Like a best friend who tells you the hippest tracks to check out, record labels are the ultimate tip sheets. Find one whose sound you like, and you can soon find yourself buying every single release they put out—whether you know the name of the artist on the tin or not. That's why looking over the labels that RA's contributors picked out as their top 20 of the year, it's hard not to identify each as a certain brand.
To purchase a record released by DFA is to buy into the idea of New York, Ostgut Ton is like purchasing a little slice of the secret world of the Berghain, Innervisions to be the type of person who purchases a lamb leather laptop sleeve. On rare occasions—Sandwell District, Workshop—a label's lack of identity becomes their brand.
In a record industry that seems to be closer than ever to a moment of radical transformation, these brands are perhaps more important than ever—temporary oases of calm in the growing storm. They're ways to distinguish, to order, to make sense of it all. And while more than 250 were named by our contributors as having years of note, the following 20 rose above the rest.
20. Mule Electronic
For a country whose techno market is second only to that of Germany, Japan has remarkably few labels of its own. But this year—and indeed since its inception in 2005—Mule Musiq and sister imprint Mule Electronic have more than made up for that. From the jazz-tinted disco and downtempo styles of Henrik Schwarz and Kuniyuki to the smart synthetics of IMPS, Glowing Glisses and Vince Watson, Mule's consistency has rarely faltered over the last 12 months. They're not afraid of taking a punt on a relative unknown, either, with sparkling EPs from fringe players like Audision and Tony Lionni. Quite simply, Mule is a Far Eastern powerhouse of high-end, deep frequency dance music.
-- Lee Smith
19. Spectral Sound
While the latest instalments in its Death is Nothing to Fear EPs welcomed Sami Koivikko, Alexi Delano and Kate Simko—who released a fine EP for Spectral—to the label, Spectral Sound's standout releases in 2008 came from established names. Osborne's Ruling was an infectious and, in the truest sense, uplifting house record. The US producer followed it with an album, Osborne, which lithely traversed electro, pop, deep house and stripped back techno, never sounding contrived or calculated. Spectral also released James T. Cotton's scuzzy, track-based 2AM/FM collaboration with D'Marc Cantu and Cotton's Like No One was this year—or any year's—rawest, meanest and most belligerent exploration of the jacking Chicago sound.
-- Richard Brophy
2008 was yet another stellar year for Berlin-based Innervisions' co-label head Dixon in the DJ arena—helped in no small part by the fact that he had gems like "Back to My Roots" and "I Exist Because of You" in his record bag before almost anyone else. Of course you'd expect established talents like Laurent Garnier and Henrik Schwarz to come with the goods, so perhaps the bigger story here is that 2008 also saw the imprint introducing the larger world to Boola, Lil' Tony and a host of others on their Secret Weapons Part II. Oh. Did we mention they did all that in the span of only seven releases?
-- Terrence Fuller
One cold night in the winter of 2006, Lowtec and Even Tuell drank Bordeaux and talked about their new record label, Workshop. As their teeth grew increasingly purple, the two producers agreed on a few ground rules: they would release only four records per year, showcasing themselves and a few close friends. Each EP would be identified solely by its catalog number, and all tracks would be untitled. Six EPs later, this charming austerity accounts for only a fraction of Workshop's allure: from the quivering groove of Even Tuell's nameless house tool, to the misty euphoria of Benjamin Brunn's label debut, Workshop modestly delivered some of 2008's most compelling moments on wax.
-- Will Lynch
After years of Kode 9 and Burial carrying the label's profile, Hyperdub was due for an identity crisis in 2008. The previous year had ended with a critically and commercially massive Burial album, the third in a trilogy of landmark dubstep albums from the label that still tower over any full-length the genre has yet produced. Would they push that envelope? To their credit, they didn't even try. 2008 was a year of left turns and reinvention for the imprint, with dubstep surprisingly dropped for a new roster—Ikonika, Zomby, Samiyam and others—who focused on the fatter, synthier, wonkier sound. While other labels rushed to catch the bandwagon or climbed into bed with techno, Hyperdub fearlessly pushed forward into new territory.
-- Dimitri Nasrallah
From the annual Pop Ambient compilation, to the safe and cozy pieces on SCSI-9's Easy as Down and all the way down to the re-emergence of Gas—deep was the word for Kompakt in 2008. Stepping past the ambient fare, the imprint ping-ponged between straightlaced fare from the likes of Ferenc, Partial Arts and Justus Köhncke, and unusual bits like a genre-defying re-release from unknown Swedish trio Pluxus. Perhaps Matias Aguayo statement record "Minimal" put to words the undercurrent of Kompakt's releases, though. There's more to dance music than minimal techno: And Kompakt showed us that they're more than happy to move on.
-- Mark Strauss
2008 was anything but small for Smallville Records, the Hamburg-based label run by Peter Kersten and Julius Steinhoff. Many listeners will no doubt single out the label's Move D & Benjamin Brunn collaborations for well-deserved praise—Songs from the Beehive, Smallville's first full-length release, is easily one of 2008's finest, and came complemented by two noteworthy EPs. But the year also featured strong 12-inches from Steinhoff & Hammouda, Sven Tasnadi and Sten, which saw the label defining its aesthetic—one of smoothly flowing planes and melodies. Combined with the distinctive cover art of Stefan Marx, Smallville is an imprint that has quickly developed a voice that is unique and compelling.
-- Cameron Eeles
13. Circus Company
Showing no fear in crossing genre boundary lines and injecting its dancefloor material with a healthy dose of art and experimentation, Circus Company found huge success with Dave Aju's massive "Crazy Place" (and its companion Luciano remix) and Open Wide, as well as standout releases by Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts, Seth Troxler, Sety and Oleg Poliakov, all united by the fact that they sound totally different to just about everything else out there. But while 2008 was a breakthrough year for the French imprint in many respects, longtime followers of the label may be wondering what took the rest of us so long to catch up with its brilliance.
-- Todd Hutlock
For being the new kid in town, Nekes and Federico Molinari's Oslo certainly didn't act like it. Only in operation since 2007, the burgeoning German label has positioned itself as a tastemaker with its ten EPs. Oslo's releases fall in the grey area between house and techno, with outputs ranging from funky and upbeat to deep and ethereal. Everyone remembers Johnny D's "Orbitalife," of course, but the imprint also diversified its catalog with top-notch releases from young producers such as Mara Trax (a Vera and Miss Fitz collaboration), Guillaume and The Coutu Dumonts, Nekes and Christian Burkhardt—a collection of artists that should help continue Oslo continue its run for years to come.
-- Elly Rifkin
After dusting off their classical instruments and crystallizing the label's sound in 2007, Diynamic spent 2008 expanding it. It was a year of firsts: first remixes, first album/mix and first single from outside the label's tight-knit stable of producers. In fact, Diynamic tossed aside their signature sound for more than a few of the label's hits in 2008. The largest was Stimming's "Una Pena," a track that took minimal Latin house and remade it into an unassuming summer-anthem. Fellow Hamburg resident Lawrence turned in the best Diynamic remix this year, weaving his signature melancholy into "Eiszauber." But it was Solomun's catalog mix on Saturday, I'm in Love that proved no matter how much they've experimented in 2008, Diynamic hasn't been diluted a bit.
-- Nate Deyoung
Piano house anthem "Still Going Theme" closed out 2007 for DFA, but 2008 saw the label only pursue this dance floor-focused sound further with the release of excellent albums by Hercules & Love Affair and Maurice Fulton's Syclops project. On the singles front, the imprint stood out by releasing house music with a strong disco bent which was unashamedly emotional and sometimes even borderline cheesy, such as Juan Maclean's 'Happy House' and H&LA's 'Blind'. In a year when so many labels focused on releasing slick, serious, 'authentic' dance music, label manager James Murphy's unabashed pop sensibilities and love of "pretty gay-ass disco
" led to a run of releases which earned the label newfound admiration amongst house and disco devotees.
-- Bernardo Arrospide
After just 12 months and only a handful of releases, Cécille has firmly established themselves as the chief protagonist in the resurgence of funky and deep house across the underground scene. Andomat 3000's chunky "Vertical Smile" began things quickly for the label, peaking at number 2 in RA's February Top 50 chart. But it was soon followed by label boss Nick Curly's Dubnoise EP, which cemented the Cécille sound with a straight-up funky house record before track-of-the-year contender "Nesrib" by SIS made headlines towards summer's end. Going into 2009, the attraction with Cécille remains as much for the great productions as for the renaissance of the sound they epitomize.
-- Grego O'Halloran
Dial lost none of the steam built up by 2007's masterful full-lengths from Efdemin and Pantha du Prince in 2008. Its impressive roster continued to cultivate the label's highly distinct style—a sound that is also flexible enough to allow for new blood and fresh air. It's a refined, seductive take on melodic minimal techno which this year cast its dark, velvety sheen over everything from the You Are My Mate compilation to the dubby house of John Robert's debut EP Hesitate. Label owner Peter Kersten himself did double duty, first delivering stripped grooves as Sten on The Essence and then under his Lawrence moniker nailing it with the sublime "Miles," perhaps Dial's single standout jam for 2008.
-- William Rauscher
Despite surfacing little more than two years ago, James Masters and Matt "Radio Slave" Edwards' Rekids imprint has quickly carved out an established nook among UK independents. 2008 was a glowing year for the label, with sterling debut LPs from self-confessed outlaw Luke Solomon and former graphic designer Toby Tobias somewhat overshadowed by a rampaging monster of a track—Radio Slave's terrifying "Grindhouse"—the outrageous Dubfire remix of which tore the vital organs out of all it inflicted itself upon. Less messily, the unsuppressed joy of Toby Tobias' "The Feeling" reminded us of shinier treasures, with a vocal from Kathy Diamond bursting forth brighter and more alluring than a lapdancer's jewel-encrusted thong.
-- Greg Sawyer
Label boss Luciano hardly seemed to set foot in the studio in 2008, what with his increasingly popular (and populist) DJ sets, but his label made an astute pincer movement to consolidate its status in both leftfield and mainstream zones of post-minimal dance. While Rhadoo's deranged "Dor Mit Oru" seemed to warp time across the four sides of its vinyl, Alex Picone's ripe, sculpted "Furby" was as blissfully in-the-moment as house music gets. Even the Los Updates project, quirky and cheesy as it might have been, spawned a host of terrific remixes from Ricardo Villalobos, Dandy Jack and Luciano himself. With its spectacularly beautiful 12-inch sleeves and almost edibly luscious sounds, no one makes decadence quite as seductive as Cadenza.
-- Derek Walmsley
05. Wagon Repair
Whether it be the sparse minimalism of Luca Bacchetti, exegetic electro from Hrdvsion or the classic wonky jazz harmonics of Mathew Jonson, Wagon Repair found itself alone this year in its sheer breadth of excellent work from a host of genres. Coupled with tobias.'s well-regarded "I Can't Fight the Feeling," and world-beating albums from Deadbeat and The Mole, it's clear that while many other labels have released dazzling music, been wildly hyped or ascended quickly in 2008, few matched this Vancouver imprint for its consistent quality. With new turks like Ryan Crosson and Seth Troxler, stepping up to the plate late in the year, it's a run that looks likely to continue.
-- Per Bojsen-Moller
04. Skull Disco
Although Sam Shackleton might hate to hear it, Skull Disco—if nothing else—has made for great theater. The release of each 12-inch in 2008 came with an unbearable tension. Would the duo of Shackleton and Appleblim be able to top the previous monument of abstract darkness? Where would Soundboy end up? Is this suicide note really the end of Skull Disco? If, as Appleblim tells it, the recent two-disc compilation Soundboy's Gravestone Gets Desecrated by Vandals is the final word from the imprint, then Shackleton can rest easy with the knowledge that he built one of the most singular labels of his time—an imprint that brought together two of the finest producers in dubstep for a short, mind-bending few years.
-- Sam Louis
For this indelible underground bastion, obliviousness continues to be bliss. In '08, Perlon did nothing it hadn't done for the past 11 years—release extraordinary and otherworldly house music—but it still seemed dimensions away from everyone else. An inimitable roster of "friends" left a trail of releases that were near impossible to flaw or define; stalwarts STL and Sammy Dee released vicious rib shakers, as did the mighty A Guy Called Gerald and Portable. But it was Villalobos who really melted craniums; Perlon brings out the best in Ricardo and Vasco was a mesmerizing return to form. Bringing hot sonic pups Shackleton and San Proper into the coveted Perlon circle proved that Superlongevity is not just a kooky word; it's Perlon's unflappable musical mantra.
-- Piero Ruzzene
02. Modern Love
If Modern Love's 2007 was ruled by the staggering form of Echospace, this year they returned their focus to their hometown of Manchester, presenting two albums from label stalwarts Claro Intelecto (Metanarrative) and Andy Stott (Unknown Exception). Claro Intelecto, AKA the other Mark Stewart, dropped a particularly heavy set of dub techno and modern abstraction, his palette whittled down to muddied blues and dust-caked silvers. But Stott's Unknown Exception ruled the roost, cherry-picking cuts from 2004 to 2008 and confirming the man's got the murky Midas touch: every track feels as though it's fighting through fog. Singles from Move D, MLZ and Pendle Coven were further proof that Modern Love's hive mind reaps rich reward.
-- Jon Dale
01. Ostgut Ton
Whether you buy into the notion that dance music in 2008 shared no ideological syntax and ultimately felt a bit stale or felt it was the genre's finest year to date, Berlin's Ostgut Ton couldn't care less. The Berghain club's label was too busy shaping techno's most compelling brand of new-vintage, one still well-grounded in classical dance modes. Fittingly then, Ostgut began the year peeking in the rearview; January brought the warm-throated Chicago house of Prosumer & Murat Tepeli's Serenity. But its base textures were forged with label stalwart Marcel Dettmann's Berghain 02 mix and Shed's Shedding the Past. Berghain 02 catches Dettmann tampering with a club-culture time capsule, sneaking out at pitch-black and reburying the original with this bold, rich new document amongst all that weathered wax. Shedding the Past was more open-eyed, if a little demented. Blending offbeat Aphex Twin rhythms, classic Warp Records atmospheres and dirty night Detroit sheen, Shed embedded a sense of narrative journey and progress in his record so often missing from dance full-lengths. But neither was simply toying with history. Both Dettmann and Shed innovated with how much space they offered within headbending creations so mission-bound. They made techno sound like you could move within it instead of against it again, keeping its sharp angles but opening up slight gaps for you to linger and just listen.
-- Derek Miller
What were your top labels of 2008?
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Voters: Bernardo Arrospide, David Berkley, Per Bojsen-Moller, Clovis Bouhier, Richard Brophy, Todd L. Burns, Richard Carnes, Philipp Cerfontaine, Peter Chambers, Richard Chinn, Paul Clement, Thomas Cox, Jon Dale, Nate Deyoung, Terrence Fuller, Stéphane Girard, Chris Hobson, Todd Hutlock, Mohson Iqbal, Finn Johannsen, Tom Jones, Eike Kühl, Matt Langler, Sam Louis, Will Lynch, Chris Mann, Joshua Meggitt, Derek Miller, Dimitri Nasrallah, Grego O'Halloran, Siana Petro, Daniel Petry, William Rauscher, Elly Rifkin, Carl Ritger, Christian Rose-Day, Piero Ruzzene, Greg Sawyer, Colin Shields, Björn Schaeffner, Philip Sherburne, Lee Smith, Dave Stenton, Samuel Strang, Mark Strauss, Christopher Thomarios, Nik Torrens, Karl Tryggvason, Derek Walmsley, Jacob Wright and Sean-Michael Yoder.