Music’s barriers of entry have dissolved almost entirely, but record labels remain as important as ever.
As consuming and making music becomes easier, the need for curation becomes greater. It’s easy to feel like you’re drowning in what’s available as a music fan – great labels serve to aid that.
2014’s 10 best labels, for our money, makes for a stronger batch than 2013’s, with several clear stand-outs leading the pack. We’re also moving further and further into the digital realm: compared to one digi label in 2013’s 10, several of 2014’s picks release exclusively, or at least mostly, on mp3. Sales of wax might be soaring, but key innovation is happening online.
It might also be the most divisive (ahem) set of labels we’ve put together yet – here’s a list where black metal rubs shoulders with plastique pop; where instrumental grime sits assuredly alongside creaky ambience. It might be more fun to pretend that music’s terrible in 2014, but at least 10 organisations have spent all year proving you wrong.
More End of 2014 features:
The 20 best reissues of 2014
The 20 best cassettes of 2014
The 20 best mixtapes of 2014
The 20 best free mixes of 2014
The 20 best videos of 2014
The 20 best album covers of 2014
Has 2014 been the best year for dance albums in recent memory?
Power ambient – the sound of 2014
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It’s easy to forget that shadowy Northern duo Demdike Stare actually have a label. It’s called DDS, but don’t for a minute think that the acronym actually stands for Demdike Stare – it actually means Distort Decay Sustain, something you might have picked up if you read the small print on their recent releases. While it began simply enough as a private press imprint for the duo’s more challenging material, a timely re-issue of Wolf Eyes man Nate Young’s awesome Regression Vol. 3 (Other Days) last year hinted that there was more to the Demdike label than we at first assumed. This year they’ve gone from strength to strength with a couple of astounding cassette mixes and two towering “proper” records – Butterfly Effect from ex-Chain Reaction producer Shinichi Atobe and Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill from Micachu.
The reason both of these records are deserving of such praise is down to the sheer resolve of Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty – Shinichi Atobe’s only previous release was the long-forgotten ‘Ship-Scope’ 12”, so to track him down and coax an album out of him was no mean feat. Similarly, Mica Levi’s been busy scoring Under the Skin so organising an hour of breathtaking brand new material can’t have been easy. We’re glad they did, though.
Micachu – Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill
Shinichi Atobe – Butterfly Effect
Miles Whittaker, DDS: “DDS is an outlet for us to push our agenda a little harder, to evolve from the mixes we compile into actual releases. There is no set pattern or format, it could be forgotten or unknown areas of music; the only stipulation is that the releases reflect the identity of the label, and that they are all killer.”
09. ONE WAY STATIC
We agree, there are too many labels jumping on the horror soundtrack reissue bandwagon these days, especially after the massive success of Death Waltz. It’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff though, and One Way Static is doing things right – the releases always look phenomenal and the attention to detail is admirable. Similarly the label’s choices are right on the money, from the glorious gatefold edition of Don Peake’s excellent The Hills Have Eyes OST to the recent reissue of Philip Glass’s long underrated score for The Candyman. If the horror bubble does burst, we suspect that One Way Static will be just fine.
Don Peake – The Hills Have Eyes
Roberto Donati – Cannibal Ferox
Philip Glass – Candyman
Sebastiaan Putseys, One Way Static: “2014 was just plain insane. I can’t believe it’s coming to an end – it just flew by. We released so many records that were on our top want-list for ages and we participated in Record Store Day for the first time. The past year also saw the rise of a lot of new soundtrack labels, some of those became friends of ours and we occasionally distribute and push their releases, this meant we quickly grew from a label to a full blown niche mail-order service.
Highlights were most definitely our Phantom Of The Opera 1925 re-score by The Laze, a project where we stepped away from our more traditional re-issue game and that turned out to be a real success; also, working with legendary composer Philip Glass to release the soundtrack to Candyman on vinyl for the very first time was pretty mind-blowing. We had tons of fun doing some exclusive events around the world where we had the chance to meet our fanbase and friends. We can’t thank our fans and loyal customers enough, it’s them who keep One Way Static going and we’re really humbled by all the support.
We have so many killers planned for 2015, looking at the list still leaves me in disbelief sometimes. Both classic scores and rare gems – stay tuned. We’ll also be returning with the second part of Static Club (our exclusive subscription service that sold out in mere weeks early 2014). Looking forward to next year, I know it’s gonna be a blast!”
To tie Gobstopper in with a so-called revival does it a disservice: Mr. Mitch’s label has been releasing excellent instrumental grime records since 2010, and 2014 was its best year yet. Dark0 and Strict Face released their best records to date, two of grime’s most interesting mew faces were debuted in Loom and MattWizard, and Mitch’s own Room Where I Belong proved a powerful precursor to his debut album.
Dark0 – Fate EP
Mr. Mitch – The Room Where I Belong
Loom – Grade EP
Mr. Mitch, Gobstopper: “With Gobstopper this year I wanted to represent the producers who are pushing grime in different directions. Turns out I just like a good melody.”
07. THE DEATH OF RAVE
Spare a thought for the vanguards out there, those labels that care so little about selling records that they’ll happily press up an album from criminally underrated Canadian black metal/noise band Wold and call it a day. The Death of Rave has done exactly that, and run by Boomkat’s Conor Thomas, appears to give absolutely no shits whatsoever for retaining an audience of fickle trend-jumpers, instead focusing on releasing batshit-bonkers plates with the world’s weirdos in mind. Whether it’s son-of-Hellboy Delroy Edwards on an adolescent noise kick with Teenage Tapes or Gábor Lázár’s jaw-dropping EP16 we’re ready for wherever Thomas chooses to take us, and we’re not expecting it to be a pleasant ride.
Gábor Lázár – EP16
Wold – Postsocial
Delroy Edwards – Teenage Tapes
Conor Thomas, The Death of Rave: “The Death of Rave was buzzed in ’14 to release great, challenging records to appreciative ears. We had schemed to release more new vinyl from the brilliant N.M.O. and a sick 2LP collaboration by Mark Fell & Gábor Lázár, plus a vinyl reissue of The Automatics Group’s Summer Mix, but plans were thwarted by the pressing plants so you’ll have to wait a bit for them. 2015 might see the first label rave with our pals at Faktion and a few more DJ sets, otherwise we’ll be bunkered down trying to crank out all those mixes that were promised, ages ago.”
Bristol clubnight-turned-label Crazylegs celebrated their sixth year in style. Curating releases that drew from a rich slice of UK club sounds (lithe UKG, neon R’n’G, pneumatic grime), the label delivered summer anthems (TRC and Murlo’s ‘You & Me’, Tommy Rawson’s ‘In All My Days’) and grime stonkers (Gage’s ‘Telo’ and Ziro’s Trim-featuring ‘Lost’) alike. Plus, the label oversaw the return of Bloom, introduced Welsh duo ISLAND, and will close the year with the vogue-ready ‘Bad Bitch’, pairing Gage with ballroom icon Kevin JZ Prodigy. No label understood UK dance in 2014 better than Crazylegs.
Gage – ‘Telo/Shiftin’
TRC vs. Murlo – ‘You & Me’
Ziro – ‘Lost (ft. Trim)’
DJ Shandy, Crazylegs: “What worked? I guess we actually put some music out this year. Got over our vinyl hangups and released some stuff digitally, that helped keep things moving. Entered the world of video. Stopped spending so much time and money on parties. Started caring more about the music and less about what people think of it. Thank you so much Martin and the team at Rubadub for continuing to have faith!”
No dance label had a way with anthems quite like Her this year. The label had been building momentum in late 2013, but things tipped over with Miss Modular’s ‘Reflector Pack’, a glossy take on US club music that rarely failed to shift sets into a higher gear – whether played by techno artists like Perc or DJs closer to home. Not to be outdone, label boss Sudanim followed with his own trio of club favourites – ‘Floorlock’, ‘The Link’ and ‘Pleasure Flood’ – and new face Fraxxinus retooled Bmore classic ‘Knuckleheads’ for 2014 with the in-demand white label ‘All Ends’. Not be outdone, CYPHR quietly established himself as a real talent, closing the year with the airlock atmospherics of his Ekleipsis EP.
Miss Modular – ‘Reflector Pack’
Sudanim – The Link EP
Fraxinus – ‘All Ends’
Miss Modular, Her Records: “2014, for us, was about introductions. Everything we put out was by an artist that would have been mostly unknown the year prior, often even the release itself the moment the artist graduated from obscurity. We still have statements from new artists to come in 2015 but I feel like we established a strong roster this year, the foundations have been laid. Our last two releases of the year, CYPHR’s Ekleipsis EP and the Fraxinus 12″ are pretty good indicators of how we expect things to grow in 2015; the cerebral, dystopian soundscapes of the former versus the club functionality of the latter.
“Although technically Her Records was founded in 2012 it feels like our first year in this. Thanks to everyone who came out to the shows this year, everyone who bought a record, everyone that worked and partied with us – you all know who you are.”
04. PLANET MU
Let’s be honest, you’ve probably come across Planet Mu before. They’ve been damn good for years, but there’s ammunition in the claim that 2014 has been their best (yet strangely, most understated) year so far. There’s no shouting around here, no genre rediscovery and very little hype, rather Mike Paradinas and the gang have procured some of the year’s best records, and that’s all there is to it. With a run that includes Mr. Mitch’s Parallel Memories, Ital’s Endgame, Traxman’s Da Mind of Traxman Vol.2 and Ekoplekz’s Unfidelity (among plenty of other essential plates) it’s hard to fault them. Just listen and learn.
Mr. Mitch – Parallel Memories
Ekoplekz – Unfidelity
Ital – Endgame
Mike Paradinas, Planet Mu: “Most label owners can probably relate to this, but I’ve spent most of 2014 planning and sorting out releases for 2015. We’ve already compiled seven albums and five singles for next year, plus five Record Store Day releases, all of which are very exciting. So really I can say is that 2015, which is also our 20th anniversary, will be our best year yet.
“As you can imagine 2014’s releases were mostly planned in 2013, apart from Ital and Mr. Mitch, which were both really pleasant surprises and a pleasure to release. As ever, we’ve tried to keep the quality high and plan supportive strategies for each release and try and take everything a bit more seriously than the year before, plus as ever – we continue to release music that really excites us, and hopefully curious music fans too.”
03. 1080P COLLECTION
We can’t get enough of the ever-expanding vault of treasures that is Vancouver-based tape-and-Bandcamp outlet 1080p, and luckily label boss Richard MacFarlane seems to have an endless supply of off-kilter electronic curios at his fingertips. To have been introduced to 30+ gems as diverse as LNRDCROY’s watery nostalgia, Khotin’s twinkly house, Via App’s technoid screwballery and Angel 1’s… well, there’s no easy way to describe that masterpiece, but the point is clear: we’ve been nothing but spoiled by MacFarlane’s bedroom-born label in 2014.
Via App – Dangerous Game
Angel 1 – Allegra Bin 1
Khotin – Hello World
Richard MacFarlane, 1080p: “My ability to focus and attention span were shredded even more this year through returning to school full time for web development and I really enjoy how this has fed into learning how to run a small label. My main goal was to keep up a constant stream of releases that are stylistically diverse but still linked with an underlying aesthetic that is at once loose and not forcibly curatorial but also identifiable as a whole. I hope this has translated to other people rather than just existing in my own ego / ears, but either way I know it has been fun and inspired for everyone involved in each release.
“I definitely made lots of small mistakes juggling things this year, sending PR emails in class, designing pad prints on lunch breaks and packaging tapes at insane hours, but the connections I’ve made (mostly online, but also stretching over into real life a lot this year) have been real incredible. Balancing the online / real world elements is a big part of 1080p that will continue into 2015 in a way that I hope will investigate and genuinely contribute rather than just add to the general overload out there.”
With their contemporaries either stuck in major label purgatory (Young Thug) or dropped from their deals all together (Trinidad James), Atlanta’s Awful Records said “fuck it” and went the DIY route. The 14-deep crew is a collective in the truest sense, collaborating with each other in all phases of the process, leaving egos at the door and focused on pushing each other forward. The result: countless singles, EPs and full-length projects, either available for free on Soundcloud or cheaply on Bandcamp (or not so cheaply: label founder Father priced — and sold — ‘Old $$$’ for $100), bypassing the roadblocks that keep music on the shelf past its sell-by-date.
Most importantly, Awful made some of the most exciting and vital rap and r’n’b around: Father’s undeniable outsider anthems, Slug Christ’s based-goth experiments, Archibald Slim and Stalin Majesty’s bar-for-bar mastery, the spaced-out neo-G-funk of Lord Narf and Pyramid Quince, GAHM’s rhythm-and-creep, RichPoSlim’s big-mouthed brawlers and more. Awful won in 2014, and they’re just getting started.
Father – Young Hot Ebony
Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!
Ethereal – Cactus Jack
Father, Awful Records: “Finally, after months and years of fuckshit in the city, it honestly felt like breaking out of the womb. The city of Atlanta feels like the womb of a mother, and all these little sperm are trying to get to the egg, and it feels like “‘oh my God, I’ve been birthed out into the world and now I can actually explore.’ As a team, we were all birthed, like the lady that had all those babies.
“There was a feeling of relief. If you’re surprised by attention and buzz, it means you weren’t putting out a product that you believed in. I was always confident in the brand and everybody on the team’s personal work; getting it out to the masses was always the issue.
“Doing it digitally was the easiest way for a bunch of kids who are at the crib working on things and running around doing fuckshit. We wanted to get physical shit pressed and out there, but I dunno… getting it in larger markets takes more work. Honestly, you don’t need as much physical product — it’s not for mass consumption anymore — but I’ve had people be like, “can you put this on vinyl?” and that’s cool. Really, it feels like nostalgia to have something on CD.
“Everything we’ve done is on the Soundcloud; I’d love for people to go back to the beginning and work to the top — listen to the production and the cool flows. It’s been a process, and I don’t think people appreciate it. I run into a lot of people who mention ‘Look At Wrist’, but that was one thing that popped off — the whole team has laid all the groundwork. All the music from the crew is in the now, in that moment: how they were emotionally at that time, what was going on. It’s not like it was recorded a year ago. We never want to get caught in that situation, so that it no longer feels genuine.
“In 2015, expect more jams. We’re not slowing down; we’re finally getting into the groove. A lot of us are finally able to concentrate on music instead of just money or jobs or other shit. The music is only going to get better from here.”
01. PC MUSIC
It’s a rare year where our label pick is a total no-brainer, but this is MMXIV – and, frankly, only one imprint stood a chance. A.G. Cook’s web label started firing out releases on SoundCloud back in 2013, and even though some of the label’s most iconic tracks (‘Pink and Blue’, ‘Broken Flowers’) dropped over a year ago, it was 2014 that saw them plant their fluoro flag on terra firma.
Their output – giddy digital pop, spiced with art-school mischief and served with a snicker – has been diverse, encompassing garage revivalism (Danny L Harle), synthetic tweecore (Hannah Diamond), day-glo club knock (Cook) and 100% concentrate WTF (Girlfriend of the Year). But, more than any UK label in recent memory, PCMus’ roster has been curated in line with a dazzlingly singular aesthetic – tinny textures; digital trash; an attempt to elide the highbrow (web art) and the lowbrow (trance dross); tracks which sound ghastly on the first listen and genius on the third. Techno snides ground their teeth; the rest of us had an absolute ball.
PC Music – ‘DISown Radio Mix’
Hannah Diamond – ‘Attachment’
GFOTY – ‘Secret Mix’
A. G. Cook: “I’m just excited about next year. I work with so many extremely different personalities, but there’s a real energy that seems to be driving everyone at the moment. For me, PC Music isn’t about creating a definable musical style or sound, it’s about making music that feels alive and animated.”