It’s hard to say where it began or where it broke, but from the vague period of the late-1980s to the mid-‘90s, the amount of lush, noisy, alternative rock being produced was staggering. What rock criticism dubbed shoegaze, after the earlier quasi-contemptuous ‘scene that celebrates itself’, is these days viewed primarily as the movement that gave us My Bloody Valentine’s seminal and frankly perfect record Loveless (1991), though it’s not even half the story. Mainly (though by no means exclusively) between the UK and USA, an antidote to grunge was quietly bubbling away, at times noisier, more emotional and innovative than anything to come out of its more celebrated ‘90s musical movement cohort. By the same token, the sheer amount of overdriven, pedal-affected guitar rock being pumped out certainly lead to its decline—there was only so far most bands working in those parameters could go, which at least partly explains why so many British shoegazing acts turns Britpopwards by the mid-‘90s. Loveless’ influence is partly to blame, too, for the sheer power and beauty of the record was so astounding that the countless influenced legions ended up sounding derivative and flat compared to the original, and the first wave.
Despite all the criticism and perhaps unworthy purple praise, there remains virtually a whole movement people ignore outside of its pink, hazy zenith. Below, PopMatters presents 10 essential, non-Loveless shoegaze albums.
Whilst not a “shoegaze” record by any strict definition of the term, Psychocandy is as important as any of them for ushering in what could be done with pop melodies and abrasive noise. The brothers Reid here channel what was the appeal of the group’s live shows at the time (noise, chaos, destruction) into something with actual hooks and legitimate, Beach Boys pop sensibilities. The band were clearly never the most innovative songwriters during this period (several songs could phase in and out of one other midway through and you’d hardly notice), but the up-to-11 guitars, lost in the mix vocals and fuzzy, hazy production dripping throughout the record ushered in what was to come.
Another half-half call, British psychedelic rockers Loop‘s debut album foreshadowed much of what shoegazing music was trying to do and what people loved about it. Heaven’s End drones with a Krautrock experimentalism, though never falls off the ledge of listenability—these are pedal-driven, groovy, psych rock songs that just happen to create a free-flowing soundscape. There’s a Stooges-reminiscent immediacy to much of this record, making it a damn sight angrier, or at least more obviously angry, than nearly everything it came to influence. Heaven’s End is as close to noise rock as it is to shoegaze and as overlooked in both circles.
Starting your career alongside Spacemen 3 certainly presents you as a certain kind of band. Chapterhouse certainly carry certain similarities of J Spaceman’s psych rockers—the sustained tones, the effortless gorgeousness etc. But the band were so quintessentially shoegaze they easily broke away from the initial pigeonholing. Whirlpool has all the trademarks (or clichés as they would come to be known by the album’s release) of the movement, as hushed vocals seep in and out of ethereal guitar licks like honey. As frustratingly non-unified as the album feels, Whirlpool contains some of the genre’s high water marks for rockier and more punk-happy sounds.
London’s Lush were one of the earlier bands to garner the shoegazing label and (unfortunately) one of the more dismissed for complaints of derivativeness. The band’s first proper full length, Spooky, is essential for all the reasons it’s derided; it’s a relaxed, almost meandering record—it sounds unrestrained but not angry, happy to gaze inward, looking at its own frustrations and pleasures. Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie’s production does wonders for those who such a description appeals to, but can be viewed as severing the potential aggression for those who would shy away from such superlatives. Spooky is everything you’d expect from a band called “Lush’ releasing an album after Loveless—it’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s a cohesive and arguably a perfect example of the scene that celebrated itself, flaws and all.
When 4AD duo Swallow released their only proper album Blow, how sexual were they really trying to make the release sound? The band and album names certain evoke an obvious sexuality, as do a handful of the song titles and Lousie Trehy’s vocals, but strangely, the songs themselves feel more like playful games of kiss-and-tell than erotic tunes of sexuality. Being a duo, a fair amount of Blow‘s actual sound is sampled and overdubbed, leaving the album as a moderate odd point in the grand scheme of things—which makes this sole release from the band all the more frustrating and worthy of love. The guitar jumps between almost acoustic to Jesus and Mary Chain-style fuzz to typical swirling shoegazing lushness, and it would be too choppy were it not for the beautiful and haunting vocals that drape the record.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.