While major labels struggle to unhinge their thumbs from their tightly clenched arses, the indie imprints of America are scraping together enough change for a limited pressing of record their willing to bet will change someone’s life. Risks are taken daily, hands are calloused from self-packaging vinyl sleeves and cutting j-cards, and life savings are being forked over for the simple fact that someone could not stand to let this record go unheard.
No one on this list is pressing vinyl or cassette for the sake of attitude, cool, or to bandwagon a trend. These aren’t your albatross Record Store Day carpetbaggers. These labels selected their chosen formats because it was what was best for the album or it was the only option they could afford. We’re often sold on the axiom “a brand you can trust” to give us comfort as consumers. The Best Labels of 2014 never had to tell us about trust, their catalog spoke for them and their brand was their commitment to being the older sibling who hands down that next record that just might change our lives.
Signing Shamir to XL Recordings might forever change how we talk about Godmode, but the Brooklyn label run by Nick Sylvester didn’t exactly drop the Northtown EP and then collect a check. Godmode was there when no one else would give YVETTE a home. Now it appears on Best of 2014 lists. (We remain in awe of Brooklyn’s casual indifference to Courtship Ritual.) Godmode took chances, expecting nothing in return. Its roster formed groups within groups, collabs and side projects, and when it came time to back Shamir, they united into the Voltron of backing bands.
Seek Out: YVETTE, Process, Shamir, Northtown EP; Courtship Ritual, Pith; Alan Watts, Ara
As Oneohtrix Point Never, Daniel Lopatin is trailblazing through vaporwave, ambient, and to a greater degree electronic music. Rather than turn a blind eye towards the next generation of experimental electronic alchemists, he’s given them a home at Software. Admirers of the Software roster are ritually pursuing new coinage for its young inventors, most notably “trap,” but the label strictly tags its releases under the wide umbrella of electronic.
Seek Out: Suicideyear, Remembrance; Napolian, Incursio; Thug Entrancer, Death After Life
Besides Exploding In Sound (which assisted with this label’s distribution), no other label appeared in our Best Music list more consistently than Double Double Whammy. From Frankie Cosmos and Mitski to LVL UP and Flashlight O, we could not say no to DDW releases. Another way to gauge the cultural impact of an indie label is to count how many artists were plucked from its roster by bigger indies. Frankie Cosmos and Quarterbacks graduated first and we fully expect a second wave of graduates in 2015.
Seek Out: Frankie Comos, Zentropy; LVL UP, Hoodwink’d; Mitski, Bury Me At Makeout Creek; Quarterback, Sportscenter
Rappers can arrogantly proclaim to be “what the game’s been missing” until they are blue in the face, but only Mello Music Group earned the right to claim it in 2014. Indie rock and electronic music benefit from a community of interconnected labels with the funds (or insanity) to press physical copies of their records. Where are the indie rap labels pressing vinyl? It can’t be called a void as long as Mello Music Group is around to take chances on instrumental producers, tag team albums by rap scoundrels, and the architect of art rap.
Seek Out: Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy; L’Orange, The Orchid Days; Has-Lo & Castle, Live Like You’re Dead; Diamond District, March On Washington
Sure, it’s partially dad-run, but nothing about the San Francisco label’s 2014 releases screams “dad rock”. Father-Daughter led with Flagland’s Love Hard, setting an early precedent for a godsend year in alternative rock. Keeping a steady hand on the bi-coastal pulse from the Bay Area to Brooklyn (as well as love for the Upstaters from The Epoch), Father-Daughter packaged the dreams of small bands with big aspirations into vibrant vinyl sleeves.
Seek Out: Flagland, Love Hard; Never Young, Master Copy; Happy Diving, Big World
There is something particularly cool and compelling about how each of the releases in the Salinas catalog just make sense together. The Detroit label has quietly been making a name for itself as one of the best DIY labels in the U.S.A. since its first release in the spring of 2003, with records by P.S. Eliot, All Dogs, The Measure and more over the years. This year was perhaps one of its best as a label, with release ranging from a re-print of the first Swearin tape, What a Dump, on vinyl, to the excellent Bay area pop punk band Joyride’s new 12-inch, the the punk classic that is Radiator Hospital’s Torch Song, the debut LP from Mikey Cantor’s The Goodbye Party, and more. We’re hard pressed to think of a label that put out a more excellent collection of pop-punk, guitar pop and power pop this year.
Seek Out: Martha, Courting Strong; Radiator Hospital, Torch Songs; Swearin’, What a Dump; Outer Spaces, Garbage Beach
While its an archaic barometer of success to be in Rolling Stone, Alex G’s bedroom album DSU was lauded in outlets previously suspected to have no awareness of the Bandcamp or tape community. And yet, there was that watercolor of a gridiron John Doe on Rolling Stone. What once was small batch curio of bedroom demos was now commodity and names like Elvis Depressedly, Ricky Eat Acid, and Foxes In Fiction were held in high praise and higher criticism, no longer existing comfortable obscurity in their corner of the tape community.
Seek Out: Mister Lies, Shadow; Ricky Eat Acid, Three Love Songs; Foxes In Fiction, Ontario Gothic; Alex G, DSU
Everything about “peripheral dance” label 1080p is a little unexplainable. From the medium (electronic dance on cassette) to the overarching aesthetic (conceptually noncommittal), label head Richard MacFarlane has achieved the curatorial dream by creating a label based completely off his left-of-center taste. Ranging from goofy, snackwave rapper Young Braised to the tender pop ballads of Dan Bodan, it’s refreshing to find an imprint whose aesthetic can be boiled down to “quality.”
Seek Out: Gobby, Wallet & Cellphone; Dan Bodan, Soft; Young Braised, Northern Reflections; Beat Detectives, Asscop
Having the testicular fortitude to tell Steve Albini he’s wrong is the type of backbone needed to run an independent label, especially when Steve Albini has recorded artists from your label in his studio. But, Don Giovanni did not make this list simply by being outspoken defenders of marginalized indie community. It put out a record with a band that exemplifies that spirit in Priests, branched into comedy with a Chris Gethard LP, and continued to big up New Jersey with the Black Wine LP. Don Giovanni might have drawn a line in the sand with the notion of a “fixed music industry”, but when it came to putting out a weird banjo punk record by a 75-year old musician, it opened its doors.
Seek Out: Chris Gethard, My Comedy Album; Priests, Bodies And Control And Money And Power; Screaming Females, Live At The Hideout
Arguably the Marmite of Electronic Music, PC Music was the little London-based pop label that exploded onto the Internet with their irresistible melodies and saccharine-sweet hooks. Comprised of downloadable tracks rather than physical releases, PC Music is the glossy future label of your dreams, filled by a roster of enigmatic producers and android-like pop divas, it’s a strange, tongue-in-cheek take on modern commercial music—albeit an extremely addictive one.
Seek Out: QT, “Hey QT”; A.G. Cook, “Beautiful”; Hannah Diamond “Attachment”; Danny L Harle “In My Dreams”
Some labels are important because of the sheer volume of records they release, others because of the message their releases evoke. Run collectively by the four members of Priests, Sister Polygon is the independent, political and anti-capitalist label we desperately needed in 2014. While the number of releases they put out might have been small, the importance of each should not be understated. 2014 saw Priests co-release their incredible Bodies And Control And Money And Power with New Jersey’s Don Giovanni, alongside two of 2014’s most important records (in our humble opinion), Pink Wash’s Your Cure Your Soil cassette and Downtown Boys’ self-titled 7″. 2014 also marked the end of label-mates Shady Hawkins, who did manage to record a new album that should see a release in early 2015. “Punk” is a term we throw around loosely, but if there is one label on this list deserving, it’s Sister Polygon.
Seek Out: Downtown Boys, s/t 7″; Priests, Bodies and Control and Money and Power; Pinkwash, Your Cure Your Soil
While label names generally veer towards the immaterial in relation to its roster, Fleeting Youth was a label that expressed the conceptual core of its output. With “coming of age” as an aesthetic, Fleeting Youth accumulated an army of bands across the US to deliver the soundtrack like time is dying inside the tape.
Seek Out: Habits, Ourselves In Arrival; Mumblr, Full Of Snakes; LA Font, The American Leagues & Diving Man; Passenger Peru, s/t; Le Rug, Press Start (The Collection)
Community Records proves that work is possible in New Orleans. Dedicated to a quest for fire and walking with the noise pop maniacs of the United States, Community lived up to its name by giving homes to misfit records. It did not matter if it was the poetic post-rock of World’s Strongest Man or a four-way split of grunge from around the country, it was all Community.
Seek Out: Sundog, Space Criminal; Caddywhompus, Feathering A Nest ; World’s Strongest Man, I’m Sorry This Scares You; Ex-Breathers/Ovlov/Woozy/Gnarwhal, Split
In 2013, we spoke of NNA Tapes as the label that discovered the band that screwed our minds wide open with the debut of Guerilla Toss. A year later, Guerilla Toss was fractured, but still able to follow-up with the Smack The Brick cassette. Uncorking our internal triggers was still NNA Tapes primary business though, as it delved into kraut-fusion of Horse Lords’ Hidden Cities, Phork’s minimalist electronica, and the symphonic aspirations of GT offshoot project, Tredeci Bacci. So save your eulogies and blow out that flame before lighting an effigy.
Seek Out: Horse Lords, Hidden Cities; Guerilla Toss, Smack The Brick; Tredeci Bacci, The Thirteen Kisses Cassetta
Hailing from Minneapolis, MN, Forged Artifacts was about northern exposure and bedroom recluses who angsted our their boyhood in 2014. The former came from locals Some Pulp, Rupert Angeleyes, and a regional compilation entitled, The Greatest Of All Time, while the latter was split between Los Angeles Police Department, Earl Boykins, and Dan Svizeny. Although Forged Artifacts was not limited to a bicameral discography, it had a stoned side manifested through the doom-rock of Sleepy Cheese and the edible body high of Brooklyn’s Baked.
Seek Out: Los Angeles Police Department, self-tited; Dan Svizeny, Every Weekend; Earl Boykins, Everybody Likes Dogs; Baked, s/t
In five years Exploding In Sound will be the ____ (insert influential indie label of the 90s) of our generation. We’ll be nostalgic for that first Speedy Ortiz record, remiss that Pile never received the acclaim it so deserved, and bewildered that in one year Exploding In Sound’s output included a Krill EP, a Grass Is Green LP, a Two Inch Astronaut LP, 7″s from Pile and Palehound, and a handful of splits that we will forever regret not purchasing (or treasure if you already own a copy).
Seek Out: Krill, Steve Hears Pile in Malden And Bursts Into Tears EP; Grass Is Green, Vacation Vinny; Kal Marks, Just A Lonely Fart EP; Two Inch Astronaut, Foulbrood
With an emphasis on the art of album art, Atlanta’s Geographic North streamline their cassette releases with minimalism and experiment in weight and textured packaging in their vinyl. It’s an approach that mirrors the experimental nature of its roster which includes M. Sage, Hiro Kone, and Auburn Lull. But it’s not all Music to Bliss Out To or Music To Study To, as proven by the holiday cheer of the Sketch For Winter series, which premiered courtesy of the label’s first band A Sunny Day In Glasgow and their New Christmas Classics EP.
Seek Out: M. Sage, Data In The Details; Hiro Kone, Fallen Angels; Auburn Lull, Hiber
Slumberland has been quietly releasing a steady stream of prominent twee and indie releases from some of our favorite bands for—get this—25 years. Yup, while you weren’t looking, the now-seminal label celebrated its 25th anniversary in style, kicking off their 2014 with Tony Molina’s Dissed and Dismissed, and before it was over they were putting out records from bands like Literature, Allo Darlin’, and one of our favorite splits of 2014 from Joanna Gruesome and Perfect Pussy. We tried to come up with a great tagline, but instead we plagiarized it straight from their website: Slumberland bands are independent in the best way possible—making music devoid of bullshit and true to their own voices, regardless of current popular taste.
Seek Out: All Darlin’, We Come From The Same Place; Joanna Gruesome/Perfect Pussy, Astonishing Adventures EP; Literature, Chorus, Terry Malts, Inside EP; Tony Molina, Dissed And Dismissed