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Economics may be against them, but record labels – those of the independent variety, at any rate – are more vital than ever.

With so much music being made, and with so many channels through which it can be pumped out and imbibed, labels play a vital role not just in getting important music to the right ears, but also in conferring value on that music – by giving it a physical life as a record, by presenting that record in a visually appealing fashion, by placing that record alongside others of similar or sympathetic orientation.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a white label grime 10″ or a lavish 5xLP box set – in the era of the mp3, pressing any kind of record is a serious act of devotion, and of sheer of bloody-mindedness. All of the labels we’ve selected as our favourites of 2011 sell their music digitally – not do so would be rather blinkered – but far more crucial, and telling, is that every one of them invests primarily in physical products. Some have been at it for decades, some a mere matter of months; some are large, multi-staffed companies, others are solitary bedroom operations. What bonds them all is their love of the record as an artifact, a fetish item, the ultimate expression of a musical idea.


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P Money & Blacks – ‘Boo You’

In a year where many of the UK’s best dance labels (Night Slugs, Hessle Audio) slowed down to focus more on touring than releases – not a criticism, we should add – and few others stood out, Butterz continued to push that most unfashionable of agendas, grime, and in the process not only put out better music than any other grime label, but pretty much any other house or dubstep label too.

Essential releases:
SX – ‘Woo Riddim’ / DJ Q remix
P Money & Blacks – ‘Boo You’
Royal-T – ‘Orangeade’

09: 4AD

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INC. – ‘Millionairess’

Let’s face it, the folks at 4AD could probably spend the next decade plodding along and still get by on the strength of their past, but 2010 saw them seriously overhaul their roster, and 2011 saw the fruits of those labours materialise. Moving out of their comfort zone to sign up the infamously difficult Zomby for his best record yet, Dedication, was the real masterstroke, but they also deserve credit for taking a punt on Bristol dubstepper Joker, whose debut album The Vision didn’t live up to expectations. Gang Gang Dance continued to prove that they’re Brooklyn’s finest with the kaleidoscopic Eye Contact, while it’s hard to argue with Tune-Yards, Inc., Ariel Pink, Deerhunter / Atlas Sound, Bon Iver and St. Vincent as the best roster in contemporary indie.

Essential releases:
Zomby – Dedication
Gang Gang Dance – Glass Jar
Inc. – 3 EP


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MiNKS – ‘Cemetery Rain’

Original janglist massive. Mike ‘Blank Dogs’ Sniper continues to provide a home for numerous US bands indebted to UK indie sounds of yore – this year saw him release particularly impressive, if baldly derivative albums, by MiNKS, Soft Metals and The Soft Moon. But then that’s exactly what we like about Captured: the frank dialogue that it sets up between past and present, the honesty with which it acknowledges and celebrates its primary influences, happily reissuing the kind of forgotten 80s and early 90s material that its contemporary roster so liberally borrows from. This year Sniper raided the vaults to bring us, among other things, revivals of Jeff & Jane Hudson’s Chris & Cosey-esque Flesh, guileless second-wave shoegaze from Deardarkhead and Should, and a compilation of songs by the hitherto terminally unfashionable Servants.

Essential releases:
The Soft Moon: Total Decay
Jeff & Jane Hudson – Flesh


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Dexter – ‘Great Northern Diver’

Since re-launching a couple of years back, Clone has retaken its place at the top-table of international dance labels, with a more prolific, multi-pronged and vital release schedule than ever. This year Clone Basement Series impressed with tough, swung techno from Gerd, Untold and especially Dexter, Clone Crown Ltd issued a double-punch of Detroit ghetto-funk 12″s from Erik Travis, and Royal Oak continued to give off house heat, while the Clone West Coast Series kept it local with two superlative offerings from Versalife, and the Clone Store Only series kept it so local that its offerings didn’t make it out of Rotterdam. Last but not least, Clone Classic Cuts began its invaluable anthologising of Drexciya’s early work in the shape of Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller I.

Essential releases:
Drexciya – Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller I
Versalife – Night Time Activities Pt.1
Dexter – ‘Great Northern Diver’


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Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo & Lopatin – ‘Twilight Pacific’

RVNG INTL. put out music that nobody else would think of releasing, and they package it to the highest standards. The jewel in their crown is obviously the collaborative FRKWYS series, which to date has paired – amongst others – Eno collaborator Laraaji with Blues Control, Juan Atkins with Psychic Ills, and synth legend David Borden with a mini-orchestra featuring Oneohtrix Point Never, Samuel Godin, Laurel Halo and James Ferraro, but there’s also been a superb series of singles from New York duo Blondes, and the double-disc reissue/reinterpretation of Harald Grosskopf’s Synthesist.

Essential releases:
Harald Grosskopf – Synthesist / Resynthesist
Blondes – ‘Lover’ / ‘Hater’
Julianna Barwick & Ikue Mori – FRKWYS Vol. 6


Bruce Gilbert – ‘Eline Cout II’

Editions Mego continued its prolific, maybe profligate, release schedule throughout 2011. Much good came from its three recently minted sub-labels – Spectrum Spools (curated by Emeralds’ John Elliott) Ideologic Organ (curated by Stephen O’Malley) and Old News (dedicated to electronic works by Jim O’Rourke), and there were plenty of curveballs on the main imprint too – not least the acoustic avant-blues of Bill Orcutt. Nonetheless, what most impressed about Mego this year was its renewed commitment to the kind of hardcore computer music which made its name: Russell Haswell, Florian Hecker, Mark Fell and Yasunao Tone all weighed in with heavy-going but edifying digital experiments. Most important of all, though, were the lavish reissues of post-Wire work by Bruce Gilbert: 1986’s solo set The Shivering Man and a mammoth vinyl box set collecting the albums of Dome, the duo of Gilbert and Graham Lewis.

Essential releases:
Bruce Gilbert – The Shivering Man
Mark McGuire – A Young Person’s Guide To Mark McGuire
Russell Haswell – IN IT: Immersive Live Salvage


LV & Joshua Idehen – ‘Northern Line’

Dusk and Blackdown’s Keysound label has always had its moments of greatness – it’s easy to forget that even before this year, they’d released music from Skream, Starkey, Durrty Goodz, Zomby and Burial – but has also never seemed 100% consistent, lacking a core unit of artists; without a family. 2011 was the year where they finally fulfilled their potential, releasing excellent artist albums by Sully, Damu and most notably, LV and Joshua Idehen, continuing the saga of dubstep’s most intriguing crew in LHF and snapping up one of the UK’s most promising new artists in Logos.

Essential releases:
LV & Joshua Idehen – Routes
LHF – EP2: The Line Path
Dusk – ‘Fraction’

03: 100% SILK

Maria Minerva – ‘Little Lonely’

Though hard to defend from that pejorative tag “hipster house”, the impact and influence of 100% Silk, the no-fi dance label curated by Amanda ‘LA Vampires’ Brown, was huge this year. It launched the careers of some seriously exciting talents – namely Maria Minerva and Ital – and intrigued with a range of oneaway killers, from the psychotropic dub-disco of The Deeep to the low-slung acid of Cuticle and the bloodthirsty EBM of Xander Harris. Most importantly, 100% Silk harked back to a time in club music when energy and attitude were more important than polished production.

Essential releases:
Ital – ‘Ital’s Theme’
Maria Minerva – ‘Noble Savage’
Octo Octa – ‘Let Me See You’


Vatican Shadow – ‘Washington Buries Al-Qaeda Leader At Sea’

These are harsh, unforgiving times, and there’s no label better equipped to soundtrack them than New York’s Hospital Productions. Hospital’s preferred outlet is still the short-run cassette edition and occasional vinyl salvo, but most of its key works have been made available digitally, meaning there’s no excuse not to get your hands dirty. Label head Dominick Fernow led the charge this year – as ever – with his minimal synth and Muslimgauze-inspired recordings as Vatican Shadow, some of the most vital and far-reaching work of his career; Alberich’s Psychology Of Love and NATO-Uniformen were similarly rhythm-conscious, while more traditionally abrasive Hospital sounds could be found on Force Publique Congo’s various offerings and the label’s 300th release, the epic 3xCS White Eye Of Winter Watching compilation. The lavish triple-vinyl reissue of Kevin Drumm’s dark ambient masterpiece Imperial Distortion was a sizable bonus.

Essential releases:
Vatican Shadow – Pakistan Military Academy
Alberich – Psychology of Love
VA – White Eye Of Winter Watching


Laurel Halo – ‘Aquifer’

It’s simple, really: Hippos in Tanks simply put out more good records than anyone else in 2011. Hype Williams and Autre Ne Veut cemented their status as two of the underground’s most exciting acts with One Nation and Body, while Laurel Halo’s Hour Logic took any remaining boundaries between alternative pop music, IDM, house and techno and completely dissolved them. d’Eon and Grimes’ Darkbloom and Sleep Over’s Forever were the weakest releases to emerge from the Hippos camp this year, which speaks volumes – both are intriguing records that promise much for the future. To cap off the year, they signed madcap hero James Ferraro, and coaxed out perhaps his most brilliant, demented yet immediate album to date in Far Side Virtual. Salute.

Essential releases:
Laurel Halo – Hour Logic
James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual
Autre Ne Veut – Body

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