There’s a meme which circulates the internet from time to time depicting a serious-looking child, sat in a dimly lit room, with text overlaid which reads: “You like shoegaze? Name every shoe”. It’s a riff on the sorts of fans the shoegaze movement stereotypically attracts – chinstroking musos who take themselves and the music far too seriously, assuming everyone else to be inferior in their knowledge and commitment (I once went to a party where it came up in conversation that I liked shoegaze, and the man I was talking to abruptly demanded I name five shoegaze bands – true story).
It’s a trope that dogged the bands within the scene somewhat unfairly. The term ‘shoegaze’ itself was initially a dig from the British music press, mocking the bands for their perceived lack of charisma and insularity, and at least a couple of the bands mentioned in this feature still flinch at the term now. Still, no one – not even the savage 90s music press – could deny the beauty and innovation coming from within.
Shoegaze fell out of favour around the mid-90s, but was picked up by an emergence of nu-gaze bands around a decade later. Bands like Whitelands, Slow Crush and Bdrmm have brought the genre fully up to date, each of them releasing excellent records in recent years. Here, the story of the scene that celebrated itself, charted by its essential albums.
Cocteau Twins - Treasure (1984)
Okay, we know: Cocteau Twins aren’t a shoegaze band, and Treasure isn’t a shoegaze album, but there are few artefacts that better pinpoint the genesis of the movement than this. Shimmering, swirling guitars; ethereal vocals; vast, enveloping soundscapes; an album that’s challenging, angular and beautiful all at once – so far, so shoegaze. Guitarist Robin Guthrie would go on to work with and produce a few shoegaze groups, the sonic blueprint explored here stamped across their records, and in 2015 he released an album with Mark Gardener of Ride – but more on them in a minute. The band’s label, 4AD, also played a formative role in shaping the genre, going on to sign a number of shoegaze bands proper, including Lush, Pale Saints, AR Kane and Ultra Vivid Scene – but that’s a different list for a different time.
Ride - Nowhere (1990)
It’s easy to gesture lazily in the general direction of My Bloody Valentine when explaining shoegaze as a thing, asserting that Loveless was the genre’s Big Bang moment – and that’s true to an extent. But when Ride released Nowhere, they released an album that both helped define what shoegaze’s sound was and what it could become, building on the ideas tentatively pinned down in their previous EPs by combining the album’s expansive oceanic theme with pure pop sensibilities and astute songwriting nous (“To get from that second EP to what became Nowhere was a big step up in songwriting quality,” guitarist Andy Bell admitted to us in 2015). The group carried on until the mid-90s, until eventually succumbing to the allure of the Britpop boom (Bell would eventually join the Gallagher brothers in Oasis). They regrouped some 21 years later with albums in 2017 and 2019, and have another slated for release in the next year or so, but Nowhere remains their unrivalled milestone, and an essential stop in understanding the genre’s journey as a whole.
My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991)
If grunge has Nevermind, shoegaze has Loveless. Okay, that might be overstating things ever so slightly, but there can be no argument – Loveless is the definitive shoegaze album. Formed from the ashes of various post punk bands in the early 80s, My Bloody Valentine’s influences ranged from Siouxsie And The Banshees to the Ramones and most everything in between. They developed a technique of cherry-picking the best from each genre, and in turn a sound that was unique – ethereal but highly defined, relying on Cocteau Twins-esque walls-of-noise and the sharp, punchy song writing of mid 80s Hüsker Dü. But Loveless wasn’t just a great album, it was also hugely, undoubtedly influential. Where MBV’s 1988 debut Isn’t Anything had inspired a legion of imitators, Loveless proved they were the only ones that could do it quite like that – not that it stopped countless attempts to ape them in its wake.
Slowdive - Pygmalion (1995)
If shoegaze bands had a rough time of things in the British press in general, Slowdive took a complete and utter battering. It feels confusing and nonsensical, 30 years on, that the band were so gleefully derided by the press and their peers, with Noel Gallagher allegedly refusing to sign to Creation Records until they had been dropped, and the Manics’ Richey Edwards proclaiming “we will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler”. Three decades’ worth of hindsight has softened this view somewhat, and they’re now finally recognised as one of the genre’s most important groups.
Pygmalion isn’t Slowdive’s best album – you need to dig out its predecessor Souvlaki for that – but it is symbolic of a time when shoegaze’s first wave was wrapping up, soon to be totally upended by the bouncy, blokey chaos of Britpop. Pygmalion itself is the sound of a band slowly shifting away from the ‘gaze – not towards Britpop, but to dreamy post-rock and nascent electronic experimentation. As Lush’s Miki Berenyi makes clear in her excellent book Fingers Crossed, British labels weren’t interested in pursuing much other than Britpop as the mid 90s hit, and Slowdive were unceremoniously dropped by Creation a week after Pygmalion’s release. Shoegaze’s time had come to an end – but nothing stays out of fashion forever.
A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head (2009)
Shoegaze is largely synonymous with woozy walls of sound and melancholic beauty, and rightly so – but to focus solely on that is to overlook the pure power and sonic heft of the genre at its best. First wave bands like Swervedriver brought muscle and riffs to sensitive, dream-like songwriting, and when A Place To Bury Strangers became one of the groups to breathe new life into shoegaze at the tail-end of the noughties, they did so by raising hell, drenching everything they touched in fuzz, distortion and coarse, suffocating anxiety. And they weren’t the only ones – Nothing harnessed their hardcore punk roots to deliver a take on shoegaze buoyed by thumping aggression, while Deafheaven popularised the advent of blackgaze – which, yes, is the genre’s fusion with black metal. Arguably, shoegaze’s second wave has been more fearless and more exhilarating than its first.