The best albums of 2013, label by label

Record labels are no longer supposed to matter. But the story of music in 2013 can be told through the output of ten fantastic labels. Here are our favorite records of the year, as sorted by the companies that released them.

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  • The Internet was supposed to kill the record label. What use would a printing, marketing and shipping company have in an age where bands can reach fans directly online? Or so it was said. But a funny thing happened as I was putting together my annual list of favorite albums. The releases were clustered into a handful of labels. Physical sales might not matter as much in 2013, but brand power is everything. Here are the ten labels that consistently put out winning albums, to my ears.

  • 10. Innovative Leisure
    A subsidiary of Stones Throw, Innovative Leisure does not yet have the cachet or homogeneity of its beat-minded parent, the gold standard of leftfield hip-hop. The L.A. imprint meddles in garage rock, electronic and disco. The common denominator being that it's all just cool. This year, Classixx kept indie disco down the path forged by LCD Soundsystem on Hanging Gardens, while Nosaj Thing served up another platter of downtempo deliciousness with Home. The gem of the bunch, though, was Rhye's Woman, an immediate bedroom classic melding Sade and Air.

  • 9. Jagjaguwar
    Foxygen
    and Unknown Mortal Orchestraboth diced, cooked and modernized the sounds of 1960s rock into something vibrant and new. Two must-have singles: The former's "San Francisco" out-MGMTed MGMT in the dada pop stakes, while UMO's hashish-and-honey number "So Glad at Being in Trouble" acted as the binder to the band's II, immersing the album in a warm soulful goop. Volcano Choir, Small Black and Dianasolidly upheld the Hoosiers' style of dream-pop. Bonus points for signing Angel Olsen.

  • 8. Glassnote
    Few A&R people have sniffed out moneymakers as well as Daniel Glass has since starting his eponymous label in 2007 (Mumford & Sons is on this label). This year's feverishly hyped act was CHVRCHES, a huggable synth-pop act from Scotland. Its debut, The Bones of What You Believe, exceeded my expectations. I wore the hell out of "We Sink." Meanwhile, Phoenix took the template of its breakthrough and amped up the platinum sythesizers and slyly abstract lyrical cynicism. Few records got more play in my iPod than Bankrupt!.

  • 7. Rough Trade
    Somebody has to keep guitar rock alive. Though too few give them the credit for doing it so well. The British bastion released the ridiculously underrated fifth Strokes album, Comedown Machine, their best in a decade. The backlash arrived swiftly on the Palma Violets, who never claimed to be anything but another fantastic pub band. British Sea Power kept chugging along with grace on the bucolic and beautiful Machineries of Joy.

  • 6. 4AD
    Perhaps no indie in history has better defined itself through aesthetics. Ivo Watts-Russell's baby has consistently delivered ethereal gothic pop packaged in serif fonts and abstract photography. More than three decade on, it has branched into multiple genres without losing its core mood of blissful unease. In 2013, that vibe arose inthe comforting charm of Camera Obscura, the slick maturity of the National, the spooky breaks of Zomby, and the slow-jams of Inc. The best of the bunch, though, was Deerhunter, who sawed deeper into Bradford Cox's psyche with raw guitars.

  • 5. Merge
    She & Him and Arcade Fire move units and tickle the critics. I could care less about those two, but as long as they can keep financing the small stuff, more power to 'em.Dig deeper into the roster.Shout Out Louds delivered its best set of Swedish pop yet. Erstwhile Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger crafted her most direct batch of songs, referencing 1970s radio soft-rock, while upholding her lyrical word count. Mikal Cronin proved good ol' power-pop can indeed excite music scribes. And the label runners in Superchunk showed all the (relatively) young'uns how it's done, dealing with death via guitar solos on the life-affirming I Hate Music.

  • 4. XL Recordings
    Not a ton of activity from Richard Russell's team, as XL continued to let older releases from Adele and the xx print money. The British company released just four albums in 2013, but they were all stellar. Vampire Weekend entrenched itself as the smartest and sweetest act in New York City. Sigur R�s dirtied up its angelic image. King Krule picked up the London youth troubadour torch formerly fumbled by Pete Doherty. Thom Yorke shook his skinny ass in wonderful new ways with Flea in Atoms for Peace.

  • 3. Warp
    In a year filled with major comebacks (more on that later), the return of Boards of Canada was rather low key. But that is to be expected of the enigmatic duo, who continued to turn the sound of old analog film scores into transmissions from our techno-dystopian future. Autechre never went into hibernation like BoC, but its continued exploration of the outer edges of electronic space remains unparalleled on two 2013 releases.Darkstar, Mount Kimbie and Bibio took Warp's brand of digital glitch into warmer, poppier realms.

  • 2. Domino
    What a remarkable mixed bag. Let's start with the sleepers. Dev Haines injected new jack swing, hip-hop and chrome 80s soul into his new-wave project, Blood Orange. On Loud City Song, Julia Holter expanded her bedroom ambience into full-blown musical theater, with touches of both Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. John Hopkins deservingly garnered a Mercury Prize nomination for his Immunity. Meanwhile, on the more popular tip, Franz Ferdinand slipped back into its skinny jeans and Beatles harmonies on its best batch since 2004, and Arctic Monkeys blossomed into a genuine old-school arena act on the glammy, streamlinedAM. The hits-to-miss ratio at Domino is rather ridiculous.

  • 1. Columbia
    I know, how old fashioned of me, a major label. But that big Sony money led to my two favorite records of 2013-Daft Punk's mining of 1970s pop culture, Random Access Memories, and David Bowie's shock return, The Next Day. When the greatest pop star of all time drops a front-to-back winner, he demands roses thrown at his feet. Not merely content to dominate the music magazines storylines of 2013 (not to mention your tweenager's dreams with One Direction), Columbia also issued the best hip-hop album of the year, Earl Sweatshirt's Earl. MGMT's middle finger to the charts deserved more love. The smaller acts, likeCultsand Wild Belle, crafted lovely albums with sharp focus. Pop icons, quirky newcomers. This is how you run a huge record label in the 21st century.

The Internet was supposed to kill the record label. What use would a printing, marketing and shipping company have in an age where bands can reach fans directly online? Or so it was said. But a funny thing happened as I was putting together my annual list of favorite albums. The releases were clustered into a handful of labels. Physical sales might not matter as much in 2013, but brand power is everything. Here are the ten labels that consistently put out winning albums, to my ears.


RECOMMENDED: Full list of the best of 2013


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