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Album covers of the 80s mirrored the bright and manic aesthetic of the decade itself. Album covers, in general, are meant to be a visual accompaniment to the music contained within. In a way, these strong visual statements serve as the perfect manifestation of the electro-pop bombast of the decade. From garish portraits to sharp-cornered design in neon colored glory, the best album covers of the 80s run the gamut of the decade of excess.
Hot Space by Queen
As the 80s marked a different direction for pop music, away from the heavy guitar-centered rock of the 70s and towards a synthesizer-driven evolution of funk and disco, the album covers of the 80s took a similar turn. Seventies hard rock mainstay Queen was no different, and their 1982 album Hot Space encapsulated all of the glitz of pop-disco. The album art represented this shift beautifully, with minimalist pop art style portraits of the band members in bright colors. The elements Queen is still known for, soaring vocals and heavy guitars, were still there, but in a funkier, fancier package. The album contained the classic "Under Pressure," but no other hits were spawned from the effort.
Like A Virgin by Madonna
Madonna was an up-and-coming pop star in the early 1980s when she hit the studio with famed producer Nile Rogers for her second album. She was already courting controversy and decided to double down. For the album title, she selected an ironic statement alluding to her religious moniker, and for the art she wanted a similar juxtaposition. She posed in a wedding dress, suggesting innocence, but people were outraged by the irony of such a sexually provocative personality taking the name of a religious icon and mocking the virginal image of a new bride. This image, coupled with her suggestive lyrics and dance moves, ensured a classic pop album of epic proportions.
Radio by L. L. Cool J
Def Jam Records was a small independent hip-hop label, run by now legends Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons, when L. L. Cool J was coming up on the scene. He was just a kid at sixteen years old, but his demo tape was enough for Rubin and Simmons to produce and release his debut album, Radio. The album (along with Def Jam) defined hip-hop for the decade, and the artwork was equally iconic. Its close up of a cassette deck on a boombox instantly brought to mind the B-Boy and graffiti scene of the late 70s and 80s from which they all came. For album covers of the 80s, Radio defines what hip-hop meant and from where it came.
War by U2
In the early 1980s, Ireland was in a state of turmoil. U2 wanted to make an album that showed all sides of war, especially the humanity behind the bombs. The result was the stunning classic War, one of the best selling and most famous albums of all time. They could’ve chosen from thousands of visceral images of war and violence, but they chose the confused and angry stare of a child. According to Bono, the decision was made to show the lingering mental effects of war on a population.
Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen
The Boss was already a venerable rock god in 1984, but the release of his biggest album ever, and one of the most popular rock albums of all time, cemented his legendary status. He’s known for songs of heartbreak in the heartland and Born In The U.S.A. continued that trend, but with a twist. It was overtly political, a reaction to Reagan era policies that hurt the poor. The album art reflects this, with Bruce’s trademark worn jeans, white t shirt, and dusty cap in front of an American flag. It served as a reminder of the real America, one where people continued to struggle in spite of official economic policy. The album lives on as one of the greatest testaments to the working class ever.
Ghost In The Machine by Police
The 80s saw sweeping changes in technology on top of everything else. None of the album covers of the 80s represented this digital divide like The Police’s 1981 album Ghost in the Machine. The cover, portraits of the three members represented as seven-segment displays, prophecizes an increased reliance on technology at the beginning of the age of the synthesizer. Apt for a band that started in punk and took a turn to new wave at the beginning of the decade. The iconic design remains one of the best album covers of the 80s.
Out of Step by Minor Threat
Minor Threat played a pivotal role in the Washington D.C. punk scene in the 80s. In fact, frontman Ian MacKaye kickstarted the related straightedge movement with the band. Their lone album, Out Of Step, and it’s symbolic cover art of a black sheep fleeing a flock of white sheep illustrated the self-induced outsider status of punk rock at the time. The cover was practical as well, it’s (at the time) black and white color scheme (later changed to include a blue or green stripe at the top) made it easy and cheap to produce, supporting the long-held punk ethic of DIY. Minor Threat also started MacKaye’s label, Dischord, which went on to be the defining label of Washington D.C. for the next two decades.
London Calling by The Clash
The Clash experienced popularity that, for a punk band with working-class roots, was previously unheard of. For their third album, actually released in December of 1979, the band selected an homage to Elvis, with pink and green lettering over a black and white photograph. Instead of a simple portrait, however, the band went with bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on stage. It beautifully represented the anger and angst of the fading punk rock movement, juxtaposing iconic rock and roll design with frustration and grit. It’s widely hailed as one of the best albums of all time, and though released a couple of weeks too early, deserves a spot with the best album covers of the 80s.
3 Feet High And Rising by De La Soul
By the end of the 1980s, hip-hop was transitioning from an expression of youth to the violent vitriol of gangsta rap. De La Soul found themselves in the middle, and their classic 1989 album shows this. The striking, bright colors of the cover scream 80s, but the flowers and the three members peaceful portraits are more reminiscent of the 1960s and flower power. It makes a stark counterpoint to groups like NWA, whose albums told harrowing tales of encounters with the police and living in the ghetto. De La Soul were optimists, not denying the harsh reality of black life, but not dwelling on the violence either.
Oh, No! It’s Devo by Devo
It’s hard to discuss the 1980s without talking about Devo. The wacky, synth-pop group was defined by weirdness. Even their most famous single, Whip It, is still cast off as a novelty by many. But Devo released a string of excellent albums consisting of catchy, strange, and undeniably tight tracks. Oh, No! It’s Devo was released in 1982, and an absurdist string of videos and tour dates followed. It’s hard to describe Devo accurately, and since a picture is worth a thousand words, their album covers do an excellent job of representing the mischievous ear-worms contained. For Oh, No! It’s Devo the group is represented as potatoes with large, UFO-like white collars. It’s a strange image, made stranger by frontman Mark Mothersbaugh holding the image and staring at the camera with pointed fake eyelashes. Devo will go down in history for a number of things, having one of the best album covers of the 80s is just one.