[Editor's note: After hearing this week that Berkeley indie label Absolutely Kosher plans to stop releasing new music this fall, we talked to label founder and owner Cory Brown about what happened and wrote a too-long, very bummed-out piece about it. We also asked if Brown would be interested in writing about some of the AK releases that he felt (especially) didn't get their due. While it's admittedly a little awkward to have a label head recommending his own product, we thought it'd also be really interesting and unique. Brown took us up on our offer, so here goes. Everything after this was written by him.]
I feel extremely strange doing this, like I'm somehow picking favorites from among my children. With Spotify or Rdio, people can really hear every record we've ever released and, well, they should listen to them. Because I do not say lightly that, while a list of nearly 100 records might seem daunting, every one of them took a lot of time, energy, money, and inspiration. Even the biggest ones deserve more attention than they got, but thems the breaks. If any band not named here reads this, please forgive me. I'll try and get to you in the book (ahem). But Ian asked for ten, so I'm going to suck it up. In no particular order and not including the forthcoming Himalayan Bear album, Hard Times, nor any of the semi-famous bands you've also not heard of (maybe). Every record on here sold less than 1,000 copies, in case you were wondering (well, Okay & JYPU may have hit that by now, but barely).
1. Withered Hand - Good News
We just put this one out in March, a year and a half after its UK release. It was a slow burner over there (MOJO gave it four stars eight months after release) and has proven to be the same here (Robert Christgau just raved about it five months after we put it out). Withered Hand is Dan Willson of Edinburgh, Scotland. He writes some of the most beautiful, depressing, hilarious, and insightful little songs anywhere. He wins audiences over wherever he plays, so it's a crying shame we could only bring him over for a week back in March (and even then, the Department of Immigration cost us thousands in expedited visa fees -- thanks). People who don't like this record aren't listening right.
2. Bottom of the Hudson - Fantastic Hawk
Eli Simon was the main cat behind the band. His demo showed up one day out of nowhere and we signed him from it. Incredible modern psych-pop songs in the vein of the masters -- Tall Dwarfs, Guided By Voices, the Church, Galaxie 500, Robyn Hitchcock -- and this was Eli at his best, his most realized. The week the record came out, the band played five shows in the South and on their way home, blew out a tire, flipping the van and killing bassist Trevor Butler. All promotion pretty much stopped at that point. The popular perspective that touring revenue should replace record sales is held by people who've never had to lose someone to the road or, worse, speak to their crying, grieving mother on the phone. The story is superfluous to the quality of the album. The record is amazing without it.
3. Okay - Huggable Dust
Fremont, Calif.'s Marty Anderson is a genius. His attempt at simple pop songs is somehow a dimension beyond other songwriters. I'm not talking the level of his craft -- which, were it not for his illness (he suffers from a debilitating strain of Crohn's Disease), would likely be even greater. I'm talking dimension, as in fractal theory, quantum physics. I'd throw his High Road and Low Road in there too, but I can never decide which I like better. There's the beginnings of a cult out there, starting with a number of bands covering his music, and I can only pray it continues.
4. Jukeboxer - In the Foodchain
I've always prided myself on being a label without a particular sound. It's made life really difficult in that we have to win over an audience with every record, but I loved Matador, Merge, and Simple Machines when I was coming up, and that's how they rolled. Jukeboxer is probably the most difficult-to-categorize band on this difficult-to-categorize label. Noah Wall is now recording under his own name and you should investigate him. And this record. It's weird and pretty.
5. The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up - Picks Us Apart
Some of these guys became my closest friends in all the world, including Jim (who's not even in the band). Of all the early acts I worked with, this was the one I felt like I caught at the very beginning, and their arc of great potential, cult success, and subsequent dissolution in the face of indifference and total absence of fanfare seems to be a microcosm of Absolutely Kosher. This album was their final one and was supposed to be called Bareback and Broken Hips. There are a few earlier songs of theirs that are my favorite songs ever, but this is easily their best album.
6. Laarks - An Exaltation of Laarks
They've only made one record. They play basketball with Bon Iver. They should be on MTV. Enormous. Teenage girls-going-nuts enormous. I tried to do straight-up accessible pop records a number of times - The Affair, Ex-Boyfriends, Chris Garneau - and only Chris has achieved modest success. Laarks should be on TV in 40 countries.
7. Sybris - Into the Trees
I'm reticent to put this down only because I think their next record is going to be a monster, even better than this one and the self-titled record that Flameshovel released. Chicago's Sybris are an incredible rock band, too unique to be famous (the other story of my label's history, see the Dead Science, Frog Eyes, the Rollercoaster Project, and many of the bands on this list), but far too great to be ignored. The band itself is rock solid -- it gets compared to the Smashing Pumpkins, but it's a way better live band than the Pumpkins ever were. The real magic, aside from the chemistry the members bring as a unit, is singer Angela Mullenhour. Of all the incredible and idiosyncratic singers I've ever worked with, only Sam Mickens of the Dead Science gives Ange a run for her money for being unpredictable in her spontaneity and mind-blowingly compelling in her delivery. She gets compared to Chan Marshall and Karen O, both of whom are really talented, but those critics miss the boat. This woman has demons in her voice and she tames them with every note.
8. Little Teeth - Child Bearing Man
I have a lot of stories about bands falling apart. This one was the most upsetting because of just how great and weird and unique this album is. I'm not telling that story, but suffice it to say, you can't have everything. We'll always have this album though. The band continues as a new beast with only one of the three founders, and I'm anxious to hear what they come up with.
9. 60 Watt Kid - We Come From the Bright Side
The Wrens, on a good night, are probably the best live band I've ever worked with. Something happens with them that's more than the songs they're playing and it's amazing to witness. 60 Watt Kid were, in most ways, the anti-Wrens. They were horribly dysfunctional, unprofessional, and alienated people all the time, in spite of actually being nice guys -- but crap, they put on a hell of a show, too. Kevin Litrow's performance at the first show of theirs I ever saw inspired me to sign them on the spot -- the only time in 13 years I ever did that. Yeah, much of this record sort of sounds like the best parts of the Animal Collective without the screechy bits, just repeated over and over, and yeah, I love the crap out of it (including the cover, one of my favorites on the label), but somehow its centerpiece, "Take the Pain Out of Your Chest," makes the whole thing transcend even further. Check out the video of that song directed by Matt Amato - devastating.
10. The Gang - Zero Hits
If I have one major regret, it's that the more aggressive part of my taste was barely represented in our output as a label. You'd never know that Melt-Banana, Ponytail, and Mission of Burma are some of my favorite bands. Pidgeon were about as loud and noisy a band as we ever worked with and I absolutely loved them, but the Gang hold a special place for me, because they really came from where I came from -- New Jersey (as do the Wrens, of course) -- and because they just straight-up rocked. Plus, they're hard-knocks guys (the band's name is awesome and utterly unsophisticated all at once - which makes it even more awesome), done in by their bass player's alcoholism after playing roughly three shows following the album's release. Sadly, the album's title was correct (some of the worst cover art of all time certainly didn't help), but this might be the best rock record you never heard. In the end, they bailed on getting it together and, thousands in the hole on the album, I bailed on paying their advance. I wish we were still speaking, because I loved those fucking people. Of course, there are too many bands I could say that about.