2014 In Review

6 Breakout Indie Labels Of 2014

To start, let’s clarify something: This is not a definitive list of the best record labels of 2014, nor is it necessarily a list of our favorite record labels of 2014. This is a breakout list, a means to pay tribute to a collection of small labels that surprised us with their ability to consistently put out some of the most revelatory independent music of the year, and who we know have big plans for 2015. Some of these operations are newborn while others have been releasing material for a significant percentage of our lifetimes — but all of them are worthy of your attention.

James and I grew up in the unfortunate post-nineties climate where we’ve consistently been told that the independent and underground music scene is “over.” Punk is dead, everyone is a sell-out, and if you need to know more about the American Indie Underground you should definitely check out Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. There’s no doubt that we do live in a very different reality, one in which music discovery is largely linked to the internet, but that doesn’t mean that underground music scenes don’t continue to exist or that they aren’t still a really exciting thing to be involved in if you’re looking in the right places. It’s true that these days, “the right places” tend to exist online, but we’ve also seen a notable reemergence of obsolete physical formats over the past few years. Cassette culture has been reignited by obscure pockets of the internet with help from websites like Bandcamp, which provide a platform for independent artists and labels to circulate their sound with new efficiency. It used to take bands years of touring to ignite even a remote kind of hype; now obscure music is accessible beyond insular local scenes. Building a fanbase breaches the limits of geography and waters down any sense of exclusivity or pretension that might deter outsider interest — we fall for cities we’ve never been to just by hearing the sound of their underbellies.

Unlike choosing our individual favorite songs of the year, or collectively deciding what the 50 Best Albums Of 2014 were, figuring out what independent labels made the biggest impression on us was overwhelmingly easy. Our criteria was simple: Which independent albums caught us by surprise this year, and who released them? There are dozens of labels not included on this list that we have personal affinities for, but these are the six that we could agree had the most impact on both national and international underground scenes, and whose rosters made regular appearances on Stereogum this year. These are the labels that champion artists we’ve seen in basements and in DIY venues, or who we discovered on SoundCloud while getting ready to go out. These are the labels that we have to thank for what comes next. –Gabriela

Double Double Whammy

Location: Brooklyn, NY
Essential 2014 Releases: Mitski – Bury Me At Makeout Creek, LVL UP – Hoodwink’d, Frankie Cosmos – Zentropy
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Krill, Eskimeaux

Double Double Whammy began in 2011 as an outlet for David Benton and Mike Caridi to put out their first LVL UP release, Space Brothers, and they’ve been quietly cultivating an ace lineup of primarily SUNY- and Brooklyn-bred performers ever since. All of them are tied together by a sense of intimacy and accessibility: From Liam Betson’s wordy meditations to the diary-entry pop of Frankie Cosmos, every artist on their roster feels like they could be a friend. Even the label’s more low-key releases like Free Cake For Every Creature or Quarterbacks are essential listens, snapshots of fleeting moments in time recorded on bedroom floors or in makeshift studios. And then there’s the spiritual bloodletting of Mitski’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Hoodwink’d’s driving centrifugal force: two of the label’s defining releases and two of the best albums of the year — they perfectly encapsulate the DDW ethos: Bare it all through your music, but “never dark sided” in real life. –James

Father/Daughter Records

Location: San Francisco, CA
Essential 2014 Releases: Small Wonder – Wendy, Sharpless – The One I Wanted To Be, Happy Diving – Big World
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Keep In Touch subscription series, Diet Cig, Anomie, Never Young

Founded in 2010 by Jessi Frick and her dad Ken, Father/Daughter has served as an incubator for artists like Mutual Benefit and Pure Bathing Culture, both of whom would eventually go on to release landmark albums in larger pastures. The label’s continued success can be attributed to their strong curatorial compass, finding artists that should be exposed to a wider audience, and exposing them. Nothing really unites the roster aside from unbridled potential: All of these bands will go on to do big things, and Father/Daughter is a fertile garden that will allow them to grow. This year, they released some of their best work yet: Small Wonder’s Wendy is nothing short of a masterpiece, a triumphant rumination on the terrors and joys of becoming an adult; fellow Epoch member Sharpless put out The One I Wanted To Be, a glorious collection of unrestrained pop; and Flagland, Rivergazer, and Happy Diving all released fresh-faced variations on nostalgia-tinged rock. It’s been a huge year for the label, and next year only looks better with their new Keep In Touch 7″ series, which promises to put their curatorial skills to good use. –James

Orchid Tapes

Location: Brooklyn, NY
Essential 2014 Releases: Alex G – DSU, Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs, Foxes In Fiction – Ontario Gothic
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Emily Reo, Four Visions, Arrange

Run by Warren Hildebrand and Brian Vu, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Toronto label Orchid Tapes been quietly releasing their understated brand of bedroom pop since 2010. But the once low-laying cassette project found itself propelled to the forefront this year when the label released Alex G’s monstrous underground success, DSU. Orchid Tapes has only been around for four years, but they’ve since expanded their output to vinyl, and plan on re-issuing previously released material next year. Orchid Tapes’ roster is defined by a similar sheen of atmospheric effortlessness that you can hear in Ricky Eat Acid’s billowing chimes, or in the just-barely-audible timbre of Hildebrand’s own voice when he records as Foxes In Fiction. None of the projects championed by the label sound the same, but their roster is carefully curated — each release complements the other in its own way. There’s an audible intimacy to the Orchid Tapes aesthetic. If anything, the label specializes in providing us with a brief glimpse into each artist’s respective world before the tape hiss indicates that we’ve been expelled once again. –Gabriela

PC Music

Location: London, UK
Essential 2014 Releases: GFOTY – Secret Mix, PCMusic x DISown Radio Mix, Kane West – Western Beats
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Hannah Diamond, GFOTY

It’s the year 2025: You’re on whatever designer drug is fashionable at the time and you’re packed into a sweaty club where the strobe lights flash at 180bpm. There’s a hologram on stage — a crowdsourced Hatsune Miku for the next generation — and she’s holding a microphone but she’s not singing into it, just unblinkingly staring out into the audience. Whatever DJ controlling her puppet strings puts on a throwback — say, “Hey QT” or “Friday Night” — and she starts to dance, out of step with our time and space. Maybe PC Music is still chugging along, more likely they were a flash-in-the-pan trend that went supernova soon after they arrived — it doesn’t matter. PC Music represents the past, present, and future of pop. No label dominated the cultural conversation like they did this year, as this amorphous collective of producers actively pushed up against conventions, twisting and melting our idea of pop until it was nothing more than a distorted cry into the digital ether. Even the distinctive personalities that emerged — A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, GFOTY — feel formless and shapeless in a society that increasingly looks for a hashtag to categorize everything. Attempts to contextualize and define them feel eye-rollingly pedestrian, like a dad trying to explain a meme. It’s better — and I think some of the point — to not try and “understand” them; instead, let it all wash over you in a wave of sugary sweetness. PC Music is responsible for the most fun I’ve had with music in a long time, and that’s all that should matter. –James

Run For Cover

Location: Boston, MA
Essential 2014 Releases: Crying – Get Olde Second Wind, Little Big League – Tropical Jinx, Makthaverskan – II
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Cloakroom, Adventures, Elvis Depressedly, Pity Sex, Turnover, Camera Shy

Run For Cover Records has backed a solid roster of bands since their foundation in 2004, but something about 2014 marked a kind of departure for the Boston-based label. Whether they intended to or not, Run For Cover stuck to a very distinct mood this year, releasing sonically diverse albums that all managed to trigger a similar kind of catharsis. A dynamic record label is marked by its ability to support a variety of different musical inclinations from an impressive number of locations, and still have the bands sound tangentially affiliated. The indignant, growling lyrics of Gothenburg’s Makthaverskan align with Philly-based Little Big League’s emotive mouthfuls, while Brooklyn’s chiptune pop-rock band Crying provide a sense of optimistic buoyancy missing from the label’s earlier releases. Instead of working to establish a definitive scene surrounding the label, Run For Cover has always done a remarkable job finding complementary sounds in disparate environments. No matter how distinct, these albums all sound like they belong under the same roof. –Gabriela

Tiny Engines

Location: Charlotte, NC
Essential 2014 Releases: The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace There Is, Cayetana – Nervous Like Me, Mannequin Pussy – Gypsy Pervert
Anticipated 2015 Releases: Runaway Brother, Sweet John Bloom, Places To Hide

If 2014 was the year that the emo revival reached its peak, then Tiny Engines was at the very top: the Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace There Is will surely go down as the defining emo record of the decade, and Dikembe released the Brand New album that we’ve all been waiting for. But their success didn’t end there. They championed vital strains of punk, from Cayetana’s blearingly honest debut Nervous Like Me to Mannequin Pussy’s scuzzy, discordant Gypsy Pervert. Their shorter releases gave them even more breadth: Beach Slang’s life-affirming pair of EPs, It Looks Sad’s mumbling post-punk debut, and Places To Hide’s vulnerable and irresistible Wild N Soft were all refreshingly different while still feeling as though they belonged in the same family. Co-founders Will Miller and Chuck Daley are two of the best in the business, and they both have a hell of an ear for discovering untapped talent. Tiny Engines did more good for punk and emo this year than anyone else — expect them to keep doing so for a long while. –James