You have probably heard of Shoegaze before but may not be quite sure what it means. Is it grunge? Is it emotional alternative rock? The reality is Shoegaze is an experimental movement with roots in all of those genres.
Although it began as a derogatory term, the definition of shoegaze music is a catchall referring to indie music with melancholic undertones and lots of pedal effects. Here is everything you need to know about this creative genre and the top examples of shoegaze music.
What Is Shoegaze Music?
Shoegaze music is an alternative genre with roots in new wave and punk. It has a distinct tone that makes it sound dreamy or surreal. Shoegaze music is popular with younger demographics, like Millennials and Generation Z.
Shoegaze Music Characteristics
The most prominent characteristic of Shoegaze music is its heavy reliance on pedals, distortion, reverb, reverse reverb, and other methods of changing the natural sound of the instruments and vocals. Some characteristics of shoegaze include pedalboards, distortion, alternative rock, ethereal tones, slow and sweet, unyielding sounds, and dark undertones.
Without a doubt, the use of effects and filters makes Shoegaze its unique style of music. Pedalboards give the genre its formerly derogatory name. Shoegaze is a term describing the tendency of musicians to face down at their pedals, “gazing at their shoes.”
The importance of pedal boards for Shoegaze artists is not something you can overstate. As Phil Spector once put it, these musical effects give the genre a “wall of sound.” This wall of sound is overbearing, emotional, and quite effective for an experimental genre.
Distortion is the raw, “dirty” filter on an electric guitar that gives it its bite. Shoegaze has never been shy about using distortion, and some newer listeners have even criticized the genre for its reliance on distortion.
Shoegaze itself is a genre that came from alt-rock and pop groups of the 1980s. As such, most Shoegaze artists feature lead vocals, supplementary vocals, lead guitar, and additional talent. The group structure of most Shoegaze bands follows these lines.
Ethereal and Ambient Tone
If you have ever listened to a Shoegaze song, you will notice that it can sound somewhat spiritual or haunting at times. Many Slowdive songs, like “When The Sun Hits,” have an ethereal sound with plenty of echo and reverb; listening to it sounds like you are listening to it in a grand hall or auditorium.
Slow and Sweet
Soft, lingering notes and vocals are common in the genre. Pieces drift between loud bursts of energy and slow, smooth chords, and most songs keep a steady tempo without moving along too fast or rough.
When Shoegaze wants to be brutal, it is more than capable of doing so. Songs like “Mellow” start peacefully. The intro is akin to floating on a river, but the song dramatically shifts to a sharp, unforgiving burst of noise. Shoegaze’s tendency to use distortion gives it some grit.
Melancholic Dark Undertones
Finally, one of the most important characteristics of this style of music is its dark, gothic, and emotional pinnings. Most songs deal with concepts that most of us will experience eventually, like love, grief, dreaming, and regret. Although not every song is dark or emo, there are more than a few examples of it being just that.
Shoegaze music can sound forlorn or longing. Songs like “Bloodhail” have an almost ghostly vibe and a heavy atmosphere. Other songs sound more optimistic and heavenly, like many of the 1990s American artists who brought the British genre back home.
7 Examples of Shoegaze Music
Here is a list of some of the most influential examples of Shoegaze music, from the pioneers of the 1980s to current-day artists.
1. Pearl by Chapterhouse
“Pearl” is one of the first examples of a popular Shoegaze song. It is a song off of the 1991 album Whirlpool by the English band Chapterhouse. Music fans often cite this album as one of the most revolutionary in the genre.
It has all the makings of a shoegaze song: soft vocals, angelic melody, and plenty of pedal boards and reverb. One can wonder what most fans were experiencing the first time they heard this more than 30 years ago.
The song’s lyrics reference the cooler color palette, specifically shades of blue and green. It is great at painting a literal picture in your head. “Pearl” even features backup vocals from another Shoegaze titan, Rachel Goswell of the band Slowdive.
2. Star Sail by The Verve
“Star Sail” is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and respectable Shoegaze songs of the 1990s. In 1993, the genre was just coming to life, and the fact that it was able to amass as much respect is impressive, considering how obscure and experimental it was.
The song starts strong, with a lingering note progression that pairs with mild distortion and ethereal vocals. It keeps a consistent beat and is ultimately a very nice song. “Star Sail” appears on the band’s very first album, Silver: Music From The Motion Picture.
Most people recognize The Verve from its most iconic song, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” It is almost ironic how different the two songs are. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is an urban piece with an orchestral melody, while “Star Sail” is a more humble, “grungelike” piece.
3. Leave Them All Behind by Ride
“Leave Them All Behind” by Ride is another popular Shoegaze piece. It is one of the less emotional pieces in the genre with a lot of 1990s punk and grunge aesthetic. It can remind you a bit of the earlier works of Alice In Chains.
The song is about letting go of the people and things that weigh you down. It is about overcoming grief and loss and denying it the ability to drag you down into the mud. Like most songs by Ride, it has a bittersweet melody that listeners can relate to.
4. Sometimes by My Bloody Valentine
“Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine is an iconic example of the band’s influence within the Shoegaze genre. My Bloody Valentine wrote the song for their 1991 album Loveless. Like Chapterhouse, they have the distinction of being one of the pioneers of the Shoegaze genre.
The song has a droning, consistent beat with melancholic, angelic vocals. The subject matter of the song deals with love, heartbreak, and remorse; it is a much sadder song than others in the genre.
5. Bloodhail by Have A Nice Life
“Bloodhail” is my favorite Shoegaze song. It starts with a steady, solid percussion tempo that gradually leads to the guitar, ripe with distortion. The vocals, graciously sung by Dan Barrett, are nothing short of haunting.
The song is the type of piece you would expect to hear in a dream, and it has an almost surreal vibe that pulls the rug out from underneath even the most stoic post-punk fans. As the piece continues, it phases out with distortion and the now much louder intro beat.
The lyrics to “Bloodhail” deal with regret and emotion. According to the singer Dan Barrett, the song is about the world's end. The piece's tone hits a certain “nostalgia switch” in your brain anytime you listen to it, and it is more than worth a listen.
6. (I Don’t Think That We Should) Take It Slow by LSD And The Search For God
LSD And The Search For God make music that is obscure as its name. Most of their songs are about, well, psychedelics and theology, as their name suggests. God and drugs are common themes within the shoegaze genre, which makes sense given the emotional weight of both those topics.
This song is certainly not shy when it comes to volume. It is one of the band's better songs and arguably its most iconic. “(I Don’t Think That We Should) Take It Slow” is a song about relationships and rushing into them.
7. Younger Than You by Whirr
Another song by Whirr, “Younger Than You,” is a forlorn and melancholy song that deals with growth and coming to terms with change. It is quite different from many other songs on Feels Like You, the 2019 album it appears on.
The lingering aspect of Shoegaze comes to life when you listen to “Younger Than You.” Its sad, misty vocals can sometimes feel drowned out by the heavy percussion that introduces itself later in the piece.
The blend of soft vocals and percussion is a good metaphor for life. What starts soft and innocent must learn to face harshness and adversity, even in the face of hopelessness. It is an excellent example of a 21st-century Shoegaze masterpiece.
Top 5 Shoegaze Musicians
These are some of the most popular past and present Shoegaze musicians.
5. LSD And The Search For God
Reaching prominence in the mid-2000s, this band has only come out with a couple of albums. Regardless, they have hundreds of thousands of fans and even radio play, which is uncommon for many indie bands as experimental as they are.
4. The Verve
Although The Verve has established its newer music as urban orchestral, its debut album was quintessential Shoegaze. We recommend you listen to it to understand how competent the band is at changing its tune.
3. Cocteau Twins
There is debate about whether Cocteau Twins are a Shoegaze group or only adjacent to the genre. Regardless, their music set the template for what would eventually become the standard for the genre. They are one of the oldest groups on this list. They found their relevance in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No list about Shoegaze would be complete without Slowdive. Many credit them for inventing the genre alongside My Bloody Valentine. Some of their most successful songs include “Sugar For The Pill” and “Star Roving.” Despite being active for only six years, they have an impressively large outreach.
1. My Bloody Valentine
The most popular band in the genre has to be My Bloody Valentine. Unlike other groups, they are almost a household name. The group formed in the 1980s and began making unique and fresh music. Today, after almost 40 years, they continue to make Shoegaze after breaking up and reuniting.
The History of Shoegaze Music
Shoegaze never had a set beginning. Rather, the genre emerged from earlier alternative indie styles of music like new wave and noise. Shoegaze came to the forefront of alternative music scenes in the United Kingdom between the late 1980s and 1990s.
Groups like Siouxsie And The Banshees and the Cocteau Twins would enormously influence the budding genre. As opposed to other alternative currents at the time, Shoegaze does not have the clearest vocals or most natural instrumentals.
Bands like Nirvana or The Meat Puppets use melancholic tones and lyrics, but they are missing crucial aspects of the genre and would better qualify as grunge, post-punk, or alternative rock rather than Shoegaze.
As for popularity, the genre became quite popular among neo-psychedelic and dissociative youth groups in the United Kingdom and later the United States. It has a strong tie to the hallucinogenic revival drug culture of the late 80s and early 90s.
As of 2022, the genre has come back in a significant way. Mainstream music platforms like Soundcloud and Spotify have brought Shoegaze music to new audiences, especially the Generation Z demographic who missed the original bands of the 1990s.
Bands like Whirr and Melody’s Echo Chamber continue to make music in 2022. Thanks to streaming platforms and the shuffle algorithm, the genre has seen a massive resurgence, even among groups who would otherwise dislike the genre.
Controversially, you can argue that Shoegaze is more popular now than it was in the 1990s. We must remember that radio stations are picky when choosing to host artists and their music. However, YouTube, Soundcloud, and social media are entirely different beasts. They allow pretty much anyone to post any form of musical genre they like.
What Is Shoegaze Music? Final Thoughts
Shoegaze music is an incredibly diverse and experimental genre. Though its roots are relatively young, it has plenty of established support and recognition in the music industry. The potential for this genre to grow is at an all-time high, with new music released every month.
We suggest you give it a try. You might find yourself humming some of these songs when you are alone. We hope you enjoy our list!