Almost Blue — Album Covers Inspired By Blue Note Records
This year My Type of Music series I've tried to find an angle to write something about the seminal covers that graced their records. Though I admire the designs, with a preference for the bold 50s and 60s releases, I must admit I know very little about the history and background, nor about legendary Blue Note art director Reid Miles who was with the label from 1956 to 1965. His sleeves are collected in Blue Note: Album Cover Art – The Ultimate Collection, the paperback compendium of both Chronicle's classic Blue Note: The Album Cover Art and Blue Note II, and the history of the label is told in Blue Note Records: The Biography. There are also a number of galleries on the internet, like this one on Pixagogo which has the designs in random order, and the Japanese Vintage Vanguard gallery which lists all the releases from 1950 to 1969 in chronological order.
Typical of Reid Miles' style is the dramatic cropping of photographs, black and white images on flat colour with knocked out type, striking compositions, and use of rhythmical elements. His typographic treatments are flawless. Whether it's classic serif type or dynamic, sometimes even experimental sans serif typography, he uses a recognisable and consistent type palette. Type is arranged asymmetrically, stacked, in waterfall, and is even used to crop the image. Miles occasionally experiments with punctuation, multiple readings, repetition, type as image, cut up and distorted type. In many of his designs he inverts the hierarchy by having the type play the lead role, and relegating the photograph of the artist to a tiny little box.
Doing more research yesterday – I know I wasn't supposed to because May Day is a holiday here, but hey, sue me – I stumbled upon an interesting gallery on community site Rate Your Music. RYM user Monocle (alias for Michael Sean) seems to have a thing for album covers and lists. One of his album cover galleries is Almost Blue, an overview of sleeves that are based on specific releases by Blue Note Records, or that are designed to evoke the classic Blue Note cover art style. Many of Reid Miles' designs still look ground-breaking today, so it is understandable that contemporary graphic designers sometimes refer to his work. To me it is not always clear whether these new album covers are homages or plain rip-offs, as it is indeed a fine line. Below is a selection of covers from the Monocle gallery – make sure to visit it for more examples. I have added the originals for comparison and some information about the typefaces. The first batch of covers are inspired by – and sometimes even straight-up copies of – specific Blue Note albums.
This one is cheating a bit, because Yule Struttin' is also a Blue Note Records release. The jumpy Helvetica Inserat nicely visualises the album title(s).
Although the pose is identical (albeit different cropping) the Clarendon used in the original was replaced by a hand drawn serif face and a signature-like treatment of the artist's name.
The Madness The Heavy Heavy Hits compilation mimics the cut-up typography of Horace Parlan's Us Three but sticks to Compacta instead of the eclectic mix in the original.
The You Am I cover was originally listed in the section Covers That Mimic the General Blue Note Look, but I'm pretty sure it references Miles Davis (All Stars) Vol. 1 & 2. Futura is completely miscast: I don't remember ever seen it used like this on a Reid Miles cover. They'd better have stuck with the wide grotesque which I believe is Annonce Grotesque (very similar to an extended Venus, now available as Vonness from The Font Bureau, Inc.).
This one is almost literally lifted except for changing the condensed Basic Commercial into ITC Frankin Condensed. The photographic treatment is so much stronger in the original, and it nicely illustrates why the originals of these covers are unequalled.
In the Midnight Blue sleeve the "g" of Aurora Condensed in "midnight" was customised to make it fit above "blue". The credits are set in News Gothic on the left, and Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed on the right.
Although it enhances the "Blue Note style", the black bar at the top of the James Taylor Quartet album cover renders it a little claustrophobic. The – perfectly positioned – Aurora Condensed in the original was replaced by a condensed grotesque paired with a Clarendon.
I think we can safely classify this one as satire – a denture!? Helvetica is wrong; it should have been Basic Commercial. The use of News Gothic is consistent.
This design shows how a little change in attitude can alter the atmosphere in a design. I was intrigued by the "Wrecker" on the right – it looks a bit like a customised Antique Olive Nord but it is in fact quite different, most notable the "C". FontFeed reader William Hastings revealed it is Information Bold Extended, a font that has sadly become unavailable in digital format.
FontFeed reader Tracy Graham pointed out the obvious similarities in the above covers. This is one of the designs where the Blue Note Records logo also is remixed. It's a shame the digitally condensed Helvetica looks awful – Helvetica Ultra Compressed is much closer to the original.
Some album covers reference Blue note covers more subtly, and one might even wonder if the tribute was intentional.
The second section in Monocle's list showcases album covers that mimic the classic Blue Note look but are not derived from any specific sleeve. The Raphael Saadiq and Joe Jackson covers are not in the list; they are from two My Type of Music reviews.
And Reid Miles' influence even crosses over to moving images. In 2004 Burning Vision Entertainment produced a music video for Helicopter Girl's Angel City. The surprising video interprets the art from various Blue Note LP sleeves. It all looks fabulous, except for the totally inappropriate use of Arial in a couple of screens and some dubious wavy transitions in the text. I know I sound like a broken record – a fitting metaphor in this context – but they could have gone the extra length and chosen their typefaces a bit more carefully. I have added eight of the album sleeves the video is based on for comparison.
FontFeed reader Aleksander Nikolić notified me of another video referencing Blue Note Records album covers. In Gabin's Into My Soul featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater from 2005 the frame occasionally freezes and type is added to it to make it look like an album sleeve, without mimicking any specific one. This video is by Italian director Daniele Persica.
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