Shoegaze has become a buzzword in the last decade or so, describing any music with a swirling, surreal, glimmering sound. Starting as a predominantly U.K.based movement that later migrated to the U.S. between the late ‘80s and early‘90s, shoegaze was a term used to describe a musical fixation with the effects pedals and a despondent, detached style of performance. At its core, though, shoegaze is a genre that melds noise and ethereal elements, condensing them into melodic pop music. Songs typically involve dense, heavily layered guitar work that builds up into a wall of a dissonant feedback. Add some additional droning instrumentation and a wave of melancholic vocals that make you want to stare at your feet (or pedalboard), and you’ve got a great shoegaze track.
Those who detract from the genre can diminish it as just a bunch of noise. Plus, it can be hard to connect with performers who don’t make eye-contact with audience members. Still, shoegaze’s defining factor is its ability to blend together different textures of sound, vocals and instrumentation. For those listeners who may not typically like this kind of music, we’ve put together of list of shoegaze albums to help ease the exploration of such a stacked sound, including some seminal albums and a few contemporary ones that are easier to digest.
New York City art-rock band Blonde Redhead has always been effortlessly cool with its sound. But on 23, the group’s seventh album, Blond Redhead perfectly captures moody, angst-filled shoegaze. From its opening track, 23 creates ornamental whirls of sounds, polished through great songwriting and melancholic vocals, evoking the come-down after an anxiety-ridden late-night drive. With its dissonant guitars, layered keyboard and jittery percussion, the album serves as a great homage to the shoegaze genre.
Chapterhouse’s Whirlpool is an album the could have only come out in the early 1990s, with its melodies, rhythms and overall brooding tone. The opening track “Breather” is an energetic compilation of intense guitar riffs, drum rolls and cymbals crashes, which contrasts with Andrew Sherriff’s soft, dreamy vocals. The band’s alternatingly loud/quiet approach to songwriting on this album makes for a compelling listen that has strongly stood the test of time.
Slowdive’s sophomore album is that rare release that not only preserves the same great qualities of a solid debut (1991’s Just for a Day), but also avoids a repeat of sound and texture. Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s ephemeral vocals shine in songs like “When Sun Hits,” which layers lush guitars with subdued, breathy singing and “Dagger,” which is a more straightforward arrangement in sound, but accentuated with a whispery intensity. Also notable on Souvlaki, Brian Eno is a collaborator.
The Black Ryder is an Australian duo consisting of Aimee Nash and Scott Von Ryper that mastered the ability to intertwine the sounds of ‘80s British synthpop and electronic rock. The band’s debut takes a dark, sultry approach to shoegaze with sprawling layers of droning, blissed-out guitars and ethereal vocals, creating a kaleidoscopic sound. From its opening track, “To Never Know You,” the album brings new textures and contrasts them with layers of emotive and majestic guitar riffs that are accompanied by brooding lyrics. The songs swirl together in a way that’s intended to be listened to as one overwhelming ride. It’s a long and intimate one, at that.
Over the course of the past 30 years, the Brian Jonestown Massacre has survived a tumultuous career. Since the 2004 documentary Dig!, which highlighted the developing careers and love-hate relationship of BJM and The Dandy Warhols, frontman/songwriter Anton Newcombe’s drug use and uproarious personality has preceded the band’s musical reputation. Yet, BJM’s debut album Methodrone set the precedent for a career filled with consistent jangle pop songs. Methodrone is comprised of mournful shoegaze melodies (with accompanying dead-eyed harmonies) and psychedelic sprawl that’s resonant for decades.
Catherine Wheel is one of those bands people name-drop at a party to impress others, and rightfully so. The English band is a shoegaze pioneer, embracing swirling, distorted guitars and muttered vocals in full force. Their 1992 debut Ferment is a long-lasting classic, with self-aware and introspective lyrics piled atop persistent guitar riffs. To this day, “Black Metallic” continues to be the go-to song to impress all your music nerd friends.
Ride is another pioneer of the genre and their debut, Nowhere is oft-cited as one of the best albums of all time. Emerging from England in the early ‘90s, the band is able to reflect the influence of bands like Stone Roses, Sonic Youth and The Cure through its harsh, discordant sound. As a result, Nowhere is a collection of reverberated songs that stand effortlessly posed between digestible pop songs and sonic, intense noise-rock.
The Verve is much more than its overplayed hit, “Bittersweet Symphony;” the band’s debut LP offers a much deeper sonic and lyrical intensity. John Leckie (who worked bands like with Simple Minds, Radiohead, XTC and Stone Roses) produced the record, and A Storm in Heaven is the band’s most complete-sounding effort. Throughout the 10 tracks (and sometimes within the same song) Richard Ashcroft’s vocals move from gentle to brash in easy, fluid motions. The album takes a minimalist approach to shoegaze with an airy, swirly instrumentation and structure, but its end result is truly beautiful.
Lush obviously had to be included, but determining which album was a challenge: Either Gala or Lovelife could have made this list. While the band in all it’s output is foundational to the genre, the songs on Gala (a compilation record that 4AD released to American and Japanese audiences in 1990) seems to best accentuate that classic shoegaze sound. “De-Luxe,” with its pouncing aesthetic and catchy melody, is still one of the band’s most popular songs and Gala as a whole embodies shoegaze in one of its purest forms.
My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze have become synonymous over the years. Each song on the classic Loveless is filled with romanticism and passion, courtesy of vocalists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher. At its core, Loveless represents the culmination of the shoegaze genre. It is a mixture of super-soft melodies and introspective, self-examining lyrics that are then echoed in a heartbreaking, brooding tone. The end result is a set of beautiful, melodic pop songs that emerge through massive, sometimes indistinguishable noise.