When I was a shithead high school kid playing in my first punk rock band, I’m pretty positive that my cohorts and I dedicated much more time to hanging out in a Denny’s booth sketching logos and fine-tuning our astoundingly under-researched shortlists of the record labels that would ideally release our first earthshaking longplayer than we ever dedicated to, ya know, “writing” and “practicing” songs. But strangely, I don’t think this sort of thing happened because we were “lazy.” I think it’s because, a lot of times, the brand name counts even more than the music does. And I guess we all kinda understood that, even back then.
Sure, we may all walk around our lives most of the time pretending like our choices and justifications are all pure and internally driven… but — as the introductory statements to three solid years’ worth of these Favorite Labels lists all ably point out — that shit is a straight-up hallucination. What we all really need at the end of the day is to feel assured that we’re part of a bigger story. We want those choices backed up by some weird, impossibly infallible guarantee.
On a grand scale, this whole project represents nothing less than the most utterly serious of metaphysical business: nothing and no one stands on their own. Individuals are forgotten. Lines have endpoints. Organisms wither and die. We see this. We know this. We hate this. Brands, on the other hand, endure. Those glorious abstractions known as “classifications,” “families,” “institutions,” and so on can’t be killed. In other words, we’re not just talking comfort here; we’re talking Immortality.
But even on the level of our day-to-day exploitation and/or enjoyment of culture, it holds true. For example, even now, as I try to reconstitute the narrative, some of my favorite records of 2017 didn’t just “come out.” They “came out as editions on Sean McCann’s Recital program.” As a writer, I found it downright difficult to parse and explain the evolution of certain monikers without using Hospital Productions as a scaffolding or to discuss this-or-that artist without shouting-out Posh Isolation. And I’ve got to fess up to the fact that, as a fan, I attended several shows and bought several records based on their Don Giovanni tag alone.
Is any of this compulsive brand-association particularly justified or fair? Objectively, no, I guess not. But that’s exactly the point: categorizing frail, transient little things into grand structures that transcend the worth of each of those little peons when tallied individually not only provides a nice distraction, but it also helps cocoon us — however temporarily and delusionally — in a cozy and structured-yet-flexible hammock rather than leaving us all sailing naked through the silent, freezing, soulless, limitless, and immeasurable depths of deep space at a million miles an hour.
So, um, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just go head and keep clinging like grim death to all the delusional institutions I can get my mammalian hands on. In fact, here are 14 or so that you might find handy too — all new additions. Take ’em or leave ’em.
Since 2013, Noumenal Loom, run by Garrett Crosby, a.k.a. Holly Waxwing, out of Birmingham, Alabama, has been pogoing around the globe to gather together all sounds exciting and excitable. So far, the label has pepped us way up with seminal releases by aggregative electronic wizards Foodman, Giant Claw, and Seth Graham, while concurrently winding down with gentle albums from the lovably chill likes of Tuluum Shimmering and Angel Dust Dealers. Their 2017 roster opened with an addictively danceable cassette from DJ Voilà, and whether the label has been exploring techno, funk, smooth jazz, or muzak, it’s been an idea of bodily movement that has unified all of this year’s tapes and albums. We’ve window-shopped with Haha Mart and loosened into a swaying groove with Jasper Lee and Earthly. Bouncy releases from Pascale Project and $3.33 scrubbed the dance floor clean, and, to round out the year, the label just dropped two back-to-back bath bombs by $ega & The Rainbow Streets, a new project from Kenji Yamamoto, and some mind-boggling impishness from Toiret Status. Amidst all kinds of paralyzing madness outside, spaces and sounds that invite such movement feel distinctly joyful and freeing.
Hands in the Dark
Even French label Hands In the Dark’s name dallies with the corporeal, alluding to a sense beyond the visible, a prickle or a tickle when the lights are off. Label founder Morgan Cuinet has compiled a walloping roster of experimental artists whose work mines the occult affect of sub-bass, the pilomotor reflex to binaural wizardry, and the pineal proprioception to the encounter between ambie(/a)nce and the human ear. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the artists represented — among them Matt Jencik, Brian Case, and Byron Westbrook — positively bodied the electronic music scene in 2017. Even from the pirouetting opening seconds of Westbrook’s “Dance and Free Fall,” the opening track off Body Consonance, tendrils of sound coagulate and consummate with the ear, consonate with the flesh, palpitate along with the temple’s pulse. Mastered by Helmut Erler and TMT favorite Rashad Becker at Berlin’s Dubplates & Mastering, these delicately fashioned transmissions massage and clench, stimulating the viscera and churning the gut. Hands in the Dark has quietly built a catalog of ambient music with gumption, a dance music for the synapses and for the goosebumps. The future is now: forget your antidepressants and anhedonia. With hands and feet and neck and back — in the dark or in the light — we’re getting sensual.
Nyege Nyege Tapes
Luck’s acute attribute is having enough faith in letting go of the good and/or bad; a bird shits your in hair: half-think you won the lottery, but you keep thinking, a bird shit in my hair. Communication will forever be sharpened through adverse arts. Nyege Nyege Tapes bugged on 2017 with some excellent cultural deep-dive for listeners to gnash. What hit first was the jux-flow of “Ukuti” by Disco Vumbi. Immediately after, Riddlore’s Afromutations banged so hard, listeners lost direction of “Why?” and pursed immediate: “What timeline does Nyege Nyege Tapes abide by?” The third release defined another unique MC’s entry, Gulu City Anthems by Otim Alpha, baring a certain soul that comes more with the certainty of songwriting than production. Mysterians’s Joyride on Judgment Day was a gem that power-washed nodes on a level of intellect we won’t find until all the pieces of blasted-ambience have fit. But most importantly, Sounds of Sisso vibes on such a level of reappropriative, cultural instinct, one forgets to even find the magnitude of hype, purely grappling at the textures of rhythm. Nyege Nyege Tapes defines the stripped-down airfare to where prestige and lister-expansion take the next step.
Whatever happened to the classics? Did we just get over them? Or rather, did they get over us? Is it still possible to remain just a little bit old-fashioned in a world that’s progressing at an exponential rate, when what happened even yesterday is archaic, forgotten, meaningless? For one, maybe study up on Sean McCann’s Recital Program, which spent yet another year shattering the glass walls between “high” and “low” art, proving again that everything is fascinating if we just look a little closer. Between exploring the lost lineage of the Mazzacane/Connors family, exposing the ever-tumbling wordplay of Dick Higgins, and issuing regal, flowing piano works from the likes of Michael Vincent Waller and Roger Eno, Recital kept its cool amidst a musical landscape that continues to self-implode. In reclaiming the opulent world of the classical for the underground of today, McCann’s label creates its own sort of beautiful order out of chaos, a theater in which the mundane and the ornate can freely converse and even trade places for a while if they so choose, unshackled from the class boundaries that so often keep the two camps railing against one another. Whatever happened to the classics? They’re living among us now.
Music from Memory
“Music from Memory” is a misnomer and double entendre both. The records released by the Amsterdam label can’t be from memory in its most common meaning, simply because they have almost never been heard by “the masses” before. The music does, however, come from what could be called a place of memory. It has the ability to instill nostalgia for mysteries, to create attachments to unlived experiences. What started with the phenomenal Vito Ricci full-length in 2015 and was constituted with the Dip In The Pool reissue in 2016 has, this year, become a stalwart of archival transcendence. Although it’s often titled a “reissue label,” every 2017 release out of Music from Memory feels incredibly new. Psychedelic Brazilian music comps feel dime-a-dozen these days, but 2017’s Outro Tempo pillars over them all. The clunky disco of Dutch DJ Richenel feels a step ahead of contemporary house nostalgics. What the label provides is a sort of one-way mirror, looking at a past that was dreaming of its future. The attention to detail and arduous curation that goes into every record from Music from Memory highlights not where we went wrong, but what was done right.
The Worst couldn’t be more misnamed. Since January, the netlabel has birthed a baker’s dozen of the squelchiest/geekiest/sugar-sludgiest breakcore the bowels of SoundCloud have to offer. The imprint functions as the post-internet era’s answer to the Smithsonian Folkways, cataloguing cyberpunk transmissions from the web’s uncharted territories: aside from surface-level nods to Warp’s cheeky humor and penchant for cluttered drum-breaks, much of the label’s output represents the hyper-individualism within a late-capitalist state that has driven us deep into our own curated aesthetics for solace. Minogame’s a tribe of one, signified by their Lascaux-like scribblings and math-rock source material. The prolific Ancient Origin is also a culture unto itself, one informed as much by Animal Crossing’s pastoral tradition as it is by mid-aughts crunk mixtapes. Visit The Worst’s Bandcamp, click a record cover, and assimilate: this is an expansive charting a miniature world.
I’ll be real: last year, I hadn’t heard of Profound Lore Records. Sure, I knew a ton of their past releases, like those of Krallice, Altar of Plagues, and Nadja, but I wasn’t fully conscious of the brilliant and gnarled web that tied them all together. The fateful moment that changed all that was the December release of Ash Borer’s superb The Irrepassable Gate, which was one of the most truly badass black metal records I’d heard in years. I became obsessed, and I started paying attention to Profound Lore (run by the great Chris Bruni). Enter 2017. I came into this year ready to chomp on anything Profound Lore released, and what a fucking year they’ve had. Pallbearer’s Heartless was a thrilling, prog-tinged doom journey that was as compelling as anything the band has done. Full Of Hell’s Trumpeting Ecstasy was an impeccably produced and excellently paced grindcore album, one of the year’s best in the genre. And then there was Loss’ magical doom odyssey Horizonless, whose grizzly howls brought an appropriate sense of melancholic yearning for listeners in 2017. And let’s not forget Sannhet’s aggressive and relentless So Numb, a refreshingly powerful exercise in instrumental metal. But, in my opinion, Profound Lore’s crowning achievement for the year was Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, a breathtaking, bass-laden drive through the great beyond via glacial doom metal. The label capped the year off with this month’s epically unsettling 7xLP Rainbow Mirror by Prurient, a release that delivered a whole new set of mysteries and moods for us to relish as we slide gracefully into 2018. I raise my glass to you now, Profound Lore, as I have many times in my life, whether knowingly or unknowingly. You have brought a significant amount of beautiful music into the world this year. Thank you.
End of the Alphabet
I have often wondered the existential meaning behind Noel Meek’s End of the Alphabet label. I can conjure many shortsighted missives about the location of New Zealand, the idea of the letters X, Y, and Z being largely ignored and underused, or perhaps the notion that those same letters are quite weird and therefore loosely lumped together. So I’ll stick to a combination of all three, which is why EotA is such an ear-opening experience. Whether it’s via Meek’s own releases and collaborations, or those spotlighting both his New Zealand and its surrounding — and equally ignored — regional sounds. Considering how stuck Western culture seems to be, I’d rather delve into the XYZs of our globe than the ABCs.
Tucked away in the fogs of the Pacific Northwest, this year the gang at MOTOR Collective did not “break through” so much as further refine their version of dance music — moody, spacious, and deep, yet grounded enough that you can actually move to it. MOTOR releases (as well as their excellent parties and podcasts) feel less like music for the club as we know it and more like the jump-off point for some head-trip gathering in the forest; the sense of a group yearning for this vision carries across records as varied as R Gamble’s Realistic Spaces and Heidi Sabertooth’s The Hear Of Now (both highlights for the year). That you can still hear the tape hiss on many digital versions of MOTOR tracks (as opposed to the hyperreal, LOL-perfect rendering of so much modern electronic music) speaks to what the label is going for. Like mighty ponderosa left in the rain, it’s imperfect and gently warped, still sturdy, and full of personality.
The Parisian label PERMALNK has been offering what it calls an “empathetic image of the world” since 2014, but it wasn’t until this year, with three strong releases, that it brought that image into clearer focus. The empathy of DETENTE’s Basic Dwell is reserved for the world’s smoldering and static-charged bits, where its energy is locked up, and from whence it manifests in stuttering impact and action-movie fidelity, accompanied by the grungy tremolo of guitar. Léo Hoffsaes and Loto Retina collaborated on Early Contact, the intimate story of a woman’s day out with her son and husband as her second child squirms in her belly, with uterine gurgling joining airy string melodies in a duet of nervous anticipation that spreads, as if contagiously, from narrator to listener. Far from both the incidental onslaught of Basic Dwell and the human intimacy of Early Contact, Benoit B’s Ethereal Drops addressed itself to the world as if to a fantastic, New Age-adjacent vision of nature. Its tracks, like the standouts “Sparkling Stream” and “Diamonds Rain,” combined a high, animalistic chirp with pads colored in shades of balearic and trance, constructing an image that, like artist Tavi Lee’s album cover, carries about it a worldly air, even in its bold color palette and surreal bending of the edges of its “natural” forms about one another. In 2017, PERMALNK has accomplished something rare in releasing three albums with little in common aside from an adherence to the label’s noble mission statement and, more importantly, an uncanny coherence as individual works of art.
In some secret file on Loke Rahbek’s hard drive, one can find my full frontal nudes along with a genetalia garden of many other bodies, desecrated and devalued, for they all were exchanged, vulnerability for vulnerability, with a cassette tape of Croatian Amor’s 2014 album The Wild Palms. In the commodification of the world, all things are abstractly identified with an exchange value, where even vulnerability has a value, for the body is as expendable as every other image. Yet, here we give one’s inability to give as a gift — one’s vulnerability. The self-interest of commodity economy is abdicated in preference of a gift exchange. Here, Rahbek creates an artificial space to find other people. Posh Isolation’s forays beyond noise and industrial to lyrical ambient and minimal techno belie industrial music’s foundation in the incommunicable dissonance of the world of industrial capitalism, where seeking to be heard above the din is a project worthy of art. By fetishizing the empty object in the artificial space of performance, this bubblegum industrial forges impossible connections that, though artificial, become pleasurable and therefore real. Through pain directed inward, as if pierced by a great many arrows, we confirm that one’s self is irreducible to the abstract identification of the commodity, as Saint Sebastian his beauty. The ultimate need to make contact snaps one out of artificiality. In 2017, the cold has become a little bit warmer and a sort of sincerity is resuscitated.
What’s opera, doc? Opera is text by tune splitting story, Italian for “work.” Opera is Don Giovanni, some Austrian seraph’s diminishing sevenths flicking humans into shouting until the sound shakes our hearts. Hearts and mouths shout, so listen: Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski played in a bad band at Boston College, made their own 7-inch, and voila: opera via Don Giovanni. It’s music label as New Brunswick new alternative, nixing commercial interruption so artist and audience are fleet free as a Mozart minuet to trade roles and help each other. “Anyone can do anything and not just that, everyone can do everything. No one’s fucking special,” Steinhardt reminds us. In an ashen historical moment, those words are totem for remembering the good work of “nobody lives unless everybody lives.” Don Giovanni is Aye Nako’s rim shot disrupt-punk and the geography-atomizing Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. It’s Irreversible Entanglements, unmetered jazz outfit as union collective and A Piece of Water, the Buenos Aires tidal pool dream of Agua Viva, a body’s buoyancy over oppression. It’s La Neve’s American Sounds, a non-binary bodying the electric song as new national anthem sans strict script and the breaking “Glass House,” Screaming Female’s yowl of a collective body’s mission to re-member shards of 2017’s ill-reality into something better for every body. The music label model is the original resisting force, the libretto punk show, a two-fold work of labor output and piece created. Don Giovanni refuses repenting like the title character and screams high C’s into hell, a Looney Tunes promise that everything is movable except good work. Don Giovanni is the good work, opera for us by us. No one’s fucking special. Everyone’s fucking special.
OK, you caught me; Piratón Records isn’t as prolific as some of these other labels. As far as I can tell, it currently only exists as a Bandcamp page, and since its founding in 2015 by Mexico City musician and music journalist Carlos Huerta (a.k.a. Josué Josué), there are only four releases, all available for free streaming with a “name your price” option for download. One of them, Ruido’s 2015 FUN LP, is a totally bonkers instrumental hip-hop/chip-tune/synth punk thing. Two of them are compilations in a series called No hay más fruta que las nuestra, which means, “There is no fruit other than ours,” a play on a quote by Mexican social realist painter David Siqueiros: “No hay mas ruta que la nuestra” (“There is no other route but ours”). This year’s No hay más fruta que la nuestra 2 is why I’m writing this blurb. Like its 2016 predecessor, it features all kinds of music by female artists from Latin America and Spain. TMT favorite (Upgrayedd) Smurphy is on it, along with 11 other incredible ladies whose work spans pop, punk, rap, techno, and folk. It’s basically all I’ve listened to this year (besides, like, DAMN. and A Crow Looked At Me, so you know it’s good but ultimately responsible for way fewer tears). Snarkiness aside, I hope that somebody finds this at least half as empowering as I did this year. Life fairs a little better when your music’s this good.
2017 was the 20th year in the business for Dominic Fernow’s Hospital Productions. The label celebrated with tastefully grim releases that fit nicely under the three categories of Fernow’s own projects, Vatican Shadow, Prurient, and Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. Like Demdike Stare’s DDS and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Software imprints, Hospital Productions never strays far from Fernow’s infernal circle of influence. The label eschews the convenience of modern platforms, preferring physical record stores and distributors like Boomkat and Bleep to platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Aesthetically, the labels seems to occupy a razor-thin void that exists between the chic, palatable throb of ambient techno — the sort of jilted, swooning sound that intellectual architecture students in horn-rimmed glasses and ket-heads in crop tops can bond over — and the always unpalatable, unpredictable underground noise scene. The latter is the spawning pool of Hospital Productions, a realm of cut-and-paste cassette art and “noise tables,” which basically kept the National Audio Company in business until avant-garde electronica and Urban Outfitters found tapes to be a fashionable medium again. It’s a dangerous game Fernow plays: with every high-bias, 180g limited-edition release at the luxury price point, he runs the risk of playing to the “market,” whether ironically or for personal gain.
Industry politics aside, the music is of scrupulous quality and gluttonous proportions. Hospital Productions is committed to releases of staggering, atmospheric scale: the monolithic physical LPs and cassette boxes are like dense artifacts, adding to the imprint’s quasi-archaeological mystique. Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement put out a few large cuts, coming over two hours on a reissue of Green Graves. The project also put out an eight-cassette compilation titled Water Witches, one of many such bricks of tape that the label would drop. Another eight-hour box set of 8xCS was released for Dust Belt’s brooding, dark ambient on Ecocannibalism, and then of course there was the 6xLP release of Prurient’s massive Rainbow Mirror, which was co-released with Profound Lore. The club side of Hospital Productions is equally grim: Ninos du Brasil released their second full-length, Vida Eterna, a bludgeoning set of trance-inducing Latin rhythms, as well as another 12-inch. Natural Assembly put out The Fantasy of Love, a mix of post punk and deep house. Shifted drew a converging plane between metal grooves (the rhythmic kind) that sound like they’ve been rubbed out of literal metal grooves and outsider techno beats on Appropriation Stories. As much as I hate the “outsider” term, there’s still not much of a vocabulary for the sort of undanceable, fringes-of-the-club-basement beats that Hospital represents so well.