Welcome to RX Music’s Genre Breakdown. Here at RXM, we are obsessed with curating a diverse set of playlists and musical experiences for our clients and subscribers to choose from. This series is designed to provide a brief overview of some of our more specific genre sets. They each include a brief historical overview and highlight important artists and albums that make up the genre.
Immersive mystical rhythms. Synths and layered guitars soaked in reverb to sound like they are bellowing out of a cathedral, resting on a cloud. Breathy vocals provide ethereal harmonies and lyrics focused on escapism and introspection. A trendy sound that’s as calming as a dream but as melodic as a pop song. A genre that has taken over the indie scene and has catapulted it into the mainstream. I am speaking about one of the most calming and enchanting genres to exist in popular music – Dream Pop.
Dream Pop, also referred to as “shoegaze” and “hypnogogic pop”, is a subgenre of alternative rock that began in the early 1990s in the UK with artists such as Cocteau Twins and Slowdive adding rich sonic textures – such as synths and reverberated guitars – to their music to give it unique, “dream like” qualities. It was perhaps first coined by Rolling Stones writer Simon Reynolds in 1991, who stated that these groups should be called “dream pop” because the name “evokes these groups’ blurry, blissful sound and out-of-this-world aura”. Dream Pop primarily features breathy female vocals with a pitch that swings from low bellows to angelic highs. Like the synths and layered guitars, the vocals are washed out with an echoing reverb effect to entrench them into the wavy instrumental flow as much as possible. The result is a haunting yet mellow, chamber like atmosphere.
Cocteau Twins. Photo credits: Odile Noel/Getty Images
Early Dream Pop artists were inspired by the introspective dark-tinged post-punk bands of the UK such as Joy Division and The Durutti Column as well as the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s from groups such as The Beach Boys and The Velvet Underground. In America, Dream Pop found its way into the cultural zeitgeist through the collaboration of director David Lynch, composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise for the soundtrack to the film Blue Velvet and the television show Twin Peaks. Both projects scored by Dream Pop music proved to be massively successful and brought the genre further into the public consciousness.
David Lynch, Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti. Photo credits: Michel Delsol/Getty Images
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about Dream Pop is its timeless nature. This is a music that seems to exist devoid of time and space. Although the early 1990s serves as the heyday of the genre, when contemporaries in the early 2010s such as Beach House and Chromatics came out with a similar Dream Pop sound for a new audience – it did not seem antiquated or out of place. Contemporaries revolutionized the Dream Pop sound for an internet age where themes of isolation, listlessness and a desire for escapism reign supreme. Inspired by the UK Dream Pop bands of the 1990s and David Lynch’s collaborations, Beach House and Chromatics took up the mantle for a whole new wave of Dream Pop bands that fill the indie landscape today. These groups include Cigarettes After Sex, DIIV, Au Revoir Simone, Purity Ring, Alvvays and a host of other outfits.
A discussion of Dream Pop would not be complete without mentioning the artist who has pushed the Dream Pop sound into the mainstream more than any other. Lana Del Rey’s unique blend of Dream Pop with elements of Americana tropes has been a major force in the recent popularity of this genre. Her style has influenced other massively popular mainstream artists such as Lorde and Billie Eilish.
Lana Del Rey
Dream Pop is a genre that is only growing in popularity. It reflects not only a decade long trend that is often imitated and expanded upon, but a renewed interest in the genre’s originators. You can take a listen to the dreamy sound of the who knows where, who knows when if you’re an RX Music client or subscriber by searching for RXM – Dream Pop. Or you can listen to a sample playlist on Spotify at the end of this article.
1. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys (1966)
I know what you may be thinking: “The Beach Boys? Dream Pop? For who? A guy who dreams about surfing and hot rod cars”? Although The Beach Boys had humble beginnings as an American novelty “surf rock” group with songs such as “Surfin”, “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ USA” and “Surf Surf Surfalino” (alright, I made up that last one) songwriter Brian Wilson had bigger ideas for the band. By 1965, Brian quit touring with his bandmates to focus his time in the recording studio completely to fully produce an album himself with the help of a group of studio musicians. When his bandmates (his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love and guitarist Al Jardine) returned home, Brian presented them with a fully produced album for the group to lend their voices to. This wasn’t the malt shop surf jingles the band was used to, this was an album of moody keyboards and introspective lyrics that lamented on lost love and isolation. This psychedelic record is perhaps one of the first works of Dream Pop. “Caroline, No” features Brian’s trademark angelic falsetto over the minor notes of a harpsichord crooning about a lover’s loss of feelings. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” features a lush mix of heavy bass and a deep organ combined with intimate lyrics that somehow describes the sound of lying in silence next to a lover with the only sound being a heartbeat (signified by a distant throbbing of a timpani drum). Pet Sounds is a masterpiece and one of the earliest precursors of the genre. Adding to the Dream Pop aura of timelessness, after this album and the production for the next Beach Boys album (Smile which did not see a full release until 2011), The Beach Boys largely retreated from this psychedelic, Dream Pop sound. This was mostly due to Brian’s battles with mental health, drugs and anxiety surrounding surpassing the album’s success. Thus, the album functions in the Dream Pop genre as an article of an imagined future for The Beach Boys and a hauntological edifice of what could have been.
You can read more about The Beach Boys in our edition of Track Tales about the insane connection between Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson
2. Heaven or Las Vegas – Cocteau Twins (1990)
Perhaps the most important album in the 1990s Dream Pop movement, Heaven or Las Vegas is hypnotic, blissful and as otherworldly as ever. The multi-layered guitars shimmer and echo with distortion. Lead singer Elizabeth Fraser’s unique vocals soar skyward in pitch as well as linger below the mix in a low vibrato. The “alien” nature of her vocals, with many words pronounced in tongues and hard to make out, only lend to the charm of this music being from a separate existence. This album was a work of sheer escapism for the band, as they were dealing with familial trauma at the time of its release. This album will make you feel like you’re floating on a cloud…until you notice the slot machine and the cocktail waitress in the corner.
3. Floating Into The Night – Julee Cruise, David Lynch & Angelo Badalamenti (1989)
This seminal Dream Pop titan of an album almost didn’t happen. For his 1986 surrealist mystery film Blue Velvet, David Lynch wanted to use the track “Song To The Siren” by Dream Pop group This Mortal Coil for the movie’s soundtrack. For some reason, the group (or a manager associated with them) wanted to charge Lynch a $50,000 license fee to use it. A fee that producer Dino De Laurentiis did not want to pay. So, Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti decided to create their own Dream Pop song. According to a Rolling Stone article, Lynch instructed Badalamenti to create something that was “just ethereal beauty”. Vocalist Julee Cruise was picked for her “delicate, wishful voice” and the song “Mysteries of Love” was recorded for the film. This song features an almost a gospel like quality of Cruise crooning softly over synth notes that seem unending. The song was a huge hit, and an album full of similar Dream Pop songs was recorded. An instrumental version of “Falling”, a jazzy track with an echoing guitar line, became the theme song for Lynch’s next project – Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks took over American pop culture in the early 1990s and beamed selections from this album into living rooms across the nation. The music of Dream Pop complimented the mysterious, ominous themes of the TV show perfectly and served as the diegetic focal point of dream sequences and character relations throughout the show’s run. In fact, Twin Peaks and Dream Pop became so intertwined in popular culture that when the show returned for a third season in 2017, almost every episode ended with a performance by a Dream Pop group – including Chromatics, Au Revoir Simone and even Julee Cruise herself. Just like the town of Twin Peaks, Dream Pop seems to exist in a place a long way away from the world.
Here is Julee Cruise performing the song “The World Spins” on the show in its second season, during a surrealist revelation for Agent Dale Cooper.
4. Souvlaki – Slowdive (1993)
This classic album by Slowdive will suck you in and put you into a complete trance. The wall of dissonant yet engulfing guitars by Neil Halstead and Christian Savill work perfectly in tandem with the haunting vocals of Rachel Goswell. Album opener “Alison” is fed through a phaser, an effect which lends itself to the feasibility of the song existing in a separate consciousness. Legendary producer Brian Eno lends keyboards to the tracks “Here She Comes” and “Sing”, adding his irresistible ambient treatment to the album. This album can be summed up by a lyric from “Here She Comes” (where Halstead’s quiet unassuming vocals take the lead instead of Goswell) – the sound of “a shadow” that “dances like my soul”.
5. Teen Dream – Beach House (2010)
Inspired by the Cocteau Twins and Brian Wilson before them, Beach House re-defined the Dream Pop genre as of the 2010s. Their first album of the decade released in 2010 – Teen Dream – is enchanting and gothic, as if it was produced in a cathedral. RX Music named it one of our best albums of the decade. Lacking the reverb and some of the gloom of their earlier releases, Victoria Legrand’s larger than life vocals sound like a siren call but the album’s variances through light and dark allow the listener to choose where to steer their ships of emotion. Legrand and Alex Scally’s arrangements of ethereal synths, organs and fast strummed guitars explode and diminish throughout. This was just the beginning for Beach House. As Legrand sings on “Silver Soul”: it is happening again. This is a direct quote from the show Twin Peaks, paying homage to Lynch/Cruise/Badalamenti. Perhaps it is also a foreshadowing to the four more successful albums that they would release throughout this decade, taking the genre to new heights.
You can read about the record label that first gave Beach House their big break – Carpark Records – in an exclusive spotlight profile by RX Music here.