The Greatest Album Artworks of All Time

The Greatest Album Artworks of All Time

It’s pretty undeniable that the record sleeve is one of the greatest canvasses for art of all time.

So much more than just a protective casing, album sleeves evolved from plain paper wraps to artist canvases, allowing for total creative expression, innovation and experimentation. Throughout the years, album covers have become often as important as the music itself. This has resulted in a beautiful, synergistic relationship; music and art coming hand-in-hand.

Cue the short history lesson.

At the start of the 20th century, album sleeves comprised of unadorned, thick paper with a title and artist’s name imprinted on the front and spine. Then in the 1930’s, Brooklyn-born graphic designer Alex Steinweiss (commonly considered the ‘inventor of album artwork’) was appointed Artistic Director of Capitol Records. Throughout his 35-year career, Steinweiss illustrated 2,500 covers for new artists and classical records (such as Beethoven, which resulted in massive sales increases). However, it wasn’t until the arrival of the 33 13 rpm that the music art was transformed. Heavy paper formerly used, scratched the LP’s grooves, so board-format, folded sleeves were utilised instead.

In 1944, Jazz artist Nat King Cole’s ‘The King Cole Trio’ album artwork grasped the world’s attention with a vivid cover featuring huge golden crown with enveloped a guitar, piano keyboard and double bass. His album topped the first Billboard Best Selling Popular Record Albums chart and was on the bestseller list for months. Pre-television, in the golden age of radio, it was realised that album artwork would have a colossal cultural influence.

A radical influence for album art (and art/design in our society generally) was the introduction of computer imaging. It provided artists with a huge range of digital effects to assist the expression of themselves, contrasting to anything seen before. However, some of the most memorable artworks ever conceived were envisioned and hand-produced by artistic masterminds like pop-artist Andy Warhol, cartoonist Robert Crumb and contemporary British artist Peter Blake. These artworks will remain etched in our minds forevermore. Others became iconic due to their sex appeal (think The Strokes ‘Is This It’) or minimalism (Eric Clapton’s ‘Slowhand’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’). Some photographic covers, like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, David Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Elvis Presley’, helped the artists to become global icons.

Now, in the 21st century, album artwork is threatened due to the rise of digital music.

Famed rapper Kayne West’s ‘Yeezus’ concedes the impending death of physical music with its understated cover featuring a CD being erased. Album artworks no longer even appear as 4×4 inch inserts within transparent plastic CD cases, most frequently now they appear as miniature thumbnails on smartphone screens within iTunes and Spotify. Even in my whipper-snapper days, I remember CD album covers (like Santogold’s ‘Santogold’, Beyoncé’s ‘Dangerously in Love’ and Eminem’s ‘The Eminem Show) being part of the overall music-selection experience which driving with friends in my trusty Ford KA. Thank goodness that the renewed popularity of the vinyl is helping album artwork to make a comeback. And, regardless of its format, artists today do still value the impact an iconic visual message via album artwork. They also understand that it is now a requirement (platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud necessitate that artists upload cover art).

In this digital age, artists are considering album artwork differently.

Creative Director of Atlantic Records, Greg Burke, says: “What makes designing an album cover different is the cohesive campaign that you put together, which is more of a campaign and a branding identity for that cycle than a single image”. Rapper Lil Yachty agrees, admitting to “thinking more like a brand” than an artist, valuing the impact of a strong visual identity. For example, Beyoncé’s cover artwork for ‘Beyoncé’ is as single-minded as its title; it’s a distillation of her entire brand image and is one element of a larger, extremely strong and successful campaign. To encapsulate, artists increasingly see album artwork as a part of their overall branding, understanding the design needs to synergise with their overall image and contribute to creating a media buzz.

The shock-factor still seems to be the go-to for musicians.

Defining hip-hop artist of his generation, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ (a riff on Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) has resonated. It shows the aftermath of a black revolution, featuring a monochrome photograph of his Compton friends posing with fistfuls of cash and champagne in front of the White House over a dead judge (a reference Lee’s character Judge John Taylor, who couldn’t save Tom Robinson). Another example of shock-factor artwork is Kanye West’s 2010 album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (West, at the time, was one of the most hated people in music). West commissioned contemporary visual artist George Condo to create a visual with the primary intention of getting his record banned from stores. It proved to be a great publicity stunt, creating a huge hype surrounding his album’s launch.

Now, as the music business continues to evolve rapidly, innovations are being initiated to lure in avid music fans.


One is the growing market for deluxe box sets. Soundgarden’s 1991 ‘Badmotorfinger’ was rereleased in a seven-disc edition with a 52-page booklet and extras that included a rotating, battery-operated saw. Motörhead’s ‘The Complete Early Years’ came with a skull with red light-up eyes and Ryan Adam’s ‘End of the World’ contained action figures. Digital technologies such as augmented reality have made their mark too with The Ting Tings ‘Sounds From Nowherseville’. Even light-sensitive paper, much to the surprise of fans, was part of David Bowie’s parting gift with album ‘Blackstar’; once exposed to sunlight, the design reveals an enchanting galaxy of stars.

So, who are the stars in the eyes of the P&W team? We have collated a selection of 7 of our favourite album covers from the 20th and 21st centuries. We hope you enjoy our collection!

Richard
London Calling, The Clash “Very difficult choice as its impossible to separate the music from the cover. New York’s Palladium in September of 1979, Paul Simonon was annoyed by the relatively quiet audience so he began smashing his bass against the floor. “We weren’t getting any response from them, no matter what we did. I just got so frustrated with that crowd and when it got to the breaking point I started to chop the stage up with the guitar.” Pennie Smith took the shot. Joe Strummer loved the image even though Pennie told them it was out of focus. The essence of punk.”

Adrian
For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music “Dusting off my vinyl record collection over a lazy bank holiday weekend brought back many memories but the album cover that stood out as a beacon of the 70’s era was “For Your Pleasure”. In my view the definitive Roxy Music album. The music is like a sparring match between Brian Ferry and Brian Eno to see who could conjure up the most bizarre lyrics. Admittedly, the cover art could be construed as sexist, but consider the context, the iconic lady is in control of a panther and a subservient Ferry awaits in a Cadillac ready to propel her to a surrealistic cityscape – she is the one in control. A perfect whimsical encapsulation of the avant-garde music that awaits within. I would encourage you to listen to the album, if only once, then perhaps the cover art will make sense – but hopefully not.”

Holly
Rumours, Fleetwood Mac “It’s my favourite album for so many reasons. One is the cover artwork. It’s totally bizarre. Stevie Nicks dancing in her trademark robes (as Welsh witch Rhiannon) and Mick Fleetwood standing brazenly in Renaissance-style clothing with two wooden balls dangling from his belt. I love this bit of trivia; Fleetwood stole the balls from a chain-flush toilet in a bar and adorned his drum kit with them- “I must admit I had a couple of glasses of English ale, and came out of the toilet with these. I was very destructive, I ripped them off the toilet and had them hanging down between my legs.” The balls became Mick’s personal good luck charm and appeared at almost every gig Fleetwood Mac ever performed!”

Simon
Parklife, Blur “A Simple, iconic and memorable image which summed up the energy of the Brit pop era.”

Ben
Screamadelica, Primal Scream “Why I like it… Quote from the artist: You’ve got to know how to draw, you’ve got to have control of your fucking hand. All this work that you see here, is done with the other hand, it’s not even done with my natural hand. I changed my hands about three and half years ago because I was sick of what my left hand was doing. I like drawing with my right hand because it’s messy, it’s like a kid. It’s clumsy. All this clumsy work you’re seeing here, that’s why it’s clumsy. That’s the only way I’ve been able to build abstraction. I was getting too dangerously technical with this arm”. – Paul Cannell (1963-2005)”

Harry
Death Magnetic, Metallica “I like the way they have taken the literal term of the name of the album using iron filings to create a very ‘death metal’ looking feel in the form of a coffin, whilst also creating energy from the filings bursting and radiating outwards.

PLEASE NOTE: All images of album artwork used on this blog are the copyrighted property of their respective owners, not P&W. P&W do not claim any rights to these images/photographs. Any opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individual and not necessarily the Company.

you might also like