The Essential: Dreampop
Where pop meets shoegaze, often with ethereal, ghostly results. Daniel Dylan Wray gets deeply atmospheric…
As a genre term, dreampop embodies some of the same characteristics as the music it describes: it’s hazy, ever-shifting, often undefinable and yet somehow distinctly recognisable. It overlaps with various other genres, most notably shoegaze, and it can veer into indie, pop, ambient, slowcore, post-punk and techno. One could argue records by the likes of My Bloody Valentine, The Cure and Young Marble Giants all drift into the realm of dream pop from time to time but, due to their prominent association with other genres, for the purpose of this list such artists do not feature.
Instead, this essential collection focuses on records that, while certainly touching upon other genres, have come to define the dream pop term and give it its sonic template. This is a template rich in texture, smothered in immersive atmospheres, swirling melodies and dreamy vocals; a sound that creates a place for listeners to bathe in, to plunge into and get lost and engulfed in. Like the most beautiful of dreams or the most potent of drug experiences, it’s music that can transport you to another place.
The term itself is credited to have come from Alex Ayuli of A.R. Kane, a pivotal band who also feature here, and it came to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s. Instead of focusing on verses and choruses, or being led by riffs on guitars, the music favoured a more ambiguous and often abstract route – moving at a slower pace and unfurling like fog, moving in unpredictable ways and sneaking up on you.
In order to provide an eclectic presentation of records from the genre, no artist features more than twice in this list, but that’s not to say they don’t merit inclusion. Cocteau Twins for example, arguably the defining band of the genre, could rightfully be featured here multiple times. While as a genre dream pop largely had its boom period during the 1990s, there are artists that have carried forward the momentum, taking it into new places or simply keeping it alive. In order to capture a sense of this evolution, some more contemporary releases have also been included here.
For pricing, we have used Discogs’ Median price based on the UK first pressing, unless otherwise stipulated.
40 The Church – Starfish
Australian outfit The Church may be more synonymous with alternative or indie rock, but on their fifth album they entered into a sonic territory that became softer, more textural and generally dream pop in tone. Guitars are still very much at the forefront of Starfish and it’s song-heavy, but its knack for tapping into that hazy middle ground between texture and melody is a pleasing one from a surprising source.
39 The Chameleons – Strange Times
A bit of an unexpected turn for the post-punk outfit on album number three. While the jangly, often jagged edges of earlier work are still present here, the band deliver something a lot more realised, produced and textural that frequently drifts into dreamy and hypnotic territory whilst still possessing some pop smarts, too.
38 Ashrae Fax – Static Crash
Originally released in 2003, there’s no escaping Liz Fraser’s influence on this record’s vocals, but rather than replicate her band’s sound this album pushes into new and more contemporary terrain. Propelled forward with a heavy electronic pop presence that often borders on coldwave, it’s often as euphoric as it is reserved, but succeeds in doing something new with the genre while retaining its original tone and style.
AVERAGE (US) £7.89
37 Belong – Common Era
A relatively modern day offering from the ever-excellent Kranky Records. A misty record that melds shoegaze, drone, rock and ambient, that when combined with the hidden yet powerful vocals of Turk Dietrich finds itself in suitably dreamy territory, often shifting from harsh sonic landscapes to softer, glassier tones.
AVERAGE (US) £14.99
36 Bel Canto – Birds of Passage
The Norwegian band create dreamy sonic landscapes utilising more electronics than many contemporaries. The result is an album that glides between synth-pop, ambient and dream pop, with almost a touch of new age gleam to it, plus Anneli Drecker’s vocals always feel like the most perfectly fitting accompaniment to any sound they explore.
AVERAGE (Sweden) £13.82
35 A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Scribble Mural Comic Journal
The debut album from this American outfit was released some time after the dream pop boom had subsided, but years later the band managed to reimagine it into something that felt contemporary and of the time. Some of the textures explored harsher and more electronic territory, but coupled with the harmonious compelling voice of Lauren Daniels, the album finds itself picking up where many others left off.
AVERAGE (US) £46.50
34 Red House Painters – Red House Painters
An album that spans slowcore, indie and folk as much as dream pop, but Mark Kozelek’s rich-yet-tender voice, combined with brooding acoustics, stretched out melodies and a general humming warmth to the production finds this record slotting into place amongst other dream pop records. The immense texture and ambience the album exudes acts as a stark contrast to Kozelek’s current waffling incarnation.
33 Air – The Virgin Suicides
On the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s debut film of the same name, Air managed to create a piece of work that was most befitting of their name: an airy, breezy, dreamy, hypnotic record that explored space and texture plentifully. Perhaps more typically structured, melodic and song-based than many other inclusions here, but an unquestionably rich and seductive listen nonetheless.
32 M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
A potent blend of electronics, pop, post-rock and ambient collide for this more contemporary exploration of the genre. Whilst on occasion it’s livelier and more visceral than traditional dream pop records, it also has moments that feel both intense and reflective in their deeply atmospheric and dreamy explorations.
AVERAGE (US) £25.67
31 His Name is Alive – Home Is in Your Head
One of 4AD’s many contributions to the genre, the second album from Michigan’s His Name Is Alive, led by Warren Defever, is one that is both dreamy and experimental. The album was recorded on a four-track in Defever’s basement. Be it stirring choral vocals, gently strummed acoustic guitars or mystery unexplainable sounds, it’s utterly transfixing in its ability to lure you into its distinct little world.
30 Windy and Carl – Antarctica: The Bliss Out, Vol 2
Another act from Michigan, Windy And Carl are Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren. This their third album pulls you into another world from the second its hypnotic opening drones begin to unfold. Perhaps more typically, this could be considered an ambient album, but the processed guitar sounds and tonal palate have a lot of similarities with classic dream pop, despite the fact that there are no vocals here. It’s highly underrated, so extra worthy of inclusion.
AVERAGE (US) £22.44
29 Chromatics – Kill For Love
A glistening production of synth-laden dream pop on the fourth album from the American outfit. A record that feels both indebted to the past yet also shimmers with a futuristic edge and takes the essence of 90s dream pop and adds an iridescent noir dimension to it. More electronic, silky and sultry than some of the original works in the genre, but a key example of where it can be taken to.
28 Low – I Could Live in Hope
Arguably the album that came to define slowcore as much as dream pop, but given the extremely niche genre the former became, this deserves a place here. The band’s debut album would set a template for the power of quiet. Reverb-laden guitars, sparse drums and interlocking glowing vocals sparkle throughout.
AVERAGE (2011 Reissue) £118.50
27 Broadcast – Haha Sound
A slightly more experimental foray into dream pop, Broadcast utilised swirling psychedelia, jumping electronics and motorik rhythms around the central voice of the late Trish Keenan. However, Keenan’s endlessly alluring vocals – ones that can be as soaring as they can tender and refrained – never fail to suck the listener into a world that is as dreamy as it often is hallucinogenic.
26 The Wake – Here Comes Everybody
Certainly an album that touches upon countless genres, from post-punk and indie to dub. However, the breathy vocals, dense production and deep exploration of texture place this as an early album delving into areas that many would only arrive at a decade later.
25 A.R. Kane – 69
The artists who coined the term dream pop were actually a group committed to the exploration of multiple genres. Their debut is often as noisy and experimental as it is typically dreamy, but this 1988 release was a crucial (and overlooked) one that laid the vital groundwork for new textural explorations in guitar music.
24 Luna – Lunapark
After the collapse of Galaxie 500 Dean Wareham formed Luna with Justin Harwood of the Chills and Stanley Demeski of The Feelies. Much like Galaxie 500, the band often veer more into rock and indie-pop territory, but Wareham’s uncanny ability to craft lush soundscapes and deeply textured cloud-like songs continued gracefully into his new project, too.
AVERAGE (AUS) £89.77
23 The Telescopes – The Telescopes
On their second album, The Telescopes continued to explore the cross fertilisation of space rock, noise and psychedelic dream pop, although this album takes on a much more textured and slower approach than its noisier predecessor Taste. Plaintive acoustic guitars, swirling atmospheres and rich pull-you-in vocals lead the way on an album that didn’t end up with the legacy it deserved.
22 Mojave 3 – Ask Me Tomorrow
After the disbandment of shoegaze heroes Slowdive came Mojave 3, and with them came a distinctly more acoustic, folk-tinged sound that stood in stark contrast to the electronic ambience of Slowdive’s final album. Here, over sparse, moody accompaniments, Rachel Goswell’s vocals are left to float over the record in beautiful enveloping waves.
21 Loveliescrushing – Bloweyelashwish
Leaning more towards the shoegaze end of things with huge surges of guitars and textures so thick and layered it’s like wading through sonic glue, this album remains an overlooked addition to the mid-90s popularity of the genre. Despite the fuzzy guitars and quiet noise that bubbles quietly underneath, the endlessly ethereal vocals of Melissa Arpin-Duimstra add wonderfully dreamy textures to it all.
AVERAGE (US) £63.20
20 Dif Juz – Extractions
Another 4AD addition to the genre. Whilst Liz Fraser pops up on this record as a guest, Dif Juz’s debut was tonally quite far removed from her band. While intense, often moody and ambient, it also features saxophone, off-kilter rhythms and ever-shifting tonalities that expand the foundations of what is often constituted as dream pop.
19 Beach House – Teen Dream
Of all the bands that have taken the formula of dream pop and carried it into a new age, Beach House are the most prevalent and consistent. The Baltimore duo explore deeply layered music that whooshes and swishes around the inescapable vo often shifting between hazy pop moments and serene ambience.
18 Broadcast – Tender Buttons
Every Broadcast record could easily feature in this list, but there’s a real poignancy to Tender Buttons in that it would be the band’s last studio album, with the immense talent of Trish Keenan sadly dying. A record that is immediately transporting and rich with lucid and hallucinogenic offerings, gliding between weirdo pop, avant garde and wistful immersive ambience.
17 Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Along with Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser and Julee Cruise, the voice perhaps most synonymous with this genre is that of Hope Sandoval. The band’s debut album allows her voice to float and haunt a record that glides between dreamy atmospherics, alt rock and psychedelic offerings to result in a record that Kurt Cobain listed in his favourite 50 of all time.
16 Lush – Split
The third album from a band that often walked the fine line between alt rock, pop and shoegaze. On this, the band are at their most introspective and dreamy. The near eight-minute Desire Lines perhaps most perfectly captures this mix of dense, floating vocals and slowly unfurling melody and moody guitars.
15 The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
Jangly guitars, moody atmospherics and a pristine vocal collide to form a blend of pop that was as euphoric as it was introspective. The flat-out pop magic of Here’s Where The Story Ends could have positioned the band as a real crossover sensation, but The Sundays remain more of a (relative) cult act in Rough Trade’s rich history.
14 Low – Things We Lost in the Fire
By this stage, Low’s sonic formula of delicate, reserved melody with hushed vocals and echo-laden guitars had stretched out and been played with, but Things We Lost In The Fire is perhaps the record that comes closest to capturing the bare-bones essence of the band from when they started. Albeit with a richer, warmer glow of production to their delicacy. AVERAGE £23.79
13 Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies
After the messy descent of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized continued some of the potent blast of psychedelic space rock that defined his previous band, but also changed the focus to a more textural, atmospheric, often melodic edge. The result is a record that is both the party and the comedown, as well as that dreamy half-asleep place in-between.
12 Galaxie 500 – Today
Another album that was as pivotal across slowcore, indie and college rock at the time. Dean Wareham’s distinctly wonky vocals might not possess the conventional allure of some other vocalists of the genre, but the band’s love of The Velvet Underground and Television combined with the melodic hush of Big Star created a new and unique sound for the decade that would be emulated heavily in years to come.
AVERAGE (US) £24.92
11 Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
By this stage in their career, Yo La Tengo had explored indie-rock, noise, pop and all manner of other avenues, but on their ninth album they distilled their sound down to something softer. Gentle pop lullabies with woozy guitar lines and quietly unfolding melodies brush against the delicate yet airy percussion to form one of the band’s most quiet yet arresting records.
AVERAGE (US) £35.91
10 Bowery Electric – Beat
Critically revered at the time and named rock LP of the year by Melody Maker, this 1996 album has been banished to the huge pile of brilliant but largely forgotten records. Its mix of beats, pulsing ambience, hushed vocals, subtle electronics and engulfing atmospheres positions this as one of the great albums of the era and the genre, arguably a touchstone for both trip hop and dream pop.
9 Felt – Ignite the Seven Cannons
Produced by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and featuring a knockout guest vocal performance from Liz Fraser on Primitive Painters, this album could warrant inclusion for that connection alone. However, on top of that, the layered jangle guitars, rich keyboards and the otherworldly yet fragile vocals of singer Lawrence find this as an album that sits beautifully between indie and dream pop.
8 Galaxie 500 – On Fire
Galaxie 500’s follow-up album trumps their first, Today, as they delve further into their idiosyncratic world of wonky vocals, off-kilter melodies, slowed-down grooves and quietly screeching guitar solos. A record that successfully manages to feel quiet and tender as often as it does raucous and wild.
7 Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
Liz Harris of Grouper has the kind of voice that unplugs you from the world in an instant. When combined with her deeply textural and often intense sonic landscapes, she creates a blend of psychedelic ambient dream pop that can be as stirring as it can escapist. On her fifth album, she projects a particularly potent combination of these things.
6 This Mortal Coil – It’ll End In Tears
This debut album from the 4AD collective may be an album of covers, but it managed to retain a distinct sense of tone and personality. Filled with echo-laden atmospheres, shimmering guitars and a brooding near-melancholic tone, it is most perfectly defined by the shiver-inducing cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren as sung by Liz Fraser.
5 Cocteau Twins – Blue Bell Knoll
Five albums in and the spellbinding Cocteau Twins continue to reach new heights, with Capitol releasing the LP in the US. Blue Bell Knoll oozes such a magnitude of texture and atmosphere you can almost feel it leaking out of your speakers. Carloyn’s Fingers is up there with their finest moments. Robin Guthrie remastered the album for a 2003 reissue, with a 180g edition following in 2014.
4 Julee Cruise – Floating into the Night
A landmark record for the genre, that proved as much of a pinnacle sonically as it did cinematically, with much of the music made in collaboration with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti being used for his cult TV show Twin Peaks, as well as appearing in Blue Velvet and Industrial Symphony No. 1. The instrumental version of Falling was picked as Twin Peaks’ theme song, elevating Cruise from unknown status. Her voice is the essence of dreaminess, and when merged with dense soundscapes and the hum of a Fender Rhodes it can be a transcendent listen.
AVERAGE (US) £31.38
3 Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See
On their follow-up album, Mazzy Star plunged even further into a dreamy world. The utterly glorious Fade Into You is the perfect album opener, allowing the listener to fade into the band’s world. What follows is deeply hypnotic and almost trance-like at times, the ghostly presence of Into Dust devastating in its beauty.
2 This Mortal Coil – Blood
The final album from the 4AD supergroup and a double one, too. Featuring a mix of covers and originals, Blood finds the band cementing a sound and style that truly became theirs. Matching beauty and eloquence with a haunting frailty, it remains an absolutely distinctive record that many bands have attempted to emulate.
1 Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
A landmark record in every sense: era-defining, label-defining and genre-defining. Six albums in and amid personal tensions and drug problems in the band, this could have been a disaster record, but instead something magical emerged from it. Haunting, beautiful, gloomy, dark, immersive and everything else. From the opening seconds of the majestic Cherry-Coloured Funk, the album is like riding on a cloud.
Daniel Dylan Wray