If you happened to listen to music this year, pat yourself on the back. If you happened to purchase music this year, give yourself a double-pat. Pat pat. And hey, man, if you got to know the labels that have been consistently proving that being a small label with big dreams can really bring great music, fascinating releases, and nice packages to your quaint, suburban doorstep, then you deserve a fucking medal. After all, there would be no music for your ears if these curators weren't finding a way to invest in beautiful art and put it to plastic, wax, or wav—whichever mode you prefer (though, wav? come on). We all had that one friend who really “knew music” when we were growing up, and these labels aren't far off. Just imagine yourself in a grimy basement with wood-panneled walls, vibing out with them, as they tell you that “this shit will change you.”
It will, trust us.
Considering NNA Tapes was the label to release the fantastic Guerilla Toss debut that we've all been raving about, it might hurt some feelings to know that one editor for Impose ended up liking the Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier the most out of all NNA's productions. That being said, almost nothing was too weird, too heavy, too fussy, or too over-the-top for NNA to cover in their simplistic way—"Hey, here's a band that sings about medieval stuff" or "You like lo-fi art-rock with atonal melodies? We got 'em." Truly, NNA is the place to turn for whatever you feel is missing in your catalog—with Ahhnu and Guerilla Toss and Blanche Blanche Blanche, you're sure to find something that will please.
Brooklyn-via-Boston label Exploding In Sound has had a banner year, releasing some of our favorites (two of which made our top 50 list), to a point of making us feel that our coverage might have been frivolous. With everyone from Palehound to Porches. to Two Inch Astronaut to Ovlov, there doesn't seem to be a signee to the label who didn't put out a 2013 album worth talking about. Eventually, other labels caught on and now Frenchkiss is the father that Exploding In Sound always wanted, giving their digital releases some room to breathe. Keep an eye out on these guys next year—we hear there's a new Pile record in the mix, as well as a perfect Grass Is Green third record, and of course, Krill, Krill, Krill forever.
The increased productivity and notoreity of LA-based rap label Hellfyre Club is not indebted to the signing of milo, but it's tough to argue against his presence facilitating a significant gain in momentum. In addition to his double EP (things that happen at day // things that happen at night) and Calvalcade mixtape, he utilized a few West Coast recording sessions with his posse of Nocando, Open Mike Eagle, and Busdriver to bang out the collaborative tracks that expanded the Dorner vs. Tookie mixtape into a crew-wide event. While milo made it a prolific year, it was Open Mike Eagle's "Qualifiers" that became the unofficial anthem for his label kinfolk, as he whispers out "We're the best, mostly / Sometimes the freshest rhymers / We the tightest kinda / Respect my qualifiers."
As backers of the Cropped Out Fest in Kentucky and arbiters of good taste that spans the country (from Kal Marks to Saralee to Fat History Month), Sophomore Lounge is in the business of proliferating DIY in every scene they can touch. One of our favorite releases this year was the head-bopping fun Saralee/Giving Up split, and they've been on Guerilla Toss before you even heard the word "skronk." The Kal Marks and Tropical Trash releases from this year were the kick in the teeth we needed, and if anybody is out to give DIY its heart back, it's Sophomore Lounge.
What once was a dumping ground for Thee Oh Sees overflow became a heavily monitored source into the friends circle and obscure local knowledge of John Dwyer and Co. Castle Face delivered a The Mallard's swan song (our favorite record of 2013), unearthed recordings from lost Bay locals La Machine and The Herms, while friends like White Fence and Warm Soda dropped off can't-skip LPs for the hell'of it. Hardly a month passed in 2013 that we weren't invoking the name Castle Face in our monthly Best Music lists.
The early warnings from ERAAS and PVT put felte. on our radar, and then 2013 straight put them on the map. Homosapien and Billow Observatory were fresh in our consciousness, and this year they hit us with ERAAS' self titled, Standish/Carlyon's soundtrack-esque stunner Deleted Scenes, Flaamingos rewriting the new wave bucks, and plucked Soviet Soviet from the forefront of the Pesaro, Italy movement. Unbreakable, and unpredictable.
Listening to the six records Time No Place released in 2013, little lineage or defined aethestic can be applied to the LA-based label. Rainbow Arabia offered FM dial art pop on FM Sushi. Yola Fatoush are a London-based duo manipulating niche house zested with a worldiness both exotic and obscure. Skin Town was throwback 90s r&b blended with the 80s pop sensiblities of early Nite Jewel. Are you seeing a pattern? We are fine with being stumped. Time No Place treat each release like a re-write of a manifesto. If there's one defining quality it's a "no boundaries" philosophy.
Maybe the secret to running a great label is being a great musician yourself, or at least that's what Lee Noble has us believing. With his LA-based tape label No Kings (a misleading name due to the royal quality of every release), Noble has released not only visually stunning tapes this year, but particularly challenging ones, as well. Noble did a Labeled feature for us in 2010, but 2013 has been his best by far. With the release of the Trabajo/Madrugapha split, a Dan Svizeny (of Cough Cool)'s hits collection, and a perfectly effecting Motion Sickness of Time Travel tape, there is certainty that Noble's intentions are sincere in finding an undercurrent and riding it through every immaculately designed cassette.
We imagine getting the rest of the country to pay attention to music from Minnesota is just as tough as asking us to physically visit Minneapolis in the winter. Fighting the good fight is MJ MJ Records. The tape label has sustained the isolation and indifference for two years. This year began with Dakota Bones' Ø, followed by a label sampler entitled Back In Business Vol. 2, an Impose HQ favorite from Tree Blood, and wrapped with a double-cassette spanning the prolificly ignored Minneapolis garage pop band Teenage Moods. MJ MJ Records continues to catalog Minneapolis music and beyond in a time when it seems like no else could give a shit.
2013 was the year that the experimental global pop label CASCINE released big anticipated releases from two of the duos that launched the imprint; Jensen Sportag's Stealth of Days and Shine 2009's Our Nation. But it only begins there, as we were leveled by Keep Shelly in Athens' At Home, pop pushers Selebrities, and ear nectar found galore on releases from RxGibbs, Chad Valley, Ditt Inre, Wildarms, and onward. An imprint dedicated to the intuitive insights into the eneffable and sublime aspects that pertain to human nature's constant allure and affects of audio.
It's no accident Austin's Holodeck Records made two appearances on our Best Cassettes of 2013 list. In addition to SSLEEPERHOLD's phenomenal Ruleth CS/LP, Montreal's Marie Davidson broke ground for Holodeck beyond the northern border. The man vs. machine dichotomy was explored with vigor throughout the year, as each release presented an experimental perspective on drone, ambient, Americana, and a cornicopia of synth-based compositions.
We've relentlessly been covering all the tape releases Moon Glyph has unleashed this year—from the 555 tape to the Henry the Rabbit tape to the Erros Magicos tape—and it seems that each artistic, unpredictable cassette has its own joyous stamp. Beautifully designed and challenging, the Moon Glyph tapes are fascinating additions into the realm of psychedelia, experimental, and artful realism, making us remember why cassettes should exist: to catch the under-the-radar music that would not normally get pressed to a physical product. Take note: a large portion of our coverage has been under our "Stay High" category.
France's Born Bad Records is our another international label on the list and the most historical and geographically informative of them all. This year, the label put out two stellar compilations—PAINK (on French punk of the 70s/80s) and Mobilisation Generale (on protest jazz from around the same time)—that convinced us that the breadth of Born Bad's knowledge is unstoppable. In addition, the fantastic new Feeling of Love album, Reward Your Grace, was released by BB earlier this year, and still has us haunted.
Happenin Records' emergence of interest in 2013 embodies the diversity of indie creative pop alive all over the Southern states. A little label from Montevallo, Alabama, with an unexpected-all-around roster. They broke surface with Radar Eyes and through the techonological-analogue-twist ups from Drew Price's Bermuda Triangle on Friends & Family, Nudity's "Supernatty", Drew's split with Plains, and introducing Swedish bedroom wonder Daniel Johnsson, aka Horrible Houses. This label trades in sound that says there is no tomorrow, no yesterday, but only a stream of todays.
The esteemed label Crash Symbols gets the combination of high end creative output coupled with embracing analogue mediums. Having expanded their indie brand to bring along nøthing's Anne-Sophie Le Creurer's lo-fi solo project Saintes, to the death disco of Exotic Club's No Dance; West Virginia's patron saints of the cassette aesthetic delivered big this year on their promise of the "diversity of experience". From Long Island by Euro house influenced weekend wiles found on Cream Dream's Saturday EP, we also heard the experimental and experiential Ripe Hymns from Michael RJ Saalman and the swarms of static ambiance from Aria Rostami's Decades/Peter.
For Portland's Dropping Gems 2013 was about blowing Natasha Kmeto up as much as possible. The quest began in February with the Dirty Mind Melt EP, which set the stage for her full length Crisis in June. While we still think Crisis is criminally underrated, it's not from any lack of effort within her camp. Dropping Gems also released the third edition of its flagship compilation Gem Drops and a cassette with Devonwho combining his two volumes of Perfect Strangers into one long player.
While Stones Throw has never fallen off our radar, in 2013 it felt as though it was constantly challenging its foundation. If there was any stigma that Stones Throw was strictly a small collective of vinyl junkies it was put to rest with debuts from Boardwalk, Vex Ruffin, and Jonwayne. They've given Dam-Funk a second career that's invited Steve Arrington and Snoopzilla into the label without needing to crossover from Now-Again or relinquish their independence. Stones Throw has re-invented itself by investing in a second generation roster that displays an inclusive mind state, rather than one of an aging rap purist.
Vienna's Totally Wired Records came across our radar with the weird, unpredictable funk-skronk of Gran, whose latest album, Brain Freeze, compelled us to look further. It turns out that Totally Wired has created a niche home for arthouse projects like Ana Threat's Dropout Dumpling, a film soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist, and The Dictaphone's krautrock post-punk self-titled album, and a comp that went to benefit Gran afer he was robbed of his gear, aptly titled Totally Robbed. They are the label to turn to if you're eager to hear what's going on across the ocean and into the grainy depths of Eastern Europe.
Another Eastern European staple that we've featured heavily over the past year, LOM Label aims to release records from all the experimental/strange/unfound artsits behind the iron curtain that they can find. Our favorite release that we heard from them this year was Daniel Kordík's [Sy][ria], a collection of sound samples taken from time spent in war-torn Syria, and with other releases (such as Cave Art's Piña Colada, a lulling winter contribution), LOM Label is where to turn if you're tired of pop, rock, and even noise—everything they release will surprise you.