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


Psalmus Diuersae

[HARI HAN · /F · ROBBIE S. TAYLOR]

The label’s name is so on the nose that its Latin-to-English translation feels like a front.

Psalmus Diuersae ⇔ Various Songs. Strip away the ancient mystery associated with classical languages and you’re left with a clinical phrase — a signifier one might find Sharpied on a strip of tape stuck to a filing cabinet. In a decade that gave us a record simply titled Some Rap Songs and normalized distribution via data dump, Psalmus represented the ultimate deconstruction of a record label, doing as much to obfuscate the output and identities of its artists as it did to distribute their work.

Now only accessible through archived copies of its currently-blank website, Lyla Perry’s netlabel (est. 2014?) was an ever-changing library of sound collages, free-jazz exploration, and .pdf files of notebook scribblings, each installment seemingly transmitted from a world just beyond our understanding. From its sparsely-furnished homepage, which housed little more than black hyperlinks on a cream-colored backdrop, visitors were left to their own navigational devices. Clicking on one at random could lead you to a zip file of electroacoustic dreamscapes, a dadaist collage, even an ASMR video. It was a step back into the pastoral internet of the mid-aughts — unpolished and intimate, if not a little scary. Files could disappear or transform overnight. Many of our own posts featuring Psalmus’s work feature now-broken links and can’t be accessed via streaming services. It’s hard to tell whether listeners were meant to be in on a complex inside joke, or were its subject.

Most notably, Psalmus Diuersae introduced us to many of our favorite online personae. Emamouse, a Tokyo-based folktronica producer who performs wearing a felt mask, released a handful of records (and a manga/short film!) through the imprint. Lyla’s pseudonymous project /f earned our EUREKA! distinction in 2014, and has continued to crank out inscrutable noise epics ever since. We still treasure Hari Han’s feathery ambient compositions and crayon drawings.

As long as our hard drives stay intact and the Wayback Machine stays up and running, so too will Lyla Perry’s atavistic vision of a simpler netscape: an age of Mediafire blogs and niche forum communities. The mediums — .wavs, .pdfs, .mp4s — were always the message. The rest is just noise.


PTP

[YATTA · 0COMEUPS · N-PROLENTA]

Earlier this year, sonic vagabond and TMT favorite Lolina begged the question: “Who is experimental music?” Sneakily dissonant in its syntax — staging an ostensible confrontation between the nominative case of the interrogative pronoun and the fiercely contested conjuncture of “music” and “the experimental” — the provocation at once ridicules the hagiographic critical paradigm staking out “the experimental” as the exclusive domain of canonical white men (rest in piss, Harold Bloom!) and underhandedly poses the possibility that experimental art-making can (or is it must?) transgress boundaries demarcating classical distinctions between subject and object, artist and audience, process and product.

At PTP, the unstinting, unsettling, unfinished experimental work of care repaired these alienated categories; bodies and merchandise, rigidly disaggregated and arranged in the seething chain seized and drained by capital, conspired to relate otherwise. Accomplices swerved and ducked out of tallied position to take care, not stock.

“This is a care without responsibility, a care without guarantees, placed in danger.”

PTP’s beautiful experiment eluded capture of any sort, insisting on a notion of “the experimental” that baffled the purse-clutching, land-grabbing, back-stabbing claims of hermeticity and autonomy; that reneged on those reified proprieties; that weaponized relation between sound, saliva, self-preservation, city, personae, paraffin.

On gang/on Geng: “the curator becomes the accomplice when she helps to produce this uncomfortable care, a care that is dangerous, made together but open to anyone and anything, a beautiful care that enlivens attention, heightens sense till sense and meaning coincide.” Drawing from and experimenting with the rich collective productions, social reimaginings, and conspiratorial caretakings tagged and thumping throughout NYC — Wu Tang, Powerule Crew, Mobb Deep — caretaker Geng less curated than colluded, clearing space within the chokeholding architectures of foreclosure and incarceration for séances of breath, ugly cries , lustrous comeups, and, above all, love stories .

Because it was all love.


Recital

[IAN WILLIAM CRAIG · SARAH DAVACHI · SIMPLE AFFECTIONS]

Despite our best efforts, the past won’t let us go. Throughout the last decade, Sean McCann’s Recital label allayed that encumbrance, carried on its own shoulders the weight of abandoned aesthetic traditions, and became itself a catalog of musical histories in reformation. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble was a rapturous bounty; Ian William Craig’s A Turn of Breath was untouchably smoldering; Sarah Davachi’s Let Night Come On Bells End the Day eked out pleasure in mellifluous drones; Karla Borecky was genteel, Matthew Sullivan celestial, Roger Eno like white smoke. Recital carved lines in the stone of history between what came before and what happens now, and, in essential projects like the singularly ambitious and collaborative “dream LP” Simple Affections, made music of coinciding voices.

But that’s only half the legend told. Recital was not just a counselor of progress, but an antiquary of a musical underground, a collator of collapsed time and lost sagas that were invariably a blessing to receive: unearthed sound experiments and poetry from legends like Dick Higgins, François Dufrêne, and Geoffrey Hendricks; unreleased folk curios by The Ivytree; reverent reissues from Loren Connors; and unexpected one-offs like the live radioplays of Towards a Total Poetry. Every Recital release, regardless of source or inspiration, was an exquisite surprise to be discovered, a celebration of some obscure class of workmanship, and a niche of warm appreciation for anomalous art and its authors.

Reading McCann’s publicity notes for each release, one gets the impression that Recital as a marvel of curation could only exist in a digital environment that allowed for immediate contact between globally divergent artists and collaborators, yet the label’s entire project was to honor the record of a past dotted with insular, regional scenes distinguished by a particular grade of experimentation. Heading into the uncharted horizon of a new decade, Recital remains an unparalleled museum for tomorrow. Its artifacts are sanctuary.


Room40

[LAWRENCE ENGLISH · PINKCOURTESYPHONE · ALEXANDRA SPENCE]

This decade began auspiciously for the Australian field recordist Lawrence English, and it has only improved since. On January 1, 2010, English’s label Room40 released its 10th-anniversary compilation, titled simply 10. If we’re lucky enough to see 20 drop this coming January, it will highlight an impressive roster recruited in the label’s second decade. Room40 has seen luminaries including Portuguese improviser Rafael Toral, English sound theorist David Toop, and Japanese insane person Merzbow join its ranks in the past 10 years.

Room40’s remit is to blur the boundaries between noise, ambience, and field recordings. English himself led the way in the 2010s with two major statements on the relationship between noise and political expression: an exploration of informational repetition by way of feedback loops on Wilderness of Mirrors (2014) and a meditation on affective responses to global catastrophe on Cruel Optimism (2017). On the ambient side, Richard Chartier’s pinkcourtesyphone project arranged sizable blocks of reverb and distortion into beguiling shapes on Elegant and Detached (2012) and Indelicate Slices (2017); on the field recording side, this year’s haunting Waking, She Heard the Fluttering by Alexandra Spence wrests beauty and horror out of found sound.

Actually, looking back, it seems that Room40 has fulfilled its remit. The boundaries are blurred. Attempts at categorization have been defied. Spence’s field recordings are noisy as hell. English’s noise comes in waves of ambience. Pinkcourtesyphone’s ambience roars into noise and subsides into clips of found sound. Room40’s new goal for the 2020s? Continue honing what can only be called “the Room40 sound.”


RVNG Intl.

[HOLLY HERNDON · JULIA HOLTER · KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH & SUZANNE CIANI]

I’m notorious for effing up quotes, but I will never stop collecting them. One I wrote down ages ago is by artist Rita Ackermann about Michael Jackson, how “He was able to compress a bulldozer and Bambi into one song. That’s also the main focus of my own work. I want to show such a duality in its most raw form — with a fragility that triggers aggression.” This seems to sum up the work philosophy of Brooklyn’s RVNG Intl. Co-founded and run by Matt Werth, the label has since 2003 gathered seemingly incongruent threads and woven them into complex pieces. Each release was like a trip through the looking glass, to test the limits of music and language. And with its FRKWYS series, it unleashed some of the most memorable and meaningful mishmashes of the last decade in experimental and new music. Painstaking rumination might be behind its releases — from its regular issues and the aforementioned collaborations to its Beats in Space, Freedom to Spend, and ReRVNG archival choices — but I like to think the label came to these musical inventions freely, with a willingness to try almost anything to bring something “new” into the often-tired landscape. Going against the grain of the current climate, RVNG Intl. has issued works that capture a fresh strangeness and an artistic freedom that few labels would tolerate. Music should make us feel, and if you can’t feel the music released by RVNG Intl., what can you feel?


Sacred Bones

[JOHN CARPENTER · AMEN DUNES · ZOLA JESUS]

They’re Pokémon cards; they’re comic books tucked in plastic sleeves; they’re cereal boxes lined up on a supermarket shelf. Sacred Bones’s record sleeves are as integral to the Brooklyn label’s success as its penchant for post-punk and crepuscular aesthetic. Almost all of them are stamped with an ouroboros and imprinted with a tracklist that resembles a list of active ingredients — a letterhead logo that feels almost clinical, imposing order on the discography’s array of ghoulish and psychedelic artwork. There’s an obsessive need to collect them all that stems from the intersection between uniformity and variety. The catalog numbers are even printed prominently on the front covers! Label founders Caleb Braaten and David Correll have made an effort to maintain this consistency from its founding in 2007, citing the futurist and spartan artwork of Factory Records as a key influence.

Factory’s legacy even seeps into Sacred Bones’s sound, especially in the former half of its history. Alongside gloomy garage-rockers like Gary War and Blank Dogs, synth-centric acts like TR/ST and Led Er Est carved out a nostalgic niche for the label, capturing the attention of an 80s-obsessed indie zeitgeist at the turn of the decade. The most memorable releases of the period, though, came from Sacred Bones’s more eclectic contributors. Amen Dunes’s Through Donkey Jaw appeared on many of our staff’s decade lists, transmitting spectral folk-rock through a watery atmosphere. Zola Jesus’s early work with the label was a fascinating precursor to her recent cinematic output — beautifully brittle and caked in distortion.

The decade’s latter half has seen Sacred Bones wear many hats. Though unexpected, its forays into the film world have fit neatly into the label catalog, sandwiching John Carpenter’s Halloween score and a handful of Julee Cruise demos between works by Black Marble and Jenny Hval. And let’s not forget the 1976 Plantasia record it reissued this March: a synthetic, New Age ficus blooming from its surrounding selection of vintage punk and industrial electronica. The vibes might be funereal, but, yes, there are even slivers of optimism interred with the ‘Bones.


Shelter Press

[BULBS · JAB · GABRIEL SALOMAN]

Less a record label than an immaculate virtual boutique of musicianship (plus lovingly crafted visual/textual artifacts known as books) at its most supra-threshold tactile, Felicia Atkinson and Bartolomé Sanson’s “publishing platform” has been remarkably consistent since its 2012 inception.

There was the elaborate controlled melting and stricken atrophy of Ben Vida’s final Damaged Particulates installment in 2016, as well as Gabriel Saloman’s alternately stark and murkily idyllic Monument Building triptych, which was truly transportive, despite many of us not getting to see the choreographed dance it was made for. There was D/P/I’s spark shower playgroup of triggered automation and ostensible 2016 bow-out, Composer. Also the kit-muted Music is Rotted One-Note-esque velvet gloved throttling of percussionist Eli Keszler’s Stadium. Flautist John Also Bennett gave us two peace-imbuing yet tense minimalist sonic habitats (one in collaboration with Christina Vantzou). And Atkinson herself has presented some of her best work here (2017’s low, squirmy, and fatalistically reflective Hand in Hand), in addition to cementing a powerful collaborative magic with the great Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.

For a small concern, 48 albums in less than 10 years is impressive enough. But for each to retain such essentially distinct textural character for all that time casts a special glow on the endeavor. Rather than missteps, Shelter Press offered curious genre detours, slowly ironing out the more fickle wrinkles of preference. It almost felt like a staggeringly intricate exhibit or compilation given an indefinite extension. It was not scene-specific or specific at all, beyond a desire for greater media intersectionality in experimental music. As a result, Shelter Press has been a fine example of how experimental approaches to music can dissolve their imposed margins of obscurity and properly reward the curious past their bewildered enticement.


Stunned

[WARM CLIMATE · VODER DETH SQUAD · BERBER OX]

Phil and Myste French didn’t invent the cassette tape, but by 2010, their label Stunned was the undisputed champion of the medium. At a time when physical media was under attack from digital files and the emergence of streaming services, Stunned seemed to prize musical objects as important as the melodic messaging therein. The label provided an outlet for artists to express themselves inexpensively. Let’s take a chance on an artist, a scene, and an idea — and the whole idea of Stunned followed. The artwork was especially vivid, a pastiche of graphic and color as unpredictable and experimental as the music it was encasing. The artists, young and wild, expressing themselves in a manner befitting the singular aesthetic of the label’s design choices: art pieces in 4.25 x 2.75-inch packages.

Stunned brought us early releases from M. Geddes Gengras, High Aura’d, and Sparkling Wide Pressure. It took on a variety of noise, drone, and experimental pop that had no discernible place in a world increasingly attached to indie music rather than independent artists. And all of it arrived on cassette, a medium so outdated in the mainstream at the time that its affordability in both creation (dubbing parties at home on a stereo setup) and shipping (media mail) made it accessible to not only labels pumping them out, but also DIY artists on a shoestring budget. Even as social networks were becoming the norm, Stunned seemed to bring these disparate sounds, personalities, and artistic values together to create a community that built upon the label’s ethos. So when Phil and Myste shuttered Stunned in 2011, it was a relationship ending. Although all parties involved moved on and like-minded independent music began to thrive, along with the cassette tape, a lot of it felt hollow without Stunned along for the ride, especially given the label’s lasting impact throughout the decade.

Thankfully, Stunned found “it was impossible for us to stay away for long.” Eight years is an eternity in music these days, but Stunned’s clandestine return this year through Phil and Myste’s own musical outlet, Nite Lite, still felt relevant and of this time. Whether this was a reawakening or one final kiss goodbye, its timeliness was matched only by its necessity.


Sublime Frequencies

[MARK GERGIS · KOUDEDE · BORANA TRIBE]

When your ears have been desperate to lock in with the nexus of human eloquence and brevity (though the bounty is staggering), for (roughly) another 10 years now, Sublime Frequencies was your Huckleberry. This desperation reaches across cultures and the fool’s errands that we run through our inherited tools of expression (namely music and diplomacy), even if time has often shown we can’t have nice things in this regard. As fine as it’d be for that fine point of grace to be a home, it evaporates with our hunger for it. In this light, Sublime Frequencies continues to stay the course, capturing insistent yet unassuming moments in time and space that elevate its raw quality to something more emotionally vital than its potential curio status for Western audiences.

Be it the deep, windblown blues of Group Inerane and the Guitars from Agadez series or travelogues like Mark Gergis’s I Remember Syria (reissued in 2014), ritual music like Olivia Wyatt’s hypnotic document Staring at The Sun: Ethiopian Tribal Music, or the enchanting folk-pop universe of Omar Khorshid’s Guitar el Chark, Sublime Frequencies have faithfully presented its Middle Eastern, North/West African, and Southeast Asian sounds with an emphasis on authentic and ethical representation of the artists.

The label has unerringly balanced its potentially luddite-ish aversion to polish with a showcase of the vast sonic potentiality contained within spare, ancient, and modern instrumental elements in a natural environment. Both the intimacy and ear-expanding quality of these artifacts have not been dulled by the 2014 decision to put many of its titles (sold out and otherwise) on Bandcamp. If anything, it likely helped to nudge the label beyond its money-to-burn completist collector market. The vast trove of incredible music and footage (its mesmerizingly immersive DVDs are well worth seeking out) might get slightly lost in translation, but the sheer force of the passion behind these rituals/performances has been unmistakable and appropriately humbling to behold.


Warp

[APHEX TWIN · ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER · FLYING LOTUS]

The 2000s was a period in which Warp, the de facto electronic label, was largely bemoaned for capitulating to the indie trends of the time. Bands like Maxïmo Park and Grizzly Bear didn’t fit the classicist’s view of what Warp was “supposed” to be. Turns out, the label was only just getting started. This decade, Warp had the boldness to release music from artists as disparate as Danny Brown and Drexciya, just because both of them fucking rip. This stretching of genre in its ranks found the label combining the experimental electronic fortitude it was known for — whether it was Richard D. James imbuing importance amongst the cavalry or Autechre feeding the purists that mutated techno we all so enjoy — with young guns like Kelela, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Yves Tumor, who helped define not only the label this decade, but contemporary music in general, each subverting electronic music standards in some fashion. Warp’s visionary approach was also complemented by its ears on the past, whether it was reissues of landmarks by LFO, Boards of Canada, and Stereolab, or something as simple as Broadcast’s presence on their website, a reminder of what should and could have been.

Perhaps most significantly, there’s an undeniable influence from Warp’s leadership that flows through all these musicians. Artists were offered not only enough resources to build upon their previous works, but also the freedom to pursue whatever wild ambitions came to mind, resulting in a vast range of treasures dedicated to pushing the envelope, releases that felt all-around bigger and bolder. It’s why Warp is the label supremé of our time, the standard to which all music labels should be held.

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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