23 Album Covers that Changed Everything!

There are several reasons I loved working on the Saints and Sinners Issue. It's the only magazine I've ever seen with Madonna and Gandhi elbowing for cover space, it's the first issue we ever got the fantastic authors John Green and Michael Stusser to write for, and it had this piece by Chris Smith. It's just 23 quick notes on 23 important album covers, but it's one of my favorites. Enjoy!

wearing their art on_their sleeves:
23 album covers that changed everything by Chris Smith

Long before MTV, performers expressed the visual dimension of their art through their album covers. Every music fan has his/her favorites, but several covers stand out for their brilliance, their impact and their ability to make as much of a statement as the music they represent. Every art form has its giants, and album cover art is no exception. The work of the designers featured here spans over 40 years of music.
THE SIXTIES: Before the 1960s, most albums featured portraits of musicians, instruments or musicians playing instruments. But the 1960's spirit of exploration and experimentation found its way into music and, consequently, onto album covers.

1967 The Beatles, Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles' album covers act as a kind of scrapbook for their mythmaking career: a serious With the Beatles, a hippie-esque Rubber Soul, a stripped down The White Album, and a funeral procession on Abbey Road. Each is a testament to the band's creativity and insight into their culture. Yet no single album cover defines its era and its artists more than 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As with any good cult artifact, stories built around the album: Was Paul McCartney dead? (No.) Are the figures cardboard cutouts? (Yes.) Are those pot plants? (No.) The album was also legendarily difficult to execute—securing the faces of the band's heroes and influences, from Alistair Crowley to guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—was a logistical nightmare. Finding photographs of everyone, blowing them up to specifications and tinting them with color all turned out to be well worth the effort, however. The album became the single most recognizable (and, according to many, the greatest) album cover of all time.

1965 Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream & Other Delights

herbf.jpgThis concept album pushed the 1960s envelope all the way to the fridge. Every song on the album is named for some kind of food, something the cover model seems to be enjoying in a more than metaphorical way. This was Herb Albert's most successful album, but whether the songs or cover sold the album has yet to be determined.

1969 Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa

2031738.jpgIt's an iconic example of psychedelic art by one of the giants of the genre, graphic artist and California surfer, Rick Griffin. The band met Griffin backstage after a concert and fell in love with his style. In fact, they were so sure of his talent that they gave him total artistic freedom for the cover. Griffin also designed the first masthead for Rolling Stone.

1967 The Doors, Strange Days

51VV3VKNQML._AA240_.jpgWith this album, The Doors touched on the decade's surrealism with a Fellini-esque circus, but still escaped the psychedelia that typified its generation. The cover's zoo of characters were a mix of professionals, amateurs and friends. The juggler is the photographer's assistant. The trumpet player in the background was a cab driver who agreed to pose for $5 right before the image was shot.

1969 Blind Faith, Blind Faith

410FJRY7ARL._AA240_1.jpgBy the end of the decade, idealism had given way to cynicism, yet this album offered a strange vision of hope. A maiden in the nude, holding a silver spaceship matted onto a pastoral setting, forms a metaphorical union of innocence and achievement, life and knowledge, uncharacteristic of the decade that spawned it.

THE SEVENTIES: The stylistic fragmentation of the 1960s continued in the 1970s. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Led Zeppelin claimed music—and their respective album covers—were definitely a trip.

>>Lots more after the jump!

1971 The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers

41D56JD6YEL._AA240_.jpgRock n' roll is sometimes used as a euphemism for sex, so it's no wonder that the crotch has been the centerpiece of countless album covers. Yet, The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers is the most famous and innovative example.

Sticky Fingers stands out as the best album cover of the decade. The cover features an Andy Warhol photograph of a well-endowed young man (contrary to legend, it was not Mick Jagger). A working zipper on the man's pants could be opened to reveal another shot of the model, this time in his skivvies. The zipper left its mark on the album cover genre. Unfortunately, it also left its mark on the record itself (right in the middle of "Sister Morphine").

1973 Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

e90917w9hct.jpgThe classic simplicity of the prism on Dark Side is partly derived from a textbook illustration designed to show how light passes through a prism to form a spectrum. In a science book, however, a prism spectrum has seven colors. The album cover only has six; they got rid of indigo simply because it looked too much like purple.

1977 Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols

g40130e1tkg.jpgNothing sums up the punk ethos better than this album. Like the record itself, the cover resembles a ransom note (actually designed with cut-up newspaper bits), boldly proclaiming the Pistols had stolen the music industry's thunder ... and didn't plan on giving it back. The album was first refused in record shops because of the word "bollocks," and the issue was later taken up in court.

1979 Supertramp, Breakfast in America

f32520v6fj8.jpgThis album reflects the English band's move to the United States and the cynicism that went along with it. A view of the Manhattan skyline, uncannily recreated with salt shakers, creamers, coffee mugs, egg cartons, napkin dispensers and silverware, stands behind a friendly waitress named Libby who offers you a tall glass of OJ—all through your airplane window. Good morning, indeed.

1979 The Clash, London Calling

d95264o1973.jpgPunk thrust a rusted safety pin into the nostril of the bloated music industry with this one. London Calling juxtaposed the concept of a 1956 Elvis album with a blurry image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass. Incidentally, during the shoot, he smashed his watch in the process. That's the price you pay for ripping on Elvis.

THE EIGHTIES: The 1980s offered an interesting contrast: Musically, the decade was both an extension of the excesses of the 1970s and a reaction to it. So what was the product of this conflict? The ability to stir up some controversy.

1988 Jane's Addiction, Nothing's Shocking

1927.jpgThis album was shocking in every way. A pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip and shoulder (actually plaster sculptures built by lead singer Perry Ferrell himself) sit naked on a love seat, their heads on fire.

According to Ferrell, it's harder to get big flames burning on plaster twins than one might think. Nine national record chains refused to stock the album.

1980 Gamma, Gamma 2

f55492e9yd5.jpgThis cover perfectly illustrates the fear that 1980's punk rock brought into the otherwise serene suburbs of America. Originally, the pair of feet in the bottom right corner of the cover were only those of a woman, but Electra Records felt the image might seem inflammatory to certain female customers. At the last minute, a pair of male feet were added to the cover.

1988 Prince, Lovesexy

f61458f9n0i.jpgWhile heavy metal and punk were making waves in music during the 1980s, Prince pushed the envelope in a different direction. Celebrating both sexual freedom and ambiguity, Prince combined a feminine pose with overt phallic imagery. Believe it or not, the shot was spontaneous: the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino suggested Prince go nude just before the session.

1983 Def Leppard, Pyromania

c33511kk8d2.jpgThis album made Tipper Gore's "filthy fifteen" list when she crusaded against "porn-rock" in the mid-1980s. By organizing the Parents' Music Resource Center, she encouraged the Recording Industry Association of America to adopt an explicit content labeling policy to protect minors.

THE NINETIES AND BEYOND: By the 1990s the CD had replaced the old vinyls of yesterday. While the classic square shape was back, the smaller size meant designers didn't have as much space with which to work. Time will tell what images from the 1990s will stake their claim as classics. Some are immediate standouts.

1991 Metallica, Metallica

alb263.jpgThe rock band reflects their stripped-down sound with this none-more-black cover, known to fans simply as "the black album." The album marked the band's transition from heavy metal to mainstream.

1990 Pixies, Bossanova

Pixies_Bossanova_large.jpgThe Pixies took their listeners to another world with Bossanova, mixing the old with the new and the new with the kitsch and retro. Pixies' vocalist Frank Black claims he saw a UFO as a child and was always infatuated with outer space. In fact, the band's founding members decided to form the band while on a trip to New Zealand to see Halley's Comet.

1996 Beck, Odelay

images7.jpgOne of the decade's strangest covers comes, fittingly, from one of its strangest artists. Beck's album shows a Komondor, (a Hungarian sheepdog with a dreadlock-like coat), leaping over a hurdle. It's almost impossible to tell it's a dog, but it's even harder to forget.

1997 Prodigy, Fat of the Land

4d4e224b9da00f3409a3c010._AA240_.L.jpgThe rise of electronica brought acts like Prodigy to the fore, which featured a crab with brandished claws, symbolic of their aggressive beats and attitudes. The image was chosen at the last minute as an illustration of the album title: a crab coming out of the sea to enjoy the bounty of the land.


Andy Warhol: 1967 The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

f86637hbo58.jpgDespite what it insinuates on the cover, the album's title is not Andy Warhol. Rather, the then-unknown The Velvet Underground used their well-known album artist'of Warhol's name created a persistent myth about The Velvets. Everybody thought Andy Warhol was the lead guitarist."

Reid Miles: 1962 Freddie Hubbard, Hub-Tones

f87257icfkw.jpgReid Miles produced almost 500 graphically striking covers for Blue Note Records jazz acts like Freddie Hubbard. Apparently, Blue Note often didn't have the budget to print full-color album covers, so Miles was confined to using two colors. With his creativity and resourcefulness though, you'd never know.

Neon Park XIII: 1970 The Mothers of Invention, Weasels Ripped My Flesh

f07169ewhes.jpgA painter, whose name is as colorful as his work, Park produced quirky paintings for Little Feat and the Beach Boys, and the infamous Weasels Ripped My Flesh for Frank Zappa's band, The Mothers of Invention. This one was based on an ad for an electric shaver from a 1950s Life magazine.

Roger Dean: 1973 Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans

c85091rj7bo.jpgInfluenced by John Michell's The View Over Atlantis—which argues the entire earth is connected via a single prehistoric ancient culture—and by P. Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, Dean imagined otherworldly dreamscapes for prog-rock groups like Yes and Asia. In 1970, Dean also designed the first logo for a new record label, Virgin.

Hipgnosis (A British design pair led by Storm Thorgerson): 1975 Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

e423395we8t.jpgHipgnosis produced widespread cover art, including Led Zepellin's Houses of the Holy and over 20 Pink Floyd covers. In Wish You Were Here, the burning man shaking hands actually is on fire. At the photo shoot, the stunt man wore an asbestos suit and a wig, then doused himself with gasoline and lit a match.

From "Nevemind" to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" to "On the Corner", we definitely left a lot off the list. Be sure to tell us which ones we should have included in the comments below.

A few other posts you might enjoy:

The First Time Aerosmith Made the New York Times

Smarter than they (musically) act: See what Weird Al, Garfunkel and other celebs majored in in college.

Baby Jessica and other kids we'd forgotten about

And a Classic Guitar Solos Quiz (that'll definitely have you feeling good about your music addiction)

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

Getty Images
The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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