Traversing the musical mind-field of the indie scene can be a slow and taxing process. Many bands outside of mainstream focus fail to receive the attention they so often deserve; in trading popular success for creative licence and freedom from the corporatism of the “big four”, indie artists often risk obscurity and commercial failure.
That’s not to say that all indie bands are always superior artists to those musicians who have found commercial success. Often, however, the most invigorating and innovative steps in music are being taken below the surface, and it takes a tenacious listener to find something worthwhile.
In an attempt to make this process of discovery and adventure into indie music a little bit easier, I present to you a list of ten of the most forward thinking indie labels around, with some of the finest and most critically acclaimed artist rosters at the moment. This is not a top ten, in that it is in no particular order, and it is by no means an exhaustive list. Hopefully, however, it will lead you on a road to discovering something special and out of the ordinary, away from the often dull and exasperating mainstream rock that passes as “indie” in the current music scene.
Often, however, the most invigorating and innovative steps in music are being taken below the surface
1. Stolen Recordings
One of the smallest and lesser known labels on the list, Stolen Recordings have a true home made feeling, a DIY attitude and some great signed bands. Highlight acts include critically lauded indie popstars Pete and the Pirates, the wonderfully unpolished Let’s Wrestle and noise rock mentalists Screaming Tea Party, recent supporters of The Go! Team on their last U.K. tour.
2. Memphis Industries
Speaking of The Go! Team, they are signed to Memphis Industries, and are perhaps one of the most exciting bands around at the moment, particularly live. Other Memphis Industries favourites include the delightfully quaint and twee indie pop band El Perro Del Mar and the rosy, cheery and aptly named Ruby Suns. Bands to check out for fans of cultural and artistic diversity.
3. Ninja Tune
Not a label to check out for traditionally guitar based indie fans, but a great label nonetheless. Ninja Tune has a huge roster of excellent turntablists (an unsung art form) and hip hop artists, including Mr Scruff, Kid Koala and Roots Manuva. With their own radio station filling the net waves with soul, jazz and hip hop, Ninja Tune are definitely a worthwhile checkout for the indie fan looking for something a bit different.
Kranky Records are of particular interest to myself, as a label which I have only recently discovered and which has yet to disappoint on any count in terms of currently signed bands. Of particular mention however are the wonderful “ambient punk” band Deerhunter. Front man Bradford James Cox is also signed on in the form of his beautifully haunting solo project, Atlas Sound. Experimental and innovative, often with touches of electronic music, definitely worth a look.
5. Kill Rock Stars
Deerhoof in particular are incredibly innovative and energetic
Founded in 1991, Kill Rock Stars has some great bands both in its alumni and current roster. Past attributed acts include Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith and The Gossip. The Decemberists (one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last decade) and Deerhoof are two standout acts from those currently signed; IMO, Deerhoof in particular are incredibly innovative and energetic. Listen to them, if you haven’t already, and check out the rest of the KRS line up while you’re at it.
One of the bigger labels on the list, Merge has too many great acts to try and pick any out in terms of critical acclaim or objective merit (although it‘s definitely worth mentioning that the amazing Arcade Fire are signed to Merge); however, that doesn’t mean I can’t shamelessly plug some of my favourite bands from this awesome label. some of my favourite bands from this awesome label. These include Camera Obscura, Destroyer (misleadingly named; actually lyrically intricate indie pop, not death metal), Dinosaur Junior, Neutral Milk Hotel, Shout Out Louds and Spoon, although there are many more. Definitely check this label out, it’s a gold mine of great music.
7/8. Sub Pop and Rough Trade
I placed these labels together for several reasons; firstly, they’re already massively popular and successful indie labels, and therefore probably don’t need any description or promotion, but are still worth a mention. Secondly, to try and summarise their output or standout bands would be insane. It’s just too massive a task, on both counts and for both labels. If you haven’t heard of either of these hugely influential record companies, check them out right away.
9. Saddle Creek
Another pretty big label, at least in indie terms, Saddle Creek provide a home to folk singers Bright Eyes, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, as well as more indie pop punk orientated bands like Desaparecidos and The Faint, as well as the brilliantly talented folk rock/blues revival band Two Gallants. As a label, Saddle Creek are one of the more collectively motivated labels in the list; many acts share band members in communal fashion, which is refreshing in a record industry often dominated by separatism and rivalry over sales and listener numbers.
10. The Leaf Label
Ending the list with another relatively small company, The Leaf Label is based in Yorkshire and features a lot of very small and mostly unheard of artists. Some of its more popular names include singer songwriter Essie Jain, gypsy music collective A Hawk and a Hacksaw (featuring Jeremy Barnes, previously the percussionist in the incredible Neutral Milk Hotel), Efterklang and Wildbirds & Peacedrums.