The 10 Greatest Album Covers of All Time
10. Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’ (1956)
Elvis knew what a killer combo green and neon pink were some 20 years before the Clash copped the cover style for London Calling. There’s something about that mid-strum snapshot of a vocal howl that gets us every time — it visually introduced rock n’ roll to an unsuspecting America even before the needle hit the vinyl.
9. Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ (1990)
A nod to the Afrofuturism of artists like Sun Ra, the artwork for Fear of a Black Planet was conceived by Chuck D, who imagined the titular black planet eclipsing earth. Appropriately, given the interplanetary concept, the group hired NASA illustrator B.E. Johnson to draw the final design.
8. Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’ (1983)
Cyndi Lauper informed the world that “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” on her classic 1983 debut, and one look at the cover of She’s So Unusualwould convert any non-believer. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in front of a derelict wax museum in Coney Island, Lauper strikes a willfully weird pose wearing a second-hand prom dress, fishnets and a mish-mash of clashing jewelry. Tellingly, her heels are kicked off to the side. More so than any album cover from a female pop queen, this remains the ultimate rallying cry to stay strange and love yourself for it.
7. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
One of the most recognizable album covers of all time features an underwater naked baby reaching for a dollar bill on a string. It’s a sad statement about the values our society passes on to our youth — and oh, btw, that baby is a twenty-something man now.
6. Pink Floyd, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973)
This simple art says so much. The light going through a prism and coming out as a rainbow was meant to convey the band’s stage lighting and the album’s lyrics. And, as evidenced by the number of t-shirts bearing this image today, the prism has become synonymous with Floyd itself.
5. Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)
Somehow the image of a burning airship erupting into flames just moments before plummeting to the ground and claiming dozens of lives is the perfect visual introduction to Led Zeppelin’s debut masterpiece. Whether you see it as an indication of the explosive music within the sleeve, or a heartless shock tactic capitalizing on a real-life tragedy, this black-and-white rendering of the Hinderburg disaster has become of the most indelible images in hard rock.
4. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)
The innocence of a baby-sized Biggie on the cover of his classic debutReady to Die vastly contradicted the content contained inside. But that was the point: the album traced his life from beginning to a mournful, foreshadowing end, using the innocence of a child to illustrate how a cruel world imprints on unmolded minds.
3. Patti Smith, ‘Horses’ (1975)
Aside from the critical acclaim for Smith’s beat poetry-infused lyrics mixed with punk rock, Horses’ cover is a visual masterpiece. Photographed by close friend and fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe, the photo of Smith was considered by critic Camille Paglia as one of the greatest photographs ever taken of a woman. With Smith describing her look as Sinatra-like, all elements combined to create one of the greatest album covers (and rock photographs) ever.
2. The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’ (1969)
Does any other album cover on this list stop traffic? It’s a testament to the lasting impression of this street-crossing photo that hundreds of fans re-create it every day outside Abbey Road Studios. There’s even a webcam live feed of the attraction. Another notable fact: It’s the first Beatles cover that doesn’t feature the band’s name or album title.
1. The Velvet Underground and Nico, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ (1967)
This iconic Andy Warhol banana picture with “peel slowly and see” instructions is a great cover on its own, but the original version actually included a peel-off sticker revealing a flesh-colored banana beneath. A perfect combination of art, music and humor.