Do You Shoegaze?: A Primer on the Underground Genre

Bryan Parys
September 13, 2019

Listen to artists who've helped create, define, and redefine the ethereal rock genre, from Slowdive up to the alumna-fronted IAN SWEET.

Album art from the Shoegaze playlist

Serving as a companion piece to our podcast episode on shoegaze, this playlist charts the genre's origins, heyday, and curious contemporary rise from of the ashes of the '90s. Think of this as liner notes to the episode as you celebrate the genre that was once criticized as "the genre that celebrates itself."

1. "Just like Honey," the Jesus and Mary Chain

While they are often described as shoegaze, the term didn't exist when the band made their hazy experimental masterpiece, Psychocandy. Other bands on this list took these sounds further, but for many, the Jesus and Mary Chain is where the genre broke ground.

2. "Iceblink Luck," Cocteau Twins

Like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins helped define what would become shoegaze. Often categorized as dream pop, a related genre that has also seen a resurgence, the band is a titan of the '80s underground music scene, and their influence is far wider than any one genre. While vocalist Elisabeth Fraser's voice is higher in the mix than in most shoegaze bands, her insistence on surrealist or even unintelligible lyrics helped set the stage for music that made listeners pay attention to more than just the words. You can hear Fraser's influence further down the list in Lush, Blonde Redhead, and IAN SWEET.

3. "Leave Them All Behind," Ride

Here's where the 'gaze really comes into focus. Ride are among the first bands cited as original players in the genre, and the formula doesn't get more perfect than "Leave Them All Behind." The guitars are a distorted blur, the vocals an ethereal blend of harmonies, and the song stretches way past the three-minute mark that was otherwise in fashion for radio bands in the early '90s. The music, therefore, became a combination of challenging expectations while offering unexpected beauty.

4. "Nothing Natural," Lush

5. "Only Shallow," My Bloody Valentine

Many consider Loveless, the album that "Only Shallow" kicks off, as the definitive shoegaze statement (and many rank it as one of the best albums of the '90s in general), due to the sonic boundaries it pushed and the surprising commercial success it found. Like many legendary albums, Loveless wasn't short on lore, with rumors circulating that uber-perfectionist guitarist Kevin Shields spent so long tweaking the sounds on the album, that they actually bankrupted their label, Creation Records. While that's not true, it did take over two years to make, and it would take 13 more for the band to finish another album.

6. "Star Roving," Slowdive

As huge as Loveless was, the debate continues among fans as to whether that was the pinnacle album of original shoegaze, or if it was in fact Slowdive's Souvlaki. But as great as that album was, the band's follow-up, Pygmalion, was so critically destroyed by a music media that had previously lauded them that Slowdive became the target of the genre's demise in the mid-'90s. It was their reunion in 2014 that solidified the growing resurgence of the genre. Capping off their initial reunion tour, the band released their first album since 1994 in 2015, of which "Star Roving" was the lead single, and proved to listeners that their legacy was still very much being written.

7. "23," Blonde Redhead

8. "Lions & Tigers," Asobi Seksu

An independent band who formed in 2002, Asobi Seksu was clear evidence in the underground that shoegaze had found its way back into the musical conversation. With updated production techniques and clearer focus on vocals (you can mostly hear what vocalist Yuki Chikudate is saying), the band was an early example of how to use shoegaze as an influence rather than a template. Even though they disbanded in 2013, their shoegaze legacy was cemented when Slowdive, who'd reformed after a 20-year hiatus, requested the band reunite for a show during their own reunion tour.

9. "Talk," Coldplay

A lot changed for Coldplay with the release of their third full-length record, X&Y. Sonically, they hadn't shifted as much as they had from Parachutes to Rush of Blood to the Head, but with the melodramatic anthem of a single, "Fix You," it was clear the band had shifted from indie darling to arena-ready mainstream act. This was just the beginning of their meteoric rise, with collaborations with Jay-Z and the Chainsmokers yet to come, but even for this fan-polarizing album, you get a song like "Talk," whose guitar "solo" (around the 3:58 mark) is one thick, glorious wall of shoegaze textures.

10. "Bent Nail," Nothing

Far from the pop charts that Coldplay would come to dominate is a band like Nothing, whose vocalist, Dominic Palermo, founded after years playing in the hardcore punk scene. Signed to punk/death metal indie label Relapse Records, Nothing brought a different energy to the shoegaze sound. You can hear their punk lineage the most in the front half of "Bent Nail," but right around 1:45, where a classic, Ramones-style punk song might end, Nothing crashes into an extended, swirling shoegaze outro, somehow slowing down without losing any of the song's energy.

11. "Endors Toi," Tame Impala

Kevin Parker, the sole creative energy behind the Australian rock band Tame Impala, is known for being genre-agnostic. He looks every bit the rock star, but he's collaborated widely, from Mark Ronson (of "Uptown Funk" fame) to Travis Scott and Camila Cabello. Under the Tame Impala banner, his psychedelic rock and shoegaze sounds have found enough of a fan base to make the band a go-to headliner at major festivals around the world.

12. "Give Yourself a Try," the 1975

Perhaps the least obvious inclusion on this list, the 1975 are unafraid to wear their influences baldly, whether that's channeling George Gershwin or indulging emo instincts. 2018's ambitious A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships was no exception, and on "Give Yourself a Try," their shoegaze interests reveal themselves subtly, particularly in the choruses, where the backing guitars get more and more fuzzed out and dreamy, despite singer Matt Healy's hyper-clear pop vocal delivery.

13. "Dark Spring," Beach House

14. "I Know What You Need," RVRCT

For Blaise Eldred of RVRCT (Rivercat), the DIY aesthetic behind shoegaze and sister-genre dream pop allowed him to indulge his sonic curiosity, even when he's recording a whole album on his iPhone (though, listening to this song, you might not have guessed that). You can hear the professional music major talk about his approach to choosing sounds in our shoegaze podcast episode.

15. "Spit," IAN SWEET

Also featured in the podcast is Jilian Medford B.M. '14 of the band IAN SWEET. While she came to Berklee as an acoustic singer-songwriter, she soon expanded into more experimental sounds and shoegaze textures after discovering Boston's underground network of house shows. This tight network sent her on a process of self-discovery that would eventually lead to IAN SWEET's formation, two albums (so far), and multiple international tours.

16. "Echoes of Mine," M83

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