For any kind of “left of the dial” music you may like, there’s a label that helped define it. Or on the flipside, there are labels that revel in diversity, and can introduce those that enter their orb to a whole world of exciting sounds.
This concept of the whole package that a record label could offer was one of the most intriguing things to me as I was getting into indie music. Death Cab for Cutie was my favorite band several years ago, and that led to me becoming a loyal follower of Barsuk Records. I even worked on their Street Team for several years. With all of this in mind, I wanted to spotlight the labels that were my biggest go-tos in 2011…
My case for what an exceptional roll Stones Throw Records is on right now begins with a record that came out in 2010. The self-titled full length from German/English artist Anika. The album was released late in 2010, but I didn’t really get into it until early in 2011. When I heard it I thought, “Woah, this is a game changer.”
I’ve always loved Stones Throw for their championing of interesting underground hip-hop, DJs, and the occasional straight up soul single (or whole record in the case of Mayer Hawthorne), but Anika was a post-punk winter wonderland. Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and featuring covers by artists ranging from Skeeter Davis to Yoko Ono it was a record that made me realize Stones Throw’s mastermind Peanut Butter Wolf thinks about music in a wonderful and unique way. James Pants, and Connecticut band The Stepkids both made records that were in direct competition for my Top 10 of 2011. Both had a swirling mix of soul, pyschedelica, and punky edge. The fact that Stones Throw keep their releases (somewhat) to a minimum is nice as well. The saying about quality vs. quantity stays with us for a reason after all…
Close Runners Up:
Over my past 2 and 1/2 years on KCRW, I’ve probably played more Slumberland artists than artists from any other record label combined. Sometimes I actually wish that Slumberland wasn’t constantly putting out awesome records because it starts to feel redundant when every other word out of my mouth is “Here’s another great new Slumberland release.”
Of course I would never *really* complain about a label being so consistent that I don’t even have to listen to each record to know that there is something on there that I will like. Slumberland understands the pure, punk rock spirit that is essential to making the best indiepop, and their bands are always chosen
Captured Tracks is almost on par with Slumberland in terms of great releases from new bands. However, what has been most notable about them this year are the re-issues.
It actually started towards the end of 2010, when Captured Tracks unearthed a collection of early recordings from one of my favorite bands, The Monochrome Set. This year saw re-issues of two 7″s from the gorgeous post-punk outfit The Wake, a collection of almost everything from the criminally overlooked band The Servants, and a whole series called the Shoegaze Archives which is dedicated to shedding light on that often maligned and misunderstood genre of music. Also, many of the shoegaze records were not initially released on vinyl so the service that Captured Tracks is offering by finally making them available in that format is more than enough to earn them a place on this list. It’s this sort of loving attention to detail that makes everything released by Captured Tracks – old and new – really stand out.
In about 12 years of off and on existence, Strut Records has never hit a wrong note. Focusing primarily on compilations, Strut finds the best of the best in everything from Mutant Disco to South African Jazz to the “Latin Motown” to just about every other insanely cool and obscure sub-genre that you would never think of. But they think of it, and that’s what matters. It’s highly evident that everyone working for or with Strut is deeply committed to music discovery (much like we are at KCRW), and the fact that they don’t limit themselves to one sound in particular means that the possibilities for further discovery are endless.
Domino has long been one of my most trusted sources for great music, but this year they really outdid themselves. Two records from the charismatic singer-songwriter Cass McCombs, two from eccentric Scottish folkie King Creosote. KCRW favorites Anna Calvi, Blood Orange, and The Kills are all on Domino, as are two young American bands – Twin Sister and Real Estate – who really hit their stride with the records that they released this year. Domino doesn’t really have as much of a specialty, or a theme as any of the other labels featured here, they just have an incredible knack for finding things that sound great.