The Stories Behind Famous Album Covers
Did you know Michael Jackson wore a borrowed suit on the cover of "Thriller"?
What’s your favorite album cover of all time? Chances are, everyone has an answer to this question even if they don’t consider themselves a huge music fan. The artwork on the front of an album is the first thing that speaks to you, telling you something even before you hear a note of music.
We’ve rounded up some of the most iconic album covers ever and the stories behind how they came to be. Check out our list — you might even learn something you never knew about one of your favorites!
Pink Floyd — ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1973)
Artwork By: George Hardie / Hipgnosis
One of the most famous images in music history, the cover of Pink Floyd’s breakthrough album “The Dark Side of the Moon” has been called one of the best pieces of album art ever. The image shows a beam of light passing through a prism and emerging as a spectrum of colors.
The graphic design firm Hipgnosis, which created many great album covers over the years, made the artwork after a simple suggestion from the band that it be “something clean, elegant and graphic.” The artists recalled an image from a physics textbook that showed a prism and colors, which inspired the cover. The cover doesn’t list the band’s name or the title but it’s instantly identifiable by millions of people worldwide.
The Beatles — ‘The Beatles’ (1968)
Artwork By: Richard Hamilton / Paul McCartney
You know an album cover is iconic when it essentially changes the title of the record all on its own. The 1968 album “The Beatles” is most commonly known as “The White Album” because of its stark cover. The cover was dreamed up as the total opposite of the vibrant cover of the band’s 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The plain white cover simply had “The Beatles” embossed on it crookedly and early copies also included unique numbers stamped on them. Ringo Starr had the cover with the number 0000001, which he sold at auction in 2015 for $790,000.
The Rolling Stones — ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971)
Art By: Andy Warhol
When your album cover is conceived by Andy Warhol, you know it will be a great one. The iconic pop artist was behind this classic cover, which included a working zipper for the initial pressing of the album. When listeners unzipped the fly, they could see a photo of the crotch of a pair of white, cotton briefs.
Unfortunately, the zipper actually damaged the record when piles of the albums were stacked on top of one another. Warhol took photos of several male models for the shoot and never revealed whose crotch was used for the iconic cover of “Sticky Fingers.” VH1 dubbed the cover the greatest in rock history.
Kanye West — ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)
Art By: Eric Duvachelle
Perhaps more than any other rapper in history, Kanye West has always featured striking images on his album covers, starting with his 2004 debut record, “The College Dropout.” The cover looked very different from anything else you’d see in the hip-hop section of the record store, which was a direction West wanted, telling designer Eric Duvachelle he wanted to “bring a sense of elegance and style” to contrast the harsh image of rap.
West is wearing the costume of the character that would come to be known as the Dropout Bear, which would also be featured on the covers of his next two albums. Duvachelle chose the photo of West alone in the bleachers and surrounded it with a frame made of ornaments found in a book of illustrations from the 1500s.
Eminem — ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ (2000)
Art By: Jason Noto
Anyone who’s listened to Eminem likely knows about his tough childhood growing up poor in Detroit. For the cover of his smash hit album “The Marshall Mathers LP,” Eminem posed for a picture on the front porch of one of the small houses he lived in as a teenager. The photo is stark and shows an artist on the verge of superstardom and unimaginable riches going back to a place where things weren’t looking so bright.
In 2013, Eminem again featured the house, this time boarded up and unoccupied, on the cover of his album, “The Marshall Mathers LP 2.” Shortly after that record came out, the house mysteriously burned in a fire.
Michael Jackson — ‘Thriller’ (1982)
Art By: Dick Zimmerman
One of the best-selling and most-awarded albums of all time, pretty much everyone has seen this album cover by now. The cover image for “Thriller,” featuring Michael Jackson looking sharp in a white suit with black underneath, was shot by photographer Dick Zimmerman.
According to Zimmerman, the suit Jackson is pictured wearing was actually the one the photographer himself was wearing the day of the shoot and when Jackson asked if he could wear something like it for the cover, Zimmerman took it off and lent it to him. Zimmerman said the shoot lasted about six hours.
Bruce Springsteen — ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ (1984)
Art By: Annie Leibovitz / Andrea Klein
The iconography on the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s massive hit, “Born in the U.S.A.,” is unmistakably American and instantly memorable. The image chosen for the cover was selected by Springsteen from a shoot done by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz with him doing various poses in front of a massive American flag.
It apparently wasn’t Leibovitz’s favorite photo of the bunch but Springsteen thought, “the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face.” Over the years, people have said it appears he is urinating on the flag in the shot, but Springsteen has said that wasn’t the intention, despite the album’s angry sentiments.
Coldplay — ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’ (2002)
Art By: Sølve Sundsbø
Some of the best pieces of art come purely by accident, as was the case with photographer Sølve Sundsbø’s image used to cover Coldplay’s hit album, “A Rush of Blood to the Head.” Sundsbø actually created the piece in the 1990s as a project for a fashion magazine he was working for.
The image of a woman wearing a cape was taken using a 3D scanner. Due to limitations of the machine, it cut the image of the model’s head in half and the top of the cape ended up looking like spikes sticking out of her back. Coldplay’s Chris Martin saw the magazine and loved the image, asking Sundsbø if he could use it for an album cover.
Sleigh Bells — ‘Reign Of Terror’ (2012)
Art By: Derek Miller / Joe Garrard
One of the most striking album covers of recent years is the one from “Reign of Terror” by the alternative duo Sleigh Bells. The artwork shows a photo of singer Alexis Krauss’ own Keds sneakers, which she regularly wore during performances, with some blood on them. Her bandmate, Derek Miller, told Pitchfork some of the blood was fake but a bit of it was actually Krauss’, who bled on her shoes after he accidentally hit her with his guitar during a show. Miller thought the image of the shoes represented a sudden loss of youth.
David Bowie — ‘Heroes’ (1977)
Art By: Masayoshi Sukita
One of the most photogenic rockers in history, David Bowie had several great album covers in his career, including this one from 1977’s “Heroes.”
The image was snapped by photographer Masayoshi Sukita during a trip to Tokyo the musician had taken. The shoot was not meant to be used for an album cover but when Bowie saw some of the prints, he asked Sukita if he could use one for that purpose. Both men agreed on the same image, which showed Bowie moments after running his fingers through his hair, as the best of the bunch. You’ll also notice the quotation marks around the album’s title, showing Bowie’s feelings on the notion of heroism.
Taylor Swift — ‘1989’ (2014)
Art By: Sarah Barlow / Stephen Schofield
When Taylor Swift was looking to pay tribute to the year she was born with her album “1989,” it makes sense she chose a Polaroid photo to be used as the cover art.
The photography duo of Sarah Barlow and Stephen Schofield, mutual friends of Swift’s, snapped the now-famous cover image. The pair had collaborated with Swift previously, shooting the cover of her 2012 album, “Red,” so the shoot was relaxed and comfortable. Barlow and Schofield said they shot about 460 Polaroids of Swift during the shoot for the “1989” cover, settling on the image below as the best. The final stroke of genius was using a Sharpie to ink the title and Swift’s initials onto the cover, driving home the casual, 1980s aesthetic.
Fleetwood Mac — ‘Rumours’ (1977)
Art By: Herbert Worthington
One of the strangest album covers of the 1970s — a decade that had plenty of them — the photo that fronted Fleetwood Mac’s massive hit, “Rumours,” was taken by Herbert Worthington. The photographer reportedly provided the footstool drummer Mick Fleetwood is using in the image and also came up with the idea that the image have a mystical quality, given off mostly by singer Stevie Nicks’ costume and pose. As for the conspicuous spheres dangling between Fleetwood’s legs, the musician had stolen them from a toilet-flushing chain and came to think of them as a lucky charm.
Drake — ‘Nothing Was The Same’ (2013)
Art By: Kadir Nelson
Similar to the direction given for Kanye West’s “The College Dropout,” when Drake was pitching the idea for the cover of his album, “Nothing Was the Same,” he wanted something that looked different from other rap records. Artist Kadir Nelson painted the now-famous image after Drake told him he didn’t want “something that looked like a hip-hop album cover,” but rather “something that was a little bit more artsy and had more weight to it.”
The artist told MTV he painted a full-size version of the piece for Drake, and it shows the toddler version of the rapper making eye contact with the adult version of the rapper. That other half of the painting was available as the artwork on the deluxe version of “Nothing Was the Same.”
Van Halen — ‘1984’ (1984)
Art By: Margo Nahas
The iconic cover of Van Halen’s “1984,” featuring a mischievous little angel swiping a cigarette, was another example of a lucky accident.
Artist Margo Nahas, who had done work for musicians like Tom Petty and Prince, was asked by Van Halen to do a cover that featured four dancing women who were made of chrome. After planning it out, Nahas nixed the idea, saying it would be too difficult to draw. Her husband, designer Jay Vigon, brought a portfolio of illustrations she’d already done to show the band members and that’s where they saw the now-famous image of the smoking angel.
For the photo that inspired the illustration, Nahas used a friend’s toddler, Carter, who held a candy cigarette and eventually did the pose that you see on the cover.
U2 — ‘War’ (1983)
Art By: Steve Averill
A photo of a little boy wasn’t the first idea U2 had for the cover of their 1983 album, “War,” but it turned out to be the perfect choice. Steve Averill, an Irish graphic designer, decided to use a shot of an angry kid after recalling powerful photos of kids being rounded up in Poland during the Holocaust. The boy in the iconic shot is Peter Rowan, the same kid who appeared on the cover of the band’s debut record, “Boy,” and went on to appear on covers of three more of the band’s releases.
N.W.A. — ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (1988)
Art By: Eric Poppleton / Kevin Hosmann
The album that shook America and forever changed hip-hop also has one of the best covers ever slapped onto a record.
For the cover of “Straight Outta Compton,” photographer Eric Poppleton and Art Director Kevin Hosmann trailed the five primary members of N.W.A. — plus rapper Arabian Prince, who rhymed on one of the record’s songs — around the streets of Los Angeles, looking for the perfect shot. He found it when he decided to lie on the ground and point his camera up at them, having all six men look down at him, with Eazy E pointing a gun at the lens.
“You’re taking the perspective of someone who is about to be killed,” Poppleton told CNN later. “In hindsight, it was just so provocative.”
Madonna — ‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
Art By: Steven Meisel
One of the most memorable record covers from the 1980s was this gorgeous shot of Madonna, snapped by renowned fashion photographer Steven Meisel. The artist is shown in a sexy wedding dress that’s complete with a belt buckle that reads “Boy Toy,” and the look is finished off with her pouty lips and sideways glance.
Meisel is notoriously tight-lipped but Madonna spoke about the photoshoot — which resulted in a whole series of shots that look to be pulled straight out of a high-fashion magazine.
“Before I worked with Steven, I just showed up in the clothes I was wearing, stood in front of the lights and got my picture taken,” Madonna told Vogue of the album cover shoot. After working with him, her expectations were much higher.
Peter Gabriel — ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1980)
Art By: Storm Thorgerson / Hipgnosis
While the official title of this 1980 record is simply “Peter Gabriel,” it’s most widely known as “Melt,” because of the memorable artwork by Storm Thorgerson and the design firm Hipgnosis.
Thorgerson has said he had the idea after a dream about a melting face made of wax. The actual effect was created using a Polaroid picture that was smashed down to make the colors run. Gabriel said they took about 300 Polaroids of him in total, using various methods to smash them, before they created the shot that was used on the cover.
The White Stripes — ‘Elephant’ (2003)
Art By: Patrick Pantano
The White Stripes gave us one of the most powerhouse rock albums of the 2000s with “Elephant,” and it came packaged with a very memorable cover photo. The image, awash in red, was shot by the band’s photographer, Patrick Pantano. There are a lot of off-putting things in the image, like the skull on the ground behind Meg White, peanut shells that look almost like bullet casings, a rope tied to her ankle and the fact that Jack White is holding a cricket bat for some reason. Jack White has reportedly said the awkward way the two of them are seated was meant to make their bodies look like elephant ears, essentially forming an elephant’s head.
The Clash — ‘London Calling’ (1979)
Art By: Pennie Smith / Ray Lowry
The snapshot on the cover of The Clash’s immortal record, “London Calling,” has been heralded as one of the best images in rock history. The photo, which shows Clash bassist Paul Simonon in the process of slamming his guitar on the stage during a show that happened months before the record would be released, was taken by Pennie Smith. The photographer herself didn’t like the image and didn’t want it to be used as the cover because she thought it was too blurry. As for the pink and green text, it was lifted from the cover of Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album.
Kendrick Lamar — ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ (2015)
Art By: Denis Rouvre
For the cover of his highly anticipated sophomore album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” rapper Kendrick Lamar came up with the concept you see in the image and reached out to noted French photographer Denis Rouvre to bring it to life.
The evocative, black-and-white image shows a bunch of young black men and children — including Lamar himself near the center — celebrating on the lawn of the White House atop the body of an old, white judge. Lamar summed up the cover as “taking a group of the homies who haven’t seen the world … and showing them something different other than the neighborhood and them being excited about it.”
The shot has also been seen as a representation of President Obama’s tenure, which invited black culture into the White House with open arms.
Kiss — ‘Kiss’ (1974)
Art By: Joel Brodsky
Few images immediately sum up a band as well as this shot from the cover of Kiss’ 1974 debut record.
Photographer Joel Brodsky — who shot hundreds of album covers in his storied career — wasn’t familiar with the band’s unique look before meeting them and, at first, he thought they were trying to look like mimes or clowns.
“We threatened to walk out and he finally realized that we were serious, and he took the picture,” Kiss bassist Gene Simmons said in 1994 of the shoot. The band members each did their own makeup, with the exception of drummer Peter Criss, which is why his cat makeup looks so different than it ever would again. Brodsky and the guys from Kiss each agreed they should pose to mimic the cover of The Beatles’ album “With the Beatles.”
System Of A Down — ‘Steal This Album!’ (2002)
Art By: System of a Down
To fully understand the genius of this album cover, context is everything. In 2002, online music theft was commonplace and System of a Down felt the sting of this when a bunch of the band’s unfinished songs suddenly leaked online and were being shared by fans who weren’t paying for them. So, the band took advantage of the opportunity by dubbing its following record, “Steal This Album!” and making the actual record look like a pirated, fan-made bootleg.
The CD came in a jewel case with no booklet and just the plain, white disc that was meant to look like a recordable CD, with the band’s name and the album’s title printed to look like they were written in permanent marker.
Dr. Dre — ‘The Chronic’ (1992)
Art By: Kimberly Holt
One of the landmarks of ’90s rap, Dr. Dre’s solo debut, “The Chronic,” has one of the most iconic covers of the era. However, the design for this cover wasn’t totally original — it was inspired by another source. Anyone who likes to roll their own cigarettes — or other smokeable substances — will likely recognize the white background, font and stately gold frame around Dre’s face as the design from a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers. The design is exactly the same. The connection to rolling papers makes sense and ties in with the title, which is a reference to high-grade marijuana.
The Notorious B.I.G. — ‘Life After Death’ (1997)
Art By: Michael Lavine
Another stark photograph that became iconic, the cover — and title — of Notorious B.I.G.’s sophomore album, “Life After Death” became chilling when he was murdered mere weeks before it came out. It was the biggest job of photographer Michael Lavine’s career up to that point and he was directed to shoot a dramatic photo of Biggy standing next to a hearse, but it was tough to meet executive producer Puff Daddy’s high standards.
Lavine ended up booking a shoot at New York’s Cypress Hills Cemetery and the shoot happened on a dreary day in January 1997, less than two months before he’d be killed in March. Lavine has said Biggy was a total pro through the whole shoot.
“You have a photograph of a man in a graveyard who died violently weeks later — it makes the image more emotionally laden,” Lavine later told The Undefeated. “It’s not just a photo.”
Talking Heads — ‘Remain In Light’ (1980)
Art By: Tina Weymouth / Chris Frantz / Walter Bender
The red “masks” drawn on the faces of the members of Talking Heads for their classic album, “Remain in Light,” may not look like much today but they represented a technical milestone at the time. The image was created using a computer — remember, this is 1980, so we’re talking a hulking, complex machine that few people knew how to use — at MIT. Band members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz got help from MIT researcher Walter Bender to create the iconic image. It’s been reported that this was the first album ever to have a computer-generated image on it.
The Cranberries — ‘Bury The Hatchet’ (1999)
Art By: Storm Thorgerson
Among the artists who have created memorable album art over the years, Storm Thorgerson might be the most famous. In addition to designing the cover of “Dark Side of the Moon,” he also designed other iconic Pink Floyd covers including “Wish You Were Here” and “The Division Bell.” This piece, done for The Cranberries in 1999, is equally striking.
Thorgerson has said he was shocked The Cranberries approved this image for the cover of “Bury the Hatchet” because it was a sharp departure from their typical artwork. “The Cranberries had previously used images of themselves, often on a sofa,” he told The Guardian. The idea behind this image is that “the all-seeing eye can get you anywhere.”
Klaxons – ‘Surfing The Void’ (2010)
Art By: Mads Perch / Richard Robinson
If you’re scanning through the albums on a shelf at your local record store, there’s no way this piece of art doesn’t make you stop. This shot of a very serious cat posing for what looks like a NASA portrait, complete with a little spacesuit, was so perfect it won a global award as the year’s best album art. The image was put together by photographer Mads Perch and designer Richard Robinson, and it uses a cat named Orphee, who is the pet of one of the members of Klaxons.
The cat never actually wore the suit, but rather the two were photographed separately and the spacesuit was edited overtop the feline, according to Simon Taylor-Davis of Klaxons. Taylor-Davis told Pitchfork the image was inspired by a meme the band had seen on Tumblr that they thought was hilarious and that there is no deeper meaning behind it.
Run The Jewels — ‘Run The Jewels’ (2013)
Art By: Nick Gazin
This design was deemed so memorable that the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels has used it on the cover of all three of their albums so far, with minor changes each time. Artist Nick Gazin was commissioned to design the artwork for the group’s first album and he was simply told by member El-P that it should involve a hand gesture.
With that sparse direction, Gazin came up with a pair of disembodied hands, with one clutching a golden necklace and the other gesturing toward it. Gazin has said he’s not quite sure if the hands should scare you or make you smile, telling Entertainment Weekly, “They’re kind of menacing but also kind of cartoony.” Gazin said he still has no idea what the duo’s name means but he came up with its most identifiable piece of art.
Green Day — ‘Dookie’ (1994)
Art By: Richie Bucher
Anyone who frequented record stores in the ’90s probably remembers this lively cover, which looked more like a comic book cover than an album cover. The artist chosen was Richie Bucher, who was well known in the punk scene of Berkley, California, and he wasn’t given any direction other than being told the album’s unusual title.
Bucher later explained that when he first listened to Green Day, their sound reminded him of a swooping fighter plane — so that’s where he started. What followed was a detailed drawing packed full of inside jokes aimed at music nerds and people who knew the Bay Area. Among the famous figures you can spot in the artwork are AC/DC’s Angus Young and rocker Patti Smith.