Our Top Ten albums from the Scene That Celebrated Itself, and beyond
It’s no surprise that a generation adept at staring for hours at a glowing screen through a curtain of badly maintained hair has found something new to relate to in shoegazing music, the classic 90’s era of ‘ethereal’ guitars, waspish vocals and pedal boards that could sleep a family of eight. But for newcomers, where to start? Here’s our Top Ten albums from the nineties shoegaze scene.
Slowdive – ‘Just For A Day’ (1991)
It sounds crazy now, but in 1991 you’d have been laughed out of any student bar in the country for liking Slowdive. ‘Just For A Day’ was considered the epitome of drippy, empty, anaemic home counties mithering, made specifically for bedwetters, virgins and vegans who were too scared to be goths. Now, twenty-five years after it made Richey Manic declare that he hated Slowdive more than Hitler, its recognised as the slab of ghost-ridden gorgeousness it always was. Taking cues as much from The Cure and The Cocteau Twins as much as contemporaries like Chapterhouse and Ride, it merged glacial indie atmospherics with Celtic mysticism, canyon balladry and opiated melodies like ‘The Sadman’. Perfect for sinking sweetly into an overdose.
The Verve – ‘A Storm In Heaven’ (1993)
Back when ‘Urban Hymns’ was merely their accountant’s wildest fantasy, Richard Ashcroft piloted a space rock behemoth called simply ‘Verve’ and ‘A Strom In Heaven’ was their impression of a brimstone blues wrecking ball demolishing the sonic cathedral. Rather than spectral sonic echoes, this was music caught in intergalactic winds, roaring through wormholes and battering at God’s windows. If shoegaze ever looked up, ripped open its shirt and howled into approaching traffic, it was here.
The Radio Dept. – ‘Lesser Matters’ (2003)
With nods to Nothing, A Place To Bury Strangers, early M83, Deerhunter, Blond Redhead and Cheatahs, the nu-gaze revival deserves its own separate list. But arguably the record that kicked (or should that be ‘shuffled’?) the revival off, ‘Lesser Matters’ – the debut from Swedish fuzz fondlers The Radio Dept. – remains one of the few next-gen shoegaze records capable of holding its own amongst the lexicon of wobbly greats. Swapping copious scree pedals for touches of electronica, it remapped shoegazing’s sonic otherworld for the 21st Century by sounding like the sort of electro gig that, previously, only Derek Acorah could hear.
The Boo Radleys – ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ (1992)
The Boo Radleys’ acknowledged masterpiece – 1993’s ‘Giant Steps’, containing the decade-demolishing ‘Lazarus’ – was too much of a shift towards their mid-90s psych-pop incarnation to be allowed to do its dubby skank along shoegaze’s top table. That record belongs in Albums Of The Decade lists, whereas their previous record ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ was perfectly placed to encapsulate the full shoegaze vista, from the fouled beauty of ‘Loveless’ to the oceanic swells of ‘Nowhere’ and the scorched grunge of early Teenage Fanclub. Plus, Martin Carr’s blood pumped with the Merseyside gene, so ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ swarmed with the sort of half-buried pop melodies that many shoegaze bands lost in the gaps between their effects pedals.
Ride – ‘Going Blank Again’ (1992)
As if Ride heard ‘Loveless’ and knew the game was up in terms of screwing around with the possibilities of guitar, then watched Newman And Baddiel mock them as dozy dullards on The Mary Whitehouse Experience and realised they needed to be less wet and wafty, for their second album scene pioneers Ride simply turned the volume up to ‘Gas Giant’ and set about writing some of the most gargantuan funk, rock and pop tunes of the 90s. ‘Twistarella’ – their own ‘Friday I’m In Love’ – and ‘Leave Them All Behind’ propelled shoegazing into a grander melodic sphere, while ‘OX4’ was reportedly classified as a planet in its own right by NASA, until the drugs wore off.
Ride – ‘Nowhere’ (1990)
Ride’s debut, of course, set the shoe blueprint: warping squalls of guitar, post-baggy psychedelia and blank vocal harmonies muffled by fringe. From the frenetic opening ‘Seagull’, akin to an utterly emotionless ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘Nowhere’ expanded into hitherto uncharted oceans of sound, such as when ‘Polar Bear’ reimagines Bowie’s ‘”Heroes”’ as an ever-looping acid trip about flying girlfriends. Startling on first release, the vitality to ‘Nowhere’ transcends the shoegaze cliché to this day.
My Bloody Valentine – ‘Isn’t Anything’ (1988)
If ‘Nowhere’ was the shoegaze blueprint, ‘Isn’t Anything’ was its Big Bang. Crushing the core influences of The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, The Velvet Underground and Wire into a white hot ball of weird, Kevin Shields fused a new form of musical plasma that splattered messily across My Bloody Valentine’s full-length debut in its unrefined form. Tenderised, elastic guitar notes bent around gloriously awkward pop tunes prone to bouts of sudden manic punk thrashing and twisting-in-bedsheets narcolepsy. It was the 80s indie version of Picasso chucking his entire palette against the wall and going “copy that”.
Slowdive – ‘Souvlaki’ (1993)
The 21st Century rehabilitation of Slowdive’s reputation is largely down to the lingering echoes from their second album ‘Souvlaki’. Criminally ridiculed in 1993 amid the Britpop fanfare, for over twenty years it hung around like a rather lovely smell until today it’s seen as the defining statement of this self-celebratory scene thanks to Neil Halstead’s desolate lyrics – he’d recently split from singer Rachel Goswell – and lustrous tunes like ‘Machine Gun’ sounding less lost in the (p)haze. Sessions with Brian Eno also inspired songwriter Halstead to discover dub, ambient and Aphex Twin albums, helping him do the impossible – give mist an edge.
Spiritualized – ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ (1992)
As a root influence on the movement with Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce was surfing the solar winds long before shoegazing came along. So his first album with Spiritualized, while only distantly connected to the scene, showed all of these home counties wannabes how to study their sneakers in style. Narcotic dream-pop and intergalactic rock drifted across this double disc like celestial bodies waltzing. If Kubrick rocked…
My Bloody Valentine – ‘Loveless’ (1991)
The daddy. While everyone else had their head down trying to fathom out the monstrous sounds MBV had gifted them, Kevin Shields was busy making them all redundant. Okay, so it took him three years, an army of engineers, 19 studios, most of Alan McGee’s bank account and enough weed to kill a Kraken, but he emerged with a record of such inventive, heart-twisting beauty and violence that it remains unmatched in experimental guitar music to this day. Sampled feedback, bending chords, melodies like sunbursts, tectonic shifts, tsunamis and apocalypses; the revelation of ‘Loveless’ was that it’s beauty came from sounding how music simply shouldn’t – this writer recalls playing it to a couple of record producers who both lay on the floor hyperventilating when they realised my stereo wasn’t broken. ‘Loveless’ may have killed off shoegaze, but it’s also the reason it’s alive today.