Top labels in 2021

What ''top label'' means Firstly 2021 has been a dog of a year to say the least. For labels post-Brexit getting vinyl to customers is hugely difficult. There are also only a few pressing plants globally and little capacity for tiny labels who …

Published: 27 Oct 2021. Updated: 8 days.

What ''top label'' means

Firstly 2021 has been a dog of a year to say the least. For labels post-Brexit getting vinyl to customers is hugely difficult. There are also only a few pressing plants globally and little capacity for tiny labels who might only need small pressings, coupled with storms in Texas hitting petrochemical plants and a fire last year in a lacquer plant in California leaving only one factory in Japan to make the master discs that records are cut from, according to The Guardian.

Of course vinyl is not the only format. Much as we all may dislike it (and many do) streaming is king and the ever resilient CD is also very significant despite predictions going back decades that compact discs would disappear entirely and good riddance! A top label is one that has a clear consistency and puts out records that break through the noise. It's not just quantity and it certainly isn't about ''the brand'' because that is about marketing not necessarily image and when big labels are involved a label brand is like a trophy and such ''big game hunting'' is a different high stakes activity entirely and more about mergers, acquisitions and corporate posturing.

On labels it's not really about format. Nowadays the fad for streaming means basic label thinking has massively changed. In other words whether a label is better because it puts vinyl first or has better mastering for download or whatever although that can be a clincher with some collectors is not ultimately absolutely crucial. And certainly some labels have significantly better sound than others. A brilliantly mastered Joe Dolce record however will still be a Joe Dolce novelty record however amusing and appalling at the same time it may be. If an historic label it's one that actually builds on the achievements of the past somehow and does not rely entirely on reissues. A label that seems to catch the zeitgeist is another factor as is a label whose output has made it into the top releases of the year. We're including indies and majors (if the label has just put out a single significant record or is more a branding exercise through a major that's not enough).

What labels can do better for artists

One thing we think labels could do more is to invest long term in their artists and not just do production deals that is when artists foot the bill upfront on a case by case basis, the label acting as a service supplier. Cash-strapped artists need up front significant advances against royalties especially if the label in question is a substantial business with a firm company infrastructure, for instance offices and employees and a national and international physical distribution network. Royalties coming back particularly for new artists will usually be tiny because of lack of profile so that is not much of an inducement on its own without upfront payments. But think long term, your work is of great benefit to the label's back catalogue and in 10 years' time the record may still be selling once you are better known and completists want your early work. In 20 years it may be even more covetable. It is better for publishing to record your own work because the label has to pay this to you (via whichever collecting agency you belong to, eg MCPS) in addition to whatever else is agreed although of course you are going to have to work to get your new compositions known and will anyone buy into you without a standard on the release as an inducement if chosen well? The better way instead seems to be DIY or to do a small co-op deal with a label to get profile on their digital sales sites and if necessary and funds are short digital/download-only to begin and then pressing up later. As for the fear of not getting any publicity specialist music journalists will always find your work although that process is very unpredictable usually through seeing you live. It may seem chicken and egg (ie you need a release to gain touring work) but the ''hack'' without being on a production deal with a label and saving costs is to self-release with digital-only. Ask yourself finally who is in your corner? If it is a manager who will invest in you, fine. If it is a label who properly sign you, also fine. But remember you need to be worth it artistically and together as an artist or a band for anyone to invest in you. There is no one route. At the end of the day to assess a label's work the key factor is quality A&R and not just their picking big names or by contrast deciding that ''unknown'' is the future. If only life were that simple.

There are dozens of fine labels of course, these 10 stood out from the crowd in 2021. See last year's list for more

1 Jazzland: brilliant eclectic Norwegian label notable for Maridalen and Eivind Aarset releases this year

2 Stoney Lane: for a run of fine UK releases including Xhosa Cole and Young Pilgrims

3 Native Rebel: Shabaka Hutchings' new label which makes a fine start with their new Chelsea Carmichael release

4 Blue Note: still the greatest label of all. Terence Blanchard's Absence was among their best this year

5 Smoke Sessions: for releasing one of the top records of the year, Renee Rosnes' Kinds of Love and equipping it with superb audio sound

6 Candid: an historic label makes a comeback with fine Eliane Elias and Stacey Kent records

7 Intakt: the Swiss label has consistently aimed at avant excellence in imaginative fashion

8 Lateralize: great for singers and championing straightahead and classic UK jazz less patchily than ever this year

9 Efpi: for the brilliant Revival Room and a track record of nurturing UK jazz not from London where most of the top labels historically emanate from but a proud Manchester base

10 Jazz in Britain: for heritage UK releases and archive research

Tags: Best in 21

James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Code of Being, Intakt *****

One of the best albums by any saxophonist this year and latest addition to albums of the year. It arrives at a place, a certain haven of enchantment, that only the US player sometimes known as JBL knows. The album has a momentousness to it that you …

Published: 26 Oct 2021. Updated: 38 days.

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One of the best albums by any saxophonist this year and latest addition to albums of the year. It arrives at a place, a certain haven of enchantment, that only the US player sometimes known as JBL knows. The album has a momentousness to it that you only get with the masters and Lewis is certainly easily considered as one. Capable of delivering a penetrating vision as well as supreme command of the instrument yes it is Coltranian in a certain sense but the saxist finds new wrinkles and solutions while charting out his own path. Quintet record Jesup Wagon was a big achievement certainly from a compositional point of view. From a sheer performance perspective Code of Being shades it at the finishing line and is even more direct and moving. With pianist Aruán Ortiz bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor Lewis is coming in from the wilderness of the hardcore avant-garde environment where there are as many successess as failures given the nature of unfettered free improv. But there are still no easy compromises. It is as if Lewis has distilled what he wants to say over many years and is now just doing the saying. His gritty grandeur is the winner that takes it all. James Brandon Lewis top photo jblewis.com