Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Top 10 Indie Labels

I don't know whether I'm just lazy or Sarah has great ideas, but I feel like making more lists.

After a list of my favorite 20 Sub Pop releases, there was some discussion about additional lists
including a list of favorite indie labels or the best Yo La Tengo songs. A label list piqued my interest.

Like several of my music lists, the items and order are constantly changing. So, keep in mind that this is not a static list, rather it is living, breathing thing that may or may not evolve into something else entirely.

10. Emergency Umbrella
Locale: Columbia, MO
Roster Includes: The Foundry Field Recordings, Bald Eagle,
Sinkane, Gentleman Auction House, Witch's Hat
Their "Nirvana" (band that takes them to the big-time):Take your pick. Gentleman Auction house seems primed for bigger and better things. Of course, Foundry will join them on a tour this fall and plan to release a new record next winter. Oh, and Sinkane's Ahmed Gallab is set to play the kit for Of Montreal while his band opens several dates for them this fall.
My Thinking: This might be pandering to the locals, but this little label is starting to make some noise and features a variety of bands with surprising quality. Besides, isn't this what an indie label is all about? They're a little crew of bands who aren't making money but have dreams of stardom.

9. Kill Rock Stars
Locale: Olympia, WA/Portland, OR
Roster Includes: Decemberists, Colin Meloy, Gossip,
Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, Thao Nguyen, Xiu Xiu
Their "Nirvana": The fact that half of the roster I mentioned have left for greene
r pastures (or disbanded or died) means that all you have to do to be the KRS Nirvana is leave them for a major. Sadly, all the success of KRS bands has meant little attention thrown their way.
My Thinking: This has to be one of the most confounding labels ever. I don't understand how a label can have a ratio of good to bad acts like KRS and still not be in the national indi
e consciousness.

8. Team Love
Locale: Omaha/Brooklyn/COMO
Roster Includes: Tilly and the Wall, David Dondero, Jenn
y Lewis
Their "Nirvana": I don't know. I think they're still waiting on this one, but Jenny Lewis did put out an excellent album and has a new
one on the way.
My Thinking:
This label could hit it big (as long as co-founder Conor Oberst takes the entire roster on tour) with a string of five or six great albums from a quickly maturing roster...or they could join their big brother Saddle Creek in the "what could have been had Omaha supplied better musicians" file.

7. Polyvinyl
Locale: Champaign, IL
Roster Includes: Of Montreal, Architecture in Helsinki, Joan of
Arc, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Their "Nirvana": Of Montreal hit it huge with that Outback Steakhouse ad, but I doubt this will be looked back as the defining moment of either the label's nor the band's achievements. A lot is riding on this fall's release of Skeletal Lamping.
My Thinking: This labels has done well for itself but is still a great album or two away from true indie greatness. Of course, they may also be a
bad release or two away from oblivion.

6. Matador
Roster Includes: Mission of Burma, Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, The New Pornographers, Tim
es New Viking, Yo La Tengo, Stephen Malkmus
Their "Nirvana": Although none of them hit it Nirvana big, these acts have made a significant dent on the music landscape: Pavement, Guided by Voices, The Jon
Spencer Blues Explosion, etc.
My Thinking: Although this label has lost some of its gusto, it still turns out an impressive roster and even
more impressive alumni. (It should be pointed out that while looking through the roster, Pavement is listed as "active." I'm just sayin'.) Matador may go up and down on this list, but they will never leave my top 10.

5. Art & Crafts
Locale: Totonto, Ontario
Roster Includes: Broken Social Scene, Feist, Stars, The American Analog Set,
The Hidden Cameras
Their "Nirvana": Like Nirvana, Feist left her indie label for major label riches, but her fame could help A&C get some well-deserved exposure.
My Thinking: This label is primarily loaded with members or former members of Broken Social Scene, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.

4. XL Recordings
Locale: UK
Roster Includes:
Vampire Weekend, MIA, Tapes 'n Tapes, Sigur Ros, Devandra Banhart...oh and some acts like Beck, Radiohead, and The White Stripes
Their "Nirvana": This is a tough one. Because some of the superstar acts on their roster only use
XL for UK European distribution, it would be unfair to consider any of them as XL's Nirvana. Actually, it might be insulting to put someone like Radiohead in the same category as Nirvana. I'm going to go out on a limb and will proclaim MIA as XL's Nirvana. Just you wait.
My Thinking: Again, the confusion between US and UK rosters makes rating this label difficult. It also makes it difficult to consider it an indie. Either way, they are picking up some hot underground acts and bringing established performers back to the indie ranks.

3. Sub Pop

Roster Includes: Band of Horses, The Shins
, Iron & Wine, Grand Archives, Wolf Parade, The Thermals, Fleet Foxes, No Age...
Their "Nirvana": Uh...Nirvana.
My Thinking: If I were judging this on their entire
roster over their 20 years, this would be number one, easily. In fact, by the time I'm done writing this, I may move it to the top slot. Sub Pop created grunge, revived the 7", nearly went under twice, and has reinvented itself numerous times. This is the model for all record labels.

2. Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar
Locale: Bloomington, IN
Rosters Include: Antony & the Johnsons, Swearing at Motorists, Jens Lekman, Bon Iver, Sunset Rubdown, Okkervil River, etc.
Their "Nirvana": I don't know. It seems every time one of these labels releases a record, it's proclaimed as "the next big thing." Antony had a good run. Everybody's talking about Bon Iver. Okkervil is building a great following. It's hard to identify just one Nirvana from this list. I don't think it's happened y
et, but history tells me they have one in their midst.
My Thinking: This really is the most interesting label (or duo of labels) out there. Although they've received all the critical acclaim of labels like Sub Pop, Matador, or Merge, they haven's seen much of the same love on the Billboard charts. I know we're talking indie labels where the bottom line isn't always the goal, but it does them no good to go under.

1. Merge
Chapel Hill, NC
Roster Includes: M Ward, Destroyer, Conor Oberst, Arcade Fire, She & Him, Bob Pollard, Caribou, Spoon, Portastic, Lambchop, Lou Barlow, Camera Obscura, Crooked Fingers, etc.
Their "Nirvana": Arcade Fire or Spoon: Take your pick. Even though the rest of the roster doesn't sell like these acts, they always pull in tons of critical acclaim.
My Thinking: This decade has been dominated by one great Merge release after another. All other labels aspire to be Merge. Where Matador will always stay in my top ten, Merge will always be one of my top two or three.

Also considered:

K Records - It feels like KRS has taken the reigns of kindercore and Olympia...that is, until Calvin Johnson figures something out.

Asthmatic Kitty - Although they boast an impressive group of artists, name one of them aside from Sufjan Stevens.

Saddle Creek - This label was on it's way. Now you have Conor Oberst recording for Merge, The Faint are on blank.wav, and who know where Cursive will wind up. Plus, the Omaha contingent is being overtaken by Team Love.

Barsuk - This label is riding Death Cab for Cutie for all they can get - much the same way Sub Pop leaned on Nirvana.

Jade Tree - This was hugely influential label that just doesn't contain the same impressive roster it used to feature.

Warner Bros. - I know. I know. WB is no indie, but they feature a ton of indie-minded acts on their various imprints and have had a reputation to allow bands to develop. The success of The Flaming Lips alone demonstrates this fact.

FlameShovel - Apparently, Billy Schuh likes this label. He has some good reasons. I'll have to challenge him to put it in writing, though.

Drag City - This may have been oversight. In fact, I should probably sneak it into number 6 or 7. Oh well, you always leave someone out. This year's releases include albums by Silver Jews and Will Oldham.

Touch & Go - Again, this might be an oversight, but I sort of feel T&G's best years are behind them. Their history insures T&G will always be in this conversation.

As mentioned just above, I'm sure that I overlooked something. Plus, I may have been too lazy to move the order around and add DC to the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss a label? Is my order all askew? Discuss.

(BTW-This was mostly written last night. I used my lunch to add the links and images. Do you see the things I do for my readership?)


Sarah said...

That is just an amazing list, and would surely put mine to shame (-if I had actually written it yet. See? I'm the lazy one, pal.) Anyway, I'm very impressed. I was planning on taking the easy route and was going to write on my all-time favorite labels, thus eliminating the need to do any research on who's-on-what these days. I don't keep up quite as well as I used to, so your list is also a very handy little reference for me.
I'm in total agreement with your choice of Merge for the #1 spot. They're incredible in their consistency. And they're local. Whoo-hoo! (I do think you should consider bumping up Drag City a bit, though.)
Next list after I finish this one: My list of favorite lists.

Juliet said...

I think you've got some good choices on here. I'm very happy to see that Secretly Canadian/Jagjagwar were high on your list, as they're very high on mine. Though you completely omited another label that is very high on my list: Bloodshot Records