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

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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