Back in the days of vinyl, there was no way to listen to the songs without buying the album. There would be a couple of singles released from each album that would be played on the radio, but you could go for years without hearing what else a band had to offer unless you had it.
Because of this, it was important to have an album cover that really caught the eyes of record store patrons. Which ones were best at turning heads based on their design? Let’s take a look at the 55 best album covers of all time.
1. Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here features a well-dressed man shaking hands with his doppelganger, who is on fire. Designed by Hipgnosis, the concept for the cover was actually inspired by the Pink Floyd song, Have A Cigar. The album conveys mental absence, which can happen when you spend too much time working and make yourself emotionally unavailable to those around you while losing touch with your own sense of self.
2. Self-Titled Album – Boston
When you first see Boston’s debut self-titled album, the first thought goes to spaceships naturally. It usually is until someone points out that the spaceships are shaped like guitars, and you realize how detailed the cover really is. According to the band, there really isn’t a deep meaning for the cover outside of “escape.” In the end, they just wanted something more sci-fi and tabbed Paula Scher to create the spaceships.
3. Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf
The first of many epic hard rock albums on the list, the Bat Out Of Hell cover for this Meat Loaf album was the brainchild of producer and composer Jim Steinman. A man on a motorcycle is literally bursting through the ground to escape the depths of hell via a graveyard with a massive hellacious bat overlooking the scene. With the visual in mind, Steinman got legendary illustrator Richard Corben to make the cover.
4. Self-Titled Album – Asia
Asia established a reputation for having some terrific artwork for their album covers, and it started with their debut self-titled album in 1982. Roger Dean, who had worked with other bands on their covers, created the design for Asia to the band’s delight. However, the record label didn’t like the official logo that Dean came up with at first. Thankfully, they came around and the serpent splashing around with his mysterious orb became an iconic rock album cover.
5. 1984 – Van Halen
One of the greatest rock albums of all time, 1984 was originally supposed to have four completely chrome women dancing on the cover. Instead, artist Margo Nahas brought her entire catalog when meeting Van Halen to go over the final design. What they landed on was one of her friend’s children appearing as an angel smoking a cigarette. Don’t worry, the actual photo that was taken used a candy cigarette.
6. Point of Know Return – Kansas
Prog rock was truly responsible for some of the best album covers of all time, and Point Of Know Return is among the best. Featuring a ship sailing over the edge of the world, this cover was conceptualized by the band and put into motion by artist Peter Lloyd. The freelancer had worked with a lot of big names during his career, including Playboy and the National Football League.
7. Master of Puppets – Metallica
Along with manager Peter Mensch, Metallica came up with the idea for the Master Of Puppets cover and had artist Don Brautigam make it a reality. While not the most subtle metaphor, this cover shows how the lives of many are manipulated by the powers that be, especially when it comes to war. It matches a lot of the lyrics from the album, with Disposable Heroes being the most ‘on-the-nose.’
8. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Perhaps the most famous album cover of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a far cry from the earlier work of The Beatles in a lot of ways. There are more than 70 people referenced on the entire cover both front and back, as well as more than a dozen different props. Historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, and Marlon Brando made the cut, just to name a few.
9. Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? – Megadeth
Fans of Megadeth are undoubtedly familiar with the band’s mascot, Vic Rattlehead. Perhaps his most famous appearance came on the Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? album cover as he attempts to sell the United Nations building after it had been decimated by war. Graphic designer Ed Repka was the man responsible for creating the cover art. It was his finest piece, which is saying something with a catalog that includes six Megadeth albums and dozens more artists that he’s worked with.
10. Follow the Leader – Korn
It’s not often that an album cover is designed by somebody that was already famous, but Korn got legendary comic book artist Todd McFarlane to design Follow The Leader. Showing a young girl playing a game of hopscotch that will lead to her inevitable doom, this cover shows how impressionable youth can be. According to lead singer Jonathan Davis, he really just wanted something a bit shocking and (expletive) weird.
11. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
Reminiscent of Point Of Know Return, country singer Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth features a ship that’s in danger, but not because of an inevitable fall but rather massive waves coming from all sides. Lyrically, the album is a letter from Simpson to his son and wife about what not to do in life and avoiding pitfalls. As illustrated on the cover, Simpson got himself into troubled waters earlier in life.
12. Tragic Kingdom – No Doubt
When you think of Orange County, California, you tend to think of Disneyland, a.k.a. The Magic Kingdom. No Doubt is from the area, and things weren’t so “magic” for them at the time. While Gwen Stefani looks to be chipper, the rest of the band is situated in an orange grove where the only thing that’s growing is rotten fruit. It was very symbolic for the band at the time, with Stefani getting all of the headlines while there was inner turmoil.
13. Holy Diver – Dio
Going solo for the first time, Ronnie James Dio released Holy Diver in 1983 and featured his namesake band’s mascot on the cover. Unsurprisingly, the metal band used a demon as a mascot, naming him Murray in the process. Here, Murray is shown attempting to finish off a priest from his mountainous domain, wrapping him up in chains while the priest is trying to swim away.
14. Late Registration – Kanye West
Another artist with a mascot, Kanye West had his own in the form of the Dropout Bear, who made his first appearance on the College Dropout album but in the form of a mascot costume. On Late Registration, the bear is stylized more to be its own living entity and shows up late to register for college classes. Sadly, West has since retired the Dropout Bear following his final appearance on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
15. Metal Health – Quiet Riot
Nothing screams metal music quite like the album cover for Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, which features photographer Stan Watts taking a picture of himself wearing an Iron Maiden-esque mask that he hammered himself. Also donning a straitjacket and using a blanket to simulate a padded wall. It was very low budget, but Watts made it work, and it became an iconic album cover that captured Quiet Riot’s sound.
16. Dookie – Green Day
In 1994, Green Day made its nationwide debut with the release of Dookie with a very detailed animation on the cover. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong said that everything on the cover was a reference or inside joke amongst the band. There are also loving tributes to some of their musical inspirations including AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
17. Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses
One of the most influential albums in rock and roll history, Appetite For Destruction originally had a rather unsavory painting by Robert Williams before it was placed on the inside and replaced by a Celtic cross featuring the skulls of the band members. Those skulls are instantly recognizable as the members of Guns N’ Roses, who all have their own unique looks.
18. News of the World – Queen
Taken straight from the cover of an issue of Astounding Science Fiction, News Of The World by Queen was altered by the original artist Frank Kelly Freas to feature the band instead of one man. The giant robot is depicted as intelligent but confused about the aspects of humanity, and was famously featured as a point of fear for the Family Guy character Stewie Griffin based on show creator Seth MacFarlane’s own childhood fear.
19. Animals – Pink Floyd
Another Pink Floyd album that Hipgnosis worked on, Animals features the Battersea Power Station. After rejecting a couple of other ideas, Roger Waters suggested placing the power station on the cover. There was an addition made, though, with a massive pig balloon being flown on the day of the shoot. The final cover had the pig superimposed as the balloon escaped.
20. Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Keeping the Pink Floyd theme going, the Storm Thorgerson-designed Dark Side Of The Moon is instantly recognizable for fans of all genres. Showing a prism refracting light into the colors of the rainbow, this cover has a meaning for each color. This includes the lighting that the band used on stage, as well as the lyrics.
21. Out of the Blue – Electric Light Orchestra
Electric Light Orchestra was known for using its trademark spaceship for several album covers, most notably Out Of The Blue, its most successful album. The spaceship was designed by John Kosh and became a staple for the group, even using the image as their stage design.
22. Rainbow – Kesha
Borrowing the style of the prog rock bands that came before her, Ke$ha’s 2017 album Rainbow takes a lot of those elements. From crashing waves to spaceships and even her standing in her birthday suit, this looks like it was ripped straight out of 1977. For the cover, Ke$ha worked with artist Robert Beatty, who had previously worked with Tame Impala.
23. Glass Houses – Billy Joel
Billy Joel had several great album covers, but Glass Houses stands out as the best. Released in 1980, he is seen in his leather jacket about to heave the proverbial rock through the glass house he actually owned. He is essentially calling himself a hypocrite with this cover, and the back even features the damage he did with the rock.
24. Tha Carter III – Lil Wayne
Rapper Lil Wayne has a signature style that includes facial tattoos, while also being very nostalgic about his upbringing. Thus, Tha Carter III album cover was born in 2008 featuring what is supposed to be a young Lil Wayne with his jewelry and tattoos.
25. Breakfast in America – Supertramp
A take on the lifestyle of Americans, Supertramp released Breakfast In America in 1979 featuring a diner waitress replacing the Statue of Liberty as seen from an airplane window. Two artists came up with the concept, and the back cover features the band members eating, you guessed it, breakfast in America.
26. Teenage Dream – Katy Perry
At the height of her career, Katy Perry released the Teenage Dream album with a very seductive cover that looks more like a conceptual 1970s album than a 2010s pop album. With no words on the cover, this features her lying on cotton candy-like clouds.
27. Imploding the Mirage – The Killers
A relatively unknown painting when it was created by Thomas Blackshear, his work Dance Of The Wind And Storm was used as the cover for the 2020 Killers album Imploding The Mirage. Lead singer Brandon Flowers became enamored with the artwork, saying that he often looked at the beautiful imagery when needing help with his lyrics.
28. Demon Days – Gorillaz
Their second studio album, Gorillaz released Demon Days in 2005. The album cover art was primarily designed by Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, working under his design company Zombie Flesh Eaters. The cover shows the members of the group in their animated alter egos.
29. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie
David Bowie wanted the album art to portray him as an alien visitor, Ziggy Stardust, standing out amongst the dreary landscape. Brian Ward photographed the eccentric musician on a rainy night on Heddon Street in London. Illustrator Terry Pastor touched up the pictures, adding color to Bowie’s suit and hair to make him resemble more of what Bowie’s image of his character Ziggy Stardust would look like.
30. The Stranger – Billy Joel
Billy Joel’s fifth studio album The Stranger was released in 1977, and it’s considered to be his breakthrough album, giving us some of his greatest hits. The simple yet intriguing album cover features Joel sitting on a bed next to a mask, an item that would typically make someone a stranger. There are also boxing gloves hanging on the wall behind him, an ode to his time spent as a boxer, which he took up for self-defense as a teenager.
31. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac’s eleventh studio album, Rumours was released in 1977 featuring some of the band’s biggest hits. Although it was flawless, the personal relationships of the members of Fleetwood Mac were crumbling throughout the creation of the album. The authentic material made Rumours stand out, and the album cover does, too. It features a dreamy and whimsical-looking Stevie Nicks holding hands with drummer Mick Fleetwood who has a pair of wooden spheres hanging from between his legs and his foot perched on a stool.
32. Blood Sugar Sex Magik – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are known for their alternative music and other funky album covers as well. The art for Blood Sugar Sex Magik shows a tattooesque image of the four band members’ faces with their tongues sticking out and gradually transforming to a vine-covered in thorns surrounding a rose. The artwork and photography were created almost entirely by Gus Van Sant, with Henk Schiffmacher credited for the tongue illustration.
33. Enema of the State – Blink-182
This next album is an interesting play on words. Enema Of The State is the third studio album released by the goofy punk band in 1999. The album cover features adult film star Janine Lindemulder in a revealing nurse uniform, putting on a doctor’s glove, and alluding to her getting ready to perform a particular procedure stated in the album’s title.
34. I Get Wet – Andrew W.K.
Surrounded by controversy, Andrew W.K. was featured on the cover of his debut studio album donning soaked hair and a bloody nose. It was interpreted as representing violence and cocaine use, but Andrew tells a different story. He says the bloody nose look has nothing to do with encouraging violence and cocaine use. He just seemed to enjoy the look and used pigs’ blood to help create the punk look.
35. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips
Frontman of The Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne used his own art to paint a curious picture on their tenth studio album cover. “Yoshimi” is named after Yoshiki P-we, drummer of Boredoms, who is featured throughout the album. The art depicts Yoshimi as a young girl, preparing to face a large, pink, alien-like creature in battle.
36. 10,000 Days – Tool
Stunning visuals, a hint of illusion, and depth are found on this Tool album cover, created by Alex Grey who has worked on projects for the band previously. Grey says the inspiration for these trippy god-like heads is the visual representation of someone on a journey through a DMT trip.
Next: The best Tool songs
37. Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
The cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album features an old painting of an elderly man carrying a bundle of sticks upon his back with the painting hung on a tattered wall. Frontman Robert Plant was said to have discovered this painting at an antique shop, finding personal meaning in the painting and using it along with other visuals to showcase the “destruction of old” throughout the rest of the album’s artwork.
38. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – The Smashing Pumpkins
Created by John Craig, the retro, dreamy, and Victorian cover art for this Smashing Pumpkins album is hauntingly beautiful. The art depicts a Victorian-era woman drifting through space in a floating star. Taking inspiration from the woman’s face from The Souvenir (Fidelity) by Jean-Baptiste Grauze while her body was inspired by a painting of Saint Catherine Alexandria. It ended up meeting the whimsical expectations of frontman Billy Corgan.
39. Holy Wood – Marilyn Manson
40. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys
Licensed to Ill, a play on words of James Bond’s License to Kill, features the Beastie Boys logo on the tail of a Boeing 727. Beneath the band’s logo, is a nice hidden message on the jet’s identification plate, reading “3MTA3,” when read backward reads “Eat Me.”
41. The Pinkprint – Nicki Minaj
Joe Perez’s design studio, working under Kanye West’s creative team DONDA, created this fun album cover by combining different shades of lipstick and eyeshadow. The standard edition of The Pinkprint features a black background, with the deluxe having a white one. The contrast for either background really pops.
42. Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge – My Chemical Romance
The artwork for this My Chemical Romance album was painted by frontman Gerard Way. He calls the piece “The Demolition Lovers,” which depicts two lovers with their faces covered in blood and a small white heart on the man’s forehead that remains untouched. It’s said to be a representation of Bonnie and Clyde, with the music on the album taking influence from the lovers’ story as well.
43. School’s Out – Alice Cooper
Containing the famous song of the same name, School’s Out really takes listeners back to their school days when they would write on the desk. The cover does just that and contains the names of Alice Cooper and his band members. The initial album cover opened up the same way a school desk would, too, and the vinyl even had a pair of undergarments before that idea was scrapped due to a potential fire hazard.
44. Queen II – Queen
When looking at the cover for Queen II, your mind probably immediately goes to the song Bohemian Rhapsody. However, that song wasn’t on this particular album, but the cover and song have become synonymous with one another. The cover portrays the band illuminated in front of a black background. The group looks nearly angelic, especially with Freddie Mercury crossing his arms over his chest.
45. London Calling – The Clash
London Calling is one of the most iconic album covers of all time, though part of it is a direct reference to another classic album. In the version released by The Clash, bassist Paul Simonon is smashing his instrument while the rest of the cover is a reference to Elvis Presley’s self-titled album that was released in 1956.
46. Another Eternity – Purity Ring
Canadian band Purity Ring released their second album Another Eternity in 2015 with the cover art showing a woman floating upward toward a mysterious orb. It’s a simple design, but quite elegant and somehow relaxing thanks to the bright colors and soft tones.
47. Hybrid Theory – Linkin Park
Released in 2000, Hybrid Theory has a cover that features a lot of Linkin Park’s lyrics from the album. The band didn’t hire outside professional help for this cover, though. Instead, Mike Shinoda himself designed the soldier with insect wings in a street art style that caught the attention of a whole generation.
48. Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
David Bowie was definitely out there, and Diamond Dogs is a tribute to that. Created by artist Guy Peellaert, Bowie is shown as a mix between a human and a dog with similar creatures surrounding him. The cover also shows him sporting the signature Ziggy Stardust hairstyle, and the original showed a lot more than what most record stores carried. That’s because some of the anatomies had to be censored for public release.
49. Sad Wings of Destiny – Judas Priest
Patrick Woodroffe created the piece Fallen Angel for the band’s second album released in 1976. The artwork shows a forlorn angel, surrounded by what seems to be the depths of hell, donning the band’s symbol, a devil’s cross.
50. Purple Rain – Prince
To go along with the movie of the same name, Prince released the album Purple Rain in 1984 with a cover that really captures the film’s feel. Decked out in purple and sitting atop a motorcycle on a steamy night and taken at Warner Bros Studio, the album cover was a bit rushed but still turned out fantastic.
51. Strange Days – The Doors
Jim Morrison refused to be photographed for this album cover, not wanting to be the center of attention as he had been for all previous album covers. This left photographer Joel Brodsky to come up with his own idea for the cover. He came up with an unusual idea for the photo, taking influence from Federico Fellini’s film La Strada. He hired a handful of amateurs and professional acrobats to pose as street performers, resulting in a goofy and unusual album cover.
52. American Idiot – Green Day
Green Day’s fourth studio album features cover art that represents the turmoil and heartbreak of war that had a heavy presence around the time of recording in post-9/11 America. The image shows an outstretched arm with blood pouring down from a heart-shaped grenade. It’s said to symbolize the broken hearts and loss associated with war.
53. Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division
Behind Unknown Pleasures‘ simple album cover design is a much more scientific explanation. The creative cover resembles mountain peaks, but the featured graphics are actually visual representations of pulsar data.
54. Self-Titled Album – Led Zeppelin
The tragic Hindenburg blimp disaster is the featured art on Led Zeppelin’s debut, self-titled album. Inspiration for use of the striking picture on the cover of the album comes from a possible conversation between Jimmy Page and The Who bassist John Entwistle. Entwistle is rumored to have said Page’s idea to form a supergroup would “go down like a lead zeppelin.”
55. Revolver – The Beatles
The Beatles recruited their childhood friend Klaus Voorman to create the album art for their album Revolver. He took inspiration from the album’s subject matter to create this stunning black-and-white picture with visuals alluding to the band’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.