“Shoegaze” was not initially meant as a compliment. Like “impressionists” (used dismissively by an art critic in 1874), “Krautrock,” or more recently “deplorable(s),” the phrase began life as a fairly derogatory signifier for an emerging cultural movement. According to legend (and The Quietus), a reviewer used the term in describing an early performance by the band Moose, probably in 1989 or 1990.
“The term was coined specifically to dismiss the bands as shit-boring to watch and imply that we couldn’t be bothered to lift our foppish fringes to make the effort to entertain an audience,” Lush’s Miki Berenyi recalled in Wondering Sound’s oral history of the genre. “It was very unfair and mostly untrue.” Sonic Boom concurs with this account: “It was a put-down, no question,” the Spacemen 3 founder has written.
But rising acts like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive embraced the label, and “shoegaze” came to denote a particular stylistic approach rather than a style of performance. Namely, music that was loud but dreamy instead of punkish, emphasizing guitar feedback and distortion as a source of texture. The vocals, often fuzzy or obscured, were merely another instrument in the foggy wash of sound. Some bands used effects pedals and flangers to achieve this sound, while others (including MBV’s Kevin Shields) relied instead on whammy bars and sampler machines. The scene cohered around Alan McGee’s Creation Records, which had been an early champion of the Jesus And Mary Chain; the press dubbed it “The Scene That Celebrates Itself.”
In its simplest form, shoegaze combined two distinct poles of influence: the crushing noise of the Jesus And Mary Chain and the hypnotic dreaminess of Cocteau Twins (dig further back and you’ll stumble into the goth stylings of Siouxsie And The Banshees, the sluggish drone explorations of the Velvet Underground, and dozens of other influences). If shoegaze began in earnest with the 1985 release of JAMC’s Psychocandy, then it began officially on November 21, 1988, the day My Bloody Valentine shirked their clumsy goth origins and released the monumentally great and only occasionally deafening Isn’t Anything. MBV grew bored with that sound nearly as soon as they perfected it; by 1990, the group had concocted a woozy, bead-driven single called “Soon,” which functioned as a sort of roadmap to Loveless and beyond. When Brian Eno heard “Soon,” he described it as “the vaguest music ever to have been a hit,” which is a good point: “Vague” is thought to be an undesirable quality, but shoegaze violated the rules of what rock was expected to be. It blended every instrument into a narcotic haze. Kevin Shields recorded in mono, and there’s a part in the 33 ? book about Loveless where he lashes out against what he terms the “corporate, weak sound” of stereo separation and aggressively panned guitar tracks. The end result was divisive; when label suits first heard “To Here Knows When,” they thought the tape was broken.
Shoegaze, as a rule, repels ego. It’s embedded right there in the genre’s name: to shoegaze [verb], as in, to stare at your shoes and/or effects pedals while avoiding all eye contact with your equally depressive audience. This was reactionary, considering shoegaze emerged at the tail end of hair metal’s reign, but it also suited the introverted nature of the music, with vocals buried beneath great, soupy guitar textures. “We didn’t want to use the stage as a platform for ego, like the big bands of the time did,” Ride vocalist Mark Gardener explained in 2007. This is why Oasis, despite their early inclination for roaring guitar noise, will never be lumped in with the shoegaze movement: way too much ego. Can you even name the lead singers of Chapterhouse or Swervedriver or whoever without Googling it? Point proven.
By the early-mid ’90s, shoegaze was fading, with the notoriously mercurial British magazines bestowing favor elsewhere. There seemed to be three options available to shoegaze bands: A) fade away; B) go full Britpop; or C) enter seclusion and spend 22 years working on the follow-up to your masterpiece. Slowdive seemed to have chosen Option A. Abandoned by their label after turning in the haunting, proto-post-rock of Pygmalion, the band split, with core members carrying on as the folkier Mojave 3. Dozens of lesser-known bands also faded into obscurity, never having enjoyed even the brief glimmer of success afforded to Slowdive. Option B became inevitable as Creation’s Alan Mcgee shifted his sights from shoegaze to Oasis, whom he signed in 1993. The Britpop pivot was most memorably accomplished by the Boo Radleys (who are best remembered today for the Blur-adjacent fluke hit “Wake Up Boo,” despite the song not being nearly as great as the band’s earlier noise-addled material) as well as Lush.
My Bloody Valentine, of course, opted for the third option. After decades of sustained silence and broken promises, Loveless’ follow-up, m b v, arrived an eternity later, in early 2013, and amazed fans by living up to its lofty promise. Now, nearly half a decade after that moment of reckoning, shoegaze seems to have regained its disaffected cool. Ride, Slowdive, and Swervedriver are enjoying triumphant and fruitful reunions. Slowdive’s first album in 22 years arrived at the beginning of the month and did not disappoint, achieving that rare trick of evoking the band’s great ’90s run without sinking limply into retread. Ride’s first LP in 21 years is out Friday and some of its tracks already sound like they’ll fit alongside the old classics. Meanwhile, bleary-eyed newer bands like Nothing and DIIV have found success cherry-picking from the genre’s array of influences.
This playlist of essential shoegaze tracks encompasses the full historical arc of the genre, which means it goes well beyond Creation Records’ 1999 dissolution. Four quick notes before we begin. 1) I’m not adhering to any traditionalist boundaries of what is or isn’t shoegaze. If it sounds like shoegaze and smells like shoegaze, it is shoegaze. And since the genre’s origins are typically traced back to the mid–late ’80s, there aren’t any songs here that are older than Psychocandy. 2) Only one song is permitted per artist (sorry, Isn’t Anything.) 3) I’ve seen the genre name styled as “shoegazing,” “shoe-gaze,” “shoegazers,” and who knows how many other variations. None of these spellings are necessarily incorrect, but here, for the sake of consistency, I’m going to stick with “shoegaze.” 4) I will try to avoid “swirling,” “dreamy,” and other notoriously overused rock-crit descriptors that are tossed at shoegaze acts. I apologize if I slip up once or twice.
Anyway, happy listening, and turn the volume way up.
31. Moose – “Do You Remember?” (1992)
No, there wasn’t some U.K. ordnance decreeing that all shoegaze acts had to have one-word, one-syllable names — that just seemed to happen on its own. Moose’s claim to fame is that, despite limited success and not being all that noisy, the band is believed to have inspired the term “shoegazing.” Ironically, the London group’s 1992 debut, …XYZ, is too comfortably lodged in acoustic pop territory to really fit with the genre. But the eight-minute “Do You Remember?” is an admirable example of the band’s wayward spacier instincts, with ringing guitar fuzz that hops between right and left channels.
30. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – “Boys Turn Into Girls (Initiation Rites)” (2014)
If you think of shoegaze as a constant negotiation between noise-rock on one hand and sheer dream-pop on the other, it’s not hard to guess which side A Sunny Day In Glasgow leans toward. The band has the word “sunny” in its name, for Christ’s sake. “Boys Turn Into Girls” sounds a bit like a Blue Bell Knoll-era Cocteau Twins tune remixed by a modern IDM producer. Jen Goma and Annie Fredrickson’s vocals float above the queasy, shifting synths, and the whole thing erupts into euphoric noise about halfway through.
29. Teenage Fanclub – “Star Sign” (1991)
Released the same month as Loveless, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque turned down the amps and dialed up the jangly pop harmonies, a sound that owed a whole lot more to Big Star than to the Jesus And Mary Chain. The weaker tracks are pretty nondescript, but the best of them, like the gem of a first single “Star Sign,” are effervescent and strong; it sounds a little like the Byrds with a distortion pedal. There’s a bag of money on the album cover, which turned out to be rather prophetic. “Star Sign,” as well as two other tracks, hit the Billboard Top 20 and, remarkably, Bandwagonesque was declared the best album of 1991 by SPIN.
28. Starflyer 59 – “Hazel Would” (1994)
The opening second of this song sounds weirdly reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep,” which is a pretty good indication of where Starflyer 59’s influences lie. The interplay between the guitar noise in the mid-range and the eerie ascending and descending notes in the upper range is particularly Loveless-esque. The noise is rich and overwhelming but not without room for Jason Martin’s low, breathy vocals. Martin is the primary creative force behind Starflyer 59, who have been putting out records nearly nonstop since 1994’s Silver.
27. Galaxie 500 – “Tell Me” (1989)
Galaxie 500 only lasted four years, but their influence seemed to spiral out in every direction from the band’s melancholic dream-pop haze. “Tell Me,” from 1989’s On Fire, highlights the group’s knack for sweet, steady melodies and high, yearning vocals from Dean Wareham. It’s sparse enough to make out the lyrics, but the feedback-filled guitar solo offers a tentative glimpse of where this soon-to-be genre was headed next.
26. Medicine – “A Short Happy Life” (1992)
Medicine were part of what you might call the second wave of shoegaze bands, which is to say the band didn’t have any direct geographic ties to the “Scene That Celebrates Itself” but clearly took influence from faraway Britain. In 1992, around the time the British shoegaze movement was starting to wane (dispatched eventually by Britpop), the LA-based Medicine became the first American band to sign with Creation Records. “A Short Happy Life” is a lengthy highlight from the band’s debut, Shot Forth Self Living. The guitar textures are rawer and more lo-fi than the band’s UK counterparts, and singer Beth Thompson’s melodic vocals are a fine stabilizing force all throughout.
25. A Place To Bury Strangers – “Dead Beat” (2009)
When shoegaze breeds with surf rock, you get this demented romp from A Place To Bury Strangers. The song lurches from verse to chorus like some diseased animal. Oliver Ackermann’s punishing shards of feedback are never quite enough to overpower the song’s stomping ’60s-ish riff. In concert, the band’s swagger and noise-obsessed antics are a joy to behold — proof that shoegaze doesn’t have to translate into a total lack of stage presence.
24. Curve – “Faît Accompli” (1992)
Is shoegaze allowed to get this danceable? Is that legal? Curve’s answer was a definitive and enthusiastic yes. Using My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon” as a sort of starting point, the band’s 1992 debut, Doppelgänger, was one of the first shoegaze albums to really bring the rhythm section to the forefront, resulting in a stylistic soup that has both throbbing dancefloor beats and grinding rock textures. “Faît Accompli” was the big single. The song spotlights Toni Halliday’s charismatic vocal hooks and wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist alongside Screamadelica-era Primal Scream.
23. Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Share” (2009)
On Why There Are Mountains, Cymbals Eat Guitars seemed to be trying on different indie-rock styles and guises and wound up with a pretty fantastic set of emotionally resonant rock songs. “Share” is obviously the shoegaze-flavored one — slow and steady, the song opens with ambient textures and is then anchored by thick, screeching guitar chords with feedback bleeding out of the outer edges. There’s an incredible moment around the 3:22 mark where the instrumentation suddenly opens up to include a horn section, bass, and drums — like a blurred image shifting into sudden focus.
22. The Veldt – “Until You’re Forever” (1994)
The Veldt, a long-forgotten North Carolina band that never quite found the audience it deserved, fused shoegaze with soul and R&B influences to curious effect. Led by brothers Danny and Daniel Chavis, the band found a believer in Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, who contributed to 1994’s Afrodisiac. On “Until You’re Forever,” the band experiments with hip-hop beats as a backdrop for dense, fluttering guitars and soul-inflected vocals. The band was widely misunderstood in its time, and the brothers Chavis, who were black, did not always find the white-dominated rock space to be especially welcoming (in a retrospective Guardian piece, the group recalls being told by labels that “they should try sounding like Lenny Kravitz”).
21. Swirlies – “Bell” (1993)
It’s basically a testament to shoegazers’ dorky obsession with sonic manipulation that the first Swirlies album, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, was named after a vintage piece of audio equipment. Formed in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area in the early ’90s, Swirlies were part of that American wave of bands that took cues from the British scene across the pond (see also: Lilys, Medicine, etc). The album emerged in early 1993 and became a modest indie success. “Bell,” the first song on Blonder, boasts thrusting rhythmic changes and scowly vocals that have more in common with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus than the guy from Chapterhouse.
20. Spacemen 3 – “Revolution” (1989)
Spacemen 3 largely predated the shoegaze explosion, and the band’s best work — including 1989’s Playing With Fire LP — is better classified as psych-rock with a hefty appetite for drone. Still, the group’s profound influence on shoegaze can’t be ignored, especially considering Chapterhouse got their start touring with Spacemen 3. “Revolution” slices through the floaty ethereal haze of that aforementioned 1989 album with razor-sharp guitar noise, chugging drums, and Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember’s uncharacteristically venomous vocals (according to Kember, Spacemen 3 are sometimes called the “godfathers of shoegaze.” If you see him on the street, please greet him this way: “Hello, godfather of shoegaze”).
19. The Verve – “Star Sail” (1993)
The Verve’s discography contains two unimpeachably great opening tracks. One of them routinely gets blasted at sporting events and sparked a legal feud with the Rolling Stones. The other one is “Star Sail.” You won’t hear it at any sporting event. The song has a slow, spacy build-up — layers upon layers of guitar textures drifting in and out — and a foggy moan of backing vocals sharing space with Richard Ashcroft’s distinctive lead vocals. It’s an excellent precursor to some of the trippier material on 1997’s Urban Hymns (“Catching The Butterfly,” “Neon Wilderness”).
18. Lush – “For Love” (1992)
Lush’s sonic similarities with late-’80s Cocteau Twins make a hell of a lot more sense when you realize that Spooky was produced by Robin Guthrie. The sound is, well, lush: chorus-treated guitars, tinny drums, and angelic, layered vocals. The best song, “For Love,” thumps along on a sing-songy vocal melody for a blissful three and a half minutes.
17. R.E.M. – “Let Me In” (1994)
Widely misunderstood as an attempt to play catch-up with grunge, R.E.M.’s maligned Monster is really more like a tour of distinctly un-R.E.M.-like guitar tones. There is nothing less R.E.M.-like than the wall of guitar and organ noise that swallows up “Let Me In” in a thick, cathartic cocoon. While much of Monster takes cues from ’70s glam-rock, this song is an excellent and rare instance of a mainstream American band taking influence from shoegaze textures. Michael Stipe’s lyrics, an emotional plea to his friend Kurt Cobain, are some of his best. It’s fitting that they’re submerged beneath a thick flood of distortion, mirroring the impossibility of communication with a friend you’ve lost.
16. Lilys – “Claire Hates Me” (1992)
Listening to Lilys’ debut In The Presence Of Nothing is like staring at one of those 19th-century oil paintings where you have to step back and squint a bit to see the image. The melodies are all there, poking around beneath Kurt Heasley’s foggy window of guitar fuzz — you just have to squint a bit. The album was released a year after Loveless and clearly wears its influence proudly (as Stereogum noted in 2013, Heasley recreated the Loveless approach “convincingly enough that it could have passed for the third MBV album”), but there’s something more earnest, more bashful, even, about the vocals. “Claire Hates Me” is a remarkably tuneful and even sweet love song buried at the end of the album. What other shoegaze song has a bridge with handclaps? They’re there, you just have to squint.
15. Nothing – “Dig” (2014)
The sound of 1992 lives on through the Philadelphia band Nothing. The core contradiction in the band’s sound is pretty simple but effective: guitars are harsh and almost metal-ish in tone, vocals are dreamy and melodic. It’s like if Slowdive started listening to a ton of stoner rock. “Dig,” from the 2014 debut Guilty Of Everything, boasts one of the band’s best and sludgiest riffs. Check out that recurring instrumental call-and-response bit between the clean guitar and the roaring distorted guitar.
14. Mercury Rev – “Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick” (1993)
Mercury Rev’s second album, Boces, is a fractured, noisy classic that has more in common with heyday Butthole Surfers than the lilting orchestral pop of present-day Mercury Rev. At 10 minutes and 29 seconds, the opener, “Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick,” packs about three albums’ worth of ideas into one song. The music is alternately gentle — almost carnival-esque at times — and cacophonic to the point of queasiness (that’s due to Jonathan Donahue’s pioneering feedback manipulations, the same techniques that aided the Flaming Lips’ brilliant In A Priest Driven Ambulance). A psychedelic whirlwind packed with flutes, brass, and childlike choirs, it’s easily the most colorful song on this list.
13. Primal Scream – “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” (2000)
Kevin Shields’ tenure in Primal Scream was comparatively brief but produced what may well be the Scottish band’s single greatest song. Nestled near the end of the vicious XTRMNTR album, “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” sounds like it’s blasting out of a jet engine, all roaring guitar buzz and military-precision drums and an eerie, looped “ahhh!” vocal that fades in and out of the foreground. The way the song accumulates sound and momentum is brilliant. Though not as explicitly political as the rest of the album, the titular refrain comes to resemble some sort of frightening anarchist mantra.
12. Swervedriver – “Duress” (1993)
Swervedriver are sometimes confused for Slowdive. It’s understandable, considering the bands’ similar names and British pedigrees, but misleading given that Swervedriver had a much heavier, more punk-indebted sound (weirdly, both bands formed in England in 1989, and both bands released their first albums in September 1991). “Duress” takes about three minutes to get going, revving up slowly like a lawnmower or chainsaw, but when it does, it’s an absolutely killer rock song that uses an old-fashioned wah-wah effect to supplement its thunderous guitar crunch.
11. Mazzy Star – “Bells Ring” (1993)
This is a list of shoegaze songs, not shoegaze bands, and while few would place Mazzy Star in the latter category (too gentle, too folky), this 1993 track is a goddamn fuzzed-out gem. Hope Sandoval’s voice has a distant, almost holy feel to it, as though it’s being channeled into some remote church at 3AM (or maybe I just get the vision of a church because she’s singing about bells ringing and believers and such). On So Tonight That I Might See, the song is lodged between the ageless “Fade Into You” and the eerie, drone-inspired “Mary Of Silence,” which makes a hell of an opening trio.
10. Yo La Tengo – “Blue Line Swinger” (1995)
If you love shoegaze but distrust Yo La Tengo because you heard “Autumn Sweater” too many times at a college radio station or whatever, you fucked up. The band’s mid-’90s records (1993’s Painful, 1995’s Electr-O-Pura) are awash in guitar noise so gorgeous and wistful that it’s hard to believe it came out of Hoboken and not, say, Berkshire. Yo La Tengo deliberately listed wrong song lengths on the back of the latter CD. The unassuming listener is primed for a three-minute pop track and instead gets the glorious, nine-minute slow-burner “Blue Line Swinger.” Ira Kaplan once explained that the CD-era gag was meant to fool listeners who instinctively think, “Oh, it’s six minutes long. This is gonna suck” into listening to the lengthier songs at least once. God bless anyone who can listen to “Blue Line Swinger” only once — the song is a blissful noise freak-out highlighted by Georgia Hubley’s hypnotic vocals. See also: “From A Motel 6″ and “Double Dare” from Painful, “Sugarcube” and “Deeper Into Movies” from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, and “Cherry Chapstick” from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
9. M83 – “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” (2005)
Before M83 hit indie jackpot with “Midnight City,” the French band seemed to regard its mission as composing glorious, dramatic soundscapes for nonexistent John Hughes movies. Before The Dawn Heals Us remains arguably the band’s best work and “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” is its thundering, fist-pumping jewel. Before The Dawn is chiefly synth-driven, but this is one of M83’s first real forays into rock instrumentation. The song sends the listener on a dramatic journey of synth refrains and loud-to-louder dynamic shifts. While much of the shoegaze genre is characterized by its introversion (mumbled vocals, lack of dynamic range), this song’s buildups are fearless and huge.
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey” (1985)
If you’re going to rip off a drum intro, you might as well pilfer the best drum intro of all time: the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kickoff (to wit: Boom… boom-boom, snare. Boom… boom-boom, snare). When the JAMC play it, there’s a fog of reverb so thick it nearly clogs your nasal cavities, which is ample hint for the rest of Psychocandy, an album that can lay claim to inspiring the shoegaze sound more directly than any other. Burying pop hooks beneath impenetrable distortion seems second-nature now but not so much in 1985, when Springsteen and Phil Collins ruled rock radio. On “Just Like Honey,” the blistering noise is present but not overpowering, and the saccharine vulnerabilities of the band’s sound (girl-group melodies, backing harmonies from guest vocalist Karen Parker) still ring through. You can even discern the sexually charged lyrics, which, as Paula Mejia points out in her Psychocandy 33 ?, reflects “the simultaneous mystique and terror of female anatomy.”
7. Chapterhouse – “Breather” (1991)
History hasn’t been altogether kind to Chapterhouse and it’s tough to say why. While Slowdive and Ride’s seminal albums have been retroactively hailed as masterpieces, Chapterhouse (which formed in the same English city as Slowdive) have faded into relative obscurity. The group’s brief 2010 reunion produced no new material and ended not long after it began. All that aside, “Breather,” the first track on the band’s first album, is one of those indelible tracks that just perfectly encapsulates the genre at its best. There’s a sudden rush of sound, a distant, percolating guitar riff, and a woozy flanger effect that drifts in and out of focus, as though the vocals are being dunked underwater.
6. Catherine Wheel – “Black Metallic” (1992)
Shoegaze, at least in its formative years, had a discernible lack of epics. Maybe it’s that dearth of ego at work — there are no songs on Loveless or Isn’t Anything or Nowhere that surpass the seven-minute mark (hell, Psychocandy barely had any songs surpassing the three-minute mark). Catherine Wheel promptly fixed this oversight with “Black Metallic,” the extraordinary centerpiece of the band’s 1992 debut Ferment. Like much of Catherine Wheel’s best work, the song is stadium-ready and anthemic with an actual guitar solo lurking around the bridge. The bizarro music video, however, has not aged quite so well.
5. The Boo Radleys – “Skyscraper” (1992)
Before they found mainstream success during the Britpop craze (and landed on the So I Married An Axe Murderer soundtrack), the Boo Radleys were Britain’s best purveyors of MBV soundalike noise-pop. Start with Everything’s Alright Forever, a euphoric pairing of roaring guitar blasts and Martin Carr’s king-sized hooks. The best song, “Skyscraper,” is commanding and great, balancing the band’s dual noise and pop instincts with astounding ease. Then grab the even better Giant Steps, which finds the band branching out into psychedelia, jazz, and even dub influences. A reunion would be nice, but singer Simon Rowbottom is busy as a psychologist now and bassist Tim Brown seems to enjoy his job as an IT teacher in northern Ireland. Glad they’re thriving.
4. Slowdive – “Machine Gun” (1993)
The mercurial British music press swallowed up Slowdive and spit them out with historic speed, but the band’s masterpiece, Souvlaki, lived on long after it was panned in Melody Maker. Souvlaki serves as an enduring document of what’s possible when the genre’s foggy sense of heartbreak comes rising to the forefront. It’s hard to choose just one song — “Alison” is so perfect, the sonic possibilities of “Sing” so limitless — but “Machine Gun” just captures that sense Slowdive gives of drowning in some multicolor wave pool of melancholy. In fact, the song’s imagery explicitly refers to drowning, to water dragging you down, though Rachel Goswell’s multivoiced vocals are so gorgeous that it doesn’t sound like such a bad way to die. The noise on Souvlaki is soft and ethereal, not punishing and harsh. And happily, all these years after being trashed by Melody Maker, the band just spent the spring of 2017 performing “Machine Gun” (plus other classics, as well as new material) on its triumphant reunion run.
3. Cocteau Twins – “Cherry-Coloured Funk” (1990)
In 500 years, when we’re all dead from an environmental extinction event and the Martians trek down to Earth to try to understand our fallen civilization, I hope they’re still poring over Cocteau Twins’ music for clues, feverishly trying to make sense of Elizabeth Fraser’s inscrutable vocals. Shoegaze is known for having obscured or unintelligible vocals, but it’s usually because the vocals are mixed lower than the guitars. In Cocteau Twins’ music, Fraser pioneered a new, swooping approach to vocals in which the meaning lay resident in the voice and sounds themselves and not necessarily in the words (that often were just sounds). “Cherry-Coloured Funk,” with its chiming guitars and dreamlike, octave-jumping vocals, is both a breathtaking opener and a strong example of why this band’s influence was so essential to the genre. There is a remarkable amount of melodic information and depth contained in every stray note or utterance. See also: “Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires,” 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll, early songs like 1984’s “Lorelei.”
2. Ride – “Vapour Trail” (1990)
“Vapour Trail” is gorgeous and revelatory, and it also has a rare vulnerability to it. Maybe it’s because the lyrics are largely discernable for once, grasping at a possible unrequited love (“the sun will blind my eyes/ I love you anyway”). Fond of vocal harmonies and jangly hooks, Ride never submerged the melodic content of their songs quite so much as the band’s peers. Or maybe it’s that cello-and-violin outro that still feels like flying every time you hear it (the worst thing about the CD bonus tracks on Nowhere is that the outro no longer closes the album). With its sighing, effortless melody, “Vapour Trail” is imbued with some mysterious power that even the members of Ride seem baffled by. “It’s just one of those magical songs,” guitarist Andy Bell has remarked. Indeed, “Vapour Trail” has become such a touchstone for alienated teens that it was name-checked in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
1. My Bloody Valentine – “Only Shallow” (1991)
The burst of sheer sound at the start of Loveless is, in its own odd way, every bit as iconic as the four chords that kick off Nevermind or the upright bass notes that open Kind Of Blue (or the “oh, yeaaah” at the start of Exile On Main St. or the icy synth chords at the beginning of Kid A or… you get the idea). On the layman’s level, it’s just four snare hits by Colm Ó Cíosóig, followed by a molten roar of guitar feedback, samplers, and, eventually, Bilinda Butcher’s dreamlike voice. But on the greater historical plane, it’s the sound of a genre crystallizing, of a sound being instantly defined. (Well, perhaps not instantly — Loveless took months upon months to complete in more than a dozen different studios, exhausting Alan McGee’s patience.) It is remarkable that a single song can be so disorienting and overwhelming and euphoric all at once.
But you know this already. What you might not know is how the hell Kevin Shields extracted all that sound, all that woozy immensity and depth, from the same basic machinery you have lying around your house: a guitar and amp. Contrary to popular assumption, he rarely used pedals or chorus units. Instead, he relied heavily on his guitar’s customized tremolo arm to bend chords and used samplers to manipulate his own feedback. On “Only Shallow,” he’s playing the same thing “three or four times,” he told Mike McGonigal, author of the Loveless 33 ?. “It was the usual rock and roll bending the strings type thing, but I had two amps facing each other with two different tremolos on them. And I sampled it and put it an octave higher on the sampler.”
It’s the shoegaze equivalent of “You know that new sound you were looking for? Well listen to this!” With “Only Shallow,” as well as every song on Loveless, Kevin Shields found the new sound that every Creation band had been looking for. You can listen to it a thousand times and still not grasp its secrets—or know what the hell Bilinda Butcher is singing.
Check out most of these tracks in our Spotify playlist below.