[location: TMT Amphitheater, a giant outdoor arena located just outside Area 51 somewhere in New Mexico and filled to its 60,000-seat capacity on the hottest day of the year]
Me: Heyyyy, everybody! Welcome to TMT’s annual year-end festivities! Say, do all of you out there happen to like… music?!?
Crowd: (feverishly) YEEEEEAAAAAAH!
Me: Do you all like… tapes and vinyl RECORDS?!?
Crowd: (insanely) YEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHH!!
Me: Do you guys like… RECORD LABELS?!?!
Crowd: (cricket-ishly) *chirp… chirp… chirp…*
Yeah, I know. It’s a tricky relationship, these days. Music is free. Mixtapes are everywhere. Singles swim in the stream. Record deals are Volkswagen ads. Albums are movies.
But let’s be real: in this modern-day ocean of potential jams vying for our increasingly-diluted attention, true independent labels represent much more than just a business model. These labels are our goddamn life-preservers. I don’t know about you, but for me, the upshot to this rapidly increasing breadth of cheap streaming services, music making, and album-disseminating platforms is that it’s harder than ever for me to “feel like listening to some hip-hop” on my walk home and NOT just absentmindedly bid Siri to cue up fucking Ill Communication for the 900,000,000,000th time. I guess things have just gotten just so easy that, now, they’re impossible. It’s insane.
This is why it’s more valuable than ever to have a few honest-to-goodness curators carving us a path through the madness. Like those mysterious staffers in brick-and-mortar record stores who always seemed to have their finger not just on any-old pulse, but right on your jugular, the extremely committed and passionate people from the likes of Shelter Press, Roof Garden, Room40, Drawing Room, and BMB DEATHROW (just to name a cursory few) have scoured the various continents of planet earth in order to find and dish out the goods in such fan-friendly niches as experimental free-composition, noise-rock, shoegaze, cloud rap, and more. For these guys, it’s not about bandwagons and hype; it’s about holding up a microphone to all those hushed but meaningful genre conversations that would otherwise go undetected in this blustery climate, serving up the best tidbits and lovingly packaging them in durable contexts, reminding us that we are not consumers, or even “fans,” but patrons of someone’s personal art.
Likewise, for us here at TMT, this isn’t really a list that correlates easily or readily to the “hottest jams” we heard this year, or even necessarily the biggest, most impactful records we heard. It’s not a contest-list either, with ranks and weightings and numbers and all that. There’ll be other lists for those purposes coming soon, for sure. But this one — much like the two lists that preceded it in 2014 and 2015 — is meant to celebrate a fairly-casually chosen 15 labels that got our attention this year via their attempts (however Sisyphean) to pull and pluck at this universe full of invisible strings, to dam up the deluge into a few nourishing irrigation systems, to shape and mold so many identical balloons into unique animals. And all so that we as listeners can then be alchemically transformed into curators ourselves. So we can say, with all the machismo we can muster when a friend asks us whether we’ve come across any new ambient stuff they might dig lately, “Where you been?? Check this shit out.”
There’s a pop noise in the Greenpoint space between gritgrained industry and old London Planetrees that knows the histories at the waterfront and the way new boats hum on the patterns of waves. It’s the sharp shock before the gunpowder’s pop, the lightning bright of a couple discman childhoods, the logical conclusion that music production is community love. Katie Garcia and Dustin Payseur nurtured Captured Tracks and Beach Fossils for years; why shouldn’t indie nuptials birth indie labels? “We wanted something that was all-encompassing,” said Garcia about finding the founding’s name and logo. Bayonet is the all-encompassed New American Indie, a piercing name for an indelible sound that Bayonet is happy to chase and revise. Because it’s elastic, that Brooklyn bounce, Jerry Paper’s cartoon humanism thumbing our nose and then asking if we’re alright, Warehouse’s stuttered improvised solutions to our imaginary problems, the endless ventricled soul of the Frankie Cosmos songbook, an assertion that faith in our songs and our friends leave us better than when we started. We wanted something all-encompassing. We got Bayonet Records, the leaning in and learning, the processing of a world’s bigness into the progress of human relationships. When there’s love at the core of the sound, everybody sounds brilliant.
The ubiquity and convenience of streaming services make accessing new artwork so easy that it’s refreshing to be forced to perform online archaeology to find the tunes you’re looking for. Thankful as I am for the portable instant-gratification of my Apple Music account, I can’t help feeling a surge of excitement when an intriguing twee-pop tape or an early-aughts math rock 7-inch that I’d heard rumblings about fails to materialize after a quick search through my virtual libraries. There’s a sense of adventure to sifting through obscure message boards and abandoned Blogspots to find the .zip file you’re searching for, and no one knows how to harness that power of elusivity more effectively than web-rap veteran SpaceGhostPurrp, founder of influential “dark trap” record label Raider Klan Records and, more recently, SoundCloud collective Black Money Boys Death Row, a labyrinthine web of producers and emcees who cake hypnotic, dark-ambient drones in layers of fuzzed-out filth and muffled percussion. BMB’s sound is a sinister twist on the MySpace-era material churned out by Soulja Boy and Lil B, tinged with Glo Gang’s hazy drill hedonism. Affiliates’ discographies are often spread across multiple SoundCloud accounts, hosted by friends, buried in prolific back catalogues, and are sometimes deleted days after their conception. To follow BMB Death Row is to keep their web presence under constant surveillance or risk missing out on a clutch new cut.
Physically speaking, I’ve never been across the pond, but artistically, I can’t avoid England for the life of me. Case in point: I just started reading Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and if the label’s releases and NTS show offer any indication of where it’s going in the months to come, Miles Opland’s South London-based Bokeh Versions is set to provide the ideal local-global soundclash vibes I’ll need to project my higher self to astral Northampton and beyond for 1,266 pages. In an age where every other musician’s press release contains the word “dub” somewhere in it, Bokeh manages to spin the genre in ways that are original but true-to-form, vibrant but with a touch of morbidity, localized but out of this world yet still just worldly enough to place a phantom counter-punch upon the the chin of today’s xenophobic cluster-fuckery. In Glacial Dance Hall, Jay Glass Dubs showed us what the music would’ve sounded like had DJ Screw’s syrupy spirit somehow possessed King Tubby at the start of the 1970s. With Abraxo Ishara, Abu Ama “accidentally” spilled some delicious but irrepressibly pungent food you’ve never heard of all over your “good” jeans. Collectively through 2016, these acts and other outernational outliers like Voodoo Tapes and Aquadab and MCA have made Bokeh Versions a melting pot of some of the finest sold-out cassettes on this fucked-up planet of ours. Also, that thread!
Demdike Stare have succeeded remarkably in developing a label catalogue that not only aesthetically “matches” their own music, but branches off in a multitude of ways. For the past seven years, DDS has put out a relatively small number of releases (a bit over 20), a testament to the intelligent curation playing out in each new installment in the catalogue. A couple artists have become mainstays — Shinichi Atobe and Micachu, namely — and there seems to be a quite conscious mix of never-before-issued ephemera from years back (Orior’s Strange Beauty), as well as new recordings from contemporary artists (Equiknoxx’s Bird Sound Power). In a short period, the label has built a bold identity for itself, cohering the musical, conceptual, and visual. Perhaps this has something to do with Demdike Stare possessing such a focused aesthetic themselves, but no doubt artist-run labels can turn into a mish-mash of “fancy-that” selections or friend-of-friend go-tos. But perhaps it has something more to do with Demdike’s seriousness as collectors and diggers; they care about finding things, about bringing things to light that others don’t but should know about. New or old: what’s the difference with good music?
Few labels find they get a second life. With Drawing Room, not only has the Brooklyn-based label spent five years back from the grave, but it has also become a more powerful and diverse entity. It’s not so much zombie aimlessly wandering in pursuit of one valuable resource, but rather the simplicity of someone being given a second chance at experiencing life anew. Which is why pinning down the label’s aesthetic is complicated. This year was a slower one release-wise for Jeff Kuykendall’s project of love, but it’s been one of the label’s best. Beyond closing out the year with new works from Ashley Bellouin and Brad Laner, releases from Country Florist and Samara Lubelski fostered more love for two artists firmly on the outside happily looking in. However, reissues of two long-loved Charalambides albums solidified Drawing Room as a label that’s as happy remembering the bygone past as it is exhilarated by celebrating what is new. It’s a rich tapestry of experimental, folk, and electronic from which Drawing Room has caped itself in its second life, and yet the life blood that keeps it going has yet to be sucked dry.