Top 23 Most Legendary Album Covers – Do They Ring A Bell?

Can the artwork make or break an album? That’s a tough one, but what’s certain is that a remarkable record, together with an especially symbolic or mindblowing cover, can undoubtedly define an artist, a genre, an era, and leave a big mark in history. Discover the most iconic album covers of all time… and I hope you recognize #10 and #2 if you’re a true hip-hop fan!

Photo: Courtesy of Billboard

#23. Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley

Along with other legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis was one of the crucial figures of the rise of rock and roll in the 50s. Released in 1956, his debut studio album was the first rock and roll album to sell a million copies, and it spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart.

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Pretty impressive, right? Such a landmark LP just had to have the appropriate cover… and this shot that captures Elvis at full swing during one of his energetic and controversial live performances was a perfect choice.

#22. Ummagumma, Pink Floyd

Ummagumma is just one of Pink Floyd’s many albums with eccentric and artsy covers. Though their later conceptual albums from the 70s like The Wall portrayed a cover that symbolized the theme, most of their albums from the 60s had a psychedelic cover that perfectly fitted their early sound.

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This is exactly the case of Ummagumma. For this trippy design, they used a Droste effect that shows the group with smaller and smaller pictures of the same scene, but with the members changing places in each of the frames.

#21. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac

Rumours is one of modern music’s most popular success stories. When the band decided to record a pop/soft-rock album that would heighten the acclaim they had garnered for their previous effort, they couldn’t have imagined that Rumours would end up selling a mind-boggling amount of 40 million copies worldwide.

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This fabulous record includes some of the band’s most beloved hits, like Dreams and The Chain. Though the cover art seems straightforward, it has raised several questions. First of all, Stevie Nicks is in character as Rhiannon, the Welsh witch from their classic song. And the wooden balls hanging from Mick Fleetwood’s pants? He always placed them next to his drumset as a lucky charm after having found them in a cistern.

#20. The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico

Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol is known not only for his amazing work but for his collaborations with other artists as well. Amongst these, many people remember the time when he became the manager of the experimental rock band The Velvet Underground.

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The band, which was led by Lou Reed, released one of rock and roll’s most influential albums ever along with the singer Nico. Warhol designed the edgy cover, with a banana peel that said: “Peel Slowly And See“. This was actually a sticker that, if taken off, showed a flesh-colored banana underneath.

#19. Purple Rain, Prince

I Would Die 4 U, one of Prince’s singles for his massive breakthrough album (and movie) Purple Rain, says: “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man. I am something you’ll never understand.Prince’s androgenetic figure has always been intriguingly surrounded by mystery.

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This enigmatic presence of his is perfectly portrayed in this awesome cover, which shows him smirking on his purple motorcycle, ready to disappear between the darkness and smoke. If you pay close attention, you’ll find something on the bike: it’s the androgyny symbol that would be transformed in the future to Prince’s “Love Symbol” to which he would change his name to, in the middle of a fight with his label.

#18. Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, The Smashing Pumpkins

The little twins from Siamese Dream are pretty recognizable too, but we picked Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness as The Smashing Pumpkins’ album with the most iconic cover. This ambitious double album was released in 1995 and features 28 (!) songs.

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The Victorian-style and surrealness of the scene was just as unforgettable as some of the great tunes (such as Bullet With Butterfly Wings, 1979). Illustrator John Craig made this fantastic composite image by taking the ethereal background from a children’s book, the woman’s eye-rolling face from an 18th Century painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and the body from another painting, this one by Raphael.

#17. All Eyez On Me, 2Pac

The first double hip-hop album to be released globally, All Eyez On Me made history for its chart-topping success (it sold over 5 million copies) and for being 2Pac’s last release during his lifetime. Recorded after spending some months in jail, the songs show 2Pac at his most paranoid, aggressive and lonely side.

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Both dark and fun, chaotic and fearless, it’s probably the rapper’s most important release. Practically the opposite of his previous album’s cover, this one shows him defiant, showing the Death Row pendant to announce his partnership with the infamous label, and the W-shaped sign to intimidate his East-Coast rivals.

#16. The Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd

You’ve probably seen this as a tattoo several times… unless you’re completely unobservant! One of the world’s most recognizable album covers belongs to one of the best-selling and most legendary albums, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon.

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The artwork was created by the men of Hipgnosis, a renowned design team that often collaborated with the prolific band. The three elements (light beam, prism, and refracted spectrum) allegedly stand for three facets of Floyd: their stunning stage lighting, the album’s lyrics, and the keyboardist’s demand to design something simple yet bold.

#15. Aladdin Sane, David Bowie

David Bowie left this planet to return to his galaxy in 2016, and his outstanding farewell album, Blackstar, was released only two days prior to the sad day. That album’s straightforward yet unforgettable cover was one of many of his records’ designs that left a mark in history.

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Ziggy Stardust, Low, Heroes… his visionary musical statements have always been accompanied by a superb shot and the one which was chosen for Aladdin Sane is perhaps the most memorable of all. Here, we get to see the trademark lightning bolt of his new persona.

“Lightning bolt. An electric kind of thing. Instead of, like, the flame of a lamp, I thought he would probably be cracked by lightning. Sort of an obvious-type thing, he was sort of an electric boy.” David Bowie told to Rolling Stone magazine in 1973.

#14. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

If The Velvet Underground & Nico is the prime example of American pop art in music, the mindblowing composition in Sgt Pepper‘s cover represents its British counterpart. The embryonic idea was created by Paul McCartney, who did a lot of drawings of The Beatles looking like a brass band and surrounded by friends and other icons.

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Once they agreed on the idea of making a surreal collage, each Beatle got to choose some historical men and women whom they wanted to appear with. There are 57 photographs in total, including Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, and Marlon Brando. How many can you recognize?

#13. Born In The USA, Bruce Springsteen

The artwork for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band was actually the most expensive one to ever be produced at the time, costing around 3,000 pounds (the average was 50 pounds in the 60s). However, a flamboyant concept isn’t always required for an LP’s cover to become legendary.

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Take this Bruce Springsteen record, for instance. A simple photograph, inspired by Born In The USA‘s title track, merely shows Bruce in blue, white and red, before a part of the American flag. The powerful cover stirred a bit of controversy, though, since some interpreted that Springsteen was peeing on the flag!

#12. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine

Loveless is indisputably one of the most influential records of the 90s. It’s regarded as the seminal album of shoegaze, an indie rock subgenre known for its ethereal combination of subtle vocals, heavily distorted guitars and multiple effects, including feedback. The term shoegaze was used by the British press to describe these new psychedelic bands which would often stand still and stare at the floor during their live performances.

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This detached pose was a result of the multiple effect pedals. That’s right, this innovative style meant that the musicians had to be constantly checking the readouts of their pedals! Amongst several mesmerizing albums of this subgenre that appeared during the 90s (eg: Slowdive’s Souvlaki), Loveless, by My Bloody Valentine, is considered the best, and its beautiful cover portrays the music’s sublime, otherworldly vibe with precision.

#11. Meat Is Murder, The Smiths

The Smiths are better known for their remarkable third album, The Queen Is Dead, but we consider the cover of Meat Is Murder, their second LP, to be more striking. The image shows a 20-year-old Vietnam war soldier called Michael Wynn.

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The soldier, as a matter of fact, had written something on his helmet. But the real phrase read: “make war not love“, which turned the hippie movement’s pacifist phrase upside down. Morrisey, the band’s singer, is vegan, and he tried to trace a parallel between war and meat-eating by putting the album’s title as the phrase on the helmet.

#10. The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest

Even if you haven’t listened to A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip hop’s most talented groups, this cover will definitely ring a bell if you know a bit about rap. For their breakthrough record, the group chose an exquisite combination of jazz samples, explosive wordplay, and sharp social commentary.

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The legendary image features a kneeling nude woman, painted with bold, Afrocentric colors. The painted lady would then become an immediately recognizable symbol of the group, appearing on following releases and posters.

#9. Things Fall Apart, The Roots

The younger public now knows The Roots as the backing band at Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, but they made history as one of the first hip-hop bands to ever use live musical instruments. Formed by two of its most notorious members, “Black Thought” and “Questlove”, the group released several universally acclaimed albums.

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Perhaps the most celebrated record of the jazz-rap trailblazers is Things Fall Apart, of 1999. Amongst the powerful and thought-provoking pictures of the five limited edition covers, this is the most famous. It’s a photograph from a riot of the Civil Rights Movement Era in the 60s that shows two women being chased by the police in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

#8. Abbey Road, The Beatles

Ironically, The Beatles’ first cover that didn’t feature either the band or the album’s name became its most recognizable one. Yes, the fact that the fab-four made some of their best music for Abbey Road (Come Together, Something, Here Comes The Sun, etc) probably helped, but the photo is legendary on its own.

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On the morning of the 8th of August of 1969, photographer Iain Macmillan only had ten minutes to take the shot. He took six pictures with the help of a policeman who held the traffic, and Paul McCartney (who’s barefoot in the photo) closely analyzed each and one of the images before choosing the one which would be imitated by everyone from then onwards.

#7. Horses, Patti Smith

Patti Smith has recently caused furor (once again) in the literary world for her passionate memoir from 2010, Just Kids, for which she earned the National Book Award. A poet, musician, singer, songwriter, and feminist activist, Patti began her artistic career by releasing some of the earliest and most expressive punk records of the 70s.

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Her debut, Horses, from 1975, mixed sharp, beat-influenced lyrics with the sound of the blossoming New York punk scene. The black and white iconic photograph of the influential album’s cover shows her with a unisex pose, and the shot was taken by no other than Robert Mapplethorpe.

#6. Illmatic, Nas

Arguably the best debut album in hip-hop and one of the best across all genres, Illmatic immortalized Nas’ harsh stories about his experiences in the streets of Queens. Told with dazzling rhymes and superb flow, the narratives unfolded on each song takes the listener through an incredible adventure.

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The iconic cover of one of East Coast’s seminal rap albums of the 90s shows a picture of a 7-year-old Nas that’s superimposed over one of the streets of his native Queen’s housing projects.

“That was the year I started to acknoledge everything around me(…) That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right(…) The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there”. Nas said in an interview on MTV in 2008.

#5. Maggot Brain, Funkadelic

Released in 1971 and listed at number 486 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, Maggot Brain is one of funk rock’s classics. And who else but Funkadelic could have had achieved such a feat? Along with their sister act, Parliament, the band led by George Clinton and guitarist Eddie Hazel laid the foundations of the funk-rock (with a twist of psychedelia) sound during the 70s.

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You’re in for a ride if you’ve never listened to the title track, believe me! In the stunning cover, we can see model Barbara Cheeseborough buried up to her neck. Slide on for more legendary album covers!

#4. London Calling, The Clash

Does this one remind you of something? No? Well, go back to #23 if you can’t remember! That’s right, the font and the letters’ colors are a homage to Elvis’ debut. But even though Elvis’ photo was nothing short of wild, I think we can all agree that the scene of this Clash concert is on a whole other level.

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The British rock band’s third, sprawling LP, released in 1979, caused a stir for its thumping title track and Joe Strummer’s political lyrics throughout the tracklist, going through themes like unemployment and racial tensions. Who’s smashing his instrument on stage? That would be bassist Paul Simonon. This was no gimmick, though, he destroyed the bass out of frustration because security wouldn’t let the fans stand up out of their seats!

#3. Nevermind, Nirvana

For our top three, we chose albums from three different decades. Hence, we voted Nevermind as the most iconic cover of the 90s. Most people think that the artwork of Nirvana’s breakthrough record that would famously end up knocking out Michael Jackson out of the #1 spot constitutes a clever example of social commentary.

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A baby chasing a dollar bill on a string… the mocking of capitalism’s values is pretty obvious, but Kurt Cobain loved the concept for a lesser-known thing. According to Robert Fischer, Geffen Records’ art director, Kurt was captivated by a documentary about underwater birth, and that’s why he went with the swimming baby for Nevermind!

#2. To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar

In 2015, Kendrick Lamar, in collaboration with notable musicians like bassist Thundercat and saxophonist Kamasi Washington released what’s arguably the best album of the decade, period. Adventurously combining elements of jazz, soul, funk, spoken word, and rap, the Compton native surpassed his previous conceptual classic which narrated his childhood and early adolescence in the hood, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.

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To Pimp A Butterfly‘s complex, dense, and theatrical lyrics touch on America’s contemporary racial issues, Kendrick’s personal struggle with depression and power, institutional discrimination, and other urgent themes. The instantaneously legendary cover shows K-Dot and some of his longtime friends from Compton (and their children), in a defiant and celebratory pose, in front of the White House.

“That’s a judge laying down in the ground… you look at these individuals, and you look at them as bad people or a menace to society, but they’re actually good people, just a product of their environment… and the one person that always represents their night life negatively is the judge” Kendrick Lamar told to Mass Appeal Magazine in 2015.

#1. Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division

Joy Division released only two albums, but this was more than enough to establish the band as one of goth-rock and post-punk’s seminal acts. Thanks to Ian Curtis’ bass-baritone vocals, his utterly bleak lyrics, and the unconventional production techniques, Unknown Pleasures‘ music conveys a gloomy atmosphere like no other record.

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A dark sense of doom appears on every track… and perhaps the greatest merit of the famous cover is that its iconic radio waves over a black background anticipate the urgent darkness and the heavy bass of the band’s music. Since then, the image has become a pop-culture phenomenon, with thousands of people wearing Unknown Pleasures t-shirts.

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