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Music

10 iconic album covers designed by master artists

Since the very first days of recorded music, visual art has gradually become more and more important as a secondary element of the art. In a record shop, the first thing you will see of a newly released record is the front cover of the sleeve and so while the market for recorded music exploded over the 1960s, so too did the appeal for album artwork that would grab one’s attention.

This change can be exemplified very clearly by putting The Rolling Stones under the microscope as a group I hope we are all familiar with. If you take a look at the first two Stones albums, you can see a photograph of the youngsters looking cool of course, but by no means memorable. It was the norm over the 1950s and ’60s for bands to have their photos taken as if they were posing for a school photoshoot. But as the years wore on and the full effects of the 1960s kicked in, you can see the colour begin to emerge on album covers and, by December 1967, you have a 3D effect lenticular image of the group sat surrounded by a bombardment of a psychedelic oddity.

Indeed, photographs of chirpy faces under shiny mops lined up in their Sunday best weren’t going to cut the mustard anymore; we began to need something more inspired that would grab the attention of the listener before they listen. With the dawn of the 1970s, there were a whole host of prog-rock bands showing their artistic edginess through the 12-inch window of their album covers. None other at the time seemed to master this so much as Pink Floyd; in just three short years they would make history with the release of two of the most iconic rock albums of all time in The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. These albums also boast the most iconic and memorable artwork one could imagine.

Over the years we have been drawn in like flies, spoiled by a beautiful array of provocative and elusive artworks that add to the iconography of the music we cherish. Many bands and musicians over the years have been lucky enough to have some of the greatest fine artists of their generation at their disposal. We list our pick of the ten best album covers enhanced by the use of master artists.

10 album covers designed by master artists:

10. Robert Rauschenberg for Speaking in Tongues – Talking Heads

New York sultans of new wave, Talking Heads, had an explosive rise to stardom with an album released every year from 1977 to 1980. After their first album, they drew the intrigue of master of avant-garde music production Brian Eno who would work with them for their next three albums. After the release of their masterpiece Remain in Light in 1980, the group set about making their next album Speaking in Tongues without the aid of Eno. Talking Heads had always had a strong understanding of the importance of the visual element of their albums and often had a huge involvement in the visual art production for their albums.

For this fifth album, the band solicited the painter and graphic designer Robert Rauschenberg who would take nearly three years working meticulously on the complex packaging design for the record. After seeing his work at the Leo Castelli Gallery, singer and guitarist David Byrne had approached Rauschenberg and asked him to work with them on the artwork; he agreed but insisted he wanted to do something a bit different. The original design consisted of a transparent case with the artwork and credits appearing on three 12” circular transparent collages, one per primary colour. With this, one could only see the three-colour images of the collage by rotating the LP and the separate plastic disc. For his creative genius and an exquisitely original idea, Rauschenberg won a Grammy. 

Speaking in Tongues – Talking Heads

9. Damien Hirst for I’m With You – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Leading English modern artist Damien Hirst has long shown his passion for music and has collaborated on a number of album covers over the course of his illustrious career. His love for the musical arts has been reciprocated by a myriad of musicians requesting his visual artistic direction. Famously, he was approached by Blur in the mid-1990s and was asked to direct the music video for their hit single ‘Country House’.

Perhaps Hirst’s most notable collaboration for album artwork was his image used for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tenth studio album I’m With You. The image shows a fly on the surface of a prescription pill; it appears to connote the band’s notorious past of drug addiction but is also, as lead singer Anthony Kiedis once explained: “It’s art. Iconic. We didn’t give it its meaning but it’s clearly open to interpretation.”

I’m With You – Red Hot Chili Peppers

8. Gerhard Richter for Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth

New York City alt-rock legends Sonic Youth have had a career strewn with hit songs and landmark albums. Their sound has informed much of the rock music we have been spoiled with over the ‘90s and beyond including Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine and Pavement to name but a handful. Over their rich selection of records, they have boasted some very catchy artwork for their covers such as the pop art comic-book-inspired cover for Goo and the strangely chilling image of a plush toy shown on the cover of Dirty. But none speak to me with the same beauty as the elusive green candle on the cover of Daydream Nation

For this 1988 album, the band chose Gerhard Richter’s 1983 painting ‘Kerze’, which translates to ‘Candle’ which is the name of one of the tracks on the album. The album is often considered to be the band’s masterpiece and among one of the most influential rock albums of all time. A part of this beauty for me is expressed by this unrevealing and intensely simple image on the front cover.

Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth

7. Henri Fantin-Latour for Power, Corruption and Lies – New Order

After the abrupt and achingly sad final days of Joy Division following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, the Manchester group had decided to reinvent themselves under the appropriate name of New Order. They hastily worked on new material that would create the rather unbalanced electronic rock album Movement released in 1981. It wasn’t until 1983 with the release of their masterpiece Power, Corruption and Lies, that the band had seemingly arrived with a fully-fledged identity; the group had cut most of the musical ties from their previous chapter as Joy Division and had begun something that would morph into the melancholic dance era of Factory records that financed the famous Hacienda club in Manchester.

The album reeks with a dark beauty and the strange mix between morose lyric delivery and danceable beats. It embodies the seemingly compulsory dark edge that any truly memorable music from the early 1980s appeared to wield. The album artwork perfectly reflects this beauty; while the display of flowers should give the optimistic symbol of life, there is also a deathly air to the arrangement too with the wilted fallen roses scattering below the basket and the blurred murkiness of the painting. 

The painting used was Fantin-Latour’s ‘A Basket of Roses’ and it was taken from the National Gallery’s permanent collection in London. When the group’s art director Peter Saville, visited the museum with his girlfriend in the early 1980s he picked up a postcard of the painting, and his girlfriend joked that he should use it for the new album; at that moment he realised it was indeed a fantastic idea.

Power, Corruption and Lies – New Order

6. Robert Mapplethorpe for Horses – Patti Smith

Patti Smith released her landmark debut album Horses in 1975. The album displays all of Smith’s greatest strengths as a musician and songwriter and was complemented by the involvement of John Cale who added his avant-garde flair to proceedings. The album seemed to point toward the delicate, dark and creative spirit of the post-punk era at a time when punk was only really at its early genesis. 

For the album artwork, Smith asked her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, esteemed photographer and visual artist, to take a photo of her. The two had met on Smith’s first day in New York City in 1967 when she accidentally walked into his apartment while looking for someone else. Mapplethorpe of course consented to the photoshoot and the photo chosen was taken with a Polaroid camera under natural light. Later, Smith’s record company made moves to edit the photo from the original, but Smith would not allow this insisting on the unrefined and simple beauty of the shot. 

Horses – Patti Smith

5. Salvador Dalí for Lonesome Echo – Jackie Gleason

If you don’t know him by name, I’m sure you know his strange melting clocks and other exceptionally deluded and abstract paintings of a world gone topsy turvy. The Spanish godfather of surrealist fine art Salvador Dalí is most famed for his 1931 painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ which seemed to foreshadow the psychedelic era that would reach its full stride some thirty years later.

Dalí was an extremely productive individual and had many friends in the realm of the creative bustle of not just Spain, but over the Atlantic in the US once he had become a famed artist in his own right. One of his American pals was the comedian, actor and musician Jackie Gleason. For Gleason’s 1955 album Lonesome Echo, he used his Spanish friend’s painting which he once described: “The first effect is that of anguish, of space, and of solitude. Secondly, the fragility of the wings of a butterfly, projecting long shadows of late afternoon, reverberates in the landscape like an echo. The feminine element, distant and isolated, forms a perfect triangle with the musical instrument and its other echo, the shell.”

Lonesome Echo – Jackie Gleason

4. Stanley Donwood for A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke met Stanley Donwood while attending the University of Exeter, the moment they met seemed rather intense and momentous as Yorke remembered: “I met him [on the] first day at art college … I figured I’d either end up really not liking this person at all or working with him for the rest of my life.” While Donwood recalled that the young Yorke was “mouthy. Pissed off. Someone I could work with.”

Shortly after the release of Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey, Yorke and Co. had set about recording new material that would make their first commercially successful album release The Bends. For the first single ‘My Iron Lung’, Yorke asked his old art school friend to produce some artwork for the sleeve. After a positive response from the band, Donwood would be commissioned to work on every release thereafter to produce the artwork for the record sleeves.

For many of his fabulous creations over the years, Donwood has been invited into the recording studio and paints or draws the emotions as he feels them. For the artwork seen on the band’s latest album A Moon Shaped Pool, Donwood took the name of the album for inspiration and proceeded to design the artwork in a barn near the studio where the band recorded the album. The result was one of his greatest examples of album artwork.

A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

3. Robert Frank for Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones

While on tax exile from the UK in 1971, The Rolling Stones found themselves in a rather ad hoc recording set up in a villa in the south of France. As they looked to continue making a living outside the high tax pressures of the UK, the group resumed doing what they do best. Despite the difficult recording set-up across the rooms placed across the basement of the giant villa, the Stones managed to produce what is widely heralded as their greatest album Exile on Main Street.

The front cover was produced by Swiss photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank. The collection of photos was photographed by Frank in a tattoo parlour on Route 66 during his famed travels across North America. The photo seems to perfectly highlight the deep-rooted connection between The Rolling Stones and the USA where the Blues they were born from was born. The band had a fond connection with Frank, and they even commissioned him to direct the unreleased (but widely bootlegged) 1972 tour documentary entitled ‘Cocksucker Blues’.

Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones

2. Banksy for Think Tank – Blur

Bristol street artist Banksy has secured a place in the history books after finding his niche of incognito graffiti art pieces that often drip with political satire and point a finger at the establishment while giving the public something to look at on the high street.

Throughout Banksy’s career, he has bid for privacy as he ducked out of the spotlight and prided himself on avoiding commercial work. However, he made an exception when approached to produce the album artwork for Blur’s 2003 comeback album Think Tank. He defended his decision explaining that he needed the money. For someone who has provided such an important addition to art over the past 30 years, I think we can let him off for wanting a little return from his labours. It is unclear exactly how much Banksy has made from the album itself, but the original work sold at auction in 2007 for £75,000.

Think Tank – Blur

1. Andy Warhol for The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground

In the lead, just as you might have expected, is Andy Warhol’s tacitly salacious, and if I may say so, quite sexy minimalist depiction of a banana. The banana is of course very simple and minimalist, as is the nature of much of Warhol’s pop art from the 1960s. However, the appeal of the art is in its suggestions beyond the superficial. The banana seems to capture the dingy, decadent themes of the album without actually going ahead and putting a penis and a hypodermic needle on the cover. Often the beauty of art is in the things you don’t see. 

The artwork was created in the headquarters of Warhol’s infamous “Factory” art troupe in New York City. The popular visual artist was a major advocate for his in-house band The Velvet Underground and wanted to make their first album stand out. The original record sleeves added to the suggestibility of the banana by having the interactive feature of a peelable sticker as the banana, with the words “peel slowly and see” to the right. Under the peelable banana skin sticker was an almost luminous-pink peeled banana. 

While the experimental album wasn’t a major hit at its time, it has since become one of the most iconic albums in music history over the following decades. Despite the incredible music doing much of the legwork, the cover goes an extra length to cryogenically solidify the album in the immortal history of rock and roll.

The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground