Top 20 Indie Record Labels

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.
01
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4AD

4AD Records

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.

02
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Captured Tracks

Captured Tracks
Captured Tracks. 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.

03
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Constellation

Constellation
Constellation. Constellation
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.
04
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Creation

Creation
Creation. Creation

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.

05
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Domino

Domino Records
Domino Records. Domino Records

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.

06
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Drag City

Drag City Records
Drag City Records. Drag City Records

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.

07
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Factory

Factory Records
Factory Records. Factory Records
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.
08
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Jagjaguwar

Jagjaguwar
Jagjaguwar. Jagjaguwar

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.

09
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K

K
K. K

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!

Kill Rock Stars
Kill Rock Stars. 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. More »

11
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Matador

Matador Records
Matador Records. Matador Records

Matador was the go-to label for indie fans in the '90s. Year after year, they released definitive records; issuing classic records from Pavement, Liz Phair, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Helium, and countless more. Founded in 1989, the New York-based imprint quickly found their feet as a kind of 'tastemaker,' cherry-picking bands who'd released awesome albums then giving them the chance to do it again on a bigger, brighter stage. When they became the US home for a trio of genius Scottish acts —Belle and Sebastian, Arab Strap, and Mogwai— in the mid-'90s they proved their good taste, and cemented their reputation. Their two major additions of the '00s were Canadian power-pop combo The New Pornographers and stadium-rockers Interpol.

12
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Merge

Merge Records
Merge Records. Merge Records

Founded as the bedroom label for North Carolina indie-rockers Superchunk in 1989, Merge operated for years as a quiet success: a humble indie forever doing good work, but never truly breaking out. They released indie classics like Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, but neither was an explosive bestseller, more a slow-growing cult phenomenon. Things all changed, for the label, in 2004, with the release of Arcade Fire's debut LP Funeral, whose hottest-album-in-the-world status transformed Merge's working operations. Coupled with the presence of acts like Spoon, M. Ward, and Conor Oberst, and Merge was now more alt-music power than quiet success; though they somehow managed, in the face of Billboard Top 10 debuts, maintained their humility.

13
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Mute

Mute
Mute. Mute
Though they've had run-ins with comically-large success —Depeche Mode is their decades-running cash-cow, and, well, there was that pop-cultural moment when Moby morphed into a powerhouse global brand— for most of their tenure Mute has retained a strong curative identity. There's always been a darkness at play in everything that done, whether that's manifested as synth-pop, industrial, noise, or straight-up Goth. Nick Cave has spent his entire solo career recording for Mute, and artists like Goldfrapp, Diamanda Galás, Liars, and Add N to (X) have been toiled for the label. Their early days were hugely informative in electronic music (with records by Yazoo, Fad Gadget, and The Normal) and recently Mute has unearthed the back-catalogues of founding fathers both electronic (Kraftwerk) and industrial (Throbbing Gristle).
14
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Rough Trade

Rough Trade Records
Rough Trade Records. Rough Trade Records

Rough Trade began life in 1976 not as a record label, but a record store. Founder Geoff Travis only started a label and distribution network in 1978, soon becoming a key figure in the post-punk era, giving little-known and commercially-questionable British bands cash to make small, artful records. They released classic LPs by Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, and The Fall, and found their fortunes changing further when they signed The Smiths in 1983. Rough Trade's distribution service went bankrupt in 1991, causing the label to shut down for nine years. Yet, when they started back up, in 2000, they did so with astonishing good fortune: signing a young, unknown band from New York named The Strokes. Watch Jeffrey Lewis tell the Rough Trade story in song.

15
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Sarah

Sarah
Sarah. Sarah

The ultimate cult label, Sarah Records followed the 'live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse' model, following in the footsteps of Scotland's legendary (and legendarily short-lived) Postcard Records by cultivating a small, perfectly-formed, precisely-curated collection of records, then splitting with integrity intact. The English label —based not in London, but out-of-the-way Bristol— was one of the imprints most responsible for turning twee from pejorative into fully-fledged movement, hosting classic trebly-indie-pop records from The Field Mice, Heavenly, and Another Sunny Day. They tended towards seven-inch singles, rarely repressed records (making their catalog infinitely collectible), and, in 1995, abruptly pronounced their retirement, rebuffing the nostalgia trade ever since. Thus, their legend is sealed, and lives on.

16
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Sub Pop Records
Sub Pop Records. Sub Pop Records

Sub Pop will forever be the label that gave the world grunge. After beginning life as a fanzine way back in 1979, the legendary Seattle imprint started functioning as a label in 1987, and became a full-time concern in '88. That was the year they issued Mudhoney's Superfuzz Bigmuff, and in 1989 they happened upon a young local combo called Nirvana, issuing their debut LP Bleach. When grunge went from regional sound to global phenomenon, Sub Pop became synonymous with the Seattle explosion, but never kept themselves tied to it. After some rocky late-'90s years in an arranged marriage with Warner, they became re-independent and reloaded as indie power in the '00s: signing The Shins, Iron and Wine, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, and Fleet Foxes. More »

17
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Thrill Jockey

Thrill Jockey
Thrill Jockey. Thrill Jockey
Though it'll forever be associated with the rise of Chicago's post-rock scene in the mid-'90s —and for being the label that turned Tortoise out to the rest of the world— Thrill Jockey Records has, in the third millennium, continued churning out a furious rate of records hosting a dramatic range of experimental approaches. Though their core acts have been locals (Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, side-projects of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake), Thrill Jockey has cast their net far and wide; issuing records by Japanese shamanists Boredoms, a slew of German/Austrian electro nerds, and even Malian kuntigui bluesman Sidi Touré. In response to the digital era, Thrill Jockey shifted towards more vinyl-only, short-run titles, growing increasingly experimental in its third decade of existence.
18
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Touch and Go

Touch and Go Records
Touch and Go Records. Touch and Go Records
Like Sub Pop, Touch and Go Records began life in 1979 as a fanzine. Founded as label in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1981, their early goal was simply to document the Midwest's hardcore scene. Touch and Go slowly grew into, perhaps, the definitive label of the American underground: remaining staunchly independent and artist-friendly, whilst issuing fearsome records by the likes of Big Black, the Butthole Surfers, and Scratch Acid. But Touch and Go's influence was truly felt as a distributor, where it handled releases by labels like Drag City, Merge, and Thrill Jockey, all of whom grew —and thrived— under T&G's watch. In 2009, the label shut down its distribution service and stopped releasing new records; despite the fact that they'd uncovered Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio mere years before.
19
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Warp

Warp Records
Warp Records. Warp Records

Sheffield's Warp Records began life in 1989, as a strictly-electronic endeavor: pressing 12-inches of local electronic artists working in a scene cheekily dubbed 'bleep.' Soon, Warp represented the cutting edge of electronic sound, with experimental —and playful— acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada pushing sound (and music videos) into new realms. With the success of those acts, Warp began to broaden their output, signing their first 'band,' Broadcast, in 1996. Over the years, Warp would sign a host more, including !!!, Battles, Born Ruffians, and Grizzly Bear. In 2001, the label launched Warp Films, a production arm that would bankroll a host of successful British feature-films. They were also embraced the changing landscape: becoming the first label to offer their entire back-catalog for digital download, with the founding of their digital hub, Bleep, in 2004.

20
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XL

XL
XL. XL
Though their indie cred took a perilously nosedive when Adele's 21 become the 2010s sales-juggernaut equivalent to, like, Céline Deon's Let's Talk About Love in the '90s, London's XL Recordings have issued a stack of indie classics in their day. The label didn't start out that way, at all; instead, they were a breakbeat-centric dance label of non-revered output. Two acts changed their fortunes: the awesome Basement Jaxx and awful The Prodigy. Flushed with the cash of success, XL reinvented themselves as the choicest of chequebook A&Rs: catching buzzed-up bands at an opportune time, inking them, and then priming them for popularity. So, they brilliantly signed the White Stripes, The Avalanches, Peaches, Devendra Banhart, and Vampire Weekend at very much the right moment, all whilst digging up choice local talent like M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and The XX. Oh, and, um, Adele.