XLR8R's Best of 2014: Labels

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After devoting most our our attention to artists, releases, and tracks over the past few weeks, today's edition of our ongoing Best of 2014 series is all about record labels. Interestingly enough, it wasn't that long ago that many people were predicting that the internet's ability to connect artists directly with their fans would eliminate (or at least lessen) the need to enlist labels in the process. However, with each passing year, it almost seems like the opposite has been true; while the internet has certainly made lots of music more accessible than ever before, the web's unending tide has also worked to make that music feel increasingly disposable. With so many options out there, strong curatorial outposts are essential for those looking to cut through the noise, and that's where the labels come in. A good record label can serve as an aesthetic beacon, and when it's done well, running an imprint is something of an art in itself, and worth appreciating. In that spirit, we recently began to assemble a list of our 10 favorite labels of the year; however, limiting ourself to such a small number ultimately proved impossible, so we've also included five additional labels in a special "honorable mention" category.

Words: Glenn Jackson


When it comes to the age-old battle of quantity vs. quality, Richard MacFarlane's 1080p label is something of an anomaly. Issuing over 25 releases in 2014, the Vancouver-based tape/digital label proved to be an ever-present source of intriguingly left-of-center dance music, quickly building a catalog with more than its fair share of highlights (Khotin's Hello World and LNRDCROY's Much Less Normal among them) for those willing and able to keep up with the label's rapid-fire release schedule.

The label arm of Amsterdam's Dekmantel crew largely focused its efforts on two particular artists in 2014: Joey Anderson and Juju & Jordash. Delivering the former's debut LP and an EP and full-length album from the latter over the course of the year (as well as a two-part EP series from Italian duo MFO and a new EP from Matrixxman), Dekmantel proved that its curatorial prowess is as sharp on the label front as it is with the crew's annual festival, which has quickly become one of Europe's most reliable summertime happenings.

Running Back
Counting releases from the likes of Redshape, Todd Osborn, Genius of Time, Suzanne Kraft, and Telephones in its run, alongside quality efforts from newcomers Roy Comanchero and Thomalla, 2014 was as good a year as ever for Gerd Janson's Running Back label. Now in its 12th year, the esteemed German selector's imprint is still at the top of its game, and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.

Berceuse Heroique
Throughout the year, anticipating the moves of Berceuse Heroique was a nearly impossible task. Still, by threading together bits of UK post-hardcore (in reissues of Horsepower Productions and Loefah's Lost Dubs), the divergent US underground (in records from Vereker and MGUN), and a particularly intriguing collaboration with Greek label Nous over the past 12 months, the shadowy imprint's moves seemed to always prove worthwhile once they saw the light of day.

Hivern Discs
2014 was another year in which it was impossible to ignore the infectious new efforts that graced the Hivern Discs catalog. From Talaboman's "Sideral" to Pional's "It's All Over," Barnt's charging C.P.I. remix, and Round's rich "Glass" b/w "Float" 12", Talabot and company's collection of pop-lined dancefloor hybrids made this yet another successful year for the Barcelona imprint.

TOP 10

10. PPU
PPU came to underground prominence thanks to its ability to unearth apocryphal boogie and funk rarities, serving as a DC-based counterpart to West Coast funksters like Dam Funk. However, 2014 saw the label releasing more new music than ever. Label founder Andrew Morgan groused about having to focus on modern acts, but the label's recent run has shown him to be equally skilled at finding future classics as he is unearthing lost treasures. Back in January, PPU effectively introduced the Pender Street Steppers to the world, releasing the Mood Hut-affiliated duo's first 12", Openin' Up. In the months that followed, the imprint issued busted VHS G-funk from Benedek and Delroy Edwards as RX, strong material from Legowelt and Beautiful Swimmers, as well as early '80s work from synth loner Tony Palkovic. Basically, PPU had a banner year keeping music from both the past and present from fading into obscurity. Matthew McDermott


9. Giegling
Named for the short-lived but somewhat notorious Weimar club and party that spawned it, Giegling is now approaching its sixth year in operation, and though the label only issued a handful of records in 2014, there's no denying that the imprint has gained some serious momentum. Piloted by a core collective which includes Prince of Denmark, Matthias Reiling of Session Victim, and Vril, amongst others, the East German crew largely trades in melancholic, minimal house and dubby techno, with each of its records seemingly produced with a lot of care and sincerity. This year saw the release of full-lengths from both Edward and Kettenkarussell (co-founders of the Giegling enterprise), in addition to the All the Things EP from Traumprinz (Prince of Denmark's alter ego), an effort which found him closing in on a potent style of deep house laced with big, emotive vocal hooks. Jay Donaldson


8. Off Minor
If the easiest formula for a successful label is having some talented friends who will let you put out their music, it's safe to say Jordan Czamanski (a.k.a. Jordan GCZ, half of Juju and Jordash and one third of Magic Mountain High) meets this requirement. Barely a year after opening for business, Off Minor has released two collections of archival Move D material (The KM20 tapes), his collaboration with Maxmillion Dunbar as Zsa Gang, and a charming four-track 12" from mysterious newcomers Stump Valley. (Listening to Hollywood, it's not hard to see why the latter outfit's playful, melancholic vibes pulled at Czamanski's analog heartstrings.) With friends like these, not to mention its founder's obvious ear for quality, Off Minor has quickly hit its psychedelic house stride. Matthew McDermott


7. Apron
The brainchild of Funkineven, Apron was initially conceived as an outlet for his own music, but changed course last year when the London producer—in a savvy bit of A&R—came across L.I.E.S. affiliate Greg Beato's SoundCloud and subsequently patroned his debut EP. Specializing in raw, unpolished pieces of analog electro and techno, Apron has since become a hub for like-minded artists, including Seven Davis Jr. and Lord Tusk, with another find—Adam Feingold—confirming Funkineven's keen nose for untapped talent. The label also continues to be a home for his own productions, as this year saw an EP surface from his more exploratory St. Julien alias, not to mention a collaboration with kindred spirit and Kyle Hall protege Jay Daniel. Jay Donaldson


6. The Trilogy Tapes
Owned, operated, designed, and directed by UK graphic design guru Will Bankhead, every single piece of The Trilogy Tapes puzzle bears his stamp, from the artists he chooses to release, to the covers he designs, to the blog and webshop that distribute the label's news and records. Beginning as a cassette-only imprint releasing mixtapes from Bankhead's cohorts and conspirators, the label has blossomed into a prolific vinyl outlet (releasing more than a dozen records this year), consistently offering up some of the weirdest, off-kilter sounds in the house and techno continuum while demonstrating a general penchant for corroding the edges of dance music with industrial and noise influences. Its impressive 2014 run included efforts from Anthony Naples, Maxmillion Dunbar, Willie Burns, and A Made Up Sound, not to mention a collaborative release from Theo Parrish with Palace Skateboards and Parrish's own Sound Signature label. If there is a lesson to be learned from The Trilogy Tapes' success, it is that artistic vision without compromise matters more than ever. Chris Zaldua


5. The Bunker New York
After more than a decade of throwing some of the most forward-thinking techno parties in the United States, it seemed only logical that New York's The Bunker would eventually take the next step and launch its own record label. This year, the veteran crew did exactly that, releasing 10 sterling records, with the majority coming from new or largely unknown producers (a remarkable fact when one considers that the party's list of past guests reads like a who's who of marquee names). As a party, The Bunker's ethos focuses on breaking down borders and making the dancefloor a safe space for experimentation and creativity. As a label, it proceeds down a similar path, releasing techno records that owe as much to Steve Reich and Klaus Schulze as they do to Jeff Mills and Anthony Child; even better, the label's new names (Clay Wilson, Løt.te, Zemi17) are seemingly just as talented as its established ones (Atom™, Reagenz, Voices from the Lake), which speaks to the A&R skills of head honcho Bryan Kasenic. Chris Zaldua


4. Clone
Clone is a pretty difficult label to keep a handle on these days; its release schedule is prolific, and as its numerous sub-labels mature, it becomes harder to justify referring to the Rotterdam-based hub as a single entity. We do it here partly for the sake of convenience, and also because, somehow, label founder Serge has managed to imbue each offshoot with the same high standards. Clone Jack for Daze delivered an excellent Dance Mania-inspired EP from L-Vis 1990 (as Dance System) at the turn of the year, and a Roy Davis Jr. 12" on the same sub-label was one of 2014's strongest house reissues, although the Jovonn reissue compilation on Clone Classic Cuts was also worthy of attention. Clone Basement Series also turned in another strong showing, thanks to thudding techno EPs from Tripeo and Randomer, but it was the Royal Oak imprint that shined brightest in 2014, offering up high-quality efforts from Space Dimension Controller (as SDC), Headless Ghost, Gingy, Takuya Matsumoto, and Leon Vynehall. The latter's two-track 12" was actually one of the year's best slabs of vinyl, as the grainy piano chords and deep house vocal on "Butterflies" made the a-side instantly likeable, while the muted, Boards of Canada-esque melodies on the flip contributed to a wonderfully downbeat counterpart. Ray Philp


3. PAN
2014 started out as a fairly typical year for Bill Kouligas' long-running experimental outpost, with willfully challenging releases from Helm and Valerio Tricoli appearing alongside a tweaked techno EP from UK producer Bass Clef. From there, the Berlin-based imprint appeared to broaden its spectrum a bit, dropping a grime- and dub-inspired 12" from Sheffield artist Beneath and a genre-collaged EP from M.E.S.H. Still, it was in the year's latter half that PAN truly made its mark, delivering two top-shelf albums: Lee Gamble's Koch and Objekt's Flatland. The former melded otherworldly techno and eerie ambient passages, while the latter reached impressive heights in digital sound design and percussive impact. In the wake of these releases, the label's profile was bigger than ever before, and the December appearance of a hip-hop- and jazz-tinged LP from Afrikan Sciences seemed to indicate that PAN had also reached a new level of sonic diversity. There's truth to that notion, but the noisy outing from Black Sites that closed out the year was proof positive that despite all the accolades, PAN had stayed true to its conceptual ethos. Chris Kokiousis


2. L.I.E.S.
Since 2010, Ron Morelli's L.I.E.S. has been consistently putting out quality releases at a rate that can make keeping up a challenge. The Brooklyn imprint specializes in raw, unadulterated club music, and some of its strongest offerings this year included the euphoric, dancefloor-ready techno of Supersonic Transportation from Willie Burns' and Entro Senestre's Daywalker + CF project, the hazy, sumptuous house on offer throughout Terekke's self-titled 12", and the foreboding machine rhythms of Gunnar Haslam's Mirrors and Copulation LP. The past 12 months also saw the label making inroads into some uncharted territory, offering up impressive turns from Eric Copeland of experimental unit Black Dice and techno mainstay Adam X under his EBM-influenced ADMX-71 alias. In 2014, L.I.E.S. may have finally shed its status as the most hyped imprint in electronic music, but this year's crop of releases made it clear that the artistic vision that once drove the label's dizzying ascent is intact. Jay Donaldson


1. Mood Hut
One of 2014's most interesting developments has been Vancouver's rising house renaissance, and there's little question that Mood Hut led the charge. Both a collective and a cassette-turned-vinyl imprint, Mood Hut is headed up by core acts like Pender Street Steppers and Aquarian Foundation, and, just to make things more complicated, the various members of those outfits (including Jack J, Hashman Deejay, and House of Doors) also produce independently. The crew has registered on local radars for a while, but its first European tour—which included appearances by Pender Street Steppers and Hashman Deejay at Amsterdam's Dekmantel festival, Boiler Room, and on Ben UFO's Rinse FM show—helped cement its reputation as a legitimate force. It's telling that although Mood Hut only issued three records in 2014 (Pender Street Steppers' Bubble World, House of Doors' The Dolphin Hotel Affair Vol. 1, and Jack J's Looking Forward to You), releases from Mood Hut members on other labels (such as Hashman Deejay's Sandopolis LP on Future Times and his split 12" with Max D on the newly launched Falstaff imprint) often proved to be equally influential. Taken as a whole, the crew's collective output advanced a brand of easy-going, lo-fi house music colored by funky '80s basslines, new age melodies, and early '90s house tropes. In a year where so much electronic music was focused on sonic deconstruction or predicated on irony, Mood Hut's sincerity-driven artistic outlook was refreshingly devoted to the love of a good groove. Jay Donaldson


XLR8R's Best of 2014 coverage will continue into next week, so check back each day for additional year-end round-ups. In the meantime, don't forget to take a look at the other Best of 2014 pieces we've posted already:

XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (100 - 76)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (75 - 51)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (50 - 26)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (25 - 1)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Features
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Podcasts
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Gear
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Tracks (50 - 26)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Tracks (25 - 1)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Releases (30 - 16)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Releases (15 - 1)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: New Artists