There is an old adage (which I’m sure you’ve heard) that posits that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” You’ve heard of it? Perfect. A super-sexy (and true) philosophical anecdote that totally encapsulates everything I really needed to say in this introduction. Theoretically, I should be able to stop writing right now, and you could just look at the top 10 album covers without any words, like a good silent movie.
The implication of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is that a complicated notion can be communicated through one single image, as opposed to through hundreds or thousands of units of speech. I’ll admit that I admire the (apparent) simplicity of visual art. I do love words and reading and writing and talking, but certain art speaks to me, as the colloquialism suggests it does. What I failed to realize when I chose to write about images and album cover art and all that good stuff was that album covers didn’t really come to be used as an artistic expression and marketing tool until the 1950’s, automatically eliminating decades of great music. The point here is that I slowly started realizing that more than half of this list was going to either be classic rock, or some subgenre/deviation of rock itself (grunge, alternative, nu metal, etc.) At this point I had a mini nuclear meltdown and wondered if I needed to change the title to Top 10 Greatest ROCK Album Covers of All Time.
I ultimately decided that didn’t feel right, and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself in case I wanted to include some non-rock albums (which I did, barely). So I guess this is just a forewarning/disclaimer/please don’t hate me because this list is skewed towards American rock. I’ll be outright and be the first to admit that this list might lack some diversity, but I had to do what I had to do. And in the midst of my Google Imaging, I stumbled across the Wikipedia page for Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. They were talking about the actual music, not the cover art, but I found this nonetheless; “Writing in USA Today newspaper, Edna Gundersen described the list as predictable and ‘weighted toward testosterone-fueled vintage rock.’ The Rolling Stone 500 has also been criticized for being male-dominated and almost entirely Anglo-American in focus.”
Now I’m really up the creek without a paddle. It will be blatantly obvious who composed this top 10 list, way before anyone stumbles on to my writer profile and eventually my social media links. This list literally IS sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is what it is. And despite being inherently more abstract than my last article, The Top 10 Greatest Rappers of All Time, this blog was still a challenging composition. But again, I had fun writing, so I hope you have fun reading. Let’s do it to it.
Number Ten: Issues (1999) – Korn. The 1990s were a time of…well it was a time of a lot of different things. The hangover from the 1980s seemed to last the entire decade, propelling everyone forward with no seatbelt into the 2000’s, which is of course a class all its own. Musically, though, the 1990’s were a golden period of change, controversy, and innovation.
Korn is credited as being one of the initial pioneers in nu metal, a subgenre that was apparently born in the early 1990’s by blending several different musical styles. Nu metal, sometimes called neo-metal, included the likes of Nine Inch Nails, TOOL, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, etc. I don’t know why in the world I’m giving you a lecture in music history, as you, the reader, presumably know all of this already, and probably much more about music than I do. (I only learned most of these details in the past few days.) Maybe it was to set up context, but either way, let’s forget about the history and focus on the art, because that’s what we’re here to do.
Following the commercial success of Follow the Leader (1998), Korn released Issues in 1999. A few fun facts about the album that I didn’t know (thanks to Wikipedia) – its’ initial popularity overshadowed the release of Dr. Dre’s 2001 and Céline Dion’s greatest hits compilation, preventing both albums from reaching number one on the charts. Artist Alfredo Carlos also illustrated the cover art as part of an MTV-sponsored fan contest.
The cover features a brilliantly warm blend of orange and beige, accented by splashes of blue that stand out prominently. The torn-up voodoo-esque doll is a simple image with complex implications. When considering the music’s subject matter and the title of the album itself, the meaning of the image is visceral and real. Tracks like “Falling Away From Me,” “Make Me Bad,” “Somebody Someone,” and “Hey Daddy” have a powerful sound, evoking powerful emotions in conjunction with the album’s artwork. Simplicity and complexity meet beautifully on this cover for an album that went on to sell 13 million copies worldwide. We all have our issues.
Number Nine: Calle 13 (2005) – Calle 13. This next one is obviously just an opinion pick, and there’s really not much to say here. It kind of speaks for itself. Talk about white hot; not only is the album’s sound scorching, but with an album cover that is absolutely bursting with sex appeal, it’s probably simmering to the touch. I don’t own this CD, but I’m going to my local F.Y.E. (those still exist?) or Best Buy (maybe) to buy it. Or I could wait the 48 hours for Amazon Prime, that’s way more fun getting something in the mail anyway. (New tab over to Amazon. Holy crap, Audio CD only $5.29 with Free 2-Day Shipping YOU ALREADY KNOW!) That’s what we call an insta-buy.
Not everyone will like the music – a fusion of reggaeton, Puerto Rican rap, and urban hip-hop, but there’s no denying the artistic greatness here. A pierced tongue tantalizingly dips into an ice-cold rainbow-sprinkled chocolate and vanilla waffle ice-cream cone. (Try saying that ten times fast). The lips are donned with fire engine red lipstick and the nose has a subtle stud piercing against a white backdrop. The album did take three Latin Grammys home, but parental advisory and explicit lyrics? Sí. For sure.
Number Eight: Axis: Bold as Love (1968) – The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In my opinion, this is one of the most iconic album covers ever. The only reason it’s not higher up on this list is because I have some important stuff saved for later, for good or ill. That and there’s already too much classic rock cluttering up the Top 5, so Jimi and the band will have to take the cake at 8th. I don’t own this CD, but I have a 24”x36” poster of it framed on my wall. Like The Dude’s rug, it really ties the room together. Apart from a striking assembly of color, the artwork itself on this album is monumental.
Although controversial and apparently unendorsed by Hendrix himself, the album cover is still great. It features Hendrix and the Experience depicted alongside (or over) a mass-produced Eastern religious image. All of the band’s personal issues aside, I think it’s an awesome cover that deserved some recognition. Musically, it doesn’t have as many classics as some of their other albums, but it does have “Little Wing” and “If 6 was 9”, which are phenomenal tracks.
Number Seven: Enema of the State (1999) – Blink 182. “I took her out, it was a Friday night, I wore cologne, to get the feeling right.” You hear that riff in your head; I know you do! Pretty much anyone under the age of 40 (now) knows that song. Its 15 years later so you gotta think today’s 40 year-olds are 1999’s 25(ish) year-olds. Blink 182 is undoubtedly a great band with a great sound. Artistically, this album is another case of (kinkier) sex appeal. Hey, it sells. I actually had this CD when it came out, at age ten. (Nice job Mom and Dad LOL, just kidding if you’re reading this, I love you.)
The busty blonde female nurse straps on a pale blue latex medical glove, with a look on her face that says, “Who’s first?” Vulgar? Definitely. Explicit? Rhetorical. Artistic? Absolutely. The album’s colors are (ironically) very patriotic, with stark accents of bright red, true white and sky blue. Something tells me that with a title like Enema of the State, that’s no accident. Musically, the album was a mega success. “What’s My Age Again?”, “Adam’s Song”, “All the Small Things”, and “The Party Song” are (to this day) wildly popular. Enema of the state, but friend of the fan.
Number Six: Revolver (1966) – The Beatles. I don’t want to say that this was a coin flip between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I was dangerously close to choosing the latter. I ended up pickingRevolver because (a) it came first, (b) it’s in black and white, which is infinitely cooler and hippier than being in color (is it though?), and (c) it’s at least mostly hand drawn, whereas Sgt. Pepper is (I’m guessing) just a superimposed collection of photographs. This is not to say that either album is (musically) more superior then the other. To begin to compare the music of these two albums would require a lot more time and a lot more booze.
German artist Klaus Voormann, who apparently had an extensive career not only as an artist, but as a musician and record producer as well, penned the cover to Revolver. It is basically nothing more than a montage of their faces, with a few others mixed in, but the psychedelic value of this piece cannot be underappreciated, even if people are tired of hearing about the Beatles themselves. The imagery has a magnificent flow, just like the music. To shout out a few favorites from both sides of the album, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Yellow Submarine”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” showcase the innovative diversity that put the Beatles where they are today in music history.
Number Five: By the Way (2002) – The Red Hot Chili Peppers. No one said I had to be completely objective, right? The Red Hot Chili Peppers are my favorite band/artist/whatever, so this number five pick is totally biased, but I maintain that this is a great cover nonetheless. I’ll be careful to not write too much about the Chili’s and just focus on the album art itself, but no promises. Innovators in their own right, the Chili Peppers are like a modern-day Rolling Stones (a comparison which hopefully won’t outrage too many readers).
Prolific, simultaneously mainstream and independent, these guys are on the wrong side of 50 and they’re still kicking ass, thanks in part to a fresh, young vibrant guitarist in Josh Klinghoffer. Following the massive successful Californication (1999), the Chili Peppers produced an album with a totally different sound and totally different feel in By the Way. According to Wikipedia, “the photography and art direction are credited to Julian Schnabel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The woman featured on the cover is Stella Schnabel, Julian Schnabel’s daughter and then guitarist John Frusciante’s girlfriend (at the time).”
The cover features a topless young woman in what looks like a negative Polaroid photograph. This seems to be a very clever use of color though, as the brush strokes are clearly visible through the young woman’s physique. Several shades of blue make up the woman’s body, against a backdrop that is instantly recognizable as the beaches of California. The long palm trees are hard to miss. To add to the subtle complexity of the cover, the naked young woman’s eyes appear to have been crossed out with a heavy stroke of lime green. A very effective use of abstractness and impressionism, this is probably my favorite Peppers’ cover.
Mother’s Milk (1989) and Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) deserve some recognition too, but By the Way had that indescribable “it” factor that was very special to me. I personally see elements of love, loss, and sorrow. The music suggests the same. The whole album is musically a masterpiece, but if mentioning a few tracks I’d say that “By the Way,” “Can’t Stop,” “The Zephyr Song,” and “Minor Thing” are a few that some know and some don’t. Give them a try if they’re new to you.
Number Four: Led Zeppelin (1969) – Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin is responsible for some pretty sweet album covers, but there’s something about this original that sits a top the rest. Maybe I find the literalism of it overly powerful. Jimmy Page specifically chose the black and white iconic image of the burning Hindenburg airship with deliberate intent. I was never sure if there was any truth to that story behind Led Zeppelin’s name.
Legend has it that discussions about the band included a joke about how they probably wouldn’t be successful, stating that “it would probably go over like a lead balloon,” which eventually turned into lead zeppelin. Turns out that conversation may have actually happened, so the image is perfectly fitting. In relation to the music, I can’t even shout out any specific songs, the whole album is great. It’s sound is appropriately represented by its cover. With Robert Plant on vocals and Jimmy Page on the strings, ‘t’s a massive fiery explosion.
Number Three: The Chronic (1992) – Dr. Dre. I don’t really like including this one because it essentially blows my cover, but oh well. Maybe I have habitual glaucoma. There’s not much to say here, aside from the fact that when I say this is one of the greatest album cover artworks of all time, I’m also talking about the artwork on the record/CD itself. If you’ve not seen it, it’s just a black background with a green pot leaf. Pretty righteous, eh?
The Chronic cover features Dr. Dre in the 1990’s Zig-Zag version of Big Bambu rolling papers. Set against a white backdrop, his face is seen inside a mirror frame instead of the big-bearded French smoker. I’ve already done my ramble about Dr. Dre in the Top 10 Greatest Rappers of All Time, so if you want a little more on the Doctor I suggest you read that. Are there more artistic album covers that should probably be at number three? Sure. But if wasn’t going to be this it was going to be Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire (1973) or Peter Tosh’s Legalize It (1976). I went with rap instead of reggae.
Number Two: Nevermind (1991) – Nirvana. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest albums of all time, musically and artistically. Nirvana has been written about in such great length and in such great detail, what more can really be said? In regard to this album cover, it speaks volumes. It shows a naked baby boy, alone underwater in what appears to be a swimming pool, with a U.S. one dollar bill on a fishing hook out of his reach.
There’s a whole story on the photo that I’ll spare you here. You can go to the album’s Wikipedia page or Google it and find it pretty easily. Symbolically, this is clearly a huge social commentary about materialism and life in modern society. Controversial for its’ time and yet perfectly timely, it is an album that gave birth to some of the best rock songs ever. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom,” “Lithium” and “Something in the Way” will inevitably come on any good rock station, whether its Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, or the old-fashioned real FM.
Number One: Wish You Were Here (1975) – Pink Floyd. I’m guessing a lot of people were waiting for at least one Pink Floyd album on this list. I’m sure a lot of people would place Dark Side of the Moon (1973), The Wall (1979), or Animals (1977) ahead of Wish You Were Here. Those are all covers of gargantuan status. They are known across the globe. Dark Side of the Moon is probably the most famous cover ever. And I’m not just picking Wish You Were Here for that reason or because it’s not as popular.
This is another album whose cover art speaks to me on a very intimate level. I see a lot of loss in that cover, regardless of its’ true meanings. Loss is universal. We all experience it. We lose friends. We lose family. We lose ourselves. The cover shows two men wearing suits shaking hands. One of the men is on fire, and they appear to be on the set of a Hollywood film production studio. I at first took this at face value. The album is (mostly) filled with lyrics about former band mate Syd Barrett, who suffered from mental illness. I assumed that the two men was used a metaphor for Barrett’s absence, the handshake symbolizing their friendship with him. I saw him as the Man on Fire. As it turns out, there’s a little more to it.
The photo was apparently shot at Warner Bros. studio complex in California, so that explains the stages. The two men in the photograph are stunt men, one of which is equipped with a flame retardant suit. The handshake is “allegedly” meant to be seen as an empty gesture, suggesting that the two businessmen depicted are hiding their true emotions. I’ve read that this is meant to be a comment on the music industry, through songs like “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine.” But I can’t ignore the two thirteen-minute tracks; both labeled “Shine on you Crazy Diamond,” as being for Barrett. And in that regard, I still see the cover as an expression of loss. The handshake may be seen as empty gesture now, but at one point it was a gesture of equality and respect. I see two men, two friends, and one is simply burning away. It is a universal theme that we can all relate to. The music is classic and forever, like the memory of an old friend that we wish was still here.
Honorable mentions: Teenage Dream (2010) by Katy Perry, Cheap Thrills (1968) by Janis Joplin, Let it Bleed (1969) by The Rolling Stones, 40 oz. to Freedom (1992) by Sublime. Oh, and pretty much any album by Santana.