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The 30 Most Iconic Music Album Covers of All Time

These images from artists of every genre have stood the test of time.

Music is inherently not a visual medium, and yet there are countless images that have become as iconic as the songs they accompany. When you think of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance, you aren't just hearing John, Paul, George, and Ringo—you're also picturing them, all dressed up in pop-art finery surrounded by countless cutouts of famous people. It's a famous, beloved album cover, and it's hardly the only LP whose art has a reputation to match the music on the record. To recap this illustrious history, we've put together this list 30 of the best album covers of all time.

While there are tons of records with beautiful or interesting works of art on them, the following albums have art that has become truly seminal—nearly universally recognized cultural touchstones. Read on to see if your favorite made the list.

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1989 by Taylor Swift (2014)

"1989" by Taylor Swift album cover
Big Machine Records

Taylor Swift said she deliberately cut off half of her face in the Polaroid that graces the cover of her fifth album.

"I didn't want people to know the emotional DNA of this album," she explained to Time. "I didn't want them to see a smiling picture on the cover and think this was a happy album, or see a sad-looking facial expression and think, oh, this is another breakup record." The gambit worked—1989 was a shift for the singer-songwriter, who had previously been more country-focused, and it helped launch her to even greater levels of stardom.

Abbey Road by The Beatles (1969)

"Abbey Road" by The Beatles album cover

Abbey Road is the first of two Beatles albums to appear on this list, as not only are they one of the greatest and most popular bands of all time, they were also pretty good at choosing a visual identity for their records. Abbey Road shows John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr crossing the titular street where their recording studio was located—an activity that's literally pedestrian, though the band still look like rock stars.

Notably, neither the name of the album nor the name of the band are on the cover. It's just the Beatles themsevles, who were so famous that there was no need for anything more than an artful picture.

Aladdin Sane by David Bowie (1973)

"Aladdin Sane" by David Bowie album cover

David Bowie's sixth album didn't just canonize one of the legendary musician's most iconic looks, with the lightning bolt makeup on his face. It also was at one point the most expensive album cover of all time, intentionally so, because Bowie and his manager wanted to ensure that his label would promote the record heavily to make the exorbitant expense worth it. The high price tag of the picture, which was taken by photographer Brian Duffy, came from an elaborate and costly dye-transfer process using a seven-color system rather than the normal four.

Bitches Brew by Miles Davis (1970)

"Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis album cover

Miles Davis' seminal 1969 album Bitches Brew is a masterful work of jazz fusion, so it's only fitting that it has a masterful work of visual art fusion for its album cover. French surrealist painter Malti Klarwein painted the cover, a trippy, beautiful image of two figures looking over the sea and another, larger face sweating in profile over them. There's fire and water; light and dark, and yet, due to the style of Klarewein's painting, these forces appear to perfectly blend together although they are opposites.

Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

"Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen album cover

Bruce Springsteen once attested that Born in the U.S.A.'s cover looks the way it does was because "in the end, the picture of my [expletive] looked better than the picture of my face." He's not wrong, but there is also something apt about having only his rear in front of an American flag. It's both rousing and subversive in the same way that the lyrics of the title track are.

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The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)

"The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd album cover

A narrow ray of light on a black background hits a triangle and explodes into a rainbow prism of colors in the art of Pink Floyd's 1973 album. Created by artist George Hardie and the design group Hipgnosis, the image was inspired by a picture of light refracting through a prism that one of the designers had seen in a textbook, and it was the band's unanimous choice for the album art when presented with a couple of potential options. They chose correctly, as the minimalist art has achieved legendary status.

Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley (1956)

"Elvis Presley" by Elvis Presley album cover
RCA Victor

It's no wonder that the album art for Elvis Presley's self-titled 1956 debut inspired imitators—including one further down on this list. Featuring a shot of the King doing his thing, flanked on the left and bottom by his first and last name in a jaunty font in pink and green, the visual identity Elvis Presley instantly conveys the young musician's charisma and confidence. It's iconic for a reason.

Enema of the State by Blink-182 (1999)

"Enema of the State" by Blink-182 album cover

A lot of the most iconic album covers of all time are high-brow, restrained, and thoughtful pieces of art. Not so that of Blink-182's Enema of the State, which features album art as juvenile as its title. Janine Lindemulder, an adult film star, is dressed as a sexy nurse putting on a glove as she eyes the viewer. It's crass but knowingly, performatively so, making it perfectly fitting with the self-aware songs on the album, many of which have lyrics about arrested development and a sense of pathos underneath adolescent outbursts.

Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy (1990)

"Fear of a Black Planet" by Public Enemy album cover
Def Jam/Columbia

The pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy reached out to B.E. Johnson, a rocket scientist and NASA illustrator, to bring their sci-fi vision for their third album cover to life. The cover depicts the titular Black planet beginning to eclipse the Earth, and although Johnson said he had some qualms about the scientific implausibility of the physics in the scenario that rapper Chuck D described, he let it go, leading to an iconic album cover.

Horses by Patti Smith (1975)

"Horses" by Patti Smith album cover

Robert Mapplethorpe took the photo of Patti Smith for the cover of her debut album, in the process documenting maybe the coolest that any person has ever looked. The artist, who is dressed and styled somewhat androgynously, later said she was channeling Frank Sinatra and French poet Charles Baudelaire when she struck the pose, resulting in a visual that rejected the male gaze and instead suggested something much more intriguing and powerful.

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If You're Reading This It's Too Late by Drake (2015)

"If You're Reading This It's Too Late" by Drake album cover
OVO/Young Money/Cash Money/Republic

Drake's fourth mixtape was a surprise release in early 2015, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that the folks in charge of designing the album art were just as surprised as the rapper's fans. There's nothing to the cover but the title, scrawled in curiously distinct handwriting over some little prayer hands. Despite (or perhaps because of) the seemingly slapdash minimalism of If You're Reading This It's Too Late's cover, it became an iconic bit of album art. The font, believed to be Drake's handwriting, also became a meme.

In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson (1969)

"In the Court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson album cover

The pained face that appears on the cover of King Crimson's first album is pained and enigmatic—a twisted, prog rock take on the Mona Lisa's famous smile. The painting has become a classic because of how much mystery the face conveys. Sadly, Barry Godber, the artist who painted the cover for his friend, King Crimson founder Peter Sinfield, died of a heart attack at age 24, just a few months after the album came out, meaning if there are any answers to be found behind that expression, we'll never learn them.

Island Life by Grace Jones (1985)

"Island Life" by Grace Jones album cover

It looks like the pose Grace Jones is doing on the cover of her 1985 greatest hits album should be anatomically impossible. That's because it basically is, and the image, taken by her then-partner Jean-Paul Goude, is a composition of multiple pictures, giving her arabesque an unworldly, powerful vibe. And yet, because it's Jones—such a talented, striking figure—you don't suspect the image has been modified. If anybody could look like that, it's her.

Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin (1969)

"Led Zeppelin" by Led Zeppelin album cover

Led Zeppelin got their name from a conversation Jimmy Page had in which The Who's Keith Moon and John Entwistle joked that forming a band would "go over like a lead balloon." The cover of their 1969 debut album fittingly features the most infamous Zeppelin in history, using a photo of the fiery Hindenburg disaster in 1937. Perhaps it's a little on the nose, but the image is indeed striking, and luckily for Led Zeppelin, the band did not crash and burn.

Live Through This by Hole (1994)

"Live Through This" by Hole album cover

Model Leilani Bishop appears on the front cover of Hole's second album, Live Through This, looking overjoyed but also somewhat broken as she's crowned the winner of a beauty pageant. It's a tremendously powerful image that captures the challenge of being a woman in America, and it's made all the more meaningful by how it contrasts with the picture on the back of the album; a snapshot of frontwoman Courtney Love taken when she was a little girl living in rural Oregon.

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London Calling by The Clash (1979)

"London Calling" by The Clash album cover

The lettering that spells out the name of the Clash's third studio album is a direct homage to an earlier album cover on this list, Elvis Presley's self-titled debut. Elvis is giving off a very different vibe on that cover than bassist Paul Simonon is on London Calling. The photo, which depicts Simonon smashing the Fender Precision Bass in frustration, is perhaps the iconic rock-and-roll image.

The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest

"The Low End Theory" by A Tribe Called Quest

The cover of A Tribe Called Quest's sophomore album looks like a painting, and it technically is. On closer inspection, you can see that it's actually a photograph of a model who has been painted with glow-in-the-dark Afrocentric colors. It's complex, powerful, artful, and mature in all the right ways—just like the groundbreaking hip-hop group.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins (1995)

"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" by Smashing Pumpkins

Frontman Billy Corgan wanted a Victorian-style painting for the cover of the Smashing Pumpkins' third album, so he turned to illustrator John Craig. The woman emerging from a star on the cover of is actually a collage made out of two paintings: The Souvenir (Fidelity) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Renaissance master Raphael's portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It's classic, artsy, and slightly discordant—not unlike the alt-rock band.

Nevermind by Nirvana (1991)

Nirvana's "Nevermind" album cover
Universal Music Group

Nirvana's sophomore record boasts what has to be the single-most well-known, iconic album cover of all time. It features a baby boy, naked, swimming through the water after a dollar bill on a fishhook. Spencer Elden, the boy whose picture appeared on a massively popular album, would sue 30 years later, alleging that it was taken without his consent and had caused him "lifelong damage." The case is ongoing.

Odelay by Beck (1996)

"Odelay" by Beck album cover
DGC/Bong Load

The wildest thing about the cover of Beck's fifth album is that the shaggy creature jumping over a hurdle is a real animal. It's a Komondor, a very distinctive breed of Hungarian sheepdog, and the photo originally graced the cover of a 1977 issue of the American Kennel Club Gazette. Combined with the excited font spelling out the album's name, which is a riff on the Mexican slang "órale," the record cover has a whimsical exuberance that matches the music inside.

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Purple Rain by Prince (1984)

"Purple Rain" by Prince album cover
Warner Bros.

Prince's sixth album is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, so it was especially important that the record have a great visual for the album art. Of course, the artist delivered. Wearing an iconic purple suit, sitting atop a purple bike, and looking impossibly cool, Prince gazes out at the viewer on a smoky New York City street. (In reality, from a set on the Warner Bros. studio backlot in Los Angeles.) The image is flanked by flowers, a bit of confidence that only Prince could pull off.

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (1977)

"Rumours" by Fleetwood Mac album cover
Warner Bros.

Upon closer look at the cover of Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album Rumours, it's unclear what, exactly, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood are doing. What at first looks like a dance or the prelude to a loving embrace is actually a much stranger pose, with Fleetwood stepping on a little stool with Nicks draping over him. He's also got two little balls hanging from his belt, oddly. There's much more to this aesthetically pleasing image than initially meets the eye, just like there was more to the bandmates' famously complicated relationship.

The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

"The Velvet Underground and Nico" by The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

Although most physical copies of the album that have been reprinted recently don't have this feature (to say nothing of the digital thumbnails you see on Spotify or some other streaming service), the original cover of the Velvet Underground and Nico's debut album featured an Andy Warhol print of a banana that you could actually peel. Remove the sticker and there was another image of the fruit underneath. Even without this special feature, the cover art remains a classic, combining the work of a great band with the work of a great visual artist.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1967)

Album art for "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles

The Fab Four, all wearing brightly colored bandleader outfits, stand at the center of the cover of their 1967 album. They're surrounded by more than 50 life-size cutouts of various celebrities and public figures, including Edgar Allen Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. "Lawrence of Arabia." It's an extravagant, avant-garde bit of pop art that has been parodied many times in the years since.

Stankonia by Outkast (2000)

"Stankonia" by Outkast album cover

While Outkast's previous albums ATLiens and Aquemini borrowed from comic book aesthetics for their covers with complex, genre-infused illustrations, Stankonia is minimalist. Big Boi and André 3000 stand in front of a black and white flag wearing only black and white clothing. As a visual, it's simultaneously low-effort and high-concept, making it an apt cover for the record, which is complex and deep without ever losing Outkast's essential playfulness.

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Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones (1971)

"Sticky Fingers" by The Rolling Stones album cover
Rolling Stones

The art that adorned the Rolling Stones' ninth album, which hit shelves in 1971, is almost a piece of fashion photography as much as it's a record cover. Meant to capitalize on the innuendo of the album title, the cover features a close-up shot taken by Andy Warhol of an unknown model wearing jeans. A real zipper—not just a photo of one—was attached to the cover, and you could actually unzip it to reveal underwear underneath.

Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. (1988)

"Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A. album cover

N.W.A. was not the first gangsta rap hip-hop group, but they were certainly one of the most influential, and not just because of their sound. The cover of their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, depicts the six members of the group looking down at the camera, with Eazy-E pointing a gun at the viewer. It's a powerful, provocative image.

To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

"To Pimp a Butterfly" by Kendrick Lamar album cover

The cover of Kendrick Lamar's masterful 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly is as much a work of art as the music, depicting a group of Black men posing and having a raucous victory party in front of the White House over the seemingly slain body of a white judge. It's a provocative image, and one that feels more than earned, especially given the themes that Lamar's rapping about.

Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division (1979)

"Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division album cover

The art that graced the cover of Joy Division's debut album is so iconic that it's transcended the record. Right now there is probably somebody out there wearing an officially licensed Mickey Mouse T-shirt that Disney made parodying the album who doesn't realize that it's parodying an album in the first place. The original art is adapted from an image taken in 1967 by a Cambridge student named Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and it depicts radio emissions given out by a "rotating neutron star," or pulsar.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco (2001)

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" by Wilco album cover

Sam Jones took the picture of Marina City—a pair of distinctive towers on the Chicago River built in the '60s—for the cover of the acclaimed album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and in doing so, changed the landmark's colloquial name to "the Wilco Towers." They're striking buildings and it's a striking image, with just the tops of the towers peeking out from the bottom of the album cover at an angle.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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