For music fans of a certain age (like me), the album covers from our favorite albums are ingrained in our minds right alongside the most memorable lyrics. Name an album and we can describe the cover art and packaging like we're holding it in our hands.
As my obsession with music grew (along with my vinyl and CD collection), these album covers came to hold a special place in my heart.
In the days before streaming, when you might have heard only one or two songs before deciding to make a purchase, the cover carried extra weight. It helped an album stand out from the many others in the rack, and heavily influenced buying decisions. Whether you were flipping through vinyl or the long cardboard boxes CDs used to be packaged in, those longboxes hold an extra special place in my heart (special shoutout to my boy Joell Ortiz for making his album Autograph available in a classic longbox!)
I saved the longbox from every CD I bought and hung them on my bedroom wall. And while they no longer adorn my walls, I still have them all, sitting in a box in my childhood bedroom.
Just like how music videos do now (before every video was available on demand in the palm of our hands), album covers helped artists tell their story and message their style in a way that their songs (especially their singles) often couldn't do on their own. Today, we scroll through thumbnails on YouTube looking for the video we want to watch, but back in the day we flipped through record store shelves trying to choose which album to buy.
The covers helped albums stand out from the rest as we spent significant time browsing those vinyl and CD racks. A cover could catch your eye because of its vibrant colors, recognizable faces or shocking imagery (like 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be).
So what makes a classic album cover? Does the album need to be classic as well? Can a cover be classic if the album is, let's just say, less than classic?
There's plenty of album covers that are undeniably memorable, even 20, 30, or 40 years later. But sometimes it's because the music is what's classic, elevating the cover's status. On the other side of the coin, there are highly artistic covers long forgotten about because the music itself was lacking.
So as you read through my list, what you'll find is that the covers I selected are unique, artistic and creative—and the music they accompanied has stood the test of time.
You'll also find that none of the covers I selected feature traditional photos of the artists. There's no doubt that many classic covers feature the photography from icons like Danny Hastings, but I was always drawn to the covers that skewed outside the box, often with illustrations or not even featuring the artists themselves.
And while you won't find him on this list, a special mention is necessary for Master P and his No Limit crew. They mastered the art of creating a consistent and identifiable style that made finding the newest No Limit album a breeze amongst the sea of new releases.
And with that, here we go (in no particular order).
A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders (1993)
While I fall into the camp that chooses The Low End Theory over Midnight Marauders (by a hair), the cover of Marauders is undeniable. It features the iconic female character introduced on the Low End cover, and places her at the forefront of images featuring Tribe's friends and contemporaries of the time. One of the reasons this cover has endured is the presence of a then-unknown Sean "Diddy" Combs alongside established and expected artists like Busta Rhymes, Chuck D and De La Soul.
This cover is the perfect example of a unique cover for a classic album at the right time for a now iconic artist. Outkast laid the groundwork with their debut album, but this was the album that made them stars. I was working in the stereo section of Best Buy, and WGCI had "Elevators" in heavy rotation. There was nothing that sounded like it, and this cover really set the tone for an album that sounded like it truly came from outer space.
Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)
The Fear Of A Black Planet cover is the kind of cover you can only do once you've reached the level PE had following the classic It Takes A Nation of Millions album. That cover featured Chuck and Flav behind bars, and perfectly set the tone for the noise they became known for. By the time they followed up with Black Planet, they didn't even need to be featured on the cover. The image of a planet emblazoned with their now famous logo cradling towards Earth told you everything you needed to know about an album that includes "Fight The Power," "Welcome To The Terrordome" and "Burn Hollywood Burn."
Illmatic's cover is iconic in its simplicity. And is a glowing example of a cover that may have been forgotten about if the artist didn't deliver a classic album. A debut album from a teenage MC that didn't show his (current) face on the cover was a risk. But with a certified classic from front to back to accompany it, the risk paid off. As he continued the theme on subsequent album covers, the image is now embedded in Hip-Hop history.
Liquid Swords (1995)
Wu-Tang will always hold a special place for me. Seeing them on Yo! the first time, they felt like nine comic book characters come to life. As they embarked on their solo albums, they each crafted their own sound and identity. Among many great albums, Liquid Swords is likely my favorite, and the album cover sets the tone for the project—perfectly aligned with one of the most iconic album intros of all time.
Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
A perfect album cover gives you an idea of what to expect from an album before you even hear a note, and I don't know if any cover has ever done better than The Pharcyde's debut. The cartoon cover of the four Cali rappers hurtling along a roller coaster perfectly previewed the eccentric and comedic tone of this brilliant debut.
LL Cool J
A debut album without a picture of the MC? It was 1985, and boomboxes were basically synonymous with Hip-Hop. And what better way to preview an album with song titles like "Rock The Bells," "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "I Need A Beat." This simple image let listeners know what they were in for.
Snoop Doggy Dogg
Arguably the most anticipated debut album in Hip-Hop history, Snoop was already on top of the world when this album dropped. Playing off the Snoopy cartoon connection but with his adult-themed tint to it, Snoop delivered on the anticipation.
We Can't Be Stopped (1991)
The only album on this list that features a contemporary photo of the artist. But it's the story behind the photo that makes this classic. This real photo of Bushwick Bill in the hospital after being shot in the eye set the tone for an album that featured haunting narratives like "Mind Playing Tricks On Me." Check his solo track "Ever So Clear" (not from this album) for the story behind the photo.
Ready To Die (1994)
Two main factors contribute to making this an iconic cover: the album itself is classic and it sets the tone for the album. With Biggie as a baby on the cover, the album opens with the sounds of his birth, perfectly connecting the album cover to the theme of the project. It's another debut album without a current image of the artist, which is risky, and if Biggie hadn't delivered the iconic album, the cover image wouldn't be as memorable as it is to this day.