When you set out to make a list of underrated album covers, it is important to know what we mean by underrated. For the purpose of this article, we will mean album covers that had something to say, either in relation to, or aside from the music within, and it was largely overlooked.
1. “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers famously has artwork by Andy Warhol. No one would call Warhol underrated. In fact, many would call him overrated, but the cover of the first pressing included a working zipper on the jeans. These little interactive embellishments set the vinyl apart from many others on the shelf, and are lost on modern pressings.
2. “Strange Days” by The Doors
While Jim Morrison’s shirtless cover photo on the Doors’ eponymous release is the more famous of their albums, this cover has more to say. The carnival atmosphere conveys a legitimately strange day. The title of the album is only visible in small letters on a window sign as if the very strangeness of the day obscured even the music being made.
3. “God Bless The Children” by Kenny Burrell
An album many have never heard of, juxtaposing the image of a US Army chopper landing in a war zone in Vietnam against the album title said everything you needed to know about the message.
4. “London Calling” by The Clash
Deliberately stealing the color palette and framing of Elvis Presley’s first album cover, The Clash were sending a message. Instead of a clean-cut Elvis playing guitar, you have a guitar being smashed. This is the album that sees the clash intersecting their punk sound with other genres, including Elvis’s rockabilly. The cover sets up what you are about to hear.
5. “Black” by Metallica
The black album is Metallica’s answer to the Beatles’ White album. It is the album that represents a transition from their speed metal roots into their modern sound: one that incorporated aspects of blues and funk into their hard-edged sound. The album cover was a change as well, from their seventies metal influenced art heavy covers of the eighties to a more clean and streamlined look. This one was about the music, but they were still not a band to be stepped on.
6. “Scratch and Sniff Car Crash” by Swamp Zombies
If you want an album cover that is exactly what it sounds like, this is it. Featuring a scratch and sniff sticker that actually smelled like burning rubber, this cover delivered on the promise of the title.
7. “Finest Lunch Box” R.E.M.
Featuring a set of early rarities and live recordings, this limited edition included a hand-painted cover for each record inside. No two sets were identical, making every copy of this one of a kind.
8. “Decoration Day” by The Drive-By Truckers
There hasn’t been a more southern gothic band in the last twenty years than the Drive-By Truckers, and any of Wes Freed’s southern gothic covers could have made this list. Trucker’s music is often more emotional than musical, with a rawness to the vocals that most bands would mix out. Freed’s art is the visual representation of that sound: raw, evocative, and pure.
9. “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin had several interactive covers in the sixties and seventies. This one tends to get forgotten in the mix. With the ability to move the sleeve behind the apartment windows and change what you see, this album cover looked a bit different all the time.
10. “Rio” by Duran Duran
There are very few bands that could better represent the New Wave better than Duran Duran, and few pieces of cover art that could better represent this period. When you see that cover, you can hear those keytar riffs in your head.