Judging the best record labels in any given year is not an easy task. The necessary combination of established labels reaching their peak and fresh imprints flourishing in their infancy is not an easy one to reach; inevitable comprises in the age old quantity vs quality debate are liable to be discussed ad nauseum. This year’s list came together slowly but surely, and we believe it provides a neat snapshot of all that is good about electronic music right now.
The aforementioned upstarts are visible in force (Hivern, Long Island Electrical Systems) as are their more established counterparts (Clone, Planet Mu, Honest Jon’s). Their combined reach is truly global, with our selected labels based in cities as diverse as Barcelona, New York, London, Glasgow, L.A. and Bristol – their respective rosters have an even broader reach and they collectively touch on too many genres to mention.
Anyone with a finger on or someone near the pulse of electronic music right now won’t need us to tell you the importance of record labels these days. They serve as what Andrew Weatherall describes as a “cultural filter”; the best labels wade through oceans of sameness to illuminate the interesting corners of music, earning our trust and admiration in the process. There are, of course, many, many more labels worthy of end-of-year coverage, but here is the Juno Plus selection of the labels that impressed us most in 2011.
Given the paucity of releases from Hivern this year, you might wonder why they appear on this list. However the sense of expectation and giddy excitement whenever a new Hivern release arrived at our office this year always ensured the label would be high in our thoughts come the end of the year.
There’s a discernible quality to every aspect of a Hivern release that just has to be applauded, for example tapping artists as diverse but interesting as Gavin Russom and Blue Daisy to remix Pional’s We Have Been Waiting For You, a release that flew under the radar but comes with the standard Hivern attention to detail. Enough words have been spilled from these fingers about the Teengirl Fantasy 12” and Hiverned 10” that little more needs to be added, though it’s worth noting that our own expectation for release from the label is matched by the general public.
Along with the three official releases, what has impressed us further about Hivern is how the label’s artists have developed in 2011, appearing with ever more regularity on other imprints with original productions and remixes. Hivern is less a standalone label and more an extended family of musicians encouraged to demonstrate their talents where invited, with John Talabot’s enduring relationship with Permanent Vacation being complemented by Pional’s own endeavours with the Munich label or Aster releasing on Mathematics. Such an impression is only set to grow with artists like Jacob Korn and BNJMN rumoured to be involved with Hivern in the next few months.
Launching last year after amalgamating various strands of Glaswegian nightlife, the Numbers imprint has been in near unstoppable form in 2011. Few other labels out there at the moment can touch Numbers for their juggernaut approach to bludgeoning dancefloor material, and gratifyingly they seem to pay little heed to what anyone else thinks. One of the labels who have benefited most from the ripped to YouTube culture, the weekly Numbers show on Rinse FM has provided a naturally swelling breeding ground for expectation around their releases.
No matter what you think of Far Nearer, Jamie xx’s singularly delicate contribution to a label increasingly regarded for its clatter, it’s difficult to ignore just how much anticipation around its release there was. Equally, the hype preceding Mosca’s all conquering Done Me Wrong/Bax got to a level that the producer amusingly took to offering test presses to the highest bidder. Of course, Mosca’s debut on Numbers has proved to be one of this year’s most enduring releases, deftly reimagining the sounds of 90s Pirate Radio in the UK yet still sounding totally fresh. Alongside this Numbers spared some time to dip their toes in the reissue game, reintroducing the dancefloor to DJ Pierre’s 1987 exercise in acid house Mystery Girl (Set Me Free) under his Pierre’s Pfantasy Club alias.
You could forgive them for easing up the schedule as the end of the year approached, but rather Numbers unleashed perhaps our favourite twelve on the label just recently in the shape of Randomer’s Real Talk. Punchy enough for Blawan to consider getting laser removal treatment on that Kick Drum tattoo, both the title track and the accompanying two B Sides further showcased the North Londoner’s talent for drum programming.
It’s no great secret that contemporary music is driven, albeit unwillingly at times, by a near insatiable desire and hunger for the next fad. 2011 seems to have been dominated by polite, almost apologetic strands of what dubstep once was, that is befitting of soundtracking a bed wetting scene from a film, but this is to deviate from the point.
The one positive from this faddish emphasis is stumbling across a diamond of a label and watching them grow from there on. Cast your mind back to early 2010 and everyone momentarily getting excited about early 80s cold wave, before trading in Ruth reissues for White Ring and the whole Witch House thing. For Veronica Vasicka’s Minimal Wave, that moment in the spotlight was welcome for a label that had already spent some five years releasing highly prized, delightfully packaged albums and EPs of near forgotten synth based music from the late 70s and early 80s.
Emboldened by the attention, Minimal Wave have flourished in the past twelve months, serving up release after release of gorgeously presented compilations and artist albums from obscure synth acts peppered across the globe. The Hidden Tapes offered a further fascinating compendium of the various movements in synth based music through the early 80s, whilst the label was also able to indulge obscure talents such as Phillipe Laurent, whose Hot Bip veered far off the scale of what’s generally accepted as cold wave. Both these releases and the rest of Minimal Wave’s output has arrived on thick set vinyl, which is at times luridly coloured and housed in luxurious packaging. In the current climate, a big label paying such attention to detail should be applauded; when it’s an independent label focusing on a niche but constantly illuminating echelon of music it becomes even more impressive.
After Hessle Audio and Night Slugs stole 2010 by coming to define the current incarnation of the increasingly nebulous sound of bass and dubstep, 2011 was a relatively quiet year for both. Nobody really managed to fill this gap in the market in quite the same way (with the exception perhaps of Numbers), but in their absence Peverelist’s Punch Drunk imprint quietly slipped out some of the best dubstep and garage influenced 12″s of the year, with six records that were staggeringly varied in their approach, and offering the best example this year of why Bristol is undoubtedly one of the most forward thinking musical cities in the world.
The euphoric neon dubstep of Kahn’s “Illy”, the throwback rave influenced euphoria of Bass Clef’s “Rollercoasters Of The Heart”, the dark classicist dubstep of Zhou’s “I Remain” and the dirt filled rhythms of Andy Mac’s house-centric “Asteroid Belts” were particular favourites with the Juno Plus team, but perhaps the jewel in the crown was Ekoplekz’s Intrusive Incidentalz Vol. 1. Taking more of its cues from 70s library music and the early radiophonic experimentation of Delia Derbyshire than it does from Bristol’s bass scene, this collection of claustrophobic terrors (along with Zhou’s “Noboru”, an atmospheric drone production that would probably terrify Shackleton) proved that Punch Drunk’s ambitions go into cerebral territory far beyond the realms of simple club music.
Since their emergence in the midst of a new century, New York’s RVNG Intl has remained one of the most consistently interesting labels operating on the fringes of electronic music. The past twelve months has seen their bleary eyes focus somewhat and redouble efforts to scour the cosmic slop for those artists willing to engage fully in the infinite possibilities of improvised synthetics via the steadily bulging FRKWYS series. Founded last year in typically obtuse fashion (the first volume is still yet to surface) the FRKWYS series has grown impressively, gaining contributions that cast aside all notion of genre politics, and crucially negating the fact that sometimes we have little idea who the people involved are.
Alongside this, the label has provided a platform for Blondes to mature into the exciting organic globule of throbbing hypnotic electronics the duo’s album for Merok had hinted at. The Resynthesist remix project that featured excellent reworkings of Harald Grosskopf from JD Twitch, OPN and more offered a bridge between the visceral and cerebral nature of RVNG’s release schedule. Room was even made to further indulge the scattergun musical endeavours of long term crush Pink Skull (their limited run Clean Plate LP was a real highlight). Crucially, the label has made no sacrifices to the truly high aesthetic standards that have been a vanguard of the label since the RVNG PRSNTS and NRDS edit series during their early years. Furthermore, in an age where press releases are composed with the skill of a simian recently introduced to the concept of a type writer, the thick paragraphs of deliciously exotic prose that always accompanies a RVNG Intl release is just one other reason why the label deserves a place here.
While the music industry PR machine is undoubtedly more monolithic than it has ever been, Honest Jon’s continue to prove that releasing high quality music is often the best form of promotion, with their releases never failing to cause a stir with little or no accompanying fanfare. Such was the case when the totally unexpected Pinch & Shackleton long player arrived last month, and turned out to be one of the best albums of the year. Add to this Rainy Dub, the best original material from Actress this year, a pair of Shackleton 12″s (including the standout “Deadman” from his Fabric mix) and the Moritz Von Oswald Trio’s Horizontal Structures LP and you have the kind of releases that most labels would dream to put out.
But the project that tipped it for us was their curation of remixes of tracks from last year’s Shangaan Electro compilation. While Radiohead may have occupied the most column inches with their seemingly endless series of King of Limbs remixes (which took the relatively safe option of recruiting the year’s most buzzworthy producers to rework their material, to, it must be said, mixed results), Honest Jon’s stole their thunder with remixers and remixes of staggering quality, with Ricardo Villalobos, Mark Ernestus, Oni Ayhun, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Theo Parrish all delivering some of the best remixes of the year. That the series is still to give us contributions from Actress, Hype Williams, Rashad & Spinn, and Demdike Stare only goes to prove why the Honest Jon’s logo is now an indelible seal of quality.
Only time will judge whether 2011 will be regarded as a freakishly successful one-off or the birth of something long lasting for Amanda and Britt Brown’s retro-futurist empire, but there can be little argument that 100% Silk injected a healthy dose of vivacity and fun into dance music in 2011.
A Simon Reynolds penned cover story in The Wire in April catapulted the boutique L.A. based husband-wife operation into instant underground stardom; at that stage the 100% Silk stable was chiefly comprised of members of its parent label, the noise/experimental-focused Not Not Fun, but since then Amanda’s keen curatorial eye has cast a much wider net. The label’s prolific run of releases (there were no less than 13 12”s and one cassette mixtape from the label alone in 2011, and that’s not counting Not Not Fun’s exploits) provided some memorable moments, including the experimental house and techno of Ital, the title track and lolloping drum workout “Queens” from the Ital’s Theme EP lingering long in the memory. Of equal interest was the fuzzy lo-fi DIY electronica of Estonian-in-London Maria Minerva, who served up the Noble Savage EP (the excellent Cabaret Cixous and cassette-only Tallinn At Dawn albums also came out this year on Not Not Fun), while further releases came from Innergaze (the collaborative project between Aurora Halal and Jason Letkiewicz), New Orleans based Sir Stephen, and Pharaohs among others.
Like many other electronic music labels in operation, 100% Silk was unashamedly backwards-looking in both style and sound; the art direction with identikit sleeve designs (ala Trax, Strictly Rhythm et al) accompanied each release, although Brown changed up the artwork every couple of months. The music – especially the contributions from Ital and Minerva – was fresh and inventive enough to exceed the realms of mere pastiche. In 2011 100% Silk was one of those labels perfectly suited to end of year lists; its infant life so far fits into a single calendar year, and its meteoric rise has already given rise to a new fad term (“hipster house”) but we urge you to ignore the hype and take this label on its merits – in our eyes it richly deserves all the plaudits that will undoubtedly come its way.
Ron Morelli’s Long Island Electrical Systems (aka L.I.E.S) has developed its own, uniquely US-focused take on the gritty, raw strands of house and techno known generally as The Hague sound which emanated from Holland in the 80s and 90s. (Somewhat appropriately, Danny Wolfers aka Legowelt, a true torchbearer of The Hague sound, has been the only non-American to release on the label so far.) Morelli, who works at the fabled A1 Records in Manhattan, drew on his friendship with Jason Letkiewicz for the label’s first releases – the prolific producer has already released on L.I.E.S under three different aliases (Steve Summers, Malveoux and Two Dogs In A House, the latter in partnership with Morelli).
Other full releases this year came from Steve Moore (dystopian techno) and Willie Burns (raw jacking house), alongside super limited 12”s from Marcos Cabral, Terekke and Future Times alumni Maximillion Dunbar, all of which firmly established L.I.E.S as a must-check label. The aforementioned Legowelt released the Sark Island Acid EP on L.I.E.S back in July, with the mind altering jack of “Backwoods Fantasies” ranking alongside the finest Wolfers material in an exhaustive back catalogue. The Steve Summers In The Mode For Love EP was another certified highlight, with four rough round the edges jams charaterised by raw sinewy basslines, swinging drums and spasmodic synth modulations. Excitingly, the imprint is already expanding its palette, with a forthcoming album from Professor Genius (working as Hassan) exploring a beatless, richly atmospheric side to electronic music far removed from the confines of the dancefloor.
Planet Mu’s championing of Chicago’s juke scene last year could easily have turned out to be little more than a curiosity; but it’s clear now that its sound is beginning to influence producers across Europe and the US, and it would be churlish to deny label head Mike Paradinas’ part in that. Of course Planet Mu are being celebrated here for what they did this year, which was to build on their curation of this previously little known genre by releasing strong full artist albums from juke producers DJ Diamond and Chrissy Murderbot, as well as a second entry in their Bangs & Works series. But it’s the standout albums from Kuedo and Machinedrum that defined their year, albums that wove the DNA of juke into their rich musical fabrics, taking Paradinas’ curation of this hyper-localised sound beyond Chicago.
This alone would be enough to guarantee most labels a place within our list, but the rest of their output has been pushing musical boundaries all year, with FaltyDL’s garage and broken beat influenced You Stand Uncertain and the synth funk of Boxcutter’s underrated The Dissolve offering further delights. But the release of Anti-G’s Presents ‘Kentje’sz Beats’, an album by an artist working within the “Bubbling” scene (an obscure branch of Dutch dancehall) perhaps sums up what Planet Mu do best: fearlessly releasing the kind of records that fly in the face of genre trends with the kind of conviction that few would have the courage to do.
To assess Clone’s legacy in this year or any other, it’s first necessary to break down the releases on each branch of the Dutch imprint’s sprawling list of sub-labels. Our current favourite, the Basement Series, released 12”s from Mike Dehnert, Dexter, Untold and Blawan this year – the latter two felt particularly vital as they cross-fertilised the world of UK bass with the less risible side of Dutch house sound (Bok Bok’s collaboration with Tom Trago being the other notable example this year).
Meanwhile the deep house-focused Royal Oak series had six releases to its name, with the Whitney Houston sampling Genius Of Time 12” arguably the pick of that particular bunch. The electro-tinged Crown Ltd series saw two excellent releases from the mercurial Erik Travis and one memorable drop from Dexter; the Jack For Daze sub-label added two more releases to its discography (from Murphy Jax and the mysterious T Trax), the Loft Supreme series remained dormant, and on the Clone Classic Cuts wing there was the small matter of the first instalment in the Drexciya reissue series. Perhaps the greatest coup of all electronic music reissues to surface in recent years, Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller Part 1 boasts remastered tracks from the fabled Detroit outfit’s early years, and is one of those rare compilations that is essential for long standing obsessives and intrigued newcomers alike. Finally, there were two releases on the West Coast series (both from Versalife) and the 1999 collaboration between DJ Deep and Jovonn was reissued on the Clone Club Series imprint, all of which equates to nothing less than a monumental year.
On the surface, the similarities between Clone and Amsterdam based Rush Hour are obvious: two Dutch empires based on a single, humble record store, expanded to include an army of labels and sub-labels and healthy reissue and distribution wings. Both empires are now undoubtedly leading the way when it comes to running a lean operation in a post-glory days era for electronic music. It may have all come together for Clone in 2011, and their status as our number one label is richly deserved, but don’t be tricked into thinking this is a one-off: the label has been at the top of its game for years now and shows no signs of letting up.