A Brand You Can Trust? Record Nerds’ 20 Favorite Labels From the 20th Century

Record Nerds' 20 Favorite Labels From

If music companies were brands, which labels did record nerds trust most?

The results are in via an informal poll of critics, influencers, music industry veterans, and vinyl enthusiasts conducted by Variety. Admittedly, the question asked was fairly basic — “what is your favorite record label from the 20th Century?” — and the pool that answered lacked some diversity within age, race and gender, but the results are no less interesting.

Many expressed nostalgia for their personal, musical coming-of-age. Some took a historical view towards the music industry — qualified by eras, musical genres and even indie vs. corporate contexts. Others went on sheer instinct citing revelatory inspirations, completist obsessions, aesthetic presentation, and taste-making consistency. A few felt it was impossible to answer — but answer they did.

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Of course, many of these record labels documented the birth and evolution of folk music, jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul, R&B, country and rock ‘n’ roll, so passions sometimes ran high. Most people took the question seriously, and some had a difficult time deciding. New York tastemaker David J. Prince felt the question was redundant since record labels didn’t exist before the 20th Century and now mean something quite different in the current millennia. Also critiqued was the subjectivity of polling a favorite label, but we remain satisfied with this line of questioning. People can argue all day long over which label was the best, but you can’t really dispute someone else’s favorite. Can you?

And so the winners are in order of votes (which totaled more than 300):

  1. Atlantic
  2. Blue Note
  3. Columbia
  4. Warner Brothers
  5. Stax-Volt

Read some of the responses below, followed by the top 20 entries, and let us know: what’s your favorite and why?

“In terms of sheer, sustained and reverberating impact on global culture, and to reflect your desire for brevity, let’s say Chess. Or Sun. Chess. Both have Wolf……… But Chess.  Ok. I’ll stick with that. Chess. Unless….no. Chess.”
— Rob Miller, Bloodshot Records

There were over 140 different record labels suggested by those polled, with the majority of labels receiving less than five votes. Not surprisingly, some of the larger “corporate” labels dominated thanks to the quantity and quality of their products, as well as their ubiquitous distribution, radio play and advertising.

“That’s a hard one. If I’m going for a major label it would have to be Columbia Records because of Cohen, Dylan, Cash, Aretha, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles, and so many etceteras. Elektra would come a close second.” 
— Sylvie Simmons, Author (“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen”)

Naturally, building blocks of American rock and soul were held in high regard. Legendary music great Al Kooper picked Stax. Veteran writer John Swenson said Chess. Jazz guitarist John Scofield chose Columbia over Blue Note. Manager Danny Goldberg, NPR critic Ann Powers and impresario Andrew Loog Oldham all voted for Atlantic. Writer and Sirius XM host Dave Marsh said Motown and Fortune, and Lenny Kaye said Fortune too. Wales native Jon Langford stood up for Sun.

On the flip side, Independent post-punk labels like Twin Tone, Sub Pop, Sire, Matador and Amphetamine Reptile received limited but enthusiastic endorsements.

“That’s super easy. Sire. Sire’s catalog sort of wrecked me.”
—Thom Monahan, Producer

“Either Casablanca or AmRep.” 
—Chuck Klosterman, Author

“Wow. Big question. AmRep is the one where I own practically everything.”  
—Tad Hendrickson, Journalist

Musician Richard Thompson and author David Hajdu (“Love for Sale: Pop Music in America”) both listed Paramount as their favorites, making us wonder if they had access to the massive Paramount Records Wonder-Cabinet (Third Man Records) that nobody could afford.

Industry rebels and sonic outsiders also had their say, reminding us how one small label with a maverick worldview could actually change the life of an obsessive music fan looking for clues.

“Impulse! until the late 70’s. And Warner Bros/Reprise 60’s till ’75. And short-lived Flying Dutchman. And short-lived Douglas Records. … Thinking of labels that one bought almost everything they put out.”
—Hal Willner, Producer

“Corny I know, but ESP-Disk probably had more to do with bending my young mind than anything else.”
—Byron Coley, Critic

“I’d like to say ESP but they still owe so many artists so much money!”
—Bob Fass, Radio Unnamable

Author Barney Hoskyns (“Small Town Talk”) liked Bearsville. Veteran hipster David Amram preferred Columbia. Promoter Peter Shapiro (Brooklyn Bowl, Capitol Theater), music supervisor Zach Cowie (“Master of None”) and actor Bruce Greenwood all voted for Island; Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo picked Neutral; Dallas Good of Canadian rock band The Sadies went for Norton; “Wrecking Crew” director Denny Tedesco wisecracked K-TEL, and world music promoter Bill Bragin said Stiff. Guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans) and radio bohemian Bob Fass both listed too many labels to repeat here.

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In a surprising turn, jazz imprints Blue Note and ECM each garnered a large amount of votes (both boasted great album graphics and superb music, by the way). Moreover, four of our survey’s top labels were jazz oriented (we know a lot of jazz lovers).

“The easy answer would be (and still could be) Blue Note, but that ignores the first 20 years. ECM ignores the first 50 years, but that’s a helluva catalog.”
—Neil Tesser, Critic

In any case, here are your Top 20 favorite record labels of the 20th Century. Please note that if we added the votes for Nonesuch to those cast for parent company Elektra, it would have pushed Elektra into the Top 5. We didn’t do anything like that, and stuck to the answers exactly as they were given.

  1. Atlantic
  2. Blue Note
  3. Columbia
  4. Warner Brothers
  5. Stax-Volt
  6. ECM
  7. Chess
  8. Elektra
  9. Sun
  10. Motown
  11. Impulse!
  12. Capitol
  13. Island
  14. I.R.S.
  15. Sire
  16. Paramount
  17. Touch & Go
  18. Verve
  19. Nonesuch
  20. ESP-Disc

If you want to join in the conversation, cast your vote in the comments below.

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    1. Elizabeth says:

      Fool’s Gold, Warp, Rough Trade, Slash, Wax Trax!, Beggars Banquet, Virgin, Island, IRS, Enigma, Alternative Tentacles

    2. Barry says:

      Enigma Records. 80s wouldn’t have been the same without them.

    3. Joshua says:

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      are two minutes oldr than Larry, yoᥙu can go first.

    4. Kenneth Rankin says:

      How could Motown be that far down??

    5. BillyD says:

      Mute, ZTT, Virgin, Factory, Parlophone, Wax Trax!, DJM, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, Stax/Volt, Philadelphia International.
      For every “important” album the majors released they have released 100 more that are garbage. And these are the ones that are constantly
      over hyped. I understand it may take years for a record to achieve classic status and junk music pays the bills, but I’m tired of the junk filling up the used cd bins let alone the poorly mastered from digital sources lp reissues.

    6. Gutman says:

      Blue Note, Atlantic, Prestige, Impulse

    7. bob porter says:

      Prestige,,Verve and CTI.
      Quality of the audio, approach to recording, artists involved.

    8. rick w says:

      MCA looked very cool and had iconic releases..

    9. Kim K says:

      Um, Sub Pop? Doesn’t anyone remember the Sub Pop Record Club? It’s how we discovered Nirvana, Soundgarden, L7, Afghan Whigs, Mudhoney, Tad, Dinosaur Jr., Rocket From The Crypt, Screaming Trees, and on and on. All you had to do was subscribe because you loved Sub Pop!

    10. Murph Man says:

      Motown is too low. And Def Jam should be included since it’s the most important record label of the ’80s.

    11. William Ivey says:

      I’ve got to throw in Windham Hill. The label’s mixture of classical, jazz, and pop elements offered a unique, elevated, classy rendition of easy-listening delivered by multiple players grounded in diverse traditions. WH also provided an artistic home for highly-capable instrumentalists who might not have flourished anywhere else (think Michael Hedges). I still throw on Windham Hill samplers as background for relaxed, candle-lit dining.

      Bill Ivey

    12. john adam fahey says:

      Thrill jockey
      Def jam
      Drag city
      Alternative tentacles

    13. chuck says:

      How’s about Island Records with Spencer Davis Group, Bob Marley & The Wailers, U2, Stevie Winwood….when one considers quality of music Island Records must surely rank in the very top.

    14. Nicolas says:

      Columbia – for being the trailblazer for 130 years, for creating “the” album cover with Alex Steinweiss, for being the home to such geniuses as Miles Davis, Armstrong, Bennett, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Springsteen, Cohen, Streisand, Billy Joel, EWF, Santana, Bolton, M.Carey, C.Dion, Cypress Hill, the Fugees, J. Mayer, Dixie Chicks, Beyonce, Pharrell, Adele, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris, Tom Odell, George Ezra, RagNBone Man, as well as AC/DC and Bowie for the last 20 years or more recently Dépêche Mode, Arcade Fire, and Robbie Williams. In France, they have accompanied brilliant artists such as JJ Goldman, P Kaas, F Cabrel, L Voulzy, P Bruel, Y Noah, Brigitte or Julien Doré. In the USA, they are also handling the Pink Floyd catalogue and have at some point been involved with Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney’s releases. It means that you could have only Columbia records in your collection, and feel contented. They made a few mistakes (letting Aretha, Katy Perry, Ari Hest, B. Carlisle, Nicole Atkins go) but the people in charge (Hammond, Davis, Yetnikoff, Mottola, Rubin, Stringer) have shaped and reshaped the industry. (I’m quite surprised RCA, Epic, Okeh, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Mercury were out of top 20)

    15. JT says:

      Touch And Go, Dischord, Amphetamine, Virgin

    16. vogglz says:

      Death Row is the label that payz me

    17. willie luncheonette says:

      the fact that Ian MacKaye’s Dischord label is not on the list is shocking. The overall quality of releases on this label can hardly be topped.

    18. Greg Caz says:

      Most of the obvious ones I would say have been mentioned. Here are some more big ones I have to stump for: Studio One, Fania, Odeon/EMI (Brazil) and Philips (many territories but specifically Brazil here).

    19. Tomas de Utrera says:

      So little mention of “Prestige” that gave us among other things the great studio recordings of “the greatest quintet”. On the other end of the country thanks Pacific Jazz for being a pioneer on the West Coast.

    20. Nick cooper says:

      Drag City, Matador and of course ROIR are labels that fill my shelves.

    21. Timely Comment says:

      WARNER BROS Records should be disqualified alone for NOT releasing Zappa’s 5-records LÄTHER in 1977, or Prince’s 3-records CRYSTAL BALL in 1986 because their suits thought they were ‘unmarketable’ albums of l.p. excess… while those musical creatives thought otherwise.

      It lead Zappa to radio-release the work and encourage listeners to tape bootleg the album, leave WB, start his own record label, and release LÄTHER post-humously; Prince to edit CRYSTAL BALL to become SIGN O’ THE TIMES, and be a ‘Slave’/TAFKAP while finishing out his WB contract. (and release a different album with the same name).

      WB should be commended for taking a chance on the Minneapolis recording wunderkind—but having him open for label-mates ROLLING STONES was a disaster that showed that White rockers weren’t ready for his kind of Soul Funk back then…

      WARNER BROS at #4 above those other labels, really?? Especially above VERVE or MOTOWN. Shows the power of corporate “branding” I guess…

    22. Tim Hurst says:

      It shoud be made clear that Reprise Records is NOT on the list! Only Hal Willner even mentioned Reprise. Did ya’ll have brain freeze when voting? I guess my Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Sinatra, GreenDay, Joni Mitchell and Kinks albums were just illusions and James Brown was really a pipe fitter! Damnit man! Where is Frank when you need him? LOL

    23. 1. Atlantic
      2. Sun
      3. Chess
      4. Columbia
      5. Paramount
      6. Stax/Volt
      7. RCA
      8. Motown
      9. EMI
      10. King

    24. Gerry Ross says:

      More than a few contenders on my list-A&M, Kama Sutra, Prestige, RCA Victor, Stiff…the list can easily go on.

    25. Ian Gilchrist says:

      I have to go with Slash also – their releases were played incessantly at a key moment in my musical development.

      Elektra were in heavy rotation in my life before I discovered punk, and RCA because of Elvis and then Bowie

    26. Steve says:

      I’m surprised to see no mention of Slash Records here. They were Los Angeles’ first big punk label, who released albums by such seminal bands as X, Germs, Black Flag, The Gun Club, and many others.

      Do this for this century, too! I have no doubt who I’d pick. ;-)

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