For all of its stylistic reference points—floods of effects pedals, venue-emptying feedback sections, indecipherable vocal melodie—shoegaze has always been a difficult genre to pin down. The term itself was supposedly coined by British music journalists in reference to the myriad of bands (the likes of A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine) who made little eye-contact with the crowd, instead being transfixed by their sea of wah-wah and distortion pedals; From the earlier outings of M83 to Deerhunter, that definition leaves the scope pretty wide.
For the purpose of this list, and in the name of favoring creativity and innovation over revivalism, our definition of shoegaze is the most commonly agreeable one: A niche scene of (mostly) British bands, largely active in the 1990s, who played a sort of dystopian pop music; as comfortable with harrowing feedback-driven assaults as verse-chorus-verse effortlessness. Independent music press won’t let you get away with thinking that shoegaze died out in 1998, though. Endless lists of post-2000 shoegaze bands flood the web, and there are some great ones—Pinkshinyultrablast, Ringo Deathstarr, A Place To Bury Strangers, to name a few—but in 2016, it’s a comfortable formula. It’s a beautiful and strange formula that crashes melody into distortion, and abstract lyrics into striking volume—but a formula all the same. Of course, there’s still experimentation with the blueprint—just take a look at Deafheaven—but it only seems fair to dig at the heart of the genre. So many great, pensive, experimental guitar records became almost instantly redundant when the three-chord yells of grunge came along, and they’re records that deserve to be in your record collection.
You’ve heard the anecdotes about My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 sophomore. People taking their tapes back to stores and complaining about the distortion, indie music fans feeling betrayed by the lack of recognizable guitar sounds, devotees buying a second copy and not realizing it’s warped… probably better to own it on vinyl, just to be sure. Truly, Loveless is a masterpiece. Shoegaze was an odd and short-lived (in its formative stage, at least) genre—few records of the ilk could feasibly be named a masterpiece—but Loveless is the exception. Each chord is more otherworldly than the last, guitars are stretched way beyond their former capabilities, the breathtaking soundscapes crafted become increasingly immersive as the record drones on. Sonically, it’s a true one off—one of the most astounding experimental records of all time. What makes Loveless so unfathomably great, though, is how much of an archetypal pop record it is at heart. Beyond the sonic trickery and structure-bending, Loveless plays out as effortlessly and as smoothly as a radio-friendly pop record. “When You Sleep,” a standout on the record, manifests its opening guitar chimes instantly, before tailing off into an encompassing tale of teenage infatuation—it’s the perfect pop single, on the strangest pop record of all time.
Spiritualized made better records than this, their 1992 debut, but they never made a record quite as inherently shoegaze. The motorik spine of the record, which runs omnipresent, gives Jason Pierce sufficient freedom to craft melodies with a near-childlike wonder. Reverb-doused chords ring out premature, basslines hum below expansive shoegaze soundscapes, and Pierce toys with the quiet-dynamic as if it were a game. For all its not-so-subtle nods to krautrock and spacerock, the blueprint of Lazer Guided Melodies is rooted in shoegaze. It’s a record flowing with ideas, although not always entirely cohesive. It’s a record that signified the start of something beautiful and life-changing, and deserves a place in any record collection.
Recorded during the aftermath of co-vocalists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s break up, Souvlaki’s near-difficult transparency is a big part of what sets the Reading group apart from so many shoegaze bands. Beneath the impossibly arresting backdrop that the band dream up on Souvlaki, Halstead pens some of the most emotive and loaded prose that shoegaze ever offered. “Your messed-up life still thrills me / Alison, I’m lost” he concedes on opening cut ‘Alison’, setting the scene for one of few shoegaze records to go beyond sonic innovativeness—although there’s plenty of that too, take the jittery intro of “Souvlaki Space Station.” As far as Creation Records were concerned, Souvlaki had to be commercially sound for Slowdive to survive, and it wasn’t. After one last record, they disbanded. You can’t help but feel, though, that the timeless nature of Souvlaki is a huge part of what made their reformation in 2014 so successful. When somebody pours as much of themselves into a record as Neil Halstead did on Souvlaki, the effort rarely goes unnoticed.
The discourse around shoegaze seems mostly to be structured around a Holy Trinity dynamic, with Slowdive, Ride and My Bloody Valentine making up the trio of essential bands within the genre. Ride, though, were never quite as exclusive to reverb and hushed vocals as the other two, tailing off into Britpop, the total opposite of shoegaze, territory far too often to be considered their greatest. Nowhere, though, was arguably the highlight of their discography—a cohesively immersive, stunningly crafted shoegaze coup. Its opening cut, “Seagull,” is a stunning exploration of strung-out guitar notes and elongated vocal textures; a mission statement, for what would be one of shoegaze’s most pristine moments. “Definitions confine thoughts, they are a myth” Mark Gardener muses, for a brief moment in 1990, Ride defied definition—crafting one of the most mind-bending and utterly stunning records of the era. Leaving nowhere out of any record collection is totally inexcusable.
Darklands was an incredibly brave follow up to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 debut Psychocandy. Before Darklands, the band were infamous for their riotous live shows, punk-indebted outspokenness and visceral-yet-melodic pop songs. Largely, fans of The Jesus and Mary Chain were mourning punks and underground anarchists—few expected such openness and vulnerability from The Jesus and Mary Chain, until 1987. “The room becomes a shrine thinking of you,” Jim Reid croons bittersweet on “Nine Million Rainy Days.” “The way you are sends the shivers to my head.” Darklands is the sound of a band shedding its formative dynamics, growing in maturity, and being astoundingly good at writing about love and melancholy in equal parts. Although it predates the apparent shoegaze timeframe, the hushed distortion of Darklands is infinite; a proto-shoegaze record, perhaps, but an essential part of any collection.
“Listen to On Fire and pretend someone could love you.” Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart’s lyrics in “Dr Troll” offer the most apt summary of Galaxie 500’s 1989 sophomore LP. Not simply a record to passively dream to, as most shoegaze records are, but a record to become helplessly immersed in. Galaxie 500 are shoegaze’s most consistently melancholic offering, at times more akin to Red House Painters than Chapterhouse, and On Fire finds them at their most deeply troubled, but finding beauty in the bleakness in such a way that would become synonymous with the legacy of the band. Their contemporary adoration is miles shy of that of Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine, but you get the sense that every Galaxie 500 fan is deeply, deeply indebted to them in one way or another. On Fire is a huge part of that. From the cinematic tenor sax on “Decomposing Trees,” to the eerily produced drums on “SnowStorm,” it’s a record that rewards each listen with a new moment of magic amid the melancholy. It’s the kind of record that stays with you for life.
Shoegaze outfits often embrace pop in that they submit to verse-chorus-verse structures, but few embrace radio-friendly blueprints as effortlessly, or as cooly, as The Radio Dept. On “This Time Around,” for example, the Swedish band re-imagine the Pet Shop Boy’s iconic, isolated one-line chorus slickness - which they quite quickly make a habit of. Clinging To A Scheme is a record loaded with genuine pop hits. Strip the handful of off-kilter bass tones and the sampling of an anti-capitalist rant from one Thurston Moore that prefaces “Heaven’s On Fire,” and Clinging To A Scheme could be commercially colossal. The Radio Dept. are one of the most criminally underrated bands of the 2000s, and their 2010 effort is them at their astounding best.
The Comforts of Madness is just the best name for a shoegaze record, isn’t it? For all the distorted melody, deafening riffs and abstract lyrics, there’s something endlessly comforting about shoegaze. There’s room to breathe, you could say, among all the otherworldliness; it’s impossible to suffocate, shoegaze lacks the relentlessness of noise but is void of ambient’s listener-reliance. Pale Saint’s impeccably-titled debut record remains one of any shoegaze enthusiasts most essential records to own on vinyl. Although it hasn’t aged particularly well, The Comforts of Madness is a documentation of a time and place that will always be vital to counter culture, South England in the early 1990s—the birth of shoegaze as we know it.
MBV was a record that seemed like it would never come, and perhaps it didn’t exactly need to. Few My Bloody Valentine fans learnt anything new upon the release of the 2013 follow up to 1991’s Loveless—which perhaps was pretty unforgivable for a certain type of fan. However, MBV, with its hushed feedback furies and introverted, reverse-reverb soundscapes, served as a timely reminder of just how special the band are. It re-hashed the formula, sure, but it’s a formula they pioneered. So many bands mould themselves around Kevin Shield’s disdain for generic guitar tones, and it took another collection of mind-bending noise pop gems in the form of MBV to reiterate that My Bloody Valentine are a true one off. Some great records are the catalyst for a myriad of new bands forming, but MBV seemed to halt the onslaught of shoegaze-esque groups coming through at the time, raising the standards once more. Not quite a record twenty two years in the making, perhaps, but an excellent and culturally vital record all the same.
Shoegaze has a habit of delving into melancholy more often than joy, acting as come down music more often than lucid music, which can often seem odd, given the drug culture lexicon that is so often used to describe it. Chapterhouse’s debut record, Whirlpool, is one of the greatest antidotes to shoegaze’s weight. It’s a light, unhinged and free record of nine effortless dream pop gems. Recalling in equal parts the jangle-psych-inhabited croons of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the off-kilter guitar stabs of My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse were far from innovators—at least in comparison to some other names on the list—but they were impeccable at writing shoegaze records, and Whirlpool is arguably their best. Again, it’s a record them feels irremovable from its time and place—but there’s something so pure and honest about that, when compared to more modern shoegaze records, that seems to transcend some of the more noticeably dated production techniques. Whirlpool, quite simply, as an essential record—even in 2016.