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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.
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.
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.
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"