Running a record label these days isn’t easy. There was a time when record execs ruled the musical world, serving as the chief gatekeepers of what music would ever see the light of day. Now, labels have to contend with declining CD sales, meager revenue from streaming, changing technologies and artists going completely independent. Still, some labels just seem to have a knack for discovering and developing great new artists each year.
To recognize these record labels, we analyzed all the albums on our 50 Best Albums of 2018 list, along with our best new artists, best debut albums, best albums by genre and our reader’s poll of best albums to see which labels had the best year. Since we have friends at a bunch of labels (some of whom are also advertisers), we tried to be as objective as possible and just look at the number of albums on our lists and where they were ranked. This doesn’t at all take into account album sales or hipster cred or the winning personalities of their publicists—just a look at who was most responsible for the music we loved.
Oxford, Miss. is known as a literary hub, tailgate destination and the home of The University of Mississippi—plus all its accompanying baggage. But the tiny SEC college town is also home to a really special label, Fat Possum Records, whose motto is simply “We’re Trying Our Best.” As it turns out, Fat Possum’s best efforts equate to everyone else’s A+. Though they’re probably best remembered as The Black Keys’ label in the early aughts, Fat Possum nurture much more than sludgy southern rock (though they cultivate plenty of that, too). This year, country/folk artist Courtney Marie Andrews released one of the year’s best records, May Your Kindness Remain, on the label. And Sophie Allison’s Soccer Mommy is also a Fat Possum gem—she and her band released Clean, our number four pick for the year’s best albums, in 2018. The Nashville-based Soccer Mommy is a great example of Fat Possum’s most clearly executed values: highlighting southern artists and expanding the definition of rock ’n’ roll.
After celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2018 with a three-disc compilation and a live show at Brooklyn Steel, Mom+Pop is still a powerhouse indie label. With the glistening pop of Lucius’ NUDES, the starry-eyed classic rock of Sunflower Bean’s Twentytwo in Blue, the introspective, melodic indie rock of Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, the fun-loving garage pop of Hinds’ I Don’t Run, the mind-numbing psychedelic R&B of Tash Sultana’s Flow State, the ambitious, shapeshifting sound of Tom Morello’s The Atlas Underground and the seductive, flowing pop of Alina Baraz’s The Color of You, Mom+Pop closed out another strong year for album releases.
The phrase “major indie label” might sound like a contradiction, but it’s a great descriptor for stalwart operations like Secretly Group, an umbrella that covers Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans and Jagjaguwar, all of which are on this list (had we decided to lump them together, they would have collectively challenged a combined Beggars Group for the top spot). In 2018, Secretly Canadian were responsible for breakout releases from Australian singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly and experimental Brooklynite serpentwithfeet, as well as records from returners like Damien Jurado and Yoko Ono. The label was also behind two excellent posthumous records by Jason Molina’s Songs:Ohia and Richard Swift, who passed away in July. Swift had been working on new music prior to his death, and his last artistic effort arrived in the form of The Hex, one of our favorite albums of 2018. Secretly handled those posthumous records with love and care, a testament to their artist-first strategy.
Though not as old as some of the other indies, Dead Oceans has become an essential label over the last several years. It’s the sister label of Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar and in 2018, they boasted some of the finest records of the year. Their showstopper was the remarkable indie-rock and pop of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy, which was bursting at the seams with deep-set heartache, emotional nuance and complex vocal melodies. Then, there was the heaping, post-punk steam engine of Shame’s Songs of Praise, the warm, summery pop and raspy rock of Phosphorescent’s C’est La Vie and Ryley Walker’s tender, thoughtful reconstruction of Dave Matthews Band’s lost album, The Lillywhite Sessions. And If you were really digging in the crates this past year, you might have stumbled on the icy noise rock of A Place to Bury Strangers, the ornate art-pop of LUMP or the modern meets classic soul stylings of Durand Jones & The Indications.
Perhaps one reason why Merge, the label based in Durham, N.C., has remained such a well-respected force in independent music is because it was founded by musicians. Begun in 1989 by members of Superchunk, Merge know what they’re doing—in college rock and beyond. They’ve worked with major artists like Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats, and they’ve played a key role in instigating the next generation’s alt-rock scene. This year, Superchunk and hardcore rockers Fucked Up made empowered returns with What a Time to be Alive and Dose Your Dreams, respectively, and Merge also cleared the way for Ought’s third album of political post-punk, Room Inside the World. Wye Oak took a creative left turn on their latest album, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, and it was also a big year for the Crutchfield sisters: Waxahatchee’s Katie and Swearin’s Allison. Waxhatchee shared some of her best work yet in the form of a folksy EP, Great Thunder, and Swearin’ reconciled for a fierce comeback record, Fall into the Sun. Merge will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019, and if the last three decades are any suggestion, the next three will be just as fantastic.
Saddle Creek, the Nebraska label that started as a college class project in 1993, now boasts one of the most focused rosters in indie rock. Founded by brothers Justin and Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes), Saddle Creek helped to usher in a distinctly Nebraskan strand of alternative rock heralded by bands like Cursive and Rilo Kiley. Flash forward to 2018, and Saddle Creek are still rock tastemakers, introducing us to musicians like Tomberlin and Black Belt Eagle Scout, who both appear on our list of the year’s best new artists. Saddle Creek is also home to veterans like Philadelphia’s Hop Along, who made one of the best albums of 2018, and both Big Thief and the band’s leading lady Adrianne Lenker, who released a stripped-down solo album, abysskiss, this year.
Another label in the Secretly Group, Jagjaguwar delivered a diverse array of music that we can’t stop listening to, anchored by a self-taught visual artist-turned-musician from Alabama (Lonnie Holley), a superduo of Justin Vernon and Aaron Desner (Big Red Machine), Canadian post-punk (Preoccupations), an electro-soul singer/songwriter (Moses Sumney), New Zealand psych-rock (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and retro-pop (Cut Worms). And Bloomington, Ind., label, which got its start two decades ago championing artists like Jason Molina’s Songs:Ohia, is already off to a strong 2019 with the latest from Sharon Van Ettan, Remind Me Tomorrow out this month.
In the 1980s, Sub Pop helped usher in the era of grunge. This century, the iconic label has helped broaden the definition and dimensions of indie rock. Building on a catalog that includes Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Postal Service, The Shins and Fleet Foxes, Sup Pop released some of our favorite albums this year, including the full-length debut from Australian quintet Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever, Low’s stunning Double Negative and Father John Misty’s God’s Favorite Customer. Plus the label released our readers’ second favorite album of 2018, Beach House’s 7. Add in new music from King Tuff, Iron & Wine, J Mascis, Chad Van Gaalen, Frankie Cosmos and Loma, and Sub Pop cruises to a top three finish on our list.
Domino Recording Company continues to be one of the most consistent indie labels in the game. If you were in search of exceptional rock, pop and electronic albums in 2018, there’s a strong chance you listened to a Domino record. In terms of rock and pop, you may have encountered the soaring art-pop of Anna Calvi, the piano-backed, sci-fi-themed tunes of Arctic Monkeys, the esoteric, shoegaze-tinted rock of Flasher, the indie-pop collages of Superorganism or the pretty minimalism of Cat Power and Tirzah. As for electronic music and beyond, you might’ve ran into the twitchy, conceptual R&B of Blood Orange, the dramatic electronic soundscapes of Jon Hopkins or John Maus, the throwback dance-punk of Franz Ferdinand or the meaty post-punk of Protomartyr.
Our record label of the year released our record of the year, Lucy Dacus’ brilliant Historian, but that’s just the start. Fully half of Matador’s eight new-full length releases in 2018 made our 50 Best Albums list (Historian was followed by Snail Mail’s Lush at #5, Iceage’s Beyondless at #24 and Yo La Tengo’s There’s a Riot Going On at #50). And that doesn’t even include Car Seat Headrest’s reworking of their 2011 album Twin Fantasy, which was one of the favorites in the reader’s poll or the boygenius EP which we named the best EP of 2018. A 25th anniversary box-set reissue of Liz Phair’s classic Exile In Guyville reminds us of the historical importance of the label Chris Lombardi started in his New York apartment in 1989, breaking acts like Phair, Interpol, Guided By Voices and Pavement, but it’s their continued work finding discovering new artists that has them topping this list. Sister labels in the Beggars Group, 4AD (U.S. Girls, Tune-Yards), Rough Trade (Parquet Courts and Bodega), also had good years, but no one had a better batting average than Matador in 2018.
Atlantic Records gets our Major Label of the Year award for releasing music from four women we love—Janelle Monáe (via her Wondaland imprint), Ashley McBryde, Cardi B and Lizzo. The label also released the “One Last Time (44 Remix)” from Hamilton, featuring Christopher Jackson, Barack Obama and Bebe Winans, so thanks, Atlantic and Obama!
Tiny Engines gets our Boutique Label of the Year award for sticking up for the little guys with the big voices. In 2018, the Carolinas-based label was responsible for 10 full-length album releases, the perfect number for a thriving independent operation. The bands, while flying under the radar, tend to have decent niche followings—It Looks Sad. have strong ties to the emo community, and The Spirit of the Beehive are one of Philly’s favorite punk groups—and Tiny Engines know how to market it all to the right listeners. Also on the label this year, studio vet Sarah Tudzin and her band Illuminati Hotties released their fabulous debut, and NYC-based Wild Pink produced one of 2018’s best slow-burning rock records. As long as Tiny Engines continue to put artists and community first, they’ll be one of the most respectable indie enterprises out there.