Record labels, despite proclamations from those relentlessly gigging the unsigned circuit, are the core of the music industry. If there was no Sub Pop, arguably, there would be no Nirvana, Bad Boy put Biggie Smalls on the map, and if Rough Trade hadn’t relaunched themselves from bankruptcy in 2000, we might never have known a little band called The Strokes. Labels are important because they bring artists into the world. Not only do they give bands a load of cash to spunk on beneficial tools, like ketamine and guitar strings, they give artists a platform. They put music in the shops, Soundcloud links on the blogs, and help their artists get shows in places as far flung as David Letterman to the world’s first ever Breakfast festival. A well-curated label is like a spirit guide with a marketing team and an A&R department, and independents are especially great for this. They put out releases you can trust, sign new acts you believe in, and do it out of faith that they’re making the world a better, louder place, even if they might have to take out another mortgage after putting out that last 12”. Because Noisey is a music site, and because we spend most of our time writing about Drake and reviewing the Glastonbury shitdrops, we wanted to shine a light on some of the label’s that have chaperoned us through 2014. You guys have been fucking great.
Brixton label Aesop have been knocking around for a few years, but they seem to take things slower than a stay-at-home sloth. 2014 may not have been their busiest year, but it was definitely their best. Why? They birthed their first proper star in British-Iranian producer TÃLÃ.
We’ve been blowing TÃLÃ’s trumpet all year, not that she has any trumpets, because she specialises in spiritual, bass heavy bangers, textured with an exotic impasto. In other words, if you go clubbing on a Friday and watch Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey on BBC 2 the next morning during your ugly comedown, then her tunes will make you feel like you’ve won the lottery.
In true Aesop fashion, they have done a pretty sweet job of developing her sound and image slowly, treading a nice line between creating something that’s pretty unique without making you feel like you need three weeks to adjust to it. The label have since followed the Tala releases with a juddering and seismic EP from London electronic duo Sylas too, which features new young vocalist Jelani Blackman and Brian Eno: ambient music’s answer to Richard Attenborough.
Last time Big Dada brought home a Mercury, it was Speech Debelle in 2009, or as she’s also known in the industry: “the example we use when writing articles about how the Mercury Prize doesn’t guarantee success.” This year though, there was something about the way their boys Young Fathers silently cruised to fame like an undetected torpedo that exploded under the arses of everyone in the music industry, that suggests they’ll hang around a bit longer than Debelle.
The label don’t just specialise in bringing through moody young Scottish rappers though; they bring through wise old mouthy American ones too, releasing the Run The Jewels album that dominated Autumn’s hip-hop conversation so much that it’s already raised $40,000+ on Kickstarter for the creation of a cat tribute version.
And I don’t know what the fuck Big Dada put in Wiley’s water but he returned in November with a hard and straight grime album that was so self-aware it sounded like a Camus novel set to eskibeat. It left our US features editor asking: “Why isn’t Wiley the biggest rapper in the world?”
Anybody deeply involved in grime will tell you to fuck off for saying there was a revival this year (or “renaissance” as I’ve seen elsewhere, the highfalutin use of which suggests that the writer you’re reading learned what grime was via Wikipedia forty minutes before pressing publish). Real grime fans will tell you that it never went away, and they probably have a point, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the genre saw a massive upsurge in listeners this year.
What looks like a revival is actually just the rich harvest from tonnes of groundwork put in by labels like Butterz, Coyote Records, Oil Gang, Rinse, No Hats No Hoods, Boy Better Know and PMR to some extent. But it was Local Action who stuck out for us. Who knows how they find all these unsociable bedroom-based instrumental grime producers from around the country, but their releases from Yamaneko, Shriekin, Inkke and Finn, plus a long-time-coming debut album from grime guru Slackk, have made Local Action the label we look to when we’re after music that possesses the fragile tranquility of a picnic in a war zone.
For a while now, Chess Club Records have made a living by personifying that period in your life when you’d find bands before anyone else, and then become massively petulant when they even sniffed the notion of becoming slightly popular. They are good at it too. They were behind the debut UK releases from Chet Faker and MS MR, and they were the ones who pushed the early buttons that made Jungle one of the biggest hype things this year.
They aren’t just a stepping stone for labels like XL to sweep in and thief credit from, though. In 2014, they released Mø’s sassy debut pop album, and continued to stoke the flames around upcoming producer Oceaan, whose self-titled EP of frozen electronic soul tracks thaws on each sadface-but-enjoying-it listen.
Now, they have this mysterious and measured Danish duo on their books called Kill J, who make the kind of sub-aquatic R&B you’d expect to hear playing in the seediest strip clubs of Atlantis. So, yeah, all eyes on that.
DOG KNIGHTS PRODUCTIONS
In an age where "punk" is something that's sold to you on a hanger for 70 quid by Cara Delevingne, finding new aspects of it to get excited about can be a challenge. Still, somehow Dog Knights Productions has managed to give the genre a professional boot up the arse.
Pulling punk and hardcore bands not only from the UK (Playlounge, Bloody Knees, Sorority Noise, Nai Harvest) but from every disgruntled corner of the world - Sweden (Disembarked), Singapore (Yumi) and Japan (Blue Friend) - Dog Knights has churned out a whopping 20 releases in the last 12 months, making it one of the most active DIY labels in the country. And we're not talking rough demos on a whimsical floppy disk here, we're talking spine-tingling, pant-soiling, well-produced records that feel, in some way, different to everything else happening on the simultaneously niche and tenuous scale of screamo to pop-punk.
But it's not just the music that’s killing it - it’s how it’s packaged. Avoiding black vinyl like it’s the cold sore on the lip of the music world, Dog Knights releases everything on at least two colour variants. Snot green splatter? You got it. Screen printed B-side? Obviously. Split 12” in the shape of a flower? Way ahead of you.
Dog Knights, we salute you. Now get some damn sleep.
Erased Tapes vibe is mostly classical meets avant garde, and while the thought of that might be like hearing you have kidney stones, they do it very very well. First, there was the Kiasmos album, which was a certain shade of magical: play it quietly and it’s the most chilled thing ever - a beautiful Scandinavian bastardisation of Balearic. But see it played live, like we did at Iceland Airwaves this winter, and it has the power to transport you back to a Huddersfield warehouse in the early 90s.
Once Kiasmos has bulldozed your air of judgment, you should get on the other Erased Tapes releases this year, like Douglas Dare, A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Lubomyr Melnyk, because their songs are religious doctrines on how to make the old piano sound like a fresh god of melancholy.
Rough Trade, are you fucking kidding mate? Yes, they’ve been going for bloody ages, and certainly don't need us to shine a light, but they do deserve one gold medal (and I’m talking like dinner plate sized) for Dean Blunt’s game-changing album Black Metal. Blunt is the Scarlet Pimpernel of the art world, rarely seen, rarely interviewed, and when he does chat - like he did with Wire earlier in the year - it’s usually either an argument or a pack of brilliant lies. Getting someone as precious yet precocious as him to release an album so perfect and unique, and on time, is a feat worth tipping your cap to.
A. G. Cook and co are proof that if you run your label like a new-media creative company – one that specialises in realised, up-market, visually pleasing releases, rather than viral campaigns with #hashtags – then people are going to take note. On the surface, the label seems like an in-joke that’s gone ironically massive, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear they’re being serious and the whole label is a sociological art project focusing on ideas of consumerism within music. QT is music made by a branded energy drink, they’ve “built” a “scene” with the same four people working under different names, and even the sites that hate the label post up each track in exceedingly prompt glee. They're the greatest trick the internet ever pulled. You could be someone who listens to Hannah Diamond as a prerequisite to being alive or you could be someone who wants to drain the fun out of music until everything sounds like The National. It doesn’t really matter, because PC Music has unequivocally dominated the conversation this year in a way that’s hard to argue against.
There’s no amount of hyperbole we can spin about Warp that you won’t find dripping from the screens of any reputable music website. Just know this: a new EP from Hudson Mohawke, the formation of Future Brown, a new record from Flying Lotus, and the return of Aphex Twin.