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Best of 2014: Top 15 Labels

Our review of 2014 continues, as Tony Poland, Scott Wilson and James Manning run down our 15 best record labels of the year.

This is the fifth time we’ve collated a list of our top record labels at Juno Plus, and this year was probably more difficult than ever to whittle the list down to 10. The tastes of our core editorial team right now are probably more diverse than they’ve ever been, so rather than restrict our choices, it felt right to expand the list of candidates from previous years from 10 to 15 to reflect this. An expanded list also gives us room to more accurately demonstrate the sheer amount of quality music that has been released across the board over the course of 2014, be that on vinyl, cassette or digital formats.

There are a few labels on the list making repeat appearance, a reflection of the continuing hard work and quality control of the people behind them. Some labels have been running for years, but really hit their stride in 2014. Some of them just didn’t put out a bad record. What each have in common is a tireless desire to find the most innovative and exciting music around, regardless of genre or time period. All the labels featured below have been covered fairly comprehensively on Juno Plus in one form or another over the course of the past 11 months, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise to look back and see how they’ve impressed over the course of 2014.

15. Gobstopper Records

It’s probably fair to say it’s been a breakthrough year for Mr Mitch, whose activities as part of London’s Boxed night and brilliant debut album for Planet Mu have brought him a deserved amount of attention. His Gobstopper label has also had something of a banner year. Despite opening for business back in 2010 and delivering a bonafide classic in Bloom’s “Quartz” in 2012, it felt reborn in 2014. More than any other grime label it embraced the stranger sounds of the genre, shifting from the more straight-up club sounds of its early releases into more experimental forms.

The dreamlike sound of Mr Mitch’s own The Room Where I Belong was released in February, and acted as a mission statement of sorts as to where the label would go next. Australian producer Strict Face came through with the OPN-esque three-dimensional soda pop sounds of Fountains, Mattwizard fused the genre with ‘80s funk on the Mathematics EP, Dark0 delivered the Japanese RPG-influenced sounds of Fate and Loom’s Grade fused rhythmic abstraction with heart-wrenching melody. There’s a reason why people kept talking about grime this year: there’s more invention coming from the scene than anywhere else. Gobstopper encapsulated that innovation better than any other label, and didn’t put out a bad tune either. SW

Essential listening:

Strict Face – Fountains/Highbury Skyline
Dark0 – Fate
Loom – Grade

14. Berceuse Heroique

The four records Berceuse Heroique released last year were impressive enough to guarantee a spot as the one newcomer in the top labels list, and its growth and development over the course of 2014 meant it was easy to justify a placement here. A review in The Wire may have dismissed Berceuse Heroique’s aesthetic as confrontational and contrived, but to focus on that and ignore the standard of the music the label has released this year is foolish to say the least. Any attempt to pigeonhole Berceuse Heroique as an ‘uncompromising techno’ label was stunted with their first announcement of the year, a reissue of West London Bruk classic “Tom & Jerry” from Dego ‘Cousin Cockroach’ McFarlane, and a sense of wonderful unpredictability has characterised it ever since.

Records from Vereker, Hodge, MGUN, Tuff Sherm, Ekman, Healing Force Project and more on the main label demonstrate how wide the Berceuse Heroique remit is now. Beyond this, the two KEMAΛ reissues were some of the most interesting archival material put out in recent memory, and their decision to issue a pair of proper disco edit 12”s is the kind of move all too many conservative labels would never consider. Furthermore, the fact Jamal Moss was persuaded to revisit his retired Members Only project for this series demonstrates the cachet BH now possesses. The launch of a new label in Ancient Monarchy next year – dedicated to “some raw UK shit” – and the promise of further reissue surprises suggests Berceuse Heroique will remain an endeavour that refuses to sit still. TP

Essential listening:

Unknown Artist ‎- Αναστενάρια | Music Of The Fire Walkers
Japan Blues ‎- The Brasserie Heroique Edits Part 2
Healing Force Project – Strange Apparitions In My Recording Room

13. Astro:Dynamics

In little over four years Luke Owen’s Astro:Dynamics label has blossomed from a small DIY experimental operation of several producers to a community of similarly-minded artists creating a varied array of eclectic electronic music. Inaugurated with a self-titled compilation featuring tracks by Lukid, Mike Slott, Bnjmn and Subeena (aka Alis), the label’s first releases took in house, techno and experimentally charged sounds from Vessel, El Kid and Punch Drunk duo Zhou. In more recent years – while always maintaining its artistic flair – Astro:Dynamics broadened its sonic palette to include ambient, drone and field recordings to acid techno, house and synth pop. These sounds coming from artists like Young Echo’s Jabu, to Dave Saved and Best Available Technology, with Axel Backman’s 1991 self-titled debut setting up the Swede for future releases on Opal Tapes.

This year Frida-Li Lövgren debuted her Quiltland project by releasing two albums on the London-based label (one cassette, the other vinyl), while Simon Lord, formerly of Simian and The Black Ghosts, resurrected his Lord Skywave alias, inactive since 2008, with an album of Tascam recorder experimentations for a cassette release called Cardamon Copy. Label highlight of 2014, though, was Vaghe Stelle’s Sweet Sixteen, a rare physical release for the Italian who joined countryman Dynooo, Lotide and Dave Saved on the label. Owen’s operation wasn’t without debuts this year either, with Juno Plus podcaster Sophia Loizou’s inaugural release, Chrysalis, impressing with its use of unbalanced classicalisms mixed with what she described to us as archival recordings of insects and reptiles that sounded “organic and alien”. JM

Essential listening:

Quiltland – Quiltland
Vaghe Stelle – Sweet Sixteen
Sophia Loizou – Chrysalis

12. PAN

PAN has been a regular fixture in this list since 2012, and in 2014 it was as prolific as ever, continuing to push music culture forward in exciting and unexpected ways. There were label debuts made by Bass Clef, Beneath and M.E.S.H., three artists inhabiting the bassier spectrum of experimental dance music in their own distinct way, with the latter simply calling his brand ‘hard-club’. The sounds on PAN have always been challenging to articulate, and perhaps M.E.S.H.’s off-the-cuff remark best describes the label’s dancefloor interests this year, with his Scythians EP a fitting point of reference. More obscure sounds were still abound however, with James Hoff returning for a quick-fire run of patch work electronics you’d welcome from a label like Editions Mego, while haunted musique concrète came from Italian synth-tinkerer Valerio Tricoli.

It was Objekt who dominated headlines during the latter half of this year with the announcement PAN was to release his debut album Flatland, which Scott Wilson characterised as “more than just an exercise in structural trickery”. Adding to the fanfare of high profile releases was Lee Gamble’s sudden return with the fully loaded 16-track album, Koch, a body of work whose sole lyrical content ironically states: “what you’ve got is a whole… miserable subculture.” Luckily, again, we have PAN to cheer things up. JM

Essential listening:

M.E.S.H. – Scythians
Objekt – Flatland
Beneath – Vobes

11. Tri Angle

For Tri Angle in 2014 it’s been a year of quality to match quantity. Each of the six records the American label released was as vivid as they were overcast, distinct and genre-bending. Evian Christ’s Waterfall EP, and musical manoeuvres in general, have helped get the word trance – or deconstructed trance – trending, and made it consistently difficult for publications like us to get a handle on what kind of artist he actually is. Reclusive New Zealander Fis returned to Tri Angle for a second spell of disturbed campfire fantasies, adding more suggestion an album from Oli Peryman be may be on the way in 2015. Acerbic Mancunian Boothroyd became Tri Angle’s 2014 debutant with Idle Hours, a record combining newfangled grime with decomposed techno and walls of blustery, industrial noise.

Scott Wilson wrote for Juno Plus earlier this year, “the label has always operated on a parallel path to concurrent musical trends, picking out artists who fit in with the current zeitgeist but operate on a considerably darker wavelength.” SD Laika’s That’s Harakiri and Vessel’s Punish, Honey echo this statement with the former, Milwaukee-based producer Peter Runge, “dispensing with the grime signifiers to create totally unique experiences”. Furthermore, Seb Gainsborough’s second album of sexually ambiguous, industrially-charged ‘techno’ was as fresh as it is decrepit. Tri Angle’s wildcard addition this year was WIFE, whose What’s Between album debut drew collaborations from The Haxan Cloak and Roly Porter. Like Vessel and SD Laika before him he combined motley elements of genres familiar and foreign, with James Kelly’s self-styled and shaded approach to pop music penetrating 2014 from a completely different angle. JM

Essential listening:

Vessel – Punish, Honey
SD Laika – That’s Harakiri
Boothroyd – Idle Hours

10. The Trilogy Tapes

If the success of The Trilogy Tapes last year was founded on the label’s unerring skill at picking out under-the-radar talent, 2014 was a notable year for the high calibre of artists drawn to release music on Will Bankhead’s label. Peverelist, Theo Parrish, A Made Up Sound, Maxmillion Dunbar, and Dario Zenker are amongst the names that featured on The Trilogy Tapes in 2014 in one form or other, yet little else has changed in the label’s steadfastly DIY approach. Enticing new TTT records were casually thrown out via Twitter, a succession of bizarrely brilliant mixes were issued on cassette from Sassy J, and Low Jack, whilst the regularity of short-run TTT apparel more than matched the label’s 12” output.

It would be easy to take the visual side of The Trilogy Tapes for granted, and perhaps that’s why Bankhead has latterly opted to take screen printed artwork to an extreme – see recent Chemotex and Zootie records. Despite the high profile artists listed above, it was the aforementioned Zootie 12” and the Minor Science record that scored our two favourite releases on TTT this year, suggesting Bankhead has struck on a perfect balance for the label. Forthcoming TTT releases from Mix Mup, Aaron Dilloway, Battista & EMG, and DJ Spider & Marshallito hint 2015 will be another fine year for the label. TP

Essential listening:

Rezzett – Zootie
Minor Science – Noble Gas
Low Jack – TTTape Low Jack

9. Hospital Productions

Dominick Fernow has been running Hospital Productions since he put out his first Prurient tape in 1998. Since then it’s played host to a staggering amount of music, largely from Fernow’s own projects and like-minded associates in the noise world. It was a few years ago – when Fernow introduced his more techno-leaning Vatican Shadow alias – that the label’s direction began to change subtly, but this year saw the label complete its metamorphosis.

A host of cassette releases from artists including Dual Action and Ivy Barkakati showed Fernow hasn’t abandoned his roots, but it was the brilliant curveballs that defined the label this year. There was Nine Inch Nails member Alessandro Cortini’s ambient album Sonno, the mix of noise, batucada, samba and electronics on Ninos Du Brasil’s Novos Misterios, the twilight sounds of Vatican Shadow and Function’s brilliant Games Have Rules – each was equally as unexpected, yet fit perfectly within the aesthetic Fernow has been curating for over 15 years. If Fernow keeps subverting expectations like he did this in 2014, he could easily carry on for another 15. SW

Essential listening:

Alessandro Cortini – Sonno
Function & Vatican Shadow – Games Have Rules
Clay Rendering – Waters Above The Firmament

8. Where To Now?

Compared to some of its more prolific peers in the tape scene, Where To Now? had a quiet year, releasing just eleven cassettes and two vinyl records, but each felt like it broke the mould in surprising ways. There was the monolithic, crushing techno of Ketev’s Singular Stare, the cosmic-tinged dub techno of Space Afrika’s Above the Concrete/Below the Concrete and the distorted sounds of Owen McLean’s Hitomi’s Diary/Modern Kitchen split, whose freewheeling sense of psychedelia could have had a place on OIde English Spelling Bee a few years ago.

The label also started a series of dancefloor-focused releases under the WHEREIIDANCE banner, with NPLGNN’s Sigma/Tau delivering primal dancefloor material somewhere between Hieroglyphic Being and Cut Hands. The high point however was Blues Dances, a tape by London-based artist Beatrice Dillon whose pastel-shaded insert contained seven tracks of strange vocal manipulations, tape-saturated ambient, clipped oddball techno rhythms that would make Hessle Audio’s Joe envious. It even featured a track that sounded like Mark Fell gone lo-fi. In short, it was a fitting microcosm for a label whose catalogue this year never ceased to yield unexpected gems from largely unheard artists. SW

Essential listening:

Beatrice Dillon – Blues Dances
Owen McLean – Hitomi’s Diary/Below The Concrete
Various – WHEREIIDANCE Vol. 1

7. Dark Entries

Rarely does a month pass without something Dark Entries-related appearing in our Best Record Sleeves or Best Reissues columns, or on the office stereo. Some of the highlights? Patrick Cowley & Jorge Socarras’ Catholic, Tom Ellard’s ‘80s Cheesecake, and Charlie’s Spacer Woman, a timeless piece of 1983 Italo gold from genre icons Giorgio Stefani and Maurice Cavalieri – a record instantly swooped on by all in-house writers at Juno Plus. Rooted in ’80s traditions, the San Francisco label has been responsible for reissuing and releasing new and obscure music loved or unknown since 2009, paying homage or recreating cover art in what Richard Brophy believes “embodies many of an independent label’s finest traits.”

To call the label’s 2014 discography massive is an understatement, with a reissue of Don Christensen and Jody Harris’ no wave unit ImpLOG a highlight alongside Kirlian Camera’s Uno, Crash Course In Science’s Signals From Pier Thirteen (including the infamous “Flying Turns”) and Xymox’s Subsequent Pleasures, touted by Flora Pitrolo as “an EP rescued from the flames”. It wasn’t all archival material however, with both Sumerian Fleet and Cute Heels contemporary acts whose music fit perfectly within the Dark Entries remit. Furthermore, label boss Josh Cheon launched the Editions sub-label, an offshoot applying Dark Entries’ archival approach to dancefloor material initiated by the ’80s Florentine dark wave of Victrola. Additional releases came through Peter Richard, Big Ben Tribe and Art Fine (some more homework), but it was that first official reissue of “Spacer Woman” that filled us with the cosmic love impossible to find in electronic music circa-2014. JM

Essential listening:

Charlie – Spacer Woman
ImpLOG – Holland Tunnel Drive
Tom Ellard – ’80s Cheesecake

6. Mood Hut

Though close to the breezy ’80s aesthetic of the Future Times label, Vancouver’s Mood Hut seems to occupy its own parallel universe, with a cast of characters whose sense of wonder is maintained by the label’s low-key approach to self-promotion. That’s not to say that the artists making up Mood Hut are unknowns any more; old fashioned word-of-mouth and a high level of quality control have meant the demand for their records has exceeded supply on each release this year. It’s hard not to see why; while deep house’s name means ever less thanks to a watering down of its aesthetic in both mainstream and underground circles, each of Mood Hut’s three records this year reminded how transcendental the genre can be in the right hands.

Some of this is because Mood Hut’s music is downright strange – the soapy sonics of Pender Street Steppers’ “Bubble World” and disembodied vocals of House of Doors’ “Moesha” made you forget you were listening to house music at all. However, it was a more straightforward anthem from Jack J that struck a chord this year: “Something (On My Mind)”. Its carefree groove was enough to convince anyone who wasn’t paying attention just how essential the sounds of the Canadian Riviera are right now. SW

Essential listening:

Pender Street Steppers – Bubble World
House of Doors – The Dolphin Hotel Affair Vol.1
Jack J – Looking Forward To You

5. Local Action

It’s taken a while for Local Action to really come together as a record label. Despite a string of solid singles and EPs from 2010-2013 that stood out from the prevailing trends in bass music, it wasn’t until bassline veteran DJ Q and grime producer Slackk joined its ranks in 2012 that the label found its place. It did this by bringing a touch of pop music into the underground, and more importantly, championing the resurgent instrumental grime scene circulating around London’s Boxed night. The most obvious example of the latter was the excellent debut album from Boxed resident Slackk, but EPs from Shriekin’, Inkee and Finn – whose killer R&B-turned-grime edit “Keep Calling” became a Boxed anthem – showed just how much talent there was outside the capital.

Finally, there was the debut album from Yamaneko, a hitherto unknown producer whose Pixel Wave Embrace combined grime with Japanese video game soundtrack inspiration, proving one of the year’s most inspired debuts. Plenty of excellent labels did similar things to Local Action this year, especially in the grime sphere, but none did it with the same fearless conviction. SW

Essential listening:

Yamaneko – Pixel Wave Embrace
Slackk – Palm Tree Fire
Finn – Keep Calling

4. Antinote

When Antinote first emerged in 2012, there was a great story behind the label of two like-minded, dusty fingered, wine loving Frenchmen conspiring to unleash some mind-bending electronics on an unsuspecting public. It’s a mark of Antinote’s progression and development that two years later Iueke’s archival material is no longer the dominating narrative, but instead just one aspect of a truly wonderful and multi-faceted label. Antinote’s charm is two-fold; there is the undoubted musical diversity the label embraces, which is in turn augmented by the fine visual input from the Check Morris design agency.

With Quentin Vandewalle taking full control of Antinote (so Gwen Jamois can focus on more Iueke music) the label now stands as perhaps the finest currently operating out of Paris, acting as a platform for all manner of unheralded French artists to shine on records that look as good as they sound. It’s been a pleasure to discover the music of Stephane Laporte, Panoptique, D.K. and Nico Motte as well as well as watch the development of label mainstays Syracuse and Geena throughout the year. Vandewalle’s promise of much more new music on Antinote next year suggests the label’s place in our affections will only grow stronger. TP

Essential listening:

D.K. – Drop
Geena – On The Top Of A Deep Hearted Fern
Nico Motte – Rhealogia

3. 1080p

Along with Mood Hut, 1080p was another Vancouver label that provided a continual source of sonic inspiration as 2014 rolled on. With over 20 releases this year alone at the time of publication, it was naturally quite difficult to keep tabs on everything Rich McFarlane’s label committed to tape in 2014, but the decision to indulge in something 1080p-shaped was invariably always rewarded with some wonderfully strange music. The label’s delightful aesthetic alone is almost enough to have you hooked; one look at its Bandcamp page has you intrigued by the array of bizarrely beautiful artwork adorning each of its releases.

Lnrdcroy’s masterful Much Less Normal is for us, and many others, 1080p’s finest moment this year but it was augmented by many other highlights, including Via App’s crazed, mangled techno or Moon B’s long-form cinema funk. Perhaps the best way to gauge the label’s influence is the fact several of its tape releases have subsequently been licensed for vinyl editions, with Firecracker’s forthcoming double vinyl edition of Lnrdcroy’s Much Less Normal the most high profile example. TP

Essential listening:

Lnrdcroy – Much Less Normal
D. Tiffany – S/T
ATM – Xerox

2. Diagonal

It can hard to build a successful label out of an operation originally conceived as an outlet to release the material of the artist who founded it, but that’s exactly what Powell has achieved with Diagonal over the past year. It was a process that began last year, but it was 2014 that saw the label – run in conjunction with Jaime Williams – really hit its stride, with a diverse crew of artists assembled under the Diagonal banner that each had something in common with Powell’s coarse and blackened brand of wayward techno.

Among them was noise veteran Russell Haswell, whose 37 Minute Workout album applied uncompromising sonics to a loose dancefloor template, Bronze Teeth, who offered an inventive take on the well-worn tradition of hardware techno and The Skull Defekts, whose presence demonstrated that music made by a five-piece band has just as much place on a dance floor as music made with a synth and a drum machine. Topping it all off alongside records from Shit & Shine and Streetwalker was Powell’s Club Music EP, the most fully-formed example of his unique sound to date. Most importantly, it was delivered with a refreshing lack of pretension and a sense of humour sorely lacking from a lot of contemporary dance music. SW

Essential listening:

Powell – Club Music
Russell Haswell – 37 Minute Workout
The Skull Defekts – Street Metal

1. RVNG Intl.

Upon being notified of its inclusion in last year’s best labels list, RVNG Intl boss Matt Werth replied in typical fashion, “Can’t wait to flip some wigs in 2014”. It’s fair to say that the label has more than lived up to this statement over the course of its endeavours this year, aligning devilishly with our own personal tastes and resulting in a more than worthy first place in this list. It’s been a joy to discover the works of Kerry Leimer, Craig Leon and Ariel Kalma through the label’s archival series this year, effectively uncovering and revealing the sonic links between the past and present across their in-depth, thoroughly researched albums. In releasing Holly Herndon’s Chorus, the label were responsible for one of this year’s most distinctive singles, whilst the latest FRKWYS edition, an exercise in Fado by Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper, and an LP of The Haxan Cloak-produced doom metal by The Body fully exemplify the diversity of sound in the RVNG universe. Then there is Tomorrow Was The Golden Age, an album of sublime beauty by Yonkers collective Bing & Ruth that was all too easy to lose yourself in over and over again.

Curation is an over-used and ill-applied term when it comes to record label output in most cases, but it’s more than suitable for RVNG, whose music projects were delivered in compelling ways that embraced and explored all available mediums. In some cases this took the shape of some low-key online guerrilla marketing – see the website that appeared prior to Holly Herndon’s single Home – but RVNG’s class shone through the music videos commissioned. While most music videos are often just content candy floss, RVNG sought out compelling visual artists to create results ranging from the stunningly inventive (Akihiko Taniguchi’s video for “Chorus”), the mind-bending (the Weird Days and Raw Tings take on “Lonely Boy”) and understated (Hana Tajima’s video for “Reflector”). Factor in the ongoing partnership with design agency Will Work For Good, and RVNG Intl can easily be viewed as the model for all independents to aspire to. We are music fans first, and music writers second; labels such as RVNG Intl keep both sides more than satisfied, and hungry for more. TP

Essential listening:

Holly Herndon – Chorus
K Leimer – A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975 – 1983)
Bing & Ruth – Tomorrow Was The Golden Age