Five Classic Shoegaze Albums You Should Be Listening to Right Now

Michael Hayden of GQ revisits the sad, dreamy favorites of the '90s.

Every two weeks, titans of the mediasphere give Nerve their music recommendations. This week: published playwright and journalist Michael Edison Hayden, an Associate Editor for GQ. Michael's featured article, "Eyes in Shadows," about convicted serial-killer Umesh Reddy, appears in September's issue of GQ India. His first film, The Exhibitionists, begins shooting later this month in Manhattan.

My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, perhaps the archetypal shoegaze record, turns twenty this November. When it was released, Americans had just been introduced to David Lynch's dreamlike TV premiere, Twin Peaks. Across the Atlantic, shoegaze was starting to come into its own — music that swapped saccharine pop melodies for hypnagogic layering and subtle, heartbreaking lyrics. Here are five other shoegaze albums that helped define the era:
 

1. Pale Saints, In Ribbons, 1992

The throttling wall of sound that kicks off In Ribbons is a battle-cry for introverted listeners. The song "Throwing Back the Apple," with its coy lyrics that celebrate (and arguably eroticize) self-imposed sexual repression, is a total anomaly among other pop anthems from that year. The rest of the album lives up to its Mathew Barney look-alike cover art with songs that are ethereal, but structurally disciplined and strangely defiant. Another standout track, "Thread of Light," features original Lush vocalist Meriel Barham giving what is arguably her most bewitching performance.

Listen: "Throwing Back the Apple"

 

 

2. Chapterhouse, Swirl, 1991

While Sonic Youth monopolized the attention of the press at the 1991 Reading Festival, an arguably more cathartic music moment (albeit on a smaller scale) went almost unremembered. Chapterhouse, an obscure band from Reading, England, gave a touching homecoming performance in front of what would be the largest audience of their brief career. The set-list was comprised primarily of songs from Swirl, an emotional record that obscured its melodramatic intent with layers of sound. "Breathless," with its chorus sung on the brink of tears, and "Treasure," were both songs that captured the balance of walking daydream and emotional urgency experienced during first love. The dance-hybrid "Pearl" stands as one of the most tragically forgotten pop singles of the nineties.

Listen: "Pearl"

 

 

3. Slowdive, Souvlaki, 1993

It can be argued that Souvlaki closed the shoegaze moment, even if it wasn't Slowdive's final record. The band helped establish the sub-genre with a series of intriguing experimental EPs, but weren't able to make their definitive artistic statement until they hooked up with co-producer Brian Eno here. Souvlaki put the ultimate stamp on the sound of an introverted era: The songs are consistently lush, melancholic, dreamy, and erotic. In the opening track, "Alison," Neil Halstead soothingly confesses his sexual-obsession with a self-destructive woman ("Alison I'll drink your wine / I'll wear your clothes when we're both high"). It has the detached, stylized appeal of a four-minute Antonioni movie.

Listen: "Alison"

 

 

4. Ride, Nowhere, 1990

Those who grew up during the early nineties but were too young to understand Nowhere's appeal at least had to reckon with its artwork. The haunting image of a single wave, rippling through an empty sea, plastered wall-sized at the local Tower Records, made even ten-year olds despair. The contents of the record more than lived up to the image's promise. Ride wrote music more in the tradition of English pub rock than their artier, more experimental peers (which explains why Oasis latched onto songwriter Andy Bell later on). But Nowhere, like the stadium-packing new-wave records of the previous decade, is an example of how a scene can shape a band's mainstream ambitions with the kind of artistic flourishes that make a relatively straightforward rock record both universally appealing and timeless.

Listen: "Taste"

 

 

5. Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas, 1990

A top YouTube comment for a "Heaven or Las Vegas" music video reads: "When my Mum was alive she used to listen to the Cocteau Twins. She always said I'd like them. I see what she means now." The unintentionally heartbreaking line helps an outsider understand the band's obsession-inspiring appeal among shy and/or emotionally fragile people. What more literary-minded musicians like Morrissey and Kate Bush were able to accomplish with their song-writing prowess, Elizabeth Fraser (vocals) and Robin Guthrie (guitar) were able to match with the tear-jerking tenderness of their signature sound. Guthrie (now an accomplished ambient composer) battled severe drug addiction and depression throughout his Cocteau Twins years, which helps to explain the painful tension lying underneath the band's deceptively gentle melodies. Fraser's incredible singing voice (one of England's finest over the last twenty-five years) was at its peak throughout the air-tight, thirty-eight-minute album. Heaven or Las Vegas is possibly the band's greatest achievement.

Listen: "Heaven or Las Vegas"

 

 

Commentarium (22 Comments)

Aug 29 11 - 9:05am
PJC

The first two albums of Lush, Gala and Spooky! Just haunting. Their last two were more pop oriented, although Split is one of my favorite albums from that time period.

Sep 02 11 - 2:19am
Michael

@PJC thought about Gala but it's a compilation album!

Sep 02 11 - 9:25am
sczprn

Gala is only a compilation album in the loosest sense. It compiles the first three EPs by Lush and is technically their first album considering that Scar was more of an extended EP serving up less than 17 minutes of music. I would run with Spooky myself - love that album... Superblast... hmmm......

Aug 29 11 - 3:38pm
julian.

The definition of "Chill."

Aug 29 11 - 9:42pm
shoegazr

How could you leave off Lassie Foundation?

Aug 29 11 - 11:02pm
SwerveOn

No Swervedriver? If you still like shoegaze, check out True Widow. They released a strangely modern shoegaze/stoner rock album in 2008.

Aug 30 11 - 3:09pm
Satansville

Yes, where is the Swervedriver?
Swervedriver, Mezcal Head, 1993

Sep 02 11 - 2:18am
Michael

@satan could only do 5

Aug 30 11 - 6:51pm
dc

Elizabeth Fraser and the rest of Cocteau Twins are actually from Scotland, BTW. You meant ....one of *Britain's* finest....small edit

Aug 31 11 - 6:57am
Elise

Chapterhouse... Swirl? Don't you mean Whirlpool?

Sep 02 11 - 2:10am
Michael

@Elise an unconscious error on my part -- will urge them to correct it!

Aug 31 11 - 7:14am
pathetichindsight

the cocteau twins were magnificent but i don't think they were ever considered shoegaze, although slowdive owes an obvious debt to them

Aug 31 11 - 10:27am
4AD

I would agree. I have never seen them associated with shoegaze.

Aug 31 11 - 12:00pm
Adam

Let's talk Medicine, too! Brad Laner is playing with M83 these days, which is neat.

Aug 31 11 - 4:46pm
Vinegar Bend

I've heard of the Cocteau Twins. But I never even heard of shoegaze. And I was, like...around.

Sep 21 11 - 2:17am
natasha s.w

i agree, they're a bit more cerebral, with a bit less moody affectation, and ought to be filed next to harold budd rather than bloody valentine/slowdive.

Aug 31 11 - 9:52pm
Mark . . . <<<<<<

I was in the UK for all of this, and would say that shoegaze was the most satisfying scene ever to be around.

In the late nineties, I was lucky enough to catch Catherine Wheel supporting The Charlatans here in Vancouver. CW were so powerful, and the early stuff had all the hallmarks of shoegaze: loud, powerful guitars, strong rythms, undecipherable lyrics and dreamy, clear vocals.

But my shoegaze highlight was to see and hear the magnificence of Ride at the 1992 Reading Festival. Just incredible, with those driving, swirling guitars, a powerful bass and the frenetic, crazed drums. To top it all off, the two frontmen's English school boy vocals were almost ethereal. And the songs! What awesome songwriting. (oh yeah, and trio from the States were on after them as headliners. I think they were called Nirvana?) . . . .

:)

Sep 01 11 - 6:44pm
Hector

Slowdive's Alison is my favorite song ever, but I'm disturbed by the lack of My Bloody Valentine.

Sep 02 11 - 2:17am
Michael

@hector I mentioned MBV in the opening graf -- felt they were too obvious a choice but naturally, MBV is great.

Sep 03 11 - 9:40am
Lizalicious

Where's my Jesus & Mary Chain!?!

Sep 05 11 - 12:40am
Michael

@liz best album "Psychocandy" was in the mid-1980s -- went with what I felt to be the purest version of the sound from 89-93. Not that it's not awesome.

Sep 03 11 - 9:50am
maglev375

the Pale Saints really deserve this label, saw them in Southampton in 91, they were well-rehearsed but literally spent the entire gig staring downwards, never looked at or acknowledged the audience. very English and all, but it just left you cold at the end of the gig, wondering what the hell all that was about