Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath by Black Sabbath
Following the cocaine-classic Vol. 4 (itself having an indefensibly lameass cover), Black Sabbath reconvened to begin work on their fifth LP, as the story goes, in an English castle after an aborted Californian writing session. Those poor Brummies; psychically and physically exhausted by their rigorous substance intake, the Sabs were drained of all inspiration until they started rehearsing in this castle’s dungeon – for real – and Tony Iommi came up with the riff for the title track of 1973′s Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, one of his best entries in Beelzebub’s own blood-inked songbook.
Next to that riff and the same track’s pummeling coda, the best thing about Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath is its ludicrous artwork. Drawn by poster artist Drew Struzan (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future), SBS’s cover depicts a horrified man, (shown sleeping on the rear cover) in the midst of some existential, mephistophelean, bed-ridden torment; naked succubi reach for his bare flesh, rats creep nearby, a serpent slithers tight at his throat and the furniture itself looks like part of Ikea’s SATANUS line. Were this not enough, the title’s “s”s are stylized in Schutzstaffel font and there’s a fucking six-six-six on the headboard. Get it? It’s evil; more importantly, it’s badass. - Chris Middleman
London Calling by the Clash
Paul Simonon hunched over like some feral beast, the curve of his spine sketching out an abstract glyph signifying “destruction,” the cover of the Clash’s London Calling is the single most badass album cover of all time. That bass looks bigger than he is, but you know it’s gotta die – new forms can only arise from the death of the old, after all. Punk rock is less a genre than it is an attitude, a stance, a pissed off sneer, a boot to the face of conformity. The blurred-out background, the light, the tangled cable trailing down – a silent moment lost in the roar of the crowd. And then they wrap it all up in Elvis drag – fuck homage, this is a bold-faced rip-off. The King is dead, long live the Clash: The Only Band That Matters. - Shannon Gramas
We Can’t Be Stopped by Geto Boys
Although it will never win any awards for prettiness, the album art for the Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped is pretty hard to beat in the arena of badassery. A simple photo of Geto Boy Bushwick Bill getting rolled on a gurney with a grievous eye injury, the picture alone is pretty hardcore. But what pushes the album art into the upper echelon of badass moves is its story.
After a night getting drunk in an attempt to ward off depression and suicidal thoughts, Bill wandered over to his girlfriend’s home and demanded that she shoot him. When she refused, Bill issued threats against her and their family and in the ensuing struggle, his gun fired and he was struck in the eye. Bill would eventually lose that eye and the cover of We Can’t Be Stopped shows the gruesome injury in detail.
Bill isn’t the only hip-hop artist with bullet wounds and battle scars, but he’s one of the few who has not only survived such a dark moment but came out strong enough to make an image of his bloody triumph so visible. - Nick Hanover
Goo by Sonic Youth
The music on Sonic Youth’s 1990 album Goo, like a lot of the music the band was making around that time, sounds like a fitting accompaniment for a crime spree. This is just part of the reason the cover to the band’s major label debut is so perfect. It’s a drawing by the California artist Raymond Pettibon (brother of Black Flag founder and SST label head Greg Ginn) that’s based on a 1966 photo of Maura Hindley and David Smith, looking painfully hip despite Hindley’s pending need to testify in the trial against her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a mass murder case. Actually, maybe the pending testimony is the reason they look painfully hip. Scrawled to the side of the drawing is the chilling message: “I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.” The toughness, detachment and headlong grind of the music on the album were all deftly captured in that one striking image. Sonic Youth may have moved up the music industry ladder, but that didn’t mean they were going to be any less hardcore. - Dan Seeger
Since I Left You by the Avalanches
To me, the most evocative album covers, the ones I really recollect and adore, are the ones that are understated. As much as I love the coke-sheened charm of most of the ’80s or an abstract speed-focused picture of a lawn chair, I tend toward simplicity – it allows for a more sensory and exploratory reaction. The Avalanches’ Since I Left You is my favorite album for many a reason, including its gorgeous cover art. Two rafts, floating uneasily in the middle of what appears to be a storm for the ages, seemingly stranded. The layout is uncertain – are they meeting, or is one departing from the other?
The hazy blue water looks choppy and menacing, but somehow reflects an eerie calm, almost acceptance. It’s art that engenders a story, but it leaves the details in the beholder’s hands. The cover encapsulates the music inside quite well – it’s chaotic, clever and seemingly cacophonous but ultimately perfect. - Rafael Gaitan
Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix (UK Version)
Ask any guy who has ever picked up a guitar in anger why they did it and invariably the answer will be “to get chicks” in one form or another. The original UK cover of Electric Ladyland, the one where 19 young women posed for the cover sans clothes against a black backdrop, is the ultimate photographic expression of that rationale, and that alone makes it supremely badass. The fact that Track Records, who released the album internationally, produced the cover against Hendrix’s wishes (he allegedly hated it,) only adds to the already high badass quotient. Hendrix wanted a staid photo of himself, the band and some kids all sitting on a statue in central park, taken by the future Linda McCartney. The fact that the label put out a cover that was exponentially more risqué only pushes this one over the top. Cosmic guitar rock plus 19 naked women x label/artist tension = one badass album cover. - Tom Volk
Aladdin Sane by David Bowie
If a musician isn’t the sensitive, singer-songwriter type, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, it takes a certain amount of audacity to make an album cover a close-up shot of their own face. It also takes a certain kind of man to don heavy makeup, shocked red locks and a sheer jumpsuit. David Bowie was that kind of man and definitely projected that kind of audacity (at least for that period of his multifaceted career). By the time Bowie released Aladdin Sane in 1973, he had the boldness to focus the album’s cover on his own glamorous visage and the glam dedication to go all out. The result is perhaps the most iconic image of David Bowie of them all – a space alien-cum-rockstar, front and center over a white background, soon to be gracing walls in androgynous postered glory for years to come. To me, it’s the face of Ziggy Stardust, even if Aladdin Sane itself can’t compete with the album that defined that character. - Michael Merline
Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones
From 1971 to 1973 the Rolling Stones had what was probably the greatest three-peat of nasty, seedy album covers: the Andy Warhol-designed bulge (with zipper) of Sticky Fingers, the grimy freak-show collage of Exile on Main St. and the icky ambiguity of Goat’s Head Soup. But the Stones’ most representative piece of art is probably from three years earlier, on Beggars Banquet. The stained, graffitied bathroom wall and toilet tableaux, initially rejected by their label, acts as both the perfect summation of the band, who by this point had had grown fully into their reputation as the Beatles’ evil twins, and a twisted frontispiece for an album choked with sordid sleaze. - Jesse Cataldo
Doin’ Thangs by Big Bear
Ahh Big Bear, the final boss of bad (ass) rap album covers. Where do I even begin?
So his name is Big Bear (no A Dirty Shame) and he’s spending time dining and gambling with two anthropomorphic bears, who also have two bear bodyguards. They are smoking cigars, drinking fine alcoholic beverages and eating berries and salmon. Surely there’s much to be said about Big Bear himself and how he got into such a position. What is Mr. Bear (no Stephanie Tanner) accomplishing in such a situation? Simple. He’s “Doin thangs.” And, perhaps, that’s what all of these artists we’ve seen were trying to do. At the end of the day, aren’t we all just trying to be “doin thangs” with cigar-smoking, high rollin’, well-protected anthropomorphic bears? - Chaz Kangas
The End of Tomorrow by Ravage
This album cover is so deliciously badass I don’t know where to begin. First, let’s just get to what’s on everybody’s mind: the giant robot spiders destroying society and spinning webs of destruction likely woven from the strands of sweet metal riffs.
Who made these spiders? Why do they want to destroy the city? Wait, are they taking over your city? Are the spiders the band; is Ravage piloting them? One can only speculate. All we do know is that a damsel in a red dress needs rescuing, and the shrieking man in the foreground is not going to help (because he’s not metal enough).
Ravage’s modern take on the classic ’80s hair metal culture of horror art toes the squiggly line between kitschy and completely awesome. What makes this album cover badass however, is that it’s clearly an earnest tribute to a simpler time when your album art was the only competition for the baditude of your metal. Laugh if you want, but if this is how tomorrow ends, I’m scared shitless. - Jordan Ardanaz
Leviathan by Mastodon
Epic shipwrecking whale? Check. Raging red, yellow and blue skies? Yep. Revamped version of 16th century artwork on the inside cover? Oh yes. Leviathan, the 2004 concept album from Mastodon is the bearer of an undoubtedly badass piece of album art. This is in addition to the fact that the title itself comes from one of the seven biblical princes of Hell and its contents are loosely based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as if that’s not badass enough on its own. The front cover is just a snippet of the colossal combination of Martin Heemskerck’s interpretation of the Pharos of Alexandria and The Great Wave Off Kanagawa that graces the inside, along with several monumental and aesthetically pleasing additions to the two pieces. Basically, this album cover is cultured and kickass all at once. It doesn’t get much better than that. - Sam Gordon
Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones
If you had to choose one album cover to define the sexual, controversial rock ‘n’ roll energy of the Rolling Stones, it would have to be the unyieldingly badass Sticky Fingers. Conceived by pop art guru Andy Warhol, the cover of Sticky Fingers is far form subtle; a close-up of Joe Dallesandro’s (a Warhol superstar) bulge in a pair of tight jeans will catch anyone’s attention as they flip through a carton of vinyl. As if the ballsy (literally) photograph wasn’t badass enough, Warhol and the Stones decided that the album would have a functioning zipper. I’ve heard many different stories as to what was behind the zipper: a condom, the Warhol banana symbol, or just a picture of plain old briefs with the words “This photograph may not be-etc.” Sexy, provocative and mischievous, it’s easily one of the most badass rock and roll album covers ever. - Kyle Fowle
Ummagumma by Pink Floyd
One of the premier innovators of mixed media, Pink Floyd found rather easy ways to blend headtrippy aesthetics into music. The cover of 1969′s Ummagumma is a fantastic visual complement to this testament. The concept is simple and brilliant: A picture within a picture within a picture. Each band photo, as they become smaller and smaller, showcases the gents doing various poses just outside a home until the pictures become too minuscule for the human eye. Disorienting upon first view, the picture’s layers are worth much more than 1,000 words, just as Ummagumma’s music is. - Jory Spadea
Grinderman 2 by Grinderman
It’s high time we jettisoned the ironic use of wolf pictures in favor of rehabilitating the wolf as a genuine symbol of badassery. It’s going to mean taking snarling wolves and placing them in more original contexts. Take the cover of Grinderman 2, the second album by the Nick Cave-fronted rock group. It begs the question: what is this vicious wolf doing in this lavish marble bathroom? The image, like the thoroughly ferocious music, depicts the feral distress of a wild thing that has found itself indoors. - Ryan R. Crawford
New Hope for the Wretched by the Plasmatics
When the Plasmatics released their debut New Hope for the Wretched in 1980, I was three years old. I hadn’t discovered New York punk or the glory of Wendy O. Williams because, well, I was probably too busy drooling on myself and watching “Sesame Street” at the time. Flash forward 15 years later and I held the LP in my hands for the first time, staring at it in wide-eyed wonder.
My upstairs neighbor had a collection of ’80′s vinyl and proclaimed New Hope the best album cover, like, EVER. “Come on,” he said, “look at it! It embodies everything awesomely bad about the ’80′s.” He had a point. The car driven into the pool, the totally rad flying V guitar, Wendy’s sassy pose and trashy outfit, and even the retro lettering personifies ’80s excess. It was a cocaine party that had come to life, and I think I overdosed on nostalgia. - Amanda Jones
Like a Virgin by Madonna
And here we have the face that launched a thousand ships. Actually, Helen of Troy, Madonna kinda one-ups you on this. Like a Virgin is one of those Ray Bradbury stepping-on-a-butterfly happenings in time. Don’t you think art, music, fashion – hell, the very trajectory of our culture-at-large – might be radically different if not for this album? The wallop of its impact had everything to do with the cover art – quite literally, its fetching portraiture of both Madonna-as-whore and Madonna/Whore. Lace, pearls and tulle became suddenly obscene. Whether you regard the Material Girl as trash or treasure, kitsch or currency, there’s no debating the fact that this image is, ok yes, fetishistic, but also potently iconic. So 1984 and yet somehow timeless; but in every instance, a wow. - Stacey Pavlick
Weasels Ripped My Flesh by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Even today, artist Neon Park’s iconic cover for Zappa’s 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh remains the perfect accompaniment to the deadpan, irreverent mock-seriousness of the music legend. Although Park himself acknowledged years later, “By today’s standards, it’s pretty tame,” at the time his reimagining of a 1956 “Men’s Life” magazine cover (depicting–what else?–weasels ripping a man’s flesh) crossed with a Shick-brand men’s razor ad sent the strait-laced record execs reeling, and almost never saw the light of day. Zappa, of course, loved it.
Compared to the rogue’s gallery on display here, the Weasels Ripped My Flesh cover probably appears far more PG in 2011 than it did in 1970. But after all, to (heavily) paraphrase Virginia Woolf, the badass album cover of today is tomorrow’s toothless yawn. - Joe Clinkenbeard
Beast Rest Forth Mouth by Bear In Heaven
Bear In Heaven makes music that thaws all the hyphenated rock genre descriptors that you readily want to use to describe their swollen head wound of a sophomore release Beast Rest Fourth Mouth. The sonic mass of funk, tribal, dream and psych takes the wing-ed silent eyes of experimental GIF designer Laura Brothers to encase its sound. Brothers’ imagines geometry as black motion against a popping red backdrop to distill an ambitious dose of dissociation as a graphic personification of one the most important bands to come out in recent years. - Sky Madden
Guts by John Cale
John Cale is many things: co-founder of the Velvet Underground, avant-garde classicist, dirty ass rock ‘n’ roller, A&R man, killer of chickens. And as evidenced by the cover of his 1977 retrospective compilation album Guts, he’s a complete badass. When the art school kids at CBGB were just getting past hippie gear and floppy hats and the punks back in London were thinking they were the naff for spitting on each other in sloppy leather gear, there’s Cale on Guts. Resplendent in a hockey mask (five years before Jason Vorhees made it a horror trope, mind you), a glitter scarf, thrusting the bulge and rocking a flying V guitar; he’s a nightmare figure, two parts glam rock and a splash of slasher flick. He’s John fucking Cale. - Nathan Kamal