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Shoegaze: an Introductory Playlist

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Somewhere in the ether, below the comets and beyond the wall of sleep, is a sunsplash of sound known as Shoegaze.

Shoegaze gets the name from the performers’ style when playing live. They’d hunch over their instruments in the shadows and stare at the floor as they played.

It is a unique genre with two close cousins; space rock, and dream pop. Shoegaze, an English phenomenon of the late 80’s-early 90’s, was a sonic phenomenon. It was a very loud music, emphasising heavily distorted repetitive riffs, or long drones. It was constantly awash in feedback, almost at all times, layered, filtered, flowing, avalanches of feedback. Melodies and vocals were given equal distortion, and buried deep in the mix until it became impossible sometimes to distinguish instrument from voice.

Despite the immense amounts of white noise and murk, these records still managed to be quite tuneful at times, and often had an immensely sad vibe to them. The performers themselves were a notoriously shy bunch, by rock standards, and were seldom very good interviews.

My Bloody Valentine gets credit for inventing the style; their 1991 Loveless album is the masterpiece of this genre. Their influence was deep and profound; informing legions of indie bands. Among their contemporaries and early followers were Catherine Wheel, whose “Black Metallic” is perhaps the genre’s most well known and cherished tune, Ride, who had a more psychedelic sound, and the Verve, who later evolved into a space rock band and scored some hits.

Shoegaze rocks less than space rock, and it is rougher sounding than dream pop. There is crossover among all three genres; Lush and the Boo Radleys could fit into shoegaze or dream pop; The Verve and Chapterhouse could be called shoegaze or space rock. By the mid-90’s, it was gone; most groups had either broken up, or evolved out of the genre.

But tonight we’re gonna bathe in feedback and get introspective. Tonight is Shoegaze night.

The following titles were randomly selected by Media Center from all titles in my library with “shoegaze” genre tags, a pool of 128. The first ten randomly selected are profiled Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow:

1. Ride: Kaleidoscope ****
Ride: Nowhere (1990)
Ride had a little more pop songcraft than most of the shoegazers; Kaleidoscope is a catchy psychedelic pop number. Soundling like a cross between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Byrds, with wall-of-sound feedback and tuneful bass, this is more upbeat than the remainder of this excellent album. The album from which this is taken is often cited as shogaze’s second best album.

2. The Verve: Sun, The Sea *****
The Verve: A Storm In Heaven (1993)
A tour de force from the Verve, from the small northern English town of Wigan, this is an atmospheric, rocking hazefest with metal guitar riffs from Nick McCabe, urgent bass, quiet passages and explosions of color. The druggy wail of Richard Ashcroft slips in and out of the murk, and of all things, a jazzy saxophone enters the jam. The Verve were among the very best English bands of the 1990’s, during their three album career. Anyone who likes Oasis ought to tune in to what the real stuff sounds like. This is a good starting point.

3. Catherine Wheel: Texture ****
catherine Wheel: Ferment (1992)
This opens with a thunderous repeating guitar riff that works up a real lather before launching into the vocals, which are light, and mixed low. This song showcases the band well, drifting from quiet space to pounding riffs and back again, the ambient feedback harnassed in the service of forward momentum. This was the leadoff track from Catherine Wheels’ debut album.

4. Kitchens of Distinction: Smiling ***
Kitchens of Distinction: Death of Cool (1992)

This is a tuneful song, with chiming guitars and a pretty good melody. The vocals are a little more emotive than has been fasionable on this side of the Atlantic, and the Paul Fitzgerald lyrics are a conceit, with two protagonists, two points of view. Both of which keep me from warming to this. Ambitious, and liked by fans of the genre; I may be under-rating this.

5. The Boo Radleys: It’s Lulu ****
The Boo radleys: Wake Up!
The Boo Radleys started as shoegazers, but by the time of this release, the shoegaze scene was in decline and the band had taken on a more pop aesthetic. The result was perhaps their most accessable music of their career. This rolls along with an almost power-pop punch to it, with bright vocals, tuneful harmonies, and an increasing rush of feedback accompanying the melody until it explodes at the end. It’s an efficient 3:04, and is marred only by a semi cheesy synthesized horn chart.

6. Swervedriver: She’s Beside Herself *****
Swervedriver: Rave Down [EP] (1991)
“She’s Besider Herself” is a B-side, but don’t let that fool you. It is a spectacular track, with busy, ringing guitars, strong vocals, plenty of feedwash, and a slow tempo that quickens as the song progresses. Swervedrive put out three excellent EP’s in a row prior to their debut, of which this is the second. All are worth hunting down, nearly all the tracks worth hearing.

7. Lush: Ladykillers **
Lush: Ladykillers [EP] (1996)
Lush’s reputation rests mainly on their very first EP, five years before this one was released. By this point, they had lost much of their shoegaze sound, and “Ladykillers” is an uptempo poppy song, with idiosyncratic vocals and cutesy flourishes. Fairly fruity sounding; it almost plays like a novelty record. Can’t say I especially like it, though.

8. Slowdive: Machine Gun ****
Slowdive: Souvlaki (1993)
This has an almost Cocteau-Twins feel to it, but like one of their dark, brooding ones. Brian Eno helped out with keyboard treatments on two songs from this album, and his aura hangs over it. While he didn’t produce this song, it sounds a lot like Eno production. The playing is focused; the band doesn’t get carried away with the feedback and atmospherics. Very lovely, very melancholy texture.

9. My Bloody Valentine: When You Sleep ****
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991)
From the album hailed as the genre masterpiece, and with good reason. This is the template from which all that followed borrowed from. This is one of the brighter sounding tunes to emerge from the warpy din. Vocals emerge from behind guitars, and meander into the background again. The playing is incessant and riffy. Not the best from the album, but a good one.

10. Chapterhouse: Mesmerize ****
Chapterhouse: Rownderbout (1996)
This opens with a piano tinkle, a big synthesized wah-wah, and a druns ‘n’ bass bottom. This is the most overtly trip-hop/electronica flavored song on the list; the others had more organic sonics, for the most part. However, the electronica flourishes here don’t detract from the song, even if it doesn’t quite make this a pure example of the genre. Dreamy, drifty vocals, clear, chiming lead guitar and a languid, dream-pop ambience with giant guitar slashes near the end. A very ambitious arrangemet works well. Chapterhouse can also be considered a space-rock band.

Be sure to visit Freeway Jam.

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About uao

  • Eric Olsen

    beautiful uao! I absolutely love “Shoegaze” and your list includes some of my favorite albums of the ’90s, although the randomization aspect perhaps reduces the actual song impact. Thanks and welcome!

  • http://djmonstermo.blogspot.com/ DJMonsterMo

    As a shoegazer fan, I must say this is a great introduction to the genre.

  • http://www.kolehardfacts.blogspot.com Mike Kole

    I remember hearing a friend use the term “shoegazer” for the first time. I spit a stream of beer onto some guy who was not nearly as amused. The term slays me. It was obvious to him: “Oh, you shoule check out this shoegazer band, Catherine Wheel.”

    Great intro playlist. Thanks!

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Thanks, guys. I wanted to reply sooner, but was trapped behind a firewall.

    This is a fun site; I’m enjoying participating, and reading the other entries.

  • http://mookamotel.blogspot.com Moka

    I was surprised to find this introductory playlist as we’ve organized very similar playlists full of shoegaze at our blog this week, look at this one friend carl did and a recent one I did today

    Peace.

  • Tim

    Very cool writeup, love shoegaze :)

  • http://www.myspace.com/spillambience claire regan

    great article!! id love to find an article on shoegaze hardware, like what instruments and effects were used by these bands, i know jaguars were popular (fender) amonst guitarist, and fuzz/distortion pedals, but id love to learn more….i wanna be a shoegazer !!!

  • charlie

    Claire, fuzz pedals/effects are a part of the shoegaze sound, you’re right, as well as moderately loud distortion pedals. But what really makes shoegaze rock is a heavy does of reverb on the vocals or guitars (or both), along with delay and chorus effects for distorted guitars, and probably some tremelo effects too.

    And about The Verve’s “The Sun, The Sea,” I think it sounds closer to Smashing Pumpkins songs like “Hummer” (which also came out in 1993) than Oasis. But that’s just my opinion.

    Great article overall (as old as it is). I would add “When The Sun Hits” by Slowdive as an essential shoegaze track, for those looking to get started in the genre.

  • Gazing downward

    I recently discovered this awesome band!
    Color Wall. They kinda sound like Ride.

  • Benny

    GREAT article!

    @Gazing downward: Color Wall sound cool, thanks!

    Another amazing and fresh band in this genre comes from Cologne, Germany: Velochrome

    Check Velochrome on Soundcloud if you like

  • F

    My favourite shoegaze:

    The Depreciation Guild: Trace

    Amusement Parks on fire: Flashlight Planetarium

    Beach House: New year

    Bon Iver: Blindsider

    American Analog Set: Born on the cusp

    Deerhunger: Fountain Stairs

    Bombay Bicycle Club: How can you swallow so much sleep

    Real estate: Easy

    Blouse: Into black

    S.Carey: In the dirt we grow

    Blonde Redhead: Spring and by summer fall