Inspired by the reunion of shoegaze greats Slowdive, Amoeblogger Brad Schelden and I have compiled our list of favorite shoegaze albums.
For any who don’t know, shoegaze is a style of music rooted in the noise pop of The Jesus & Mary Chain and dream pop of Cocteau Twins from the early ’80s. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, bands took elements put forth by those bands—loud, distorted guitars, heavily reverbed vocals and emphasis on atmosphere over discernable lyrics—and came up with a new sound, first truly realized by My Bloody Valentine on their classic 1988 album, Isn’t Anything. Shoegaze (or shoegazing) was a term NME and Melody Maker in the U.K. used to describe the visual representation of the sound from bands who rose in My Bloody Valentine’s wake, depicting bands’ apparent lack of movement onstage and propensity to stare down at their numerous effects pedals. The genre hit its heyday in the early ’90s but persists today, with bands like My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver reuniting and artists like M83 and Diiv using elements of their sound (so-called nu-gaze, but I’ll avoid that terrible term). So with that lengthy explanation, here we go.
1. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
No other album could rightfully take the throne atop this list than this absolute masterpiece. Kevin Shields took guitars and gave lifeblood what are ostensibly inanimate objects. Endless layers of guitar that pulse with tremolo out to infinity, while Shields and then-girlfriend Bilinda Butcher trade sensual whispers that are vague yet not meaningless. Bassist Debbie Googe, while not present on the album is there in spirit, in the album’s punky rough edges. Drummer Colm O Ciosoig, truly one of the all-time underappreciated drum heroes, takes the throb fashioned by The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker (and expanded upon by krautrock in the ’70s) and allows his beats to circulate softly in the background and rough things up when needed with fills you drum along to for the rest of your life, on songs like “When You Sleep.” A million words can be (and have been) written about Loveless, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Probably because you could listen to it a million times and come away with something new every time.
From pulse-pounding opener “Seagull” through the gorgeous “Vapour Trail,” Ride’s first album is basically perfect. Whereas shoegaze bands like Slowdive are severely introspective, Ride’s guitars and pulverizing drums erupt with impossible, almost overwhelming force. So good it inspired a Gregg Araki movie title.
It’s hard to believe Souvlaki wasn’t universally loved at the time that it came out. Some dude from Melody Maker called it a soulless void. In retrospect the negative reviews are nothing more than reactionary—the first time you hear Souvlaki, it does take your breath away, and that doesn’t necessarily feel good. There’s an inherent emotional emptiness at the core of Souvlaki, but any notion that it amounts to vapidness is mistaken. Rather, Souvlaki is the sound of emotional devastation in its various forms—nostalgia that’s impossible to fulfill (“Alison”), or the empty feeling that comes when pure emotion washes away after a breakup (“40 Days”). Even being someone else’s world totally and completely is sort of emotionally destructive, as the acoustic “Dagger” demonstrates. More limpid than My Bloody Valentine, sure, but Souvlaki’s sad desperation is timeless.
Swervedriver’s music can best be described as muscular. While decidedly chunky and forceful, though, Swervedriver’s riffs are always in dedication to something more cerebral, spiritual even, as they mastered the dynamics J&MC introduced on Psychocandy and take them to new heights. Later albums would be better produced, but Raise is the most concise and consistent, from the head-bashing two-chord riff of “Sci Flyer” to “Rave Down’s” sun-drunk ride.
5. My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything (1988)
Isn’t Anything has to be the most ironic album title of all time. Though many people know and love Loveless, Isn’t Anything is nearly as revelatory, and actually more varied. These are idea songs, as “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)” makes bowed guitar a searing emotional tool and “Lose My Breath” turns acoustic guitars into a two-faced beast, alternately hideous and stunning. Plus those two songs alone sound like nothing ever before or since. Even the more straightforward noise-rockers are brilliant—the album’s last three songs are among the most perfect in the band’s catalog.
Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins produced Lush’s first record, the result being a more pop-rock oriented shade of the sound of Guthrie’s former band. Though the later Split would cement their status as a classic shoegaze band, Spooky has their best songs—namely the epic “Nothing Natural” and heartbreaking “For Love.”
Some may cry foul at this inclusion, but for my money, Deerhunter is the best modern shoegaze band. Though they draw inspiration from psychedelia, noise-rock and garage rock as well, Microcastle aches with the sorts of swooning melodies and guitar swells pioneered by My Bloody Valentine and Lush, with a more direct emotionality. Disc two of the set, Weird Era Cont, is even ’gazier (see “Vox Celeste” for proof).
Before “Bittersweet Symphony,” The Verve were as ‘gazey as any band out there. Their 1993 debut album is full of swirling guitars and Richard Ashcroft’s soaring voice, providing a welcome bit of personality in the genre on songs like the blistering “Slide Away” and beautiful “Already There.” If you haven’t heard The Verve’s first couple of albums, do yourself a favor and check them out.
They weren’t exactly the most original band of the shoegaze era, but they were one of the most enjoyable. For pure thrills, it’s really tough to be the straight-ahead rush of “Breather” leading right into the madchestery dream pop of “Pearl,” on one of the best album openings of the genre. The band turns one chord into a pulverizing statement on “Autosleeper,” and “Guilt” perfectly updates Smiths-style jangle pop for a new era.
10. Lush – Split (1994)
Robin Guthrie put a dreamy shine on Lush’s already ethereal songs on their first album, Spooky. For their second album, Lush carved out more of their own persona, with more prominent vocals and lyrics (though dreamy, “Lovelife” is clearly a pop song), rock-oriented basslines (“Hypocrite”), extended, druggy jams (“Desire Lines”) and tipping off the Britpop angle they’d take on album No. 3 (“Blackout”). Simply put, Split is one of the most consistently great albums of the shoegaze era.
While their first album, Ferment, is more strictly shoegaze, Brad loves Chrome for the way it splits the difference between shoegaze and then-modern alt-rock, on tuneful rockers like “Crank” and the dreamy, prog-rock-influenced “Fripp.” Under-recognized in their time, thousands of bands would go on to make albums that sounded like Chrome, though not nearly as good.
12. Slowdive – Pygmalion (1995)
More of a Neil Halstead solo album than a Slowdive one, Pygmalion nonetheless is gorgeous, a mix of ambient textures, gothic acoustic guitars and ghostly vocals. Everything comes together masterfully on Slowdive’s best-ever song, “Blue Skied An’ Clear,” used in the ending credits (after the jarring climax) of the previously mentioned Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation.
13. M83 – Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)
When Anthony Gonzalez’ bandmate Nicolas Fromageau left the band, Gonzalez took M83 away from its glitchier beginnings and into a more guitar-and-synth-pop direction. On Before the Dawn Heals Us, he was still formulating the poppier end of their sound that would later become so popular on albums line Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, so the result was somewhere between shoegaze, pop and electronica. It’s the loudest, ’gaziest M83 album, especially on songs like “Fields, Shorelines and Hunters,” “*” and the My Bloody Valentine-influenced, breakthrough single, “Don’t Save Us From the Flames.”
In Ribbons followed the dreamy The Comforts of Madness, making the band’s sound a little tighter and heavier. Former Lush vocalist Meriel Barham joined the band and served as a nice supplement to Ian Masters’ fey vocals, and the band produced a dynamic collection featuring both powerful rockers (“Throwing Back the Apple,” “Babymaker”) and dreamier tunes (Barham takes the lead on the gorgeous “Thread of Light”).
15. My Bloody Valentine – mbv (2013)
My Bloody Valentine pulled off the seemingly impossible and came back with that long-promised third album. mbv was worth the wait, expanding upon the sounds of Loveless and especially Isn’t Anything with strange melodies, mindblowing arrangements and a brutal last third that leaves your head spinning.
The Boo Radleys were great at being loud and dreamy like other shoegazers, but they also weren’t beholden to the trappings of the genre, bolstering their sound with touches of flamenco guitar on “Spaniard,” French pop on “I Feel Nothing” and a broken-down toy on “Losing It (Song For Abigail).” One of the great underappreciated bands of the genre.
Curve took Cocteau Twins’ blueprint and blew it out with loud-ass guitars and the pop-friendly vocals of Tony Halliday. Doppelganger came out three years before Garbage’s first album and Curve is largely seen as a precursor to that chart-topping band.
APTBS’s Oliver Ackermann first popped up in early 00s shoegazers Skywave before coming out with this absolutely ripping record. Armed to the teeth with guitar pedals the man developed himself, it’s the sound of J&MC and Spacemen 3 taken to near-lethal noise levels, with some nice melodies buried underneath it all.
19. Swervedriver - Mezcal Head (1993)
Mezcal Head is the guitar player’s shoegaze record, rife with nuclear riffs and tricks that will leave us fiddling with our pedals for eternity, especially on the eternal “Duel.”
This is a really great cult record. Fans of bands like Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen should check out KoD, where Patrick Fitzgerald’s romantic vocals combine with his band’s nuanced fury.
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