What makes great album cover art, or rather, who? These memorable record cover artworks were born from close collaboration, or plucked by the musician’s discerning eye from a visual artist’s body of work, or created through some combination of the two. We’ve rounded up ten covers — some of the most iconic and a few somewhat obscure — made by famous artists and photographers, along with some quick liner notes about how they came to be. What do flowers have to do with Power, Corruption & Lies? Peel slowly and see… what? We answer all those questions and more below.
The Velvet Underground — The Velvet Underground and Nico
Arguably one of the greatest albums ever recorded, the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut — The Velvet Underground and Nico — was visually primed by their manager and image wrangler, Andy Warhol. Early copies of the record could be peeled “slowly” to reveal a suggestively pink flesh-toned banana. To manufacture the saucy covers entailed special machinery, extra costs, and the delay of the album release, but MGM figured ties to the Superstar Daddy would boost sales. That’s right — a crafty business scheme, an iconic piece of music history, a historic collaboration — all begat with a fruity dick joke.
New Order — Power, Corruption & Lies
Designer Peter Saville was cruising the National Portrait Gallery in London for something “Machiavellian” for New Order’s 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies. He settled on a classic olde Basket of Roses by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour by accident. He’d bought the postcard from the gallery shop and his girlfriend mocked it: “You are not thinking of that for the cover?” Eureka! “Flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.” Got that? Exchanging flowers will never be the same.
Patti Smith — Horses
The storied friendship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe began by accident when Patti wandered into his apartment looking for someone else. The cover for her 1975 epic Horses was shot in their shared Chelsea Hotel room, with a Polaroid camera, 12 takes, and only natural light. It is one of the purest covers of its form — Patti relentlessly fought the record company’s attempts to alter the image. Mapplethorpe only had one rule — if Patti wore a white shirt, it couldn’t be dirty. Looking crisp!
Janis Joplin — Cheap Thrills
There’s plenty to hate on the legendary comics artist R. Crumb’s album for Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills, but the backstory is too much to pass up. “Yeah, I’ll do your album cover,” he once told the band’s roadie. “But the only thing is, when I meet Janis, I want to be able to pinch her tit.” That he did, eventually, after the album came out in 1968, at a party. She said, “Oh, honey.”
“This got more women interested me than anything I ever did,” R. Crumb admits. He could have done a Rolling Stones cover too, but he declined. He found Mick Jagger “irritating, actually. Phony posturing, strutting around, it’s really annoying. Ten times more annoying because girls liked it. Girls didn’t like cartoonists. They liked Mick Ja-a-agger.” And there you have it. The currency of Crumb.
Sonic Youth — Goo
On Sonic Youth’s 1990 album Goo, Raymond Pettibon went with the family murder motif. Disturbing and ambiguous textual motifs were his thing. The work is based on a photograph of witnesses of a real serial killer case. And yet, pleasing isn’t it? Or, you’re sick! From Gerhard Richter to Richard Kern to Mike Kelley to Richard Prince, arty album covers are part of Sonic Youth’s definitive… let’s be honest here… brand. They’re great, though.
Tom Waits — Rain Dogs
This is Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs circa 1985, but the man in the photo is not Tom Waits. He’s a stranger from the past, cradling himself in the bosom of a laughing lass in the red light boulevard-adjacent Café Lehmitz, as shot by the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen in late-’60s Hamburg. It couldn’t be more fitting, though: “Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night / For it was all ripe for dreamin’ / Oh, how we danced away / All of the lights / We’ve always been out of our minds.” Just a startlingly perfect, dizzy, hooch-scented match. Or, whatever, Tom Waits is a time traveler.
The Smiths — The Smiths
Introducing a sexually ambiguous Morrissey, as he preached unrequited romance with daffodils stuffed down his jeans, The Smiths’ 1984 debut album’s cover was all flesh. Literally, it was a crop from Flesh — the saga of a street hustler, directed by Paul Morrissey, produced by Andy Warhol in 1968, the first of the Paul Morrissey Trilogy that culminated in Trash and Heat. The original frame is much more intimate. The movie? Much more nude. Oh, the tease.
Bauhaus — In the Flat Field
Bauhaus’s 1980 album In the Flat Field emerged from a throbbing darkness, stripped and jarring, and this gritty cover fits the aesthetic. Famous photographer Duane Michals alludes to the 19th-century French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, in an image shot two years before the album release. See the photo. See Peter Murphy gyrating mythically. Can’t unsee.
Björk — Telegram
Björk dropped her first remix album, Telegram, in 1996. This is its ephemeral cover, shot by the legendary Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The thought of the two collaborating — Araki, whose signature bound, stripped, and strung up writhing damsels give his personality a certain tinge, and Björk, a spitfire with an angel’s face — is a bit electrifying. Don’t worry. It looks like he behaved himself.
Arto Lindsay — Prize
DNA’s Arto Lindsay is a friend of Matthew Barney, so it makes sense that Lanchid: The Lament of the Queen of Chain graces his 1999 album, Prize. It’s mesmerizing even if you’re not familiar with the plot of Barney’s epic Cremaster 5 — the surreal dreamscape, a haunted metaphysical fairy tale and the pivotal acrylic sculpture, the “prize.” It’s gorgeous.