Asking someone what the most iconic album cover is gets a ton of different responses. What you hear is based on generation/style/politics/shock value/etc: Nevermind, Dark Side of the Moon, Sticky Fingers, Never Mind the Bollocks, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so on.
Credit should be given where it’s due: Sgt. Pepper is responsible for propelling the world of album art into a whole new direction. That record’s use of cut/pasted pop icons and symbolic elements pushed album covers closer to the world of fine art. But before the Beatles shocked many and inspired countless others with their iconic album art, there was one label that was raising more than a few eyebrows: Blue Note Records.
Starting in 1956, designer Miles Reid was in charge of making album art that summed up cool. Before then, Blue Note’s artwork had been a mash-up of traditional album art styles and only hinted at the hard-edged and progressive sound of hard-bop. Once Reid came on board, this feeling of forward-reaching jazz came alive onto the album covers.
Reid’s technique was distinctly modern in a modernist period. His covers still held the information that previous covers did, but the design was bold and intensely graphic. Inspired by the Bauhaus mindset, he used sans-serif typefaces of varying weights, rectangular fields, and an extremely restricted color palette (usually black, white, and one other color). Jazz was beginning of wane in a world of Elvis Presleys, Buddy Hollys, and Little Richards, but the Blue Note covers’ effortless cool helped to usher in a new wave of jazz cats.
Blue Note’s artwork was a huge step in a new era of “total package” design, where everything associated with the record matches a certain feel. Looking at one of these covers 50 years after they were made still illustrates (with amazing clarity) the aura of the record on hand…
(Side note: I also found an interesting article that goes over Blue Note-inspired album art.)