25 Greatest Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Album Covers
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 three great album covers -- Molly Hatchet, Flirtin' With Disaster and then later 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 last year but more than likely will end up on more album art in the future 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
Beautiful Vinyl on Amazon
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 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.
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.
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
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Battle Hymns was one of the first albums I bought based almost solely on the cover art. It was simple, beautifully designed 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!"
Thin Lizzy - Nightlife
Perhaps Nightlife is one of Thin Lizzy's lesser known albums, but it was by far my favorite album cover from the band. And it is really a great album as well. "She Knows", "Dear Heart", "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Showdown" are all Thin Lizzy at their finest. Not a bad track on this one and all nicely packaged in a 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.
Blue Öyster Cult - On your Feet or on Your Knees
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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, the Gothic style house that might be a church but is more likely a mortuary in the background, and 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.
Triumph - Just a Game
Continuing with the gaming motif, the really cool thing about this album jacket was that originally the gatefold jacket opened to reveal a game board. The game was Triumph guitarist/ vocalist Rik Emmet's idea and designed to be impossible to win by band bassist Mike Levine. The cover illustration was done by Canadian artist Rene Zamic and features game pieces symbolizing each song on the album. Try squeezing that into a CD booklet!
Mötorhead - Ace of Spades
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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 not 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.
What do you think the meaning of the Holy Diver cover is?
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 model for the painting was Giger's wife with hair in the style Giger would use in his alien designs along with several scars including what appears to be a scar from a frontal lobotomy.
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. Surprisingly, until the last couple of years, classic rock radio had pretty much ignored the album, though these days the title track can occasionally be heard most Friday afternoons.
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Rainbow Rising
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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 record, 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, of course, Cracker.
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!
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.
Last but not least... Steven Seagal - Songs from the Crystal Cove
What can I say... WOW! 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? 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.
Want to see more great album covers?
- 25 More Great Classic Rock, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Album Covers
While record albums often contained great music to listen to, the album covers also often included great artwork that should be appreciated. Here is another batch of classic rock, hard rock and heavy metal albums featuring classic cover art.