Thursday, 15 December 2011

2011 In Review - Part 3: Top Labels of 2011

There is an interesting juxtaposition that exists in music today. It seems that the further you have to dig to uncover music, the more valuable the label from which it comes is. For example, most of what you hear on major radio comes from four big labels. That's it, four labels, or the divisions of those labels. Then as you make your way through independent rock and alternative music, there is a little bit more diversity. Labels like Merge, Anti-Pop, Matador, XL and 4AD are relatively well known and have housed many high-profile, radio-friendly acts. There are several labels, besides the ones I mentioned, that are of similar ilk, but they don't really specialize on a particular sound or style.

Then climb a little further down the ladder of obscurity into not-so-accessible genres of music such as punk, metal and hip-hop, and the record label becomes all the more important. In these genres and sub genres, many more labels exist and specialize in particular sounds and styles. For example, Profound Lore is a label that fosters atmospheric and artistic-metal, while a label like Hydra Head specializes in more monolithic, post-rock and post-metal sounds. 

In the world of Electronic music however, there are hundreds of labels that are very distinguishable from one another. Prominent labels exist all over the world, and are often run by major producers and DJs. Many of these labels will never get a sniff of radio play, nor will they get attention from major festivals for sponsorship. They are however, very instrumental in shaping the landscape of electronic music. The thing with having so many labels is, that many of them are extremely small and even self-funded, and thus most of them will inevitably fail. Many will have good runs before the sound in which they are championing dies, or they simply have to change to keep up.

The following is a list of labels, which I feel have had particularly good years. A few of them have come out of nowhere and risen to immediate and dramatic success, and some have been around for a while but are still relevant and innovative by todays standards. This is once again, only my opinion. Obviously I have some labels, which are considered to be pillars of the electronic community, a little lower than they probably should be, or maybe not even on the list. This only serves as a guide to the labels I felt this year. Here are my top 20 labels of 2011.

20. Hot Creations
Co-run by Jamie Jones and Lee Foss, Hot Creations represent a new sound of house music that infuses elements of boogie and disco in such a way as to not sound generic. Hot Creations tracks are stripped down and in no hurry as far as tempo is concerned. Certainly the most groovy label of the year. They have released tracks from Waifs & Strays, Manik and Hot Natured

19. Gimme 5 
A brand new label that just launched in 2011. Little informations is available other than that it is based in Russia. So far, all releases feature cover art that would be more suitable on heavy metal records. The sound that they purvey is also wrought in dreariness and wretchedly heavy. It is certainly no coincidence coming from Russia.

18. Anabatic
Operated in the U.S. by a great DJ/ Producer who goes by Worthy. You will see his name on my Top 100 Tracks list later on. Comparisons were made to fellow California label dirtybird, and while that is certainly complimentary, Anabatic are definitely their own label. Featuring everything from tribal rhythms to tricked out 808 jams, Anabatic was one of the most fun labels of the year.

17. Sound Pellegrino 
Several years ago, the term "trendy French label" might have evoked completely different thoughts than it does today. Gone are the days of "French Touch". Sound Pellegrino instead represent a growing movement of distinct ethnic and tribal rhythms, syncopated bass and percussion, and most notably sans electro. It is run by members of the French rap group TTC, and had released tracks from Bok Bok, Style of Eye, TWR72 and High Powered Boys.

16. Pets
Run by hot-shit DJ/ Producer duo Catz n’ Dogz, Pets is all house, all the time. Specializing in European deep house, they have released tracks from Maceo Plex, Coat of Arms, J. Phlip and most importantly, an absolute smasher from Bristol’s Eats Everything. More on that track in a later list.
15. Palms Out Sounds
POS is part of a growing trend that sees successful blogs turn into successful labels. I remember in 2007 eagerly anticipating every Remix Sunday on their site. I never would have guessed that the blog I read when I was 19 would actually grow into a label that I could love in my 20’s. Again, it’s a change of form that has kept this New York based label relevant. Electro has given way to a fresh North American take on many of the sounds that percolate in the U.K.

14. Exit
I just noticed that my entire year-end wrap up is almost void of any drum & bass. That is a little disappointing considering that I do love drum & bass. Next year I will have to give it more attention. But one label that was impossible to ignore this year was Exit. It is run by dBridge, and it houses the minimalist, stripped down, barely-there-d n’ b that was made famous by he and Instra:mental’s groundbreaking Fabriclive last year.

13. Discobelle
 When one of the most influential and widely respected independent blogs in the world, decides to make a label… what does one expect? The Swedish blog-turned-label not only has a penitent for quality, they have an uncanny ability for staying ahead of the curve. The latest offerings from them seem to hint at returns to classic sounds of house and electro.

12. dirtybird
Justin Martin and Claude Vonstroke aren’t radically reinventing their label’s sound in 2011. They are keeping things right where they were in 2006. The funny thing is, only now is the world starting to catch up to them.

11. Ostgut Ton
The German juggernaut is a perennial label-of-the-year candidate, every single year. Many, many solid releases, including some top-notch full-length albums have kept the techno stalwart right at the top for many critics and music fans alike.

10. 50 Weapons
Modeselektor started two labels when they parted ways with Ellen Allien and bpitch. The clearly superior, and infinitely more interesting of the two is 50 Weapons. It emphasizes all the sounds that you would expect from label run by Modeselektor: bass, more bass and weird.

9. FoF
Friends of Friends, or FoF, is an L.A. label that encapsulates the L.A. beat-scene sound better than anyone else. At first glance, FoF sounds like a brainfeeder knock off, but upon closer inspection, they are not only their own label, but they actually have brainfeeder trumped in many ways, in my opinion. Only a handful of releases this year, but all of them were top notch, including two very solid full-lengths.

8. R&S 
 Blawan, Lone, Space Dimension Controller, The Chain, James Blake, a brilliant compilation. Enough said. People were wondering if they could follow up last year’s brilliant effort, and while 2011 may not have as many releases, they were all ace.

7. Car Crash Set
Something about Seattle breeds quality. Maybe the damp conditions foster a rare type of fungus that enters the human brain, and causes sudden and violent outbursts of unbridled creativity. CCS deals with everything bass related, no matter what tempo, no matter what motif and definitely no matter what it sounds like. If it’s fresh, it’s game.

6. Tri Angle
Every Tri Angle release has become like a worldwide cinematic event, like a Chris Nolan film. There are posters, trailers, teasers and the album covers always serve to provoke thought. But it’s no coincidence that they have this much notoriety after only two years. Every single thing that comes out with the Tri Angle name on it, is a complete and total game changer.

5. Planet Mu
Planet Mu is one of those labels that has been around for a while, but has had to significantly alter its course of direction. Gone are the days of dubstep/ 140bpm, in are the days of footwork and juke. While the sudden shift has brought new artists and new sounds, the quality has certainly remained. Planet Mu is also responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed albums of year.

4. Pelican Fly
This was, without question, the most badass label of the year. The label is based out of Belgium and only has five releases to its name, all from 2011. How does that qualify them to be number 4 on this list? Everything they brought to the table was the most ridiculous, nastiest, freshest thing I have ever heard. 2012 is going to be huge for these guys, as they have picked up a lot of publicity so far.

3. Numbers
The Glascow club-turned-record-label didn’t release a lot of tracks this year. They did however release some of the biggest tracks this year.

2. Mobilee
Based in Berlin and run by Anja Schneider, Mobilee really came into it’s own this year. Mobilee released tracks from Maceo Plex, Maya Jane Coles and Sebo K, just to name a few. I can’t think of label (besides #1) that dominated my ipod as much as Mobilee did this year. I really had to check myself while making my Top 100 Tracks list to keep Mobilee from running away with it.

1. Hotflush
Based in Berlin and run by Scuba, Hotflush has simply become one of electronic music’s brightest stars. Every release features not one great track, but several, if not all. Hotflush, along with Mobilee, not only dominated my ipod this year, but also my up coming Top 100 Tracks list.

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