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For every era of music, there is always at least one act setting the course for an entire generation of sound, and Cocteau Twins were just that for shoegaze and dream-pop. Starting in the early 1980s, Cocteau Twins were turning out wildly progressive and intoxicating sounds for nearly a decade before either of these musical trends even began to catch. Defined by their outstanding vocals and effects-influenced guitar work, the band created some of the most outstandingly dreamy rock music of its time, and continues to influence all those artists that adore lush guitars and all of its hazy wonderment. No matter how progressive or impressive it was, the sound of dream-pop can still be a little niche, so here are 10 songs to help orient you to the vast musical landscape of Cocteau Twins!
If there was any moment where Cocteau Twins were most obviously an artistic catalyst, it was with Cherry-colored Funk. Never straying from its lulling mid-tempo stroll, the song is still inflected with dreamy guitars and the kind of falsettos that wouldn’t be out of place in an R&B song. Coming from one of their most acclaimed albums, this song is one of the strongest realizations of the band’s progressive tendencies.
Where their later releases explored much stronger melodic interests, their debut album Garlands was a darker affair. Vocalist Elizabeth Fraser’s typically soft voice is sharp and desperate, with a heavy, disorienting layer of reverb laid over the whole song. Not to mention the expert use of drum machines which gives the song an undeniable new-wave vibe.
By this time in their career, Cocteau Twins weren’t even at their creative apex and they were already setting the course for all kinds of acts, from the playfully dreamy and lush guitars that would guide artists like My Bloody Valentine, to the dramatic and piercing falsettos integral to singers like Enya. Considering their influence, Cocteau Twins were largely unsung heroes.
While this piece is far more a musical exploration than a fully-crafted song, it’s still easily a worthwhile piece of the Cocteau Twins legacy because of how ambitious it is. Starting off their fourth record, it displayed a creative fearlessness and willingness to venture into dreamier, more ambient territory, regardless of their popularity as a band at the time. The results are blissful.
Their pop sensibilities never lacking, Lorelei is probably where the band comes closest to ‘dance’ music. With a simply infectious beat and waning synth lead, Fraser’s vocals fill out all of the empty spaces left and creates a mood that confuses just as much as it sucks you in. And before you know it, the song has ended!
Dreaminess is nothing of a surprise to anyone familiar with Cocteau Twins, but Fluffy Tufts stands out because it is so, well, cute. It’s so gentle in its approach, every bit of it feels like a pleasure to listen to, and the band has honestly never sounded so sweet!
The majority of the band’s output is best listened to in the sanctity of your own room on a rainy day. Sugar Hiccup, however, is a fantastic change of pace in the band’s catalog, due to its enormous-sounding, stadium ready production values. Every instrument rings out cavernously and continues to grow fuller and louder all the way through the song’s end. For this, its repetition never grows tiring, but mesmerizing.
The band’s aesthetic choices always seemed to dance from either formless haziness to fine-tuned dream-pop, until the release of their critical darling Heaven or Las Vegas at the start of the 1990s. The title track captures the lushness of their effects-laden guitars, and coolly runs through its five minutes with an infectiously anthemic tone, making it one their most wonderfully crafted, experimental pop songs.
Following the success of Heaven or Las Vegas, Cocteau Twins arguably decided to follow their dreamy bliss, and nothing makes it as apparent as Essence. Only a tidy three minutes, the song literally sounds like floating would if it had a sound. Furthermore, Fraser’s vocals are utilized as another instrument of harmonization rather than being a centerpiece to the song, which is another impressive testament to the band’s progressive ideas about the voice.
Seekers is the final song on their final album Milk & Kisses, and everything about the song seems to signal that finality. From the thick phasor glued to every strum of the guitar, the atmosphere feels like it is echoing from sirens, while Fraser’s vocals wail as both a booming diva and a haunting operatic soprano. For all those seeking sounds that are both dreamy and apocalyptic, this is the way to go.
By Josh Rau
Josh is a media studies student at the University of San Francisco. When he’s not working or writing essays, he’s roaming new and unfamiliar streets in his own world between his headphones, listening to as much new music as possible. That, or he’s just playing it himself and scrolling through Tumblr.