The perfect album cover doesn’t happen overnight.
Blood, sweat, tears, cash, and sleepless nights went into making every album cover on this list.
Our team is here to help break down what makes a great album cover and give you some tips on how to make one using Linearity Curve (formely Vectornator).
What should be on an album cover?
It’s all about the artwork for album cover designs. Amazing cover art can be one of the most significant factors determining how well-received an album is.
Whether you go with graphic design, photography, illustration, or a mix of the three, you’ll need to make sure it is the right fit for the band and the album’s content.
Another major consideration is whether or not to feature and photograph the band for the cover or to use artwork and graphic design instead.
Some bands even decide to feature just one or two members of their entire band on the cover. And hey, if you want to start a fight that could break up the band you’re designing for, by all means, go right ahead.
A good marketing and creative team will work together to find solutions that fit the band’s image and the creative meaning behind the album.
Now, let’s talk about why cover art matters.
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Why are album covers important?
Iconic album covers can be the thing that propels an album to the top of the charts, but it’s not an exact science. Cultural relevancy and shock factor can make a huge difference in how an album cover is received.
Sometimes these covers are created before the band themselves even know how much they will matter. Bands like Nirvana (among many others) created their album art with no idea of the impending fame they would experience once it was released.
And some of the bands, models, and designers of these albums later said they regretted their choices in creating them. But, nonetheless, they have gone down in history as iconic.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were perfect or without flaws; some were just controversial enough to pique people’s interest and garner attention for the album.
Now, this list isn’t necessarily in order of importance (please don’t send us hate mail); it’s meant to demonstrate how album covers can make history and leave a lasting impact on pop culture.
So, here’s our list of the best album covers of all time.
1. The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)
The number one album cover on our list shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a classic for a reason. Not only is it one of the most classic albums musically, but the artwork itself is also a classic.
Photographer Iain Macmillan captured this image of the Beatles casually walking across London’s Abbey Road, which has since gone down in history.
The Beatles are widely regarded as the biggest band in history; they truly started the entire craze around boy bands. Bands like One Direction and the Backstreet Boys have them to thank for the notoriety that boy bands have today.
You have to read this kooky theory about the meaning behind the album that claims Paul McCartney died before the album was released.
2. The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
This classic design by Andy Warhol is one of the most unforgettable covers on this list. Warhol, a famous artist and film director, served as the band’s manager, as well as the designer of this album cover artwork.
Some might say this album cover has become more famous than the album itself. When released, the album didn’t exactly fly up the charts. In fact, it largely flopped, leading to the band breaking up and firing Warhol as their manager.
Today, it goes down in history as one of the most well-known albums (and covers) of all time.
When the banana was peeled back, a flesh-colored banana was pictured below—very phallic, very unique, very Velvet Underground.
3. Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
Another iconic album, with an iconic title. This cover featured a stark contrast between the dark as night background and the white light passing through a prism which created the bright colors reflected on the other side.
The creative team behind the cover, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (who also created Led Zeppelin’s House of the Holy artwork), came up with the concept, and George Hardie carried out their vision.
This cover was the brainchild of one of their many brainstorming sessions that often stretched into the early mornings.
This visual has become an icon of Pink Floyd and is often seen on T-shirts and posters. The album was an overwhelming success despite the mysterious band’s purposeful lack of promotional work.
4. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (1969)
Led Zeppelin's debut album cover was nothing short of shocking when it came out.
The ink drawing created by George Hardie of the Hindenburg airship (adapted from a photo taken by Sam Shere in 1937) with Led Zeppelin in bold red letters launched this now-famous band into popularity.
Featuring an image from the Hinderburg disaster was a bold move. But we have to wonder, would something this controversial be received well today? It’s hard to say for sure.
George Hardie (who was paid $76 to create this now-famous drawing) has since come out and said he wished that he would have put more thought into using an image of this tragic event.
5. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
This famous album cover is packed with bright, psychedelic colors and prominent figures. 58 celebrities, to be exact. How many do you recognize?
Pop artists Peter Black and Jan Haworth (who were married at the time) staged this image, which is said to have been thought of by none other than Paul McCartney himself.
The album cover cost around $3,000 to make. That amount might not sound like much, but that would be about $50,000 today. At that time, no album artwork had ever cost that much to create.
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6. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)
This album cover for Christopher Wallace (best known as The Notorious B.I.G.) was the start of a remarkable career for the then-22-year-old.
His lyrical prowess is evident in this album, which has had a strong cultural impact. With this album, Biggie is said to have revitalized the East Coast hip-hop scene.
The stark blank canvas with a small child wearing only a diaper on the cover made a statement about innocence, new life, and vulnerability. All leads back to the concept behind the album: the life cycle of an artist.
Fun fact: that child on the cover is in his 30s.
7. Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
Nevermind is one of Nirvana’s most popular titles, and the cover for this one is, you guessed it, iconic.
Much like The Notorious B.I.G. album, the baby on the cover featured on the cover represents innocence. The fact that he is reaching for money represents the superficial values we pass on to children in our society, just the kind of statement that Nirvana makes with their music.
Kurt Cobain, the band’s frontman, was the one to come up with the concept, which he allegedly thought of while watching a program about water births.
Nevermind was not expected to be the major hit that it was. But in the end, this album cover fits Nirvana's energy perfectly.
8. Fleetwood Mac, Rumors (1977)
Fleetwood Mac’s best-selling album has a cover with only 2 members of the band? It seems strange, we know.
Fleetwood Mac is infamous for their group dynamic. They dated, fought, broke up, and Rumors is known to be based on much of that drama.
Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood are featured prominently on this cover, while the rest of the band is left out. Nicks is dancing and holding a crystal ball while Fleetwood stands stoic with a pair of balls hanging between his legs.
Almost every member of the band was going through a tumultuous breakup or divorce at the time (many with each other), and that drama and intrigue play out throughout the album and cover art.
9. Blink 182, Enema Of The State (1999)
Evocative and instantly iconic, this image personifies the 90s pop scene. The provocative cover photo of a nurse snapping her rubber gloves into place is hard to forget.
Enema of the State (a play on "enemy of the state") was a major success for the band and helped change the future of their genre.
David Goldman took this image, and the scantily clad nurse in the picture is adult film actress Janine Lindermulde. Lindermulde also was featured in the music video for “Man Overboard” and “What’s My Age Again.”
10. Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956)
This album introduced Elvis to the world. As the oldest album on this list, this one has some serious prestige. Elvis is an iconic household name and has been for decades.
This image was snapped in 1955 while Elvis was performing at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Florida. The black and white action shot mixed with the colorful pop of large text is eye-catching and original.
The pink and green letters and unusual font were an interesting choice by this album cover's creative team that seems to have paid off.
This is one of those classic albums that will go down in history because of the album’s content and the album cover itself.
11. The Clash, London Calling (1979)
The Clash created this album as a direct imitation of Elvis Presley’s debut album cover art, with a similar black and white action shot of them playing, coupled with identical font color and style.
The band’s bassist, Paul Simonon, is featured on the front smashing his guitar. This image is now displayed in the Cleveland Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.
The rebellious nature of this image and the guitar smashing on the cover embodies rock and roll and are a perfect representation of the rock and roll scene of the late 70s and early 80s.
12. David Bowie, Aladdin Sane (1973)
Bowie’s 6th studio album was the first he released after gaining major notoriety in the mainstream media.
Bowie falls under the niche category of “glam rock” and is known for his outlandish fashion style and stage presence. With red hair and a lightning bolt drawn on his face, this look leaves a distinctive impression.
Shot by Brian Duffy, this photo was the most expensive cover album shot at the time. To gain notoriety, a genuine effort was made to make the cost of the album record-breaking.
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13. Prince, Purple Rain (1984)
Another outstanding cover that has cemented itself in pop culture. Who could forget this image of Prince in a purple suit, posed on a motorcycle?
In the summer of 1984, Prince flew to the top of the charts with his album Purple Rain. The album, cover art cover, and music video were an instant hit.
This cover image was photographed at the Warner Bros studio in California, and the background was purposefully made to look like a New York City tenement. It’s a perfect sneak peek into what the now-famous music video would look like.
14. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (1979)
The iconic pulsar radio waves in this cover image were an incredible choice by Joy Division and the designer, Peter Seville.
This is an excellent example of how a minimalistic yet meaningful design can create an enormous impact. Iconic album covers don’t always need to be bold, half-nude photos to capture attention. This album has left a lasting impression on the world of music.
Disney even created a parody of this album artwork featuring none other than Mickey Mouse.
15. Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. (1984)
This all-American cover image was the perfect aesthetic choice for Springsteen. The image perfectly represented him and his music and made him a cultural icon.
Ballcap tucked into his jeans, huge American flag in the background, and the simplicity of blue jeans and a white shirt. It was the perfect representation of country music at the time.
The album title says it all, Springsteen is the quintessential American boy.
When this album was released, Springsteen had been well-known for almost a decade. Still, this provocative and simple image created an awareness of his music that far exceeded his current popularity.
16. The Smiths, Meat Is Murder (1985)
This iconic cover art is another meant to provoke and create controversy, something the Smiths were very familiar with. This being only their second studio album, The Smiths made a big splash when it was released.
The lead singer of the band, Morrissey, said that the album cover’s design was intended to encourage activists to take a militant approach to their protests. Specifically, the animal rights movement.
Surprisingly, this was The Smith’s only album to reach the elusive number-one spot on UK’s top billboard charts.
17. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Neutral Milk Hotel might be one of the less well-known bands on this list of mega-stars, but they are an indie favorite.
The cover for this album was created by Chris Bilheimer and featured an illustration of two people wading in water, one with a drum over their face.
Jeff Mangum, the bandleader, wanted the album artwork to be reminiscent of 20th-century penny arcade artwork, and he asked Bilheimer to create something unique.
The Aeroplane Over the Sea was their second and most well-known album, and it gained them a cult following that eventually led to Mangum purposefully fading out of the public eye.
18. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers (1971)
This brilliant cover expressed the Rolling Stones' music and persona perfectly. This was the first album released on their own record label, Rolling Stones Records.
The artwork for this album was thought up by Andy Warhol (who also created the Velvet Underground’s album cover that captured the #2 spot on this list). Photography was done by Billy Name and the design was created by Craig Braun.
The original cover design for this album included a working zipper that opened to reveal a pair of white boxer briefs. This feature is very reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s album that Warhol also designed.
19. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here (1975)
Pink Floyd was known for their album art and worked with the design studio Hipgnosis to create both of the album covers that made our top 20 list.
The image was photographed by Aubrey “Po” Powell, and the handshake featured on the cover was meant to symbolize empty gestures.
In the photograph, one man is on fire, while the other, dressed in a business suit, casually shakes his hand.
There are many interpretations, but many think it symbolizes the idea that this gesture is typically made in a half-hearted empty way and that people tend to hide their real emotions from others.
20. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (1992)
This debut album by the soon-to-be controversial Rage Against the Machine evokes an emotional response immediately, even if you don’t recognize the famous image it features.
The 1963 image of the Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself on fire in protest of the oppression of Buddhists in Vietnam, is a historically famous image that holds significant meaning. Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne took the image.
The photo taken of this activist gained such considerable attention that it persuaded then-president John F. Kennedy to withdraw support from Vietnam.
Use Linearity Curve for your album cover designs
If you’re feeling inspired by all of these great covers and want to make your own, we’re here to help!
We’re excited to see the album cover art you come up with. Don't forget to post it on social media and tag us.
Jumpstart your ideas with Linearity Curve
Take your designs to the next level.
Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.