Controversial album artworks give spice to every collector’s life.
The music industry has been alive since forever and ever since the very beginning, controversies abound —whether they’re around record labels and their executives, musicians, and even the music they make.
Obviously, album art could not escape this fate.
Some were never released while some made it to stores. However, they were never reissued, making them copies that many collectors want to have.
If you’re like us, who like anything controversial, o here are 25 of the most controversial album artworks in the history of the music industry.
Table of Contents
#1 ALICE COOPER – LOVE IT TO DEATH
The original cover art of this album displays a group picture of the original Alice Cooper band.
Alice Cooper, the band’s lead vocalist, is pictured in the center, with his thumb protruding from underneath his cape, making it look like his penis. It was later reissued with Cooper’s right hand removed from the cover through airbrush.
#2 ARCA – XEN
Xen is the title of Arca’s album as well as the name of her computer-generated androgynous alter-ego. The album cover shows Xen with her head thrown back, showing off her wide hips, breasts, and broad shoulders.
Spotify and iTunes, however, pixelate the genital area, including the breasts, despite the fact that there were no genitals visible.
#3 BON JOVI – SLIPPERY WHEN WET
The official album’s cover is an image of a wet garbage with the words “Slippery When Wet” written on it.
This, however, was not the original album cover; the original actually shows a busty woman with 34DD breasts in a wet yellow T-shirt with the same words written on the front of the shirt.
It was rejected since the record executives feared of the rejection from dominant record store chains due to the sexist cover.
#4 GUN N’ ROSES – APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION
The original cover art for the album was Robert Williams’ painting entitled Appetite for Destruction. The painting depicted a woman leaning on a wooden fence after being raped by the robotic rapist which was to be crushed by a dagger-toothed monster.
The band said that the artwork is “a symbolic social statement with the robot representing the industrial system that’s raping and polluting our environment”.
This however was refused by many music retailers so they had no choice but to move it to the inner sleeve and replace it with a cross and five skulls representing the band members.
#5 DAVID BOWIE – DIAMOND DOGS
The album front cover features the singer as a man-dog hybrid, while the back cover features the creature’s genitalia.
Due to the controversy it has gone under, later copies of the album has the genitalia airbrushed out of the art cover.
#6 THE GAME – JESUS PIECE
The album art is a stained-glass image of an African-American Jesus wearing a red bandanna across his lower face, a Jesus piece necklace, and a teardrop tattoo.
Interscope Records was called out by the Roman Catholic Church about it. This led to the band deciding on having it as the cover for the deluxe edition of the album and using a different one for the standard edition, which features the rapper’s brother who died of gunshot wound at the age of 20.
#7 JUSTIN BIEBER – PURPOSE
The Purpose album sparked a controversy from the Muslim nations across the Middle East, North Africa, and even Indonesia.
They claimed that he was promoting Christianity as Beiber is seen shirtless with his cross tattoo visible on the original artwork. This led to an alternative cover created by the artist’s team.
#8 MARILYN MANSON – HOLY WOOD (IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY OF DEATH)
The cover shows Manson as a crucified Christ with his jawbone torn off, which was a statement on censorship and America’s obsession with martyrs.
This was rejected by most music retail stores with Circuit City selling it, only after the original was put on a cardboard sleeve and was replaced by an alternative one.
Additionally, a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee also threatened to go on a hunger strike unless the album was removed from shelves
#9 SLAYER – CHRIST ILLUSION
The album art depicts a mutilated and stoned Christ in a sea of blood with floating mutilated heads. There was a huge controversy about it that the band had to provide an alternative cover to those stores who refused to sell them.
In India, however, it was taken to heart by Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Mumbai Christian group Catholic Secular Form.
He issued a memorandum to Mumbai’s police commissioner in protest. This resulted in Indian stocks being recalled and destroyed.
#10 STEVE TAYLOR – I PREDICT 1990
Aside from the controversial track I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good which was believed to advocate anti-abortion violence though it was the opposite, the album’s art was also believed by Christian retailers to be a reference to tarot and New Age philosophy.
This art, however, was not a reference of anything and was just a painting by Taylor’s wife influenced by the early 20th century French neo-impressionist poster art.
#11 BOB DYLAN – BLONDE ON BLONDE
The original artwork on the inside of the gatefold jacket of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde came with nine black-and-white photos. It included a shot of actress Claudia Cardinale that Dylan had chosen from Jerry Schatzberg’s portfolio.
Due to it being used without her permission, Cardinale’s photo was removed, which made the original jacket a collector’s item.
#12 THE ROLLING STONES – SOME GIRLS
The front cover of the single vinyl jacket has a bunch of cut-out holes where faces can fit in.
To complete the look, the vinyl albums’ inner sleeves were printed with black and white photographs of the band members and other celebrities, all strategically positioned to show through the holes.
There were protests from some of the people featured in the inner sleeve which led to its revision. The offending photos were replaced with color blocks and text that read “Pardon Our Appearance” and “Cover Under (Re)Construction”.
#13 SONIC YOUTH – SISTER
This album has been edited twice, for two different reasons, to obscure images. The first edit was done to cover the photo taken by Richard Avedon of the 12 year old girl, Sandra Bennett, due to a lawsuit threat.
The second one was to cover the image of the Disney Magic Kingdom with a barcode, due to copyright complaints. Early vinyl pressings of this album had featured these two photos but later ones did not.
#14 U2 – NO LINE ON THE HORIZON
The album’s cover art is a photograph of Lake Constance taken by Hiroshi Sugimoto which was named Boden Sea. It was previously used by Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree for their album Specification Fifteen.
Deupree called U2’s cover as “nearly an exact rip-off” and accused Sugimoto of selling the rights to the group.
Sugimoto however refuted both claims stating that the use of the same photograph was a coincidence and that no money was involved in the deal with U2.
# 15 THE VELVET UNDERGROUND – THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO
Shortly after the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico their label Verve Records was threatened with a lawsuit by Warhol superstar Eric Emerson.
This was due to his image, projected in an upside-down position, being included in the back cover of the album.
Copies of the album were withdrawn from stores so the image can be obscured by a large sticker. The image was restored on the 1996 CD duplication of the album.
#16 THE BEATLES – YESTERDAY AND TODAY
The Beatles’ original cover for their album Yesterday and Today was a conceptual art piece by Robert Whitaker called “A Somnambulant Adventure”. The photograph features the four members in butcher coats with pieces of meat and body parts from plastic baby dolls draped on them.
This was heavily pushed by both Lennon and McCartney even when Capitol Records’ executives refused, this then led to backlash.
Both US and UK press, critics, and stores were outraged and had the label change the cover into one where the members posed around a steamer trunk looking sullen.
#17 THE COUP – PARTY MUSIC
The original cover art for The Coup’s 2001 album Party Music features the Twin Towers of World Trade Center being destroyed by Boots Riley and Pam.
It was designed earlier that year in the month of June, before the September 11 attacks of the same year.
It was scheduled to be released in September that year, but after the attacks, the group had to postpone it to November of that year with the record featuring an alternate cover of the album, which was a hand holding a flaming martini glass.
#18 GREEN DAY – KERPLUNK
The front cover of the album is one that depicts a white drawing of a teenage girl wearing a flower shirt while holding a smoking gun. On the back cover is a boy lying on the ground with a gunshot wound on his back.
Retail stores like Walmart and Kmart initially refused to sell the album due to the violence it depicts, and the band saw continued controversy on their next album Dookie due to the same reason.
#19 ICE- T – HOME INVASION
The album cover shows a white boy listening to rap music, immersed in black culture, while their home is being invaded. The invasion was done by the Blacks who are attacking two Whites in the background, which were presumed to be the boy’s parents.
Sire Records refused to release the album with the cover so Ice-T decided to leave the label.
#20 METALLICA – KILL ‘EM ALL
The initial title for Kill ‘Em All was Metal Up Your Ass, which featured a cover with a hand emerging from a toilet bowl while wielding a dagger.
Megaforce Records, on the other hand, requested that it be changed since they considered the original title was too inappropriate.
The band modified the album’s title to what it is now, as well as the artwork, which now depicts a bleeding hammer released by a shadow of a hand.
#21 ARCTIC MONKEYS – WHATEVER PEOPLE SAY I AM, THAT’S WHAT I’M NOT
The album’s cover sleeve features a friend of the band, Chris McClure, smoking a cigarette. This was heavily criticized by the head of the NHS in Scotland and stated that it is “reinforcing the idea that smoking is OK”.
However, the band’s product manager denied the accusation and said, “You can see from the image smoking is not doing him a world of good”.
#22 JOY DIVISION – AN IDEAL FOR LIVING
The album art for An Ideal for Living is a black and white picture of a blond Hitler Youth member beating a drum drawn by guitarist Bernard Sumner. It also shows the words “Joy! Division” printed in a blackletter font.
The art added with the nature of the band’s name sparked a controversy over the idea of the band sympathizing with the Nazis. When the EP was reissued on 12-inch vinyl records, it was changed with a scaffolding-themed artwork.
#23 THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS – IF YOU CAN BELIEVE YOUR EYES AND EARS
The album cover shows the four members cramped up in a bathtub of a bathroom. It also shows a toilet in the far right corner which caused a controversy due to indecency. Because of this, the copies were reissued with a text box pasted on top of the toilet.
#24 PUSHA T – DAYTONA
Whitney Houston’s restroom is seen in the album artwork for Daytona, which shows the narcotics she took. It provoked outrage, with Houston’s family describing it as “disgusting and disrepectful.”
#25 VAN HALEN – BALANCE
Two nude conjoined twins sitting on a teeter-totter are featured on the album artwork for Balance. This cover was edited in some areas, removing one of the twins completely from the shot.
The controversial album artworks presented here were in this list for different reasons. And I’m sure that you have found some of the reasons for their controversy absurd. We feel you, but that’s just how it is.
So among the 25 album artworks, what were the most controversial for you? What controversy had the most absurd reason?
James Hill is a veteran of the music industry. He first worked at Warner Reprise Records then later joined Interscope/ Geffen Records where he managed producers and songwriters and got his first platinum record for Keyshia Cole’s The Way It Is. He is now helping indie artists with branding and manufacturing through his company Unified Manufacturing, a CD, DVD, vinyl pressing and merch company in LA.