They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but what about album cover art?
Musicians often pour as much of themselves into cover images as they do into their lyrics. We’ll peek at classic covers that make us want to hear more.
Let’s check it out!
Why Is Album Cover Art Important?
Back in the day, before things went digital, album cover art was crucial to grabbing someone’s attention. It helped sell the music composition on the shiny vinyl inside the sleeve.
Musician Rory Seydel says, “Album art is the bridge between liking a single song, and learning more about an album, band, or producer.”
As music connoisseurs flip through covers in music shops, the album cover art is critical to conveying the artist’s style, conviction, and passions in the industry. Furthermore, fans identify with their favorite musicians on cover appeal almost as much as the songs.
Today’s album cover art is likely to be a thumbnail-sized image on an iTunes chart. However, it still identifies the musician, and fans watch eagerly for the new covers.
#1 David Bowie
David Bowie was an English singer-songwriter and actor whose alter ego was the androgynous Ziggy Stardust. He’s well-known for his innovative work in pop music, using electric styles and experimenting with industrial and jungle sounds.
Bowie teamed up with R2 Studio’s Rex Ray. Rex designed pop art graphics spanning a wide range of commercial art, including book jackets and album covers. The two met through Ray’s persistence in getting Bowie’s autograph on a poster for which Ray freelanced the artwork.
Ray knew of the cover art for Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs, designed by Guy Peellaert. It depicted the singer as a dystopian half-man and half-dog. The concept was a Frankenstein aesthetic while reflecting Bowie’s deeply personal view of the world.
Peellaert’s work inspired Ray, who designed a controversial collage for Bowie’s 2003 album Reality. But, fans didn’t like it. The image diverged from the variations on Bowie headshots that adorned many of his previous albums.
Instead, the Bowie caricature took on an anime effect and Bowie’s desire to try new things. Reality launched a ten-month world tour of modernized “Berlin sound” music. ‘
#2 David Byrne (Talking Heads)
David Byrne is a Scottish-American multi-talented artist. He’s a founding member of the new wave band Talking Heads.
Howard Finster was an outsider artist and Baptist minister from Georgia. He attributed his large, rambling sculpture and scripture garden to direct inspiration from God. Finster was a pioneer, showing art can thrive outside museums in ordinary places.
David Byrne first heard of Finster through their friendship with Chicago art dealer Phyllis Kind. She was Finster’s principal dealer who eventually functioned as the liaison with the Talking Heads.
The new wave funk paired well with Finster’s artistic expression in everyday items. So, Byrne commissioned Finster to create the cover art for the 1985 album Little Creatures. Howard used photographs of the band members and incorporated their images into the final picture.
The image shows Byrne in “tighty-whities” while carrying the world on his back. The busy picture contains the other band members’ likenesses, mountains, buildings, nature, and 26 religious verses. Rolling Stone magazine selected the unusual composition as the “album cover of the year.”
#3 Grateful Dead
What’s the best way to describe the Grateful Dead? Their sound was an eclectic style of various genres, with a touch of world music and a lot of psychedelia all rolled up together. Only a true “Deadhead” could express how the music spoke to them.
Stanley George Miller, aka Stanley Mouse, is an artist notable for his psychedelic rock concert poster designs and album covers. The perfect match for the Grateful Dead’s dizzy style.
Mouse, along with collaborator Alton Kelley, designed the very first cover for the band. The word font across the top was intentionally hard to read, so it didn’t seem pretentious. The two conceived trippy art over the years for the band.
For the 1970 studio album, Workingman’s Dead, Mouse stepped away from the experimental styles of the band’s 1960s albums. He portrayed them as working men lined up on a street corner in a sepia tone.
The picture focused on the folk-rock-influenced sound that the album tracks portrayed. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter collaborated to create a different musical style from previous albums.
Following Workingman’s Dead in 1970, the Grateful Dead released their most famous album, American Beauty. Mouse and Kelley created the rose image surrounding a nearly illegible ambigram, which spells out the album title. The imagery directly identifies the Grateful Dead to this day.
#4 Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was a singer-songwriter who helped shape Motown’s sound in the 1960s. His deep, rich tones bring an unforgettable sex appeal to his songs, including the number one hit, Let’s Get it On.
Born into the Jim Crow era of the south, Ernie Barnes grew up to become a well-known professional football player, actor, and artist. Barnes became the National Football League’s official artist after retiring from the league in 1965.
Later, in the 1970s, Barnes rendered Black culture and dance in a way not seen before in the art world. He created the neo-mannerist style by blending techniques from Michelangelo and Raphael while elongating figures and using distinctive colors.
Gaye acquired several Barnes originals, including his famous The Sugar Shack painting. Barnes then augmented the piece for Gaye’s 1976 I Want You album cover. The enhanced artwork perfectly reflects the album’s synthesizer sounds and sexualized content.
“The painting transmits rhythm, so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it,” Barnes said. Interestingly, the original painting recently sold for $15.3 million, reflecting its cultural importance.
#5 Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)
Michael Stipe is best known as the lead singer of the alternative rock group R.E.M. His career includes film and television projects, as well as political activism.
R.E.M. was the first to use Howard Finster’s art. Michael Stipe became intensely interested in this emerging artscape. The crew filmed a video in Finster’s garden and used his artwork on an album (unbeknownst to the Talking Heads).
Stipe’s fascination with outsider art led him to the artist Reuben Aaron Miller. R.E.M. included Miller’s metal work in a disjointed black and white music video for the songs Pretty Persuasion and Left of Reckoning.
The band filmed on Miller’s Georgia farm. The still photos and jumpy video appear dystopian from some angles and like a modern-day wind farm in others. Song lyrics relay the band’s angst over communism and thus match the fragmented visual story.
#6 Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana is best known for blending rock and Latin American jazz in his band, Santana. For decades, his signature guitar sounds transcend musical genres as well as generational, cultural, and geographical boundaries.
Abdul Mati Klarwein escaped Nazi Germany with his family to Palestine in 1934. He described himself as, “I am only half German and only half Jewish with an Arab soul and an African heart.”
Mati was best known throughout his life for colorful psychedelic-inspired portraits and paintings. His images were fevered expressions of dreams, myths, and polychromatic landscapes without the use of drugs. In fact, to Salvador Dali, he stated, “I don’t take drugs. I am drugs.”
Santana saw Mati’s 1961 painting Annunciation and had to have it for his album Abraxas. The image defies mainstream consumerism with its cosmic collision of color, gender, place, and object. Today, it’s considered a classic in album cover art.
#7 The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones is an active English rock band, still going strong since 1962. Their music pioneered the harsh undercurrents of hard rock.
Guy Peellaert was a Belgian artist. As a painter, illustrator, comic artist, and photographer, he’s known for his album covers for rock artists like David Bowie (Diamond Dogs).
One of the most classic Stones songs is It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It), released in 1974 in an album of the same name. The chorus, repeated over and over toward the song’s end, is a crowd favorite at concerts.
The album cover art gives an aristocratic appeal to the band as the members descend red-carpeted steps. Women in Grecian attire reach out from all sides while young girls dance carefree at their feet.
Album Cover Art Tells a Story
We didn’t realize so much went into album cover art concepts. The images can draw you in and beg the attention of the artist.
The next time you look at a thumbnail image of an album on your music streaming service, consider its meaning. Perhaps you’ll discover a deeper understanding of the artwork as it relates to the album’s songs.
Do you have a favorite album cover? Tell us about it in the comments below.