A List Of Essential Shoegaze Albums
Today we’re going to explore an often misunderstood genre in music history: shoegaze. It’s a term that was invented by critics and fans to describe a particular style, but it quickly became a label for a wide array of bands with their own ideas about what music should do and how far it can go.
Shoegaze is often considered one of the more accessible alternative music genres, yet it’s anything but. The very sound of the genre is challenging — dark, dissonant and dreamy, with extended solos and melodies that keep on going for what feels like forever. If you listen to shoegaze with an open mind and an open ear, you will discover a whole world of fascinating sounds.
What Is Shoegaze?
The term shoegazing comes from the movement of people staring at their feet while walking, as if lost in thought. A fitting name for this pensive genre, shoegaze music is driven by an intense emotional atmosphere built around noisy, distorted guitars and vocals. As a genre, shoegaze began in the late 1980s as a fusion of pop music with experimental or ambient sounds, incorporating walls of noise and feedback within a rock song structure.
Shoegaze is loud and extremely atmospheric—a sonic landscape within which a massive sound can be conjured up by even a single band. In addition to its blurring of the line between noise and pop music, it is also known for its dreamy vocals, fuzzed-out riffs, and reverb-laden guitar melodies. Hypnotic and meditative, shoegaze can be both moving and exhilarating at the same time. The genre focuses on texture, creating intense bursts of sound that are then immediately put beneath layer after layer of guitar effects and feedback.
Essential Shoegaze Albums
Even more than other popular genres of noise pop, shoegaze can be hard for newcomers to decipher on first listen. But a little research will bring you down the right path to some of the most important alternative rock records of our time. With that in mind, here are 10 essential shoegaze albums anyone new to the genre should get familiar with and explore further.
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything (1988)
My Bloody Valentine changed everything with their seminal melancholic masterpiece, 1988’s Isn’t Anything. Much more than a shoegaze triumph, it’s an epic journey through noise and psychedelia, dreamy ambience and pure bliss. My Bloody Valentine were the rock band that most people couldn’t quite get their head around, with their droning guitars, inscrutable lyrics and lack of conventional song structure. Each song on Isn’t Anything is a sonic adventure and it’s hard to overstate the album’s impact on the musical landscape. With Isn’t Anything, MBV began to see that noise could be textured and beautiful, giving shape to the incredible sounds that had been swirling around in their heads for so long—and completely redefining the shoegaze genre in the process.
Lush – Gala (1990)
The first album from shoegaze pioneers Lush contains the imprint of everything they would become: snarky, intimate, uniquely beautiful. The members met as students at North London Polytechnic and were active in the punk community before forming Lush with a shared interest in a more ethereal sound. The songs on Gala were also among the first to occasionally incorporate elements of folk and country, revealing their eclecticism that would become so characteristic for future work. It contains some truly excellent songs including the brilliant “Sweetness and Light,” which is surely one of the best openers ever.
Ride – Nowhere (1990)
Ride’s debut album Nowhere is a statement of purpose—a bold and beautiful creation that’s equal parts swooning atmosphere and soaring melodies. It’s also one of the most revered albums in shoegaze’s history and still holds up well decades after it was first released. While seemingly similair to the alternative music scene of their era, Ride were just as inspired by classic rock legends like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and their sound ultimately landed as close to dream pop at times as it did to shoegaze. But this was no mere wisp of an album: it was an explosive statement that rewrote the rules for alternative rock groups everywhere, who were now free to focus on slicker production values while adding even more fuzz pedal dynamics.
Catherine Wheel – Ferment (1992)
Another excellent entry point into the world of shoegaze is Catherine Wheel’s Ferment. The band’s debut album, Ferment is a multi-layered gem that washes over you in waves of distorted guitars, ethereal vocals and tight, propulsive beats. Its mostly melodic, harmonized lead vocals give it an almost jangle pop feel at times. Songs like “Flower To Hide” and “Black Metallic” are standouts for obvious reasons—they easily fit into the shoegaze canon but have their own distinctive touches that make them feel fresh even today.
Slowdive – Souvlaki (1993)
Souvlaki is often remembered as the first album where shoegaze legends Slowdive truly cemented their sound. Their first album, Just for a Day, had already earned them more than their fair share of praise, so expectations remained high for what would follow. Those expectations were met in full on Souvlaki, which pushed the envelope even more than its predecessor while still remaining true to its overall sound and vision. With Souvlaki, Slowdive crafted a swirling, beautiful code of dreamy transcendence. The record’s many instrumental passages leave plenty of room for layers of guitar and vocal melodies to wander around in. But what sets Souvlaki apart from its predecessor is the group’s focus on song craft, with epic tracks that cascade and crescendo at will.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Methodrone (1995)
Shoegaze is a notoriously nebulous and ever-mutating genre, but even in a subculture defined by constant attempts to one-up oneself, The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 1995 debut may just be the ultimate achievement. Methodrone contains all the elements of classic shoegaze: soft guitars that pile up on each other and riff on infinitely, a rhythm section that pounds with subtle swing but rarely tries to overpower, and breathless lyrics that can barely keep up with the music. But Methodrone is also a deceptively complex album that rewards both repeat listens and careful study. It’s one of those albums that’s gotten better with age because audiences didn’t understand it at first but then once they did realize what they were hearing and understood what the band was going for — especially lead singer Anton Newcombe’s knack for imitating British Invasion sounds of every persuasion — it was clear they were listening to one of the shoegaze movement’s masterworks.
Windy & Carl – Antarctica (The Bliss Out, Vol. 2) (1997)
As a duo, Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren have always been dreamers. On their 1997 album Antarctica, the Michigan-based record store owners turned shoegaze act made no secret of this fact. The album’s three instrumental tracks—intensely long and with an eye on minimalism—find Weber and Hultgren probing the depths of their musical consciousness, searching for something so beautiful that it’s a complete joy to listen to. Everything about this album is idyllic, from it pulsating rhythms that sound like they’re indicating some form of language to its subtle guitar textures that seem to emanate from another dimension.
A Place To Bury Strangers – A Place To Bury Strangers (2007)
A Place to Bury Strangers may not be the first band that comes to mind when people think of shoegaze, but they’re arguably the best representation of the genre in recent years. The group’s self-titled debut was greeted with a wealth of critical praise for its uncompromisingly loud, distorted noise. It’s an album that went out of its way to confront shoegaze’s prettiness with a sonic onslaught that sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain if they were wielding a 100-milligram dose of LSD. It’s also a distillation of shoegaze influences from the past: propulsive rhythms are set ablaze with hot guitar feedback and punishing drum beats. Voices scream through an amplifier haze that’s equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. As it turns out, shoegaze can be much more than pretty tunes about heartbreak.
M83 – Saturdays = Youth (2008)
Saturdays=Youth, the fourth album from French musician Anthony Gonzales, a.k.a. M83, came out in 2008 and was a vibrant departure for a man notorious for his maximalist approach to music. Instead of bombast and epic landscapes of sound, Gonzalez focused on the small details in songs like “Kim & Jessie,” which is a slow burn of a pop song built on synths and an epic chorus line. Over the course of 60 minutes, Gonzalez created gorgeous pieces that evoke memories of summers past and create their own futures by turning his gaze towards nostalgia. A lot less guitar-driven and a lot more dream pop-oriented than other albums on this list, Saturdays=Youth nonetheless deserves its place in the shoegaze canon.
A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (2009)
It takes a moment for the dust to settle on A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s Ashes Grammar, but once it does, you can’t shake the feeling that this is one of the most expansive albums ever made. It’s a mind-warping blur of guitars, keyboards and electronics that comes off like an artist’s studio experiment gone fully live. Over the course of an hour, A Sunny Day In Glasgow manage to change styles as often as your favorite DJ might, but the music never feels out of place – because it’s all that same rare blend of dazed sophistication and dirty abandon. These songs are more like dreams than most bands in the shoegaze genre can even dream up, taking you high above the clouds only to bring you back screaming with euphoria. One could say it’s an album meant to be heard as a whole, but I think it might take multiple listens to even hear everything going on here.