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From Cocteau Twins to My Bloody Valentine: The 20 songs that define shoegaze

Shoegaze has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years, with bands like Deerhunter, DIIV and countless others citing the esoteric music scene of the late ’80s and early 90s as a key influence on their sound. Indeed, the rediscovery of shoegaze prompted the reunions of countless Shoegaze bands (Slowdive, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine), giving new life to one of music’s most indefinable genres.

Shoegaze, for many, is a uniquely British Genre. Partly because of the shared geography of many of the scene’s defining bands and partly because of the British press’s notorious deriding. After all, the term shoegaze was intended as an insult when music journalist Steve Sutherland coined it in 1990. Like ‘Punk’, ‘Krautrock’ and ‘Impressionist’ art, the term was used as a way of dismissing the work of the genre’s key innovators.

But bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride all adopted the term as a badge of honour. Although it was originally used to describe the non-confrontational stage presence of its musicians and their unwavering focus on the effects pedals at their feet, shoegaze came to represent a unique stylistic approach.

Shoegaze encompasses many different underground styles, blending aspects of psychedelia, noise rock, and experimental electronic music. As a result, it is damn hard to define, and many of the selections on this list could also be taken as examples of noise-rock. However, the majority of shoegaze songs will have a few things in common. These could include: heavy use of distortion, delay, and reverb as textural tools; washy vocals that sit low in the mix; and use of the whammy bar to create a warped guitar sound.

The densely textured, harmonic and frequently deafening music of shoegaze artists has proved to be as enduring as its younger, gobbier sibling Britpop, and is still enrapturing people with its otherworldly ambience to this day. Many people have tried and failed to define the sound of shoegaze. But I think the deception “like listening to a mermaid fall into a black hole” probably comes close to capturing the mind-bending power of shoegaze music. I’m not going to waste your time by trying to nail down this elusive genre in words.

Instead, I’m going to show you what shoegaze can do with a selection of the 20 songs which define the genre. So dust off your Jazzmasters, sweep your fringes over your eyes, and strap in.

The 20 songs that define shoegaze:

20. ‘The Sound Of Confusion’ – Spacemen 3

We’ll begin with a band who, in the past, have been referred to as ”the godfathers of shoegaze.” From the English band’s 1990 album Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To, this track is a perfect slice of early shoegaze sludge.

Combining the irresistible sparkiness of mid-80s psychedelia with layer upon layer of feedback and barely perceptible lyrics, ‘The Sound of confusion’ offered a distinct variation on high pop.

19. ‘Kick The Tragedy’ – The Drop Nineteens

Despite people’s assumption of it as a uniquely British genre, shoegaze took off in the US in no small way. Hailing from Boston, The Drop Nineteens were only active for four years. But in that time, they wrote some of the most definitive shoegaze songs in the canon.

‘Kick The Tragedy’ along with the album Delaware took inspiration from the likes of Ride and Slowdive but added an American twist informed by a desire to escape the small-town mentality of middle America. It’s a really swirly one, this track.

18. ‘Empty Words’ – Bowery Electric.

New York duo Bowery Electric made their name exploring the ambient possibilities of shoegaze in the early 90s, blending it with elements of trip-hop to create a driving, pulsating form of post-punk. It is at once ambient and immensely groovy.

In ‘Empty Words’, Bowery Electric use looped layers of feedback and a hard-hitting beat to form an amorphous Centrepoint, around which vocalist Martha Schwendener sings breathily.

17. ‘Black Metallic’ – Catherine Wheel

Formed in the dead-end seaside town of Lowestoft, England, Catherine Wheel are one of the many shoegaze band’s formed in small towns around the UK. The expansive sound of Catherine Wheel’s ‘Black Metallic’ seems as much a product of the grey north sea as it does the long droning distortion which characterises this track from the band’s 1992 album Ferment.

Listen right to the end for one of the best breakdowns in all of shoegaze.

16.’For Love’ – Lush

Produced by Robin Guthrie, this song from Lush’s album Spooky lands somewhere between Stereolab and Cocteau Twins in its sonic scope. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the hypnotic charm. 

With its chorus-laden guitars and thick swelling vocals, ‘For Love’ is a testament to shoegaze’s ability to transform pop songwriting into something sonically jaw-dropping.

15. ‘Bout Des Doights’ – The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Another American band heavily influenced by British shoegazers, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, imbued ‘Bout Des Doights’ with a motoric charm.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s take on shoegaze is a cleaner, more precise blend, oozing with road-ready riffs and muddy vocal lines, offering a doff of the cap to their enigmatic leader, Anton Newcombe.

14. ‘The Drop’ – Starflyer 59

Although the Californian art-rockers would eventually outgrow their maudlin beginnings, Starflyer 59’s first two records are steeped in the dulcet gunge of the ’90s shoegaze movement. Alongside its smorgasbord of trippy textures, the lyrics of the band’s first album She’s The Queen stand in stark contrast to much of their later work, which became increasingly influenced by the “born again” message of their Christian record label.

‘The Drop’ is a song of two halves. the first shakes with reverberant fuzz, whilst the second is a jazz-infused saunter through a cavernous, lo-fi soundscape.

13. ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)’ – DIIV

The project of Zachery Cole Smith, DIIV blend glistening shoegaze guitar lines with grunge energy. Arriving way after the genre’s initial deployment, DIIV have always managed to feel authentic, traditional but fresh.

Their first two albums introduced a new generation to shoegaze music and ripple with radio-friendly licks whilst staying true to the stylistic principles of the genre. A hypnotic hip shaker, ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)’ deserves a spot on any after-party playlist.

12. ‘Star Sail’ – The Verve

Although widely known as a Britpop band, The Verve, fronted by Richard Ashcroft, had a reem of early work that was heavily influenced by prog bands like Aphrodite’s Child and the British shoegaze scene.

The track is a slow-burn of delay-trails and Ashcroft’s mesmeric vocal performance, setting a precedent for much of the more cerebral material on 1997’s Urban Hymns. It’s an album that would not only provide guide ropes for a host of artists as they approached the 21st century but colour the weekend frivolities of a nation.

11. ‘Frittering’ – Mercury Rev

New York oddballs Mercury Rev operate as the sliding silver element they’re named after. Ever elusive with their sound, their first record Yerself is Steam ripples with elements of post-rock and shoegaze.

This track, with its cavernous vocals, is as alive as the people playing the instruments. It seems to move towards you and then wraps you up in layers of fuzzy guitar like a giant sonic blanket.

10. ‘Helicon 1’ – Mogwai

The most ethereal and haunting track on this list, Mogwai’s ‘Helicon 1’ from their mammoth 1997 debut Ten Rapid is the logical conclusion of the pioneering work of bands like Slowdive.

It is equal parts ambient mist and psychedelic freak-out. This song is all about tension. Its build and builds until there’s nothing else for Mogwai to do than release an explosion of rich, velvety noise.

9. ‘Cherry Colured Funk’ – Cocteau Twins

At this point, it’s probably become clear that shoegaze is full of indecipherable lyrics. Well, hold on to your hats because Elizabeth Frazer takes the word inscrutable to a new level.

In this track, and indeed all of the band’s work, Frazer chose to sing nonsense syllables in a musical way. She paid close attention to the rhythmic and alliterative quality of words and, in doing so, used her vocals as a textural tool more than one used to convey meaning. In that way, Frazer — once described as “the voice of God” — was a real pioneer.

8. ‘Just Like Honey’ – The Jesus And Mary Chain

Alan McGee’s Creation records almost single-handedly created the UK shoegaze scene, signing bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, as well as the influential noise-rock group, The Jesus And Mary Chain.

The latter Scottish band re-defined what the pop song could do, chewing it up, layering it with dense feedback and then spitting it back out again. An iconic track for a generation and the kind of song that will still be played for decades to come.

7. ‘Backwards’ – LSD And The Search For God

This track from the relatively unknown US band LSD And The Search For God contains all the hallmarks of a great shoegaze song. Swirling pitch bends? Check. Barely audible lyrics? Check. Piercing female vocals? Check.

The band’s 2007 EP release is a product of the shoegaze renaissance, which began gaining some traction in the mid-noughties and would inject new life into the genre. Though many believe the ’90s to be the decade shoegaze really found itself, there’s a good argument for saying the ’00s offered a wider variety of styles.

6. ‘Balance’ – Lorelle Meets The Obsolete

This next track, from the Mexican four-piece band Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, is one of the most mind-altering songs you’ll ever have the good fortune to hear. Not your usual indie dancefloor fodder, this track deserves some special attention.

The band’s 2016 album of the same name is an oozing swirl of wah-wah’d guitar and grainy synthesisers. the album was released by Sonic Cathedral, a London-based label that has been pioneering new psych, noise-rock and shoegaze bands since 2004.

5. ‘Breather’ – Chapterhouse

Formed in the same city as Slowdive, the two groups were equally derided their own day. But their 1990 album Whirlpool is now recognised as a shoegaze masterpiece. ‘Breather’ is, as the title suggests, an airy dip into the lighter side of the musical landscape.

It still burns with energy, though, and rips through you at what feels like 100mph. It’s the kind of track that will gain you nodding heads of approval from the old school and a look of complete bewilderment from the new.

4. ‘Never Lose That Feeling’- Swervedriver

There’s a confusing amount of sibilance when it comes to shoegaze band names. Slowdive, Swirlies, Swervedriver. But don’t be fooled. Swervedriver and Slowdive occupy almost complete opposite ends of the shoegaze spectrum.

This track from their 1993 album Mescal Head is a grunge-fuelled, skate-anthem. It’s full to the brim with adolescent angst and, in just a few minutes, gives you a hit of energy like nothing else.

3. ‘Leave Them All Behind’ – Ride

This, the opening track of Ride’s stunning 1992 album Going Blind Again, is one of the most awe-inspiring shoegaze hits in the canon. Opening with a pulsating synth line, it quickly descends into an artfully spliced cascade of warped guitar riffs.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Ride didn’t shy away from melody and, in this track, they showed that shoegaze could be at once innovative and accessible. Few bands are as deeply connected with the birth of a genre as Ride are with shoegaze and it is songs like this that cemented the foundations.

2. ‘Crazy For You’ (Alternative Version) – Slowdive

An obscure choice, I know, but it’s here to make a point. Slowdive, like many shoegaze bands, were pulled apart by the devilish music press. Despite being just out of school, music publications held nothing back when they labelled their music ‘”spangle-rock bullshit”. The kind of critique that few can survive, but the band kept creating stunning records.

Since then, the world has come to recognise Slowdive for the progressives they are. This version of ‘Crazy For You’ never made it onto their 1995 album Pygmalion, but, for me, it is one of their most intoxicating numbers.

1. ‘When You Sleep’ – My Bloody Valentine

Who else could take the number one spot? Irish shoegazers My Bloody Valentine changed the face of guitar music with their 1991 album Loveless. Kevin Shields became obsessed with capturing the sound he heard in his head and, in doing so, cost creation records upwards of £250,000 (equivalent to £480,000 in 2021 in production costs.

It was all worthwhile, though. Today, Loveless is regarded as one of the most innovative albums of all time, and this track is just one of its many gems.

Likely to outlive us all in the ether of genre’s foundations, this is the song that defines the indefinable.

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