Music isn’t just about the music. Sure, the sounds are certainly the most essential element, but you can’t ignore the role of cover art in making a brilliant album. From the fold-out gatefolds of the vinyl era to pull-out liner notes in CD jewel cases to the small icon on a digital player, cover art has changed over the years, but it still defines how we look at a particular album. Photographic portraits, paintings, collages — all these and more are on Billboard‘s list of the 50 greatest album covers of all time, reaching back to Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut to and going up to present day.
50. Taylor Swift, ‘1989’ (2014)
Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album 1989 was a departure for the singer, so it only makes sense that thecover broke with tradition as well. Shaped as a Polaroid photo from the era, Swift’s face is cut off, highlighting an ’80s sweatshirt while evoking memories of a different time. The cover was instantly replicated all over the Internet, with thousands of fans putting their own spin on various homages to what will likely become one of the most identifiable works of her career.
49. Young Thug, ‘Jeffery’ (2016)
Few rappers played more convincingly or compellingly with either identity or gender over the course of the 2010s as Young Thug. So no surprise that his best-remembered album cover was this Garfield Lamond-photographed shot of a face-covered Thug in a long, flowing dress designed by Alessandro Trincone for hisJefferyproject — an image that would’ve been unthinkable in hip-hop decades earlier, and unforgettable for decades after.
48. Lady Gaga, ‘The Fame Monster’ (2009)
Portrait shots can be iconic when done just right, and if there’s one artist who knows about iconic imagery, it’s Lady Gaga. For the re-release of her debut The Fame, Mother Monster — framed by a white wig — went black and white, rocking a shiny, angular coat that shrouded the lower half of her face.
47. Janet Jackson, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ (1989)
Eschewing a friendly, fun image more conducive to ’80s pop chart success, Janet Jackson adopted a militaristic tone for her instantly iconic black-and-white Rhythm Nation 1814 cover art. With Janet’s face only partially emerging from the shadows and her body clad in a nondescript soldier’s uniform, the artwork made label execs uneasy, but in the end, she was right. This cover photo perfectly complements the increased social consciousness of the album, and it would go on to become her most recognizable album art.
46. Funkadelic, ‘Maggot Brain’ (1971)
A screaming Barbara Cheeseborough (who was Essence’s first cover model) possesses the “maggot brain” in question on the cover of Parliament’s classic 1971 album of the same name. Buried up to her neck, the real twist comes when you turn the album over — where her head is on the front, there’s a skull on the back.
45. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy (2018)
Brash, bold, badass and whatever other “B” words generally applied to Cardi B’s rise to prominence in 2017 also worked for the cover of her 2018 debut LP,Invasion of Privacy. Captured by photographer Jora Frantzis, Cardi sneers in cat-eyes sunglasses, mustard-blonde hair and a checkered long-sleeve coat — dazzling and unignorable, just as the accompanying album would soon prove to be on theBillboardcharts.
44. Whitney Houston, ‘Whitney Houston’ (1985)
Although he’s best (worst?) remembered for taking nude photos of a veryunderage Brooke Shields, Garry Gross’ cover photo for Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut stands out as a beautifully less-is-more image in the visually explosive MTV era. Wearing a simple, timeless toga with pearls, she announced herself to the world as a class act whose elegant ferocity went beyond any fashion trend.
43. Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumours’ (1977)
Oddly enough, only 40 percent of Fleetwood Mac’s then-lineup is featured on the cover to their biggest selling album, Rumours. Only the band’s Stevie Nicks (caught mid-swirl with a shawl flowing behind her) and Mick Fleetwood (with a pair of toilet-chain balls dangling between his legs) are pictured, photographed by Herbert W. Worthington. The album was designed by Desmond Strobel, while Worthington conceived the cover concept with the band.
42. Nicki Minaj, ‘The Pinkprint’ (2014)
Nicki Minaj has always embraced her inner weirdo, extending her limbs on the cover of her debut album Pink Friday and splashing her face with paint for its sequel. But for The Pinkprint, the Harajuku Barbie tapped Kanye’s Donda for an image that borderson high art without shedding her identity, showing a fingerprint crushed into pink powder.
41. No Doubt, ‘Tragic Kingdom’ (1995)
In the wake of Seattle grunge and rise of rap, No Doubt arrived in the mainstream crosshairs with the ska-inflected Tragic Kingdom, an album equal parts sheen and punk-lite ferocity. The cover echoes its content: there’s the pretty — lead singer Gwen Stefani channels ‘50s pinup poster girl imagery — and the ugly, a wilting tree with rotting oranges and flies circling the bruised fruit.
40. Beyonce, ‘Beyonce’ (2013)
The lasting significance of the cover art for Beyoncé’s 2013surprise releaseBeyoncéshould come as no surprise at all. Not just because anything the ***Flawless female does becomes instantly iconic, but because the simple pink knockout typeface over a plain black background is what contemporary design dreams are made of. The color-font combo became a classic and found its way to shirts, mugs and memes the world over.
39. Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (2002)
This black-and-white cover is made all the more heartbreaking given that this was Cash’s final album before he died less than a year after its release. This was the perfect artwork for the Man in Black’s fade to black.
38. Ariana Grande, Sweetener (2018)
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Ariana Grande’s entire world got turned upside down in the three years in between 2015’sDangerous Womanand its2018 follow-up. So when Ariana appeared Spiderman-style on the cover ofSweetener, it felt right — and the sweetly unassuming confusion of the imagery also fit the musical change-up of the thoughtful, delirious, R&B-heavy set it accompanied beautifully.
37. Madonna, ‘True Blue’ (1986)
Madonna’s third studio album, True Blue, was covered by a striking image of the diva photographed by celebrated photographer Herb Ritts. (He would later re-team with Madonna for both the You Can Dance and Like a Prayer covers.) Before his death in 2002, Ritts would also direct a number of music videos — including Madonna’s“Cherish”— and earn an MTV Video Music Award nomination.
36. Joni Mitchell, ‘Hejira’ (1976)
Joni Mitchell’s streak of classics continued with the 1976 folk-jazz album Hejira, which boasted her best artwork. Set against Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota after an ice storm, winter-clad Mitchell stares down the viewer as an open highway extends mysteriously into her person (via a superimposed photo), suggesting the freedom and limitless possibilities contained within her music.
35. Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)
Unlike metal bands concerned with Satan and the occult, Metallica commented on real-life evil with their masterful Master of Puppets album cover. Seemingly endless rows of dead soldiers extend into the blood-red horizon, with each grave connected to a string pulled by a faceless master in the sky. It’s the visualization of Black Sabbath’s similarly political “War Pigs.”
34. The Slits, ‘Cut’ (1979)
Though technically, yes, it’s an image of three topless women caked in mud, there’s nothing remotely sexualized about this album cover. Instead, the three main women of post-punk outfit The Slits are portrayed as unflinching tribal warrior women. As Viv Albertine later told The Guardian, “We knew, since we had no clothes on, that we had to lookconfrontational and hard. We didn’t want to be inviting the male gaze.” It’s safe to say they succeeded.
33. Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010)
After a handful of album covers featuring the Dropout Bear and a simple, Kaws-designed image for 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye West transitioned into high-concept art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Teaming with artist George Condo for a series of paintings, the rapper matched the widescreen brilliance of the album’s music with boundary-cracking art, including a controversial image of a demonic West being straddled by a nude angel.
32. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You (2019)
If anyone found Lizzo to be a disruptive presence in the music mainstream as a plus-sized woman of color, she made it extremely clear with theCuz I Love Youcover that she wasn’t about to let that deter her one bit. Posing entirely nude on an otherwise blank album cover, she presented herself as the pop superstar she already knew herself to be — and that the rest of the world would very soon recognize her as.
31. Sex Pistols, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ (1977)
Just as lyrics to “God Save the Queen” had British authorities up in arms, the word “Bollocks” strewn across the album’s cover prompted mass censorship. It didn’t stick, since this burst of punk artwork quickly became iconic. The album art controversy even fed into its advertising campaign, with some ads reading, “The album will last. The sleeve may not.”
30. FKA Twigs, ‘LP1’ (2014)
Leading up to her debut album, the genre-blurring FKA Twigs made a name for herself on stunning visuals: music videos, EP covers, and even magazine shoots. This porcelain-sheen headshot was an exquisite introduction to the wonder of her music.
29. Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You’ (1967)
Aretha Franklin’s best album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, shows her dressed in an exceedingly elegant gown with a gauzy old Hollywood haze bordering the photo. But it’s her expression — and the canted angle of the photo — that make this so important. In 1967, representation of black women in pop culture was political whether intentionally or not, and Aretha’s quiet, un-posed album cover speaks volumes. Unlike many female pop stars of the era, she doesn’t smile invitingly at the viewer, attempting to please or impress or even seduce —she simply exists, exuding confidence and a quiet sense of majesty.
28. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (1984)
Everything about Springsteen’s persona is conveyed in this one image. There’s the Americanflag backdrop, the worn-in jeans, the white T-shirt, and red hat hanging out of his back pocket after a long day of work. The Boss is the epitome of blue collar America on this unforgettable album cover.
27. Janis Joplin, ‘Pearl’ (1971)
Janis Joplin’s final album, released after her death at age 27, features one of the era’s most iconic images. Joplin drapes herself over a Victoria Era loveseat, decked out in eye-catching San Francisco hippie garb, cradling a drink and a huge smile. The image is bittersweet: Alcohol reportedly played a role in Joplin’s fatal heroin overdose, yet her radiant smile seems to transcend the sadness of the impending tragedy.
26. Grace Jones, ‘Island Life’ (1985)
Grace Jones and frequent collaborator Jean-Paul Goude (yes, the man who tried to “break the Internet” with a nude Kim Kardashian) partnered to create one of the decade’s most memorable covers for 1985’s Island Life. Featuring a nearly nude Jones in a seemingly superhuman pose, the art was actually a composite of the singer in a series of different poses, cut-and-pasted together for an unforgettable result.
25. David Bowie, ‘Aladdin Sane’ (1973)
While this isn’t the album that introduced the world to Bowie’s space-man alter ego, when music fans think of Ziggy Stardust, this is the image they see. The lightning-bolt eye makeup, the red mullet — this is quintessential Bowie.
24. The Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971)
In 1969, artist Andy Warhol was approached by the Rolling Stones to create the cover art for their upcoming greatest hits album, Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2). Whatever Warhol created for the set was seemingly never used, but his concept of employing a working zipper on an album cover came to fruition on the cover of Sticky Fingers. With photographs by Warhol (focused on the bulging jeans of a still-unidentified male model) and graphic design by Craig Braun, the set would earn a Grammy Award nomination for best album cover.
23. Miles Davis, ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969)
The surrealist art for Bitches Brew was created by German painter Mati Klarwein, who was also responsible for the art on Santana’s Abraxas, another entry on this list. A study in contrasts, the full gatefold cover shows a modified negative rendition of the more familiar front cover — together, they embody Davis’ searching musical manifesto.
22. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015)
The title of Drake’s 2015 “mixtape” certainly proved apt, as the unexpected release kicked off one of his most commercially dominant years of the 2010s, cementing him as a superstar on the level of any other contemporary top 40 idol. But itsminimalist cover art was similarly impactful, becoming one of the first such images to become a Twitter phenomenon in its own right, as fans substituted their own scrawled messages into its format and made it an unmissable mid-’10s music meme.
21. Duran Duran, ‘Rio’ (1982)
Artist Patrick Nagel was commissioned by Duran Duran’s then-manager, Paul Berrow, to create the cover art for the band’s Rio album. The group’s bassist, John Taylor, wrote in his autobiography In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran, that when they received the “massive” “five foot by five foot” canvas, he thought, “there she was, the girl who was dancing on the sand” (a reference to the lyrics of the set’s title track).
20. Joy Division, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)
Designer Peter Saville’s decision to go with pulsar radio waves is right up there with Martin Hannett’s spellbinding production in making this album a goth classic. Disney’s Mickey Mouse shirt parody four decades later only reaffirmed its legend.
19. Judas Priest, ‘British Steel’ (1980)
One of metal’s most iconic album covers, Judas Priest’s British Steel — depicting a hand emerging from studded leather holding a razor blade — is also one of its most fascinating. How is the hand holding the blade without bleeding? Does this cover capture the moment just before the blood bursts out and covers the blade? While many metal bands would compete to out-gross each other throughout the rest of the ’80s, this simple, menacing image outlives them all.
18. The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1999)
As art director Kenny Gravallis put it, “The concept of ‘visual failure in society’ on the cover of an album called Things Fall Apart just made sense.” One of five original covers, the image that stuck was a Civil Rights-era photo of two black teenagers running from police in riot gear in Bedford-Stuyvesant — a powerful image of the inequality the group was trying to address through their music.
17. Santana, ‘Abraxas’ (1970)
Taken from a Mati Klarwein painting (he also did the cover for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew), the cover for Santana’s Abraxas album is a gorgeously surreal psychedelic feast for the eyes. Inspired by the Biblical story of the Annunciation, this painting gives us a naked, black Virgin Mary and a red angel with a conga between her legs. One of the priestesseson the back cover also appears on the back cover of his Bitches Brew art.
16. The Clash, ‘London Calling’ (1979)
The London Calling cover simultaneously pays tribute to Elvis Presley while also blowing up his version of rock n’ roll. The pink-and-green title letters mimic Presley’s 1956 self-titled album cover, but the King probably never smashed a bass guitar on stage.
15. Nas, ‘Illmatic’ (1994)
The image of seven-year-old Nas superimposed over a Danny Clinch photo of the rapper’s native Queensbridge housing projects has been burned into many a hip-hop hed’s memory. “The projects used to be my world,” he told MTV of the meaning behind the Aimee Macauley-designed art in 1994, “until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.”
14. Blink-182, ‘Enema of the State’ (1999)
For the cover of their mainstream breakthrough LP, Blink-182 enlisted adult actress Janine Lindemulder to put a highly suggestive — and literal — spin on the album title. It’s an image that was burned into the mind of every TRL viewer, one that became instantly iconic.
13. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
The closest incendiary equivalent the 21st century has produced to Sly & The Family Stone’s original bullet-hole-filled American flag cover for 1971’sThere’s a Riot Goin’ On. The image is of a celebratory photo of dozens of mostly shirtless black men rejoicing in front of the White House — with a white judge, gavel in hand, lying motionlessat the bottom of the photograph. Confrontational, exciting, joyful, disturbing and timely, it was as provocative and evocative a cover as one of the best rap albums of the last decade could ask for.
12. Hole, ‘Live Through This’ (1994)
The most iconic grunge album cover after Nirvana’s Nevermind, Hole’s Live Through This depicts a sobbing beauty queen with mascara running down her face. The desperation on the woman’s face reveals the tragic self-doubt fueling the beauty industry, but she’s not made to look entirely ridiculous —we’re still forced to view her as a human instead of a broad parody of an archetype. This is the rare satiric album cover that still manages to be empathetic.
11. The Beatles, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967)
Where to begin with this album cover? The image features the Beatles, in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band military getups, standing in front of dozens of celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando and Sonny Liston, as well as wax figures of themselves. While listeners try to discern the secret meaning of the high-minded music, they can also try to identifythe 60-plus faces on the crowded cover.
10. Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’ (1956)
Elvis knew what a killer combo green and neon pink were some 20 years before the Clash copped the cover style for London Calling. There’s something about that mid-strum snapshot of a vocal howl that gets us every time — it visually introduced rock n’ roll to an unsuspecting America even before the needle hit the vinyl.
9. Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ (1990)
A nod to the Afrofuturism of artists like SunRa, the artwork for Fear of a Black Planet was conceived by Chuck D, who imagined the titular black planet eclipsing earth. Appropriately, given the interplanetary concept, the group hired NASA illustrator B.E. Johnson to draw the final design.
8. Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’ (1983)
Cyndi Lauper informed the world that “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” on her classic 1983 debut, and one look at the cover of She’s So Unusual would convert any non-believer. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in front of a derelict wax museum in Coney Island, Lauper strikes a willfully weird pose wearing a second-hand prom dress, fishnets and a mish-mash of clashing jewelry. Tellingly, her heels are kicked off to the side. More so than any album cover from a female pop queen, this remains the ultimate rallying cry to stay strangeand love yourself for it.
7. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
One of the most recognizable album covers of all time features an underwater naked baby reaching for a dollar bill on a string. It’s a sad statement about the values our society passes on to our youth — and oh, btw, that baby is a twenty-something man now.
6. Pink Floyd, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973)
This simple art says so much. The light going through a prism and coming out as a rainbow was meant to convey the band’s stage lighting and the album’s lyrics. And, as evidenced by the number of t-shirts bearing this image today, the prism has become synonymous with Floyd itself.
5. Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)
Somehow the image of a burning airship erupting into flames just moments before plummeting to the ground and claiming dozens of lives is the perfect visual introduction to Led Zeppelin’s debut masterpiece. Whether you see it as an indication of the explosive music within the sleeve, or a heartless shock tactic capitalizing on a real-life tragedy, this black-and-white rendering of the Hinderburg disaster has become of the most indelible images in hard rock.
4. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)
The innocence of a baby-sized Biggie on the cover of his classic debut Ready to Die vastly contradicted the content contained inside. But that was the point: the album traced his life from beginning to a mournful, foreshadowing end, using the innocence of a child to illustrate how a cruel world imprints on unmolded minds.
3. Patti Smith, ‘Horses’ (1975)
Aside from the critical acclaim for Smith’s beat poetry-infused lyrics mixed with punk rock,Horses’cover is a visual masterpiece. Photographed by close friend and fellow artistRobert Mapplethorpe, the photo of Smith was considered by critic Camille Paglia asone of the greatest photographs ever taken of a woman. With Smith describing her look as Sinatra-like, all elements combined to create one of the greatest album covers (and rock photographs) ever.
2. The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’ (1969)
Does any other album cover on this list stop traffic? It’s a testament to the lasting impression of this street-crossing photo that hundreds of fans re-create it every day outside Abbey Road Studios. There’s even a webcam live feed of the attraction. Another notable fact: It’s the first Beatles cover that doesn’t feature the band’s name or album title.
1. The Velvet Underground and Nico, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ (1967)
This iconic Andy Warhol banana picture with “peel slowly and see” instructions is a great cover on its own, but the original version actually included a peel-off sticker revealing a flesh-colored banana beneath. A perfect combination of art,music and humor.