America's 10 Best Indie Record Labels, Past and Present

By
Share:

Over the weekend the music editors at The Guardian published a list of their favorite UK indie labels. Their great selection includes Rough Trade, Creation, Mute, and many more. Never averse to borrowing an idea we like, we thought we’d do the same for our favorite US-based indies. Of course, given the robust health of the US indie scene -– and the fact that, like The Guardian, we decided to constrain ourselves to 10 selections -– meant that we had leave a fair few out. So go on, tell us in the comments section who we’ve missed. Just try not to get too emotional about it, eh?

Not Not Fun

Roster highlights: Pocahaunted, Xander Harris, Sun Araw, LA Vampires, Inca Ore

If you hadn’t noticed, we’re quite partial to drone-y psychedelic music here at Flavorpill, and LA-based Not Not Fun is probably the foremost purveyor of such sounds out there at the moment. The label has put out a slew of fantastic releases over the last few years, so much so that the volume of material is overwhelming -– but if you’re interested, one of our favorite music websites, 14tracks.com, recently did a Not Not Fun retrospective, which is a good place to start. (For similar sounds, we’re also extremely partial to the output of Philly label Siltbreeze.)

Thrill Jockey

Roster highlights: Tortoise, The Fiery Furnaces, Trans Am, Mouse on Mars, and (as of today) Wooden Shjips

We’ve always found its name inexplicably disconcerting, but Thrill Jockey has been one of the best labels of the 1990s and 2000s. For a start, they put out the first Tortoise album (and all the band’s other work), thereby introducing the world to post-rock, and they’ve since been home to a pleasantly diverse range of artists that reaches across a range of genres and sounds. The label has also provided a US outlet for the work of Boredoms and OOIOO, for which we should all be very grateful indeed.

SST

Roster highlights: Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr.

One of the most influential labels of the 1980s, SST was founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and was originally an outlet for him to sell electronic equipment. Happily, he soon started signing bands as well, first in the California hardcore scene that gave rise to his own band, and then pretty much anyone who caught their attention -– they were responsible for early releases from Dinosaur Jr. and Descendents, among others. At its peak in the mid- to late 1980s, the label enjoyed great respect from musicians and fans alike. When Sonic Youth signed in 1986 prior to the release of EVOL , Lee Ranaldo said that “[SST] was the first record company we were on that we really would have given anything to be on.” (Unfortunately, the relationship went sour and ended with band suing label for unpaid royalties. So it goes.)

Jagjaguwar

Roster highlights: Bon Iver, Black Mountain, The Besnard Lakes, Sunset Rubdown

Founded in 1996 to release an album called Bombay Aloo, Jagjaguwar has grown into one of America’s most constantly fascinating labels. The label has enjoyed a close relationship with similarly excellent label Secretly Canadian over the years -– Jagjaguwar uses the Secretly Canadian distribution network and shares some of its staff -– but remains entirely independent. As with many of our favorite labels, the Jagjaguwar “sound” is difficult to define, encompassing everything from the stoner epics of Black Mountain to the globe-conquering neo-folk of Bon Iver. They also fulfilled what seems to be an indie label rite of passage in 2009 by releasing the most recent Dinosaur Jr. record.

Fat Possum

Roster highlights: The Black Keys, RL Burnside, Crocodiles, Andrew Bird

Most indie labels have humble beginnings, often starting their lives in their founders’ living rooms or garages. But even so, Fat Possum’s rise to prominence has been unlikely -– after all, it was originally founded in an a small Mississippi town and devoted to exhuming obscure blues artists and giving them the chance to make records. Two decades later, it’s ended up with Crocodiles and Wavves on its roster. And Dinosaur Jr. Who’d have thought it?

DFA

Roster highlights: LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, The Juan Maclean, Black Dice

With all the attention that’s been given to the end of LCD Soundsystem, it’s been easy to forget that James Murphy and James Goldsworthy have also been running a fantastic record label for the last decade. Their first release was The Rapture’s stone-cold floor-filler “House of Jealous Lovers,” and their roster pretty much defined the “dance punk” sound that was so prevalent in the mid- to late 2000s -– The Juan Maclean, Shit Robot, Hot Chip, Hercules & Love Affair, YACHT, and various others. Incongruously, apart from that lot, DFA also released some of Black Dice’s albums. But not Dinosaur Jr.

Matador

Roster highlights: Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Interpol, Cat Power

One of the best-known indie labels of the last two decades, Matador has put out a constant stream of quality releases since its foundation in a New York City apartment 22 years ago. The label’s first notable releases included Superchunk’s self-titled debut and Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted , and it’s barely missed a beat since then, giving the world bands as diverse as Interpol, Cold Cave and The New Pornographers, as well as signing respected veterans like Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma.

Merge

Roster highlights: Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, She & Him

And speaking of Superchunk -– although they’re a well-respected band in their own right, the North Carolina four-piece’s greatest gift to the world of music has turned out to be their record label. The band founded Merge in 1989 to put out their earliest releases and resurrected it when they left Matador in 1993. Since then, they’ve signed luminaries like The Magnetic Fields and, yes, Dinosaur Jr., as well as releasing Neutral Milk Hotel’s iconic In the Aeroplane over the Sea. And in Arcade Fire, they now have a bona fide cash cow.

Kill Rock Stars

Roster highlights: Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, Deerhoof

As a statement of intent, “Kill Rock Stars” is hard to beat, and it’s also a philosophy to which this Pacific Northwestern institution has stuck doggedly over the years. The label’s early releases were riot grrrl-centric, but their roster has always been diverse and interesting, united if anything by a general approach to life than any coherent sound. Their spin-off 5 Rue Christine was also great, releasing all of Xiu Xiu’s early albums, amongst various others.

Sub Pop

Roster highlights: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Fleet Foxes, The Shins

Surely the definitive US indie label of the last 30 years. Sub Pop is forever identified with grunge and Nirvana, although they only released a few early Nirvana singles and one album (1989’s Bleach ) –- the band had already jumped ship to DGC by the time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went crazy. The label did, however, release a heap of material by other Seattle icons like Mudhoney and Soundgarden, and apart from a brief lull in the early 2000s, they’ve remained relevant and influential ever since. And, astonishingly, the one thing they’ve never done? Signing Dinosaur Jr. (Although they did release one single in 1990.)