Say what you might about rock ’n’ roll and its waning popularity. It’s a genre of music that has long inspired honest expression. Particularly in its heyday, rock came with a lifestyle, and that has always included visual interpretation of musical sound. That is to say, a lot of great rock bands went a long way toward establishing their own looks as much as they delivered their own sounds. For this reason we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite album covers of all time, specifically in the rock genre (and in no particular order).
The Strokes: Is This It
This album cover is an example of how the best art can sometimes come out of nowhere. As the story goes, a photographer named Colin Lane was waiting for inspiration when his girlfriend came out of the shower. Using only a black glove and said girlfriend’s impromptu pose, Lane took a black-and-white photo that would become an unforgettable cover.
Rage Against The Machine: Rage Against The Machine
Activism can be a hit-or-miss strategy among popular bands, but fans of Rage Against The Machine pretty much expected it. Thus, this incredibly bold, troubling cover was mostly well-received. It featured the generally iconic image of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in 1963 in protest of Vietnam’s oppression of Buddhism. It more or less set the tone, on a debut album, for a band that would consistently tackle issues (even if this album came out decades after the photo was most relevant).
Oasis: Definitely Maybe
Definitely Maybe is a nuanced cover with plenty of era-specific symbolism sprinkled in. But it actually stands out in retrospect in a simpler way: it’s just one of the better examples of an album showing a band hanging out. Members are seated, one holding a guitar, one lying on his back next to a glass of wine, etc. It almost looks like a genuine moment in the midst of the creative process of a band that was at the time exploding.
Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell
Okay, so there are a lot of album covers with what we might call traditional metal or classic rock imagery: muscle vehicles, demonic imagery, bold colors, a focus on death, and an almost comic book-like general look. There are a lot of covers that could fall under that description. Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell just happens to be one of the best.
Blink-182: Enema Of The State
Some might put Blink-182 in more of a pop/punk camp than strictly “rock,” but for a whole generation they were more or less the preeminent rock band (not to mention punk is a branch of the genre anyway). At any rate, Enema Of The State was the group’s first mega-hit, and it featured a cover design that became almost inexplicably popular. The band photographed an adult film actress dressed up in an over-the-top nurse’s outfit, and something about the cover – the actress, the way the colors were highlighted, or possibly just the fact that it represented hit songs in the age of music videos and album sales – has stood the test of time.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love
More than any other artist on this list, Jimi Hendrix established his own aesthetic. He rivaled Prince in his love of purple, as evidenced in a new park in his name in Seattle. And his generally psychedelic appeal has been featured in content related to his music for decades, most recently made clear by a Hendrix-themed slot game online. The game even boasts using the top team in the world for game design to get the look just right. Well, Axis: Bold As Love’s cover did about as much as anything else to establish this look in the first place, which gives it a certain iconic place in conversations like these.
Van Halen: 1984
This one doesn’t need to be described or discussed too much. It’s a mischievous angel baby with a cigarette in hand and a box of extras on deck. In a way, it was kind of the ultimate bad boy image.
Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run
Born In The USA tends to get a little bit more attention. It features the backside of a man in jeans and a white tee shirt – as American as Top Gun itself – facing the American flag, with a red hat in his back pocket. Nowadays however that cover almost looks silly. Born To Run on the other hand was a clean, classic cover, perhaps not particularly unique in its composition, but perfect at achieving its look. It’s the definitive image of a legendary rocker perfectly in character.
Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin
There’s a little bit of controversy with this choice, because like Rage Against The Machine, Led Zeppelin captured a real event for an album cover. While the burning monk is a symbol of activism, martyrdom, and even heroism, however, the Hindenburg disaster depicted on Led Zeppelin represents pure tragedy. As art, however, it’s an extraordinary image rendered in black and white. And the obvious interpretation is that it was a symbol of how Led Zeppelin was about to crash explosively into the rock scene (which of course it did with this debut album). Exploitative, perhaps, but effective in its way.
The Beatles: Abbey Road
Some say it’s the best album in history (though plenty like to disagree, and some say it’s not even The Beatles’ best). Some say it’s the best cover in history. Whatever your personal feelings, it’s almost certainly the most recognizable album cover in all of music, having inspired numerous parodies and imitations and likely inflated the reputation of the actual music, if not the band as well. Not enough can be said about this iconic photo.
This is a guest post.