I don’t know if people even know what ethereal is anymore, so I’ll try to define it. It’s a kind of music that’s not for dancing or rocking out. It’s about listening and getting lost in its painted layers of beauty. It’s usually slow paced and has female voices. If you hear something that sounds ‘heavenly’ you might be on the right track.
This style was defined in the 80’s, and experienced a second wave in the 90’s. There were so many ethereal style artists at the time, and labels churning them out, that I can remember a constant flow of new releases and tours coming through town.
I admit I didn’t appreciate it while it was happening. I was young and impatient and ready for a deathrock revival. By the end of the decade, the deathrock revival was underway and ethereal fading away. Now that I’m a little older and my taste more refined, I would say I miss the ethereal bands. I guess the grass is always darker on the other side.
Something about ethereal music doesn’t lend itself to cutthroat competition, so I decided not to rank this list, rather I’ll just give 10 really good tracks. There’s so much of this stuff, and the quality level so high overall, that this could easily be a Top 20 list.
Note, some of these artists veer into ‘dreampop’ or ‘shoegaze,’ but all of these categories tend to blur together so no sense slicing too thin.
Also, Faith and the Muse and Mors Syphilitica I already included in the rock list. These two could just as easily go here, as they straddle rock and ethereal worlds.
An April March ‘We Were Never Attached’
Canadian group An April March made music that sounds like a daydream. The songs are about longing and the past, and the sonics cozy and comforting. They were best in EP size doses, to prevent the listener from sinking into an album length hole. This charmingly resigned tune kicks off their Adagio EP from the defunct Bedazzled Records label.
Black Tape for a Blue Girl ‘Tear Love from My Mind’
Sam Rosenthal helped define the ethereal world of the 90’s with the Projekt label and Black Tape for a Blue Girl. My favorite Black Tape release is A Chaos of Desire, an early album of unassuming, understated beauty. This quiet, delicate track slays me on the right occasion. Play on a lonely gloomy night when it’s raining.
The Changelings ‘Earthquake at Versailles’
A minute into The Changelings’ first album it’s clear it’s one of the best ethereal releases of all time. Everything comes together so well, from the vocals to the players to the electronics and production. I chose this particular track because it showcases key player Paul Mercer on violin. I’ll never forget seeing this virtuoso perform in New York City, after introducing his violin which is “older than New York City.”
The Garden ‘A Doll’s Life’
Unless you happened to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania you most likely don’t know The Garden. The Garden are a well kept secret of one place. But wide popularity is no reflection of quality. Their songs are dearer to my heart than anything else on this list. “A Doll’s Life” was released on a 7 inch record in 1995, and its delicate portrait of the fantasies and mysteries of childhood makes it my pick for their best, most enduring song.
Love Spirals Downwards ‘Avincenna’
This little track was a big success on my small time college radio show. Every time I played this one, somebody would call up to ask what it is. I don’t blame them as its soft spoken, lush beauty lured me in much the same way. Love Spirals Downwards are usually described as a lighter, stripped down version of Cocteau Twins. This song is one of their more idyllic sounding creations.
Miranda Sex Garden ‘Sunshine’
Miranda Sex Garden started out as a traditional vocal group and evolved into a dissonant ethereal rock band. One can feel tremendous talent and creativity behind everything they do. This track is one of their noisiest but at the same time most beautiful creations. Lush vocals combine with white hot frantic energy. A bit heavy for an ethereal list but I guess my idea of ethereal is diverse. Really singular, unforgettable song and video.
Rose Chronicles ‘Awaiting Eternity’
One of the best single vocal performances I can think of is Kristy Thirsk on the first track of the first release of Canadian band Rose Chronicles. This song makes me say ‘wow’ at its perfection every time I play it. Not all of this group’s material is as strong, and they didn’t last, but that’s all right because Kristy would go on to serve as the first and most important voice of Delerium.
Strange Boutique ‘In the Lonely Trees’
Strange Boutique was Monica Richards’ D.C. rock band in the days before Faith and the Muse. My favorite track of theirs happens to be one of the last they recorded. I first heard this song on a Bedazzled Records compilation where it is a memorable standout. Evocative songwriting, performed with razor sharp playing and a touch more polish than usual for them.
This Ascension ‘Light and Shade’
One of the most consistent ethereal bands of the 90’s was This Ascension of California. Always classy and talented, there’s no way to complete the list without including them. All their material is strong, but I choose this particular track for its special sonic qualities, a fluid, almost liquid flow of positive energy. I don’t know what it has to say but I love the way it says it.
This Burning Effigy ‘Exquisite’
Little known goth rock band This Burning Effigy somehow scored a star guest vocalist in Julianne Regan of All About Eve. Julianne wasn’t highly active in the 90’s so this came as a surprise treat. The best adjective to describe this song is the title of it, ‘Exquisite.’ In fact such is the exquisite sonic delight of this track, while it’s playing I’m happy to forget any other songs exist in the world.
All 10 ethereal tracks have been posted as a Youtube playlist.