Before I begin the countdown, I need to single out what in my mind is easily the best label from the past year and quite possibly the best label currently operating. Type Records, run by Bostonian-by-way-of-England John Twells (perhaps best known his music under the Xela moniker) has an output of unimpeachable quality. More than that, however, is Twell's dedication to releasing a vast range of musical styles and genres, all with impeccable album art, on superb sounding vinyl, with stellar bonuses from cool colored vinyl to album-length CDs of bonus material included with initial vinyl pressings. Consider some of the albums that came out on Type in 2011: Deaf Center's Owl Splinters out of Norway is dark and deep drone music for cello and piano, processed into a mysterious, expansive fog, epic and dense. Rene Hell's The Terminal Symphony is an album of studied, meticulous synthesizer journeys exploring themes and motifs more often found in classical symphonies. Ezekiel Honig's Folding in on Itself is a gorgeous, melancholy album made from field recordings of New York City, deeply submerged beats, decaying acoustic instruments, and skittering percussion. John Mueller's Alphabet of Movements is pure percussion, a hypnotic, cacophonous, and cathartic squall. Clam Casino's Instrumentals is straightup instrumental hip hop. Red Horse's self-titled album is an unrelentingly intense and abrasive noise album that relies largely on a veritable arsenal of homemade acoustic instruments, motors, and wire boxes, a decidedly DIY punk approach to generally more staid avant-garde and abstract sound art. William Fowler Collins' The Resurrection Unseen is like a black metal album that has been power sanded down to pure texture, utterly dark, challenging, and almost impossibly bleak. And so on.
Twells seems convinced that his label should be a vehicle for music he thinks is great, regardless of what form it takes. Many fans on the Type forums and elsewhere seemed perplexed by Twells' decision to release an instrumental hip hop album. The fact is, it's definitely not the best thing Type put out this year but it's a damn cool record, one I and many others would probably never have come across had it not come out on Type. The world of noise and drone can be insular and, given the number of great albums that come out under those admittedly broad and more or less meaningless genre designations, it can be very easy to ignore everything else. While many labels pick one sound and stick to it come hell or high water, with each new Type release a listener can be sure of hearing something engaging and new and exciting. A handful of Type albums are on my current top 12 list. Earlier iterations of the list contained as many as 5. A top 25 would, for example, easily contain that many and probably more.
On top of the sheer quality and scope of Type's output, the label deserves a nod for its album artwork and design. A big reason many people like vinyl - apart from the boost in audio fidelity - is that album sleeves can be pieces of art. Type's record sleeves are, with few exceptions, gorgeous. They are generally very minimal. No words appear on the front of the sleeves and the images are generally quite abstract. Rather than describe them, I've posted a bunch below. Of course, these pictures don't do them much justice. The sleeves are always on matte stock which give them an amazing tactile quality and often contribute to the look of the artwork as well, adding texture and heft to what could on a different medium be flat and glossy. This may seem like an odd thing to praise but it's the things like this that demonstrate an absolute commitment to all the details of a release. The music is obviously what's most important but artwork plays a big role in how we as listeners can experience an album. And, of course, those vinyl-only bonus CDs that come with a bunch of Type releases are always flat out brilliant, essentially giving the buyer two albums for the price of one. Sure, an online store and high quality mp3 download codes with vinyl would be very welcome additions and an insert here and there might be cool but Type has a fairly minimalist aesthetic and I totally respect that.
Perhaps this seems overly effusive so I'll end here. But I will say that if you explore the output of any label you weren't previously aware of or weren't wholly familiar, Type should be it. Indeed, its entire back catalog is equally rich. Here's to another stellar year in 2012.