The RA staff takes up the polling duties, counting down the best imprints of the year.
Limited pressing of 300 copies. Digital bonus. 180 gram vinyl. Hand-stamped. Free track download. Deluxe gatefold oversized digipak. As the culture of "added-value" attaches itself to music sales, it's reassuring to know that labels are making decent amounts of money these days. Oh no, wait…The reality of running an imprint in 2011? Twice the work for half the reward. The other side of this coin, however, is that once you remove the idea of becoming rich, what you're left with (hopefully) is love. I mean, if you don't believe in the music, what's the motivation behind plowing your life savings into something that will at best break even? The labels on our list this year vary greatly in size and scope, but collectively they point to a scene that, despite declining returns, is thriving.
Nonplus+ heads Alex Green and Damon Kirkham simply claim to release what they like—no matter the genre. That's what everyone says...until the distributor steps in. Luckily for us, Green and Kirkham didn't get the memo, and spent the year reaffirming their pan-genre approach by putting Actress' blurry electronica next to Lowtec's tired house, and Boddika's breezin' electro up against the Neil Landstrumm and JD Twitch collab Salsa Apocalypso. Add Instra:mental's own brutal and beautiful Resolution 653 to the mix, and you have yourself a wonderful and confusing year.
Saunter down Stokes Croft in Bristol with some cash in your pocket and you'll likely end up trawling the racks of Idle Hands. The label of the same name was started up in 2009 while Chris Farrell was still employed a bit further up the street by the erstwhile Rooted Records. Much like the stock in both these stores, the label hasn't been wedded to any one genre. In 2011 that's meant an impeccable string of singles from artists like AnD, Kowton, Kevin McPhee, Szare and Outboxx which have run the gamut between charcoal techno and jazzy house.
When it started out, Tri Angle was seen mainly as a source of drag, also known as witch house (or if you really want to go for it, "rape gaze"). Whether those titles were fair or not is debatable, but these days there's no denying the label's originality. Groups like Holy Other, How To Dress Well and oOoOO have forged an open-ended sound that's dark, hazy and emotionally complex. It can be pretty bleak at times; by no means does the label aim to please. But maybe that's what makes it so compelling.
The evolution of Manchester's Modern Love has been fascinating. In their most prolific period around 2007 an experimental streak was merely alluded to; much of the focus appeared to be on the floor. Then shit began to get weird. The warehouse techno gave way to something altogether more sinister—namely Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty's Demdike Stare project—while another of the label's mainstays, Andy Stott, slowly began to lose his marbles in the best possible way. In 2011 Stott's "knackered house" and Demdike's transmissions from the crypt came to define a label that defied definition.
When it was announced that Clone was folding in 2009, it seemed like a bad joke. When they reversed course a few months later and announced the opening of a ridiculous six sub-labels, it seemed like a funny one. In 2011, it's clear that Serge is a very serious man: Clone Basement Series has become an essential tough techno imprint, Clone Jack for Daze does what it says on the tin and Clone Crown Ltd. may have beat them all with Dexter's triumphant "Space Booty." And, as if you needed any more convincing, they also began to reissue Drexciya late in the year. It's good to have them back.
Dial had a quiet year in 2011, taking a step back from the hectic release schedule of 2010 that included four albums. Their focused energy was well worth it: As a result, Roman Flügel's stunning Fatty Folders received the attention it so richly deserved. The Frankfurt stalwart fit neatly into Dial's broadening sound world, reflecting how the imprint's gaze has gone from shoes to sky. Efdemin was once again a star player, with a Pigon 12-inch and two remix packages from his 2010 Chicago album, one of which featured the beloved DJ Koze remix of "There Will Be Singing."
It's hard to say that a label with as many releases as Ostgut Ton flew under the radar in 2011, but that's simply the way it felt. More likely, it's that we're accustomed to their quality by now—and anything less would be cause for comment. Whatever the case, the label arm of Berlin's Berghain/Panorama Bar once again dropped dependably strong work from downstairs (Leaning Over Backwards, The Messenger, Berghain 05) and upstairs (Yours & Mine, Panorama Bar 03). In fact, the title of Ryan Elliott's EP for the imprint summed 2011 up perfectly: Rocksteady.
Hamburg must be a pretty sensitive place if it's home to Smallville Records. Since it began in 2006, Julius Steinhoff and Dionne's label has been more about tea and slippers than sweaty dance floors. Rather than rocking parties, it only tries to caress them (think of STL's ultra-subtle "Silent State," one of our top 5 tracks from 2009). The label kept up its gentle ways this year, with records by Moomin, Lawrence and Smallpeople packaged as always in endearing sleeves by Stefan Marx. It didn't do anything terribly unexpected, but why should it? With a sound this soft-spoken, Smallville may never wear out its welcome.
Pampa is a lot like Kompakt at its best: Unexpected, funny as hell and a home to some great music with a Teutonic bent. But then what else would you expect from DJ Koze and Marcus Fink? They took Robag Wruhme and Ada—artist affiliated at one time or another with the Cologne giant—and gave them the space in 2011 to put together enchanting full-lengths. That, another strong effort from Isolee and a forthcoming single from Lawrence? Next you'll tell us that Wolfgang himself is going to drop by for a 12-inch or two.
There's a good chance you're going to find something to love on Modeselektor's 50 Weapons. It's a label that's a classic tale of an artist getting big, and then getting in touch with everyone they love to have them join the fun. It's a bit hard to follow along—you'll want to know your Anstams from your Marcel Dettmanns—but they're also closer than they might appear at first blush. That's partly Modeselektor's doing: Not only are they giving people a leg up, they're introducing them to one another, making sure everyone has enough to drink and ensuring they're all having a good time. 50 Weapons and Modeselektor: The perfect hosts.
Delsin made poets of DJs in 2011. Ellen Allien wrote of the Morphosis album that it was like a wolf kissing the moon. Craig Richards called Conforce's Escapism the place "where the ground meets the sky." And Mike Dehnert's Framework? That caused Morphosis to buy new suspensions for his car. (It was that heavy, you see.) Even John Beltran's overlooked ambient work naturally lent itself to a bit of flowery language. The criticism of Delsin has long been that it's in thrall to classic sounds. 2011 proved that this simply wasn't the case. Just ask the amateur Byrons of clubland.
In 2010, after nearly 30 years in the business, Belgium's R&S got its groove back. This is mostly thanks to an injection of talent from across the channel, especially James Blake and Space Dimension Controller. In 2011 it kept up pace with more mutations of UK bass—not least on disc 2 of the excellent IOTDXI collection—while staying in touch with its techno roots through reissues of Derrick May and Model 500. Considering LPs from Space Dimension Controller and Pépé Bradock are still in the pipeline, it's safe to say this reemergence is anything but a flash in the pan.
In some ways the Visionquest guys are a bit like the cast of Jackass: goofy, mischievous and somewhat prone to expose themselves (or maybe that's just Seth Troxler). This in mind, it's a little surprising that they're so serious about their label. Granted, most of the music is pretty upbeat, but anyone that releases a 90 BPM single right out of the gate (Footprintz's Utopia) clearly isn't messing around. Their general vibe might be all Burning Man and boat parties, but Visionquest is an artistically daring outfit determined on bucking the status quo.
Draw up the narrative on industrial and IDM's infiltration of techno in 2011 and chapter one's subject could and should be Stroboscopic Artefacts. The Berlin-based imprint had displayed a proclivity for the darker recesses of the dance floor since its inception in 2009, although a next level was attained this year as their focus was shifted. Lucy's Wordplay for Working Bees and Xhin's Sword revelled in the album format. Both flirted with the point at which techno stops being techno and becomes something else entirely. Between this and their on-going Monad series, Stroboscopic Artefacts is building a legacy.
With a hefty label compilation occupying the first quarter of the year and a busy 2010 behind him, it could have been a year of consolidation for Scuba's Hotflush. Instead, the imprint pushed forward with new talents George FitzGerald, Braille) and old Paul Woolford & Psycatron). Looking over the names that released on Hotflush in retrospect, and things seem obvious. (Err... of course Sepalcure and Sigha go together!) But it speaks to the platform that Scuba has created that artists from house, techno and bass music even think to send him tracks—and that he finds a way to work all of them into his DJ sets.
"I just find sticking to one thing really boring. I get sick of things easily," Planet Mu's Mike Paradinas told us earlier this year. Given the sheer volume of music the label releases from right across the board, perhaps the most surprising thing about Planet Mu down the years has been its strike rate. Sure it doesn't all work out. But when you're releasing year-defining full-lengths from Machinedrum, Kuedo and FaltyDL, while continuing to expose footwork to global audience, who cares, right?
When Rush Hour announced it would be releasing 30 unreleased tracks by Virgo Four, it somehow wasn't surprising. Just how exactly did they unearth these tracks 25 years later? Aside from "diligent efforts," as the label so cryptically put it, who knows—and who cares? By now we've accepted Rush Hour as some kind of magical historian—a Ken Burns of house music, if you will. That they also manage to stay plugged into the current scene both in and outside Amsterdam (think Tevo Howard, Tom Trago, Nebraska) only deepens the mystery. Their methods are simply beyond our comprehension.
We made the joke last year, but it bears repeating: There's something uncanny about Damian Lazarus' choice of last name, given that his label has teetered on the brink of collapse three times due to distribution closures. This is no New Testament story, however. Crosstown Rebels' rebirth begins in California, where Lazarus set up shop a few years ago, and perhaps ends with this accolade—a recognition of his phenomenal A&R skills and vision. Lazarus has assembled a family of artists that come from different crews (Art Department from Toronto, Deniz Kurtel from Wolf + Lamb, Jamie Jones from Hot Creations) and those who don't have a crew at all (Maceo Plex, Dinky, Dan Berkson), mixing and matching their sounds into something that is identifiably Crosstown, yet is more slippery to define than the coherent worlds created by imprints like the aforementioned Wolf + Lamb and Hot Creations. (You think you know Crosstown Rebels, but then you remember that they also dropped 12-inches from Mathew Jonson, Nico Purman and Quenum this year.) If this year's DJ and live act poll didn't make it clear, change is afoot. It doesn't have a name quite yet, but it has a couple of faces. Its most visible is Crosstown Rebels.