Born in the UK in the late-'80s, shoegaze was a movement that used incredibly loud electric guitars to make something that had little connection to traditional rock'n'roll. Using a host of effects pedals —delay and flange, chiefly— and abusing tremolo bars, shoegaze guitars stripped away the attack of their instrument; building layers upon layers of hazy, woozy tone with none of rock's strut. The bands became known as 'shoegazers' for their habit of staring down at their effects pedals on stage; the name was pejorative, but soon it became a badge of pride. With music this good under the banner, you can understand why.
Formed in 1979, a solid decade before the shoegaze movement took hold, Scottish dream-pop pioneers Cocteau Twins can never be mistaken for being part of the genre. But they are the obvious forebears of its tone. In the absence of a drummer, the band explored an atmospheric sound built on Elizabeth Fraser's flighty vocals and Robin Guthrie's walls of effects-driven guitar. Head Over Heels was just the pair of them, and it found them striking upon a dreamy, hazy, syrupy, otherworldly sound that would grow to become their own. Here, Fraser's whoops and sighs and Guthrie's dynamic, non-rock approach to a kind of ambient guitar maximalism proved hugely influential; the Cocteaus' swirling studio sonics minting a blueprint for shoegazers future.
The brash, bratty, nasty-sounding classic-pop crash of the immortal Psychocandy has little in common with much of the wafting, ethereal, dreamscape sound on this list. Except for one key thing: distortion. Lots and lots of distortion. The Jesus and Mary Chain were students of wall-of-sound guru Phil Spector, but they dragged his doo-wop vocals and R&B back-beats through a strident, discordant veil of hellacious noise. It marked one of the great introductions of a singular sound ever: the JAMC arriving fully-formed and unlike anyone else. A monstrous success in the UK, the record undoubtedly inspired the growing ranks of budding shoegazers to view the guitar —and, indeed, any instrument— as a source of tone more than simple melody-maker.
Unlike many of their shoegaze peers, who were indie bands merely flirting with commercial crossover, Oxford outfit Ride were a straight-up success story. Their debut album landed at #11 on the UK pop charts, and by 1992, they had the clout to take an eight-minute epic, "Leave them All Behind," into the Top 10 singles countdown. Their initial popularity is hardly strange. Though Nowhere —whose cover art is one of the most striking, instantly-recognizable single images in recorded music history— has its banks of dewy guitars and moments of wispy, introspective languor, it's largely a direct rock record, with sharp hooks and nary a mumbled vocal. An album alternately forceful and beautiful, Nowhere was a first statement Ride would never top.
From its title to its curled-up-cat cover art, the debut LP for Reading quintet Chapterhouse is an album of circular sound: repeating guitar patterns turning pirouettes of whitewashed noise. With three guitars and banks of effects pedals, Chapterhouse created a guitar sound that felt spinning; their dosed-up set-up sending strums into eternal circles of trailing feedback and delay. The band then applied this dizzying sound to four-minute pop-songs, delivered with the genre's requisite fey mumbles and unintelligible incantations. On its release, Whirlpool found a lukewarm reception; the band themselves were, after all, generally maligned. But years have been kind to Chapterhouse: 20+ years on, this sounds like classic, vintage shoegaze.
Shoegaze's undoubted magnum opus is Loveless, an LP whose renown, mythical reputation, and sphere of influence grows perennially. The second record for My Bloody Valentine is singular and strink, its massive clouds of otherworldly 'fluff on the needle' white-noise creating a sound both ethereal and intimate. With nary a note out of place, it flirts with perfection. Attempting to author a follow-up, MBV honcho Kevin Shields burnt bridges, brain-cells, and hundreds of thousands of pounds; that it all proved in vain aiding the legend of Loveless no end. To the point where it's strange seeing Loveless nestled amidst some mere best-shoegazer-records list. Its usual place is, instead, deservedly atop countdowns of the greatest albums ever made.
6. Pale Saints 'In Ribbons' (1992)
On "Hair Shoes," a tune equating heartache with illness, Ian Masters takes a seeming eternity to eek out the words "if only I'd the strength/to try/to hide," as he showers in squalls of fluttering, glimmering guitar, whilst cymbals splash and fade like swelling tides. It's a particularly shoegaze moment on a particularly shoegaze album. The second record for the Leeds-born band was their first since adopting original Lush vocalist Meriel Barham into the fold, and across its sweet songs she and Masters swoon and croon through kissing fogs of Graeme Naysmith's blanketing guitar, which is treated with an array of cottony, cloudy, foggy white-noise effects. It's a brilliant, beautiful record that, in hindsight, seems strangely underappreciated.
7. Lush 'Spooky' (1992)
Lush were a London outfit built around the chiming, dewy guitars and dueling angelic voices of Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi. The pair were no shoegaze wallflowers either; possessed with pop smarts and pure pipes, they delivered a debut disc of heady, dizzying beauty. Produced by Robin Guthrie, the debt to Cocteau Twins was enormous, but it didn't dent the quality of Spooky one iota. By their third album, 1996's Lovelife, Lush had unfortunately morphed into a cheeky, kooky, retro-toned Brit-pop band, which, in hindsight, tarnished a little of luster off their first longplayer. But listening to Spooky, years removed, sounds like traveling back in time, to the heart of the shoegaze revolution.
Anyone who knows of The Verve only as those corporate power-balladeers behind "Bittersweet Symphony" —or, indeed, has heard the abhorrent Richard Ashcroft and the United Nations of Sound— may be unaware the Wigan outfit had credible beginnings. Known simply, at the start, as Verve (before legal threats from the jazz label required a 'The'), the quintet played slowed-down, spaced-out psychedelia built on layers of trailing, silvery guitar. It keeps closer to the narcotic gospel of Spiritualized than the white-noise bluster of My Bloody Valentine, but there's a shoegazer spirit in their strung-out jams. The 11-minute closer "Feel," in particular, trails out in a miasma of washed-out effects piled up to lysergic highs. Here, the drugs do work.
Shoegaze was a strictly regional thing at first: largely bands from provincial Thames Valley towns. But its influence swiftly spread, and by Lilys' 1992 debut In the Presence of Nothing, the genre had its first worthy American chapter. Though obviously steeped in the sonic stylings of Kevin Shields and crew, Kurt Heasley's ever-changing outfit were no mere knock-offs. Here, Lilys play a kind of scrappy indie-pop informed by drugged-out '60s psychedelia, yet blasted with the white-noise effects of shoegaze. "Elizabeth Colour Wheel" sounds like seven-minutes of languid jangle taken to with a belt-sander, for example. Though obscure enough in its day, the LP is undoubtedly a minor landmark, and required listening for any shoegaze obsessive.