The late 1980s and early 1990s was a peak era for new music genres, but perhaps that wasn’t always for the better. Wielding a kind of pop culture power that almost doesn’t exist in the same way anymore, competing journalists with broad and captive audiences to sate could create and snuff out scenes and movements almost at will. Some fads and flavors of the month certainly weren’t worth keeping around, but on occasion, the music media’s giant-killing impulses got the better of them for the worse. Such was the case when the British weeklies set about taking down shoegaze.
In 1996, as the few remaining Thames Valley bands either hung up their hats or tried on new ones, it seemed that the press could claim victory in clearing the path for Britpop’s triumph — though they’d eventually come for Cool Britannia, too. A curious thing had already begun to happen, however: shoegaze sightings were being reported overseas in America. Early adopters included bands like Lilys and the Swirlies before scattered regional scenes popped up in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the late ’90s. Twenty years on, in 2016, shoegaze — and its demure twin sister, dream pop — is a continuing presence and influence on guitar music.
The artists who made the best records in and around the genre this year come from all periods of its lifespan: its modern ubiquity with all the different shapes it now assumes, traditionalists and the American second wave, and even one of its originators.
10. Vinyl Williams – Brunei
Lionel Williams goes to some unique extremes in the pursuit of harmony. When recording his last album, Into, Williams incorporated ideas of Egyptian Bio-Geometry into the creation process, trying out experiments like placing a pendulum on the tape magnet when transferring the album from four-track to see if it would affect the music. Whether or not such specific techniques materially altered the album’s energy, Into was certainly a blissful record. A year later, Brunei picks up right where its predecessor left off, floating through dream-states that Williams brings to life with the psychedelic 3-D realms he creates for his music videos.
9. Memoryhouse – Soft Hate
The Guelph, Ontario, songwriting duo of Evan Abeele and Denise Nouvion have made a point of quietly defying the expectations their music creates. When their first EP, a gauzy love letter to Virginia Woolf novels, was branded as chillwave, they poked holes in that association with the campfire dream pop of their debut album, The Slideshow Effect. A first full length full of promise, it seemed like the kind of record that Memoryhouse — and their label, Sub Pop — would capitalize on by promptly following up with a second. Instead, Soft Hate arrived four years later and self-released. Naturally, freed to follow any and all creative impulses, Abeele and Nouvion came up with a focused and vibrant collection that has an ear for certain synthpop influences without interfering with their natural chemistry.
8. True Widow – Avvolgere
Almost as soon as they started making a slow racket nearly ten years ago, True Widow have been regularly pegged to the heavy end of the “-gaze” spectrum: doomgaze, sludgegaze, stonegaze. The truth is, the Dallas trio’s touch has always been a bit lighter and more nuanced than those labels suggest. For all of its cool detachment, their self-titled debut in 2008 could also sound at times like Low went shopping for Big Muff pedals, most keenly when Dan Phillips and Nicole Estill let their vocals mingle. On Avvolgere, as muscular a record as any they’ve recorded, that vulnerability still stirs just below the surface.
7. The High Violets – Heroes and Halos
Portland, Oregon, band the High Violets have been reviving the shoegaze sound long enough to watch the bands that originally inspired them get back together and go on reunion tours. Perhaps there is no bigger compliment to their persistence in keeping the legacy alive. With their first records in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the High Violets were part of a loose Pacific Northwest shoegaze movement that also featured bands like Voyager One and the Melody Unit, both from Seattle. Unlike such peers, the High Violets are still around and making some of their best music when they decide to get together in the studio, as Heroes and Halos, their fifth album, ably demonstrates.
6. The Stargazer Lilies – Door to the Sun
Before forming the Stargazer Lilies, guitarist John Ceparano and singer Kim Field were in a New York-based band in the ’00s called Soundpool, who on their last album experimented with a merger of shoegaze and dance music. By comparison, the Stargazer Lilies might have seemed like a move toward a more tried-and-true approach to the genre, though that hasn’t quite been the case. Field’s vocals are fittingly airy, Ceparano keeps an arsenal of effects pedals at his feet, and they did name their 2013 debut We Are the Dreamers, but there’s a heavy psychedelic thread running through their sound that revitalizes and keeps their traditional leanings in check. Door to the Sun is an even deeper dive into the acid bath than their first album.
5. Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
Taking their name from an Astrobrite album, this St. Petersburg, Russia, band take no pains to hide their influences even as they shroud those influences in sometimes almost painful layers of feedback and electronic distortion. Pinkshinyultrablast are clearly capable of shoegaze conventions, but it is their eagerness to explode those norms and build them back up with Mew-like grandiosity that makes listening to Grandfeathered such a bracing experience. Their world has no patience for payoff or use for understatement — which could be a problematic approach to real life, but it makes for some powerful music.
4. LSD and the Search for God – Heaven Is a Place
Among the records on this list, Heaven Is a Place might have the most intriguing chronology. San Francisco five-piece LSD and the Search for God put out their first release in January 2007; a self-titled EP containing five songs and cover art that featured (real subtle, guys) a fingertip with a tab of acid on it. Heaven Is a Place is their second record, also and EP with five songs on it. A mere nine years rolled by between the two, in which they built up their devout following and played many heady shows, some in which a few of them even served as members of the Telescopes when they toured with the storied UK shoegaze group. Heaven Is a Place is a long-awaited sermon for the faithful and blazing induction for new converts.
3. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
Shoegaze and dream pop (whether you separate them or think them one-in-the-same) are typically escapist by nature. The heavily delayed guitars and calmly exhaled words can often feel healing and personal, but, with some notable exceptions, the music doesn’t often come across as confrontational. Japanese Breakfast is the alias of Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner, and Psychopomp came after she stepped away from the Philadelphia-based band to move home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. Though Psychopomp encompasses more than that particularly difficult time, the album stares directly into life’s deeper losses without losing its grip on grace.
2. Wild Nothing – Life of Pause
The meticulous nature of Wild Nothing’s records has a way of drawing attention away from the peculiarities. Their 2012 album, Nocturne, could easily serve as a prime example of the sound of “dream pop” in the ’10s, yet Jack Tatum’s melodic instincts aren’t as easily emulated as some of his guitar tones. Life of Pause challenges those instincts more than any previous Wild Nothing record. The album’s overt influences range from Steve Reich to Talk Talk, and it brings together ’80s new wave, ’90s Britpop, and the timeless songwriting tradition of dissecting romantic relationships. A start-to-finish album in a streaming era, Life of Pause distinguishes itself not just from the pack but also from Wild Nothing’s own past.
1. Lush – Blind Spot
The first generation shoegazers have been nothing if not respectful of one another in sharing the reunion spotlight these past few years. My Bloody Valentine — who have over time become synonymous with shoegaze, at least as one of its progenitors, though the band themselves might take some issue with the label — have been relatively quiet since their last tour in 2013. Slowdive reformed and headlined some of their biggest shows ever in 2014, and word is there could be a new album from them at some point in 2017. Ride made the rounds in 2015 sounding mint condition as they stormed through all the fan favorites. 2016, though, was Lush’s year. Not only did they embark on a celebrated year-long victory lap of their own, they released an EP that could have come out right after Split in the early ’90s, had in reality they not gone Britpop with Lovelife instead. Though at one point there was talk of following up Blind Spot with an album, Lush announced in November that they would be saying ciao for good that month after their last scheduled show. Blind Spot will have to suffice then; a very fine and appropriately brief souvenir.