When people think of music scenes that originated in the ’90s, the ones that often come to mind are the boisterous and upfront alternative rock umbrellas known as britpop and grunge. But one specific genre that often gets overlooked is the wistfully psychedelic-infused effervescence known as dream pop, which usually overlaps with the effect-driven, droning sounds of shoegaze.
Dream pop, known for its faded vocals and gliding instrumentals, provided a tranquil alternative to the posturing male aggression that became synonymous with later alternative rock and post-grunge. My favorite dream pop records are the ones that concoct a sonic atmosphere that floats in between the states of sleeping and waking.
These are my eight essential dream pop records that I would recommend to all listeners.
- Cocteau Twins – Garlands
No band captures the essence of dreams better than the Cocteau Twins. Their most popular records, Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas, had Liz Fraser’s signature operatic vocals overlapping with Robin Guthrie’s elaborate and effect-laden guitar loops. But I always appreciate hearing her voice when it’s more upfront than the instruments. The title track, “Garlands,” showcases Fraser’s dreamy vocal abilities at the forefront fully and clearly.
2. Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Whenever I hear Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star’s hypnotic vocals, I always feel like I’m being transported to an alternate universe or practicing witchcraft in the backwoods of my home town. The infectious psych/garage-esque track “Ghost Highway,” and the intervals and sliding guitar manipulation on songs like “She Hangs Brightly,” and “I’m Sailin'” are equally as captivating as Sandoval’s crooning voice. And the harmonic strings and organs throughout the record are just as intoxicating.
3. Mojave 3 – Ask Me Tomorrow
Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead of the popular shoegaze band, Slowdive, reformed as Mojave 3 in 1995 alongside Ian McCutcheon, Simon Rowe, and Alan Forrester. Their debut record, Ask Me Tomorrow, conjures up a dreamy, melancholic haze.
The album is riddled with sweeping harmonies and lazy-slide guitar leads on tracks like “Love Songs on The Radio” and “Tomorrow’s Taken.” An incredible highlight of the sound change is having Goswell’s gorgeous vocals at the forefront of multiple songs, no longer obscured by effects or distortion like they were on Slowdive records.
4. Julee Cruise – Floating Into The Night
You may know Julee Cruise as the singer who provided the gloomy and airy soundtrack to the David Lynch series, Twin Peaks. Her entire discography is worth getting lost in, but her critically-acclaimed 1989 debut, Floating Into The Night, is undoubtedly her magnum opus. With gliding instrumentals and Cruise’s ethereal vocal performance on songs like “Falling,” “Floating,” and “The Nightingale,” the album really lives up to its name, putting listeners in a state of floating around in weightless bliss.
5. A.R. Kane – 69
While many people look to The Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain as the arbiters of dream pop and shoegaze, A.R. Kane are largely considered to be the unsung heroes that launched dream pop into a proper movement. The duo, made up of Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, released their debut album, 69, in 1988. With heavy feedback and dubs on songs like, “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the album blends elements of dream pop, psych rock, funk, and even post-punk. Their following record, i, is also worth checking out.
6. Lush – Gala
Before My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, and Slowdive, the band Lush was at the forefront of early shoegaze and dream pop soundscapes. Gala is a combination of the band’s first three EPs. Critic Andy Kellman described them as able “to veer from violent and edgy noise breaks to pop effervescence.”
The cracked soprano vocals from front-woman Miki Berenyi are largely obscured by echoing guitar feedback on the slower dreampop cuts like “Sunbathing,” and “Scarlet.” But on more aggressive rock songs like “Bitter,” she’s much more upfront with her delivery, which stands in stark contrast to her more restrained approach to singing on lighter cuts. The lo-fi production is another massive part of the record’s charm.
7. Galaxie 500 – Today
Galaxie 500’s mystical debut, Today, is one of my all-time favorite slowcore albums. Each song, especially the dreamy opener, “Flowers,” and the fuzzed-out “Tugboat,” remain sonically grounded with Dean Wareham’s upper-register vocals completely gliding across his lilting guitar leads and Naomi Yang’s textured basslines, all of which are soaking in reverb.
8. Broadcast – Tender Buttons
What is so remarkable about this particular Broadcast album is the fact that it was made after the departure of several band members, leaving only vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill to work as a duo. But that didn’t stop them from making their most iconic record of all time.
Blending elements of psych pop, avant pop, and experimental space age electronica, Tender Buttons hits every nerve with static shock, drum machines, and crunchy synths on tracks like “I Found The F,” and “Corporeal.” The non-conventional instrumentation beautifully blends with Keenan’s serene vocals. It is also very difficult not to weep whenever the languid ballad “Tears In The Typing Pool” plays.