XLR8R’s Best of 2016: Labels
Here are some of the year's best homes for great music, as chosen by the XLR8R staff.
XLR8R’s Best of 2016: Labels
Here are some of the year's best homes for great music, as chosen by the XLR8R staff.
What is it that makes a great label?
These days, though musical curation remains as fundamental as ever to their success, there is so much more to also keep in mind. Brand image, social media presence or lack of, release formats (with the resurgence of the cassette, as well as the vinyl), and many other intricacies factor into our overall impressions. It can be just as easy to fall deeply in love with an imprint that churns out a release a month as its counterparts that put out one cherished record each year. At the end of it all, it’s just got to be that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a label stand out; here are a list of labels that did just that in 2016.
With four splendid EPs in its debut year, Vera and Alexandra‘s Melliflow imprint is fully deserving of its spot on this list. However, given the absence and promotion around each release, and the vinyl-only format, it’s possible that Melliflow’s existence and subsequent inclusion may come as something of a surprise who do not maintain close ties with the vibrant Berlin music scene—though you’ll almost certainly have heard several cuts from its discography if you spent any considerable time partying in the city during the recent summer months. And those Berlin regulars will most likely have been familiar with the Melliflow name for several years following a number of parties at local institutions Club der Visionaere and Hoppetosse; but it is only in 2016 that this widely-known party-series evolved to encompass a label.
Having spent several months refining the label artwork—check it out to understand why—Vera and Alexandra inaugurated the imprint in May with Spacetravel‘s Time To Wake Up EP. In doing so, they also offered our first insight into the tight, minimal beats we can expect from Melliflow—no real surprise given their respective backgrounds in similar soundscapes as solo artists. The B2, titled “Magic Track” was particularly well received and played out.
Up next, in July, came the Daytona EP by AK41, the collaborative project of Romanian’s Dan Andrei and Serban Goanta (a.k.a. Kozo); before a fine double EP arrived from Italy’s And.rea (real name Andrea La Pietra)—an emphatic and varied third release that made many music fans stand up and take notice.
But it was the final EP, Z@P’s Sonic Utopia, that was perhaps the most impressive of them all. There had been much anticipation in the XLR8R offices after “D-04” popped up in Vera’s podcast earlier this year; though “Diamante” dropped and established itself as a contender for our track of the year. A fine release in what is a particularly strong quartet, Sonic Utopia capped a fine year for Melliflow and the ladies behind it.
A ragtag collective of 17 Atlanta-based artists working under the guidance of label founder, creative leader, quality controller, and evil genius Father, the Awful Records label has grown in stature over the last 12 months—pushing out genre-distorting content from artists including ABRA, who took us back to the future with her acclaimed Princess EP.
Artists who have previously been in the background of the collective also came to the fore, with drops from Ethereal and Lord Narf, who brought a wonderful sound and aesthetic with her video for “Leave Yo Azz Alone,” revealing her ability to channel something that reminds one of Lisa LeftEye’s effortless sparse, skeletal lyricism.
The tight-knit, self-taught crew is clearly focused on maintaining a DIY attitude to all aspects of production, as they continue to switch roles creatively in support of each other’s projects—from engineering to design. It is this attitude, coupled with each artist’s individual style, that has brought the label such success. Nothing feels formulaic or forced, contrasting much of what is coming out of Atlanta today or in the past couple of decades, comparable only to the outsiderism of artists like Andre 3000, or Cee-lo Green.
Nina Kraviz’ трип (pronounced “trip”) project has been around since 2014, inspired by her life as a touring DJ—and sparked as she began preparing records for her 2015 DJ-Kicks release. As she told Resident Advisor in a recent exchange, she started it as a body to represent records that possess that common “feeling” or “texture” that run through all the records that she plays and collects, old and new. 2016 saw the label gain widespread recognition as it became an increasingly important part of Kraviz’ career—running in parallel to and perfectly complimenting her commitments as one of the world’s most celebrated DJ and producers.
Scan through the discography, and it’s not easy to pinpoint this common “texture” to which she refers. Sourced almost entirely from a close-knit crew of artist friends from far and wide, much of the music is warped and, well, trippy—more attuned to a seedy after-hours material rather than the traditional club environment. Of course, Kraviz’ profile has brought the label great levels of attention, but that only goes so far: there is, without doubt, a certain quality to the imprint that has started to shine through over the past 12 months.
High Focus Records
Formed in 2010, Brighton-based UK hip-hop label High Focus has rewritten the rules of what labels representing British rap and hip-hop are capable of. 2016 saw the label grow considerably, showing us that an entertaining offering can come from outside of the UK’s major cities. Besides a string of sold-out events across the country, there was Ocean Wisdom’s CHAOS 93‘s LP which debuted at #10 on iTunes globally on the day of its release.
Once again, it just wasn’t possible to overlook Giegling for this year’s list. Year upon year, the Weimar-based collective prove themselves as one of the world’s finest underground imprints—although, on the surface, they do very little. Releases, infrequent and sporadic at best, are rolled out without any publicity; the only way of knowing when a Giegling record drops is via the label’s homepage or when those who snag a vinyl make sure all their friends are aware of their achievement. Take Prince Of Denmark’s recent €100 box-set, titled 8, for example: first pressings sold out within weeks, with absolutely no audio samples or information about the release.
And herein lies the key to Giegling’s success: quality. As with the majority of the labels on this list, Giegling sits here because it has its own individual identity, fronted by a unique and pleasant sound aesthetic that is ensured on each and every record that leaves the doors. As with 8, you can buy a Giegling record without even hearing it; you just know that it’s going to be good. Check out the label’s other 2016 releases for proof in point, including, of particular note, Leafar Legov’s Talk and DJ Metatron’s stunning 2 The Sky.
Oscar Powell’s Diagonal imprint is acknowledged for disobeying the unwritten rules of electronic music. This definitely plays to the label’s advantage as every release is taken from a smorgasbord of artists and genres. What to expect? It could be anything from downtempo, electro, noise, and even certain strands of pop.
The label had a great 2015, and 2016 was no different. The UK label finished off last year with an average of a release every other month—among which were full-lengths from Russell Haswell and Not Waving. This year featured a whole breadth of styles, which included some pacy electro from Container’s Vegetation EP; Ancient Methods and Cindytalk teamed up to create some rough-round-the-edges EBM as In The Mouth Of The Wolf; and label boss Powell came through with some post-punk-meets-industrial jams.
Bas Mooy’s Mord label has managed to fit in a lot in a very short time. From its arrival back in 2013 until now, it has amassed over 30 EPs, a couple of box-sets and two LPs. While the roster may feature some big name artists, Mooy revels in providing a platform for emerging artists. However, 2016 seemed like the Rotterdam label boss wanted to focus on shelling out material from the veterans—Oscar Mulero, Neil Landstrumm and old label buddy Radial were just some of the big names all let loose on solo EPs.
A label based in Montreal and Mexico City, Wolf’s Infinite Machine has been a regular fixture on XLR8R’s pages since 2012, and each year the label grows more confident in its mission to push electronic music further into the dark recesses of the club. Each release that siphons through the Infinite Machine is at once intense, brutal, and, at times, hauntingly beautiful; it’s confounding music that bucks trends and expectations at every turn.
Standout releases from WWWINGS, Ziúr, Galtier, Tomás Urquieta, and Abyss X made 2016 a banner year for Infinite Machine, and the ace up its sleeve was the consistency in its high-quality output—an astounding achievement when you consider the experimental, forward-thinking music it’s pushing.
Northern Electronics was birthed after a chance encounter between label heads Abdulla Rashim and Jonas Rönnberg (a.k.a. Varg) in 2013. In just four short years, the pair of young producers forged a singular sound rooted in drone, ambient, techno, and the melancholic landscape of their Scandinavian home. With its shadowy sound aesthetic and equally suggestive art by designer Jonas Bard (Böfüms), Northern Electronics is one of the most distinctive labels in modern electronic music.
Following on from a standout 2015, Northern Electronics this year proved it’s only going going forward with notable highlights including mind-bending albums from Ulwhednar, D.Å.R.F.D.H.S., Lundin Oil, Isorinne, Lorin, and Vit Fana, alongside label compilation Scandinavian Swords II and EPs from Acronym, and label heads Abdullah Rashim and Varg.
Year after year, LA-based label Stones Throw continually impresses. For a label 30 years into its existence, it would be easy to sit back and bask in the glory of releasing some of the beat scene’s most forward-thinking, seminal albums (J Dilla’s Donuts and Madvillain’s Madvilliany, for example) and slowly fade into obsolescence. 2016, however, was one of the label’s strongest in recent years, bookended by the enticing pairing of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge (a.k.a. KnxWorries), Mndsgn’s funk-filled Body Wash, and Samiyam’s sprawling Animals Have Feelings.
In an interview with us earlier this year, Neil McDermott (a.k.a. Junes) explained what him and brother Ian (a.k.a. Tames) are aiming for with their Galdoors imprint: “We never tried to come up with a sound that Galdoors would have, but we knew it would be a bit more subdued. Stripped-back, tracky cuts for the dancefloor.” Established back in 2013, the label seems to have really hit its stride this year. After a small break from putting out tunes, they came back stronger than ever in 2016, with three essential releases: Junes’ Trails EP is brilliant techy ammunition for the dancefloor, Leif’s Macro Beat is diverse and brilliant, and most recently Duckett’s Stories Of Data Loss is a label debut of anthemic proportions.
A hot tip forfans of the label: tune into the Galdoors monthly KMAH Radio show to hear what’s doing the business at HQ.
Run by DJ Masda and So Inagawa, Tokyo’s Cabaret Recordings has quickly become one of the definitive strongholds of a new generation of house and techno producers. What began as a party in the Japanese capital during the ‘00s evolved into a label in 2013, and is today firmly rooted as a reliable source for stripped-back club tracks. This year alone, Evan Baggs collaborated with Katsuya Sano as Ekbox, Binh teamed up with Masda as Onigiri, and TC80 dropped a double pack on the imprint. As time goes on, it seems the Japanese co-owners grow more certain in their tastes, and Cabaret goes from strength to strength.
The Regelbau family stamped themselves out as one of the most promising new additions on our radar this year. A group of young Danes based in the city of Århus who were drawn together by a mutual love of electronic records, are now between them all responsible for a multitude of imprints—Help Recordings, No Hands, 2 Bit Recordings, and at the heart of it all, Regelbau.
At the core of it are C.K., Manmade Deejay, DJ Sports, and Central. Their musical output varies widely, but tends to be jolly, slightly left-field leaning house, pouring out thick and fast under numerous aliases. It’s a strategy and aesthetic that certainly keeps things interesting.
Check out our Labels We Love entry on the imprint for a clearer map of the Aarhus family.
Over the past couple of years, Vancouver has exploded as one of the most fertile locations in house and techno music. With imprints like Mood Hut and Pacific Rhythm holding it down, the Canadian city has become one of the most talked about in 2016. At the heart of it all is Richard MacFarlane’s 1080p.
What began as largely a cassette and digital imprint has to our delight also made it onto vinyl this year and last. Its sound is varied, yet somehow always quite distinct—deep, retro style house music, as well as some quirky techno sounds; on the whole, some of the most exciting new productions out there. Through 2016, Jayda G, Khotin, Riohv, J. Albert, Sasha Jan Rezzie, and many more fresh acts released via 1080p (with roughly a new 12″ every month on average), in arguably its best year to date. Here’s to many more.
2016 saw NYC’s ReSolute event series continue its dominance over the city’s house and techno scene, with superb bookings all year long from the likes of Zip, Mathew Jonson, Sonja Moonear, and the [ar :pi:ar] crew, as well as deserved success for the party’s residents like Lauren Ritter (who released a blissful debut EP on Lee Burridge’s All Day I Dream label).
But what delighted us even more than their always impressive parties was the founding of ReSolute’s new imprint, named DisDat. The vinyl-only label kicked off with two outstanding VA’s this year, both of which perfectly emulate ReSolute’s melodic-meets-minimal sensibility. With the first record containing a track from Zendid along with an emotional and acid-tinged number from S.A.M., we were already sold on DisDat. The mesmerising funk of Barac’s “Ordinary Conversations” on the second 12”—coupled with cuts from Vincent Lemieux and Melchoir Productions—solidified DisDat as one of the most exciting new labels of the year.
For Will Saul’s Aus Music, this year was bound to be a good one. The label celebrated its 10th birthday over the summer—a momentous achievement that marked 100 releases. Without forgetting that AUS has helped establish the careers of artists like Bicep, Dusky, Huxley, and Marquis Hawkes—while cementing itself as one of the globe’s key sources of eclectic, bass-heavy house music—its birthday year was perhaps its best yet. The label not only brought its core artists back for a slew of albums and EP’s (Youandewan’s There Is No Right Time was especially fantastic), but Aus also had several new and unexpected signings from the likes of Cassy, Paul Woolford, Tom Trago, and more. If nothing else, 2016 proved that Aus has the most important quality in a label: the ability to reinvent itself while still staying true to its original vision.
Rhythm Section International
Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section International has carved an interesting niche in the modern club climate. Each release is subtle enough to warrant extended home listening, while also packing enough punch to move bodies on the dancefloor. Although its discography ranges from jazz-tinged house to RnB, hip-hop, and loose drum workouts, there’s a warmth and emotion running throughout—a hard-to-place feeling that emits from each record.
Rhythm Section hit the ground running in 2016—only its third year in operation—with a smooth-as-silk album from Al Dobson Jr.; a surprising curveball from Silentjay x Jace XL; welcome returns from Prequel and Chaos In The CBD; and a handful of smooth house outings from, among others, Dan Kye, Duke Hugh, and Hidden Spheres.