11 Awesome 80s Album Covers That Still Make an Impact

These 80s album covers prove that video didn't kill the radio star — it made them bigger than ever.

Published April 4, 2024
various old vinyl LP records on black background

There’s something about these 80s album covers that just sticks with us. Whether it’s their sex appeal, their boundary-breaking nature, or their trend-setting illustrations, these covers would look good rode hard and put away wet.

11 Bodacious 80s Album Covers That Are Burned Into Our Brains

Despite MTV putting music videos on the map, 80s album covers never suffered. They continued a long tradition of the expressive art form, creating images that are burned in our memory banks 30+ years later. From digital art experiments to portrait callbacks to the 1950s, these are some of the best album covers from the 1980s.

AC/DC, Back in Black (1980)

AC/DC, Back in Black

Back in Black is AC/DC’s seventh studio album and is legendary for two reasons. Number one — it’s the first album to feature Brian Johnson’s soaring vocals. Number two — its minimal cover art. It’s an entirely black cover with only the band’s logo and the title Back in Black standing out in a thunderous gray.

It’s the exact opposite of the colorful, bigger-is-better culture that would define the 1980s. Yet, the dark, slippery tone that reveals nothing about the album itself hints at the metal scene that was coming down the pike in the distant future.

Talking Heads, Remain in the Light (1980)

Vintage Talking Heads

You can’t get more experimental in the 80s music scene than with New Wave artists like Talking Heads. By 1980, they’d had a few years under the belt with major hits like “Psycho Killer.” Yet, their album Remain in the Light stands out for its unique cover.

Created by graphic designer Tibor Kalman, the album’s cover pays homage to Andy Warhol’s quadrant portraits in a warped and unintentional way. The band members’ faces are mostly obscured by fuzzy red balaclava-like shapes, which are reflected in the upside-down “a’s” in the band’s name.

For a 1980s album cover, this one has an undoubtedly timeless appeal.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, I Love Rock ‘n Roll (1981)

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, I Love Rock ‘n Roll

Joan Jett really broke onto the scene as a solo artist with the 1981 album I Love Rock ‘n Roll. But, the vibrant blue background and pinkish-purple suit coat she wears on the cover stand in stark contrast to her grimy teen aesthetic with The Runaways.

Legendary music photographer Mick Rock captured the album's cover. The story goes that he envisioned Joan as a female Elvis figure and designed the shoot to replicate the oversized suits and down-the-lens pose of his early career.

But if it’s up to us, we think Jett’s album cover just might be more memorable than any of the King of Rock ‘n' Roll’s.

Grace Jones, Nightclubbing (1981)  

Grace Jones, Nightclubbing

Grace Jones is one of those figures who's intrinsically tied to a decade. Her luminescent skin and powerful frame were practically made to be photographed, and her label didn’t pass up on that opportunity with Nightclubbing.

Released in 1981, this album’s cover has the same texture and tonal quality as surreal works by masters like Salvador Dali. This cover would be right at home beside The Persistence of Memory. The costuming plays with geometry and creates otherworldly proportions with oversized shoulder pads and a darling flat top haircut. But that cigarette that dangles just on the edge of falling from her lips keeps us entranced all these years later.

Related: 70s Album Covers That Are Pop Culture Phenoms

Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

Michael Jackson, Thriller

You can’t talk about albums from the 1980s without mentioning Michael Jackson’s record-breaking album, Thriller. It was a global sensation and marked a monumental accomplishment in Jackson’s career. The album cover poses an interesting departure from the more stylized and creatively complex music videos that came out of the album.

Jackson lies prone and backlit in a white suit. Compared to most of the other album covers on this list, this one’s rather unremarkable. But because of the album’s massive popularity, it’s burned into our retinas, and for that, it has to make the cut.

Toto, Toto IV (1982)

Toto, Toto IV

Toto IV’s cover art is a perfect example of the illustrative style that was rampant in rock music throughout the 1980s. From Asia to Whitesnake, rock albums everywhere were plastered with illustrated sci-fi/fantasy imagery that made very little sense as a narrative device for what the album was about.

So sure, the bright carmine background and gold rings weaving through a sword on Toto’s 1982 album don’t reveal anything about hits like “Africa” that would come out of it, but it’s extremely cool looking. So, we have to take our hats off to it and all the other illustrated rock album covers of the 1980s.

Duran Duran, Rio (1982)

Duran Duran music album on vinyl record

For those of you who lived through the 80s, you're probably quite familiar with the stylized Patrick Nagel portraits that were on the walls in every 80s apartment. So if this album cover looks familiar to you, it's probably because Nagel painted it.

Envision the ideal, stylish 1980s woman, and you’re probably thinking of the woman’s face from Duran Duran’s 1982 album, Rio. This woman, with her sharp smile, acrylic nail-like purple earrings, and winter-white skin, immediately catches the eye.

But what’s so curious about this cover is how it reflects an illustration style that was bubbling in Asian animation at the time. Take one look at 1980s anime, and you’ll see the shadows of this album cover reflected in it. It’s vaporwave-esque to the max, and one of the decade’s most iconic album covers.

Prince, Purple Rain (1984)

Prince and the Revolution music album on vinyl record

Nothing made us want to learn to ride a motorcycle more than seeing Prince straddle a bright purple one on the cover of his 1984 smash-hit album, Purple Rain. With smoke billowing through the fire escapes and into the alley that Prince is lustily lingering in, this album cover is so 1980s.

It’s lush, gritty, and colorful. And it works perfectly as a promo for the tie-in film that Prince starred in. The 1960s may have had The Beatles' A Hard Day’s Night, but Prince’s Purple Rain reigns supreme.

Van Halen, 1984 (1984)

Original '84 VAN HALEN 1984 Warner Bros Records

Van Halen’s first few albums followed in common rock footsteps with on-stage photos of the band. But their 1984 album, 1984, has a cover that’s so frothy and light that it sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of their catalog. Incredibly, the smoking cherubic baby that appears on the cover wasn’t the original plan.

But after taking a look at Margo Nahas’ portfolio, the band pivoted to this iconic image taken from a photo of one of her friend’s babies with a candy cigarette. It’s Normal Rockwell in a genre that’s known for high-energy portraits, and it still stands out today.

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA (1984)

Bruce Springsteen, music album on vinyl record

Incredibly, Springsteen fans can probably pick the artist out from a lineup not by his face but by his tapered waist and slim jeans. And it’s all thanks to 1984’s Born in the USA. Its legacy is rife with political controversy and misinterpretation, but at the end of the day, so many people have this album cover plastered on t-shirts, tapestries, and bumper stickers.

Bruce Springsteen stands with his back to the listener, in an unofficial blue-collar uniform of blue jeans and a white t-shirt. An American flag blazes behind him, and a red bandana dangles cheekily from his back pocket. You can’t help but love the irreverent energy. Middle America didn’t stand a chance, and neither do we.

Def Leppard, Hysteria (1987)

Def Leppard - Hysteria

While Def Leppard had been stomping the musical streets for years by the time they dropped Hysteria, this is the horror illusion cyborg-esque album cover that people remember the best. Featuring a red outlined triangle and disembodied screaming mouths and unintelligible ghostly faces, this album cover doesn’t play around.

But it’s thanks to edgy, boundary-breaking covers like this one that more conceptual and controversial artwork is deemed acceptable. So, we’ve got to give credit where credit is due.

These Album Covers Are 80s to the Max

The 1980s were so much more than just synthesizers and bad hairstyles. It was an incredibly creative period, and these album covers prove it. After all, there’s a reason you knew what these 80s albums looked like without having to take a peek. 

11 Awesome 80s Album Covers That Still Make an Impact