There are people who’ll tell you that the record label is an antiquated idea, that pop and alternative culture’s near-wholesale migration into the digital realm has rendered it irrelevant, that any right-thinking artist should simply sell their music direct to consumers. These people are missing the point.
The role of a good record label isn’t just to deliver music to the public, though many bad ones do indeed believe that to be the extent of their duty (and many worse ones can’t even manage that). No, a good record label’s role is more important: it helps coax the best possible work out of an artist, and then endeavours to amplify that work’s appeal, provide a context for it, confer gravitas upon it, and promote it in whatever way it feels wise, respectful and effective. Whether you’re talking about an LP box set or a download-only single, things like cover art, titles and mastering matter today as much as they ever have – perhaps even more so, now that there’s so much music, so much media, vying for your attention. Aura is everything.
2012 in particular has seen several strongly curated labels rise to well-deserved prominence, and which, through the consistent quality of their output, have really earned the trust of record-buyers along the way. We’re talking about the kind of imprints that can put out a techno record, then a noise record, then a pop record, and know that their fans will understand, and be willing to follow, the narrative; labels that have enough respect for their audience to want to challenge them, rather than simply give them what they expect. Several such labels rank highly in FACT’s 10 Best Labels of 2012 list, but they’re not the whole story; also among those featured are a major-label subsidiary striving to change the mainstream’s perception of what pop can be, and a digital-focussed label that values samizdat agility over craft-for-craft’s-sake.
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The folks behind LuckyMe have long known how to treat their fans well: what with their nifty website, essential mix series and inspired giveaways, the Glasgow click came correct from day one. 2012 has seen LuckyMe continue to establish itself as the UK’s pluckiest purveyor of bright, dumb club music. TNGHT, co-released with Warp, was the party record of the year, whilst S-Type’s carnivalesque Billboard, Baauer’s loony Dum Dum and a rattling EP from Machinedrum all helped set the tone. But it’s worth remembering that LuckyMe had their gentler moments too: Cid Rim’s debut LP was a slow-burn charmer, and that beautiful Dominic Flannigan/Claude Speed mix for Goodhood was succour for the soul.
Dominic Flannigan: “What a year. Five of our bestselling releases to date. Countless gigs. No sleep. 2012 started with the release of SXLND, a 6-track record by Travis Stewart (Machinedrum). It was a collection of his house-inspired productions and I guess, true to form, we gave a dance record deluxe artwork with a geisha paper doll inner card. Then later Azealia Banks reached out to license the record for her debut with Interscope. Then from SXSW in March we got our heads into this TNGHT project which has really defined our year.
“Hud Mo’s work for G.O.O.D. Music came to fruition on Cruel Summer with the opening and closing songs. Next was Cid Rim from Vienna – a completely original and developed 10 tracks spanning free jazz to hip-hop to beat – but it’s way more deliberate and beautiful than that sounds. He remixed Donnis and is now getting his own major label weight up. We launched Baauer’s debut commercial release with a laser-etched 12″ and a dope lil’ micro site which went viral and got his name trending even more than it already was. And finally we put out the excellent debut by S-Type, a force to be reckoned with: his EP has become a Glasgow anthem and we shared best new music on Pitchfork with Kendrick Lamar. In the final weeks of the year we begin a new LuckyMe residency at Paris Social Club, and have more films showing on Channel 4 for Cid Rim & S-Type. So, we’re feeling pretty good about everything. The whole team did good this year.”
S-Type – Billboard
TNGHT – TNGHT (joint release with Warp)
Machinedrum – SXLND
09: UNKNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN
We didn’t set fixed parameters when deciding our favourite record labels of 2012, but something we did do was prioritise labels that released vinyl – not for reasons of vinyl fetishism, but because we feel that the labels prepared to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to releasing their product deserve more reward. Unknown to the Unknown is an exception, mostly because it doesn’t operate – or, indeed, even pretend to operate – as a normal label would. Instead, it relishes in the disposable, more-is-more nature of digital age music, turning what’s often an unwanted quality into a celebration of our trashy times. Starting life as a YouTube channel, the Unknown to the Unknown discography effectively reads as a diary of what label boss DJ Haus is into that week, but unlike, say, Mad Decent’s Jeffree’s sub-label, it’s frequently illuminating, with contributions coming from artists both established (Marcus Mixx, DJ Stingray, DJ Q) and new (Walter Ego, Palace).
DJ Haus: “I think I put out something like 20 releases this year. Got to work with some of my heroes – Sinden, MK, DJ Q, Stingray, Jonny Trunk, Duncan Powell & DJ Narrows. Then Tales from the Fucking Darkside – jeez, that really came together a treat. People think if you don’t do vinyl you’re not a proper label, but I don’t see UTTU as a normal label anyway. I think the main aim is to get good shit noticed any way you can, have a great time doing it and make some great friends along the way!”
DJ Q – ‘All Junglist’
Marcus Mixx – ‘Special Creme’
Mista Men – UTTU EP
As we found out when speaking to label bosses Ben and Daniel Parmar for this list, the Island-backed PMR launched with one key objective: to “change people’s perception of what pop music is and what it should sound like”. It’s arguable that two or three years ago they wouldn’t have been able to achieve this goal so effectively – with the foundations set by dubstep’s success, contemporary pop is more open to underground electronics than ever before, and was crying out for a label to become the de facto stable for artists straddling the boundary between both. But in terms of picking their artists, PMR has been flawless. The success of Jessie Ware’s Mercury-nominated Devotion remains the label’s finest moment to date, but the smaller scale signings of Julio Bashmore, Disclosure and T. Williams may, in time, prove just as fruitful: a close to perfect example of doing underground music on a major scale.
Ben Parmar: “I’ve always been interested in where the underground and mainstream meet. The plan with the label was clear from the start: to sign the best new talent that we could find – the leaders within their fields regardless of genre – and change people’s perception of what pop music is and what it should sound like. This year was about galvanising PMR as a label that can have success with album artists. Watching Jessie Ware come into her own has been amazing, and Disclosure’s single ‘Latch’ exceeding all of our expectations bodes really well for next year. Up next in 2013 will be Javeon McCarthy, T. Williams and Two Inch Punch – all of whom we’re massively excited about.”
Disclosure – ‘Latch’
Jessie Ware – Devotion
T. Williams – ‘Think of You’
07: SOUTHERN LORD
Nearly 15 years into its existence and Southern Lord’s vitality shows no signs of waning. 2012 was a banner year, encompassing releases from Pelican (the Ataraxia/Taraxis EP), Earth (the divine Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II), unreconstructed death metal bruisers Black Breath (Sentenced To Life), superlative sluggers Eagle Twin (The Feather Tipped The Serpent’s Scale), Scandi punks Martyrdod, Nuclear Death Threat and Wolfbrigade (Paranoia, Chaos Reigns and Damned respectively), and ambient post-rockers Fontanelle. The ‘Lord has long been a reliable source of quality reissues, but this year it excelled itself, releasing the definitive edition of Sleep’s stoner masterpiece Dopesmoker, High On Fire’s strung-out The Art Of Self Defense and not one but two compilations of early recordings by self-destructive hardcore heroes Poison Idea. As a tireless champion of metal and punk’s spittle-soaked and corpsepaint-caked vanguard, and dedicated guardian of its history, Southern Lord has few if any equals.
Black Breath – Sentenced To Life
Earth – Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II
Sleep – Dopesmoker
06: GET ON DOWN
2012 found the number of reissue labels at an all-time high, but no one seems to do it quite like Get On Down. A self-confessed collective of “music nerds, audiophiles, archivists, aging hip-hop heads, and creative types”, the team behind the imprint are clearly obsessed with making their reissues ageless and definitive – and as their forthcoming edition of Nas’s Illmatic proves, no task is too big.
Matt Welch: “There are two criteria that every project has to meet. One, would we buy it? Two, are we staying true to what we perceive to be the artist’s original vision? Obviously this becomes easier to figure out when we are dealing directly with the artist, but in cases like ODB we just have to believe in our understanding of the release as fans and not overstate our involvement. We believe in keeping it simple.”
Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx… The Purple Tape
The Upsetters – Blackboard Jungle Dub (3×10″ box-set)
GZA / Genius – Liquid Swords (box-set edition)
05: L.I.E.S. (LONG ISLAND ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS)
Loveable New York grouch Ron Morelli became a reluctant star this year, as his idiosyncratic and uncompromising L.I.E.S. imprint, long a crate-fiend’s favourite, broke out into the wider world. Stand-out releases included Bookworms’ ‘Love Triangles’ (chiefly for mighty B-side ‘African Rhythms’), wigged-out LPs from Professor Genius and Jahilyya Fields (Hassan and Unicursal Hexagram respectively) and the noise-techno shred-up of the mysterious ‘Straight Jacket’ black label. L.I.E.S. is one of a handful of labels which are quietly redefining house/techno music, forcing it into dialogue with other traditions and forms, making it unpredictable and characterful again. Most importantly, and impressively, Morelli is sticking to his principles, releasing his records on vinyl only. Accusations of hispterism are monstrously unfounded: L.I.E.S. puts out quality music the old-fashioned way, the hard way, for sick minds who blow half their monthly wage on wax, and avowedly not for the internet ghouls who spend their time bitching about being unable to find a free download of this or that. Long may they reign.
Ron Morelli: “With regards to summing up 2012, it seemed to me like the label was really able to widen its wingspan and put out records containing music from different strains of the electronic spectrum in a cohesive and consistent manner. Hopefully when looking at the body of work it reads as many singular pieces that somehow fit together and not simply as a cut and paste ransom note left in somebody’s mailbox. Personal high points were the Jahiliyya Fields LP, the American Noise project, and the Hassan 2xLP and Steve Moore 12″ both coming out after extremely long delays. On the flipside, the low points were dealing with all the horrific production issues related to these two projects. More importantly it appears that in 2012 a bridge has been gapped, with labels such as PAN, The Trilogy Tapes / Hinge Finger, L.I.E.S., Hospital Productions and Spectrum Spools/Mego all cross-pollinating and forging their own ways, making the faceless and often stagnant house and techno world a bit more interesting for those willing to listen. This year’s Unsound Festival in Krakow was a perfect example of all of these worlds converging and feeding off each other.”
Jahilyya Fields – Unicursal Hexagram
Various Artists – American Noise
U-202 – ‘Straightjacket’
Like a fine wine, Holland’s Clone just gets better with age. For us, the label’s Jack for Daze series has never appeared more essential, with cuts from Geeeman (‘Bangt’), Alden Tyrell (‘Touch the Sky’) and label boss Serge (‘House Countdown’, also with Tyrell) proving some of 2012’s finest dancefloor singles, but let’s not neglect the continuing excavation of techno’s most eulogised back catalogue in the Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller series, Legowelt’s sublime The Paranormal Soul, and A Made Up Sound and Conforce’s storming contributions to the Clone Basement Series. The definition of leading by example
Serge: “Personal highlights of the year? the fact that I did my first bike race this year and picked up skatebarding again! But I don’t think thats what you mean [laughs]. Music-wise there are several releases that I’m very happy with (the Legowelt album, Drexciya reissues and the Versalife releases to name just three). And I’m happy that I’ve started to spend some time in the studio again with Alden Tyrell and Gerd.
“You ask if we ‘stepped things up’ for Jack For Daze this year, but the answer, to be honest, is no – not really. It’s probably due to the fact that the releases are catching a bit of the vibe that the artists and a lot of people are into at the moment as counter-reaction on the clean-ish, effective DJ tools that are so popular in the clubs. So it’s getting noticed for sure, but in my eyes that doesn’t make it more successful. The Clone Basement and Clone Royal Oak series actually sell at least the same numbers or more, but didn’t have as many releases as Clone Jack For Daze this year. Success is a strange thing anyway and doesn’t say much about quality…”
Drexciya – Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller II / III
Alden Tyrell feat. Mike Dunn – ‘Touch the Sky’
Geeeman – ‘Bangt’
It began last year with the vinyl edition of Clams Casino’s first mixtape and Pete Swanson’s Man With Potential, but 2012 was the year that Type really spread its wings and proved itself to stand for far more than austere drone music. First-time vinyl editions of recent cult favourites have become something Type does with some regularity, and in the last 12 months they’ve did it better than anyone else, giving new life to Vatican Shadow’s desert-storming debut Kneel Before Religious Icons, Main Attrakionz’s bugged out rap odyssey 808s & Dark Grapes II and Pye Corner Audio’s hauntological synth-wave killer The Black Mill Tapes 1&2 (the label also reached further into the past to produce a definitive reissue of Porter Ricks’ Chain Reaction classic Biokinetics). But Type wouldn’t be enjoying such high ranking in this list had its new and original output not been so impressive too: from Pete Swanson’s continued investigations into desiccated techno on Pro Style, to Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s magisterial, out-of-nowhere future-dub masterpiece Mbondo and the sepulchral pop of Zelienople’s The World Is A House On Fire, John Twells’ A&Ring was pretty much faultless.
John Twells: “2012 has been a fun and weird year for me, kicking off with the long-awaited reissue of Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, Bay Area rappers Main Attrakionz’ 808s and Dark Grapes II and Vatican Shadow’s debut, and it’s been great to put these slabs out alongside legacy artists like Zelienople, Brad Rose and Pete Swanson. Plenty of these records have been a long time coming, and it’s been rewarding to work with friends I’ve known and respected for ages like Rob Lowe and Dominick Fernow. Next year we’ll be getting even deeper and weirder though, which can only be a good thing in our tenth (!) year – I’m massively excited about upcoming records from Napalm Death’s Nic Bullen, Geoff Mullen’s followup to Bongo Closet and Pye Corner Audio’s next installment of the Black Mill Tapes series.”
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Mbondo
Pye Corner Audio – The Black Mill Tapes 1&2
Pete Swanson – Pro Style
Oddly enough, as Hyperdub have grown in stature, they’ve somehow become easier to miss. After eight years of high-profile activity, Kode9’s imprint sometimes feels like a reliable saloon car or an ancient family mog – a dependable part of the day-to-day, taken for granted until the moment (heaven forbid) it disappears. Without much fanfare or fuss, though, the label has quietly had one of its most transformative years to date.
The last twelve months have seen Hypedub decisively shifting its centre of gravity away from singles towards full-lengths and long-form releases. Of course, there were nods towards Hyperdub past: a pair of long-awaited albums from the label’s urban heartlands (Terror Danjah and DVA), some nifty singles from funky’s frontline (Funkystepz’s Trouble EP, Ossie’s ‘Ignore’) and, lest we forget, another immaculate EP from resident boy-done-good Burial.
Arguably, though, breadth won the day in 2012. Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland turned out battered psych-pop on Black Is Beautiful; Cooly G surprised us with the most idiosyncratic British R&B record in years (Playin’ Me); a bolt-from-the-blue EP from King Britt under the Fhloston Paradigm moniker floored us in all sorts of ways; and Laurel Halo’s confounding Quarantine proved to be one of the year’s most striking curveballs. Judged on this magnificent run, the label’s future hasn’t looked brighter.
Kode9: “This was a year for us that was dominated by albums. I’m a bit in awe when I look back at the scope of the albums we’ve released this year, I love them all for totally different reasons. But we had to slot in a few bangers in there like Terror’s tune with Riko, and Scratcha’s recent EP, or some curveballs like the Burial or Fhloston Paradigm 12″s. But the thing I remember most about 2012, and this is odd for us, because we’ve never really been event-oriented, was the Hyperdub nights we threw at Bussey with Deviation, the post-Bloc last minute event, the two nights at Fabric, the extravaganza at Koko in June, the Hyperdub stage at Sonar and the other showcases in Tokyo and scattered around Europe with our roving freakshow.”
Marcus Scott (label manager): “We’ve twisted and turned in all kinds of direction, resisting stereotyping and formula all the way and creating unique and essential music too. We’re always trying to make incremental steps in developing in every way and 2012 seems like the perfect testbed for moving forward with more confidence – we even got an office at last. It goes without saying that we’re very grateful to people who have stuck with us and bought the releases this year.”
Cooly G – Playin’ Me
King Britt Presents Fhloston Paradigm – Chasing Rainbows
Burial – Kindred
It’s easy to pitch 2012 as the year PAN defected to the dancefloor – but that’s not quite the whole story. Over a rich, regular string of releases, Bill Kouligas’ label plotted a space where clubland could converse with the electronic avant-garde. Theirs was a world where Actress fans could get hip to Kevin Drumm, or stalwart noise heads got a second chance to fall for jungle. PAN’s genius was to open up a genuinely two-way channel of communication – and the results were, for the most part, remarkable.
The pick of the bunch was Lee Gamble’s eldritch Diversions 1994-6, rave music as spun by sylphs and nixies. SND’s ’15/16′ skipped like glitch but hit like grime; NHK’Koyxeи’s Dance Classics was West Coast beat music parped through a fax machine. Two Birds Of Delay also turned out wonderful records: Heatsick’s Casio fantasia Déviation was a celebration – or, perhaps, satire – of the sort of tropical house turned out by John Talabot et al, whilst Helm’s ever-surprising Impossible Symmetry was a heady sort-of-noise record, preoccupied by rhythm and magick. PAN was an imprint you couldn’t help but rally behind – a judiciously curated, beautifully presented cabinet of curiosities.
Bill Kouligas: “The main focus this year has been on new music; many of PAN’s past releases were based on more obscure unearthing or reissuing. There were 12 releases in total, including new works by Heatsick, Helm, Eli Keszler, SND, the debut release by Jar Moff, the first fully realised electronic records by Lee Gamble and Kouhei Matsunaga’s beat-oriented material as NHK. Also issued were albums by long-running experimental artists such as Ben Vida, Aaron Dilloway, Kevin Drumm, Axel Dörner, Jason Lescalleet, Lucio Capece and Mika Vainio. The highlights for me were the two-day PAN festival at Cafe Oto in London, a label night at Berlin’s Berghain, a full week in Poland at Unsound festival, and above all getting to work with mostly close friends of mine.”
Lee Gamble – Diversions 1994-6
Helm – Impossible Symmetry
NHK’Koyxeи – Dance Classics