Nowhere is the record label so celebrated, revered, and meaningful as in the indie world. Labels are iconic and totemic; celebrations of singular artistic visions, centers of musical communities, and brands to trust. The chances of Drag City, say, putting out a bad record are next-to-none. There are dozens upon dozens of all-time great indie record labels, but these, here, represent the very cream of the crop; the legendary imprints that have, in so many ways, helped to define the history of rock and/or roll.
Perhaps the greatest of all record labels, London's 4AD has a long and impressive history of releasing amazing records. Founded in 1980, the label quickly uncovered Bauhaus, the Birthday Party, and the Cocteau Twins, earning a loyal following for the artful take on Gothic music and their singular visual style. But the label's glory days would arrive in the late-'80s, with a run of American signings —Throwing Muses, The Pixies, The Breeders, Red House Painters, His Name Is Alive— that made 4AD not just tasteful, but profitable. After some lean times around the turn of the century, 4AD became a veritable indie super-power by the close of the '00s, having signed US indie breakout bands Beirut, TV on the Radio, Bon Iver, The National, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, and Tune-Yards.
2. Captured Tracks
Easily the youngest label on this list, Brooklyn-based Captured Tracks was founded in 2008 by Mike Sniper, the bro behind lo-fi ruckus Blank Dogs. Captured Tracks started with 12-inch releases for Blank Dogs and Dum Dum Girls, almost instantly founding their singular aesthetic. The label has reissued obscure post-punk, twee, and shoegaze records, whilst gathering together a stable of new artists —Beach Fossils, Craft Spells, Wild Nothing— influenced by those old post-punk, twee, and shoegaze records. Captured Tracks have also shown devotion to that most classic of label-collated statements: the seven-inch single.
Montréal's staunchly-independent Constellation Records will be forever associated with post-rock, with the scene of instrumentalists that bloomed in the late-'90s, with none more resplendent and successful than Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Populated by GY!BE side-projects and collaborations, the Constellation roster had a familial feeling that —especially when coupled with the aesthetic purity of their tastefully-hewn recycled-cardboard sleeves— established a unifying identity for Constellation. In the year's since Godspeed!'s hiatus, Constellation has slowly pushed the edges of their label 'sound,' scanning further afield —or, even, overseas— recruiting stark songwriters like Carla Bozulich and Vic Chesnutt and English soundtrackists Tindersticks. After two decades toil, Constellation stands as a label releasing music that's never in fashion, but never out of style, either.
The history of Creation Records rolls out like some ripping rock'n'roll read, a salacious narrative that proved a natural for the makers of the documentary Upside Down: The Creation Records Story. The English label started out as a fervently indie affair, chronicling cult outfits like Felt, The Pastels, and Momus. After uncovering Scottish noiseniks The Jesus and Mary Chain, Creation became the definitive shoegaze label, signing My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, House of Love, Swervedriver, and scores more pedal-hopping noise-guitar combos. Yet, when Creation's stock began to rise stratospherically —via LPs like Primal Scream's Screamadelica and MBV's Loveless— Creation became renowned for the drug intake of all involved, and when they signed the insanely-popular Oasis, Creation crested —then exploded— in a flurry of cash, cocaine, and ego.
In 1993, Laurence Bell started Domino Records on a governmental 'enterprise allowance scheme,' turning his weekly handout into local pressings of US acts like Sebadoh, Smog, Pavement, Come, and Elliott Smith. Domino was already a success when they signed Franz Ferdinand in 2003, but the Scottish band's astonishing success turned the label into a budding power. When they inked Arctic Monkeys in 2005, they just became a major power; but, rather than sinking their influx of cash into hookers and blow, Domino used it for artistic goodness. They inked a fearsome roster of brilliant bands (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Owen Pallett) and released deluxe reissues of indie classics by Young Marble Giants, Galaxie 500, and Neutral Milk Hotel.
6. Drag City
Almost all of the labels on this list have had lean years, financial eruptions and downfalls, questionable signings, and moments to forget. Drag City, however, has not; spending the years going about their business with strange humor, astonishing taste, and an unbroken run of really-good records. It's not glamorous to be dubbed the most consistent indie label over the past three decades, but, then again, Drag City's never been about glamor. The label was founded in Chicago in 1990 to release records by then-unknowns Royal Trux and Pavement, and they've remained in shockingly-good-form ever since. Drag City have carefully cultivated a collection of oddball singer-songwriter types: Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, David Berman, Jim O'Rourke, Alasdair Roberts, Joanna Newsom.
Memorably memorialized in Michael Winterbottom's feature film 24 Hour Party People, Manchester's eternal cult label Factory Records was a colorful, quirky, aesthetically-driven label whose complete lack of business sense didn't prevent their success, but certainly hastened their downfall. Self-described as a "laboratory experiment in popular art," Factory are known as much for their quirky catalog —in which release numbers were assigned to non-musical objects (and, sometimes, practical jokes)— and their infamous Haçienda night-club as for any of their records. As for those, well, unearthing Joy Division will forever be Factory's greatest moment, but they issued classic works by New Order, A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column, and the Happy Mondays, whilst remaining staunchly-local.
It's hard listing Jagjaguwar in isolation, especially given it's effectively indivisible from its sister labels Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans. The imprints share the same staff and offices in one of rock'n'roll's most unlikely outposts: Bloomington, Indiana. But, Jagjaguwar have, for the most part, established more of an identity; tending towards sad, isolationist singer-songwriter types, from Julie Doiron to Richard Youngs to Sharon Van Etten and the label's biggest success story, Bon Iver. For those who'd followed Jagjaguwar since they were a micro-indie issuing Sarah White's no-fi home-recordings, seeing the label atop the Billboard charts seemed crazy, but Bon Iver's commercial crossover capped an era of increasing popularity propelled by choice signings like Okkervil River, Black Mountain, and the Besnard Lakes.
It doesn't get much more staunchly-independent than K Records, the punk-spirited, defiantly-local, casually-international concern that's been "exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982." Operating out of the unlikely rock'n'roll outpost of Olympia, Washington, K was founded by Calvin Johnson in the same summer that he began Beat Happening. Band and label were soon synonymous; K the definitive statement of American indie-pop at its most independent. The International Pop Underground series of seven-inches sought connections with indie-pop acts from foreign shores, but K always made their brightest discoveries in local scenes, introducing the world to Mirah, The Blow, The Microphones, The Gossip, and even Modest Mouse, back in their beginnings. Oh, and, because we must mention it: Kurt Cobain had a tattoo of the K Records logo. Fandom!
10. Kill Rock Stars
In the early-'90s, in their earliest days, Kill Rock Stars were the label forever associated with riot-grrrl, with a label built around bands bound up in the nascent movement: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy. Yet, in 1997, Kill Rock Stars ventured from underground, anti-establishment entity to indie powerhouse on the back of two decade-defining discs: Elliott Smith's Either/Or and Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out. From there, Kill Rock Stars grew and grew, rearing bands like The Decemberists, the Gossip, and Deerhoof from obscurity to popularity. The label's wobbled a little in recent years, but its place on this list was long-ago cemented.