You will argue about this list of essential goth records. You will say that some of these albums aren't goth at all and others should be listed in their place. That's part of the point. In my many years of writing about music and DJing it at clubs, I think of music less in terms of strict genres than vibes. With goth, the important part is that the music taps into the darkest human emotions, whether through lyrical content or sound, and puts those emotions forth in a way that brings joy to people who hear it on their own or in a club.
This list features some obvious choices, as well as some (hopefully) lesser-known works. These are primarily '80s releases from bands that, in various ways, influenced how the goth scene here in Los Angeles evolved. Enjoy!
10. Specimen, Batastrophe (1983)
Specimen's 1983 EP, Batastrophe, is perhaps the most conventional-sounding entry on this list. It's a heavily glam rock–influenced collection of songs that doesn't sound terribly different from what you would have heard on alternative-minded radio stations during the era.
In addition to producing the perennial goth club hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Specimen's contribution to the scene is massive. Vocalist Olli Wisdom is known for his work with the U.K. nightclub Batcave, where goth essentially became a scene. These days, people throw around the name Batcave to indicate a connection to old-school, typically British, goth tracks.
9. Legendary Pink Dots, Crushed Velvet Apocalypse (1990)
I've included Legendary Pink Dots on this list for one important reason: They're one of my all-time favorite bands and you should hear them. Within their immense body of work, LPD have played with minimal synth, experimental and psychedelic sounds. While they aren't a conventionally goth band, a fairly significant portion of their audience has come out of the goth scene. There are a lot of reasons for that and one of them is the 1990 album Crushed Velvet Apocalypse.
This album wins the super-goth award for its title alone. Similarly, songs titles like “I Love You in Your Tragic Beauty” and “Princess Coldheart” could pique the curiosity of the black-clad kids at the record store in the early '90s. But there's a lot going on inside this album. “Princess Coldheart” is a fairy tale with a conventional pop-song structure and quirky delivery. “The Pleasure Palace” is an industrial-ish experimental piece. The standout track is “Just a Lifetime,” a lyrical portrait of a world nearing its end, set to a mournful, marching beat. It's one of the handful of LPD tracks you might find in a goth club DJ's set list.
8. Visage, Visage (1980)
If you strictly adhere to scenes and genres, then you will find the inclusion of Visage a lousy one. The band was closely tied to London's new romantic scene; vocalist Steve Strange was affiliated with that scene's famed nightclub Blitz. However, the new romantic influence is still strongly felt in Los Angeles' goth scene and Strange, who died in 2015, is a fashion and music icon.
Visage's self-titled debut made an impact in a number of music scenes. It's a fantastic dance album and a brilliant slice of synth-pop that no doubt inspired many who made electronic music in the years to follow. For the goth crowd, the essential track is “Fade to Grey.” Beat-driven yet forlorn, this longtime club hit is one of the best examples of the beauty-in-sadness that marks the DJ sets inside these dark, foggy nightclubs. Also, since L.A.'s own goth scene is often closely tied to synth-pop, this is a completely appropriate choice.
7. Xmal Deutschland, Tocsin (1984)
You're not a goth unless you struggle to pronounce (or spell) some of the goodies in your record collection. Let's take Xmal Deutschland. Sound out the name of this 4AD band and you'll do fine. It's the song titles that are a mouthful for those of us who didn't take German in school.
Hailing from Hamburg, Xmal Deutschland embodies the doom of goth. Singer Anja Huwe has a deep voice and prefers to wail like the end of the world is upon us. Heavy bass, tribal drums and racing guitars all heighten the tension in this album. Since I can't understand the bulk of the lyrics, it feels more cinematic to me and, in my head, this is the sound of a downright devastating film. “Mondlicht,” the opening track from Tocsin, is still a fairly popular club track. Get yourself the CD or MP3 version, though, so that you can hear the bigger club hit, “Incubus Succubus II.” (It's also on the Spotify version of the album.)
6. Marc and the Mambas, Torment and Toreros (1983)
After Soft Cell, Marc Almond put together the unfortunately short-lived Marc and the Mambas. The project featured a number of noteworthy collaborators. Anni Hogan was a goth club DJ who went on to work with Almond on a number of different releases. Torment and Toreros also features contributions from Jim Foetus (aka J.G. Thirlwell) and Matt Johnson from The The. In addition, Almond co-wrote the song “Torment” with Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Martin McCarrick, who played cello on this album, went on to spend several years with the Banshees.
Torment and Toreros shows off Almond's flair for torch-style delivery while incorporating experimental elements into the songs. The highlight is “Black Heart,” an emotional depiction of heartbreak that showcases Almond's knack for vivid storytelling. I don't know if this is the case everywhere, but it's long been a must-play track at L.A. goth clubs and the crowd always gets really into it. If you want to see people put their lives into a song as they pantomime it on the dance floor, you play this.
5. Virgin Prunes, If I Die, I Die (1982)
Virgin Prunes is one of those bands who occasionally get a footnote in post-punk histories, mainly for the Dublin band's connections to U2. But their contribution to what became goth is crucial, and much of that is pressed onto the 1982 album If I Die, I Die. The album comes with major cred; it was produced by Wire's Colin Newman and released via the highly influential U.K. post-punk label Rough Trade.
“Baby Turns Blue” is a dance song about death. That alone makes it a winner and it's probably why goth DJs still pack the floor with this track. I remember the first time I heard this song, via a mixtape that came my way in high school, and how it filled me with a urgent desire to get up and move. My reaction is the same when I hear it today. If I Die, I Die mixes big, sing-along cuts with moodier pieces. The album's opening track, “Ulakanakulot,” is itself a bold move, with an extended instrumental lead-in to moaning vocals. It's the sort of thing that could put listeners off, but it's a good introduction to a band whose dramatic flair continues to inspire goth bands to this day.
4. Cocteau Twins, Garlands (1982)
There are certain record labels that are hallowed among goths, and 4AD, responsible for two entries on this list, is one of them. The famed British indie label is beloved by spooky-music lovers mostly for its early-1980s output and, on that roster, Cocteau Twins were stars.
The first full-length from the Scottish band is bleak, noisy and beautiful. It also sets up the dance floor for what would become the conventions of goth club music. “Wax and Wane,” with its slow, steady beat, is perfect for swirling your hands above your head before you dramatically fall to the ground. “Blind Dumb Deaf” is even slower. If you've ever heard stories about goths dancing as if they're looking for a contact lens, it was probably while this song played. “Garlands” is the crossover track, the one that might get indie rock fans on the floor.
3. Bauhaus, Burning From the Inside (1983)
There are plenty of difficulties that come with narrowing down a list of essential goth albums. The hardest task, though, is picking just one Bauhaus album to include. I went with Burning From the Inside because it marks the band's initial big break-up, and the sad-fan feelings that come with such an album are super goth.
Burning From the Inside opens with Peter Murphy at his theatrical best, telling a story with a film-world vocabulary that becomes all the more sinister with his delivery. And then there's the dub bass! From there, the band goes into an ode to Antonin Artaud. There are a lot of winners on this album. One of my favorites is “King Volcano,” perhaps Bauhaus' most subtle reference to David Bowie (go listen to Bowie's “Velvet Goldmine”). It's a creepy waltz filled with chanting that is a better Halloween jam than “Bela Lugosi's Dead.”
2. The Sisters of Mercy, Floodland (1987)
If this were a goth singles list, I would tell you go and seek “Temple of Love” or “Alice,” two of Sisters of Mercy's early goth dance classics. However, this list focuses on the album and so I am instead advising you to go and pick up Floodland.
Floodland was my own introduction to a band that quickly became a favorite, thanks to monster “This Corrosion,” a jam that plays like the climax of an action film, and its postapocalyptic video. The album's hit, though, comes after the album's midpoint. That's important to know because Floodland is an exceptionally cohesive album and must be heard from start to finish. You need the chills of anticipation that come with “Dominion/Mother Russia,” the build of “Flood I,” to catch the groove. You need to hear the album's first peak, “Lucretia My Reflection” and let the relative calm of “1959” hit you before you start jumping around your room screaming out the words to “This Corrosion.” Trust me, I've been listening to this album regularly since my teenage years and it doesn't get old.
1. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Juju (1981)
If I had to cite one band that is essential to what became known as goth, it would be Siouxsie and the Banshees. They got their start in the punk scene and gradually moved more toward pop through the 1980s and early '90s while still keeping it weird. It's worth your while to check out the entire catalog (B-sides included) as well as various side projects like The Creatures (Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie) and The Glove (Steven Severin with one-time Banshee Robert Smith of The Cure).
However, if you're only going to listen to one Siouxsie and the Banshees album, make it Juju. It's the album that best encapsulates what this band means to goth. By 1981, punk was a distant memory for the band, but they had yet to adopt the polished sound of later albums. (That would happen on the following album, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse.) Songs like “Spellbound,” “Arabian Knights,” “Halloween” and “Monitor” are raw, dark and intensely catchy, which is why they are still staples at goth nights. “Sin in My Heart” still has the energy of the band's punk days and they manage to ramble long and well on “Night Shift” and “Voodoo Dolly.”