Saturday, November 27, 2010

The 10 best album cover designs

You've seen the rest, now here's the best:

1. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

This is the album cover that got me into music. I remember finding it in my dad's record collection as a kid and being blown away.

"What the hell is going on here?! The album says it's by "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but what are the Beatles doing here with Fred Astaire, Lenny Bruce, Tony Curtis, Bob Dylan, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar Wilde, and Dylan Thomas?" I wondered.

The cover was created by Robert Fraser and designers Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and the folks on the cover are the thinkers and figures influential to The Beatles - including the teenybopper versions of themselves,  the old-school equivalent of #ff-ing your own Twitter account on a Friday. I know of what I speak...

Although none of these people (Beatles aside) actually sing on the record, the cover is evocative of the music inside - the first concept album in rock with the best cover. Of course, the Beatles were first and best with everything they touched; trend-setters who proved that the supposed "trends" had staying power.

For their other classic album covers, see Abbey Road, Revolver, the White Album, and With the Beatles. The whole story behind this cover is here, and well worth the read.

2. The Velvet Underground and Nico

If you can't come up with a decent album cover yoursef, getting Andy Warhol to do it ain't a bad strategy.

The cover of VU's debut album featured a classic piece of Warhol art: a yellow banana and the artist's signature instead of the band's name; and you could peel away the banana skin to reveal a flesh-colored "banana" in the same shape. Dirty!

3. The Clash - London Calling

The best punk album of all time with the best cover: a photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass at the Palladium, New York, Sept. 21, 1979. My 12th birthday!

The cover was designed by Ray Lowry around a photograph by Pennie Smith. Q Magazine quotes Lowry claiming "plagiarinspiration." Great word!

Proving the adage that intelligence borrows and genius steals, the typography is lifted right off of Elvis Presley's 1956 album cover (another great album, by the way).

Smith's photo of Simonon (paying tribute to the Who's Pete Townshend) almost didn't make it. She thought it was too out of focus. Q quotes her: "I ducked. He was closer than it looks."

4. Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks

Jamie Reid's iconic ransom note and newspaper-clipping style screams "terrorism," but the pink and yellow background screams "pop." Exactly right!

5. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

Mental illness has never looked so classy!

Designed by George Hardie with input from the band, the Dark Side of the Moon's cover supposedly represents the band's stage show, the album's psychedelic lyrics, and the band's request for smart simplicity.

Other classic Floyd album covers: Atom Heart Mother, Animals, and Wish You Were Here. The Wall? I dunno...

6. Ramones

The police lineup from hell: Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee, as photographed by Roberta Bayley for Punk magazine.

Described alternatively as "dumb defiance" and the "ultimate punk statement," this album cover preceded the Ramones wherever they toured, to the point that many of the band's fans believed they were in a street gang and were afraid to meet or speak with them.

My favorite part: despite the tough-guy stances, Tommy is on his tippy toes to look taller and Joey is hunched over to look shorter.

7. The Who - Sell Out

Like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, the Who mastered the art of making their cover art match the music - hence some pretty great covers for Quadrophenia, Tommy, Who Are You, and - this classic - The Who Sell Out.

The band's album concept, as illustrated on the cover, included joke ads between songs, or "selling out" in the parlance of the times - back in the old days, the simpler times before Pete Townshend sold the entire Who catalogue for use as CSI theme songs. Sigh.

8. X - Los Angeles

An X on fire - or is that a burning cross knocked over on its side? - reflecting the band's gritty take on sex, love, and life in LA and, in the album's title track, the girl who leaves it behind for all the wrong reasons.

9.  New Order - Power, Corruption & Lies

Classical art meets the floppy disk: this cover features a reproduction Henri Fantin-Latour's "A Basket of Roses" and, in the top-right corner, a color-based "alphabet" designed by Peter Saville for the band, mimicking a floppy disk, which Saville had just seen for the first time.

According to Wikipedia:
"It is said that the owner of the painting (The National Heritage Trust) first refused Factory Records access to it. Tony Wilson, the head of the label, then called them up to ask who actually owned the painting and was (told) that the Trust belonged to the people of Britain. Wilson then famously replied, "Well, the people of Britain now want it."

10. Monty Python - Another Monty Python Record

Take that, Beethoven!


  1. Well done, sir. Insanely epic album covers indeed. I too remember gazing at the Sgt. Pepper cover and going through some intense sensory overload.

  2. How about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Byrds 1968?
    Perhaps it's a ripoff of Sgt. Pepper, Beatles 1967.
    And, of course, R Crumb's Cheap Thrills cover for Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, 1968.

  3. I couldn't have picked a better selection of album covers myself. Nicely done, Larsen. My fav? The Clash's London Calling album!


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