Some of the most iconic album covers of all time – and their stories

A truly iconic album cover can define an album and its place in musical history. Some album covers become so recognizable over time, they can define an entire genre – or generation. 

Here are some of the most iconic album covers of all time, and the stories behind them. 

The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

“the velvet underground & nico 1967” by oddsock is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Andy Warhol designed the banana graphic that adorns The Velvet Underground and Nico’s debut album. The band had been featured on Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event tour, and recorded the album while on the road. The original album art included a sticker version of the banana that could be peeled back to reveal the fruit underneath, although that version required a special machine for printing.

 

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)

“Abbey Road- The Beatles” by beatles maniac11 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The album cover for The Beatles’ eleventh album has inspired many parodies and recreations. It was taken outside of EMI studios on Abbey Road in northwest London. The photographer of the shoot only had ten minutes to get the shot, as traffic was being held up behind the shoot. After the album was released, the license plate of the white Beetle seen in the background was reportedly stolen. The car itself was later sold at auction and is now in a German museum! 

 

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975)

The cover art for Pink Floyd’s ninth album depicts two businessmen shaking hands, one of whom is on fire. The photographer for the shoot was inspired by the idea of people hiding their feelings for fear of “being burned”. “Being burned” is also a common music industry phrase. To get the shot, the photographer used two stuntmen, one of who was wearing a fireproof suit under a business suit and a hood underneath a wig. 

 

Nirvana: Nevermind (1991)

Nevermind’s cover features a baby swimming toward a dollar bill on a fishing lure, just out of reach. Kurt Cobain said he came up with the concept while watching a documentary on water births. The photographer on the shoot, Kirk Weddle, took a picture of his friend’s four-month-old son, Spencer Elden, which ended up becoming the cover. In 2021, Elden filed a lawsuit against Weddle, Cobain’s estate, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic, saying that the use of his likeness was made without his or his legal guardians’ consent and that it “violated federal child pornography statutes”. A lower court ruled in 2022 that Elden had waited too long to file, but that decision was overturned by the 9th US circuit court of appeals in 2023. 


Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

Possibly one of the most recognizable album covers of all time, Dark Side of the Moon features a prism with a beam of white light going into it, dispersing it into colors. Designer Storm Thorgerson was inspired by a photo in a 1963 physics textbook of a prism, according to a 2023 article in Mojo Magazine. The design studio offered a choice of seven images for the cover, but the band unanimously decided on the one that made the cover. “There were no arguments,” said Roger Waters in the Mojo article. “We all pointed to the prism and said ‘That’s the one’.”

 

David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (1973)

 

The lightning bolt makeup David Bowie wore for the cover art for Aladdin Sane is one of his most recognizable looks ever. Bowie described his alter-ego of Aladdin Sane as an extension of his Ziggy Stardust persona, but “Ziggy Stardust goes to America”. Alongside the blue and red “flash” lightning bolt on his face, Bowie’s hair was dyed red and his skin was painted purple. A silver teardrop completes the look. Aladdin Sane was the costliest album cover of its time – Bowie’s team wanted to spend a lot of money on it to ensure that his label, RCA, would promote it extensively. 

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