I sort of feel I’ve ignored the output of a lot of individual labels this year in favour of picking up music from an ever-widening range of sources. This, I think, is probably a good thing, and it certainly has the the tang of the underground’s do-it-yourself ethos, which is always important whenever things are looking a little bit more safe and corporate than they did even a year or two before. I also like the fact they bring new and different voices to the table, ones that deliver something missing from everywhere else.
I’ve also been aware that I’ve paid scant attention to non-electro labels over the last 12 months. I can’t remember a year where the bulk of my buying went on a particular genre over others to the extent this one has, and it took a special record or label to snap me out of the habit. There were some: Hessle, Super Rhythm Trax, Unknown To The Unknown, Don’t Be Afraid, and a handful of others all provided a break from the, uhh, breakbeats (well, not entirely because a couple of electro bangers turned up on those labels too). There were also, of course, a number of great début releases from labels I suspect may mostly vanish as quickly as they first appeared.
Electro wise, shout out to some of the usual suspects: CPU are startling with the amount of material they release. It might increasingly be misleading to describe them as an electro label, but they’ve managed to keep their standards incredibly high considering their output. Mechatronica continue to impress, particularly in the way they’re beginning to find a true place for themselves in the scheme of things. And Brokntoys, who found that niche a while ago, and continued to put our branches in differing directions. Also, Null+Void, Trust, and a host of other noise-bringers, provided a massive amount of fun as the year got darker.
Biggest shout, though, is for the huge number of set-ups managing to get even one record out, against all the odds. Brave or daft, I don’t know, but these folk are the ones who created some of the biggest thrills of the year, and some of the standards of music were incredible. Anyway, here are a couple of labels who stood out for me in 2018. None of this is based on sales, or branding, or readers polls. They’re here because I listened to their stuff more than anyone else’s. What else matters?
Craigie Knowes are a ridiculous label, and I’m not just saying that because they’re from Glasgow. I mean, I’m usually impressed if a label puts out one or two really good releases in a single year, but Craigie Knowes managed to hit a stride where pretty much everything they released was utterly fantastic. That’s 10 releases running from the annual brilliance of their War Child fund-raiser EPs, to ending the year with a pair of stupidly good records by Carl Finlow and Posthuman. Everything was pretty much ‘must buy’. What made them so special, I think, was the way they seemed to judge a release on its quality rather than what genre it was, or who it was by. The results were a crazy weave of records which were often linked together by nothing more than how damn good they were. Surely this is what every label on the planet should be aspiring to do, especially when so many others seem to be going for the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach.
BH remain the only label to have made every one of these lists that I’ve done over the past five years. The reason for that is simple. There are virtually no other labels – not in Britain, not on the continent, not the US – who are doing anything quite like this. Just as with Craigie Knowes there is a disregard for everything bar the actual quality of the music that’s always refreshing, and BH remains one of the few more well-known labels who can consistently surprise me with their choice of artists or styles. I won’t claim that everything BH released this year did it for me, but there was more here – from the rerelease of the storming Morella material and a pair of superb Hodge EPs, to Black Merlin’s iridescent half-light – to provide a means of waking you from your torpor than most other labels manage. There is a suggestion from some critics that there is a sense of ‘adolescent rebellion’ at the heart of BH’s project, but I suspect there’s a certain amount of ignorance based on time, place and context informing some of those views, and I think one of the reasons I love BH so much is that they feel like a throwback to the sort of punk records I’d get when I was young which were a very much a pre internet lifeline and tenuous foothold into a far larger, and less isolated, universe. If you don’t get that, that’s cool. Just don’t be a wank about it, alright? Alright.
When checking up on what I bought this year I noticed that a lot of it came from small labels who appeared out of nowhere to release a single record before vanishing back into the shadows. Casa Voyager, a young Morrocan label based in France (I think), looked like doing the same when I first became aware of them at the end of last year, but they managed to reappear with several other great records as 2018 went on. There is a house-sound, I think, a predeliction for a strain of swish electronic funk that seems to infuse every one of those releases, from the two VA samplers (the Casa Sports volumes) to the pair of single artist EPs from OCB, and Kosh. Not that it ever dominated, though. It was always a starting point for some fine electro which dumped the usual standards of grime or deepness in favour of music which moved with some fluid grooves, slick bass, and sparkling melodies. In an electro scene which seems to be getting all doey-eyed about IDM’s cold pretensions, there’s something deeply heroic about that. A genuine curiosity about what 2019 is going to bring from them is one of the main reasons I haven’t armed that doomsday bomb I’ve got hidden in the attic. Sorry, I should have said Haven’t Yet.
Bass Agenda Recordings
Even if you only know them from the superb podcast series they curate, Bass Agenda are one of the most important electro labels around. Given that, it’s curious that their name is not brought up more often. I wonder whether that’s because there is a certain taste for old-school or harsher, more industrial, tones on show across the label’s releases which is a little out-of-sync with current genre interests. If that’s really the case, then it’s a shame because they’re a label who have consistently shown themselves to understand electro down to the smallest detail. 2018 was a great year for them. There was a magnificent album by Dez Williams, a gloriously brash EP from genuine electro legend Bass Junkie, some insane future-rave from Nexus 23, and small late-in-the-year deluge of magically snarling material by W1b0 to top off an impressive year-long run. This is a serious label which is still largely operating from the edge of the shadows, and one with a love of the sort of music more concerned with what noises machines wanted to create rather than what we could force them to make. Old-school as hell. Excellent.