In 1993, a year before Oasis released Definitely Maybe, the newly founded Domino Recording Company licensed Sebadoh’s EP Rocking the Forest from Sub Pop, in Seattle, and brought it to the London public. Rocking the Forest does not sound like Definitely Maybe, and the passionate affair the United Kingdom was about to have with Britpop didn’t afford for much room at the party for Sebadoh’s stark Yankee indie rock, the lo-fi sounds of Smog, or the eerie strains of Flying Saucer Attack.
For much of the ’90s, as Britpop’s choruses swelled to burst, Domino’s slate remained an impeccable greatest hits of weird American guitar artists: Late, mannerist Pavement albums (Brighten the Corners), an unusually accessible series of Jim O’Rourke releases, Elliott Smith‘s hushed and heartbroken pop songs and the adventurous homegrown indie rock of messy proggers Pram.
By 2015, Domino was handling not just Stephen Malkmus and Sebadoh (and Flying Saucer Attack), but also the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and Hot Chip — crisp, fundamentally danceable bands, who themselves have gradually inherited Britpop’s tarnished crown following the imperial collapse of 1997.
For much of the ’90s, Domino’s slate remained an impeccable greatest hits of weird American guitar artists.
But Domino’s artists weren’t always embraced by critics. In 1995, the New Musical Express gave Pram an infamous 0/10 review; in 2005, in a review that opened with several hundred words of rubble-sifting analysis of Oasis and Blur, it called Franz Ferdinand’s debut “the latest and most intoxicating example of the wonderful.”
And the label’s Stateside roster has risen through the chaos of the 21st century music industry to a prominence that would have seemed impossible during the major-label decadence of the 1990s: Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Dirty Projectors, and The Kills are all Domino artists. The label’s long-running strain of American garage rock — they began distributing D.C. racket-makers Royal Trux in 1998, and had a brief, early dalliance with Austin, Tex., titans …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead — may have been what eventually led it to sniff out stripped-down, muscular U.K. guitar bands like Arctic Monkeys and Clinic. (Arctic Monkeys’ debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not — a fast, ragged, pogoing collection of stories about clubbing away damp Northern nights, full of mundane details and self-effacing jokes — was at the time the fastest-selling debut in U.K. history; it was unseated not by another rock band, but by X Factor winner Leona Lewis.)
Since finding itself at the center of British indie rock, Domino has retained its discriminating, experimental taste in North American indie. The label signed critically beloved songwriter Julia Holter, backed the Day-Glo ambition of Dan Deacon‘s electronic symphonies, and released two lush albums of Owen Pallett‘s baroque pop. Their 2016 release slate includes a new Animal Collective album, a collection of creamy, R&B-inflected synth pop from New York magpie Aaron Maine’s Porches and the third album from Dubliner Conor O’Brien’s Villagers.
Heading into a new year, what Domino has is one venerable, eclectic American band, one young, buzzy New York prodigy and one composer of dark, lush British Isles indie.