The Art of the Album
In my day, we didn't have these new-fangled digital downloads the kids are all ga-ga over. We had to walk uphill both ways in 110° degree heat through three feet of snow to get to what we called a "record store," buy a "record" and bring it back home to play it on a "record player." And we liked it! No... we loved it!
These "records" came in beautiful 12" x 12" "album jackets" that featured works of art on the cover. Then along came these shiny new things called "compact discs" and suddenly all that beautiful artwork was reduced to less than half its proper size. The world became a less beautiful place and it has been all downhill from there...
But seriously (yes, that means the previous paragraphs were tongue-in-cheek), vinyl records are making something of a comeback these days and part of the reason for this renaissance is the beauty of those album jackets. Below I will share with you 25 of my personal favorites in no particular order. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, so after you enjoy these, why not head out to the local "record shop" and check out some more. Don't forget your snow shoes!
Boston - Boston
You cannot always judge a record by its cover, but in this case you certainly can. One of the finest album covers ever to wrap itself around a hard rockin' slab of wax, this gem from hard rockers Boston came with some of the greatest '70s guitar rock inside. With classic tunes like "More Than a Feeling" and "Long Time", this album became one of the biggest sellers of all time. These days, most classic rock radio station include just about every song on the album on their regular rotation playlist. The fantastic artwork was by noted commercial artist Roger Huyssen.
Molly Hatchet - Flirtin' With Disaster
Either of the first two Molly Hatchet album covers could have easily made this list, each with an illustration by noted fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Molly Hatchet used Frazetta's art on their first three album covers -- Molly Hatchet, Flirtin' With Disaster and Beatin' the Odds -- but his style set the tone for almost every album the band ever released with only a very few exceptions. His amazing artwork also graced the cover of the Nazareth classic Expect No Mercy. Frazetta passed away in 2010, but more than likely his art will end up on many more future album covers as bands seeking viking warriors, cat women and demons of all varieties turn to this great master for the picture perfect album jacket.
Sweet - Give Us a Wink
Anyone familiar with Sweet's Give Us a Wink is aware that the image above does not do it justice. The coolness of the cover was in more than just the cover image. It was a die-cut cover designed by American artist Joe Petagno (best known perhaps for designing Mötorhead's mascot Snaggletooth) so that as the inner sleeve was removed from the jacket, the left eye would wink at you. Pretty nifty, eh? This was the first Sweet album completely written by the band and completed their transition from pop to hard rock.
Savatage - Edge of Thorns
This incredibly beautiful cover, painted by airbrush artist Gary Smith, features guitarist Criss Oliva's wife, Dawn, kneeling by a stream as a face of evil peers down upon her. Or is it just a trick of the light as the morning sun shines through the bare winter trees? Isn't that the way it always is with menacing evil... you are just never sure whether or not it is really there. Criss once said in an interview that the face was meant to be his brother Jon who had left the band, but producer Paul O'Neill has denied this. Gary Smith's art has been featured on several Savatage albums including Gutter Ballet and also was the artist who painted Criss Oliva's guitars.
Manowar - Battle Hymns
Battle Hymns was one of the first albums I bought based almost solely on the cover art. It was simple, beautifully designed (by noted sci-fi artists Gary Ruddell) and straight to the point. When I flipped it over and read the song titles -- "Metal Daze", "Shell Shock", "Dark Avenger"... -- I felt certain this would be a band I would enjoy. When I put the record on, it sounded exactly as I expected it to sound -- majestic, regal, heavy, epic, unstoppable. "Other bands play... Manowar kills!"
Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast
Iron Maiden's third album, the first to feature vocalist Bruce Dickinson, was a masterpiece in every way -- great tunes that yielded some of the band's most popular songs sheathed in a unique turn on the Devil-as-puppeteer theme drawn by the amazing Derek Riggs. Though most fans are familiar with Riggs from his work with Maiden, he has also done albums for Budgie, Gamma Ray, Alvin Lee and many more as well as numerous illustrations for book covers and more.
Thin Lizzy - Nightlife
Nightlife is by far my favorite album cover from Thin Lizzy. It was designed by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick who is perhaps best known for his portrait of Che Guevera, Guerrillero Heroico. While many thought the black panther was meant to portray band frontman and fellow Irishman Phil Lynott, Fitzpatrick has stated the big cat actually was meant to represent African-American civil rights leaders in the United States such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Perhaps Nightlife is one of Thin Lizzy's lesser known albums, but it is also one of my favorite releases by the band. "She Knows", "Dear Heart", "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Showdown" are all Thin Lizzy at their finest. there is literally not a bad track on this one and it is all so nicely packaged in its well-designed jacket!
Y&T - Black Tiger
During their heyday Y&T had a few excellent covers with Black Tiger being the best and Mean Streak being the second best. I would have to admit that musically, Mean Streak would probably be the better album. But Black Tiger definitely looked the coolest. Both covers were done by artist John Taylor Dismukes who would also contribute some later cover art to the band's discography. The sleek, ferocious look of the cover fit the music very well.
Tokyo Blade - Night of the Blade
Tokyo Blade never really got the recognition I felt they deserved. Night of the Blade as well as Midnight Rendezvous are two of the best albums to come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement though both suffer from less than stellar production. This was another album I picked up because it looked cool and it still looks cool today. The cover art is by Brian "B.L." Shepherd.
Blue Öyster Cult - On Your Feet or on Your Knees
There has probably been no other album cover that squeezed as much atmosphere into an image as this cover. From the black limousine with the BÖC flag in the foreground to the Gothic style house that might be a church but is more likely a mortuary in the background, this album seems to thrive in the ominous gray skies engulfing it all,. There is something enchantingly desperate about the John Berg photograph that touches something deep within us. It is the kind of thing that is in a way fascinating, but at the same time, some instinct deep within warns us not to think about it too long.
Bad Company - Straight Shooter
Bad Company's Straight Shooter album yielded several hits for the band that are still staples of classic rock radio including "Feel Like Makin' Love", "Shooting Star" and "Good Lovin' Gone Bad". The album cover featuring a pair of dice in mid-throw on a gambling table was visually striking and is one of the band's more memorable jacket designs. It was designed by the London-based design group Hipgnosis who designed many great jackets over the years.
Triumph - Just a Game
Continuing with the gaming motif, the coolest thing about this album jacket was that the gatefold jacket opened to reveal a game board. The game was Triumph guitarist/ vocalist Rik Emmet's idea and it was designed to be impossible to win by band bassist Mike Levine. Sadly, later pressings did not include the gatefold sleeve.
But this album art was awesome before you even got to the game board. The outer gatefold illustration was done by Canadian artist Rene Zamic and features game pieces symbolizing songs on the album. Try squeezing all that into a CD booklet!
Mötorhead - Ace of Spades
With Mötorhead's fourth album, Ace of Spades, the band really began to solidify its place in heavy metal history. The cover, photographed by Alan Ballard, featured the band members dressed as cowboys or, perhaps more accurately, as bandidos. Dressed all in black with what could only be called a menacing style, they definitely were not a trio you would want to run across if you were out alone in the middle of the desert.
Dio - Holy Diver
When Holy Diver was released, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the cover. Some were appalled that it depicted a demon killing a priest, but others were not so sure that was what was happening. For one thing, would a demon kill a priest by throwing him in water, the very thing used in baptism? Wouldn't it be more likely the demon would use fire? And why is the chain broken? Doesn't that symbolize the priest is escaping the demon rather than falling victim to him?
Whatever the painting's meaning, it was an awesome cover, created by Randy Berrett who was known at the time for his fantasy artwork often used for book covers. Berrett went on to work in animation including work on the Pixar films Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. The demon depicted on the cover would go on to become Dio's mascot, Murray, and the album would go on to become one of the classics of heavy metal.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery
To the general population. H.R. Giger is probably best known as the designer of the alien in the Alien movie series. Not only was this an awesome alien design, but it changed the way aliens have looked in films ever since. But to the art world, Giger was well known long before his academy award winning creature design and in 1973 he was chosen by Emerson, Lake & Palmer to design the complex cover for Brain Salad Surgery.
The original album jacket was die-cut to open and reveal the human face that is only partially viewed through a "screen" on the front of the jacket which shows a human skull in place of the face. The hairstyle Giger used would later be featured in his alien designs. There were several scars (including what appears to be a scar from a frontal lobotomy) on the face. The model for the painting was Giger's wife.
The painting was done using pure shades of gray to create the look of a bio-mechanical creature. Giger also designed the new ELP logo used on the album which the band has used almost exclusively since. The official names of the artwork used for the cover are "Work #217 ELP I" and "Work #218 ELP II".
Ted Nugent - Weekend Warriors
British artist Jeff Cummins, known for creating the cover art for Paul McCartney & Wings' Wings Over America album, created the illustration used on Weekend Warriors originally for Oui magazine but when Uncle Ted saw it, he wanted to use it for the album cover. The album went on to become Nugent's last platinum album though it was far less successful than the previous year's Cat Scratch Fever. These days the title track can often be heard Friday afternoons on classic rock radio.
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Rainbow Rising
Ken Kelly created an amazing cover for Rainbow's second album, a giant fist gripping a vibrant rainbow. Kelly created many other covers for bands such as Manowar and Coheed & Cambria and is the man responsible the classic Kiss records, Destroyer & Love Gun. Here he provided a very memorable jacket for an equally memorable record. It was perfect introduction for Rainbow's classic line-up with Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio being joined by Jimmy Bain, Cozy Powell and Tony Carey.
Metallica - ...And Justice for All
The cover of ...And Justice for All features Lady Justice, known to Metallica fans as Doris, in an unfortunate state as illustrated by Stephen Gorman from a concept by the band's James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. The image, much like the album's lyrics, focused on the injustice brought about by the corrupting influence of money on politics and the law.
U2 - War
I remember when this album was released, I was working in a small independent record store and thought I knew a lot about music. But I was just a kid, barely out of high school, and really I did not know hardly anything. I had no idea who U2 were and when this record came in, my manager, who actually did know a lot about music, set it on the counter and just stood there looking at it. I kind of looked back and forth between him and the record until finally he said, "That really says something, huh?" Then he cracked it open and I learned a little more about music. I cannot really say anything else about this cover that he did not sum up in those few words.
AC/DC - Let There Be Rock
In a way, the artwork on Let There Be Rock is rather simplistic, but there is just something about those rays of light shining down on Angus that seems, well... profound... intense... classic . The cover was photographed in March 1977 in Southend, Essex, UK, at the Kursaal Ballroom and also featured the familiar AC/DC logo, designed by Gerard Huerta, for the first time.The Australian cover was originally different, but was eventually repackaged with this version.
Jefferson Starship - Spitfire
The beautiful cover for Jefferson Starships's album Spitfire was created by renowned illustrator Shusei Nagaoka and photographer Ron Slenzak, both of whom created many album covers individually, and featured a woman sitting on the back of a dragon that was seemingly rising from the smoke of what I am sure was ordinary tobacco. What else could it be, right? As I stated previously, this list is in no particular order, but if I were to try to put the covers in order from best to less best, this one would definitely be in the top three.
Kiss - Rock and Roll Over
Michael Doret created the awesomely unique cover for the 1976 album Rock and Roll Over, managing to incorporate the band's logo and faces in a fiery buzzsaw blade image that was striking and memorable. this was one of the first albums I ever owned, received as a Christmas gift from my brother before I even knew who the band was. Michael Doret was nominated for a Grammy in 2002 for his design of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Bedlam Ballroom CD and would later return to contribute another awesome KISS cover for Sonic Boom, the band's 19th studio album released in 2009.
The Unforgiven - The Unforgiven
The Unforgiven were a different kind of rock and roll band so it is only fitting that they have a different kind of rock and roll cover. With their gang vocals and slightly western tinged alt-rock, the band never really clicked with the mainstream. But those fans who found the band all those many years ago have stayed loyal and still follow the band members in their more recent endeavors The Hickmen, The Stepmothers and, Cracker.
Tygers of Pan Tang - Wild Cat
NWOBHM mainstays Tygers of Pan Tang roared onto the metal scene with this ferocious slice of headbanging heavy metal. I guess that means this was a fitting cover for it, wild cat caught in mid-roar as it were. The band would go on to much success in Europe and other places though star status in the U.S. always eluded them. From beginning to end, this record was a perfect example of British metal at its finest and deserving of the classic jacket that held it.
Ramones - Road to Ruin
The Ramones were a simple band, as straightforward and unflashy as they come in their leather jackets, t-shirts and jeans. So the cartoon cover of Road to Ruin, created by punk rock zine artist John Holmstrom from a sketch made by Scottish Ramones' fan Gus MacDonald fit the band well. It was a bare bones drawing like the band's stripped down yet powerful sound -- direct and to the point. Gabba Gabba Hey!
Steven Seagal - Songs from the Crystal Cove
Finally, but not least....WOW! What can I say? Just freaking amazing! I don't know who came up with the idea for this one, but... woah! What an inspired album cover! Probably the best cover ever in the history of graphic design, but then what else would you expect on such a great album? The turquoise ring and pearl bracelet really set the tone for this great album! Why-oh-why does Steven Seagal continue to waste his time on acting? Obviously the man is a musical genius!
Okay, okay! Just kidding. Moving on to my real 25th selection... (Besides, I better shut up before he comes and kicks my butt. Or arrests me. Isn't he a sheriff now or something?)
Megadeth - Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?
Megadeth's second album was an incredible album and it featured a great cover designed and painted by artist Edward J. Repka with the band's skeletal mascot Vic Rattlehead getting into the real estate racket. Would you trust this guy with a few grand down payment? If this is the guy selling peace, no wonder we are still at war!
Edward J. Repka did a few covers for Megaeth including the Rust in Peace album and several singles. Repka is well known to death metal fans, having created cover art for bands like Death, Whiplash, Necro, Hirax and many more in addition to the covers done for Megadeth.
© 2011 George Stephens
tom nikolaidis on June 10, 2020:
if those were your best, your collection sucks, most are not metal nor hard rock.
Marcy Bialeschki from Cerro Gordo, IL on May 02, 2020:
Awesome collection of covers. I miss the artistry of album covers. Thanks for sharing.
Bobby Denham on April 21, 2020:
makes me wanna watch "above the law" again
Fuzzlover on November 19, 2019:
Artist Gary Smith did another fine album cover art for the band called OMEN....the album is called Escape To Nowhere!
Beautiful artwork - very bad album!
Heather Coleman from UK on June 07, 2019:
Some nice choices spanning the years. Fun article loved it thank you
M Valadez on January 25, 2019:
Emerson Lake and Palmer is not heavy metal
Bes Band Associates from Tacoma, WA on March 19, 2018:
Album art has always been HIGHLY important in a complete musical work. Love it. That's the reason I bought my first Primus album when I was 13. lol
Sonia on February 26, 2018:
I am looking for album cover with a stoneman & icy mountains
Rachel Dawidowicz on October 05, 2017:
Not sure how Boston, and Good Company made the list. They are Rock not so much metal or hard rock. Emerson Lake and Palmer is more progressive rock than anything else. It is like saying Frank Zappa is pop rock. Also surprised you don't have Slayer, Exodus, Exumer, or Gwar. Hell even Quiet Riot. Condition Critical is a amazing album, Scumdogs of the Universe, Reign in Blood, Bonded by blood, and Possessed by fire are heavy metal classics. Just my opinion. If you wanted hard Rock, where is Meatloaf, Blackflag, Minor Threat, and Black flag. Suicidal tendencies even hits that rank.
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on July 24, 2017:
Good to see Metallica and Megadeth make the list. Both incredible albums. Pretty neat list. This was a fun article. I enjoyed this one.
jos on January 11, 2016:
A cool album cover with dices on it?
Try Franke & the knockouts - makin' the point.
What a beauty !!
Fox Music on May 17, 2015:
Thanks for sharing your 25 greatest Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Album Covers
Clay on January 21, 2015:
Where is Def Leppard Hysteria? I know they might not be in vogue right now but that album and album cover is amazing.
Henry on June 04, 2012:
The rainbow cover your showing is for their second album, rising. Their first album cover is of a guitar castle.
Diegus on February 21, 2012:
You totally forgot LPs covers like "Stand up" by Jethro Tull, Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Guns N Roses' Appetite for destruction!, nice comp anyway.
Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on February 18, 2012:
Hey Tom, you might be thinking of Judas Priest's "Screaming for Vengeance?" Maybe.
TheHeavyReview on February 18, 2012:
Whoa! A long and comprehensive article! Great job with this one. Very interesting.
Tom on December 17, 2011:
Anybody know what classic hard rock/metal album features a robotic weaponized bird on the cover?
Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on November 28, 2011:
Wow, great Hub! I have some bands to check out, thanks for the info!
elenox from Missouri on July 12, 2011:
How about that? You have quite an extensive database of albums and album covers. I hadn't realized there were those who actually had used that art. Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to find them and check them out.
George Stephens (author) from Colorado on July 12, 2011:
@elenox - I am working on a sequel to this hub and it will feature Mott the Hoople's debut album that featured Escher's "Reptiles". Many people feel it was unauthorized as they added color to the artwork.
Three other albums used Escher art that I am aware of. First was Scaffold's brilliantly titled album "L.P." released in 1969. It is very difficult to find and has never been released on CD as far as I know but it used "Ascending and Descending" on the jacket.
Second was The Mandrake Memorial's 1970 album "Puzzle" which featured "House of Stairs" on the outside and "Curl Ups" on the inside. It is easier to find than the Scaffold album but still pretty hard to come by. It was released on CD but that CD is now out of print.
Finally, "Cubic Space Division" was used on a various artist compilation album called "Endless Journey - Phase Two" in 1983 but only 1000 copies were pressed making it very rare as well.
elenox from Missouri on July 11, 2011:
I wish somebody would make an album cover featuring M.C. Escher artwork. That would automatically shoot that band up to #1 (in artwork).
For you young folks out there...M.C. Escher is not a rapper.
geiser093 from Pittsburgh, Pa on July 11, 2011:
I am about to download the Steven Sagal I just have to hear it. Great Hub.
arizonataylor from Arizona on June 11, 2011:
I enjoyed your article. What about The Who? Without them, hard rock and punk might not even exist.
Bruce Chamoff from New York on May 15, 2011:
Great selection of albums from the metal era. I did not know Steven Segal was a musician and I think you enlightened a lot of people here.
ScurvySkalliwag from Judith River, Montana on May 05, 2011:
very insightful article
starvagrant from Missouri on May 04, 2011:
Cool artwork. Might I also suggest The Kovenant's Nexus Polaris album or Creulty and the Beast by Cradle of Filth?
pchh from Philippines on March 09, 2011:
Eddie Repka is awesome in his own way, but Hugh Syme completely pwns him with 'Countdown to extinction' and 'Youthanasia.'
Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on February 23, 2011:
All awesome choices!
Steven Seagal really......hope he can sing better than he was a actor, he is a cop now .
Awesome rocking hub !!!
Johnnie Black on February 23, 2011:
How about Lovehunter by Whitesnake? That's a great cover
Ivorwen from Hither and Yonder on February 22, 2011:
I'm not familiar with all of your selections, but the ones I am acquainted with, I like. I'm going to check out the rest.
The Steven Seagal one cracked me up -- does he sing at all? I really can't imagine it.
optimus grimlock on February 22, 2011:
great article how can you not like the nuge and dio great rock persona's!!!