The Best Record Label in America Today

Nearly seventy years after Sun Records released its first single, the sultry instrumental “Drivin’ Slow” by saxophonist Johnny London, very few record labels have become similarly synonymous with the music released under their names. That select group, though, elevates the experience of their following and the presence of the artists they exist to serve. Labels such as 4AD, SST, and Blue Note gave dimension to particular scenes or genres of music, delivered that music at auspicious moments in music history, and carved out a singular musical and visual identity that unified their releases and galvanized their audience. Such labels accomplish the rare feat of building a community around the label itself, which in turn serves as a hallmark of quality for members of that community.

While the renaissance of the vinyl LP as a means of delivering music has provided fertile ground for many scrappy labels to fascinating sounds to new audiences, one label has captured America’s collective experience over the last several years. Chicago’s International Anthem, which released its first album in December 2014, is the best record label in America today. In fact, International Anthem (IA) has managed to release groups of albums that seem to reflect and define not one but two of the most significant movements of American life in the last seven years.

First, the nation’s latest racial reckoning, which has transformed our means of talking about and understanding identity since the February 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent blossoming of the Black Lives Matter movement, is a starting point for numerous charged and searing IA releases. Across three records, Irreversible Entanglements have delivered musically fearless and vocally fiery sermons on the place of people of color in the United States. Nominally a free jazz ensemble, the group includes luminaries such as vocalist Camae Ayewa, also known as Moor Mother (whose most recent solo effort was released on ANTI- last September) and contemporary omnipresence (in other boundary-challenging projects such as Blacks’ Myths, the Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet, and the Luke Stewart and Jarvis Earnshaw Quartet)  Luke Stewart on bass. Their latest effort, November 2021’s Open the Gates achieves a thrilling amalgamation of free jazz and funk. In “Lagrimas Del Mar,” the group locks in and charges ahead at the insistence of Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes, and that impatience is echoed to heartbreaking effect by Ayewas’ awareness that “I’m so close to the good news / To the silver and gold / To the daily bread / I’m so close.” The work reminds the listener of how far we all have to go.

Composer and clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid is another IA artist using her platform to directly question the status of African Americans in American society. The unrestrained sorrow and fury that elevates the stunning performances on Dawid’s 2020 live album, which was recorded in Berlin, is informed by a series of racially charged incidents she experienced in Germany. The first five minutes of LIVE constitute one of the most bracing openings to a record in recent memory, with Dawid’s roiling lividity over the treatment she received in Europe followed by a cry for enlightenment that is undermined by a pained skepticism about its possibility. From that point, the record moves from spiritual jazz to pieces with even stronger African influences, all of which provide a foundation for Dawid’s emotional observations about Black life. The album easily deserves a place among the best live records of all time, and it is only Dawid’s second solo effort. I don’t know what role IA’s leadership had in the decision to record the show, but the confidence of the label in putting it out as a double LP is a testament to their vision and wisdom. This unrestrained bravery and commitment to the music they record is a hallmark of groundbreaking record labels.

Creating "Promises"

If IA had only provided a soundtrack for the latest explosive awakening of America to the yawning gap between its promise of equality and justice and the reality of the situation, the label would have done more than most. Yet, IA also released a number of records perfectly in line with the quieter, meditative spiritual jazz that reached a peak of expression and popular attention with 2021’s Promises by Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders. This is music perfectly suited for the COVID era, when time seems suspended and when many people are seeking solace and peace from music. During this period, IA artists including Alabaster DePlume, Carlos Nino, and Rob Mazurek released records on International Anthem that delivered calm beauty with an underlying integrity that bowled over listeners, including me. This type of music undoubtedly has observers asking “Is this truly jazz?,” though an equally relevant question is whether categorization matters at all. While similar efforts on other labels seem like one-offs or lucky finds – don’t miss out on Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 – IA has deftly identified numerous artists able to ease the pain of two years of isolation and worry.

A discussion of International Anthem would be incomplete without acknowledging the artists who likely serve as a point of entry to the label for many listeners, Makaya McCraven and Jeff Parker. A November 2018 feature in the New York Times brought McCraven, a drummer, band leader, and producer, to my attention. The article name-checked several titans of dub reggae as well as spiritual jazz touchstones Archie Shepp and Idris Muhammad, the latter of whom I knew from several then-new-to-me records including Grant Green’s 1970 masterpiece Alive! With this pedigree, I was sure to listen, but what captured my attention was the driving beauty of McCraven’s composition and his approach to making a record. In a process like that of Teo Macero and Miles Davis during Davis’s groundbreaking electric period, McCraven’s Universal Beings uses a series of live performances from the United States and Europe as the palette from which the pieces on the album are constructed. From this material, McCraven then pieces together new versions of the live sets that then comprise the album. The results provide the listener with a journey through funk, astral jazz, and soul that incorporates not only traditional jazz instrumentation, but also the harp of Brandee Younger, who with bassist Dezron Douglas recorded the charming Force Majeure amidst pandemic lockdowns, and violin by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

Universal Beings by McCraven

Parker, on the other hand, was a known quantity to aficionados of forward-thinking music as a result of his time with Chicago legends Tortoise as well as Isotope 217. Parker’s stature as a solo artist has consistently gathered momentum since his first IA release, 2016’s The New Breed and his highly sought-after 2018 effort for Eremite Records, Slight Freedom. In his 2020 IA effort, Suite for Max Brown, Parker gracefully combines beats that are squarely rooted in or adjacent to hip hop with samples and contributions from a coterie of impressive players. The result is a dizzyingly creative adventure that ranges from the afro-rhumba sound of “Go Away” to the sparse, nearly industrial “Fusion Swirl” to a heartbreakingly gentle reading of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” On Forfolks, his most recent release, Parker continues his visionary effort by applying captivating effects to solo tunes that demand a very light touch. The results, which align with the contemplative group of releases discussed earlier, are triumphant.

Dawid's LIVE album

Critical to IA’s success has been its commitment to beautiful packaging that features a consistent look. IA’s visual sensibility and insider understanding of the minds of record lovers is apparent in the label’s use of the obi strip for all its releases. The obi’s origins are from Japan, where western vinyl releases came with an extra paper “belt” containing information about the record in Japanese for the benefit of consumers there. In addition to providing confirmation of Japanese production, which is highly regarded by record collectors, the obi today is simply another artifact or component of the complete set comprising a given release. Like having the original inner sleeve (and yes, IA releases come with a consistent and distinctive inner sleeve) or hype stickers originally affixed to a record, the obi is another piece of the puzzle. IA releases come with their own obi, generally providing a description of the music on the record, some positive press quotes, and reference to like-minded IA releases. The obi provides some visual real estate for the information already mentioned as well as for the title of the record and the name of the artist. This obviates the need to splash this information across the front of the record itself, which is most poignantly beneficial for releases by Parker and Dawid that use old family photographs blown up to the full size of the album cover. Delivering these images free of labeling or marketing allows them their full power and more intimately connects the music inside to tradition, family, and lived experience. Making such an artistic statement while turning on vinyl collectors with the use of the obi strip and gorgeous artwork is a deft move indeed.

The quality of the music, the commitment to a particular musical scene, and the relevance of the product to the current social and political context make International Anthem the best record label in America today. A couple of their most recent releases confirm that IA is not content to rest on their laurels. Ben LaMar Gay’s Open Arms to Us is a Guru-esque funhouse of rap and soul built on a scaffolding of jazz, while Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer’s meditative Music from the Aland Islands melds live tapes with field recordings and a range of other sources. IA continues to move not only the music industry, but music itself, forward. Sure, the moment will pass, tastes will change, artists will migrate to different labels, and another upstart label will claim the crown. For now, though, music lovers should rejoice in International Anthem’s success in incubating some of the most innovative and enjoyable music being made today.

Ben LaMar Gay’s Open Arms to Us

Guest written by friend, colleague and fellow music lover, Kevin DeBell.

Kevin is based in Baltimore. Having come of age in the 1980s, he is passionate about the post-punk revolution but has developed an omnivorous musical appetite. His writing tends to explore trends and new directions in modern music.

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