Few things speak to the human spirit as deeply as music. We all have a favorite song, and certain tunes bring back memories of happier times. The album covers matching those melodies deliver just as much nostalgia. Designers spend a lot of time and effort getting the design just right to reflect the music inside.
The global recording industry is worth an estimated $19.1 billion annually. Today, around 59% of its revenue comes from digital channels. No matter the format of the record, though, each production still needs beautiful cover art to draw attention and help sell albums.
We examined some of our favorite album covers and ones getting a nod from other designers. We decided to break down the best designs of all time by decade. Perhaps a few of your favorites are on this list.
Most of the album covers from the 1950s featured the faces of popular celebrities of the time. You’ll notice portraits showing Doris Day, Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis. We decided to choose two to show you a more traditional ’50s album as well as one with a bit of design flair.
Anyone who is a fan of 1950s film knows who the iconic Doris Day is. Her beautiful lilting voice and lovable personality made her a household name. As with many album covers of the time, Doris Day’s 1955 “Day Dreams” featured her face. The bright blue background makes one think of a clear sunny sky, which perfectly reflected most of her songs and movies. The outline of the album title appears transparent, which was a unique design feature of the time. Most designers filled typography with a solid color.
The design of this album cover was ahead of its time. If you place it side-by-side with others from the 1950s, you see it stands out as unique in its geometric design. The 1958 album bears the artist’s name with the title “The Fabulous Little Richard.” The designer did a few exciting things. While still using the singer’s photograph, he did split screens with geometric shapes butting up against one another. He also made the words “the fabulous” in lowercase and smaller than the name of the artist, which is in all caps.
Album covers of the 1960s range from psychedelic to straightlaced. As different genres of music emerged, designers scrambled to find covers matching current trends. Some renderings look similar to what you’d find in a 1950s record collection. Others introduce new concepts such as tie-dye.
“The Swingin’s Mutual” 1961 album was a combination of the George Shearing quintet and singer Nancy Wilson. The cover design uses complementary orange and brown colors. It has a bit of a hipster vibe, reflecting the styles of the era.
Many of the album covers of the 1970s showed people in various action poses. The Beach Boys’ “20 Golden Greats” highlighted a surfer. Chicago’s “Hot Streets” showed the band dancing and in motion. The Manhattans’ cover showed them crawling out of a utility hole in the street.
The 1976 Allman Brothers’ album titled “Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas” had a unique look that stands out from other records on the shelf. The cover is more of an illustration than featuring people in action or profiles. You see a car and a gas station. Although the album itself didn’t fare well, the cover stands the test of time as a unique, hand-drawn design. Even the car on the cover is iconic.
When it comes to the styles and the music of the 1980s, you either love or hate the era. One thing about the time period, though, is its uniqueness. There are many album covers from which to choose, and narrowing them down was a bit difficult from a design standpoint. The albums are as varied as the music from the decade.
What collection of best albums would be complete without something from Prince? His “Sign O’ the Times” 1987 album cover highlights his sense of humor and the idea that a musician has his day and eventually fades. The scene features a drum set sitting on top of an abandoned car and a guitar lying on the ground while Prince appears to walk away from music.
A nod to soldiers returning from Vietnam, Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A” was the inspiration for the iconic photo gracing his 1984 album cover. Annie Liebowitz took the photograph, and the concept was her idea. There was some controversy over the cover, but both the singer and the photographer insisted there were no secret messages. No disrespect was meant, but the cover certainly is attention-grabbing thanks to unique photo composition.
The 1990s was a decade of anti-pop circling back to pop, which never really goes out of style. CDs finally took over, and vinyl was on its way out. Still, there are some interesting designs from the ’90s. Choosing a single best cover isn’t easy in a sea of unique styles.
Alanis Morissette’s 1995 “Jagged Little Pill” album has a gorgeous design. Images are transposed with blues and reds, offering a unique gradient effect to the cover not typically seen in this time period. The album is alternative rock with a nod to grunge and pop. The mixture of design styles gives the nod to the mix of genres.
The year 2000 marked the start of a new century. People survived Y2K without a blip from their computers, and the economy ticked along as always. People felt free to experiment with music styles and new design methods, but they still recognized creations from the past.
The 3OH!3 “Want” album was the second release by the electronic music group in 2008. Known for their appearances at Warped Tour, the record is a pop-rap-punk mix. Although it only received so-so reviews, the cover highlights genius in typographical designs. Note how the sans-serif letters stretch down into arms. The color also goes from deep indigo to an aqua blue set on a black background. The effect is eye-catching and unique.
The music of the next decade would be varied. Musical genres such as pop-punk, dance-funk and pop-rap expanded. Any type of music you could imagine was now available, with many styles crossing over to more contemporary channels.
Although there are many excellent album covers from which to choose during this decade, we decided to look outside the typical offerings for something truly unique from a design standpoint. Fatima Al Qadiri’s 2011 album “Genre-Specific Xperience” offers a look at what a dance floor of the future or in your brain might look like.
The cover has the look of a virtual reality landscape, with columns turning into palm trees and screens set high in the branches. A floor that looks as though it could be a swimming pool or perhaps just has the image of water fills the lower space. You feel almost as though you’ve stepped inside a video game. The cover is striking and grabs attention.
2020 started kind of slow and unexciting for the start of a new decade. However, we’ve faced some massive changes in the first half of the year. The album covers show the gritty side of life everyone faces today, no matter what genre you look at.
Sam Hunt’s 2020 “Southside” album features him on the cover. The photo is like a snapshot someone might take outside their home. It shows ordinary life. He’s wearing everyday clothes, a trash can is to the right and his dog is distracted by something out of view of the camera lens. The image doesn’t put on any airs or try to make the scenery look better than it does.
Best Album Covers of All Time
It’s impossible to list every fantastic album cover design from the beginning of time. This collection of the best of the decades only scratches the surface of what designers do to showcase the country’s musical talent. There are also releases from other countries, online and covers filled with inspirational trendy concepts. If you want to learn great album cover design, study the Billboard’s top hits and branch out into lesser-known artists. With a little practice and a lot of inspiration, you’ll design iconic covers people will remember decades later.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.