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The 10 best Record Labels of 2013

Curatorial smarts, an eye for design, the willingness to graft, the means to graft, an ear to the ground  – labels have to tick plenty of boxes before they can start cooking with real gas.  

In truth, the stars haven’t really aligned for a label this year in the way they did for, say, PAN or L.I.E.S. in 2012. Some of the following imprints have alighted on the zeitgeist, but not quite released enough to rocket to the top; some have spread their bets effectively, but lacked that flagship release that we know we’ll be coming back to in five years’ time; some have got the tunes covered, but are still one sparky art director away from proper brilliance. It’s been a strong year for albums, for sure – but with so many releases arriving as no-label mixtapes and long-form giveaways, even the canniest labels often haven’t had a look-in.

That caveat aside, the following imprints have all being doing great – and, in some cases, excellent – work this year. It’s certainly our most varied selection to date – a list where Serious Electronic Labels rub shoulders with cheeky online upstarts, where out-there cassettes sit alongside soundtrack LPs, and where neon bangers, sound poetry and pneumatic club tools all jockey for position.

– The 100 Best Tracks of 2013
– The 50 Best Reissues of 2013
– The 50 Best Albums of 2013
– The 30 Best Album Covers of 2013
– The 30 Worst Album Covers of 2013

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Labels of 2013 -- Rush Hour

10. RUSH HOUR

Rush Hour’s hydra heads were all snapping away with vigour this year. Most interesting was their burgeoning No ‘Label’ offshoot, which chucked out great releases from Willie Burns, Aardvarck and DMX Krew. Their reissue game was fantastic too, with N.A.D’s Dawn Of A New Age, Jesse Saunders’ beyond seminal ‘On And On’ and Jorge Velez’s Home Recordings compilation (technically a very late 2012 entry, but one that ruled our 2013 nonetheless) all seeing the light of day. Factor in a proper release of one of the absolute best compilations of the year, Gerd Janson’s Musik For Autobahns, and fine 12″s from Xamiga and Moiré, and it’s difficult to argue with the Dutch dons’ ongoing big beast status.

Essential releases:
N.A.D. – Dawn Of A New Age
Black Deer – Trail Of Tears
Various – Musik For Autobahns

Boye ‘t Lam, Rush HourIn 2013, we focused more on individual projects by local artists, such as Tom Trago who released his new album: The Light Fantastic. It’s his third album, which is a lot more dance-floor focused than its predecessor, and in our opinion reflects the link between Tom as a DJ and as a producer a much better. Still very versatile, but really dancefloor minded.

“With approximately 10 releases on the main label, the launch of our store-only platform and the releases on our sub-labels – e.g. Voyage Direct – we could still offer everything from reissues to current releases and compilations, while giving enough space for all the fans to digest every single release. The reissue projects, such as the essential ’90s UK techno album N.A.D. and the reissue of ERB’s ‘The Weekend’, gave record enthusiasts the chance to get those lost and classic projects again on vinyl. Xosar’s ‘The Calling’ gained great reviews, and paved the way even more for her upcoming projects for next year on Rush Hour. Other personal highlights are the releases by Moiré and BNJMN.

“We also wanted a more ‘offline’ experience with the label, so we launched our in-store series, a set of six releases which are only available at various record stores worldwide, but remain excluded from any online mail order. Another project by a ‘local’ Amsterdam artist which was supposed to come out this year, but which is postponed to early next year, is the Awanto3 album. Many thanks to everybody who is and has been supporting us throughout the years, onwards and upwards to 2014.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Exotic Pylon

09. EXOTIC PYLON

Mugwump’s anything-goes imprint came into its own in 2013, with eccentricity and good intentions finally matched by proper quality control. Pick of the litter is the blasted heath ambient of Pye Corner Audio’s first album as House In The Woods, but the strike ratio has been high throughout: Hoofus’ Several Wolves, a ragged take on Border Community’s pretty electronica; Deaf Arena, a ghoulish noise-not-noise set from Dead Fader’s John Cohen; quirky spoken word on Dolly Dolly’s Antimacassar; and the gimcrack industrial dub of Hacker Farm’s UHF, which snuck out in the final weeks of 2012 but got a proper second wind with a 2013 pressing.

Essential releases:
House In The Woods – Bucolica
Hoofus – Several Wolves
Hacker Farm – UHF

Mugwump, Exotic Pylon: “The overload. I’ve no idea in what context the label stands or belongs and I care even less. Terminal turmoil chaos confusion. Keeping Exotic Pylon alive this year has been an unforgiving struggle that’s entirely battered my senses and sanity – an uncontrollable nightmare mostly through my own ineptitude. But this is a war of positive irresponsibility. Record labels should be a chaotic unpredictable mess, no compromise, no apologies. This isn’t fun, this is a fucking fight.

“Exotic Pylon exists to say YES to pop or noise or drone or folk or hip hop or jazz or analogue or digital or whatever has been around for 500 years or whatever might be about to drop in 10 minutes time all in excelsis mutationous. If there’s a thread pulled taut through the mess, it’s that every single artist on the label has something to SAY. Something about their world or your world or other worlds or all things at once – just whatever it takes and to keep prodding and unravelling the hideous wasteland of 21st century networked reality. Is this coming out on vinyl? YAWN. Maybe. But what about CD or SD card or cassette or a can of tomatoes (keep em peeled). Every artist I’ve worked with demands absolute respect for their breadth of imagination and commitment to trying to enrich the boundaries of experience. Can I borrow 20 quid?”

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Labels of 2013 -- Orange Milk

08. ORANGE MILK

Out in the poorly-policed hinterlands of the cassette label circuit, Orange Milk made the best case for the form. Under the supervision of bosses Keith Rankin and Seth Graham, Orange Milk’s stable of zero-profile artists kept turning out gems throughout the year – Ventla’s taster menu of 50-second beat confections, Jerry Paper’s wobbly kitsch, Nikmis’ baroque space music and the laser-play of Christopher Merritt’s Imaginary Colors all stood out. Best of all was Man Feelings – a mad-as-box-of-frogs release from Rankin and Graham’s unhinged Cream Juice project. Ask our resident tape Yoda Brad Rose – if you wanted to understand the tape underground in 2013, Orange Milk are an essential port of call.

Essential releases:
Cream Juice – Man Feelings
Ventla – Smuggled
Nikmis – Nicht Mass

Keith Rankin, Orange Milk: “Most people in creative fields have wrestled with ideas of success. Or at the very least, almost everyone sets internal goals for themselves, but sometimes it feels like we hold off the reward part of a goal until the goal’s been met. But then the reward doesn’t come, another loftier benchmark takes it’s place, and that cycle repeats forever. I guess that’s why people seem generally miserable a lot of the time. I’ve thought about what success actually means in regards to Orange Milk. It’s part ego stroke   you just want to exist in people’s minds, or that feels good on some level. That’s one part of success. Respect from peers? Money? Deep personal satisfaction? Between me and Seth, I’ve discovered that the actual process of introspection is one of the things that makes me feel good, and probably the driving force behind our music and our record label. The point is we’re still growing as people, we still feel curious and the impulse to be creative hasn’t dried up. I feel confident that as long as we don’t stagnate as inquisitive human beings we’ll still hold onto that standard of success.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Blackest

07. BLACKEST EVER BLACK

Now based in Berlin, Blackest Ever Black released more than ever in 2013, but it wasn’t the label’s usual big-hitters that caught our ears this year. As strong as the long-awaited debut album by Tropic of Cancer was, BEB’s true standouts of the last 12 months came from newcomers to the label: Secret Boyfriend’s spell-binding This Is Always Where You’ve Lived, Raspberry Bulbs’ shredding – or is that shredded? – Deformed Worship and Barnett and Coloccia’s Retrieval. Throw the reissue of the Red Riding: 1980 soundtrack and a record featuring Tool’s Maynard James Keenan (!) into the mix, and we’re as good as sold.

Essential Releases:
Secret Boyfriend – This Is Always Where You’ve Lived
Moin – EP
Barnett and Coloccia – Retrieval

Kiran Sande, Blackest Ever Black: “If I’m honest, I quite enjoyed this year, even though right now I can’t wait for it to be over. I don’t think anyone much cares, but: in January I decided to stop pretending to be a journalist and focus entirely on the label, which has made me less anxious about some things and a great deal more anxious about others. My girlfriend made me move to Germany, which has been strange, but not unpleasant. I keep myself to myself.

“Personal highlights: a near-silent drive through the East Sussex countryside with Chris Petit; discussing spycraft and sadism with Jake Arnott; seeing The Servant on the big screen for the first time; playing the Golden Pudel; reading James Lasdun’s The Horned Man; bugging out to the best/worst of Weather Report at Pablo’s Whisky Bar; and of course the exhilarating grotesquery of the annual BEB showcase in London.

“Everything I released this year I’m proud of – I mean, what would be the point if I wasn’t? – but I was particularly pleased with the Moin 12”, Prurient’s Through The Window, the Raspberry Bulbs LP, Dalhous’s An Ambassador For Laing, Tropic of Cancer’s album, and the Red Riding: 1980 soundtrack. Thanks to the artists: it’s they who do all the real work, I just sit and count the money (mostly there isn’t any).”

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Labels of 2013 -- Modern Love

06. MODERN LOVE

More of the same for Modern Love? Aesthetically, perhaps, but 2013 has snowballed into something of a banner year for the Manchester-based label, who just keep releasing quality. Demdike Stare’s Testpressing series – like HATE Soundsystem before them – tore jungle into brutal new shapes, while Miles Whittaker’s Faint Hearted and The Stranger’s Watching Dead Empires in Decay may have not received the same attention as past Modern Love albums Metanarrative or Luxury Problems, but deserve to go down as some of the label’s best full-lengths.

Essential Releases:
Demdike Stare – Testpressings 001-004
The Stranger – Watching Dead Empires in Decay
Miles – Faint Hearted

Shlom Sviri, Modern Love: “This year has gone by in a flash – we finally put out an album by old friend James Kirby (The Stranger) which was a long and rewarding process to compile, and released an album and an EP by Miles assembled from over a decade’s worth of archive material. Had a lot of fun with Miles and Sean putting together the first four Demdike Testpressings, plus some late nights trying to work out how to make a Millie & Andrea album work (alas, next year for that one), as well as releasing the debut EP from Rainer Veil and a white label of Andy Stott doing Metal… well, kinda. There’s also a new Jack Dice EP round the corner, plus we wanna make 2014 the year we finally get a new record out of G.H. – long overdue, that one.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Oil Gang

05. OIL GANG

Much was written about grime’s new breed – or at least, one of the genre’s new breeds, the one that loosely centres around club night Boxed – this year, but South London’s Oil Gang has been pushing this sound for several years to little fanfare, releasing early 12″s from the likes of Darq E Freaker. In 2013, the label reignited with the release of Slew Dem producer Spooky’s lost classic ‘Coolie Joyride’, and recruited new producers like Splurt Diablo, Samename and Murlo for remixes and original material. Better still, the label has been behind the wider recognition of long-serving grime producer JT the Goon, whose Twin Warriors EP represents a high watermark for a remarkable year of grime.

Essential Releases:
Spooky – ‘Coolie Joyride’
Splurt Diablo – J3 EP
JT the Goon – Twin Warriors EP

Oil Gang: “I’ve really enjoyed putting out all of the releases this year and people seem to be rating the tunes. Its been pretty hectic at times and I’ve had a few issues with the pressing plant but its all sorted now. I had a bit of a break after doing the first three releases on the label and was considering sacking it off, but as soon as Spooky told me he had found the lost classic ‘Coolie Joyride’ I was straight back on it. I had been after that tune for years and it had to come out on vinyl. I didn’t really know what I was doing with the first three releases and to be honest I was thinking a bit about what other people might like and whether things would sell. When I got it going again at the start of the year I decided to scrap that and just put out what I’m into, if other people like it then great.

“I don’t want any diet grime, funky masquerading as grime or any garage or dubstep remixes to help sales, and I don’t care if no one has heard of the producer or the tunes are a bit odd. There’s no fixed style though, it could be JT or Murlo bugging out with a load of flutes or Spooky going in with the Gun Man bass. I’ve got a load of releases planned for next year already, I don’t want to say what they all are just yet but we’re starting off 2014 with Murlo vs. JT The Goon and then I’m going to do the first LP on the label. That will probably bankrupt me but it will have some amazing music on it.”

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Labels of 2013 -- UTTU

04. UNKNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN

Crash, bang, wallop – as if they didn’t release enough in 2012, 2013 saw DJ Haus’s madcap Youtube channel-turned-label launch a sister imprint (Hot Haus Recs) and continue to fling out absolute fire. The reissues arm of the label continued to gather steam – OHM’s ‘Tribal Tone’ may have been UTTU’s most high profile find, but Zibba’s bassline house classic ‘Say to You’ and Jess & Crabbe’s ‘Big Booya’ also saw new lives – while Legowelt, Classified (a.k.a. DJ Q) and Spooky were behind some of the label’s hottest heaters to date.

Essential Releases:
Classified – ‘Say To You’
OHM – ‘Tribal Tone’
Spooky – ‘Baby’

DJ Haus, UTTU: “I’ve had soooo much fun this year, it’s been manic. I really focused on upping the video content this year. Highlights – Classified ‘Say To You’ & Spooky ‘Baby’, which really sum up everything I try and do with the label in terms of visual and audio aesthetic.

Launching the Hot Haus Recs In Effekt, WOW… I need to stress that it’s not a sub-label – it’s the same music that comes out on UTTU, just different logo, so the two come hand in hand…Due to the volume of releases, I fear some things might get lost, so it’s a great way to increase the size of the UTTU bubble. The volume of music I put out isn’t intentional, I don’t put out shitloads for the sake of it – pretty much everything is a case of “OMFG I can’t believe I’m ACTUALLY doing this!” Cases in point: Jess & Crabbe’s ‘Big Booya’ re-issue, OHM ‘Tribal Tone’ and the Legowelt 12s”. I look back and all the music is of such a great quality and so original – or if not original, FUCKING BONKERS – that there’s not one release I could do without.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Numbers

03. NUMBERS

Glasgow’s Numbers have always emphasised their status as a clubnight as well as a label, and 2013 saw that taken to the next level with the launch of their own festival, Pleasure Principle. In terms of releases, the label’s strike rate has never been stronger, with Rustie’s ‘Slasherr’ and SOPHIE’s ‘Bipp’ amongst the year’s very best dancefloor 12″s. Elsewhere, Deadboy’s BLAQUEWERK saw the producer continue to re-tool his sound for dark rooms and soul boy Redinho – who dropped the ‘Searchin’ single, and is set for an album on the label next year – looks every part one of the UK’s most promising prospects.

Essential Releases:
Rustie – ‘Slasherr’
SOPHIE – ‘Bipp’
Redinho – ‘Searchin’

Richard Chater & Neil Morton, Numbers: “So, 2013. On the party side of things, we started off our 10th year by taking a plunge into the unknown and promoting our own music weekender, an event which will stay in our heads for a very long time and has us itching to do another one soon. We finally managed to get Danny Brown to play in Glasgow in July, whilst just recently Joy Orbison and Will Bankhead smashed the Sub Club for us on the old Allen & Heath V6.

“Now we’re onto the three 10th Birthday parties. New York has just been done and to be standing in the same breathing space as Anthony Shakir and DJ Deeon was an honour. Next up is London on December 7th with Opti-Hud-Mo plus a load more and then it all ends in Glasgow on Friday 13th! Our long suffering women will be happy.

“On the label we released new records from Deadboy, SOPHIE, Rustie and Doc Daneeka, and some teasers for Redinho’s forthcoming album. The last release of 2013 is out on December 9th and it’s a re-issue of the first record I ever stuck out, ‘Portland’ by Sparky. It’s been an anthem at the club ever since day one, is produced by one of our oldest friends, and we’ve cut a 30 minute long Ricardo Villalobos remix across two sides of vinyl, which you can play at 33rpm or 45rpm.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Livity Sound

02. LIVITY SOUND

Livity Sound’s 2013 output wasn’t prodigious, limited to a modest clutch of singles and an (admittedly chunky) retrospective. Nor was it diverse, with releases coming just about exclusively from the group’s core Pev/Kowton/Asusu triumvirate. What it was, though, was timely – more than any other UK label this year, Livity set the tenor of what revellers were dancing to, and music scribes were consequently racing to catch up with.

Clubland moved to their beat, and what beats they were – punchy and crisp percussive tattoos, loosely affiliated to dub culture, but more concerned with grime’s bark and techno’s bite. Their best 2013 singles – ‘Aztec Chant’, ‘Velez’ – were doozies, and the Livity Sound compilation offered a brilliant manifesto for the Livity project to date. Factor in the dnouS ytiviL sub-label, which dropped heat from Alex Coulton and one-to-watch Batu, and you’re looking at an imprint that may well go on to surpass the substantial achievements of Pev’s other label, Punch Drunk.

Essential releases:
Livity Sound – Livity Sound
Pev – ‘Aztec Chant’
Pev & Kowton – ‘End Point’/’Vapours’

Peverelist, Livity Sound: “2013 was the year when things really started to solidify for the Livity Sound project. We started the year with the ‘Raw Code’ / ‘Junked’ 12” for Hessle Audio and then followed it up with a series of 12″s on our own Livity Sound label, culminating in a self titled 2xCD compilation pulling together the last three years work on the project which came out in the Autumn.

“We’ve been developing our collaborative live set over the year, keeping it evolving. We’ve had some great gigs, particularly in The Moat at Dimensions festival and the Bristol leg of our album launch parties, it’s a totally different energy to DJing and has been a lot of fun. Now we’re working on some big plans for next year soon to be announced, alongside more releases on the sister label, dnuoS ytiviL which has a new 12″ from Batu out next week.”

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Labels of 2013 -- Fade to Mind

01. FADE TO MIND

Since launching in 2011, Fade to Mind has largely operated in the shadow of sister label Night Slugs. That changed this year: with Night Slugs focusing on their Club Constructions series, Fade to Mind came into its own, crossbreeding club music, r’n’b, hip-hop, and grime with a maverick spirit reminiscent of Night Slugs during their stellar 2010 run.

In Vertical XL and Skycell, Kingdom and Nguzunguzu released their most fully-formed material yet; Nguzunguzu’s Daniel Pineda added a Club Constructions-like offering on his Xtreme Tremble EP. Beyond the label’s releases, Fade to Mind artists left their mark all across the underground landscape. Total Freedom, Rizzla, and MikeQ continued to churn out raw, genre-agnostic remixes, while Nguzunguzu and Fatima Al Qadiri teamed with J-Cush and a host of vocalists for the burgeoning Future Brown project.

Fade to Mind’s finest moment would crystalize the label as a movement: Kelela’s eagerly-anticipated Cut 4 Me joined the captivating singer with producers from both Fade to Mind and Night Slugs for a masterful mixtape that transcended contemporary r’n’b and dance music. And as vital as Cut 4 Me and the rest of their releases are, it feels like Fade to Mind is just getting started.

Essential releases:
Kelela – Cut 4 Me
Nguzunguzu – Skycell
Bok Bok – FADEMIX003

Kingdom & Prince William, Fade to Mind: “Our first release ever was only a couple of years ago, Nguzunguzu’s Timesup in late 2011. This year felt so different, it felt like a coming of age. We made a big debut at SXSW with a string of Fade to Mind ∞ Night Slugs parties, and at the end of our last after-hours event, Kelela’s impromptu set was an epiphany for everyone there, and planted the seed for the buildup to her debut later in the year. Personally it was a transformative year for me, finally getting set up in a studio and hunkering down to create my first EP for the label (Vertical XL) which ended up being well received all over. ‘Bank Head’ featuring Kelela was the centerpiece of Vertical XL, and turned the anticipation up another notch for Kelela’s mixtape to drop. By then Kelela was already doing shows with Solange, and big shows in Tokyo and London. Next we released a high-impact club-banging single from NA (Daniel Pineda a.k.a. one half of Nguzunguzu) called X-Treme Tremble.

“In October Kelela’s CUT 4 ME mixtape finally dropped to huge applause, a big warm response, tens of thousands of downloads and so many kind words from fans. People that had been following Fade to Mind loved it, but it was especially fun to see mainstream r’n’b heads catch on one by one and really feel it. We wanted to make a bold new statement for r’n’b and I think it worked out. It took every last ounce of our blood, sweat, tears, and cash to make it possible. Kelela was so insanely self motivated and laid the groundwork herself. From start to finish it basically took a whole year, and we built it as a squad. The whole crew was right there sitting on the floor making it happen. Kelela did a lot of co-writing with Prince Will, Asma from Nguzunguzu, me, and several other contributors. We all made beats for the project but also offered criticism and creative direction as the project morphed and changed and grew organically into it’s finished form.

Finally we released the seven-track Skycell EP from Nguzunguzu, a soundtrack to a dystopian digital universe that bounces between club music, rap instrumentals, and sci-fi soundtracks. Total Freedom (a.k.a. Ashland Mines) also had a amazing year, he doesn’t officially release music per-se (yet!) but he dropped a slew of popular edits, and he’s the sickest DJ out and a core member of the squad. He made his way around the world in 2013, changing minds and making people headbang very hard.”

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