2010s: Favorite 30 Labels of the Decade

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We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series


Three years ago, I was tasked with writing the introduction to our year-end Favorite Labels feature. I lamented the fact that trustworthy (and SANE) music curation had basically ceased to exist in an era where notoriety had become a confusing amalgam of happenstance, advertising algorithms, and cheap-as-fuck digital recording and distribution technology. Needless to say, the trend in that direction has only continued. And yet, even back then, it still felt a little awkward to be championing a list of… well, COMPANIES in the space where a list of “DIY bands” and “independent artists” would usually go.

But, as I also noted back in 2016, the hype and the topspin and the mega-accessibility and the a-little-too-perfect algorithms and the complacency of streaming services and the whole, ya know, terrifying post-truth, postmodern, post-feelings fragmentation of our current moment has made it more crucial than ever to have, as my former self said, a few “honest-to-goodness curators carving us a path through the madness.”

So, basically, if you still think it’s “not cool” to show love to record labels, sorry, but you’re reading the wrong feisty, independent music webzine. OK, sure; back in the early aughts, it might have been momentarily reasonable under certain circumstances to praise the independent genius of an artist and their work while dissing the oh-so-capitalist powers-that-be behind the scenes who were putting up the dough and cranking the gears of promotion — but come on, now. That’s some Ayn Rand BULLSHIT, and you know it.

The fact is, artists oftentimes NEED labels. And fans need labels, too. Hell, even hoity-toity assholes like ME need them. Everyone involved in this business(!) of making and sharing meaning from artifacts of sonic diachronicity — from the makers to the listeners to the pseudo-anonymous internet critics — we all need them in the same way we need our families: to feel ourselves in the context of a larger community, to make sense of what we’re hearing, even to give us a useful position from which to critique the things we like or don’t like about a particular collection of those sonic artifacts.

In fact, at this point, many of the labels on this decade list straight-up feel to lots of us TMTers like family members — and hell, you’ll likely recognize most of them from “Favorite Labels” lists in years’ past, too. In some cases, they’ve opened up new veins of gold we didn’t even know we were hunting for, as we followed their trails to micro-scenes of untold power, vitality, and richness. In others, we’ve basically reported (in some form or another) on just about every release they’ve bothered to promote this decade; and as such, we’ve grown up together. And just like family, we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but we respect and stick up for one another’s freedom of expression. Frankly, sometimes, it feels like we know our favorite labels too well, and we really get on one another’s nerves. But at the end of the day (or the year… or the decade), our dumb families’ stupid faces are the ones we want to see most.

So here they are, our favorite labels of the decade. In no particular rank but alphabetical order. Please, dear readers, say hello to TMT’s extended family.


Astral Spirits

[RODRIGO AMADO & CHRIS CORSANO · MAKO SICA / HAMID DRAKE · CLAIRE ROUSAY]

I can’t speak for everyone, but after my daily dispatch of news — divided between celebrating attacks on the defenseless, neglecting the rights of humans and the needs of our planet, and applauding the power, corruption, and lies practiced by our political and business leaders as normal behavior — I’m about ready for a new age, free of overwhelming anger and anxiety and apathy. Some, in fact, have already crossed into new orbits, working away from the sour sounds and ugly sides: specializing in small-run tapes, records, and publication releases (through its sister imprint, Monofonus Press), there was a flush and bloom on everything that Austin’s Astral Spirits did. Each new Astral Spirits release — be it an acrid avant-noise experiment, a set of electronic themes and incidental music, a fresh frisson of free-jazz and relaxed rock, or any combination thereof — brought some sort of positive spiritual therapy and “newness.” With already over 100 releases to its name in a little more than five years, Astral Spirits is a label of love that burns with the raving passion of, and for, the true fanatics of freedom and vision. If our idea of a great music label is one that shoots for the stars and hits them every time, then Astral Spirits is the label that will project us, if not into a new age, then at least into a new state of mind.


Beer On The Rug

[MACINTOSH PLUS · YYU · EYELINER]

Seems kind of pointless to try to illustrate Beer On The Rug’s cultural impact this decade. I think we all realize the influence the label has had in regards to not only music, but also the entire fucking INTERNET (*cough* see Macintosh Plus’s seminal Floral Shoppe, as well as many other classic AESTHETIC albums *cough*).

Writing it off as a solely vaporwave label is misguided, though. BOTR was first and foremost a facilitator of zones, no matter the weather. Its greatest appeal was sonic depth and variety. Take, for instance, the phased-out bedroom-pop of earlier releases by Casino Gardens and Free Weed. Or the meditative club drone of Endo Kame. Or the unmistakably unique yet familiar mutant music of YYU. Then there’s the gloss and sheen of acts like Euglossine and Location Services, the video game walk-through of Graham Kartna, the mind-goo chopped funk & soul of Digital Natives, the hybrid psychedelic New Age trips of Dang Olsen Dream Tape, the robotic intestines and metal veins of Hollow Gem and SUSAN BALMAR, and so on.

But nothing lasts forever: the bulk of Beer on the Rug’s discography has disappeared from the internet — at least temporarily. When asked about this, BOTR responded that the label is “more focused on what’s to come as opposed to ground already covered,” while also trying to encourage fans to seek out physical copies. So, do BOTR and yourself a favor and hit up your favorite retailer, ya nerds! <3 <3 <3


Constellation Tatsu

[HAKOBUNE · SAMANTHA GLASS · LES HALLES]

While the private press era of ambient and New Age is getting a much-deserved series of vinyl reissues and retrospectives, the current crop of Bandcamp labels churning out traditional and modern spins on ambient tropes have ushered in a new golden age. Throughout the 2010s, Oakland, CA’s Constellation Tatsu gently led the pack, unleashing some of the most soothing, meditative, and adventurous sounds committed to tape. “I like to imagine each cassette as a journey for the listener,” said founder Steven Ramsey in a 2014 interview about the label’s ethos. “One that brings the listener outside their comfort zone, brings them back to familiarity (a space to breathe) and in the end leaves one with a deep sense of exploratory-satisfaction.” Such adventures could be heard on cassettes that spanned Japanese guitar drones, hypnotic Midwest electronic experiments, and melancholy French pan pipes, just a few among the many highlights of Constellation Tatsu’s vast catalog. The label was as reliable as the seasons, putting out 2-4 tapes every quarter, each batch containing a diverse set of mellow drones, exploratory synth work, and lush electronics. Constellation Tatsu was perfect listening when you had a strong cup of tea, a comfortable seat, and the time to let your mind wander.


Deathbomb Arc

[JPEGMAFIA · LANA DEL RABIES · JONATHAN SNIPES]

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of independent record labels come and go. Most have one thing in common: They’re moderately good for a moderate period of time. It’s unfortunate, but all business is tough business, and the business of music can be tougher than most. So, expecting a label to remain consistently wonderful for eternity is pure folly. An exception is Deathbomb Arc. Release after release, we didn’t know what we’d get from Brian Miller’s L.A.-based label, but it was certain that it’d be an altogether amazing journey, diming and priming our brains until the next excess. Starting with the simple wish of publishing music by Turbine, the Deathbomb catalogue has since showcased artists who are agonizingly true and scabrous and beautiful like JPEGMAFIA, Captain Ahab, clipping., Lana Del Rabies, Ed Balloon, and Miller’s Foot Village. Expect to make repeat visits to your Deathbomb Arc releases; you’ll find a gamut of artistic approaches arrayed and most reach musical (and often theatrical) sublimity. This “Genres Unknown” label has been around for 20 years, and the past 10 were as good as the first. You can bank on the next 10 being a helluva lot of boisterous fun, too.


Erstwhile

[Annette Krebs/Taku Unami · Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet · Matthew Revert/Vanessa Rossetto]

The word “erstwhile,” of course, has within it the connotation of a remove, a reflective posture taken in the present directed toward the past. In trying to write an account of Erstwhile Records’s life over these past 10 years, I find myself in a position of nominative aptness, especially as Erstwhile finds itself celebrating its second full decade of life as the 2010s close.

As I listen back through its catalog — beginning with my own introduction to the label, Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet’s Air Supply — I find myself confronting myself like in a hall of mirrors, with the distance promised by contemplation becoming effaced, my own history of listening reduplicating and reasserting itself. I try to define territory and distill some communicable experience from whatever stuff constitutes this listener, but any sort of critical sangfroid becomes an impossibility, as each second passes and each CD sings its last sound; as each composed silence melts into the improvised silence of the park, airport, funeral parlor, ICU, pool hall, bus, restaurant, post office, anechoic chamber; as my ability to bracket and sort phenomena becomes compromised; as my implication in this endeavor becomes increasingly entrenched in these spinal landscapes; as sound becomes space becomes impression becomes listener becomes sound becomes.

Toshiya Tsunoda, whose absolutely monumental Extract From Field Recording Archive will be the label’s last release of the decade, writes that “recorded material is like a map,” but the power of Erstwhile’s catalog was how it asked us to use this map. Like Borges’s imperial cartograph or Jarry’s sunken Paris, we traversed multiple territories along multiple trajectories simultaneously, and they held conversation, court, in our heads. Nothing corresponded without us listeners. The through line that linked the Erstwhilean vertebrae was a Cagean sensibility that emphasized the dizzying spatiotemporal particularity of any given sound — something that could never be separated from its context or its auditor. Sense, language, metaphor, metonymy, scraps of self all blended together. As soon as I hit play, there was no distinction between the world I lived in and that of an Esrtwhile release.

Some impressions over this past decade:

• Annette Krebs/Taku Unami - motubachii: wandering through construction sites in New Orleans during November
• Greg Kelley/Olivia Block - Resolution: waiting in an airport, January, and wondering if I made the right decision
• Graham Lambkin/Michael Pisaro - Schwarze Riesenfalter: December, falling asleep in my hospital bed and waking up to my neighbor crying
• Takahiro Kawaguchi/Utah Kawasaki - Amorphous Spores: sitting outside, around 2 AM in late May, in the darkness, as raccoons try to knock over my garbage can
• Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet - Busman’s Holiday: vomiting while the harsh noise of “The Hunt” shreds my tiny desktop speakers, a different November
• Lucio Capece/Marc Baron - My Trust in You: riding an empty train, headed for Charleston, South Carolina in July, toward a miserable occasion
• Matthew Revert/Vanessa Rossetto - Everyone Needs a Plan: September
• Jurg Frey - l’âme est sans retenue I: writing this, a third November

Speaking of free improvisation or eai or onkyo or Wandelweiser or even collaboration and community does little, I think, to explain what exactly has been accomplished within the Erstwhile catalog over this decade. I suppose all music writing must fail in this regard, as by representation and conceptual schema we grow more distant from what we intended to engage with an erster Stelle. The more I rely on language, the more I betray my intention — that kernel of significance I desperately hope to make legible for others. All I can really do is recommend that you gather yourself, gather your world, gather your CDs, and listen.


Hausu Mountain

[EUGLOSSINE · KHAKI BLAZER · FIRE-TOOLZ]

There is a small technical distinction between a level and a zone. In video game design, a level is always tied to the completion of a specific set of goals. A zone, however, is just a space that players and in-game characters share. It may have restrictions and change depending on the players, but there’s no need to solve or achieve anything to gain access. No wonder Hausu Mountain framed a lot of what it’s released this decade under those terms. The zones it invited us into — including, of course, the Cool Zones batches it used to put out — felt like places we could spawn in or drift into while retaining the thrilling euphoria of a video game bonus stage.

While any origin story of the Chicago label, founded by Doug Kaplan and Max Allison (ex-TMTer Mukqs), will include references to video game music, other important touchstones were Ralph Records and the jam band scene, an unlikely mixture that had inspired them since the label’s inception in 2012. Of course, even if Kaplan and Allison are old enough to have caught the right fumes seeping from underneath their Phish-loving brother’s doors, Hausu Mountain’s music sounded nothing like Trey Anastasio’s. Instead, Hausu Mountain shared with that scene a genuine spirit of communal celebration, opening portals into some fascinating weirdness without wanting to be hectoring, each release exploring the extent to which strange, eccentric art could also be fun and exciting.

Alongside Natalie Chami, Kaplan and Allison are also Good Willsmith, the mothership, for it was the musical project that started the label. Yet their kosmische explorations were just one side of what Hausu Mountain offered. There was also the warped improvisational vibes of Moth Cock, the MIDI dreamscapes of Nonlocal Forecast, the gonzo footwork by Khaki Blazer, the gleeful reimagination of library music from Euglossine, the mutating collages of Eartheater, the glitchy attack on cyberpunk tropes mounted by Fire-Toolz, the densely human reveries of TALsounds, and so much more. Each of these albums and artists were key to understanding the unique community that coalesced around Hausu Mountain, a group of creators and fans who continue to call us into the next, unexplored zone. On to the following peak. And you can bet a long, strange trip awaits.


Hippos In Tanks

[GAMES · JAMES FERRARO · HYPE WILLIAMS]

It’s rare to witness a label having such a deep, long-lasting impact on the aesthetics of an entire decade, but that is what Hippos in Tanks gave us in just over four years of existence. Barron Machat and Travis Woolsey upholstered the foundation of an entire internet, propelling their lineup with Machat’s familial industry connections and a genuine drive to give experimental art a place in the limelight. Whether it was James Ferraro’s ringtone plasticity, Hype Williams’ camouflaged psychology, Laurel Halo’s technicolor dreamcoat, or Daniel Lopatin’s primordial strangeness with Joel Ford in Games, Hippos in Tanks put them all on glorious display, consecrating wildly innovative works onto one star-studded label, artists who by the way are now among the titans of weirdo music.

2019’s cultural landscape makes Machat’s passing in 2015 that much more bitter. His vision of Daniel Lopatin and Arca going platinum has become closer to reality, given the former’s work with A24 and FKA twigs, and the latter’s with Kanye West and Frank Ocean. But regardless of relative reach and fame, the collective produced radically exciting work, from Autre Ne Veut to ADR to Inga Copeland to Teams to Triad God. That Hippos in Tanks is now four years defunct but still leaves behind such a heavy footprint on avant-culture speaks to the label’s sustained vision and magnetic allure. This decade would’ve sounded very different without it.


Hospital Productions

[PRURIENT · RON MORELLI · RAINFOREST SPIRITUAL ENSLAVEMENT]

Ever prolificacy’s flexing blister, Hospital Productions popped off scalding on both sides of this 21st-century score. Label head Dominick Fernow’s impressive work as Prurient, Vatican Shadow, and Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement aside, there’s been more than enough varied, singular releases to make one forget all about the noise luminary in charge of curating ‘em. That cold grip so indelibly extended and fused with the label’s refined aesthetic that there could then be a judicious sort of expansion to what could constitute uplift. There has always been an important wallow/confront through line, yet Fernow cumulatively succeeded in showing the emotional/temporal breadth possible within its fathomless nest of screeching abattoirs.

To put it another way, Hospital continued to thrive on being as much a host to the dodgy thematic propositions traditionally inherent to power electronics as a stalwart, scrutiny-bearing, and adaptable institution. Despite its 2011 ascension from NYC brick and mortar to internet streaming limbo, the last 10 years (most recently with a lil push from Mike/Tara Connelly and Greh Holger’s essential NOISEXTRA podcast) have seen its imposing roster’s ills tempered to a fine, clean-slicing glint.

The radiant onslaught of both newer (Silent Servant, Ninos Du Brasil, Dedekind Cut) and classic (Linekraft, Skin Crime, Orphx) innovators were taxed and taxing by design, eschewing easy ins and, when performing pop moves, doing so on shrewd, hard-won terms. But at the same time, this label spoiled us rotten. L.I.E.S. founder Ron Morelli gave us half a dozen handsome doom-laden house rippers, and we were showered with exquisite mixes, edifying reissues, and stellar showcases… We shouldn’t be so damn accommodated — it’s unbecoming! But, there we were — Pioughd. Thanks a lot, Hospital!


Hyperdub

[BURIAL · DJ RASHAD · JESSY LANZA]

Hyperdub entered this decade as one of the most exciting new labels of a generation, but also one of the most scrutinized. After all, how do you even calculate the amount of pressure put on a label who introduced the world to Burial with its first release? Just like the shadowy, mysterious, and sensitive work of its most famous artist, Hyperdub never even blinked at the challenge and became even more profound, with founder Kode9 doubling down again and again on cultivating artists across genres and generations. Brave experiments like Laurel Halo’s Quarantine and Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland’s Black Is Beautiful later gave way to respective breakthroughs like Dust and The Redeemer. Along the way, it provided a platform for genre-defining releases from Cooly G and DJ Rashad, as well as a caring support when the latter’s tragic death threatened the entire footwork scene’s stability. The label even showed veteran video game composers like Yuzo Koshiro the audiences they never realized they had and merged avant-garde and pop with a rare, holistic vision through artists such as Jesse Lanza and Klein.

Hyperdub didn’t walk the line, it drew it, and its legacy will always be in looking to the future by believing in its artists now.


Kranky

[TIM HECKER · GROUPER · LOTUS PLAZA]

With records like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Kranky absolutely crushed the 90s and 00s. But it certainly didn’t slow down for this decade. As its 25th anniversary passed last year, the label continued to pump out quality releases from artists constantly pushing the envelope of ambient, drone, and the outer realms of techno.

Two artists in particular stood out: Liz Harris, whose work as Grouper this decade (2011’s A I A: Alien Loss, 2014’s Ruins) rivaled anyone’s; and Tim Hecker, whose compositions continue to explore the reaches of possibility, especially on last year’s Konoyo. But dig deeper and there was plenty more, from the powerfully patient work of A Winged Victory for the Sullen, to the ayahuasca brilliance of Dedekind Cut, to the forays into psych-rock with Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza, to Harris’s spinoffs into full-band territory, Mirrorring and Helen, all of which wonderfully demonstrated just how expansive Kranky’s sound and roster are.

Clearly intent on fostering its artists’ exploration of every kind of marginal space, Kranky’s output therefore had a sort of mutable quality that made it tough to pin down. Perhaps MJ Guider, who debuted her post-punk dream pop on the label in 2016, summed it up best: “It’s mood and temperament. There are so many different styles, but it’s all very introspective and heady, very comforting but very alien at the same time.” So basically, the future.

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series


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