ACL 2013: The Year’s Best Labels

Five labels stood above the rest in 2013, impressing us with the quality, consistency and variety of their releases.  Their names are synonymous with trust; their music is always worth hearing.  And now, in order of votes received, we present A Closer Listen’s Top Five Labels of 2013!

Constellation1)  Constellation Records
Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Alleluia!  Don’t Bend!  Ascend! was our site’s #1 album of 2012, and the label continued its hot streak in 2013 with seven new releases.  We reviewed the last six, from Saltland, Jerusalem In My Heart, Land of Kush, Sarah Neufeld, Esmerine and Matana Roberts; and four of these landed on at least one year-end chart.  The label surprised us by making us care about something we usually don’t cover:  vocal music.  The spoken word poetry of Matana Roberts, the lovely singing of Saltland, and the Arabic inflections of Jerusalem in My Heart all found a place in our hearts.  We were also impressed at the international flavor of the year’s release slate.  By incorporating global sounds (especially the Turkish musicians on Esmerine’s Dalmak) this Montreal label expanded its reach, but not its grasp.  Now in its 16th year, this powerhouse label shows no signs of slowing.  Next up: a new album from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, due January 21.


Denovali2) Denovali
Appearing on our list for the second straight year is Germany’s amazing Denovali label.  Denovali crashed onto the scene in 2005, and in 2007 launched the wildly successful Denovali Swingfest in Essen.  In 2013, the festival expanded to London and Berlin.  While Denovali missed our top spot this year, it’s worth noting that the label received #1 votes from two of our staff members.  The label continued to expand its boundaries with a wide variety of releases from artists including many that we reviewed, including Field Rotation, Greg Haines, Oneirogen, Petrels, Piano Interrupted, SaffronKeira + Mario Massa, Sebastian Plano, thisquietarmy and Witxes, several of which appear on at least one year-end list.  Denovali also continued its tradition of re-issuing valuable works from its signees.  In early 2014 we’ll see a boxed set from Origamibiro, a re-issue of Talvihorros’ sold-out Eaten Alive, and a new Petrels album, along with new works from Birds of Passage and Carlos Cipa & Sophia Jani.


Thrill Jockey3) Thrill Jockey
With more releases in our overall Top 20 than any other label (for how many and which releases, you’ll have to check back on December 24!), Thrill Jockey was a lock for our Best Labels list.  From the dusty grooves of Date Palms to the wild experimentalism of Jan St. Werner, from the finger picking of Glenn Jones to the electronic squelches of Dan Friel, the label released winner after winner in 2013.  Any label big enough for Barn Owl and The Black Twig Pickers is big enough for us.  Not all of the label’s releases are instrumental, but the quality of their instrumental releases is extraordinary.  Next up (and already available for pre-order): new albums from Pontiak and Guardian Alien.


Own Records4) Own Records
At A Closer Listen, we review only a fifth of what we receive.  Own Records released four records in 2013 (Melodia, Jared Smith, Pausal, woodworkings) and we reviewed all of them.  All received votes for our year-end charts, and three of them made at least one chart.  In short, the label exercises great quality control, and it pays off.  Two months shy of its tenth anniversary, the label has just released its 67th album.  Own Records is The Little Label That Could, and this year, they did everything right.  We’re hoping for another four great records in 2014, but for now, we recommend the just-released day breaks the morning shapes we speak, a perfect seasonal album from woodworkings.


mego5) Editions MEGO
Vienna’s Editions MEGO releases more albums than we can possibly cover, but we are continually impressed at their dedication to electronic and experimental music.  One of the key features of the label is its attention to archival music, much of which has never been released or has fallen by the wayside.  At the same time, the label looks forward to the future of the genres it covers, with the Spectrum Spools sublabel a new champion in the field. In 2013, we reviewed albums from CoH, Cindytalk, Daniel Menche, Jim Haynes, Main, Russell Haswell/Yasunao Tone and more, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.


  1. But what will CST 100 be!?! So excited

  2. It’s nice to see you guys giving vocal music a chance, even if it is outside your usual purview. The Silent Ballet seemed contemptuous of vocal music much of the time, either outright ignoring it, or maligning and downgrading music that used vocals.

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