In the days of vinyl, the album cover was a huge selling tool. Sometimes an album cover could go a long way to getting interest, even if you should never judge a book by its cover!
In some cases, the album cover is a work of art in its own right, and there are any number of books and websites offering the 50 best of all time (or the worst of all time, for that matter). There is a strong case that the pure simplicity of The Beatles‘ White Album had a lot to commend it. After the artistic creation that was Pepper the total contrast of The White Album made its own statement. Not that it was ever called that by the band at the time, but it is a case of an album gaining a name purely by its cover. But what makes a great album cover? Between us here, we chose 10. It is not a “here are the best ten ever,” it is a discussion over what (in our perception here) works. Why has this album cover stood out to us as an example of how it should be done?
10) The Bombpops, Fear of Missing Out (2017)
At number 10, The Bombpops are a very talented LA punk/pop band that we love here. This was their first album in 2017, and the cover works in any number of ways. It introduces the logo of the bomb with the cross bones and it shows a nightmare prom gone wrong style of picture. She’s almost doll-like and almost out of a horror picture. The Bombpops love to place little extras in their videos, small add-ins that you need to watch for. Notice in the cover the Edgar Allen Poe Book, the copy of The Bible and the prayer imagery. It sets off an amazing album debut for one of our favourite bands. The thing about them is that you have this fast punk melody and sweet vocals, but when you hear the lyrics, they are full of pain and venom. Really great!
9) VMC & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ishq Hi Jaane (2020)
In at 9, Nusrat Feteh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was a simply amazing Sufi singer. He was a King of Qawwali, feted by the Western musical world as much as the East. With a distinctively powerful voice, this singer-songwriter performed at an intense level for hours. This was a 2020 release of one of his songs, and as an album cover, it is mysterious and beautiful at the same time, it is a stunning portrait and is a wonderful extension of the song. Here in this magazine, we embrace world music, and if we can get more people to listen to Nusrat, then we have done a great job.
8) Nina Simone (1959)
On the subject of greatness, this is the cover for an album with the simple title: Nina Simone (Jazz as Played in an exclusive side-street club). There is everything right about this cover and everything right about the music inside. Whoever you speak to in the music world, whether from rock to punk to blues, a mention of Nina Simone leads to total respect, and that is because she was the best. This cover is very simple, understated, and calm. But when greatness is inside, simple can be more effective. Less, in this case, is definitely more. This is quite simply one of the best.
7) Kiss, Destroyer (1976)
It was looking at this album one day on the school bus that got me into Kiss in the first place. It was/is the cover that defined Kiss as America’s biggest rock band for the next two years. The album reflects the songs inside that remain the core of the band’s live set over four decades later, and it presents the iconic images of the band morphed into cartoon style heroes. The artist, Ken Kelly, went on to create the band’s Love Gun album cover as well, along with work for Burning Steele and the Rainbow Rising cover. Kelly, who passed away in 2022, was one of the leaders in rock album artistry.
6) Queen II (1974)
This iconic photograph by Mick Rock was used by Queen several times. It resurfaced in the video for Bohemian Rhapsody and again in the One Vision promo. For us here, not only is this Queen’s best album (yes, better than Night at the Opera) but the image is one that defined the band afterward. Not only were Queen one of the greatest bands of all time, they successfully translated a still picture image into a moving film concept. It is simple, but it has everything.
5) Meatloaf Bat out of Hell (1977)
Bat out of Hell is the next iconic album that almost chooses itself. Another debut album, this one from Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, was totally over the top and massively successful. The music is still loved, and like all great albums, the cover is utterly distinctive and loved. In the late seventies it was the album every teenager was carrying around, today it is a highly identifiable piece of art.
4) Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
This is an iconic cover, instantly recognisable and appears in the best album cover lists all over the place. It is almost impossible to not have this in the top five as it connected to the public and brought in grunge metal, killing off hair metal in one stroke. It remains iconic, everything about it remains culturally significant, and it brought in drummer Dave Grohl. No more needs to be said. whereas some of the other choices here would (we know) have people disagreeing. This one chooses itself.
3) Billie Eilish, When We all fall Asleep, where do we go? (2019)
Another debut album, this time by the great Billie Eilish. It is a brave and disturbing debut album. In doing so, she announced herself to the music scene and backed the cover up with a great set of songs. As album art goes, it leaves a memory. Like all the ones we chose here, it will be talked about for years to come and is a statement. We love it, and the music inside. And the video we link with this, you want dark?!
2) Elvis Presley (1956)
This is the Elvis who US parents were warning their children about in 1956. It is the untamed Elvis before the money men got to him and cleaned him up, it’s before his time in the military and all those movies as well, it is Elvis as he was meant to be. Rock the Joint Magazine talked to BB Kings’ daughter Shirley King, and she told a story of how her dad BB (then a DJ in Memphis) knew the young pre-fame Elvis. She was there as a young teenage girl and walked into her kitchen to see a dirty white trucker there. She was talking to him and then was asked to leave by a family member as she was a young black girl and he was a white male. This was the real Elvis who loved gospel music and was a part of the delta blues sound. It is all on this first cover. It is the first picture ever of a modern pop icon – and check out the video!
- The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)
This could have been Sgt. Pepper, but we went for Abbey Road. On the subject of less is more! I believe it was mooted that the Beatles would fly out to Everest and be pictured there, but they settled for a zebra crossing instead and turned the crossing into an international tourist attraction. This is another cover where everything is just right and it has entered popular culture a long time ago. Paul wears no shoes and is out of step with the others, Lennon in the white suit, the cars parked at the side. Everything is right, musically, and everything is right on the cover. The best, in our humble opinion.
Contributions from Benny (the Ball) Benson &
Mark C. Chambers & the team.