From the postmodern pop of PC Music to the DIY Americana of Burger Records, we pick the labels pushing the limits of what's possible in music
Tragic losses and triumphant breakthroughs have marked underground music’s journey these past 12 months. And with social media strapped to our senses like some kind of communicative exoskeleton, the gravest and greatest of moments in music can now be digested and discussed instantaneously. Like children spoiled rotten by a lottery win, our expectations for record labels have never been so high. Yet, as this past year has proved, ingenuity and digital adaptation have powered imprints to higher planes of perfection. Players such as Lit City Trax, RVNG Intl. and Houndstooth appeared in last year’s rundown, so in the name of fairness, here’s a fresh batch of collectives currently pushing the limits of what’s possible in music.
Output from London’s most astoundingly atmospheric label Erased Tapes has punctuated this year with moments of utter clarity. A Winged Victory for the Sullen drew new audiences and critical acclaim for the dew-soaked, neo-classical musings of Atomos. Icelandic duo Kiasmos demonstrated a brilliant fusion of classical and minimal techno sounds on their debut full-length. And interest in label veteran Nils Frahm reached new heights as his name became a coveted fixture on the European festival circuit.
PC Music’s arrival onto the music scene has provoked and delighted in equal measure, with a postmodern take on pop and striking aesthetic running through the veins of its roster. Underpinned by mastermind and production overlord A. G. Cook, notable releases from Hannah Diamond, Danny L Harle and GFOTY have etched out the label’s first chapter in high style. With any luck, there’ll be many more to come.
These guys have had a hell of a year, literally. Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden was inspired by a traumatic spell in hospital endured by composer Margaret Chardiet. The autobiographical nature of the record forced uncomfortable eye contact with mortality. Conversely, we found open-armed joy with the hand-built feel of Amen Dunes’ album Love. Cult of Youth’s Final Days shouldn’t be overlooked, either; the nihilism found within is pure punk cinematography.
Hip hop’s identity has morphed drastically since Big Dada emerged as an independent force in 1997. But their two standout acts this year showed they’re keeping pace with this progression in admirable fashion. Young Fathers swept to mainstream consciousness with their Mercury Prize nod, representing a major victory for alternative hip hop. And the dramatic narratives spun by Kate Tempest on her debut Everybody Down also found a well-earned spot on the shortlist.
Right, where do we start? The XL Recordings imprint redefined itself from London institution to global tastemaker with the enigmatic debut from FKA twigs, which floored critics the world over. Twigs’ LP1 fused gorgeous production with arresting aesthetics, breathing new life into cutting-edge pop and R&B. Running alongside that were high-quality releases from the likes of Jamie xx, Quirke and SBTRKT.
Rush Hour has become a true Amsterdam institution since the record store bearing its name opened in the late 90s. Killer parties at Trouw and, most recently, Village Underground in east London have kept their prolific and passionate ideologies fresh in our minds. And standout releases like the Vibes: New & Rare Music series, Vincent Floyd’s “Your Eyes” and Awanto 3’s Opel Mantra continue to trace and create outstanding dance music.
Hyperdub celebrated their tenth birthday this year with fantastic releases from Fatima Al Qadiri and Flowdan, plus a gut-busting, four-part retrospective series. Yet it was a bittersweet year for the veteran dance label, too: legendary figures the Spaceape and DJ Rashad were both snatched in their prime in tragic circumstances. The vastness of material drawn upon for the Hyperdub 10 compilation was a reminder of the label’s significance, while acclaimed releases such as Al Qadiri’s Asiatisch pointed up exciting new directions for the British electronic music mainstay.
MISTER SATURDAY NIGHT
Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin have spent the last the past five years cultivating a world-renowned reputation for their New York parties. The decision this year to utilise the MSN brand and start a record label has led to a slew of high-calibre releases from the likes of Melja and Gunnar Haslam, plus a diverse mix of house and techno variants from the party’s founders. Every city in the world deserves a collective as ambitious and forward-thinking as these guys have proved themselves to be.
The Brooklyn-based imprint hit two limb-flailing home runs this year. Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days, with its sticky guitar tones and slacker sensibilities, emerged as one of the breakout records of the year. The Canadian has become somewhat of an icon among the Pitchfork-savvy youth of Britain, who are forever aching for a sun-drenched hit to match their jingle-jangle daydreams. On the other end of the sonic spectrum is Perfect Pussy, whose deceptively brilliant record Say Yes to Love was a thrilling mix of noise-heavy punk and razor-sharp confessional songwriting.
The Californians are well-known for their mammoth output of cassettes, beer mats and everything in-between. This year saw essential releases from homegrown west coast talents Cherry Glazerr and Tomorrows Tulips, both oozing with rough measures of punk, surf rock and grilled cheese. Burger Records’ influence on the live circuit this year was particularly impressive, too, as they drew acts such as Black Lips, The Growlers and Mac DeMarco to play their Burgerama III festival.