Some people argue that great album art should be considered without discussing the music inside the sleeve. I think that misses the point. Album art becomes great because it is a part of something bigger than a print on paper. A great album cover tells listeners what will happen before they even press play. It's an introduction, an appetizer, the first chapter of a record's story. And like any amazing story, it sticks with you long after you have taken the needle off or pressed stop.
These are the stories that still inspire me today.
Paul's Boutique (1989)
After Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys went through one of the most dramatic musical transformations in hip-hop history. Their album art perfectly reflected the change. Instead of the overt airplane/joint painting of Licensed to Ill (the tail number was EATME spelled backwards), the Beasties' 1989 album features a 360-degree panoramic of a familiar corner in NYC's Lower East Side, reestablishing their deep connection with the funk, soul and grit of New York and forever dropping the frat-guy personas portrayed in their first album. It wasn't bombastic, it was the most low-key, cool cover of its time, which perfectly matched what the Beasties' music had become.
Wish You Were Here (1975)
It's amazing that a band with as much trippy potential as Pink Floyd always managed to anchor their chaos in the album art. Most of that comes down to their ability to be purposeful. For all the moody synth, sharp horns and weeping guitars on Wish You Were Here, the true purpose of the concept album is to lament how the music business has the ability to rip bands up and spit them out. Leaving whomever is on the other side of the deal as nothing more than a burning husk.
The Man Machine (1978)
Like Devo, Kraftwerk goes way beyond the normal pop performance mentality. The German band doesn't just play their music, they very much are their music. To this day, I am not sure if they act like robots when they go about their normal day. The Man Machine album, and its cover, convinced me they were 1930s German schoolboys who discovered a Moog, and the robotic nature of the music and art effectively still makes it hard to think about them as real people.
Pet Shop Boys
This is the only album I'm putting on the list that I like more for its looks than its content. To me, the Pet Shops Boys will always be synonymous with the 1986 hit song "West End Girls." But when the Very album dropped, it signaled a big shift from their New Wave past to a dance electro-pop future. I stopped listening, but I kept paying attention to see if following CD jewel cases would match the coolness of this one. They didn't.
Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
What's most amazing about Born in the U.S.A. is that the album doesn't come off as pandering, political or even too on-the-nose—a feat that would be almost impossible by today's standards. It's a perfect package of authentic American rock, accepted and loved by all because it doesn't define America as belonging to any one group. This is the album-cover version of jeans you don't fit into anymore but still keep in your closet because of all the good times you had together.
While Homogenic didn't introduce the world to Björk's unique style of artistic maximalism, it did chronicle her evolution into a mature, powerful player in the "avant garde" music scene. The sugar-pop mentalities of previous albums melted away, and what was left was a sophisticated trip-hop diva, perfectly styled by Alexander McQueen and sporting 10 kilograms of fake hair. In Björk's words, this image portrays "a warrior who had no weapons, only love." But after seeing her nails, I think we can all agree she had other weapons after all.
The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers (1971)
There could be (and probably is) an entire website dedicated to the most sexual album covers of all time. The Ohio Players would be a dominant factor there. But as far as seuxality and art merging into one perfect representation of a band, the Andy Worhol-designed cover of Sticky Fingers reigns supreme. In the debate of Stones vs. Beatles, this has no Fab Four equivalent. The fact that it came with a real zipper glued to the cover only added to the intrigue.
King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
Simple, powerful, heart-wrenching and lonely, Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues is so real it leaves mud under your fingernails. Thankfully, the album cover didn't try to change that realness in any way. The cover is just a simple image of a nameless, faceless guitar player in mid-song that belongs in the Museum of American Folk Art—fitting, considering very little was known about Johnson's real life at the time of this release. How many other musicians, from Muddy Waters to B.B. King to Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton, have tried to emulate this pose and sound? More than we could count, I am sure.
De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
In 2020, It's easy to listen to 3 Feet High and Rising and get it confused with all the sounds it helped spawn. From A Tribe Called Quest to Childish Gambino, hip-hop has been teaching from the book of De La for 30 years. In 1989, it was one of the most unique albums (not just hip-hop albums) to ever drop. The highly sampled, lyrically complex, almost giddy record was designed with an album cover that had no "right way up." It wasn't meant to be any one thing to any one group of people, and to this day the art, and sound, stand out.
It's funny, but I have always known in my soul that this is one of the best album covers of all time. I knew it when I first saw the record, I knew it when I first heard the record, and I still know it now. While I can sit here and intellectualize why Kanye and Radiohead have great record art, I don't have to think hard about 1984. It just is. It just is rock. It just is innocent rebellion. It just is guitar licks that rip your face off. Best of all, it lets you know you don't have to be a rocker to love it. You can take a break from your angelic existence and still get what you need, no one will judge you. Just be sure to wash off the smell of cigarettes before you go home.