutionised the music scene in terms of not only music but also design and photography. He himself has repeatedly reinvented himself and this can be seen on most of his album covers. According to cover designer Jonathan Barnbrook, the special feature of The Next Day album cover is that it uses the idea of alienation to alienate Bowie from an already very-well-known cover, that of the album Heroes, which was probably the most revered cover of the chameleon-like artist. The alienation marks a change as striking as Wall-Era Berlin becoming the Berlin of today.
You probably also have your own favourite covers which have a special meaning for you. We would be happy to read about them! Leave us a comment.