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Best 80s Album Covers: 10 Iconic Artworks From An Outlandish Era
List & Guides

Best 80s Album Covers: 10 Iconic Artworks From An Outlandish Era

The best 80s album covers stand as evocative artworks that prove the decade transcends its reputation for disposability.

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The 80s have always polarised opinion. Synonymous with Margaret Thatcher, Reaganomics yuppies and Live Aid, the era’s aspirational values extended to the music it produced, with the glossy production techniques of the day holding sway as the CD format was introduced and subsequently threatened to usurp vinyl. Despite all that, the record sleeve remained a highly respected medium for art – as the best 80s album covers prove.

Best 80s Album Covers: 10 Iconic Artworks From An Outlandish Era

10: Talking Heads: ‘Remain In Light’ (1980)

The dense, polyrhythmic funk Talking Heads and producer Brian Eno created for the band’s fourth album was highly original, but the innovation didn’t end there: Remain In Light also came housed in one of the first computer-generated record sleeves, providing an example of how the best 80s album covers could – like the best 80s albums – harness emerging technologies to create something of its time, yet also timeless.

Conceived by rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, with help from Massachusetts Institute Of Technology researcher Walter Bender, Remain In Light’s front cover featured individual portraits of the four band members blotted out with blocks of red colour, while the back cover depicted a similarly CGI-enhanced collage of red warplanes flying in formation over the Himalayas. Weymouth attended MIT regularly during the summer of 1980, and worked on the sleeve with Bender’s colleague Scott Fisher, but the process proved slow as computer technology was still limited. Indeed, in those days, the MIT’s mainframe computer was so big it took up several rooms.

Computer images: Scott Fisher, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz | Graphic designers: Tibor Kalman/M & Co New York

Remain in Light 80s album cover

9: Bruce Springsteen: ‘Born In The USA’ (1984)

One of the era’s defining albums, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA won a Grammy award, sold in the multi-millions and is still widely regarded as The Boss’ quintessential record. However, in the same way that its title track is often misrepresented, Born In The USA’s sleeve is often misunderstood. Shot from behind, Annie Leibowitz’s iconic portrait led to rumours that Springsteen was urinating on the US flag. In 1994, however, Springsteen emphatically set the record straight, telling Rolling Stone, “No, no, we took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, so that’s what went on the cover, that’s all. I didn’t have any secret message.”

Photographer: Annie Leibovitz | Designer: Andrea Klein

Best album covers Bruce Springsteen Born In The USA

8: David Bowie ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ (1980)

Having created the best album cover of the 70s, its no surprise that David Bowie would be behind some of the best 80s album covers, too. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’s highly inventive sleeve features a large-scale collage by artist Edward Bell, featuring Bowie in the Pierrot costume worn in the Ashes To Ashes music video, along with images taken by photographer Brian Duffy. The original album’s rear sleeve, meanwhile, referred to four earlier Bowie album covers, namely 1973’s Aladdin Sane (which was also designed and photographed by Duffy) and those from the “Berlin Trilogy”. The sleeves from Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – the latter depicting Bowie’s torso superimposed on the figure from Aladdin Sane’s inside gatefold picture – were portrayed in small, whitewashed frames to the left of the Scary Monsters tracklist.

Photographer: Brian Duffy | Designer: Edward Bell

david-bowie-scary-monsters-dig

7: The Stone Roses: ‘The Stone Roses’ (1989)

The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut album defined the Madchester explosion on the cusp of the 90s, when indie-pop invaded the dancefloor with spectacular results. Assembled by guitarist John Squire, The Stone Roses’ enigmatic artwork enhanced the album’s legacy, with Squire’s Jackson Pollock-esque paint splatters forming the backdrop for the album’s title. Sharing its name with one of the album’s standout songs, Squire’s painting, titled Bye Bye Badman, also featured daubs of red, white and blue, plus three slices of lemon, but while these individual components initially seemed random, they formed a cohesive whole.

“The lemons aren’t part of the picture, they’re real lemons nailed on because it was photographed on the wall,” Squire later explained to biographer Simon Spence. “It ties in with the lyrics to Bye Bye Badman, to do with the Paris student uprisings of May 1968. Me and Ian [Brown, singer] saw a documentary on it, and the students used to suck lemons to nullify the effects of tear gas. That’s why the [French] tricolour is in there too.”

Photographer: Ian T Tilton | Designer: John Squire

Stone Roses 80s album cover

6: Joy Division: ‘Closer’ (1980)

Designer Peter Saville’s evocative sleeve for Joy Division’s second album, Closer, ranks highly among the best 80s album covers, but at the time it proved highly contentious. One of a series of images shot by photographer Bernard Pierre Wolff in 1978, it depicts an ornate family vault in an Italian graveyard, but because Closer was released just weeks after Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis committed suicide, both the band and Factory Records were accused of sensationalism – even though everyone had agreed on the sleeve design while Curtis was still alive.

“The cover for Closer was like a work of antiquity, but inside is a vinyl album, so it’s a postmodern juxtaposition of a contemporary work housed in the antique,” Saville told The Guardian in 2011. “At first, I didn’t believe the photo was an actual tomb, but it really exists in a cemetery in Genoa. When [Factory co-founder] Tony Wilson told me Ian Curtis had died, I said, “Tony, we have a tomb on the cover.” There was great deliberation as to whether to continue with it. But the band, Ian included, had chosen the photograph. We did it in good faith and not in any post-tragedy way.”

Photographer: Bernard Pierre Wolff | Designer: Peter Saville

Closer 80s album

5: Kate Bush: ‘Hounds Of Love’ (1985)

The beautiful, soft-focus image of Kate Bush lying on a backdrop of lilac net and silk which adorns arguably her best album, Hounds Of Love, featured the singer-songwriter posing with her friend’s two dogs, Weimaraners known as Bonnie and Clyde. Bush’s brother, John Carder Bush, was behind the camera for the shoot, and he needed to exercise considerable skill and patience to capture the image, which is now recognised as one of the best 80s album covers of all time.

“An hour after the dogs arrived, we managed to persuade them to lie down next to Kate,” he explained at the time. “Not surprising that they took so long, as they are not trained dogs, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I had a minute to hoover up as much as I could before they were off again, tending to use Kate as a launching ramp for their leaps and cavorting.”

Photographer: John Carder Bush | Designer: Bill Smith Studio

Hounds of Love 80s album cover

4: Prince: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1987)

Sign O’ The Times sleeve designer Laura LiPuma later recalled that Prince effectively borrowed the backdrop for the album’s memorable cover from a Minneapolis stage production of the musical Guys And Dolls, and then had his team add props taken from his studio and home. Regardless of the original inspiration, it’s an incredible assemblage, which photographer Jeff Katz (who also shot the photo for Prince’s Parade album cover) vividly recalled Prince putting together: the musician was “so careful in his thought process”, the photographer told Pitchfork, “but he was also willing to go to this loose, surreal, conceptual place”.

Photographer: Jeff Katz | Art direction: Laura LiPuma

Sign O' The Times Prince Album Cover

3: The Smiths: ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985)

The Smiths’ third album, The Queen Is Dead, is widely regarded as the Mancunian quartet’s masterpiece, but when it comes to their album covers, their second record, Meat Is Murder, takes some beating. Frontman Morrissey was personally involved in choosing all The Smiths’ artworks, but while some of them could be coy and/or suggestive (not least the sleeves for early singles such as Hand In Glove and This Charming Man), the image he chose for Meat Is Murder’s front cover was unusually direct, depicting US Marine Corporal Michael Wynn, from director Emile De Antonio’s controversial Vietnam War documentary, In The Year Of The Pig. To ram his anti-war/pro-vegetarian messages home, Morrissey replaced the slogan “Make Love Not War”, as scrawled on Wynn’s helmet in the original image, with The Smiths’ album title, creating one of the best 80s album covers in the process.

Cover star: US Marine Corporal Michael Wynn (still from Emile De Antonio’s In The Year Of The Pig) | Sleeve design: Morrissey | Layout: Caryn Gough

Meat Is Murder

2: Madonna: ‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)

Most of Madonna album covers are befitting of a star with such iconic status, and you could argue that either the Like A Virgin sleeve or Herb Ritts’ Marilyn Monroe-esque True Blue portrait could have made the cut among the best 80s albums covers. Ultimately, though, 1989’s Like A Prayer marked Ms Ciccone’s first major stylistic reinvention, and the record came housed in a fittingly striking artwork. Again photographed by Ritts (who also directed the video for one of the album’s best-loved singles, Cherish), the Like A Prayer sleeve put a suggestively feminist spin on The Rolling Stones’ Andy Warhol-designed Sticky Fingers artwork. As The Guardian later put it, “It’s hard to think of an album more evocative of women in the 80s than Like A Prayer, with its juxtaposition of jewels, religious iconography and high-waisted pale denim jeans.”

Photographer: Herb Ritts | Designer (logo): Margo Chase

Like A Prayer Madonna

1: New Order: ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ (1983)

As the decade responsible for some of rock and pop’s most enduring artworks, something exceptional needs to top our list of the best 80s album covers – and New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies certainly fits the bill. Feeling the record’s title had Machiavellian overtones, designer Peter Saville visited London’s National Gallery looking for a portrait of “a dark prince”, but instead ended up homing in on Henri Fantin-Latour’s gloriously delicate late 19th-century oil painting A Basket Of Roses, which the designer’s girlfriend believed would make a better fit.

“It was a wonderful idea, for flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives – they’re seductive,” Saville enthused in a 2011 interview with The Guardian. “Tony Wilson had to phone the gallery director for permission to use the image. In the course of the conversation, he said, ‘Sir, whose painting is it?’ To which the answer was, ‘It belongs to the people of Britain.’ Tony’s response was, ‘I believe the people want it.’ And the director said, ‘If you put it like that, Mr Wilson, I’m sure we can make an exception in this case!”

Designer: Peter Saville (adapted from Henri Fantin-Latour’s A Basket Of Roses (1890), from The National Gallery, London)

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