The 20 best album designs from music's greatest decade: the 70s!

The humble album cover is art and design’s lost canvas. We pick 20 of the best from a vintage decade for album art.

In the past, every album you bought came with 12 square inches of artwork. Artwork that seemed every bit as important as the music contained inside.

You'd carefully remove the record from its paper sleeve, thumb at the platter’s edge and fingers on the label. Sometimes a brief wipe with a static-free cloth would delay gratification a little longer. Carefully, you’d slip the record over the spindle and lower the needle. While the new music played, you'd pore over every detail of the sleeve, read each word and study the design until the runout groove crackled and popped to a stop.

In the late '80s, we began to shrink records, first to CD size. Now, in the iTunes era, album covers are little more than avatars in the corner of the screen. Still, the influence of the sleeve designer’s craft lives on, in modern graphic design, online and in print.

Here, we celebrate a decade in amazing album covers: the split-personality '70s. It was a decade that began without direction, the ash of the '60s waiting to fall off the spliff. Then, somewhere in the middle, it sobered up. Adrenalised and angry, the end of the '70s was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. We chart the ch-ch-changes through the decade’s best album covers.

Also read: The best album artwork of 2012

01. McCartney: McCartney (1970)

70s album covers McCartney

A few months after The Beatles split, Paul McCartney’s solo debut is a document of the bass player’s post-band breakdown. Flip it around and the back cover has Macca grinning, title set jauntily in Cooper Bold, but the front features an image that’s more difficult to decode. Then you realise you’re looking at cherries scattered around an empty bowl. Typical McCartney, mixing the sour with the sweet.

02. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)

70s album covers Weasels Ripped My Flesh

The edgy album cover of Weasels Ripped My Flesh was commissioned by Frank Zappa himself. He handed illustrator Neon Park a copy of 1950s proto-lad mag Man’s Life with the words, “What can you do that’s worse than this?”. The resulting parody prefigured punk’s anti-materialism by half a decade.

03. Enoch Light and the Light Brigade: Permissive Polyphonics (1970)

70s album covers Permissive Polyphonics

Big band leader and unlikely innovator Enoch Light pioneered the gatefold sleeve in the 1950s, a full decade before Sgt Pepper. Known for brassy versions of modern standards, this album cover reflected a progressive sensibility. This late career example updates Blue Note-style typography with a splash of modernist colour.

04. Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971)

70s album covers Sticky Fingers

In a letter to Sticky Fingers' sleeve designer Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger wrote: “The more complicated the format of the album (...) the more agonising the delays”. Thankfully, Warhol ignored the advice and created a design with a real zip attached, revealing a tasteful glimpse of white cotton briefs when opened. A true icon by a true icon.

05. David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)

70s album covers Hunky Dory

After years of desperate conformity, Bowie found success by embracing his weirdness. Like previous album The Man Who Sold the World, the album cover for Hunky Dory sees the future Thin White Duke stroking his long blonde locks and wearing a dress. Like a silent movie heroine in tinted daguerreotype, the typeface is the only real clue what decade we’re in.