The 10 Best Record Labels of 2015
2015 has been a great year for music, but the place of the record label is more precarious than ever.
As more and more artists take it on themselves to build mini-empires on Bandcamp or SoundCloud, it’s hard not to wonder where labels fit in right now (full disclaimer: we did, for at least one second, consider naming ‘self-released’ as our favourite label of 2015.)
Thankfully there are always people around to challenge the narrative, and 2015 saw several new school imprints keep that essence at the heart of the very best labels – talented artists inspired by their peers and disaffected with the status quo – alive. It wasn’t just a year for the young team, though: several veteran labels had banner years, proving that with the right curation and sense of dedication, it’s still possible to keep things moving while staying true to decade-old principles.
Long-standing Aussie experimental imprint Room40 celebrated 15 years of activity this year: a good a time as any to reflect. Their actual body of releases was, as usual, excellent, with standouts from Mike Cooper and Norman Westberg punctuating a series of important reissues. However, it’s the label’s anniversary activity that really projected them into this list.
In a climate where it’s increasingly more difficult for experimental acts to perform outside of their home town, it was incredible to see Lawrence English and co appearing across the globe at festivals, galleries and warehouses, giving uncompromising performances to crowds large and small. It’s testament to English’s dedication that he can manage this, and we’re looking forward to the next 15 years of noise, drones and whatever else he decides to hurl at us.
Lawrence English, founder: “Over the past half decade, I have been seriously asking ‘what purpose does a label serve?’ It’s an important question to ask. The idea that you can do, so you do ‘do’ is simply not good enough. This year I was reminded of a great many reasons why labels should exist. Beyond their mechanical function to provide a lens through which music and sound can be approached, labels are about the building of connections. They are nodes on a network of friends, of family, of community and so very much more.
“I count myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with so many provocative and inspiring artists. They are the life blood of any label and their ideas, their minds and hearts shape the very fabric of its being. More and more I realise that life is a short and precious thing, we are privileged to have the opportunities we do and should never underestimate that privilege. To spend one’s life in music and in art is to relish the thought that everything is always fading, slipping through experience into the shallow grave memory. It’s up to us to relish every moment as they come through us and to encourage others to feel as deeply as we do.”
Ross Manning – Interlacing
Mike Cooper – Fratello Mare
Norman Westberg – 13
It’s funny how things work out. When Numbers launched, it operated a kind of UK bass galacticos policy, snapping up 12″s after 12″ from titans of the scene (Roska, Untold) and the big up-and-comers (Mosca, Jamie xx, Sbtrkt.) A few years on, it feels more like a bunch of dance devotees from Glasgow releasing techno bangers – and if you ask us it’s all the better for it.
Of course, there’s more to Numbers than just techno: as well as releases from hometown pals Sparky and Denis Sulta and longtime affiliate Lory D, they reissued some classic DJ Deeon, recruited Adesse Versions and released the PC Music-core track of the year in SOPHIE’s ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ (from album-cum-singles-comp-cum-sex-toy Product.) They even finally released that Kool Clap record that’s been promised since the label’s launch. It’s funny how things work out.
Numbers: “2015 was a lot of fun, on the label side of Numbers we released new records from Lory D, Adesse Versions, Kornel Kovacs and our Glasgow pals Sparky and Denis Sulta. We also had the pleasure of re-mastering and re-issuing four of our favourite DJ Deeon tracks for the ‘Deeon Doez Deeon!’ record and a collection of singles from SOPHIE.
On the events side of things, we created an installation entitled LOOPS which took place at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern, the Numbers club saw visits from Anthony Naples, Dekmantel, Fatima Yamaha, Joy Orbison, MMM, Blawan and Levon Vincent, and we’re now looking forward to closing out the year with our Warehouse event in London and a Christmas session at the Sub Club. Gotta give thanks to all of the artists, distributors, stores and promoters who have played a role in making this year so good and we’re really excited for 2016 which will see new records from Kool Clap, Adesse, Lory D and a few names new to the label dropping at the start of the year.”
DJ Deeon – Deeon Doez Deeon!
SOPHIE – ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’
Denis Sulta – ‘It’s Only Real’
PAN’s ability to traverse different genres with consistent quality is well documented at this point, and 2015 was another year packed with excellent releases. Helm’s Olympic Mess is the finest record of Luke Younger’s career and one of the year’s best “ambient” albums – though that word doesn’t scratch the surface. Elsewhere, Janus operative M.E.S.H. sparked 1001 post-club thinkpieces with the beguiling Piteous Gate, and Mark Fell offered up his most essential 12″ in ages with Protogravity, a collaboration with Errorsmith. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on PAN, they regroup and once again demand your hard-earned cash.
Bill Kouligas, founder: “If someone is born during the ghost month, avoid celebrating at night. Celebrate during the daytime. The terms ‘backdoor god’ or ‘good brother’ are sometimes used instead.”
M.E.S.H. – Piteous Gate
Helm – Olympic Mess
Mark Fell & Errorsmith – Protogravity
Mexico City’s NAAFI is more like an extended family of like-minded artists and DJs than a label as such, but what began four years ago as a club night for forward-thinking local artists has blossomed into a continent-spanning network of musicians making colourful hybrids of house, reggaeton and tribal. While Smurphy graduated to Leaving Records for her bewildering debut album (A Shapeless Pool of Lovely Pale Colours Suspended in the Darkness), the rest of the crew kept up a steady stream of fresh material on SoundCloud and dropped Pirata 2, a mixtape of reggaeton bootlegs and club experiments from international friends like Lotic and Rabit, and the triple-disc TRIBAL collection looking back at Mexico’s homegrown genre.
Mexican Jihad, co-founder: “2015 was the year when NAAFI went full-on international. We officially incorporated members from Chile (Imaabs), Uruguay (Lechuga Zafiro) and Puerto Rico (Fuete Billete) to the family. We were commissioned for a year-long residency at Museo Jumex, where we hosted a series of events and lectures focusing on different zones of disturbance around the world: Jersey club and club Mexicano; classic reggaeton and Perreo contemporáneo; danzas and contemporary dance forms.
“We did our first Europe tour fronted by Lao & Paul Marmota, and the first Asia tour with Imaabs and Espectral. During the summer we celebrated our fifth Anniversary with a huge family reunion party, and later organized and hosted the first ever ballroom [event] in the city, with all the Mexican vogue houses. We got a monthly show at NTS Radio and started The Takeover at Beats1 station for Apple Music. We also did a collaboration line with Japanese boutique Radd Lounge.
“Right now we are managing NAAFI as a cultural production house. We are developing an investigation project with music from the Costa Chica region in the state of Oaxaca, in alliance with all sorts of cultural institutions, documentary artists, software brands and music producers. We are also starting a singles catalogue and putting more energy into the merch line.
“Forthcoming releases include singles by OMAAR, Lao and Paul Marmota, EPs from Zutzut and Lechuga Zafiro, and Mock The Zuma’s album to be pressed on vinyl.”
Imaabs – Distancia
Various Artists – Pirata 2
06. Trax Couture
For the first two years of its existence, Rushmore’s Trax Couture mostly existed as a home for his own productions. That all changed in 2015, as the label’s World Series went into overdrive and became the go-to source for club heat. Trax Couture lives at the genre-agnostic point where house, techno, grime, ballroom and footwork live and thrive, and the World Series EPs find producers from around the globe — from London (Akito, Evil Streets) and LA (Dreams) to Australia (Air Max ’97) and Malaysia (Moslem Priest) — flexing their personal takes on the sounds that make people dance.
Rushmore, founder: “2015 has been a poignant year for Trax Couture. We’ve had some big highlights like our Record Store Day project in collaboration with Puma, Foot Patrol and Just Jam where we curated a vinyl EP release, a run of custom footwear and a live stream to celebrate it in store. We quickly followed that up with a five day pop up store in NYC where we launched an EP and tied that in with an additional custom footwear project with Puma. That really brought us closer with our NYC family – it was pretty special. One of our biggest achievements though has been our ability to support our international artists (from Chile and Australia) on their debut global tours by coming to play at our House of Trax party, here in London. That was definitely one of the aims with putting together the World Series releases.
“We were able to achieve this by making a big step change in the schedule, by releasing a digital EP every month and then a quarterly vinyl compilation, giving every artist a chance to be put out on wax. We picked our favourite artists to release and we can all grow together. We’ve created an open inclusive space for anyone that wants to interact with the label, which has a hard working, fun and family vibe at its core. Our rate of releases will maintain the same pace, keeping standards high, knowing each artist will evolve their sound too. We’re a part of the spearhead of the global club culture movement that people can turn to for an extensive mix of current club sounds.
“The most important thing, which we’ll never forget, is that we’re fans of every single artist we’ve released or booked at our parties. That is a vital part of managing a label.”
Rushmore – World Series Vol.12
GROVESTREET – World Series Vol.7
Akito – World Series Vol.5
05. Sacred Bones
Sacred Bones are approaching a decade in the game, but 2015 showed that they’re built to last thanks to consistent returning acts and smart new signings. Blanck Mass proved to be so much more than a Fuck Buttons off-shoot and Jenny Hval made her best album to date, but, who are we kidding, their crowning achievement this year was shooting life back into a newly inspired John Carpenter – not only invigorating his music career but bringing him as close as he’s been in years to returning to film.
Caleb Braaten, founder/owner: “Looking back at 2015, I’m grateful for all of the artists that put their careers in our hands. We got the chance to continue working with label artists, some have been with us almost the duration of our existence. We introduced the world to Soft Dick Rock, upped the punx, teamed up with a brilliant electronic producer, released our first film, reissued some true gems, introduced the lost art of an unappreciated weirdo and showed the world that the Master is still the Master.”
Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
John Carpenter – Lost Themes
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl
Powell may have signed to XL and gone viral thanks to a well placed billboard this year, but that doesn’t mean he forgot about the Diagonal label he runs with his friend Jaime Williams. Diagonal had its best year in 2015 by honing in on what it does best: release wavy, experimental club bangers for audiences who haven’t forgotten how to dance. Whether it was NHK’Koyxen’s acid steppers, a slowed-down industrial edit of a 90s pop-rave banger or Evol’s nausea-inducing computer rave, Diagonal knocked out the sort of 12”s that remind you of the days when techno wasn’t an endless succession of greyscale drones. It also released one of the most enjoyable Russell Haswell albums of his career, and coaxed a rare remix out of Autechre – no mean feat for a label that’s only four years old. Powell released all his material on XL this year but Diagonal didn’t suffer one bit – in fact, his absence only highlighted just how unique and vital a platform the label has become.
Oscar Powell, co-founder: “Special thanks should go to Not Waving for keepin’ his cool despite his album still not coming out — over 12 months since it was completed. Have you heard that pressing plants are busy these days? Thanks to Chloe and Laetitia at Annex for all their work in booking the showcases (Atonal was the one) and putting up with us all. Most of all, thank you to anyone who bought the records, came to the gigs or lit a cigarette with one of the Haswell lighters. Finally, no one would give a fuck if it wasn’t for Guy Featherstone, who, through his artwork, gives the impression that we’re a label that’s actually on top of things – he’s without a doubt the most important artist on Diagonal. We started with Philip Best and ended with Autechre so we liked 2015 a lot. Merry Xmas x”
Jaime Williams, co-founder: “We didn’t release a record by Oscar in 2015. No one noticed. Thanks everyone – what a year!”
Unknown – ‘For Promotional Use Only’
Evol – ‘Flapper That’
Russell Haswell – ‘Heavy Handed Sunset’ (Autechre remix)
Príncipe has been untouchable this year, continuing the mission it began in 2013 to show off Lisbon’s jaw-dropping batida sound at its best – on vinyl and in beautiful hand-painted packaging – over seven practically perfect records. This year’s gems include Nidia Minaj’s astounding Danger, DJ Firmeza’s hypnotic Alma Do Meu Pai, the raw hardware house of Niagara and a cacophonous blinder from scene figurehead DJ Nigga Fox. The label also had a hand in Warp’s CARGAA series, a trio of EPs that brought even more ears to Lisbon’s hotbed of talent.
Principe: “Valeu a pena?
Tudo vale a pena
Se a alma não é pequena.
Quem quer passar além do Bojador
Tem que passar além da dor.
Deus ao mar o perigo e o abismo deu,
Mas nele é que espelhou o céu.”
Fernando Pessoa (Mensagem, 1934)
More in 2016.
[Was it worthwhile? Everything is worthwhile
If the soul is not small.
He who wants to go beyond Bojador
Must go beyond pain.
God gave danger and the abyss to the sea,
But in it He mirrored heaven.]
Nidia Minaj – Danger
DJ Nigga Fox – Noite E Dia
Niagara – Ímpar
02. Hausu Mountain
We had high hopes for Hausu Mountain when we placed the small Chicago outfit on our labels to watch list in January. Still, we couldn’t have predicted their incredible 2015. The label’s ragtag roster of artists held court over our Bandcamp column this year, delivering experimental music that was as challenging as it was fun. Hausu’s albums overflowed with personality, from the video-game noise soundscapes of Roped Off, to Potions’ exotica-in-space, to TALsounds angelic drones. Finally, we can’t forget their bookending albums by Eartheater, who over two releases quietly rose to contend as the best new artist of the year. The bar is set even higher for 2016, but Hausu’s 2015 makes one thing clear: the freaks won this year.
Maxwell Allison, co-founder: “We love FACT. Doug and I (Max) are stoked that people are excited about the music we release, because we’re so excited about it ourselves. We’re so happy to work with and represent our friends’ music. The underground community is so vast, and we’re only highlighting a tiny portion of what we know and love. There’s still so much music outside of our zone to look forward to discovering. We think cassette tapes are a cool medium to explore – with a little bit of effort, a tape (or obviously an LP) can be a unique physical object worthy of existing, playing in your living room or on your headphones or in your car and digging into.
“Maybe it seems challenging to run a label, play in bands and solo projects, try to design and publicize releases, while balancing work and school etc, but to us it’s the only way we would have it and we love it. After all, it is only by the grace of Jerr that we’re even allowed to breathe the oxygen in this mundo we live in.”
Eartheater – RIP Chrysalis
William Selman – Picture Of The Climates
Eartheater – Metalepsis
1. Awful Records
When Awful Records came in second on this list last year, label mastermind Father promised that “the music is only going to get better from here.” Somehow – after a 2014 that saw the double-digit collective break through, drop tons of material and take the rap and R&B world by storm – Awful outdid themselves in 2015.
Father led the way with a taut statement of purpose, the all-killer, no-filler Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First?; Ethereal, Archibald Slim and Slug Christ continued to release music at a restless pace, joined by prolific producer Dexter Dukarus; and everyone involved found a moment to shine.
Unlike most rap collectives (and labels in general), Awful’s female reps weren’t just tokens: Abra and Alexandria offered two equally exciting visions of back-to-the-future R&B, Lord Narf dropped the underrated Sick, and Tommy Genesis debuted a genre-hopping album. Awful’s commitment to their all-for-one ethos is one of the reasons they keep winning, and when they call themselves a “family,” we believe them.
Father: “You remember that feeling when you first lost your virginity? Well, personally I came too fast and spent the period of time after becoming an alcoholic and getting my stroke game on point. That was my 2015, I’m sorry for what I have unleashed on the world.”
Ethereal: “Today we played, tomorrow we ball.”
Stalin Majesty: “This is the beginning of the end.”
GAHM: “Everybody wanna start shit but when we say somethin’ it’s a problem, cuz we the weird niggas, we not with the hoe shit though.”
Micah Freeman: “I’m not a role model.”
RichPoSlim: “I do all my own stunts.”
Abra: “I did it for the art of it.”
Lord Narf: “I’m a rockstar, baby.”
LuiDiamonds: “Really I’m the plug.”
Archibald Slim: “Don’t let the drugs do you, I’m going to start next year limping, end it running.”
Dash, “Mama Awful”: “My life is so lit but so trash at the same time.”
Gerry Newton, manager: “Another 365 days to bask in the ambiance of our success.”
Eat Humans, photographer/videographer: “I consider 2015 the true beginning of my life. This was a year of firsts for me. Prior to this year, I’ve never actually felt like a true artist, I never really traveled, and most importantly I’ve never felt a sense of belonging. Everything has changed now; I have momentum now, and I don’t plan on being stopped.”
Abra – Rose
Father – Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First
The Brothers Slim – Dichotomy