The hidden meaning behind these album covers

An album cover is almost as important as the music contained on the record or CD within. (Or, you know, the list of iTunes tracks next to a thumbnail image of that artwork.) A great piece of album art can tie an album together, give listeners something to cool to look at while they groove to the tunes, or provide clues about the inspirations behind the music … or just be an obtuse series of nonsensical, random images. Here are some famous album covers in which there's far more than meets the eye, which is to say they actually do have a point.

Radiohead - Kid A (2000)

Radiohead's most experimental album to that point (since surpassed every time Radiohead releases an album) was its trippy masterpiece Kid A. Oddly, it's not the Radiohead album that included the song "Knives Out," because Kid A's dreamy, science-fictiony cover art was painted with knives (and sticks) instead of paintbrushes. "I got these huge canvases for what became Kid A, and I went mental using knives and sticks to paint with and having those photographed and then doing things to the photographs in Photoshop," designer Stanley Donwood explained to NME. The result was an image that Donwood says was intended to suggest "landscapes of power," specifically "some sort of cataclysmic power existing in landscape." Donwood was successful because "some sort of cataclysmic power" is a succinct and perfect explanation of Kid A.

Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992)

Fans of '90s West Coast rap, here's a truth bomb: Dr. Dre (as well as his protégé and frequent collaborator Snoop Dogg) are very big fans of marijuana. One clue to their enjoyment of the herb is the fact that Dr. Dre titled his first post-N.W.A. album The Chronic. That's a slang term for extremely strong marijuana. Another hint that Dre enjoys the sticky icky: the album's art suggests the packaging used on Zig-Zag rolling papers for decades. (Marijuana is encased into a rolling paper to create a cigarette-like thing called a "joint," you see.)

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Joy Division's debut album is a goth-rock classic, but it wasn't an immediate success. It grew in status and influence over the years, certainly helped in part by countless cool people wearing T-shirts depicting the record's mysterious cover. It's a series of close-set squiggly lines that form mountain-like peaks in the middle. Cover designer Peter Saville explained in the short documentary Data Visualization Reinterpreted: The Story of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures Album that the images came from the 1977 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. 

It's a visualization, or plot of data, of radio telescope readings picked up from a pulsar. Pulsars are incredibly dense, compressed, rotating stars, in which proton and electron currents moving inside create a magnetic field. The combination of rotation and magnetization form a radio beacon as the star travels through space. Each time the star spins around, a radio telescope captures that signal, which astronomers can then plot on a grid. The one used on Unknown Pleasures is a "map" of the first pulsar ever discovered.

New Order - Power, Corruption, and Lies (1983)

After the death of singer Ian Curtis, Joy Division necessarily evolved into New Order. The band brought along its favorite designer, Peter Saville, who designed the cover for many of its records, include Power, Corruption & Lies. When Saville heard the title, he later told The Guardian that he thought it sounded "Machiavellian," as in reflective of the dark and ruthless writings of 16th-century Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. His most famous work is The Prince, and so Saville headed to the National Portrait Gallery in London in search of a portrait of a "dark prince" to use as an album cover. 

Does that seem a little on the nose? Saville agreed while at the museum, finding it "too obvious." He and his girlfriend exited through the gift shop, where Saville picked up a postcard of a painting of flowers by 19th-century French artist Henri Fantin-Latour. Saville's girlfriend told him that ought to be the cover. "It was a wonderful idea," Saville said. "Flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption, and lies infiltrate our lives. They're seductive." Heady stuff for an album of synth-pop.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (1977)

Sometimes, things that might seem important in a piece of art or an album cover really aren't that significant at all, but that alone can make them significant. Such is the case with the cover of Fleetwood Mac's monster hit Rumours, which members of the band recorded in between breaks from fighting with each other. Just two of the band's five musicians appear on the cover: singer Stevie Nicks and drummer Mick Fleetwood. While Stevie Nicks dances in witchy black clothing (as Stevie Nicks is wont to do), Fleetwood holds his bandmate's hand and stands grandly. Also, two little balls dangle in front of his crotch. 

They're the kind one might find dangling from the flushing chain on an old-timey toilet — which is exactly where Fleetwood discovered them years earlier. In 2009 he told Maui Time that he was playing a gig one night and after "a couple of glasses of English ale," he used the facilities, saw the balls, and swiped them. Then he went out on stage with the tiny spheres "hanging down between my legs." Thereafter, they became something of a lucky charm … until he lost them at a gig somewhere. (Happy ending: he hired a carpenter to make him a new pair of balls.)

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (1975)

Aubrey Powell co-founded a design studio called Hipgnosis, which frequently worked with Pink Floyd, including its album Wish You Were Here. According to Powell's book Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art, (via Rolling Stone), the album's lyrics "were all about insincerity and absence" and how the recording industry is "a moveable beast that actually takes casualties with it" … such as ex-Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett, who officially left the band in 1968 because of mental health issues. (He's also the inspiration for the Wish You Were Here standout "Shine On You Crazy Diamond.") Hipgnosis's other chief creative, Storm Thorgerson, wanted to reflect that tone (prominent in songs about destructive and empty promises, like "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar") and mock the music industry by literally depicting the then-common expression, "I've been burnt," i.e., "ripped off." He suggested two guys in suits shaking hands — the internationally recognized image of businessmen making a deal — but with one of them on fire. They hired a stunt man, and lit him on fire, and a photographer snapped the iconic image on the 15th shot. (Poor stunt man.)

Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill (1986)

Back in the '80s, the Beastie Boys enjoyed an image as the rude, crude, party-crashing princes of hip-hop. But there was a dark, wry, even satiric sensibility hidden beneath the surface. For instance, the group's party-positive bro anthem "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" was intended as a joke to make fun of songs like Brownsville Station/Motley Crüe's "Smokin' in the Boys Room" and Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock." That song appeared on Licensed to Ill, which has a cover laced with jokes and commentary. 

In 100 Best Album Covers (via Diffuser), Beasties producer Rick Rubin said that while the album was being made, he read the salacious Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods. "In the book, there is a photograph of the Led Zeppelin private jet and the idea of this cover came from that," Rubin explained. "The Beastie Boys were just a bunch of little guys and I wanted us to have a Beastie Boys' jet. I wanted to embrace and somehow distinguish, in a sarcastic way, the larger-than-life rock 'n' roll lifestyle." That's why the cover shows a jet, and the fully extend gatefold shows the rest of the jet smashed into a mountain. But because the Beastie Boys worked on so many levels, there's another, more puerile joke hidden on the Licensed to Ill cover. The plane's serial number is "3MTA3." Held up to a mirror, it reads, "EAT ME."

Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy (1973)

Hipgnosis did a lot of work for Pink Floyd, but that band wasn't the only beneficiary of its creepy-meets-pretentious aesthetic. The company produced the artwork for Argus, an album by the relatively obscure prog-rock band Wishbone Ash. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page saw it, liked the vibe, and asked Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell to create the art for an upcoming album from his band. As he related in his book Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art (via Rolling Stone), Page didn't yet have a title and refused to describe the nature of the music or the lyrics. "Meet me in three weeks, and come up with some ideas. You know the kind of band we are," Page instructed. 

One of the sketches Powell brought to the meeting was a visualization of the end of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi classic Childhood's End. "There was this image of all the children of the Earth rising up in this great firestorm and going up into outer space," Powell said. The drawing of kids rising upward strongly reminded Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant of the imposing basalt columns that make up a formation in Northern Ireland called Giant's Causeway. A few weeks later, Powell organized a photo shoot on those rocks — which included, well, naked children, along with their parents, some chaperones, and makeup artists.

Santana - Abraxas (1970)

Except for slapping on the words "Santana" and "Abraxas" (the name of a deity in the Gnostic faith, also found in Herman Hesse's 1919 book Demian), the cover is a whole-cloth repurposing of an existing painting. It's called Annunciation, and it was made in 1961 by a German-born, Palestine-raised artist named Mati Klarwein. Created in the pastiche/collage style out of folk art and cultural iconography from around the world, the album's imagery has some deep spiritual meanings. In an In the Studio with Redbeard interview, front man Carlos Santana said the cover "signifies the annunciation of this angel Gabriel to Mary. Mary is the black lady at the center of the cover, and Gabriel is the angel with the congas between his legs." Now you know.

David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

The too-good-for-this-world-anyway David Bowie died in January 2016, saddening and shocking anyone who ever cared about music. He'd just released his latest album, Blackstar, a couple days earlier to rave reviews. (Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 out of 10; NPR called it "feral, instinctive," and also "brutal and finessed.") The sad truth is that Bowie had been privately dealing with terminal cancer, and Blackstar was his intended swan song. The songs, and even the album's cover, are full of insights only the Goblin King/Ziggy Stardust/The Thin White Duke could provide. 

One of those is the title and striking primary cover image: Blackstar and a black star, respectively. That's an alternate way to describe a black hole, a collapsed star that sucks in everything that comes near. It all makes for an apt and striking metaphor for human mortality, particularly when that mortality is the result of the unrelenting, life-sucking destructiveness of cancer. Jonathan Barnbrook designed five covers for Bowie, including Blackstar. "This was a man who was facing his own mortality," Barnbrook told Dezeen. The symbol of a black star on white "has a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music." Barnbrook further explained that "the idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the Big Bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end to the universe." What have you been doing lately?