When art and commerce converge, as they do in the music biz, there are sometimes disagreements about what makes for acceptable expression. Whether these controversies play in the court of law, as happened in 1993 with 2 Live Crew’s “explicit” rap lyrics, or simply in the court of public opinion, it’s fun to watch from the wings. And to listen! Here’s our list of the ten most controversial album covers of all time.
10. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Using someone’s face on an album cover without her permission isn’t always the best move. Result: $2 million lawsuit.
9. Ice-T – Gangsta Rap
Released in 2006 this cover depicts Ice-T and his wife, Coco, naked on a bed. “It’s part John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was art when they did it,” Ice-T recalled.
8. David Bowie – Diamond Dogs
On the unedited version of this album cover, painted by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, you see more than just Bowie as half-man, half-dog. We’re talking about the full Monte. This proved to be too much for RCA executives, so they released an altered cover with Bowie’s genitalia airbrushed out.
7. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
On his 2010 opus Yeezy actually tried to create a cover that would be banned. The original shows a demonic Kanye lying, bottle of booze in hand, on a bed with a naked, female “phoenix.” Kanye succeeded with his goal.
6. Nirvana – Nevermind
Indeed, one of the best-selling albums of all time inspired controversy with its cover. In case you were born on Pluto it shows a full-frontal pic of an infant boy floating in a swimming pool. Nirvana re-released the album with a sticker over the child’s penis that read, “If you’re offended by this you must be a closet pedophile.” Genius move, until years later, the baby—now an adult—decided to sue the surviving members of the band, as well as Kurt Cobain’s estate, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, and several other involved parties.
According to 30-year-old Spencer Elden, his parents never authorised the use of his photo on the band’s album cover. He also claims that the image can be classified under child pornography.
5. The Strokes – Is This It
Apparently some people found this cover too sexually explicit. Prudish, no?
4. Roger Waters – The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking
It’s a simple concept really. The album title mentions “thumbing a ride” so why not ask a naked lady in red heels and backpack to put her thumb in the air? Even in the roaring 80’s it was risqué.
3. Korn – KoRn
Just study the image for a bit and you’ll understand.
2. Death Grips – No Love Deep Web
You may not want to Google this cover. It shows the erect penis of a band, ahem, member with the album’s title written on it with black marker. The stunt got them dropped from their label.
1. The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
No it’s not Mick Jagger’s crotch on this cover created by Andy Warhol. In fact, it’s one of Warhol’s so-called “superstars,” actor Joe Dallesandro. With its sterling songs this album is, without a doubt, our number one Controversial Album Cover of All Time.
Altered Album Covers and the Stories Behind Them
The music industry has seen some questionable album covers that, due to prevailing atitudes about morality and censorship at the time, had to be altered or completely replaced. Here are some of the most notable ones:
The Beatles –Yesterday and Today
The band chose as the album cover for Yesterday and Today an image showing the members dressed in smocks and covered in raw meat and disassembled dolls. According to The Beatles, it was meant to be a statement against the Vietnam War. A more fanciful interepration by fans was that this was actually a statement against Capitol butchering the band’s album for North American releases.
The Black Crowes – Amorica
The band released Amorica in 1994, and the album cover that featured a woman’s pelvic area clad in an American flag bikini bottom with pubic hair peeking out from the top. The image was taken from an issue of Hustler magazine. Later on, the cover was altered to feature just the American flag thong against a plain black background, with nary a stray hair in sight.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood released what would be their first and only album for their band, “Blind Faith.” They sure made a statement after the group released their album with its cover featuring a topless pre-teen girl holding a toy airplane that, to some, resembled a penis. The resulting controversy prompted their label to reissue the record with a different cover that featured a black-and-white photo of the band.
Scorpions – Lovedrive
Scorpions’ sixth album, ‘Lovedrive,’ proved to be a major commercial breakthrough, climbing to the No. 55 spot on the Billboard Top 100. Well, wait ‘til you see their unaltered cover. The image commissioned by the band from Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis fame featured a woman’s exposed breast connected to a man’s hand with bubblegum. It was replaced later on with an image of a blue scorpion.