My name is Caleb Luther and I’ve been reviewing film, music, and television on the internet since 2011.
To the untrained ear, shoegaze can be a fairly challenging genre to get into. The vocals are often mixed lower than the instruments, the music is filled with jarring tones and effects, and the overall meanings of songs can feel pretty abstract at times. For me, it took cranking up several of these albums with headphones on to really allow my conscience to get lost in this beautiful world that's both cathartic and terrifying. I've decided to compile a list of what I feel like are the top 10 shoegaze albums of all time. Along the way, you may find that some of these rankings aren't the most popular, but it's all just subjective. At the end of the day, all these albums have touched people in different ways and we should just appreciate them all for the wonderful role they've played in our lives.
10. My Bloody Valentine - mbv
It's kind of a miracle that My Bloody Valentine's first album in 22 years turned out as magnificent as it is. Recorded between 1996 and 2012, mbv feels like a natural progression from their previous album, Loveless. I'm actually a bit ashamed that I initially put off listening to the album. I'd say sometime around 2016 I finally decided to sit down and take the album in. Song structure-wise, I actually find this to be the most dream pop of any of My Bloody Valentine's material. Sure, the wall of sound that made them the kings of shoegaze is certainly there, but there's also a soft, melancholic feeling throughout.
In songs such as "Only Tomorrow" and "Who Sees You," the repetitiveness of guitars building over top of each other through all 6 minutes of each song never feels monotonous. Instead, it introduces a specific hook that gets stuck in your brain just enough to the point where you kind of don't want it to end. Of course, the album isn't short of absolute explosive moments, as heard in a song like "In Another Way," arguably the strongest track of the album. mbv had seriously high expectations before being released, and to me, it met all them with flying colors.
- "Only Tomorrow"
- "If I Am"
- "New You"
- "In Another Way"
9. Cheatahs - Mythologies
Cheatahs is a modern shoegaze/noise rock outfit out of London. I say that because there's a decent chance you've never heard of them. Around three years ago, I was searching for modern shoegaze bands and Cheatahs caught my attention immediately. They often lean into the heavier side of the genre with no shortage of effect pedals along the way.
Their sophomore effort, Mythologies, is an extraordinarily consistent piece of art, arguably becoming better as the album goes along. It's also fairly diverse, going from a relatively mainstream sounding song like "Hey, Sen" to an experimental and effect heavy song like "Deli Rome." Speaking of diversity, the song "Murasaki" features lyrics sung in Japanese for roughly three-fourths of the song. The album's climactic track, "Mysteci" is a slow burn that descends into pure melancholic bliss, releasing all the tension that the track had been building up to. I recognize that Mythologies likely won't be on most people's lists, but for me, it hits all the right notes that a modern shoegaze act should hit.
- "Channel View"
- "Freak Waves"
- "Seven Sisters"
8. Lush - Spooky
Lush was my introduction to shoegaze. Surprisingly enough, the first material I heard from them was from their final full-length album, Lovelife, which is more brit-pop than shoegaze. For a long time, I wasn't even aware that they had made a few other albums before that were stylistically different than what I had heard. Once I found out who Lush really was, it changed everything for me.
Technically their first full-length album, Spooky showcases all the wonderful things about Lush, from their dreamy chorus driven guitar sound to their overall pop sensibilities. The vocal harmonies from lead singer Miki Berenyl and lead guitarist Emma Anderson are nothing short of magical throughout the entire album. In "Tiny Smiles," a somewhat quieter track, these harmonies manage to feel beautiful and dark simultaneously. In heavier efforts such as "Nothing Natural" and "Superblast!," the band manages to capture that wall of sound aesthetic to glorious heights. At the close of the album, the band displays the finest song (to me) that they've ever put out, "Monochrome." "Monochrome" makes me feel so much that it's kind of hard to describe. It's technically a sad sounding song, but it inspires me so much through the pure art of perfect vocal harmonies, thought-provoking lyrics, and a flawless instrumental.
- "Tiny Smiles"
7. Swervedriver - Mezcal Head
Swervedriver is likely the pioneers of truly heavy shoegaze, blending grunge and hard rock elements into the dreaminess. Their most recognizable album, Mezcal Head, is an absolute triumph of heavy guitar riffs and long songs that perfect some of the most droney aspects of shoegaze. Surprisingly, this is the final album that most people consider shoegaze from them, but I feel like their latest efforts I Wasn't Born To Lose You and Future Ruins are oozing with shoegazing ingredients.
As hard rocking as the album can be, some of the best tracks find the perfect balance of pop melodies and innovative guitar work. I often wonder how a song like "Blowin' Cool" was never a mainstream hit. It's one of the shortest tracks on the album, focusing on hooks and melody over atmosphere and length. On one of the most recognizable songs on the album, "Girl On a Motorbike," lead singer Adam Franklin manages to tell a captivating story with a moody and dark instrumental behind him. In the albums droniest track, "Duress," the build up for all 8 minutes is powerful and hypnotizing, playing with tons of whammy effects on the guitar to create a satisfying, yet somber mood. Mezcal Head probably deserves more credit than it gets, but I'm going to keep playing it out regardless of what anyone else does.
- "Blowin' Cool"
- "Girl On a Motorbike"
- "You Find it Everywhere"
6. Slowdive - Souvlaki
For a lot of people, Souvlaki is undoubtedly the best shoegaze album ever. I totally understand this sentiment. The production is warm, the atmosphere is basically perfect, and the shared vocals between Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell are blended together perfectly. Not only that, but the album is also drenched in melancholic melodies, making it a nearly otherworldly emotional listening experience.
I can still remember the first time I ever listened to the opening track, "Alison." I was immediately transported into another world. The opening effect riddled guitars set the tone for the rest of the album in a way most albums absolutely fail at. While a song like "Here She Comes" is one of the quieter tracks on the album, I find there to be an eerie nature to it. I can confirm this because I used to work night shift by myself and anytime this song would come on, I'd become uneasy to the point where I'd almost have to skip it. As for being one of the pioneers for the genre, the lead riff in "Souvlaki Space Station" can be heard vaguely in almost all modern atmospheric music. For me, the back to back emotional punch of "When the Sun Hits" and "Altogether" is where the album is at its most effective.
While not my favorite album of the genre, Souvlaki is an undeniably influential piece of art that helped shape nearly every shoegaze and dream pop act that came after. And while all four of Slowdive's albums are exceptional, this one just leaves the biggest impression.
- "When the Sun Hits"
- "Melon Yellow"
5. Ride - Going Blank Again
Out of all the bands on this list, Ride may initially come off as the least shoegaze. Their vocals are typically a bit louder than traditional shoegaze vocals and the instrumentation can sometimes feel more like brit-pop than shoegaze. Do not let the pop sensibilities of the album trick you though. Going Blank Again is shoegaze through and through.
The opening track, "Leave Them All Behind," is an 8-minute epic drenched in melodic vocal harmonies and guitars building upon each other. After that, we're treated with more traditional, but still wonderful pop-rock songs such as "Twisterella" and "Not Fazed." The album has a really nice balance to it, going about half and half on mainstream tracks and more expansive, noisier tracks. Songs like "Mouse Trap," "Cool Your Boots," "Time Machine, "and "OX4" absolutely deliver in the most shoegazing way imaginable. "Cool Your Boots" in particular does a magnificent job of building and building while switching between a steady and fast tempo in the final third of the track.
Going Blank Again does the nearly impossible by combining musical genre worlds to create an expansive and beautiful listening experience. Also, I highly recommend listening to the expanded edition. The four b-sides available are wonderful as well.
- "Chrome Waves"
- "Mouse Trap"
- "Cool Your Boots"
- "Going Blank Again"
4. Pale Saints - In Ribbons
For some reason, Pale Saints is rarely brought up in the best shoegaze band discussion. Their debut album, The Comforts of Madness, typically gets the most recognition of all their work, but to me, it's their sophomore album that feels the most ambitious. Similar to Slowdive, there are dueling lead vocals here performed by Ian Masters and Meriel Barham. The switching off between lead vocal duties really makes the album feel fresh and exciting, giving the listener a nice surprise from track to track.
"Throwing Back the Apple" is a perfect way to start the album, feeling like a natural but not drastic progression from Pale Saint's previous album. A song like "Shell" delivers a moody and borderline creepy aesthetic, blending an acoustic guitar and cello together for the most magnificent result imaginable. When speaking about the the best shoegaze tracks ever, I feel pretty strongly that "Hunted" should be in there. It's a nearly 8-minute tour de force that hints at explosiveness early on, only to dial back and take its time before really getting to the climactic wall of sound.
In Ribbons will likely always be one of the most underrated and underappreciated shoegaze albums, but to me, it's a deeply personal album that never seems to get old. For the entire 50 minutes, Pale Saints displays the finest songwriting of their unfortunately short-lived career.
- "Throwing Back the Apple"
- "A Thousand Stars Burst Open"
3. Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas
Regardless if you consider Cocteau Twins as shoegaze or not, you have to admit that they did help shape shoegaze into what it was in the early 1990s. In my heart, I feel like Heaven or Las Vegas is actually the best overall album on this list. It has the best production quality and easily the most impressive vocals of any album on this list as well. Elizabeth Fraser's vocal talents on display here are godlike, essentially becoming its own instrument. Cocteau Twins isn't necessarily a band that you sing along with. Honestly, there's not many lyrics from this album that I can sing back to you, but the vocals and melodies are more so there to create a dreamlike mood for the listener.
On the title track, the harmonies in the chorus elevate the already excellent song to a whole other level, which coincidentally is a constant theme through the album. I also love how the songs can defy the odds and become even stronger with hypnotic bridges. Songs like "I Wear Your Ring" and "Wolf in the Breast" both have crescendos that will stay stuck in your head for days. The closer, "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires," is a somber, yet catchy ending that layers vocals on top of each other during the song's peak. Though often referred to more as dream pop, Heaven or Las Vegas lays all the groundwork for a shoegaze album while playing to the overall strengths of the band.
- "Cherry-Coloured Funk"
- "Heaven or Las Vegas"
- "I Wear Your Ring"
- "Wolf in the Breast"
- "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires"
2. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
I find it kind of funny that the most popular album on this list is also the album that I find the hardest to recommend to people who don't listen to shoegaze. Just as I called Heaven or Las Vegas the best overall album on here, it would be pretty foolish of me to not call Loveless the best shoegaze album on here. On first listen, Loveless may come off as somewhat inaccessible, but on repeat listens (especially with headphones on), it becomes straight up magic in the disguise of music.
The guitar textures and tones are legitimately like nothing else. Guitarist Kevin Shields throws nearly everything at the wall throughout the albums nearly 50-minute runtime. The only way to listen to Loveless is with the volume cranked up. Doing so, you allow everything to be heard, regardless if it feels foreign and even frightening at first. The opening riff to "Only Shallow" would literally catch anyone's attention, featuring odd chord bends through the pulsating fuzz and explosive drum beats. Lyrically, the album can feel a bit repetitive at times, but I believe that's the point. In repeating a mood or feeling that's emotionally resonant, the listener can get lost in the song to much stronger results. Through the pure chaos that is this album, My Bloody Valentine still manages to pull off a relatively sweet song like "Sometimes." Though even when pulling off something sweet, it's still loaded to the brim with fuzz and reverb riddled vocals.
I legitimately don't think that I've ever turned a person on to My Bloody Valentine. The times where a song of theirs has popped up on shuffle during a car ride with friends, they mostly looked confused and lost. In that sense, I think Loveless is a hard sell. However, I think that once you fully get wrapped up in it, Loveless is one of the most rewarding albums ever made.
- "Only Shallow"
- "When You Sleep"
- "Blown a Wish"
1. Lush - Split
Having Split by Lush at number 1 all boils down to personal preference for me. I recognize that it's not as influential as Souvlaki or as genre defining as Loveless, but there's just something about it that connects so personally with me. As far as Lush's discography goes, I truly feel like Split is the most daring and ambitious of all their work. You can vaguely hear the bits of brit-pop seeping in which would soon dominate their entire next release, Lovelife, but it's undoubtedly still a dreamy and cathartic listen.
To tackle why exactly Split is my favorite shoegaze album, I can recall specific moments in my life where these songs guided me through tough times. I can remember having a particularly difficult summer in 2016 and this album was basically on repeat. I'd go bike riding and just get lost in this beautifully ethereal piece of art that Lush created. The two longest songs the band has ever done, "Desire Lines" and "Never-Never" are the highlights of the album for me. Released as a single, "Desire Lines" shows Lush at their absolute darkest and most ambitious, blending in orchestral elements during the song's most explosive moments. Lyrically, there's a simplistic approach that still manages to feel poetic. In "Never-Never," the closing lyrics "Walk along the seaside, this is not a joyride. Tell me in the meantime, it's okay" feel completely heartbreaking thanks to vocalist Mika Berenyl's somber and quiet delivery. Of course, all this happens before a nearly 4-minute guitar solo that's simple yet fitting for the song's overall aesthetic.
The album isn't just melancholic though. One of my favorites is "Lit Up," an uptempo pop song with smooth lead guitars that allow the listener to just relax a bit before the album comes to a close. Split also isn't afraid to get noisy, as heard during the crescendo of a song like "Starlust" where the fuzz is audibly louder than everything else around it. And while a song called "When I Die" should be filled with sorrow, it ultimately feels more contemplative and satisfied as we finish this 52-minute journey of Split.
In conclusion, I obviously have a biased love for Split, but I do think it's a truly great record that often doesn't get the recognition it deserves. I've loved Lush since I heard their song "Ladykillers" in the video game NCAA Football 06, but when they made their short return back in 2016, I fell back in love with them and had a whole new appreciation for them. To me, Split is their magnum opus. A truly gorgeous and heartfelt listening experience that ultimately changed me.
- "Desire Lines"
- "Lit Up"
- "When I Die"