Defining the complicated genre of goth is about as pointless as putting on eyeliner in the rain with your eyes closed. It is so vast with so many different estuaries that it is easy to find yourself downstream and up shit creek without a paddle. The real key for defining goth is not to do it at all and let the music do all the work. Below, we’ve got you covered as we’re bringing you ten of the genre’s most essential records of all time.
We’re not here to say that those affiliated with the scene are any less credible than those mentioned in our list; of course, that would be foolish. However, we have tried to avoid any goth-adjacent records and instead brought you simply the creme de la creme of the industry. It means that we’re focusing more intently on the first and second wave of goth music and avoiding the post-millennium splurge of genre-differentiation (bar one special case).
Across ten terrific albums, we will give you a real sense of the goth scene and exactly how much it has infiltrated the music we know and love today. The different albums will feature some of the heavyweights of the industry and will likely feature some of your favourite acts too.
From our extensive listening, we can see why so many acts are now desperate to be affiliated with the scene, it’s one of the most unique and unburdened you’re ever likely to come across.
The 10 greatest goth records of all time:
10. Juju – Siouxsie and The Banshees
Of course, we couldn’t start a list about goth music without bringing you the unelected queen of the scene, the punk pioneer, Siouxsie Sioux. Having become one of the pivotal figures in punk rock during the late seventies, by the early part of the next decade, Siouxsie and her band were beginning to find their own feet and creating a brand new sound of their own.
In 1981 they released the brilliant Juju, and it signified a big change, not only in the Banshees’ sound but in the culture of Britain entirely. The brazen and bratty side of punk had resided, and now there was something more artistic awaiting the group. With Steve Severin’s basslines and Siouxsie’s theatrical vocals, the move into something new for the entire industry was always likely to be a touch darker.
There are hits all over the LP too. ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Arabian Knights’ are obvious bangers while a similarly dark territory is explored on ‘Voodoo Dolly’ and ‘Night Shift’, as two fine pieces of goth-pop gone right. While the album was just a stepping stone for the band towards their neo-psyche-pop stardom, the LP is a clear cultural touchpoint for any fledgeling goth.
9. The Drift – Scott Walker
The one special case in our list, i.e. the one album not from the first two waves of goth glory, is this masterpiece from the late, great Scott Walker. By 2006, the idea of Walker as some kind of deranged pop idol had long been forgotten. In fact, he had spent the previous eleven years almost untroubled by the press or any kind of attention. But when he reappeared with this incredible LP known as The Drift, he reminded everybody just what a searing talent he was.
It once against rubber-stamped his credentials as one of the finest songwriters of his generation, and this time it came complete with a brand new sound and direction. There’s no denying the gothic elements that run through this sonic landscape, and it is hard to avoid the trappings of Walker’s disturbing vision for his new record.
It is at ties cinematic and at other moments too gruesome to bear. It makes it one of Walker’s best LPs and certainly a piece of unique gothic revelry for any new listener as it mixes the glitz of old school pop with the twisted vision of a man left alone for too long.
It is pop put through the organ grinder and reassembled in a bloody heap.
8. Tender Prey – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
We’ve said hello to the queen of the scene in Siouxsie Sioux, so it’s about time we paid attention to the prince, Mr Nick Cave. The singer has widely been attributed to the goth label, and it’s certainly one that fits him well. But, largely, looking back, most of Cave’s work can be more eloquently categorised as some murderous country and blues.
Except for Tender Prey.
Cave lets it all hang out on this record and delivers a powerful album full to the brim with gothic under and overtones. Don’t get us wrong, there’s still a heavy dose of what makes Cave such a unique talent—largely the aforementioned murderous country ballad—but the introduction of his literary loves means this album spreads itself into the theatrical with more confidence than ever before.
When you couple that with quite possibly one of the most powerful opening trio of songs you’ll hear in ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Up Jumped The Devil’ and ‘Deanna’, and you have an album that everybody should know. The fact that it is doused in goth iconography just makes it that slight bit more appealing.
7. Clan of Xymox – Clan of Xymox
One album which may not yet have popped up on your radar is Clan of Xymox’s self-titled debut LP. The album is largely regarded as one of the first of the darkwave movement and is chock full of interplaying sonic landscapes.
From the acoustic strings and organic tones they provide to the stringent synthetic sounds the band creates, Clan of Xymox have made an album rich in the duality of life itself.
As one of the pioneering albums, 1985’s Clan of Xymox has a habit of dividing opinion. The use of synthesizers was incredibly fashionable at the time (not very goth) but what they did with them set the band apart as visionaries. They created the kind of sonic structures that would feel most appropriate within classical music.
What’s more, they did it with a spring in their step as they gave goths something to dance to.
6. In the Flat Field – Bauhaus
Undoubtedly one of the first words that come to mind when asked to define goth music, Bauhaus have always had the guts of the scene at their fingertips, ever since they released their debut song ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’—a song about the Hungarian born actor who played the definitive role of Count Dracula in the thirties.
Between then and their debut album just a year later, the group had already gathered up a serious fanbase, all donning eyeliner and dyed black hair, the group had achieved what most bands can only hope for: cult status.
With the release of their debut LP, In the Flat Field, Bauhaus confirmed the hype and announced themselves as an arthouse dream.
Perhaps one of the greatest notes on this record is that the band produced it themselves, insisting that nobody understood their sound but them. It was a defining moment of individualism that would not only help strengthen the band but add further plumage to the growing feathers of the gothic music scene.
5. It’ll End in Tears – This Mortal Coil
Sometimes a collaboration can feel a little more special than a singular artist pursuing their vision. While the latter is full of romanticism of the artiste, the true connection of music is what we value most here at Far Out. It’s why we love This Mortal Coil so much.
The group, or should we say supergroup, was a project dreamt up by the boss of 4AD, Ivo Watts-Russell as he brought together several members of bands derived from his label’s impressive roster to sing a selection of covers, originals and rarities on the project’s debut It’ll End in Tears.
It’s not your everyday gothic fodder—it even features a Tim Buckley cover, for Christ’s sake. But what it does have is a sense of ethereal entrancement that is unmatched in the scene and compels every listener to pay attention for the entire LP, which by today’s standards is truly impressive.
4. Pornography – The Cure
It was only a matter of time until The Cure popped up, wasn’t it? In 1982, The Cure were still establishing their sound, and with this album, Pornography, the group did a great job at rounding it all out. If you wanted a quick summary of exactly what the band were all about in ‘82, then you need only hear one of the first lines of the album: “It doesn’t matter if we all die…”
That song, ‘One Hundred Years’, is one of many songs highlighting The Cure’s new direction. Having followed a similar path to Siouxsie and The Banshees (emerging from punk to find a new artistic channel), the group use their post-punk sensibilities to capture the intense feeling of the band’s regeneration.
The album is only eight tracks wrong, but every aspect of gothic rock is covered. There are the themes of sex through the track ‘Siamese Twins’, drugs on ‘A Short Term Effect’ and the impending dread of death on pretty much of every song. The group brings their single-minded vision to record and prove that they were a band capable of defining whatever scene they drifted into. It just so happens that they’re happiest when sad.
3. First and Last and Always – The Sisters of Mercy
One of the most gothic-sounding band names on our list, The Sisters of Mercy, are one of the scenes most cherished acts. They also happen to be one of the most played gothic acts. Most of those songs will be from the band’s first LP, First and Last and Always.
Tracks like ‘Black Planet’, ‘Marian’ and ‘Walk Away’ stand out as some of the band’s best work and easily some of the most danceable goth music you will ever find. All of it is underpinned by the stunning baritone vocals of Andrew Eldritch, which brings a foreboding sense of vampiric doom to almost every single note of the album.
But it’s far from a one-note outfit. Sisters of Mercy are one goth band who are happy to incorporate countless instruments to build out their menacing melodies. There’s no doubt that the band are straight-up goth-rock but there’s more than a sense of musicianship that could see them equally aligned with the creation of groups like The Beatles.
A dirty word, in this regard, we know.
2. Closer – Joy Division
There’s an undeniable amount of sadness attached to Joy Division’s second and final album, Closer. The record, not only complete with some of the band’s finest work but also the promise of more ahead, is weighed down by the sense of loss after the LP was released just two months after lead singer Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide.
At the tender age of 23, Curtis was a man weighed down by the expectations of a business he wasn’t ready to be a part of. It is this sense of helpless forbearance that makes the album what it is, however difficult that sentiment is to take.
It’s impossible to split the art from the artist in this regard and it just so happens that the art’s power only increases when laid next to its creator.
It’s clear that the LP isn’t a singular piece crafted from the band’s minds but rather a composite of their musings. As such, somehow, it makes the album even more special. The tracks, in this reference, are brought to us like dark and twisted diary entries; the fact they seem to like those of a coal-mining Victorian peasant and not that of Salford’s finest speaks to the band’s majesty.
1. Disintegration – The Cure
The top spot of this list could have easily been filled by any of the last four entries, such is the power of the individual in the goth scene. But, for us, there’s something greatly grotesque about taking a burgeoning pop career and metaphorically wiping your arse with it. It is this delightful image that is conjured up whenever you listen to The Cure’s Disintegration. If it isn’t, it should be.
The Cure had, by 1989, a serious career under their belts. They had emerged from punk as one of the artistic new auteurs of alternative rock music, and their sound had even gone as far as to develop the group into pop stars. A series of pop records that charted well and saw some commercial success could easily have swayed Robert Smith et al. to follow the money trail to the middle of the road obliteration. Instead, they revolted with this album.
The band use the 12 tracks of the album to create landscapes that feel moodier and more menacing than ever before. In fact, ‘Landscapes’ is likely too bright an expression, The Cure were digging wells on Disintegration and were happy to throw us all down there in a bucket. Robert Smith’s delicate state of mind is explored and expressed on every track, with some particular favourites being ‘Plainsong’ and ‘Pictures of You’.
If goth music is all about seeing the beauty in the darkness of humanity then there is perhaps no better expression that that of The Cure and their album Disintegration.