2018: Favorite Labels From hypermodern visionaries & scattered Asian voices to idiosyncratic club & reenvisioned ambient music

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


There are many labels that mean well, others that do well, and plenty more that have neither of those going for them. While we here at Tiny Mix Tapes are not uncritical of labels as they exist on varying fronts, we especially respect and admire those that do their best to represent a location, a scene, a genre, or some combination thereof, which results in far more distinguished and impressive products than what you’d expect from, say, a member of the Big Three or one of their subsidiaries.

While many labels are simply putting out stuff that means something to them, they are often promoting artists in their stables with a gusto and passion that reflects the musicians they represent. They can be the linchpin of a scene, a booster for obscure artists, or simply a place to incubate ideas and develop them into something massive. When a label utilizes the means of distribution to do something more than just profit off the works of artists, they have the potential to bring something culturally astounding to the table.

We acknowledge all of this here in our list of favorite labels of 2018, all of them once again new additions. From Chinabot reconstituting what sound means to places like Malaysia and Taiwan, to Genome 6.66 Mbp throwing down the heat with multiple angles and genres, to Deathbomb Arc reclaiming a defiant stance to hip-hop, there’s no shortage of powerful, profound, and interesting music here. You have old hats like Kranky celebrating milestones with consistent and rapid-fire blows within experimental music, new kids like West Minerals Ltd. adding flavor to the all-encompassing field of ambient, and shops like I, Voidhanger covering the breadth of metal in all its necessary forms. Some of these joints have dozens of releases this year (\NULL|ZØNE//), others only one (Mind Club). But numbers matter not. Impact does, and that’s why they’re here.


Chinabot

[FAUXE · Pisitakun · Auspicious Family]

Saphy Vong’s Chinabot label is on an underground mission that’s as preservationist as it is forward-thinking. Bringing together scattered voices across the East Asian continent, the label seeks to create, in its own words, “a space for Asian artists to play with their ideas and cultural hybridities,” telling the story of the Asian diaspora through shape-shifting, bass-forward music. Resisting old notions and cultural stereotypes, the 2018 releases on Chinabot mashed up ancient history with the bleeding edge — FAUXE’s I K L H A S found the meeting point between Malaysian folk music and head-nodding hip-hop, while Pisitakun seamlessly foraged static-laden club rhythms from the remnants of Thai mourning chants. Besides their cultural heritage, there was little else in common between many of Chinabot’s releases, besides perhaps a general predisposition toward hard-edged club sounds. But that unpredictability was exactly what made every new Chinabot release such a treat; there was never just one way to sum up the label’s identity, and somehow its releases always managed to make the past sound like the future.


The Death of Rave

[Nozomu Matsumoto · The Sprawl · Gábor Lázár]

Despite the supposed imminent collapse of the physical music media market, I would vouch for 2018 as one of its best years due to the variety, care, and artistic intention of some vinyl labels. Whether it was an obscure reissue, lost work, or brand spankin’ new cut of avant-garde, one of the labels boldly leading this eclectic charge was Boomkat’s own in-house imprint, Death of Rave. There are a lot of Little Guys out there (TMT is one of them!), but Death of Rave receives a Certified Fresh rating for their contribution to the culture in 2018. There was The Sprawl’s Neuromancer-inspired EP 2, all technocratic paranoia, crushed samples, and vertical sound construction, as well as Gábor Lázár’s Unfold, a similarly off-kilter contribution that highlighted Death of Rave’s hypermodern vision. There was also Climatotherapy, a text-to-speech symphony for Amazon’s Polly by Nozomu Matsumoto, and the chained-and-drained Time Exercises, guitarist Cam Deas’s foray into modular environments. True to their name, Death of Rave contained none of the fun of electro house, Hollywood strings, or nu-metal breakdowns, but its bold approach to deconstructing pop culture iconography left a lasting impression.


Deathbomb Arc

[Lana Del Rabies · They Hate Change · JPEGMAFIA]

Deathbomb Arc is militant tape shit. And perseverance. You know that story? Before the law sits a gatekeeper. You know how this story goes? The visitor waits. The door is open. The law keeps itself, kept by a gatekeeper who keeps nothing, the door remaining open and open onto nothing. The visitor waits. The door is open. How can we hope to open the door if the door is already open? Tear the door down, enter. But the law is a void, and the void’s power is its openness. Close the door, leave. Fuck the industry. Gatekeepers keep nothing. It’s only because the door is open that “Do Not Enter” has value. And the experimental music and industrial hip-hop that Deathbomb Arc has persistently continued to smuggle into the future’s sound, it broke those doors, wrecked those who kept them, melted your face. All the noise that suppresses speech but the word survives it, subsists in its assault. So those who solicit the disclosure of such speech must care for the molotovs it sheds like doves at a beheading. Send them fluttering into their flames, even if we’re not ready to receive them. We were here to be radicalized by Peggy’s lacerations over Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s hoarse vibrato. Were we here for the ghosts, shadows, hauntings of Lana Del Rabies hazy harsh? And in noise, there’s tenderness too, we, where? here, They Hate Change and lost and luscious.


Ehse

[Raw Silk · SEF III · Smoke Bellow]

Baltimore’s undefeated Ehse Records corners niche categories with authority and command never to be surpassed. The award for “Best Microtonal Improvisations on Solo Violin” goes to Katt Hernandez (Unlovely). The award for “Best Pepper Young Translation of a John M. Bennett Poem with a Bar of Soap in the Mouth” goes to Blaster Al Ackerman (I Am Drunk). The award for “Carl Stalling’s Postural Hive Trips Over Grunge” goes to Leprechaun Catering (Kumquats, Lychees). Those other music industry saps don’t get it: Innovation opens minds and wallets, not genre or style. Through spacious curation, label head Dr. Stewart Mostofsky burst our bubble, often pushing debuts from Mearthian musical collaborations hatched by vigilante virtuosos. In 2018, we met SEF III, selling invasive hardware; Raw Silk, harvesting royal sky; James Young & Tyrone Page, Jr., pushing sax parameters; John Hoegberg, strumming Patapsco currents; Pony Payroll Bones, chasing evergreen ghosts; Jeff Carey, burning chrome plastic; and Smoke Bellow, who monitored the refinery’s sweet and synchronized machines through the rising steam. On the rink and off, Ehse continues to build a roster stacked with slapshot adepts. No dusters here.


Fat Possum

[soccer mommy · Courtney Marie Andrews · Spiritualized]

We think we know how the line works: what was remains behind us, what’s next, unknowable. Pasts go behind glass, futures are barely theoretical. And we’re left stalling, unable to see the present moment as a carrier of then and next. “My heart turns gray and shriveled now/ I want to be who I wasn’t.” But no human being exists alone in time. We all carry the genetic traditions and cultural biologies of those who came before. Taxidermy be damned: “You can’t put this possum in a cage.” Fat Possum was founded in Water Valley, Mississippi in 1991 by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, a couple blues crusts who wanted to get North Mississippi’s Hill Country sounds out into ears. Bruce Watson joined, brought on Robert Palmer. And Fat Possum, more expedition that museum, got Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and whole mess of other noise into the present that became our future. That future is Fat Possum in 2018, a place where history’s limb swings with what’s next: Soccer Mommy’s Clean, reverberated strings and cords of biographic atomization; Courtney Marie Andrews’s May Your Kindness Remain, legitimate country that knows nostalgia has no part in the wilderness and odyssey that make land a home; Insecure Men’s self-titled, disco as Casio-karaoke; and Spiritualized rematerialized, And Nothing Hurt, space sounds from a voice we’ve heard for a while coalescing sun’s fingers pushing apart vapors and stars. We think we know how the line works. But all our best that was is yet to come. Fat Possum encourages our every present to account for the past in the presence of the next. The label’s motto is “we’re trying our best.” Their history is empathetic listening: “And if your money runs out and your good looks fade/ May your kindness remain.” Respect to the bylaws of lines — I think we’ll be okay.


Freedom To Spend

[Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton · Rimarimba · Michele Mercure]

Freedom To Spend, the reissue label helmed by deep record heads Pete Swanson and Jed Bindeman (under the RVNG Intl. umbrella), only released a few albums this year, but each one continued the label’s stunning recontextualization of rare and seemingly lost music. FTS’s first and most notable release of 2018 was The Music and Poetry of the Kesh by author and sci-fi legend Ursula K. Le Guin and composer Todd Barton, originally released in 1985 on cassette to accompany Le Guin’s book Always Coming Home. It’s an imagined ethnographic recording of a fictional race of humanoids and plays like an amalgam of gamelan, Native American chants, minimalist composition, and numerous other traditional styles. In the fall, FTS dropped a massive career-spanning collection of albums by Rimarimba, a.k.a. Robert Cox, a notable figure in the 1980s UK underground. The albums are playful and engrossing, providing a more DIY take on sounds pioneered by Philip Glass, Brian Eno, et al., with a very of-the-era sound. And then there was the new collection of unreleased material by electronic musician Michele Mercure, a follow-up to FTS’s brilliant reissue from last year, Eye Chant. Although there’s a glut of labels reissuing “lost classics” that turn out to be anything but, Freedom To Spend continually brings the goods, putting an incredible amount of effort into providing history and context for the strange sounds they are breathing life into.


Genome 6.66 Mbp

[Organ Tapes · Golin & Buga · Astrosuka]

Enveloped by darkness as by the arms of friends. Imagine it: a group embrace as nourishing as an oasis. All over, the earth heaves with horrors. Cities quake. Hopes decay. Together, with ears and hearts open to everything, the Genome 6.66 Mbp collective takes shelter in each other to navigate, process, and dream through today. Since launching in 2016, it has published relentless electronic work by artists such as SWAN MEAT and Yoshitaka Hikawa, and while this year’s releases sated me with more familiar names, I was glad to chew on the songs of many more that I hadn’t heard of before. I value Genome’s commitment to presenting genuinely fresh and innovative work from all over the world. Each of this year’s releases reached toward previously undefined forms through a lattice of sounds that pull from video game soundtracks, sound effects libraries, heavy techno, hi-fi electronic pop, sad rap, emo, and the whole prism of hardcore. I particularly enjoyed the sensuality of Organ Tapes’s brilliant Into One Name and Golin & Buga’s sprightly Fushigi. Elsewhere, Astrosuka’s brutal yet bubbly self-titled album presented some dense dance tracks that I imagine would mutate the walls of any club they were played in forever after. With intensity and integrity, Genome’s roster is consistently unabashed, bold, challenging, and daringly delightful.


Geographic North

[Rafael Anton Irisarri · Nick Malkin · Félicia Atkinson]

Georgia-based Geographic North has been plugging away for a decade and change, releasing everything from shoegaze, post-punk, ambient, and experimental electronica. In 2018, the trio of Farzad Moghaddam, Farbod Kokabi, and Bobby Power stepped up their curatorial game, unleashing four distinct tapes from artists across the globe and one sprawling compilation of haunted ambient drone. No matter the scene or sound, if the label likes it, it’ll collaborate and put it out into the world. This year’s output was no different. The apocalyptic drones of Rafael Anton Insarri’s Midnight Colours were as devastating as they were gorgeous. French composer and artist Félicia Atkinson’s audio odyssey Coyotes drifted between spoken word, down-tempo vibes, and tripped-out keyboard flourishes. Nick Malkin’s Slow Day on Brilliant Drive took the late-night urban soundscapes of Afterhours and evolved into an engaging jazz/electronic hybrid. With an impressive and ever-expanding roster, Geographic North maintained a creative hot streak throughout this year, one that will likely extend into 2019 and beyond.


I, Voidhanger

[Panegyrist · Abstracter · Esoctrilihum]

From sludge to drone, death to doom, atmospheric to black, and back, the scope of I, Voidhanger’s 2018 roster encompassed the metal continuum, serving up a manifold smorgasbord of releases. With persistence, the Italian label discovered artists and bands of unrivaled talent: Abstracter’s “Ashen Reign” showcased the melding of genres, rising from the crushing depths of doom to the frenzied plane of death metal, before downshifting to the abyss of sludge. Panegyrist sought to bend sonics by employing alchemy and mysticism with “Ophidian Crucifix,” orchestrating a transmutation of astounding compositional metal with exceptional skill and methodology. And finally, there was the entity that goes by Esoctrilihum, whose incredible “Lord of the Closed Eyes” transcended the conventional attributes of black metal with a cryptic, subterranean aura. In 2018, I, Voidhanger was the place where your hunger for unsurpassed metal talent was consistently satisfied.


Kranky

[Tim Hecker · Grouper · Christina Vantzou]

Not many people would have realized that Kranky’s been around for 25 years if they hadn’t announced a series of label shows celebrating the anniversary. In fact, we didn’t — we selected Kranky for this feature several days before that announcement. And that’s because, in 2018, the Chicago-based label showed no signs of slowing down. Kicking the year off with Dedekind Cut’s fantastic album Tahoe, the label went on to release some of this year’s best — and most notable — experimental works: Tim Hecker’s magnificent Konoyo, Grouper’s fragile and brief Grid of Points, and Christina Vantzou’s magical No. 4, to name a few. And additional vinyl reissues of early works by Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker, and Loscil only cemented Kranky as the go-to place for tasteful, engaging ambient music in an age when the term has become too often associated with tasteless, bland soundscapes to fill in spreadsheets to. Even though their Bandcamp “motto” reads “going nowhere slow,” I think it’s safe to say that Kranky are slowly but surely moving toward legendary status.


Mind Club

[DJNJD · Wet Dog · RLX ASSASSYN]

Despite there being only one proper 2018 release on the Mind Club Bandcamp page (a vinyl reissue of label-founder DJ NJ Drone’s 2016 Syn Stair, originally released via Purple Tape Pedigree), the Mind Club camp has been plenty active in 2018, upping and reupping new SoundCloud tracks, mixing and DJing, and growing/refining their creativity. Mind Club is the brainchild of NYC’s DJ NJ Drone, and if I’m to use a designation, I suppose “club music” would be the apt term for the sea through which the label sails. But the artists seem to use “club” (and the sounds/associations therewith) as an ideological framework rather than a rigid, formulaic set of guidelines. The collective sound teeters somewhere between experimental/post-deconstructionist and outright silly, and even as I use these descriptors, I feel like I’m betraying the ethos of their approach, which seems to be not really having one: Mind Club’s hyper-eclectic s.M.i.L.e. Radio takeover runs the gamut from sped-up 2000s pop artifacts to kitschy soundbites to ambience to gabber to hip-hop to techno and everything in between. Mind Club lies at the intersection of many things, swimming through parody and meme-ification and goofiness while still managing to fit in sincerity and ingenuity. You might call that intersection “SYN,” as DJ NJ Drone puts it:”SYN is a feeling. SYN is the God I look for in all my music.”


\NULL|ZØNE//

[Carey · Shane Parish · x.nte]

Welcome to \NULL|ZØNE//. That’s sort of disingenuous, isn’t it? A misnomer of the highest order. See, the Athens, GA cassette label run by Michael Potter is up to its twenty-second release JUST THIS YEAR. That’s a lot of releases for any tape label, let alone one that purports to exist in a state of perpetual nothingness. At this rate, I won’t be surprised by the announcement of a 10-volume box set as we get even closer to the holidays. I kid! It’s just — a lot of tapes. And it’s not simply the amount of releases, but it’s also the quality: \NULL|ZØNE// sure as shootin’ wouldn’t be on this list if it dropped mind-numbing crud all the time. Instead, its artists knock a gamut of styles out of the park, from electronic to noise to prog to drone to synthwave to proto-industrial to glitch to whatever the hell African Ghost Valley is. Potter’s got a hell of an ear, as well as a lot of friends in various underground communities. He’s even released his own band, The Electric Nature, next to heavyweights like German Army, Adderall Canyonly, Life Education, Shane Parish, Flesh Narc, and Carey. Don’t be surprised when a few of these end up on my personal year-end list.


Paxico

[Lionmilk · Ohbliv · Color Plus]

Old heads have been with Paxico Records since 2013 — #respect; real heads continue to make circle-backs to ensure their dynasty remains unblemished, and 2018 marks the label’s fifth year nodding into infinity:

On the rare cassette tip, jazz and hip-hop fiends found comfort in Depths of Madness by Lionmilk and Windbreaker Music by Wiardon

Fishdoll’s single “Toehead” was one of nine reasons off Noonsense why the label’s vocal game remains solid…

…while Swarvy’s Anti-Anxiety boasted both excellent MCs and galactic elementals.

Mammoth tomes, Junior and Wildflower by Pax, cycled the psyche into the orbital echo-chamber, sealed in by a box, within a box, within a box, within…

Most recently, Retrospective marked the Richmond producer’s masterpiece, conquering the rapture of beat-tape eternity through chapters and storylines leading listeners into Ohbliv.

Finally, Litesowt by Color Plus, one of my absolute favorite release from 2018, resonated in a mind chamber I’ve never accessed before, during or after listening, as it took one away to the post-rave, next-door party, swirling into a happy madness that annunciated Paxico’s everlasting penchant for rhythm and exploring unknown futurism and folklore.


Recycled Plastics

[Occur · Substak · Milieu]

The myriad classifications of electronic music, specifically how it is marketed and commodified, makes chasing down a particular sound or style a fruitless pursuit for the casual music fan. However, Dayton’s Recycled Plastics has jettisoned all preconceived notions of niche marketing in favor of supporting the masses of varied artistry at work within the electronic music field. And if you stand from your perch and survey the open fields and expansive greenery of the Ohio landscape that the label calls home, you start to see that such variety is what constitutes a clear picture of a community coming together. The numerous genres funneled into the blips, bloops, and beeps of Recycled Plastics canon is staggering. And yet, with each increasing addition to their talent Rolodex, a new blade of grass or flower petal rises from the blossoming earth on which Recycled Plastics has built itself. Despite a name that manufacturers a sound and aesthetic of the future, Recycled Plastics also reminds us that a little bit of reuse of outside ideas can go a long way within a refurbished shell of industrial-strength electronic bathysphere — although, their continued Bedroom Compost series has done little to reduce the electronic music footprint. In this particular case, that’s a good thing.


West Mineral Ltd.

[Pendant · uon · exael]

When, earlier this year, Brian Leeds (Huerco S., Loidis) announced he’d be launching a new label with an album under a new name (Pendant), it was one of the most exciting developments in ambient’s petri dish. A musical biologist somewhere looked through their ‘scope and shrieked with glee, I’m sure. Its subtext was: “ambient” musician wants to make a “new” kind of “ambient” music. But like many of its peers in the Exciting Development category (The Caretaker’s six-album farewell, Cantu-Ledesma and Atkinson’s ongoing postcards), it happened without pizzazz. Four albums into 2018, though, Leeds’s fecund project has reaped a lavish plunder, opening dozens of tiny imaginative doors in underfoot places that caress the explorative and horrify the trypophobe. A microbic metaphor feels like the only thing apt for West Mineral, for which that first LP has served as nutritious terrain. Its records reveled in the tiny, playing even more than most leftfield sound projects with the subdued and the abbreviated. In doing so, they could embrace percussion in a way not many similar projects can, save I guess Matmos. How much is an organism’s strength tied to its scale to its environment? How much can a sound still purvey when its growth has been clipped? In somewhere small, big things can happen. That seems to be the roadmap for this probiotic label — a log, fallen off the trail, housing a magnificent, bionic fungus.


Whities

[Nathan Micay · Giant Swan · upsammy / BFTT]

Dance music was a mess in 2018. Its long-gestating critical mass and the encroaching epoch of corporate money went hand-in-hand, giving way to (ultimately, fairly partisan) attempts to “depoliticize” the scene, as its practitioners took stands on everything from the continuing occupation of Palestine to female representation at parties and festival lineups. Whities, a label (and former imprint of Young Turks)/club night run by Nic Tasker, necessarily straddled these chasms. Owing to Tasker’s curatorial grace, as well as the rising stars of aligned artists such as Avalon Emerson, Whities spent the year shoring itself up as a bastion for idiosyncratic, exciting club music. Giant Swan bludgeoned, Quirke took to knackered house, and Nathan Micay went into an introspective, yet celebratory mode; elsewhere, the newly inaugurated Blue series gave disparate sounds from the likes of Tessela, Laksa, and upsammy the breathing room they deserved. With each smart, inquisitive, and playful — and sometimes all three — release, Whities outpaced the mire that dance music in 2018 often found itself entangled in with a singular vision, winning the hearts and minds of both the newly inundated and well-worn ravers alike.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


Most Read