They say don’t judge books by their covers, not albums. For decades, album artwork has been considered an integral part of a musician’s work. It sets the tone for not just the album, but also the artist’s entire brand. The history of album art shows that covers continue to thrive as collector’s items, posters in college dorm rooms, and well-worn t-shirts—well past when they were initially created to cover 78-rpm records.
Though most of us no longer buy records—or even CDs—the album cover lives on in the digital world. It accompanies artists’ compilations all over the internet, including SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify. In 2017, we saw the simple yet bold album cover for Jay-Z’s 4:44 (an understated beige background with the title written in large, heavy font) and the arresting portrait of Lorde for her collection, Melodrama.
Album artwork alone could arguably be enough to keep albums fresh and trendy long past their debut. Many classic album covers have stood the test of time. Tourists continue to recreate The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover when they visit London, and you’re just as likely to see a teenager wearing a Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt today as you were in 1973.
As with all art, appreciation is subjective. We took to social media to find out which album covers our audiences considered to be the best album covers ever to hit record-store shelves.
Explore this list of top album covers, then head over to our new class taught by acclaimed designer Erik Marinovich and recreate your favorite album cover in your own style. Trust us, you won’t be able to see this list without getting inspired.
Best Album Cover Art
Awaken My Love by Childish Gambino
Creative director: Ibra Ake
You can’t help but stare into the blank eyes featured on Awaken My Love, one of the most poignant of blue album covers. It’s the latest album from the iconic Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino. Is the expression on this face one of rapture, or should we fear it? It’s hard to say. Laura Wass of WXYZ Jewelry designed the headpiece encircling the face that’s inflected with blue and purple. She also designed the crown that Beyoncé wore in her “7/11” video.
Coexist by the xx
Designer: Davy Evans
A single X is all the xx need to get their point across on the Coexist album cover. The stark, white background makes the X pop, while the otherwise ordinary image within—oil spilled on asphalt—brilliantly shines. In this instance, simplicity lands Coexist on our list of best album art!
The Division Bell by Pink Floyd
Designer: Storm Thorgerson
Pink Floyd is known for their use of metaphors and, according to drummer Nick Mason, this cover is all about “making choices.” The Division Bell boasts a strong image that features two large stone profiles (real statues Thorgerson erected in a UK field), which almost create a single face. It’s art with a message that’s conveyed throughout the album’s music, and it’s certainly some of the best album cover art we’ve seen.
Favorite Worst Nightmare by the Arctic Monkeys
Design agency: Juno
Released in 2007, Favorite Worst Nightmare is the Arctic Monkeys’ second studio album. In this example of “best album artwork,” Juno artists painted the inside of this actual building while listening to the band’s tracks. Indeed, it looks like your favorite worst nightmare, with vibrant but unsettling designs lighting up an otherwise abandoned-looking structure.
Melodrama by Lorde
Designer: Sam McKinnis
This melodramatic cover features a portrait painted by Brooklyn-based artist Sam McKinnis. He ended up working on the cover after Lorde sent him some fan mail and, though he may not be known for blue album covers, his portrait of Lorde is one of the best! The artists also became friends, which is probably why McKinnis so expertly captured the musician’s artistic vision with her likeness.
Ruang Tunggu by Payung Teduh
Ruang Tunggu means “waiting room,” and the painted album cover looks like something you might see through the window of such a place. The cover represents a real marriage of visual art and the album’s content, both of which suggest a place and a mood that viewers and listeners can easily find themselves lost within.
Oh By the Way (box set) by Pink Floyd
Designer: Storm Thorgerson
Like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album cover, this image depicts the same scene twice: a pink room reflected in a mirror within an almost identical pink room. In addition to its expert composition (and pleasing shade of Millennial pink), the cover, which is definitely some of the best album art we’ve ever seen, also plays into the lyric that inspired the album’s name: “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” This question is asked in the song “Have a Cigar,” and is also a frequent question from fans who thought that one of the band members was actually named “Pink Floyd.”
Riot! by Paramore
Designer: Mark Obriski, in collaboration with Paramore
A loud example of text as art, Paramore’s Riot! masters the concept of sparingly using color to create the best album cover art. Positioned as they are, all the different, crudely drawn versions of the word “riot” look like a crowd rioting! They also present a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” aesthetic: See if you can spot the band’s name…
Dangerous by Michael Jackson
Designer: Mark Ryden
Pop surrealist Mark Ryden designed this busy Michael Jackson album cover. The imagery exemplifies royalty and excess, but also the fanfare of a circus. It points to the idea of a sparkly veneer as a performance. Jackson’s music is poppy and danceable, but there’s always a dark layer underneath the joy, and this cover depicts the character of his music. Given Jackson’s legendary reputation, it’s no surprise that this cover is widely discussed within the history of album art.
Melophobia by Cage the Elephant
Designer: R Clint Colburn
This cover is just plain cool. Artist R Clint Colburn created the three-dimensional sculpture, then photographed it on a background with black-and-white stripes. This strategy created a disorienting visual effect that’s almost hypnotic (and certainly captivating).
Underground by Thelonious Monk
Designers: John Berg and Richard Mantel
Photograph studio: Steve Horn and Norman Griner
In an image that unexpectedly harkens to the French Resistance during World War II, Thelonious Monk poses at a piano, smoking a cigarette. Meanwhile, a Nazi (who nearly blends into the rest of the scenery) sits tied up in the corner. The album came out in 1968 (well after WWII, but during the Vietnam War) and presented a political message: Certain historical motifs remain relevant well beyond their time.
Erik Marinovich’s Reimagined Album Covers
Now that you’ve explored the Skillshare community’s best album artwork, why not create your own? Get started with some ideas from designer Erik Marinovich:
Pop in your favorite album and follow along as graphic designer Temi Coker walks you through the steps of creating your best album art.
And if you’re looking for something a bit more advanced, try Melanie Greenwood’s course, Album Cover Design, where you’ll learn the best album cover art design techniques and also gain helpful tips on how to start an album cover business and work with musicians as clients.
If you’d rather stick to creating album covers for your own purposes and you’re handy with Procreate, try Giorgio Mellini’s course, How I Make my Music Album Covers using Procreate, for inspiration and ideas—everything from how to find fonts for your covers to how to embed a mini-logo to protect your work.
Want to create your own dope cover?
Graphic Design: Create a Bold, Colorful Album Cover