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Whilst its origins are vague, with most people pointing to 80s gothic rock and 90s shoegaze as precursors, dream pop has turned out to be the perfect title for a genre that’s rooted in evoking atmosphere.
In the new millennium, more and more artists began using dreamier textures when making pop/rock music – and the results were often startling. ~ Jonathan Rimmer
Dream pop may seem inherently antagonistic at first. Pop music is, by its nature, designed as catchy and attention-grabbing so it does the opposite, lulling you into unmindful relaxation.
The best artists in the genre have managed to create dreamscapes that are utterly immersive without sacrificing the hooks. Bands like Beach House and Grimes have enjoyed great success with this formula in recent years.
However, these acts wouldn’t have reached such a wide audience if it wasn’t for the tireless work of many early 2000s acts. As the new century dawned, more and more bands were using atmospheric production styles that captured the imagination. Here are five such acts.
Essential Album: ‘The Last Broadcast’ (2002)
“You turn around and life’s passed you by // You look to ones you love to ask them why? // You look to those you love to justify, why? // You turned around and life’s passed you by.”
Manchester band, Doves, are often associated with the Britpop scene due to their rasping vocals and strutting grooves (plus they originally formed as a Madchester-esque dance group). By the time they released ‘Lost Souls’, though, it was clear they had a denser sonic palette than their peers.
Although Doves have often professed that they try to make ‘euphoric’ music with ‘hope and beauty’, their soundscapes have tended to evoke a sense of melancholy. Their most successful singles exhibit the sense of ‘yearning’ better than anything.
There’s a distinct unease to the likes of ‘There Goes the Fear’ and ‘Black and White Town’ that permeates in spite of the upbeat choruses. The latter’s famous video sees a young boy trapped in a grey council estate running away for something better a la ‘The 400 Blows’. It’s gloomy, poetic and hopeful all at once.
Essential Album: ‘Frengers’ (2003)
“In a big, big way // I am really small // I get off my feet // But I’m still distant // Don’t you just love goodbyes?”
Many think of Mew as Denmark’s answer to Coldplay – in fact, the two bands have even linked up for a side-project called Apparatjik – but Mew have always had more progressive instincts.
Their effeminate vocals, creative song structures and ethereal production came together most impressively on the 2003 album ‘Frengers’, an album that they’ve regrettably never lived up to.
However, it takes a great cynic not to appreciate the band’s natural pop instincts. ‘Snow Brigade’, ‘Am I Wry? No’, ‘156’ and ‘Comforting Sounds’ were as catchy as anything that English big guns Coldplay or Muse produced in their heyday. If Doves were more murky and psychedelic, think of Mew as their perky European cousin.
Essential Album: ‘The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic’ (2003)
“Beneath the rain, between the maps // My diary bears this out but memory has it wrong // I loved you when you loved me and then we were gone.”
It’s surprising that this collective never received wider acclaim, particularly when you consider they’ve had more members than the masons. For whatever reason, the word never really got out about Piano Magic’s sensational experimental style.
To be clear, you can’t just pick up any record and expect intoxicating dream pop; the band have explored electronic music, post-rock and more gothic styles. Much like new wave legends, Dead Can Dance, they also split male and female vocals depending on the atmosphere of a single track.
If you’re looking to invest time in a particular brand of shoegazey dream pop, you may find yourself disappointed. However, you can’t simply get lost in a Piano Magic track; you have to get lost in their entire discography.
Essential Album: ‘Together We’re Stranger’ (2003)
“Shine your bright light over me // And help me see // I walked on water // I came through slaughter just for you.”
Though it’s less well known, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Steven Wilson pioneered a dream pop act. The prog legend who fronted Porcupine Tree and produced/guested for everybody from Opeth to Pendulum was also the mastermind behind No-Man.
Wilson and vocalist Tim Bowness took the project to its peak in the early 2000s, integrating jazzy and adventurous grooves into their signature soundscapes. Bowness and Wilson’s vocals would often intertwine with the hazy chords, creating an entrancing effect that would envelop the listener.
If that sounds too much like a typical psychedelic side-project, consider that pop magazine Melody Maker once called them ‘conceivably the most important English group since The Smiths’. That should be more than enough indication that these guys are worth a gander.
Essential Album: ‘Unison’ (2003)
“Dreaming of waterfalls landing in my mouth // I can still taste you on my tongue // When I awoke to watch you dress from the corner of my eye.”
The least well known of the five acts on this list and probably the saddest, Homesick for Space combined wailing guitars with mellow synths and wispy vocal hooks. Rooted in screamo, the New York band later preferred to convey emotional intensity in a more subtle way.
The band evolved significantly from their heavily emo-inspired self-titled EP. Their sound always had a dreamy undercurrent but never fully delved into building walls of sound until their debut LP ‘Unison’.
In fact, you’re likely to never hear a band as controlled with their build-ups as Homesick for Space. The vocals will be hit or miss for some people – they were mercilessly mopey in truth – but the crescendos on ‘Unison’ remain a wonder to behold, intensely cathartic bursts that will make you question why on earth the band never fared better.
The ability to transport a listener whilst making music that is, in essence, pop is not easy. What the five bands above have in common is an affinity for both melody and tone, something that artists and critics have often tended to separate.
Dream pop is a testament to the wondrous potential of contemporary music. If anything, hazy production styles are even more popular now a decade on.
Who else would you recommend from the 2000s, though?
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