LISTS If You Only Knew: An Introduction to California Dream Pop By Jesse Locke · March 20, 2024

By its very definition, dream pop is a nebulous genre. First coined by British duo A.R. Kane in the late 1980s to describe their spacey, beat-driven sound, it has come to encompass everything from the hooky side of shoegaze to goth rock, neo-psych, and moody home-recorded music. Lyrics are mumbled, guitars are gauzy, and atmosphere is just as important as melody. In his 1991 dream pop survey for the New York Times, writer Simon Reynolds noted “a common theme is the desire to rise above the drab confines of everyday life by going nowhere fast.”

4AD Records is one of the genre’s most important proving grounds, home to such key albums such as This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears (1984), Cocteau Twins’s Heaven or Las Vegas (1990), and Lush’s Spooky (1992). But although dream pop was born in the UK, California is its spiritual home. Way back in 1969, the Beach Boys toyed with sitars, synths, and reverb effects, unknowingly inventing the sound with their song “All I Wanna Do.” In the mid-’80s, bands from the Paisley Underground movement made the summer of love endless, as proto-dream-popsters Opal introduced the world to singer Hope Sandoval. Opal morphed into Mazzy Star, whose 1993 sophomore album So Tonight That I Might See is correctly considered a high water mark of the genre. That same year, Sweet Trip infused dream pop with blissed out techno, and Starflyer 59 introduced shoegaze to contemporary Christian music, before mainstream-chasing bands like Silversun Pickups expanded the tent even further.

As it continues to inspire offshoots such as chillwave, cloud rap, and TikTok shoegaze, the original sound of dream pop is still going strong in the Golden State. Listed in alphabetical order, here are 10 Californian artists on Bandcamp who have made a significant impact on the genre, or are now drifting dream pop into uncharted territory.

The 1981
Move On

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The 1981 is the new band from Oakland scene-lifers Bobby Martinez and Adam Widener. Though they prefer to call their music “mope rock,” the band’s cavernous synths and guitars owe a clear debt to dream pop. On their 2023 debut, Move On, the duo power through songs about the dissolution of a romantic relationship, injecting hazy bummer jams with the tunefulness of Britpop and Bay Area punk.


Acetone’s story was cut short by the tragic death of bassist/vocalist Richie Lee, but thanks to a recent series of reissues, the cult L.A. band are finally receiving the attention they deserve. Over five albums, the trio’s sound evolved from grunge rock to languid country psych, as Lee’s whispery vocals faded into the mist. Touring with Mazzy Star in the ’90s established their dream pop bona fides, and when Acetone reunited for their first live performance in 15 years, Hope Sandoval joined them on vocals.

The Bilinda Butchers

Is there any clearer way to show the influence of My Bloody Valentine than naming your band after their guitarist? The Bilinda Butchers describe their 2014 debut album Heaven as “a soundtrack set to the diary by Nakajima Ume, a young woman who lived in Japan from 1836 to 1864.” The lyrical concept of a lovers’ suicide pact is heavy, but their music is a buoyant mix of shoegaze, vaporwave, and breakbeats—dream pop for the extremely online.

Blue Ocean
Fertile State

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On their 2023 debut, Fertile State, Oakland’s Blue Ocean bring a noisy, lo-fi approach to dream pop. Deadpan, echoing vocals are buried under layers of guitar feedback and squelching electronics, resulting in a bewildering sound reminiscent of Disco Inferno or Flying Saucer Attack. Like those bands, Blue Ocean has hooks, but you might have to swim deep to find them.

Mister Baby
Mister Baby EP

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Whether playing with April Magazine and in the Reds, Pinks & Purples live band or recording twee dream pop songs as Mister Baby, Katiana Mashikian operates at the forefront of San Francisco’s “fog pop” scene. Her solo project may be quiet and intimate, self-described as “if the Marine Girls started making music a decade later,” but it’s not without humor. For proof, just listen to her straight-faced cover of Aqua’s “Dr. Jones.”

Mo Dotti
For Anyone and You

Mo Dotti have yet to release a full-length album, but they’ve earned a reputation as one of L.A.’s most exciting new bands. The quartet led by singer/guitarist Gina Negrini use the term “jangle-gaze” to delineate their sound, and those words work as well as any. The group’s latest double single shows off the two sides of Mo Dotti’s music: swooning, MBV-influenced noise pop and melancholy, Phil Spector-esque walls of sound.

Peel Dream Magazine
Magic is Pocketed

Joseph Stevens’s take on dream pop is meticulous and manicured, without a hair out of place. Baroque orchestral arrangements, shimmering Mellotron, and vintage rhythm boxes are primarily the order of the day, but he’s been known to turn up the volume, as heard on Peel Dream Magazine’s 2020 breakthrough, Agitprop Alterna. For anyone seeking a mesmerizing hybrid of MBV and Stereolab, look no further.

Lemon Lights

San Francisco, California
✓ following
San Francisco, California
✓ following

San Francisco’s Seablite are one the dreamiest, poppiest bands on this list. Their second album, Lemon Lights, mastered by none other than Ride’s Mark Gardener, combines airy vocals with chiming guitars and propulsive rhythms. The baggy beat of “Hit The Wall” proves that shoegaze and Madchester were never unlikely bedfellows, while the mesmerizing ambient closer “Orbiting My Sleep” drops the drums out altogether.

Soft Pastels
Shutters View

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Soft Pastels make grayscale dream pop, teasing out its gothic undertones, and snapping into the icy sound of coldwave. Chorus-drenched leads, thumping drum machines and whispery, longing vocals set the tone for the anonymous, SF-based solo project. Even if he sounds more like the Cure than the Cocteau Twins, Soft Pastels still channels sunny skies and palm trees on his melancholy mission statement, “California Circus.”

Passing Glance EP

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Smoking Room label boss Samuelito Cruz pulls triple duty as the guitarist, drummer, and vocalist of Toner. Like a jock lifting weights to get over a breakup, the band’s 2016 Passing Glance EP takes the gloomy side of shoegaze and pumps it up. Fans of Hotline TNT and other supercharged emo-rockers will crank the volume on these cathartic bangers, bringing California dream pop out to muscle beach.

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