When it comes to genres, you can pretty much combine any two categories and make them one. Alt-rock, indie-pop, electronic jazz, folk-rock...the list is endless. These exceptions to the typically strict rules of genre are made for bands who don't fit in, or who have too many inspirations flooding their sound to narrow down into one category.
This is sort of what sparked the beginning of "shoegaze," a style that grew out of an insult. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, music critics complained about artists spending entire performances staring down at the floor instead of engaging with their audiences. These musicians were too introverted, apparently, more interested in gazing at their shoes than in connecting with their fans. Bands like Moose and My Bloody Valentine were among the first to receive this dismissive critique, later inspiring a movement in the alternative music community. Shoegaze bands became the impressionists of the music world - they embraced the name that was given to them in a negative context.
So what does shoegaze sound like? The style is characterized by fuzzy guitars and distorted vocals, and might sound a little off-putting to first time listeners. There aren't catchy choruses, but instead long stretches of atmospheric instrumentation that drive noisy melodies. Shoegaze and dreampop songs are usually hazy and vague, like a pop song was sent into space in a vacuum-packed chamber and returned to Earth completely distorted. Though the terms can cover miles of the musical spectrum, shoegaze and dreampop songs always seem to make time seem a little bit slower and air a little bit sweeter.
Going on an in-depth journey into the history of shoegaze can be a pretty overwhelming task for someone to take on by themselves. To streamline the process, here's a quick look at some of the most essential names in shoegaze and dreampop.
My Bloody Valentine
Probably the most widely recognized on the list, My Bloody Valentine pioneered the dissonant, fuzzy sound of shoegaze. Their work in the late eighties and nineties integrated an unorthodox, noisy style that's been described as unfocused and unpleasant by many. The band's 1991 record Loveless
is credited with defining the washed-out, intoxicating subgenre.
The debut record from this British band is considered one of the best in shoegaze. Nowhere
was the cure to any and all doubts critics had about the genre's lasting impact - it was even called a masterpiece by Rolling Stone
. Ride has a somewhat clearer sound than most shoegazers, but their noisy, stream of consciousness style is quintessential.
These British dreampop stunners got their start in the nineties, but thankfully reunited in 2014. Slowdive has a slightly more delicate sound than MBV, making spacious melodies the primary focus over fuzzy guitars. Modern groups like Beach House
and Grizzly Bear
totally took a page or two from Slowdive's book of shimmering soundscapes.
So many non-specific terms have been used to describe this Scottish group: alt-rock, gothic rock, dark wave, post-punk. The Cocteau Twins embrace that kind of ambient, minimalist melodic style that makes them seem out of this world. Heaven or Las Vegas
certified the band's dreampop status in 1990 and still serves as a moody treat (even if you can't really understand any of the lyrics).
The strained guitar and mellow, almost muttered vocals of Mazzy Star's second record So Tonight That I Might See
places them squarely in the shoegaze category. Hope Sandoval's voice is nearly indistinguishable, but somehow it works. It's the kind of music you want to play on repeat as you're stargazing on the roof of your apartment - a little tragic, but hopelessly romantic.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
Though this group disbanded in the late nineties, they recently made a comeback to reclaim their rightful place among shoegaze greats. Known for their hazy slow-burners, the Jesus and Mary Chain build beautifully textured soundscapes out of the simplest melodies. Psychocandy
still feels modern, even 30 years later.
Distorted guitars mixed with light and airy melodies, this band's name describes their sound perfectly. Even though they never received the mainstream appeal attributed to My Bloody Valentine and Ride, Lush is still one of the most prominent shoegaze/dreampop groups to date. Their 1990 track "Sweetness and Light" is exactly that - dreamy, bright, and sickeningly sweet.