2010s: Favorite 30 Labels of the Decade

"Portrait #3" by вєиנι ℓєвєαυтє α∂αм

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


La Vida Es Un Mus

[PERMISSION · LOS CRUDOS · EXOTICA]

La Vida Es Un Mus has been shaping and documenting happenings in global punk and hardcore for the better part of the past decade, with a global yet precisely curated approach that set them apart. By intertwining surefire instant classics from Los Crudos, Limp Wrist, Dawn of Humans, Rakta, and Blazing Eye with the developing mini-discographies and flash-in-the-pan records by new punk auteurs like Woolf, Exotica, Permission, Rixe, Runt, La Misma, Nomad, and Juanita y Los Feos, La Vida Es Un Mus exemplified a label’s truly accelerated cyber-punk potential in the world today.

As the disclaimer on the La Vida Es Un Mus site states, “LVEUM is just one person.” While that might not be entirely unusual these days, it lends some clarity to the label’s unified voice and continuity over the years. It also lends some incredulity to its output, which recently hit 200 releases. A listen through any window of its now-vast discography would give a singular but cohesive story of hardcore as it existed in networks around the globe. Qualitatively, the music tended toward the bare-bones, hard-edged, dissonant, idiosyncratic, and disorienting, all of it like a runaway train (and documented by intermittent email newsletters detailing the latest half-dozen or so of releases, sometimes accompanied by personal notes of exhaustion).

While the label has been a guide through much of the most interesting and fully-realized hardcore today, I’d be remiss to not mention other labels Erste Theke Tontraeger, Static Shock, Iron Lung, Drunken Sailor, and Toxic State, who all seemed to, at one time or another, collaborate for the occasional international co-release. Punk, at its best, is a network and so much more than a few institutions, but LVEUM’s distinctive and attractive voice was so appealing for the way it shaped our taste and provided a nexus from which one could branch out to hardcore from around the world.

I would be kidding myself if I thought I could present you a list of the label’s greatest (and thus imply that I’ve heard anything close to the entire discography), but besides those mentioned above, special nuggets include Woolf’s debut EP, Slender’s Walled Garden, Ohyda’s self-titled LP, Belgrado’s Obraz, and ASID’s Asid Tracks II. More truthfully, I recommend you browse the many offerings on Bandcamp, pick any one of the beautiful covers that might catch your eye, and hit play. Chances are, it rips.


N.A.A.F.I

[ZUTZUT · PAUL MARMOTA · LECHUGA ZAFIRO]

Mexico City’s N.A.A.F.I gave us a blueprint for an era. Its tactics, both sonic and social, stretched across territories, histories, and geologies, enfolding like-minded producers, rappers, and singers from the new and old club capitals of the world. With N.A.A.F.I, we became accustomed to the previously unimagined intimacies that connected grime’s oil-slicked futurism to jersey club’s buoyancy, the ways in which shards of glass on the ballroom floor could be thrown into baile club’s exhaust fumes. As the decade unfolded, N.A.A.F.I brought these elements into ever stranger syntheses; to trace the line from Javier Estrada’s Tribal Prehispánico to Lechuga Zafiro’s Testigo is to watch the club be consumed from within, to see its walls brought down by Zutzut’s hyperarticulated drums and Lao’s frigid minimalism. We kept dancing, though; we kept singing, too, to Ciara and Drake, who we welcomed into our underground with open arms. And we had new voices to greet them with, Embaci and Defensa, Linn da Quebrada and MC Bin Laden, voices that were both cute and deadly, voices that fucked and cried and danced with the same intensity and the same determination. We knew things were bad, that the world was ending, and so we needed tactics, ways to survive, sounds to make our own. And then, perhaps, in our own minor ways, we could find ways to continue. For our delirious times: N.A.A.F.I.

An epilogue, from Riobamba, one of many continuing after N.A.A.F.I: “It’s so important to create space for complicating the narrative of the music coming from Latin America, to talk about party vibes just as much as the suffering, violence, the dark shit that happens, and for having club music as a context for this broader range of emotions.” With N.A.A.F.I, beneath the club, the world.


NON

[CHINO AMOBI · MORO · FAKA]

Politics is thought, thought is real, people think: concepts dance, concepts descend, concepts demur, concepts demand. Which is all to say that the conceptual work undertaken by the denizens of NON — from its figureheads to its affiliates — has both a thick history and a kinetic present, confined neither to the dulling mediation and algorithmic monetization of internet flows nor the acquisitive enclosure of institutionalized art spaces.

Illegible to an aspirationally empirical framework partitioning strictly delimited spheres of action — into, for instance, the cultural, the “properly” political, and the economic — the unlicensed citizens of NON refused the metaphor of accessibility that reifies a normative subject of both critique and practice. Nonperformance (or NON’s performance) radicalized the grooves and contours of conceptual possibility, its transnational drift and insolent allegiance to borderless excess a rebuff to any categorization that sought to corral NON’s conceptual legwork within a whitewashed genealogy of avant-gardist esotericism. NON rejected the figure of the dumb proletarian deaf to the soundings of nonperformance, his dumb aperture the narrow constabulary of statist representation. Because sound is politics, politics is thought, thought is real, people think.

Nonperformance, legally speaking, designates the failure to fulfill a contractual obligation. Nonperformance, as Sora Han and Fred Moten and Nkisi and Angel-Ho and Chino Amobi and Embaci and Zarai and Klein and FAKA and MORO and MHYSA and Why Be and Mya Gomez and Alex Zhang Hungtai taught us, provincialized the prescriptions and projections plotted by the teleology of the contract and pries open a radical indeterminacy in whose uncertainty radical practice just might interrupt the reproduction of the lethal extant. When the contract has always ordained a form of death, and when death limns the choreographies of the necropolitical ordinary premised on the ongoing expropriation and extermination of diasporic intimacies and improvisations alike, the stakes of sound and thought and practice for NON-citizens refigured the very terrain that conceptual labor must make its irreducible horizon.


Not Not Fun

[CUTICLE · CIRCLES · VARIOUS ARTISTS]

If you started a record label in 2004, chances are that in 2019 you’re working your way up the management ladder in the private sector, paying down a mortgage, turning down going to shows to hit up hardware stores on Saturday mornings, and occasionally looking in the mirror and thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah, I had a record label one time.” Not so for Los Angeles label Not Not Fun (at least on the latter), which has been plugging away for 15 years. Bedroom psychedelia, experimental dub, late-night shamanic synths, journeyman rock, and trippy ambient tones littered its vast discography, which has been so prolific that for a few years in the early 2010s it was putting out over a dozen releases per year. While the output has recently slowed down (it released three tapes this year), the quality remained spot on. As label co-founder Britt Brown said to our very own C Monster back in 2014, “You need to constantly feel like the shit you’re putting out NOW is as awesome as anything you’ve ever done. The current crop should always be your favorite.” And he meant it. Throughout the years, Not Not Fun magnificently highlighted a varied roster of artists and scenes from all over the globe, running so deep that listeners of all tastes could find at least one release, if not nearly a dozen, that got them nodding their heads and moving their feet.


Nyege Nyege Tapes

[OTIM ALPHA · SLIKBACK · DUKE]

Nyege Nyege, so the oft-touted tidbit goes, names “the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance” in the Lugandan tongue. It’s a catchy soundbite, for sure, but it still doesn’t quite capture the full and total en-/un-meshing of ourselves to and from our bodies and our machines, our feet from our brains, all in the spirit of the Dance. That might be getting some of the way there toward describing Nyege Nyege Tapes’s impact on the TMT hive mind in the latter portion of this decade.

While the tape side of operations was inaugurated in 2017, Nyege Nyege had its origins as a party, a studio, and a festival in Uganda, as is befitting a label with such a grounding in the intensely material, ritualistic experience of the Dance. As we veer into the new decade, the label’s reach now stretches beyond Uganda’s borders and into other parts of East Africa; it even has a nifty sub-label in Hakuna Kulala and a few vinyl LPs, to boot. Generic specializations played their role in Nyege Nyege’s outreach — electro acholi was repped by stalwarts Otim Alpha and Leo PaLayeng, and we’d be remiss not to mention singeli and the Sisso crew — but what made it so tantalizing to follow was a no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach to releasing and promoting truly vital music from the continent and beyond. To reductively reel off a few names, we had Riddlore’s psychedelic Afromutations, Jako Maron’s reimagining of the native maloya music of Réunion, and the unmoored live band theatrics of Nihiloxica, as well as my personal favorites from Otim Alpha, Slikback, and Duke (linked above).

Fragmentation and glocalization, fostered by the internet (of course), are by now fairly fundamental girders for understanding the state of play in music and its distribution to the four corners of this trash earth. Nyege Nyege Tapes became a pillar of the 2010s by reckoning with and harnessing the streams of hype that coalesced around the most intriguing global sounds throughout the decade, but its commitment to placing its artists front and center, and, above all else, releasing killer tunes, is far more likely to be what we remember the label by when we gaze back upon this rarefied juncture. Soundbite earned!


Orange Milk

[GIANT CLAW · NMESH · MACHINE GIRL]

There are many ways to describe Orange Milk’s decade, but one great way would involve Keith Rankin’s art. The man behind Giant Claw (ex-TMTer Keith Kawaii) founded the label with Seth Graham in late 2010, and both have released amazing solo music on it (as well as together as Cream Juice). However, as Orange Milk’s ostensible art director, Rankin also captured the label’s ethos through a collection of covers in the uncanniest ways. It’s an art we couldn’t easily pin a descriptor on. Surreal? Retro-futuristic? Video game-inspired? I mean, in the cover for Foodman’s Ez Minzoku, there is a decapitated head vomiting stairs, surrounded by giant pieces of floating fruit, incongruous shapes, and a severed hand. And that’s just one example of Orange Milk’s many fascinating covers. These pieces of art stood as extraordinary palimpsests of our digital age, just as much as any of the music released by the label.

Such is the strength of Rankin’s art and the symbiosis it had achieved with the music Orange Milk came to (re)present. And we certainly wouldn’t want to sell the label short on its musical merits. A quick look at its catalogue reveals many indispensable names when writing anything approximating a history of underground / experimental / electronic music in the 2010s: DJWWWW, Fire-Toolz, Foodman, Toiret Status, Galen Tipton, death’s dynamic shroud.wmv, EQ Why, etc. But such a wide array of music is far from implying a monolithic AESTHETIC. Though there were common traits among its cohorts, Orange Milk was also home to Machine Girl’s internet punk, luxury elite’s vaporwave orthodoxy, and Nmesh’s cultural hallucinations. Even within the confines of synth-centric experimentation, its releases stretched from Jerry Paper’s quasi-pop leanings to HCJM’s incursions into the noisier quadrants of hypnagogia. The same applied to temporality and geography: Orange Milk showcased the eccentric Midwestern prodigy of Larry Wish, the unearthed works of Russian electronic music pioneer Noah Creshevsky, and the Argentinean avant-garde dispatches in Aylu’s Walden.

But these were not mere quantitative achievements. Orange Milk’s visionary character came from a realization that the museum items of the future were the meaningless trinkets of today. In all likelihood, some centuries from now, even some of the most random aspects of our culture will survive and share space with the older garbage we already impute fictitious meaning upon. Graham and Rankin wanted to start that process right away, putting such polysemic collisions to music. In the process, they have chronicled the maelstrom of a decade, where the past, present, and future stretched, connected, and spliced, even in spite of ourselves.


PAN

[AYYA · M.E.S.H. · PAN DAIJING]

Origins are no longer very fashionable, riddled as they are with their implicit valuational schemes, silenced occlusions, and constitutive forgettings. But the anachronism of origin can offer small comforts — a stoop to rest your feet on after a long night of dancing, the ease of an old friend’s laugh — that make it just a little easier to recount, to recapitulate, to relate. PAN is not the first Berlin-based experimental electronic music label, but it is an origin for me.

By which I mean: PAN is a place to start and a place to return to. PAN is a point of entry, a crevice that sunders as it swallows, an open invitation you can’t refuse. When Piteous Gate swung wide open and ushered me into the break, into label head Bill Kouligas’s meticulously assembled constellation of experimentalisms past and present, I found no possible orientation to PAN other than headlong.

Yes, I arrived late. And to the cratediggers and the old heads, I will always be late.

All sorts of antecedents elude me, but PAN remains a point of reference so extensive and generous and inexhaustible that it offers inroads backward and forward into the novelty of newfound origins, of traces and milestones. There’s mono no aware’s stratigraphy of transience, Ghédalia Tazartès’s found sound assemblages, Sewer Election’s tape sadism, Lee Gamble’s jungle ruminations and disfigurations, and Pan Daijing’s opera of ache — all inviting rapt attention while beckoning elsewhere, gently.

And then, of course, the beats: at once disarming and rousing, transportative and grounding, familiar and inaugural. When shit bangs like Damaged Merc, Motion, Raven Yr Own Worl, Another Life, or Superlative Fatigue, one is not prone to forgetting. Getting bodied so hard leaves an imprint.

All of which is to say that I am not interested in any history of this decade that neglects the impact of PAN on the ear or the gut. And I think that’s what I mean by an origin: something you wouldn’t be here without. Something that makes you question how to begin.


PC Music

[QT · GFOTY · A. G.]

Pop culture is an economy of signs; commercial pop artifacts are repositories of signs, which are the economy’s currency. Baudrillard names it sign value: it’s how Starbucks sets obscene prices on cheap commodities, relative to their ordinary exchange value; it’s how Kanye sells plain Ts for the cost of my entire wardrobe. Brands are a type of sign, yet signs aren’t limited to brands, nor are brands limited to material culture. Katy Perry is a brand whose sign value fluctuates with its different expressions across time: from quasi-edgy pop rebel to bubblegum party girl to socially-conscious activist. While the currency of Katy Perry as sign may persist, the signified changes just as Katy Perry, the signifier, alters her form accordingly — just as a paper rectangle might be recycled from a $1 mark into a €50 mark.

Just as language is a hermetic system whose signifiers convey arbitrary meanings & are meaningful only in relation to each other (i.e., they’re tautological), so the economy of pop culture functions via its own arbitrary signifiers & self-referentiality. PC Music was born in this discursive environment as a platform that accelerates tautology via a genuinely irresistible pop aesthetic in order to vacate pop culture signs of their signified & thus expose the shell of the mere signifier itself, which is glorified, interrogated, celebrated, & ridiculed by turns. Where commercial pop artists often give us reactionary gestures of gravity that deemphasize the naiveté of the “idol” persona, for example, PC Music offered us saccharine synths, high-pitched vocals, & exaggerated femininities, harmonized through a clubby veneer that was decidedly non-threatening & for that very reason quite often uncanny.

Perhaps there’s a risk of “over-analyzing” what’s enjoyable about pop music in its own right; for better or for worse, the growing popularity of SOPHIE & Charli XCX isn’t owed to post-structuralism. Nonetheless, that PC Music’s aesthetic sincerity was uncanny should give pause; often the crew offered us forms that felt almost too obvious. But, as Althusser pointed out, that which is “obvious” is precisely so inasmuch as it’s rooted in ideology: Flourishing in the same decade that gave us vaporwave & deconstructed club, PC Music furthered a broader ongoing reflective process by which we came to terms with the evolution of the discourse of pop culture over the past several decades & its state, place, & role within the capitalist ecosystem today.


Planet Mu

[RP BOO · JOHN WIZARDS · KONX-OM-PAX]

With Machinedrum’s epic Room(s) (2011) and DJ Nate’s mind-bending footwork in Da Trak Genious (2010), Planet Mu started the decade off fuckin’ HOT. And it just kept the hits coming, hits that bridged the divide between UK bass, future garage, and Chicago ghetto tech, fusing so many different influences together to create something truly unique, vital, and global.

For me, the Planet Mu record that stands out most this decade is the underrated 2013 gem John Wizards, where a South African production savant joined a Rwandan refugee to produce a Shangaan electro album with the dreamlike magical quality that extended it way beyond the townships. But there are so many more: Jlin’s revolutionary, kinetic insanity on Black Origami (2017); RP Boo’s hypnotic juke on I’ll Tell You What (2018); Konx-om-Pax’s foray into the club and the bliss of the carefree comedown on Ways of Seeing (2019).

And that’s not it! Planet Mu’s artists (Ital Tek and Kuedo, in particular) kept pushing the wonky subset known as purple sound forward, moving it into a kind of Tangerine Dream-meets-footwork utopia that I never wanted to leave. And then somehow the Holy Mu kept pumping out releases by IDM legends like u-ziq and Venetian Snares while exploring new directions in deconstructed club (Antwood’s three full-lengths) and ambient (Meemo Comma’s brilliant release this year, Sleepmoss).

Writing this decade piece, I kept feeling like all this shit is criminally underrated. And it is! Without Planet Mu, music would be a lot worse off. Its artists simply never stopped moving forward. I’d try to predict where the label is heading in the next 10 years, but sorry, I’m bonged out dreaming my way though John Wizards.


Príncipe Discos

[DJ NIGGA FOX · P. ADRIX · DJ MARFOX]

There’s no way to talk about dance music trends over the past decade without mentioning kuduro & its diasporic turn. From Jennifer Lopez plagiarizing trans icon Titica to the countless producers globally incorporating the Angolan dance rhythm into the architecture of their beats, kuduro shows no signs of dying out. But rearticulation — that’s another thing. Coalescing into a dance scene during the turbulent period of Angola’s struggle for independence, kuduro took on new life in the Portuguese métropole, as second-generation migrants infused the scene with tougher club sounds, oblique cultural references, humorous samples, & a healthy amount of experimentation.

Príncipe Discos deserves major credit for bolstering that once marginal scene to the mainstream, which goes back as early as 2006, when a group of DJs from the Lisbon projects got together to release a massive compilation of tracks spanning the stylistic range of kuduro, batida, tarraxo, & more. While Príncipe’s first proper releases came out a few years after, its core ensemble of DJs hasn’t changed much, save a few surprising & exciting new additions. Most DJs featured on the original mixtape (e.g., DJ Marfox, DJ Nervoso, DJ N.K.) are going strong today, & others from the early days are reaching new audiences with international shows & releases on other imprints, most notably Warp. Tracking the scene’s evolution through its key artists in real time is a true joy: it’s watching the kids on the block grow up & shine beyond everyone’s expectations.

None of this would’ve been possible without Príncipe, which is both a space to rearticulate community identity & make sense of history, & a form of resistance against the otherwise racist discourse of “ghetto” — a term & aesthetic these artists have wholly reclaimed. From Noite Príncipe, the regular dance party hosted by the Príncipe crew going on its eighth year now, to the genuinely iconic artwork of Márcio Matos that adorns & unifies these artists’ releases both on Príncipe & beyond, there’s just no talking about the Lisbon scene without talking about Príncipe Discos. Because it’s not just a record label, but a scene & — no pun intended — a movement.

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


Most Read