21 Iconic Pop Album Covers

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Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley. Courtesy RCA

Elvis Presley's first studio album was a landmark musically and contained a striking album cover that set the tone for the career of one of the top recording artists of all time. The dramatic photo was taken by photographer William V. "Red" Robertson at a concert at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, Florida July 31, 1955. The man in the background is bass player Bill Black. Andy Griffith was the headliner of the show and the young Elvis Presley, who had not yet reached national charts, was listed on promotional advertisements below Ferlin Husky, Marty Robbins, Tommy Collins, and Glenn Reeves. 

The album Elvis Presley became the first rock and roll album to top the national charts and it spent 10 weeks there. In 1979 the Clash paid homage to this classic album cover by repeating the graphic design for London Calling.

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Frank Sinatra - September Of My Years (1965)

Frank Sinatra September Of My Years
Frank Sinatra - September Of My Years. Courtesy Reprise

Frank Sinatra was turning 50 in 1965. He was one of very few popular recording artists of the 1940s and early 1950s who managed to adapt to the rock 'n' roll revolution and remain a vital part of pop music. September Of My Years is a concept album about approaching middle age, and it remains one of Frank Sinatra's most compelling album projects. The recording of "It Was a Very Good Year" won two Grammy Awards.

While in many years the cover is a fairly standard mid-1960s pop album cover. There is a sense of melancholy and acceptance that comes through in the art adorning September Of My Years which perfectly matches the spirit of the music contained within. 

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Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Courtesy Capitol

Like the music contained inside, the Beatles' cover for their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was groundbreaking and laid down a challenge for albums to come in the future. It was designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth from a Paul McCartney drawing. The collage of famous people on the cover includes 57 photographs and 9 waxwork images. Among those included are Bob Dylan, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and H.G. Wells. It was one of the most expensive album covers created up to the time and won a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover. In the later conspiracy theories about the alleged death of Paul McCartney, the cover was scrutinized for indications that it could be seen as a gravesite for the deceased bass player.  

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Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971)

Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers. Courtesy Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones played with their risque image in 1971 with the release of the Sticky Fingers album cover. Designed by artist Andy Warhol, it shows the well-endowed jeans clad crotch of a man with a working zipper. In the vinyl copies of the album, unzipping the zipper revealed white cotton briefs beneath the jeans. The photography is credited to Billy Name who worked extensively at The Factory with Andy Warhol. 

The identity of the model remains disputed. Actor Joe Dallesandro claims to be the model, but other sources believe it is more likely designer Corey Tippin.

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Paul McCartney and Wings - Band On the Run (1973)

Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run
Paul McCartney and Wings - Band On the Run. Courtesy Apple

Band On the Run was an album recorded by Paul McCartney when his critical reputation was increasingly negative, and he felt a need to escape from the commonplace. The band headed to recently war-torn Nigeria to record what many see as the best album of his career. The album cover photo was taken October 28, 1973 after the group returned from Africa. Fashion photographer Clive Arrowsmith shot the image as a stylized prison break. The location is Osterley Park in west London. Paul and Linda McCartney as well as Wings member Denny Laine are all in the shot. Others include American actor James Coburn, British boxer John Conteh, British broadcaster Sir Clement Freud, singer Kenny Lynch, TV host Michael Parkinson, and actor Christopher Lee.

The album was a #1 smash and won two Grammy Awards.

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David Bowie - Young Americans (1975)

David Bowie - Young Americans
David Bowie - Young Americans. Courtesy EMI

By 1975, David Bowie was one of the most acclaimed of rock musicians, but he was not yet a pop star in the US. For Young Americans, he turned to trendy American R&B as a key influence in creating what he called "plastic soul." The album cover is an iconic image of the time. It depicts David Bowie with stylishly coiffed blonde hair and elements that maintained an androgynous context. He wears gold bracelets, makeup and lip gloss while his face is wreathed by then elegant cigarette smoke. Young Americans included his first #1 pop hit single "Fame."

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Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Courtesy MCA

In 1975 Elton John was arguably the world's biggest pop star. To match his level of success, something unique was needed for the cover of his next album. Graphic artist Alan Aldridge, creator of the picture book The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper Feast, put together this iconic album cover. The image is filled with fantasy creatures and Elton John himself as Captain Fantastic seated on his piano. Songwriting partner Bernie Taupin reclines inside a glass ball on the back cover. The album became the first to ever debut at #1 on the US album chart and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year.

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Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run (1975)

Bruce Springsteen Born To Run
Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run. Courtesy Columbia

The iconic image that adorns Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run was taken by Eric Meola, one of the most celebrated of magazine photographers. Other images from the photo shoot are compiled in the book Born To Run: The Unseen Photos. The cover is seen here unfolded to reveal the single image that spreads across front and book. Bruce Springsteen leans on his celebrated saxophone player Clarence Clemons.

Born To Run is celebrated as one of the peaks of Bruce Springsteen's career.  It reached #3 on the US album chart and is frequently listed as one of the top albums of all time.

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Eagles - Hotel California (1976)

Eagles Hotel California
Eagles - Hotel California. Courtesy Asylum

The building in the distance on the cover for the Eagles' Hotel California is the famed Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California. Shot at twilight by photographer David Alexander it perfectly fits the music's theme of a sort of rot at the heart of the sunny California lifestyle. Designer Kosh, who worked on such other memorable covers as the Beatles' Abbey Road and The Who's Who's Next, headed the overall design process for the project. Hotel California remains one of the top selling albums of all time and arguably the Eagles' creative peak. The title song earned a Grammy for Record of the Year.

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Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (1977)

Fleetwood Mac Rumours
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours. Courtesy Warner Bros.

The photos that adorn the cover of Fleetwood Mac's landmark Rumours album were taken by Herb Worthington. He is credited with the concept and inspiration for the iconic images. He had shot the cover for the band's previous self-titled breakthrough hit album, and he would also work on the album cover for Stevie Nicks' solo debut Bella Donna. Often asked about, the balls that hang between Mick Fleetwood's legs on the cover were a standard part of his stage costume at the time. According to the famed drummer, they were toilet chains from a club the group played in early years.

Rumours spent 31 weeks at #1 and is one of the 10 bestselling albums of all time. 

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Supertramp - Breakfast In America (1979)

Supertramp - Breakfast In America
Supertramp - Breakfast In America. Courtesy A&M

Mike Doud, designer of Supertramp's Breakfast In America album cover, was already well known for creating distinctive Led Zeppelin covers. He created an image of the New York City skyline seen from an airplane window with assistance from designer Mick Haggerty and photographer Aaron Rapoport. However, instead of standard buildings, the skyline is composed of items that might be seen in a diner at breakfast. Tableware stands in for the city's docks.

In the foreground of the image is actress Kate Murtagh as waitress "Libby" standing in for the Statue of Liberty. She holds a glass of orange juice in place of a torch. The album was a #1 hit and the cover design won a Grammy Award.

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Michael Jackson - Thriller (1982)

Michael Jackson Thriller
Michael Jackson - Thriller. Courtesy Epic

The album cover for Michael Jackson's Thriller was shot by Dick Zimmerman known for his celebrity photography. The white suit that Michael Jackson wears on the cover actually belonged to the photographer. The full fold out of the cover is pictured here. The tiger cub who appears on the back was named "Thriller" and only recently passed away in 2012.

Michael Jackson's Thriller became the biggest selling album of all time and generated seven top 10 pop hit singles. 

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Madonna - Like a Virgin (1984)

Madonna Like a Virgin
Madonna - Like a Virgin. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Madonna had become a surprise pop star with hits from her self-titled debut album. She wanted the cover of her second album to raise eyebrows about the connections between her name and religious concepts like the virgin birth. Fashion photographer Steven Meisel shot the first of many collaborations with Madonna at New York's St. Regis Hotel. She wears a wedding dress as well as a belt that reads "Boy Toy." The image effectively generated both controversy and admiration.

Both the album and its title song reached #1 on the charts.

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Pet Shop Boys - Actually (1987)

Pet Shop Boys Actually
Pet Shop Boys - Actually. Courtesy EMI Manhattan

It would have been easy for the cover to the Pet Shop Boys' second album Actually to be boring. It could have simply been standard images of the duo's Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. However, the fact that Neil Tennant is yawning rivets your attention. The image came about when the pair were wearing formal wear for the filming of the video to accompany the single "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" Photographer Cindy Palmano was enlisted to do publicity shots as well. Neil Tennant says that his yawn was unexpected and spontaneous. The image helped Pet Shop Boys instantly stand out from a crowded field of late 1980s electropop artists.

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Prince - Sign O' the Times (1987)

Prince - Sign O' the Times
Prince - Sign O' the Times. Courtesy Warner Bros.

The cover art for Prince's double album Sign O' the Times leave much open for interpretation even as it is mesmerizing. It depicts a tableaux of instruments, the front bumper of a car, a backdrop of painted neon signs, and plants while looking like Prince himself in the foreground is walking away from it all. The album title is not shown on the cover. While not as controversial as some other covers, Sign O' the Times is arguably his most enduring cover image.

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U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987)

U2 - The Joshua Tree
U2 - The Joshua Tree. Courtesy Island

For the cover of U2's album The Joshua Tree, photographer Anton Corbijn took the band on a three day photo shoot in California's Mojave Desert. The front cover image was shot at Zabriskie Point east of Death Valley. The back cover shows the band with a joshua tree. The cover was shot in the desert to match the inspiration that American deserts provided for the music. The Joshua Tree reached #1 and became a defining album of U2's career. It has frequently been listed as one of the top albums of all time.

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Depeche Mode - Violator (1990)

Depeche Mode Violator
Depeche Mode - Violator. Courtesy Mute

The stunning simplicity of the red rose image against black by photographer Anton Corbijn matches Depeche Mode's dark, electronic pop. Anton Corbijn, who also worked on U2's The Joshua Tree, was added as a key part of the Depeche Mode creative team during the Violator era. Lead vocalist Dave Gahan has said that the photographer "visually saved us." He has continued to collaborate extensively with the group on cover art, music video directing, and concert stage design. 

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Janet Jackson - janet. (1993)

Janet Jackson janet.
Janet Jackson - janet. Courtesy Virgin

The image on the cover of Janet Jackson's janet. album is a cropping of a full-length shot that would appear later in 1993 on the cover of Rolling Stone. On the magazine cover her breasts are covered by the hands of then husband Rene Elizondo, Jr. The image was shot by French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier. Janet Jackson explained in the magazine, "I've had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me."

janet. debuted at #1 on the album chart and includes six top ten pop hit singles. 

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Green Day - Dookie (1994)

Green Day - Dookie
Green Day - Dookie. Courtesy Reprise

Dookie is slang for feces and was inspired by Green Day's experiences with stomach upset during their early touring days. The cover art's depiction of bombs being dropped and exploding generated some controversy. The art was created by East Bay punk artist Richie Bucher and depicts chaos on Berkeley, California's Telegraph Avenue. The comic style art is composed of many individual images ranging from a woman on the cover of Black Sabbath's self-titled album to legendary punk artist Patti Smith. 

Dookie was a major commercial and critical breakthrough for Green Day peaking at #2 on the album chart and including three #1 modern rock chart hits.

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Justin Timberlake - FutureSex / LoveSounds (2006)

Justin Timberlake FutureSex LoveSounds
Justin Timberlake - FutureSex / Love Sounds. Courtesy Jive

Controversial fashion and portrait photographer Terry Richardson shot the front cover for Justin Timberlake's second solo album . The depiction of the star smashing a disco ball with his boot has drawn both accolades and derision. It remains an iconic image for the star and the album sold over four million copies while generating three #1 pop hits. Terry Richardson went on to draw controversy directing Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" music video.

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Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends (2008)

Coldplay Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Courtesy Capitol

The artwork for the album Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends was designed by the group Coldplay and graphic design duo Tappin Gofton. The pair had previously worked on Coldplay's X&Y album cover. The painting on the front cover of the album is "Liberty Leading the People" by French romance artist Eugene Delacroix. The title Viva La Vida was then scrawled over the painting with a white paint brush. The album was a #1 smash hit around the world and won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.