They always say that you should never judge a book by its cover. Well, the opposite is true for albums. Album artwork tells us a lot about a band and their music, giving us a fascinating insight into how a group sees itself. Some album covers have become more famous than the music contained within and others have become iconic pieces of art in their own right.
Here, we take a look at our favourite covers and explain why we reckon they’re worthy of a place in the all-time top five.
1. Nirvana - In Utero
Though Nirvana’s most recognisable album artwork is probably Nevermind’s swimming baby, we reckon In Utero is the true classic. The band’s final album before Cobain’s untimely passing, In Utero was mired in controversy from the moment it was announced. Reports at the time suggested the band’s label, DGC Records, had second thoughts about releasing it, while several tracks were criticised for their titles and lyrical content.
Then there was the artwork. Created by Robert Fisher, with input from Cobain, the cover depicted an anatomical mannequin with superimposed angel wings. Bold and engaging, the artwork complemented the music perfectly, its anatomical imagery reflecting Cobain’s lyrical preoccupation with medicine, the body, disease, sex and abortion. However, retailers weren’t as convinced and several large ‘superstores,’ including Walmart and K-mart, refused to stock the album until a censored version was produced.
The artwork on the front cover was also accompanied by one of Cobain’s collages on the rear. Dealing with similar themes, it contained images of body parts, fetuses, turtle shells and lilies and its busy composition contrasted well with the stark imagery of the cover. In Utero is rightly regarded as one of the greatest guitar albums of all time - we like to argue that its cover art deserves a top spot, too.
2. Judas Priest - British Steel
There must have been something in the water in 1970s Birmingham because we can’t think of any other reason why the capital of the Midlands suddenly became a mecca for metalheads. Alongside their bat-biting contemporaries, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest were at the forefront of Britain’s hard-rocking heavy metal boom and have since become one of the genre’s established reference points.
Musically, British Steel was a show of solidarity with the country’s striking steelworkers and a recognition - perhaps even a celebration - of the band’s deeply felt sense of British-ness. The album artwork reflected this. Conceived of when one of the band members noticed that their Gillette razor blade bore the imprint ‘Sheffield Steel,’ the cover served a dual purpose.
On the one hand, it distinguished them from the more commercially successful US metal groups by referencing UK culture and current events. On the other, it played into the band’s dark imagery and was designed to attract new listeners who considered Judas Priest’s look and sound “too dangerous.”
Former guitarist KK Downing put it well when he described how the band felt when they first saw the finished artwork. “We thought - ‘this is as sharp-edged as we are.’ And the way it was portrayed, with the razor blade going into the fingers, but no blood - it’s saying that it’s a safe thing to be into this music.”
3. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures
Any number of covers from ‘70s/’80s Manchester could have appeared on this list. New Order’s minimalist floppy disk artwork for Blue Monday - which was so elaborate Factory Records actually lost money on every copy sold. Or the Stone Roses’ Jackson Pollock-esque cover for their debut album. Even The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead. But we’ve gone for probably the most famous and best-loved of the lot - Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.
Designed by Peter Saville (who also produced the Blue Monday artwork), the album cover features a black background, on which a series of tightly packed, horizontal lines appear in the centre. Each of the lines rises up, peaking somewhere towards the centre and then falling back, so that the image somewhat resembles a mountain range.
In fact, the image represents the radio pulses dispersed by a distant rotating star. While this series of sharp, pulsing peaks suits the angular guitar and thundering bass of the music found on the album, its ambiguity and mysterious feel meant the cover was open to interpretation. This allowed fans to engage with the artwork, developing their own theories and ideas as to what the image ‘meant’ and establishing it as one of the all-time great covers in the process.
4. Motorhead - England
Motorhead’s fearsome war pig, Snaggletooth, first showed his face on the band’s eponymous debut album and would go on to appear, in some form or another, on almost all of their subsequent releases. An amalgamation of bear, wolf, dog and boar, its toothsome snarl epitomised Motorhead’s fast, frantic and aggressive sound and quickly became a fan favourite.
Designed by artist Joe Petagno, Snaggletooth tied the band to a rebellious, outlaw biker-influenced narrative that suited Motorhead’s abrasive sound. It also acted as a ‘badge of belonging’ for fans who would sew a Snaggletooth patch to the back of their denim jacket as a sign of allegiance. It was meant to shock, surprise and act as a rallying cry for all the down-and-outers who loved Lemmy and the band more than any other group. And it did just that.
While we’ve chosen the classic 1978 live album, England, as our choice of cover for this list, it’s almost identical to the artwork used for the band’s debut album, Motorhead.
5. Marilyn Manson - Portrait of an American Family
When Portrait of an American Family dropped in July 1994, it introduced an artist who would embrace and subvert the role of American boogeyman in fascinating ways. A metal artist who was strongly influenced by performance art and consciously adopted a pallid, heavily-made up and often shocking appearance, Manson would become one of the USA’s most well-known musicians and a regular target for conservative media outlets.
Over the course of his 25 year career, he fostered an image of himself as ‘America’s Worst Nightmare,’ often using this status as a platform to criticise mainstream US culture. The album artwork for 1994’s Portrait of an American Family is a prime example of this type of social criticism.
Depicting an eerie, almost zombified family sitting in their home, it takes aim at the modern nuclear family and the hypocrisy of suburban American life. Created from papier mache and human hair by Manson himself, each of the models features bulging, staring eyes and creepy, wrinkled faces. Unsettling and unnerving, it was an early sign of Manson’s penchant for disconcerting imagery and his willingness to embrace a pulp-horror aesthetic. While Portrait of an American Family may not be the best Manson album, it certainly boasts the most memorable artwork.
So, that’s our top five album covers of all time. What do you think? Have we made any notable omissions? What album would you like to see at the top of the list? Get in touch, leave a comment and let us know what you think - we’d love to compile a reader’s top five, too!