By now, it’s commonly accepted that the term shoegaze isn’t the most beloved genre description that NME ever invented. However, quibbles with the term aside, it is difficult to ignore the giant steps that the scene has made in the 20-odd years since My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything dropped. Indeed, shoegaze has left footprints all over contemporary pop music—from the mainstream to the aspirational to the progressive.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why this is the case. Shoegaze’s trademark sound—rippling sheets of guitar noise—is endlessly pliable, easily molded into sonic textures smooth and abrasive alike. Yet, what is often overlooked is how innovative the rhythm sections of many shoegaze bands were. Since the genre stood squarely at the crossroads of Madchester baggy and jangle pop, many shoegazers infused their Byrdsian chiming with the reverberations of dance music. In many ways, alternative/indie rock’s beat connection started here.
Even more significantly, shoegaze has revealed itself to be a more egalitarian scene than perhaps anything that preceded or followed it. Truly, women musicians played an unprecedentedly large role in constructing the genre, making it—as I will argue to my dying day—much more forward-thinking than some of that other stuff that was popular at the time.
What follows is a brief survey of ten shoegaze songs that have remained somewhat unsung. Though the bands included here are not entirely esoteric, they were not necessarily known for these particular tracks. As always, this list is defined as much by what it includes as it is by what it excludes, so it is in no way definitive. If you’ve got additions to it—and I’m quite sure that you do—add them down in the comments section. Seriously, bring us Catherine Wheel, Sennen, and Televise. Bring us Mahogany, Manitoba, and Autolux. However, for Stuart’s sake, don’t bring us Mogwai.
In the Presence of Nothing (Slumberland, 1992)
The apocryphal story is that lead Lily Kurt Heasley believed his debut album, In the Presence of Nothing, to be a stronger record than My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, claiming that he could have written the latter in his sleep. Here’s to hoping that there is little truth to that story, because In the Presence of Nothing isn’t anything but a faded facsimile of its woozy influences. Still, the record has a few highlights, and “Claire Hates Me” is arguably the brightest one. Despondent but not weepy, “Claire” is anchored by tight, muscular drumming that provides the song a certain amount of physicality. Crank it up, and trust me, it will hit you where it hurts. Though it might not reach the nosebleed heights of shoegaze’s noisier tracks, “Claire” will still get you high for a while.
Jack EP / ...XYZ Remastered (Hut Records, 1991; Cherry Red, 2008)
Since Moose had abandoned shoegaze’s signature guitar squalls by the time that it released its first full length, 1992’s ...XYZ, the links between the band and that particular scene have always seemed tentative and flimsy—until, that is, you hear the early stuff. “Jack”, the lead track from Moose’s first EP, was—and still is—a howling monster. Supported throughout by gauzy fuzz, the song slowly builds a wailing wall of guitar racket that sounds almost symphonic. Though Moose would ultimately purvey some of the most pristine pop music of the 1990s, its pre-...XYZ work reveals the band to be one of shoegaze’s most significant architects.
Doppelgänger (Anxious/Charisma, 1992)
Fittingly, Curve warped the boundaries separating early ‘90s alternative rock from industrial, dance, and electronica. Helmed by Dean Garcia and Toni Halliday, the band made a whole lot of glorious noise with its early EPs and its impossibly strong debut, 1992’s Doppelgänger. “Horror Head”, that album’s second single, effortlessly blends strands of Eastern-tinged vocals with thunderous hip-hop drumming and all kinds of airy guitars. It’s an unimaginable combination that results in an unimaginably gorgeous track. The threads of Halliday’s singing as they weave their way through Garcia’s elliptical strumming create one of the more textured tapestries ever to adorn the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at number 31. (Doppelgänger, by the way, went to number 11 on the UK Albums Chart). So, come on now. Come clean. The song makes you feel kind of funny, too, doesn’t it?
Whirlpool (Dedicated, 1991; Cherry Red, 2006)
If Whirlpool is remembered for anything (and all too often it isn’t remembered at all) it is for the single “Pearl”, a track that incorporates a John Bonham drum sample and backing vocals from Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. It’s an undeniably catchy cut that is instantly hummable (because, of course, no one can possibly know the words to it), but it—and, truth be told, the rest of Chapterhouse’s thin catalog—withers in the face of “Breather”, a mainline shot of sonic adrenaline if there ever were one. From its opening seconds, “Breather” gallops forward at full steam, each pile-driver drum fill threatening to knock the whole thing off course at any moment. But yet Andrew Sherriff and Stephen Patman’s vocals smooth out the song’s frayed, flanged edges. At one point, the line “Make believe that you are mine” floats through the mix. It’s a heartbreaking moment that is redeemed in the track’s closing seconds, where Sherriff and Patman direct their guitars heavenward. “Breather” is utter rock transcendence, and it’s only one of the nine tracks on Whirlpool.
Never Lose that Feeling EP / Raise Remastered (Creation, 1992; Hi-Speed Soul, 2009)
If the members of Swervedriver ever were shoegazers—and I know many of you would argue that they weren’t (or that the designation doesn’t matter)—it was during the recording sessions for their full length debut, 1991’s Raise. “Hands” initially emerged from those sessions, but until Raise was expanded and reissued in 2009, the song remained out of reach for most fans. Comparatively speaking, “Hands” is relatively restrained, allowing breathing room for what might be the only acoustic guitars that Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge ever played while in the band. It is that restraint, however, that proves one incontrovertible fact: collectively, Swervedriver had the best songwriting of its contemporaries. Franklin’s lyrics romantically sketch the scenery of a parallel world, a place of absolute freedom and, apparently, really good food. To manifest that freedom, “Hands” avoids the typical claustrophobic clamor of shoegaze and instead allows us to traverse that open space. When Graham Bonner’s cymbal crashes cascade over the song’s conclusion, it is a baptismal moment. Truly, the world never sounds the same after hearing this band.