Album covers are not only a stand-alone aesthetic experience, capable of stoking the creative sensibilities of their listeners, they are extensions of a musician’s lyrical output.
The cross-pollination of art and sound produces fertile ground, best epitomized in the whimsical, daring, and reflective album covers of some of history’s most talented bands.
A song is more than a song, and an album is always more than an album: it is the origin point of a world, a new grammar of symbolism and simulacra.
Our picks for the 50 best album covers of all time chart both the evolution of music within the broader culture, and the role of the musician as artist, provocateur, and social commentator.
1. The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
The Cure transmuted the banal everyday artifacts of modern life into a staging ground of immense possibilities and insinuations.
Three Imaginary Boys, with its sunny fuschia background and relics of the machine age, invites us to glance beyond the surfaces, at the deeper well of meaning lurking behind even the most mundane of objects.
The Cure invites us to interrogate the latticework of symbolism that exists in our workaday lives. And they created a punchy, Warholian piece of art while at it.
2. Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun (1968)
A tapestry of confronting beauty? A bizarre psychedelic rorschach test? A foray into Eastern mysticism? All of the above – and one of the coolest album covers, to boot.
Anthem of the Sun features a moving feast of forms, geometrics, and arresting pigments.
Designed by artist Bill Walker while high on a multi-day LSD bender, the artwork is a definitive piece of psychedelic creative output and defined the surreal, mystical, hermetic curiosities and leanings of one of history’s greatest bands.
3. Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Is identity all an illusion? Are we simultaneously exerting our individual selves and melding and vanishing into the selfhoods of others?
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn inadvertently provokes these philosophical questions with its mind-bending collage and tricks of perspective.
This was Pink Floyd’s compelling, enigmatic debut.
They riffed the name from a chapter title of Syd Barrett’s favorite book, 1908’s The Wind in the Willows.
4. Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Project: give me a cow standing in a field but make it an artistic moment. Pink Floyd more than delivers on this front.
A banal pastoral scene is turned into a hotbed of bizarre meanings and reference points- and one of the best album covers in history.
Why is the cow staring at us, why is it’s posture so bizarrely apathetic, why is everything so vivid?
In an album cover that would have made Andy Warhol proud if he had forayed into progressive rock.
Storm Thorgerson said of the cover that it was a ‘non-image’ for a non-concept album, but this rather passive view of the album belied its later cultural impact.
5. George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (1970)
To each their own, but we think George Harrison’s solo career was one of the most compelling of the former Beatles.
He had a pensive, almost preternatural, sensibility and he distilled that into his evocative, pared-down album cover for All Things Must Pass.
In the cover Harrison is sitting in Friar’s Park surrounded by four unhinged looking garden gnomes.
Critics and fans have long wondered whether this is Harrison’s sly way of defining himself in contrast to his former life as one of The Beatles.
6. Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced (1967)
Hendrix was an old soul, with a riveting maturity when it came to both technical mastery and visual flair.
Capitalizing on the flower-child, Age of Aquarius energy of the late sixties, Hendrix went full throttle into the cultural current with groovy saturated pigments and distorted imagery.
Hendrix and the gang stare down at us like Hippie gods from a musical Olympus, through a strange looking-glass lens.
This album art will have you on your own psychedelic trip through space-time.
7. The Smiths – The Queen is Dead (1986)
True to moody, cynical, deliciously sardonic form, The Queen is Dead features brooding imagery that captures The Smiths’ ethos.
The band is unrivaled when it comes to finding delight in misery, and their distinctly British bitterness found its artistic expression in the music and visuals of The Queen is Dead.
The cover art features French actor Alain Delon in the 1964 noir film L’Insoumis – does it come more evocative, sophisticated, and enticingly pretentious than that? The result is one of the greatest album covers of the eighties.
8. Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground (1967)
With all the unstudied flair and effortless elegance of uptown darlings, only Velvet Underground could have captured the Warholian grandeur of the age.
Indeed, Andy Warhol’s pop art banana came to be an icon of sixties art and is one of the most recognizable, famous album covers of all time.
It reflects the erudite mischief and nonchalance that Velvet Underground embodied at every turn.
It was twee, satirical, and avant garde in good measure, and solidified the Underground’s reputation as kings of New York society.
9. U2 – War (1983)
Unflinchingly raw and provocative, U2’s cover photograph for War speaks volumes before you’ve even hit play on track one.
The photograph is confrontational, and provokes discomfort and reflection.
The timing is important to, in 1984 the Troubles were wreaking havoc across Northern Ireland and nationalistic and militaristic sentiments were erupting on both sides of the divide.
War speaks to the necessity, futility, and human impact of conflict.
10. Bob Seger – Night Moves (1976)
Seventies biker gang prowess has met its match in Bob Seger.
With a charismatic mullet and American Graffiti-esque leather jacket, the man is in the visual process of becoming the legend.
Seger shows off his wrong side of the track credentials and his hazy bar room sensuality in this daring example of seventies expressionism.
We love the heady, aloof confidence, matched only by his masterful anthems that endure to this day.
11. Howlin Wolf – Rockin Chair (1962)
Howlin Wolf’s intimate, reverent album cover evokes a mood of weightless transience, an unknown grace that permeates all things, sentient and otherwise.
The tender harmony of the composition is strangely ethereal, and poetic in its earnest simplicity.
The homespun scene evokes languid afternoons and well-earned respite in a small American heartland town.
It offers a visual, and musical sojourn into a place where time can stand still for a little while.
12. Neil Young – Decade (1977)
Capturing the restless adventure and melancholic wistfulness of a life spent outside of the margins, Decade captures in one image the courage, mythology, and individuality of Neil Young.
It elevates the man into a legend of his own story, a storybook figure living off the land, embodying the bohemian, unbridled spirit of folk rock.
The visual poetry of the scene is manifest: the time worn, sticker-lader guitar case, the hazy setting sun, the prairie scene infused with the possibility of a thousand narrative arcs.
13. Townes Van Zandt – Townes Van Zandt (1969)
In a painfully reflective everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tableau, the singer-songwriter-philosopher Townes Van Zandt strikes a post destined for the folk canon.
His meditative posturing evokes a pervasive melancholy, a doleful insularity, and an earnest individuality.
His music always flirted with poetry and quiet desperation, and reflected the solitude of life and artistry that Rilke always wistfully evoked in his own writings.
14. The Doors – Morrison Hotel (1970)
The Doors are famed for their preternatural wisdom and a maturity far beyond their years.
Part of this allure was surely down to Jim Morrison’s unwavering, unapologetic confidence, daresay swagger.
Morrison Hotel certainly provides testament to his self- assurance, but the imagery is powerful for its place within the canon of bohemian, starving artist visual lore.
The motel room imagery evokes a powerful sense of place, a mid-century Americana of the cigarette smoke and lipstick stain variety.
15. Gordon Lightfoot – Sundown (1974)
Denim on denim never looked so sweet.
Canadian folk-rock icon Gordon Lightfoot might not have originated the Canadian tuxedo, but he sure elevated it to new sartorial heights.
Unflappable, eminently cooler-than-thou, and nonchalant to the bone, Lightfoot was a modern troubadour unrivaled in the folk tradition.
Sundown gets right to the gritty, breezy, earthy heart of seventies rock, and it offers an earnest, pared-down visual feast for the boho’s among us.
16. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
A modern cultural moment if there ever was one and one of the greatest album covers of all time.
Bruce Springsteen is the American Shakespeare – the bard of small town, automobile age late twentieth century society.
With an earnest swagger and a preternatural cool, Born in The USA captures all of his boundless, persistent soul and spirit.
The album oozes rock n’ roll sincerity and solidified Springsteen as a patriotic icon and musical heavyweight.
Springsteen for Prez 2024?
17. Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood (1977)
One of progressive rock legends Jethro Tull’s folksier offerings, Songs From the Wood captures the bohemian, folkloric, back to the land approach that the band was experimenting with in the late seventies.
The album cover photo features Ian Anderson sitting by a rustic campfire after a successful hunt.
The imagery personifies the value system of the folk rock counterculture: minimalism and a rejection of consumption and the mores of urban chauvinism.
18. Journey – Departure (1980)
True to their theatrical, outlandish, no-holds-barred musical sensibility, Journey took a maximalist approach to their artistic iconography.
One need only look at the saturated, geometric, surrealist Departure cover art to get a sense of the flamboyance and OTT style that made Journey so enduring.
The space age art by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse has a retro futuristic aesthetic, at home with the kitschy, video game sensibility that was emerging in a major way in the early eighties.
19. The Nice – Elegy (1971)
Under-acknowledged seventies progressive band The Nice hit it out of the ballpark with this aesthetic album cover.
The surrealistic art work and expansive, buoyant sense of light and form combine to create a relic that would have made Dali proud.
The red orbs in a desolate, bewitching desert make for a trippy, disjointed image that feels intriguingly disembodied.
If it seems like there is something Floydian about the imagery that’s because there is – it was designed by legendary sixties design house Hipgnosis, whose other clients included Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
20. The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
Disintegration captures all the mesmerizing gothic beauty, ghostly intimations and haunted fragments of The Cure’s musical corpus.
It evokes a delicate synthesis between our world and a parallel realm just behind the looking glass.
In that way, The Cure is true to the origins of the gothic genre, when eighteenth century creatives became captivated by the lore of medieval romance and obscure mythology.
21. Kansas – Point of Know Return (1977)
Fitting for the kings of sweeping folk-rock, Point of Know Return is a surrealistic, dreamscape blend of fantasy and reality.
In a painting that evokes ancient myths, a ship veers off the horizon of the sea straight into the cosmos lurking beneath and beyond the terrestrial realm.
In the cover art by Peter Lloyd fantastical sea serpents swirl around the frontispiece. Point of no return much?
It is a veritable relic of the album rock era, and is a reminder of just how experimental music got during the mid and late seventies.
22. Led Zeppelin – House of the Holy (1973)
Trippy, surreal, and temptingly disconcerting, Houses of the Holy perfectly sums up Led Zeppelin’s defiant and countercultural spirit.
In the album artwork, inspired by the book Childhood’s End, Hipgnosis cofounder Aubrey Powell made a series of collages for a folkloric, fairy tale effect.
The images were captured at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and featured bizarrely contorted children ascending – to heaven maybe?
23. Boston – Boston (1976)
This zinging debut was carried not only by anthems like “More Than a Feeling” and “Peace of Mind” but also by the zany, neo-futuristic alien abduction album cover.
Colorful, campy, outlandish UFO’s staging a recon mission to our lil blue planet? For the stadium bands emerging in the late seventies, nothing was too high (or low) concept.
The out of the box creative direction must have worked, as it became the bestselling debut EP in history up until that point.
Abducting the music charts and airwaves, anyone?
24. 10cc – Deceptive Bends (1977)
We’re keeping the bizarre, unapologetically melodramatic visions of the future theme alive with our next entry.
Out of the wreckage of an alien invasion/planetary landing/apocalyptic rescue mission a damsel is rescued by a space age Romeo.
The sky is a moody amalgamation of gemstone colors and all we can do is ask “why?”
10CC hit the ball out of the park with this spacey, OTT contribution to the canon.
25. Jethro Tull – Minstrel in the Gallery
Do we have any history lovers here? Good, this album cover artwork is for you.
Prog rock powerhouses Jethro Tull’s eighth studio album takes a medieval twist visually and an acoustic/electric turn sonically.
The title and art work refer to the minstrel’s gallery in grand old manors and castles and is an altered version of the 1838 oil painting Twelfth Night Revels in the Great Hall, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire by Joseph Nash.
The raucous, unbridled revelers in the cover hint at the enduring social power music has over human civilizations past and present.
26. The Rolling Stones – Aftermath (1966)
Surreal, nonplussed, affected, defiant – what do you see when you look at Aftermath?
Five faded rockers feeling the impact of the night before? Or five Brits at the precipice of becoming legends in their own lifetimes? We see one of the best rock album covers ever.
The visual manipulation and haziness lends an organic sense of unperturbed cool to the image, regardless of how you read it.
27. The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention Abbey Road, if not solely for the visuals but surely for the cultural impact it has had on the cultural landscape since.
On first glance: Four unkempt yet gallant rockers crossing a street.
But look closer and you’ll see the metaphoric symmetry that makes the album cover so powerful: four individual artistic spirits working in tandem to revolutionize music for the largest generation in history up until that point.
They are walking into their own canonization, if you will, and they are seen to be willing accomplices. The result is the best album cover of all time.
28. Eagles – One of These Nights (1975)
What better captures the unruly yet poised, mysterious yet frank spirit of the American west than One of These Nights?
Evoking the Native traditions, frontier spirit, and homesteading rigor of the wide open plains and desolate mesas, the Eagles are participating in the creation of their own mythology.
The artwork, by Boyd Elder, depicts a skull decorated with feathers, paint, and wings, and reflects the expansive, untamed heart of the Eagles musical canon.
29. The Clash – London Calling (1979)
The iconic image that sparked one thousand t-shirts, bags, and cultural relics, The Clash’s legendary album London Calling just about originated British seventies punk as we know it.
The photograph is packed with the raw, unbridled energy and mania that propelled The Clash forward.
Although the image glorifies the reckless decadence of youth, the musical output of The Clash is always technically masterful, effectively restrained, and stunningly mature in its breadth and scope.
And because we love rock mythology, here is some for you: the image was unstaged, and features bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar out of frustration with the too-quiet audience.
30. Bob Dylan – Desire (1976)
How does one claim to capture and distill the essence and spirit of an entire generation of lonely, dreaming hearts? Easy. Throw a poncho on and call yourself Bob Dylan.
Cheek aside, Desire is a sartorial moment. With a geometric, rustic coat trimmed with fur that would make Henry David Thoreau proud, and an insouciantly worn scarf and wide-brim, Dylan is all bohemian cool.
He evokes an intellectual, literary wanderer, in search of himself in both time, space, and written word.
Perfectly fitting for the poet-king of folk rock.
31. Rush – Fly by Night (1975)
Progressive rock legends Rush had lots of appealing visual iconography within their artistic canon, but Fly By Night gets points for its surreal, bizarre, uncompromisingly wacky imagery.
I mean, it’s a flying, menacing blue owl – it doesn’t get trippier or wilder than that. This is album art with a mission.
Ultimately, that’s what Rush is all about: arresting imagery, offbeat references, and a heady dose of fantasy and myth.
Why not lie back, soak in the weirdness, and let storytelling masters Rush spin you away into a world quite unlike our own.
32. Crosby Stills and Nash – Daylight Again (1982)
Do I have a passion for the extraterrestrial? Or is it just a coincidence that some of the most vivacious, visually engaging album artwork happens to take ET as their subject matter?
Here we have an evocative ancient citadel on a hill being sighted by three mind-bending, glowing floating objects. This is postmodern kitsch at its very finest.
The album marks a visual departure for the earthy, roots-folk legends, but being released in 1982 it was remarkably prescient of a new, futuristic, paint-by-number ethos of the new decade.
33. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)
One of the most likable, engaging musicians of all time, David Bowie managed to strike the impossible balance between being uncompromisingly flamboyant and disarmingly earnest.
Aladdin Sane is Bowie’s canvas on which to feel out the contours of his musical identity – the characteristic orange lightning bolt, the concave cheeks, the vibrant orange mullet.
A whole visual/musical experience comes around once or twice in a generation, and Bowie made the seventies his, with a lyrical swagger and a daring theatricality.
34. Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
Featuring quaint art work with a distinct medieval, folkloric sensibility, Tea for The Tillerman reflected a return to roots approach to music and style.
The figure in the album artwork is reflective, pensive, and modest – quite like Cat Stevens own poignant, emotionally immersive musical output!
It reflected the rustic, bohemian leanings of the folk-rock world circa 1970, and was a celebration of authenticity, creative simplicity, and integrity in the face of commercialization.
35. Janis Joplin – Pearl (1971)
Like her peer Hendrix, Joplin was another rare, beautiful soul who perished far too quickly in the cruel and fast world of rock n’ roll.
But the legacy she left behind far exceeds her years, and Pearl is her aesthetic magnum opus, released posthumously.
With a bohemian, ruffian silhouette, chaotic feathers and fringe galore, and a mid-century modern antique settee, the image is pure iconoclasm.
The image is surreal in its candor and intimacy, and we see a portrait of the artist in all her vulnerable, wounded glory.
36. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
Could we leave out this album in good faith? Most definitely not.
You might love it, you might hate it, but it is without a doubt one of the cultural touchstones of late twentieth century life, and its influence resonates to this day in popular media.
Some find it in poor taste or exploitative, others find it groundbreaking and provocative.
Either way, it was eye-catching and buzzy and helped the album become the best selling grunge record in history.
If you want some music culture lore, go read into the recent lawsuits and controversy concerning the baby on the album cover – you’ll thank me later.
37. Black Flag – TV Party (1982)
Impolite, lazy, noncompliant and not fazed about it, TV Party depicts the sub-culture of breezy, cynical California punk in all its glory.
Procrastination is cool, man – why try and solve the world’s problems, when you can watch them all in the tranquil comfort of your fleabitten basement?
There is a political message amidst the slacker posturing, however: the system is too damn corrupt and jaded to do anything about, so why not indulge the sloth within with cheap beer and time well spent with your best friend the TV set.
38. New Order – Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)
New Order hit the mark with this album cover: a lush, luxuriant floral still life that evokes all the mystery of light and shadows and all the hypnotism of natural-object-as-art.
The imagery is romantic in the classic literary sense, with a maturity and sophistication of tone and composition.
It suggests how impressionable we are, how captivated by art and beauty and melody – how oppressed we are by surface appeal.
The arrangement is hypnotic, redolent of ancient wealth and indulgent leisure – the old new wave of the sixteenth century one could say?
39. The Clash – Combat Rock (1982)
Defiant, intransigent, and unrivaled when it comes to verve and tender cynicism, The Clash kept their plucky style alive well in the eighties with Combat Rock, their best-selling album.
The cover photograph captures the playful and provocative energy of the band in all their glory, posing in front of rural British railway tracks.
Don’t let the surly and affable photo mislead you though: this was one of their most politically explosive albums, stocked with powerful anthems on the Vietnam War and Western social and moral decline.
40. 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds of 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
Probably the most obscure entry on this list, 13th Floor Elevators were a sixties psychedelic outfit from Austin with arguably one of the best band names in history – I mean, come on.
The hallucinatory, surreal, hippie wet dream art work graced an album that was – shocker – titled The Psychedelic Sounds of 13th Floor Elevators.
Does art imitate life or vice versa? Because we want in on the zany, animated, introspective world that gave rise to this piece of sixties artistic lore.
Some consider this album the first to use the word ‘psychedelic’ in reference to the musical contents therein – go trip out and let us know how you feel.
I would put money on this being the coolest album art of the decade.
41. America – America (1971)
Although the cultural appropriation element might have aged badly as of 2022, as a piece of folk rock arcana America’s self-titled album cannot be discounted.
I prefer to see it as a tableau that expresses respect, reverence, and acknowledgement of the debts owed to generations past, and to the original inhabitants of the vast and wild American landscape.
It contains the echoes of the past, with all the wisdom it entails, and reimagines the message for a footloose and open-spirited new generation.
42. America – Hearts (1975)
Folk rock icons America back with another winner. This sees the trio in front of the legendary Golden Gate Bridge.
It captures all the frenzied, wide eyed and open hearted spirit that guided the hippies as they made their way into a chaotic decade.
Dressed in their west coast best, they stare through the lens with hopeful, expectant cool, and all the harmless joy of youth powering forward into a new chapter.
43. Bob Seger – Against the Wind (1980)
Against the Wind was basically designed to be a shirt worn by your relaxed aging relatives who live in an RV and collect knick knacks at roadside motels.
Translation: it has all the evocative melodrama and poignant beauty of the American frontier, and the spirit that it provokes.
What could be more romantic and delicately dreamy than wild stallions running through a hazy body of water, trampling on the reflections of their past selves as they rear towards the horizon?
I think it’s one of the best album covers of all time.
44. The Beatles – ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Colorful, chaotic, and packed with cultural references, this is doubtless one of the It moments in rock and roll history and one of the most famous album covers ever.
It is a veritable quirky who’s-who of culture, cinema, and politics and it’s fun in a “Where’s Waldo” sort of way to pick them all out.
The cardboard cutout background figures allow the whimsically dressed Beatles quartet to stand out in all their brazen glory.
Go read the story of the many iterations of the line up the band went through in order to select the final roll-call. It’s a pretty juicy story.
45. The Ramones – Halfway to Sanity (1987)
Has there ever been an image that so flawlessly captures the attitude and bravado of New York underground punk?
The leather jackets, the worn-in denim, the stompers made for a dive bar rumble – it’s a silhouette that still resonates from Fashion Week to roadside bars in the flyover states.
The iconic posturing is elevated by the ground-up camera angle, capturing the legends in all their earnest glamor and grit.
One of the coolest album covers of all time? What do you think?
46. Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever (1989)
Color block gradients put to their most effective use, Full Moon Fever frames the man as music legend, foregrounded in front of lush primary shades.
With all the laid back, unflappable elegance of a heartland rock star, Petty stares us down, an unstudied warmth in his stance.
The cool album cover is sheer Petty: unpretentious, authentic, but with a spirited, poignant spin and unexpected breeze.
47. Pink Floyd – Ummagumma (1969)
I don’t apologize for favoring Pink Floyd in this list – they delivered some iconic, mind-bending visual artifacts and they need the appreciation that they’re due.
Ummagumma is a spin on the strangely disconcerting visual trope of a mirror within a mirror within a mirror.
It is a reflection laid bare in a surreal, uncanny manner and the irreverent scene is infused with Pink Floyd’s signature sly, erudite wit.
One of the most iconic album covers of the sixties.
48. Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
Gaudy, flashy and packed to the hilt with nostalgic Americana references, Can’t Buy a Thrill is living evidence that too much of a good thing is still a good thing.
Punchy, pop art visuals and pigments confuse the senses and capture the raunchy imagination.
Ever sly and on the nose, Steely Dan’s album cover art raises the question: why buy a thrill when you can get one for free: namely, in the form of staring at Can’t Buy a Thrill until your eyes bleed?
49. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
The post-punk, gothic rock debut from Joy Division might not look like much from afar, but approach and let the magic happen.
The essentialist, minimalist cover contains riddles aplenty – are they distant mountains? Waves of light or sound?
Artist Peter Saville plotted radio waves onto a dense black background for an arresting, unflinching visual experience.
Often considered one of the best debuts of all time, the album cover art has also achieved cult status and graces shirts and posters from one coast to the next.
50. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
Last one I swear, Pink Floyd!
This iconic album cover sees Hollywood stuntman Ronnie Rondell ablaze, wearing a business suit over a flame retardant suit, and shaking the hand of colleague Danny Rogers.
The image means different things to different people, but could be read as an intelligent critique of our double-crossing, self-obsessed, get ahead culture where everyone is either a winner or a loser.
The intense grainy overlay makes the photograph look more like a distant fragment, than anything tangibly represented in reality.
Best Album Covers – Final Thoughts
Aesthetic, creative, surreal, groundbreaking – you’ve seen them all now!
I hope this list of the best album covers of all time has given you some creative and artistic inspiration.
Go get some records, stick up some posters, and have yourself a rollicking rock n’ roll time.