As we enter December, the month of end-of-year lists galore, I’ll be focusing more on summarizing my favorite music that I heard this year rather than reviewing new things—among obvious other reasons, I need a break from the constant new music! For me, December is not too early to assess the year as a whole, because I won’t be able to spend enough time with anything that comes out this close to the end of the year to confidently put it on a list. As with everything on this site, these lists and features will be intended to encourage discovery of new things; the fact that they are my opinions is secondary.
Even in this era where digital music and streaming dominate, independent CD and tape labels are the lifeblood of the underground and avant-garde music community. So many, way more than we deserve, are admirable platforms for musicians and artists to get their music to new audiences, focused on supporting creativity rather than profit (though they still need your financial support too). With this piece, I hope to give recognition for the longer running labels that are still consistently great, as well as bring some newer discoveries into the spotlight.
Though 2017 only saw three new Ersts—which, to be fair, were two fantastic double CDs and one monstrous five-disc set—the label doubled that number in 2018, releasing three single discs in March, two more in August, and wrapped things up with the spectacular Green Ways, a two-disc collaboration between Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin, which also happens to be my pick for the best thing I heard this year. With this year’s roster, Erstwhile continues its long running tradition of being at the forefront of contemporary improvised music, with the tense, percussive interplay of Hong Chulki and Will Guthrie on Mosquitoes and Crabs and the whimsical live sound-plundering of Lucio Capece and Marc Baron on My Trust in You, but it also maintains its expansion into other areas, with the remaining four albums all but defying conventional classification. Thank you to Jon Abbey, who runs and produces for the label, and to Yuko Zama, who does most of the CD case designs.
Jason Lescalleet’s formidable imprint continued to present some of the most interesting and forward-thinking works in the areas of electroacoustic and acousmatic music this year. Its first offerings came from sound researcher Thomas Tilly, whose wonderful Codex Amphibia explored the breeding frenzies of frogs, as well as the sonic quilting offered by Taneli Viljanen and the warm but tense drones of Caroline Park. Lescalleet also released two of his own works on the label, a CD reissue of last year’s Almost Is Almost Good Enough cassette and the 20th installment of his This Is What I Do series. Three more release batches were released throughout the year, from which my personal highlights were Run Amok, a series of tactile sound interventions by Tom White, and Hardworking Families’ deceptively dense EMERGENCY WINDOW. Thank you to Jason Lescalleet, whose mastering work is reliably great on every release.
The Philadelphia-based No Rent Records just might have every other physical media label that I can think of beat with the staggering amount of tapes they put in 2018, which numbers more than thirty. THIRTY tapes. I admit I missed one here and there, but I’ve liked pretty much every release I’ve heard from No Rent this year, an amazing feat for that amount of prolificacy. My favorites include Buck Young’s Proud Trash Sound, a cassette originally released in January and later pressed as an LP which also happens to be the greatest—and, possibly, only—example of ‘country noise’ I can think of; Fashion Tape from Vanessa Rosetto, whose unique synthesis of sound sources is housed within one of the best looking cassettes I own; a two-tape comprehensive compilation of ambient works by Cold Electric Fire; and Collin McKelvey’s glorious The Golden Ass. Jason Crumer’s Ottoman Black was also reissued as a cassette. Thank you to Jason Crumer and Rose Actor-Engel, who work tirelessly to give countless experimental artists a valuable platform.
In 2018, the label that takes its name from one of the greatest hardcore releases in history released more than several albums that are well-equipped to steal that crown. I would have been happy if the only two punk LPs I had this year were January’s Dying Breed and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, the furious masterpieces by Cadaver Dog and Vile Gash respectively, but Youth Attack wasn’t done. Mark McCoy’s own band Suburbanite also released a self-titled LP, and the year was brought to a close with another forceful double-punch from City Hunter and Creep Stare. Youth Attack also released an official digital version of the Cancer Kids’ peerless opus The Possible Dream, which originally came out in 2002. Thank you to Mark McCoy, who is always determined to bring us the best that modern hardcore has to offer.
This Indiana-based imprint only releases three tapes every June, but this year’s batch was more consistent than most others. Each of the three barely left the vicinity of my tape player since I got them in the mail, with Cryptonym’s vicious mixture of black metal and distorted electronic music on Predation, Gateway’s avant-jazz-plagued brand of improvised music on Dawn of the Civil Savage, and the debut release from Truth Decay filling many an intolerable silence throughout the second half of 2018. I also feel compelled to mention the tape that introduced me to Castle Bravo: Death Ranch by guitarist, droner, and collager Jacob Sunderlin.
Dinzu’s gorgeous tape releases are reserved for “the contemporary art of sound by artists interested in tape manipulation, field recordings, noise and experimental practices.” It’s no surprise, then, that pretty much every DNZ cassette can be counted on to be tremendously unique and innovative, from the muffled mechanical whirrings of Sebastiano Carghini’s Habituated by Reason and tape-miniatures of Dominique Vaccaro’s Close Distances to the amplified environments of SiAl by Matthias Urban.
Started as a sister label to Erstwhile, elsewhere is run by designer and producer Yuko Zama, who focuses on releases grounded in contemporary classical music. Though 2018 was the label’s first year in operation, it already has put out five titles, including a triple CD from Biliana Voutchkova and Michael Thieke, a performance of Clara de Asís’s piece “Without” by Erik Carlson and Greg Stuart, and a collection of two compositions by Wandelweiser legend Jürg Frey, all packaged in beautiful cases with a unique design template.
Geräuschmanufaktur mainly operates in the endlessly fruitful wall noise renaissance, as well as releasing titles in other areas of music. The label’s 2018 roster is dominated by Constructionis, a three-tape set credited to Architectonicum, a trio of wallers backed by founder Jan Warnke’s own ‘architectural noise’ manifesto. Other releases included a double header from concrète collective The Dead Mauriacs, the short Pathways released under Warnke’s own name, and walls from Damien de Coene and Cannibal Ritual.
I’d also like to recognize some other labels who brought me some of my favorite music this year, including Round Bale Recordings, Lurker Bias, Chaotic Noise Productions, Katuktu Collective, Plus Timbre, Sentient Ruin, Ascetic House, Kirigirisu Recordings, and ACR.