The Top Five Labels of 2004
ollowing a label’s output is much like trusting a music reviewer to lead you to their treasured records. There are ups, downs and differences of opinion, but when you find the right one, the rewards can be enormous. This year, Stylus has reviewed countless records from nearly 300 different labels. At the end of the year, though, we found that a few were our favorite labels—companies that have found favor among a variety of staffers from mid-November of last year to mid-November 2004 and are, statistically, Stylus’ favorite labels of the year.
No surprise here. Matador has established itself as one of the leading independent labels of the past decade, dabbling in everything from hip-hop to dance music, while maintaining the Pavement-styled rock sound that made their name. This past year saw no less than three Guided by Voices releases, an under-recognized indie-pop gem by New Pornographers member A.C. Newman, a stunning return to form by the reunited Mission of Burma and the newest record by indie favorites Interpol. While it wasn’t quite a defining year for them, Matador turned in another solid performance.
Average Score: 7.55
Reviewed: Interpol, A.C. Newman, Mission of Burma, Guided by Voices, Guided by Voices and Guided by Voices
And no surprise here either. Drag City has been, along with Matador, one of the most high-powered indie labels of the past ten years. Known more usually for their acoustic based entreaties by Smog and Bonnie Prince Billy, 2004 saw the label releasing a whole host of records that defied conventional thought surrounding the label. Ghost’s first album in years was a psychedelic journey of epic proportions, US Maple turned in their usual brand of art-rock (this time a tad more accessible than the last) and Azita and Joanna Newsom turned in two of the more amazing debuts of the year.
Average Score: 7.675
Reviewed: Joanna Newsom, Ghost, US Maple and Azita
If you call Drag City and Matador the leaders in independent rock, the leader in electronic music would undoubtedly be the Sheffield based Warp label. This year saw a consolidation for them, with the issuing of records by the usual suspects: Two Lone Swordsmen, Squarepuhser, Req and Savath and Savalas. The two relative newcomers to the label couldn’t be more different. Former Anti-Pop Consortium member Beans unleashed his sonically complex debut solo record, while Gravenhurst is “a man who would have made Nick Drake look like Henry Rollins on an intravenous steroid drip”.
Average Score: 7.82
Reviewed: Gravenhurst, Two Lone Swordsmen, Squarepusher, Savath and Savalas, Beans and Req
Sonic Unyon is perhaps the surprise entrant on this list. Not known as an indie powerhouse, the label made its name this year via its eclecticism. We began our coverage of them with Ian Mather’s glowing review of Raising the Fawn, a post-rock band that came off like a water-fixated and briefer Godspeed. Later in the year, Derek Miller found Tangiers’ Never Bring You Pleasure to be a joyous summer rock album, and he wrote that Andre Ethier’s . . .with Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price “mastered the smoke-eyed folk pompadour stance…perfectly.” While we only ran three reviews this year from the label, amid a variety of releases, we found their best work to be heads and shoulders above the rest.
Average Score: 8.25
Reviewed: Raising the Fawn, Tangiers and Andre Ethier
Stylus had hardly a bad thing to say about Merge this year. And with one of the most exciting new bands, sure to top Year End lists everywhere (The Arcade Fire), a reformed powerhouse (American Music Club), a Belle and Sebasitian knock-off band that sometimes beat the original at their own game (Camera Obscura) and two indie heavyweights (Destroyer and Lambchop), it’s not hard to see why. In fact, with a lineup like that, it would be a let-down for Merge not to have been on this list. And to top it, not least of all, in their 15th year of existence? Not bad. Not too bad at all.
Average Score: 8.58
Reviewed: American Music Club, The Arcade Fire, Destroyer, Camera Obscura, The Rosebuds and Lambchop
Editor’s note: A number of caveats could be proffered to this article, but we’ll limit ourselves to just two: 1) the time frame for eligible releases were judged by the date that Stylus chose to review them and 2) that time frame was November 15, 2003-November 15, 2004.