It’s been more than 30 years since punk rock’s confessional, diaristic, heart-on-sleeve offshoot “emo” came screaming from Washington, D.C., and around a decade since its commercial peak. But emo is having a moment in 2016 thanks to Panic! at the Disco scoring their first Number One album, Dashboard Confessional serving as the basis of a Jeopardy! question, and “fourth wave” emo bands like Title Fight and Into It. Over It. becoming the toast of music sites. Here are the best albums from the fragile genre where being sad makes everyone so, so happy.
The Used, ‘In Love and Death’ (2004)
Utah’s the Used blasted on the scene with a more tragic, dark brand of emo with singer Bert McCracken screaming raw, violent explorations of self-abuse, loneliness, suicide and death. “Take my hand/Take my life,” he screams at the top of his lungs in the hook of “Take It Away.” Between the tougher, more visceral songs are equally gut-wrenching power ballads, like the vulnerable, catchy hit “All That I’ve Got.” Balancing pop and hardcore, the Used perfected a unique entry point for the genre. “I think everything that went into the record — me having lost two friends, tension within the band and tension with our producer — was mostly positive,” McCracken told MTV, “because it all made the songs come together like magic.” B.S.
Panic! at the Disco, ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’ (2005)
What hath Pete Wentz wrought? The grammatically adventurous Panic! at the Disco were barely a band when Wentz discovered their demos online, but within a year, they had signed to his Decaydance label and became scene-dividing stars. A rush of whirring electronics, orchestral flourishes and vaudeville camp, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is more the Faint than the Faith, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s not a snapshot of where “emo” was at in 2005, right down to the sentence-long song titles. Everything that happened in its aftermath – band members leaving, an arena tour that featured a circus intermission (because they didn’t have enough songs for a full set), a stoned, somnambulant sophomore album – suggests Panic! weren’t ready for the spotlight, but just last month, they scored their first-ever Number One album. And though only lone founding member Brandon Urie remained, it proved that the genre-defying blueprint they laid out a decade ago was, improbably, rock solid. J.M.
Into It. Over It., ‘Intersections’ (2013)
Early into his run as Into It. Over It., Chicago troubadour Evan Thomas Weiss was known mostly for the sheer volume of his work. His most ambitious project, 2009’s two-disc compilation 52 Weeks, found Weiss writing and recording one song per week for a year. But those salad days also allowed Weiss to woodshed, and by the time he got to Intersections, he sounds controlled, comfortable and confident in his own skin. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun making such a sad record,” he says in Intersections‘ accompanying Web documentary, and for sure, the album finds magic in contradictions. Weiss’ amicable, off-the-cuff delivery is the sugar that makes Intersections‘ heartbreaking lyrics go down, while his crystalline guitar figures dart and dance around the misery. A.B.
Indian Summer, ‘Science 1994’ (2002)
Combining three 7-inches and three compilation appearances originally released between 1993 and 1995, this nine-song studio discography by short-lived Oakland four-piece Indian Summer is most profound for its striking contrasts – every minute of calm reaps a subsequent avalanche of havoc. “Are you an angel?” Adam Nanaa whispers, while, playing softly in the distance, you can hear the crinkle of a weathered Bessie Smith record. “You say that you’re leaving,” she croons. “Aren’t you, angel?” Nanaa replies, before he and Smith are both washed away in a dissonant maelstrom of guitars. Samples of Smith’s discography resurface throughout the LP, underpinning the cathartic swing and crash of “Woolworm/Angry Son,” into the sobering death march of “Orchard.” Though Indian Summer’s raucous punk stylings are a far cry from Bessie Smith’s blues, the heartbreak seems universal. S.E.
Orchid, ‘Gatefold’ (1999)
After releasing their first record in 1999, Orchid became a prime jumping-off point for the “screamo” bands that followed in their wake (not to mention the candy-coated hybrids that terrorized Warped Tours). Just seconds shy of 25 minutes, Orchid’s self-titled final LP (also known as Gatefold) is a political thesis as told through grindcore. Vocalist Jayson Green flirts with postmodernist thought in screeching lines like “Your charitable objectivity doesn’t exist” and “I make love in theory and touch myself in practice,” poking fun at lefty intellectuals and engaging with them all the same. Closing out with a palate-cleansing, ambient wash, Gatefold will leave you feeling like you’ve earned a BA in critical theory (with a minor in Marxist dirty talk). S.E.
Coheed and Cambria, ‘Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness’ (2005)
While masses of bands glommed onto Warped Tour fashions and MTV2 hooks, New York’s Coheed and Cambria went in another direction – and went big. They fully gave in to their progressive rock urges on Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, not to mention the tangled, episodic sci-fi narrative dreamed up by frontman Claudio Sanchez – he released a companion graphic novel with the same name. Sanchez explored the depths of his imagination for inspiration, and no matter how deep he descended Coheed and Cambria would resurface to go for the gut. L.G.
Owls, ‘Owls’ (2001)
Owls – every member of Nineties emo pioneers Cap’n Jazz but guitarist Davey von Bohlen (who was busy writing history in his own new group, the Promise Ring) – dealt in fractured songs whose thorny guitars, oddball time signatures and elliptical lyrics bring to mind an indie-pop Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Proving that, while you can take the musicians out of emo, you can’t take emo out of the musicians, singer Tim Kinsella explained Owls’ m.o. in a 2014 interview with The Quietus. “People often, when they talk to us about Owls, focus on the technique and the sort of technical things that aren’t really very interesting to any of us,” he said. “The technique has always been in service of the feeling.” A.B.
The Jazz June, ‘The Medicine’ (2000)
Originating in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, the Jazz June were pure fodder for music theory fans. On third album The Medicine, the band goes beserk with searing melodies; shrill, math-y ad-libs; and surprise detours in time signature. The band dials down the antics to soak in the euphoric daze of “At the Artist’s Leisure – Pt. 2”; then cranks out a jazzy, sensuous cadence in “Motörhead’s Roadie”; and caps off this opus with an experimental 10-minute jam. For the album, the band worked with Don Zientara and J. Robbins at Dischord-frequented Inner Ear, whose work vocalist Andrew Low had admired since his teens. “I have a very vivid memory of driving from Kutztown in an enormous snowstorm on the first day of the session,” said Low. “The roads were pure ice but there was nothing that was going to stop us from getting to D.C. to record that record. We were so excited we would have died trying.” S.E.
Algernon Cadwallader, ‘Some Kind of Cadwallader’ (2008)
In 2008, emo’s third wave was collapsing while the genre’s status as a pejorative hit a high point – in March of that year a mob descended upon black-clad teenaged emo fans in Mexico City. Algernon Cadwallader ignored emo’s present to embrace its roots: Bassist-vocalist Peter Helmis jokingly introduced his band in a 2008 interview by saying, “We sound like Cap’n Jazz.” The band had mixed feelings about the cursory comparison, but the Philadelphia trio could’ve picked a worse reference. Algernon’s act of rebelliousness set a foundation for emo’s insurgent, largely independent fourth wave to seep onto Billboard and win over critics, and it wouldn’t have happened if the group merely repurposed Cap’n Jazz’s fidgety euphoria. Some Kind of Cadwallader radiates thanks to Algernon’s playful rhythm section, Helmis’s yearning yelp, and the triple-Lutz guitars provided by Philly punk engineer (and future Hop Along member) Joe Reinhart. L.G.
The Jealous Sound, ‘Kill Them With Kindness’ (2003)
The Jealous Sound may have never attained the same level of recognition as peers such as Sunny Day Real Estate (who took the Jealous Sound out on their 2009 reunion tour) but the band was as respected by other bands as they were their own fans. Rising out of the bittersweet ashes of Knapsack and Sunday’s Best, the group blended frontman Blair Shehan’s palm-muted rhythms with Pedro Benito’s chiming leads and the result was pop without the pomp, a riff-driven sound that was as unforgettable as it was lyrically obtuse. “You could burn like a constellation but don’t go before I leave,” Shehan sings on “Naive.” “The [self-titled 2000] EP was done as demos, so I wasn’t really pushing, singing-wise, at the time,” Shehan said. “I’d just finished doing Knapsack and I was tired of screaming my head off, so I decided to purposely lay back while I was recording. But eventually everything started kicking live, and that was the one we liked and wanted to do again.” J.B.
Moss Icon, ‘Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly’ (1994)
The louder, faster, more discordant subgenre “screamo” had a bicoastal genesis. In California, there was the small-but-vital scene forming around indie labels Gravity and Ebullition, while on the East Coast, the lone Maryland band Moss Icon stood peerless. Recorded in 1988 but not released until 1994, Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly still sounds ahead of its time. The band tempers its breakneck punk with guitar skree and dynamics shaped by British post-punk and goth, without directly tipping a hat to either. Lyrically, the songs take on white, male, American imperialism – “emo” in intensity, but far removed from the self-absorption that defined their contemporaries and followers. In a 2012 interview with Brooklyn Vegan, guitarist Tonie Joy explained, “Our inspiration came from life for the most part, [especially] the fucked-up aspects of human existence … Very little, if any, inspiration came from punk/hardcore, except for the D.I.Y. way of doing things … We just thought we were a ‘rock’ band.” A.B.
Brand New, ‘Your Favorite Weapon’ (2001)
Your Favorite Weapon is chock full of what everybody hates about emo: the elaborate murder fantasies, the let’s-get-the-hell-outta-this-towns, the cacophony of whiny young men and their overblown contempt for young women. Frontman Jesse Lacey bemoans his girlfriend’s indifference to the Smiths (“Mixtape”) and her autonomous decision to travel the world without him (“Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”). Still, bad boys get the blues, and Brand New has a knack for crafting bubbly pop-punk anthems that speak to the darkest, most juvenile sides of ourselves. None can forget the legendary love triangle that spawned “Seventy Times 7,” a scorching diss track against Taking Back Sunday’s John Nolan. “I’ve seen more spine in jellyfish,” spits Lacey, “I’ve seen more guts in 11-year-old kids!” The band’s since written off their juvenile theatrics, but there’s still something endearing about young punks feeling the fevered rush of both everything and nothing all at once. S.E.
Paramore, ‘Riot!’ (2007)
Hayley Williams & Co. grew up quickly between their mall-punk-y debut, 2005’s All We Know Is Falling, and the spunkier, edgier Riot! With the album, the band explored tighter hooks and benefitted from a tinge of bitterness that made Riot! a raucously dark, heartbroken LP. “Crushcrushcrush” makes an innocent concept sinister while “Misery Business” is a biting, gargantuan crossover hit that propelled Paramore to not only the forefront of the Fueled By Ramen scene but to the top of the rock charts as well. B.S.
Dashboard Confessional, ‘The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most’ (2001)
There’s no crushing breakdown, not a single blistering yawp to be found in Dashboard Confessional’s sophomore LP. Still, packing a folk-y, acoustic ensemble more fit for a coffee house than a punk house, the deceptively soft-spoken Chris Carrabba breathes enough fire to ignite a thousand Abercrombie stores. In his breakout hit, “Screaming Infidelities,” he speaks to the burn of being jilted, emphasized by rogue strands of his ex-girlfriend’s hair on his belongings. He ditches the band altogether in “Again I Go Unnoticed,” cathartically strumming out the sting of being phased out on his acoustic guitar; setting a precedent for other lonely bedroom guitar heroes to feel right at home on commercial radio. S.E.
Rainer Maria, ‘Look Now Look Again’ (1999)
An oft-overlooked staple of second-wave emo, Rainer Maria provide feminine perspective in a genre where it was always sorely lacking. Songs like “Feeling Neglected?” and “Breakfast of Champions” give voice to the faceless villainesses of emo songs past; bassist Caithlin De Marrais and guitarist Kaia Fischer harmonize their myriad grievances as drummer William Kuehn batters crafty, spiraling rhythms. Most shattering are De Marrais’ admissions in “Broken Radio,” her voice quivering with fury: “I’m certain if I drive into those trees/It’ll make less of a mess/Than you’ve made of me.” Perhaps the dearth of women in emo speaks to a disparity in how vulnerability is perceived; where “feelings” are historically subversive for men in punk, it’s less remarkable, or just plain undesirable, in women. Look Now Look Again plays like an act of artistic justice. S.E.
Cursive, ‘Domestica’ (2000)
Between Cursive, the Good Life and his solo material, Saddle Creek all-star Tim Kasher should have a PhD in emo. Cursive’s third full-length sees him at both his most vulnerable and vitriolic. Inspired by his then-recent divorce, Kasher relived his disintegrated relationship via projected characters. However instead of lyrical introspection he nastily points his finger in the other direction, whether it’s claiming “your tears are only alibis” on “The Martyr” or engaging in twisted head games during “The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst.” Kasher also took a little creative license. “These characters don’t get divorced, they continue living together because that’s what they’ve chosen,” said Kasher. “On the CD, the explosion isn’t a breakup, it’s an acceptance that this is what domestic life is.” J.B.
Embrace, ‘Embrace’ (1987)
Looking back on Washington, D.C. hardcore, even the band names are telling in their divisive and confrontational nature: Minor Threat, Chalk Circle, Iron Cross, State of Alert. But 1985 brought Embrace. Fronted by Dischord records cofounder and ex-Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye (later of Fugazi), the band lasted just nine months before imploding – ironically, due to personality conflicts. But their lone album drew a line in the sand between hardcore’s tough-guy posturing and unfettered, all-inclusive self-expression. Where Minor Threat dealt in power chords, velocity and finger pointing, Embrace is a jangling, mid-tempo effort that finds MacKaye singing vulnerably, pointing the finger at himself. The skate magazine Thrasher dubbed the sound “emo-core” in a review of the album, but MacKaye countered, calling it, “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” A.B.
Taking Back Sunday, ‘Tell All Your Friends’ (2002)
“Back in the Tell All Your Friends days, we both used to always have our little emo notebooks and both of us would have just pages of pages filled with stuff,” said guitarist John Nolan about writing Taking Back Sunday lyrics with vocalist Adam Lazzara. Together, they launched their debut with a steely, urgent guitar riff that builds up to singer Lazzara’s screaming whine of “So sick, so sick of being tired.” That urgency traversed the line that separated punk and screamo, making for an emo LP that sounds like someone’s heart being ripped out while still beating. Single “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)” is the album’s standout, with lyrics made for screaming along to everywhere from a car to a mosh pit – “Why can’t I feel anything/From anyone other than you?” B.S.
Say Anything, ‘…Is a Real Boy’ (2004)
“I was having a hard time figuring how to approach making the first album,” said Say Anything vocalist and lyricist Max Bemis, “and I was inspired by a lot of Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman stuff, artists who sort of poked fun at the whole artistic process and then it sort of lifted them above the normal masses than the average writer. If you acknowledge it, it sort of makes it funny instead of trying so hard to take yourself really seriously about the whole thing.” …Is a Real Boy is a manic masterpiece of rebellion against all expectations of emo and pop-punk – an album unafraid to be simultaneously theatrical and punk in a world before Panic! at the Disco and Green Day’s American Idiot made it commercially viable. Bemis is a hopelessly romantic, self-destructive, misanthropic genius from top to bottom on an LP that is as humorous and surreal as it is emotionally potent. B.S.
The Get Up Kids, ‘Four Minute Mile’ (1997)
The audio quality isn’t great, the songs aren’t polished (the album was recorded over a single weekend so that drummer Ryan Pope wouldn’t miss high school) and songs like “Last Place You Look” are so earnest they border on melodramatic. However Four Minute Mile, the debut album by Kansas City’s the Get Up Kids is so much more than its shortcomings. Described in 1997 by frontman Matt Pryor as “swinging dance numbers about crying,” there’s an undeniable magnetism when it comes to these four Midwest kids literally discovering their own sound. It should come as no surprise that acts like Fall Out Boy have admitted they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. J.B.
At the Drive-In, ‘In/Casino/Out’ (1998)
Even today, there are not nearly enough punk bands as eclectic as At the Drive-In. Take the bongo smacks underlining “Chanbara” which transport the band between an El Paso garage and an Afro-Caribbean jazz club; or “Pickpocket,” in which Omar Rodríguez-López and Jim Ward churn out quizzical, no-wave-y whimpers of guitar. They twist and turn discordantly at the whims of a shrieking Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who warns against the suburban nuclear family model by equating it to cultural nuclear war. A stirring preface to the more relentless, aural assault of their following LP, Relationship of Command. “We didn’t get to execute maybe 30% of the ideas that were initially planned for the record because of lack of time,” said Bixler-Zavala. “Being rushed is cool. I mean, we work really good under pressure, I think. It really pushes our buttons.” S.E.
Brand New, ‘Deja Entendu’ (2003)
Emo took hold of mainstream pop in the early Aughts but one of its brightest acts was veering towards an exit ramp. In a Spin “Trend of the Year” piece on “mainstreamo” for the magazine’s 2003 year-end issue Brand New singer and guitarist Jesse Lacey said emo was “becoming like Eighties hair metal all over again. All you can really do is try hard to be one of the bands that does manage to stick.” Brand New stuck, thanks in part to that year’s Deja Entendu, which ditched the bottled-up energy of their debut for moody, textured, cavernous numbers that augmented Lacey’s acidic lyrics. The brooding frontman pushed his charms to their edge, but for all the bile he spews in all directions he shows enough vulnerability to make the anguish connect. L.G.
Saves the Day, ‘Through Being Cool’ (1999)
Through Being Cool paired galloping, hardcore-inflected riffs with Chris Conley’s signature caterwaul to create songs that would inspire countless nautical star tattoos. While most frontmen couldn’t pull off singing about missing their mom (“Shoulder to the Wheel”) and metaphorically digging a crush’s eyes out with a rusty spoon (“Rocks Tonic Juice Magic”), Conley’s knack for writing Weezer-worthy hooks to express his self-consciousness is what makes Through Being Cool more than just an important album, it’s a rite of passage. “We recorded it in 11 days. Nine days and then two half-days. And that includes mixing. … To make a record like that today, people think they’re rushing, but we were just having a blast,” Conley told Alternative Press “[Drummer] Bryan Newman and I looked at each other at one point … and we just realized, ‘Hey, this is going to be really good, and we should just take a year off school and just tour.’ So, we decided to just go for it because the songs in the studio just sounded so bitchin’.” J.B.
Mineral, ‘The Power of Failing’ (1997)
Plenty of musicians treated Sunny Day Real Estate like a blueprint and sported their fandom like a badge of honor – but the ones who wore it best were these four youngsters in Austin. While SDRE aimed for the sky, Mineral stretched themselves even further. They pushed their musical ability to their breaking point, occasionally falling short of the dramatic crests they hoped to attain – the conviction, however, makes the attempts all the more alluring. Mineral’s hero worship sometimes threatens to blot out their voice – “80-37” opens with a downcast melody eerily similar to SDRE’s “Seven” – but they had the good sense to mine shoegaze for euphoria. When Mineral crank up the distortion on “Gloria” and “Parking Lot” The Power of Failing feels bigger than the band that created it – and even the group that came before. L.G.
Drive Like Jehu, ‘Yank Crime’ (1994)
Formed by San Diego scene fixtures John Reis and Rick Froberg after the breakup of their band Pitchfork, Drive Like Jehu was the antagonistic, abrasive yin to the rollicking, crowd-pleasing yang of Reis’ Rocket From the Crypt – which made it all the more inexplicable that Jehu’s masterpiece of a sophomore album wound up on a major label. Yank Crime‘s songs – all dueling guitars, off-kilter beats and ear-bleeding feedback – alternately feel like grudge matches and endurance tests, with Froberg’s upper-register yell cutting swaths through the noise. It might not be emo proper, but the album would be hugely influential to the Nineties emo underground, as well as to eventual superstars like At the Drive-In and Thursday. Of course, speaking to the San Diego Reader during Jehu’s recent reunion, Froberg said the band’s plans were never that ambitious: “We wanted to make loud, ugly noise and get our rocks off – that’s it.” A.B.
Dag Nasty, ‘Can I Say’ (1986)
Dag Nasty jelled around the maturity of two formerly angry young men: ex-DYS vocalist Dave Smalley and former Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker. Boston transplant Smalley fit right into Washington, D.C.’s budding emo scene, turning out to be far more effective as an introspective singer than he was screaming bloody murder in DYS. And Baker, a childhood guitar prodigy who barely scratched the surface of his abilities in Minor Threat, brought a new canvas of chord shapes that raised the game for all hardcore bands afterward. A.B.
Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ (1996)
Weezer followed up their power-pop breakthrough with a brilliant sophomore LP that turned out to be one of the finest emo crossovers ever. Though the lyrics were occasionally controversial – see the opening lines of “El Scorcho” – the band went harder and heavier with the riffs, and the confessional songs dove into the psyche of a rock star struggling with sudden fame. Affected by the initially negative critiques of Pinkerton as well as the vulnerability of the subject matter, Rivers Cuomo deemed the LP an “embarrassment” in the early millennium. As both critics and fans have changed their opinions of the album over time, so has Cuomo. “It’s super-deep, brave and authentic,” he told Pitchfork in 2009. B.S.
Jimmy Eat World, ‘Clarity’ (1999)
“Before Clarity came out, the label was trying to … [get] us to do things to get people interested and know who we were,” said Jimmy Eat World bassist Rick Burch. “They were like, ‘OK, you guys, we’ll buy a PA and you’ll drive in your van and you know the cool 7-11 where the kids hang out after school … you’ll just go set up in the parking lot and be playing at 3:15 as they walk up.” Jimmy Eat World were a very different band when they released their third full-length, Clarity, 17 years ago. In fact it was even viewed as a commercial failure when it was released on Capitol Records, despite the fact that the straightforward single “Lucky Denver Mint” received mainstream radio airplay and was featured in the Drew Barrymore film Never Been Kissed. However it’s the darker, more experimental side like the mid-tempo melodicism of “Believe In What You Want” and the hypnotic 16-minute finale “Goodbye Sky Harbor” which eventually made Clarity a cult classic. “Take back the radio,” frontman Jim Adkins sings on the aggressive anthem “Your New Aesthetic,” unknowingly foreshadowing their future fame. J.B.
Texas Is the Reason, ‘Do You Know Who You Are?’ (1996)
Do You Know Who You Are?, an album named after the last words John Lennon allegedly heard before his death, is the only full-length by NYC’s Texas Is the Reason, a band named after the Misfits tantrum about the JFK assassination. Although the songs allude to key points in JFK conspiracy theories, those only serve to obscure the more personal dilemmas of frontman Garrett Klahn. From start to finish, guitarist Norman Brannon supplants Klahn’s relationship woes with gleaming flourishes. The understated gravity of the instrumental title track offers a meditative refuge between the din of the surrounding songs, followed by the tender upswing of “The Day’s Refrain.” S.E.
Thursday, ‘Full Collapse’ (2001)
“Full Collapse was a record that changed the course and shape of my life,” said Thursday singer Geoff Rickly. “We began touring for it in basements and VFW halls, continued, opening for bands like the Murder City Devils and Rival Schools and ended up as a full-time touring band meeting hundreds of thousands of people with whom we formed deep and lasting connections.” As grotesque as it was wildly popular, Thursday’s 2001 breakout would precipitate a new, radio-friendly era of post-hardcore. Disarming from the moment the snares kick in, “Understanding in a Car Crash” sees frontman Geoff Rickly tiptoe the line between fearing mortality and surrendering to complete existential resignation. His uniquely piercing voice cuts through the sludge-y, pulsating morass of noise of “Cross Out the Eyes” and “Autobiography of a Nation”; then subsides under the sentimental glow of “Standing on the Edge of Summer,” depicting a love both mighty and fragile. S.E.
My Chemical Romance, ‘Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge’ (2004)
Gerard Way was on a mission from the moment he formed My Chemical Romance – witnessing the World Trade Center fall on 9/11 made him reassess his life. So you can understand the urgency with which he approached his art. Three Cheers wasn’t just a concept record, it was a concept sequel, expanding the small-screen story of 2002’s I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love into a big-budget production, complete with ruminations on life and death (“Helena”) biting kiss-offs (“I’m Not Okay”) and a series of dramatic music videos that made them MTV darlings. Born of an intense desire for something more and backed by a major-label budget, Three Cheers marked the moment when My Chemical Romance began to realize Way’s aspirations, lifting them out of New Jersey and onto the global stage. And though they’d push the boundaries of theatrical rock even further on The Black Parade, their purposeful revolution started here. J.M.
Fall Out Boy, ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ (2005)
Fall Out Boy changed the course of emo-punk, pop-punk and pop itself with From Under the Cork Tree, which brought the scene mainstream and led to a surge in popularity for the Fueled By Ramen label. Most immediate to benefit were Paramore and Panic! At the Disco , but eventually the label would spawn Cobra Starship, Gym Class Heroes, Fun., Twenty One Pilots and more. Cork Tree itself fused witty wordplay and emotional drama with slick riffs and singer Patrick Stump’s soulful whine, making FOB one of biggest bands of their time — by the follow-up they were boasting Jay Z guest spots and Babyface production. “I think a lot of kids have considered themselves personal ambassadors to Fall Out Boy,” Wentz told Alternative Press in 2005. “The reason our record was Number Nine when it came out was because of all these kids — not because of radio and MTV. None of that happened yet.” B.S.
Jimmy Eat World, ‘Bleed American’ (2001)
Jimmy Eat World’s 2001 album Bleed American propelled them from playing with underground bands like Mineral and Christie Front Drive to full-blown mainstream success – platinum certification, MTV play and a Top 10 single. The album, re-released as Jimmy Eat World following the 9/11 attacks, proved that emo wasn’t just an enigmatic subculture. Hooky anthems like “Sweetness” and “The Middle” saw the band taking the rough-around-the-edges sound of 1996’s Static Prevails and making it accessible enough for anyone pondering buying an iPod. Additional cred for featuring a shout-out to the Promise Ring’s Davey von Bohlen on “A Praise Chorus.” J.B.
Cap’n Jazz, ‘Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports …’ (1995)
“I would say 90 percent of the lyrics on that record were all written in one night, the first time I ever took mushrooms and sat by a campfire,” said Cap’n Jazz vocalist Tim Kinsella. “Yeah it was just, the whole record, lyrically, was just this one night in the woods in Wisconsin.” Upon first listen, one might dismiss Cap’n Jazz as a sloppy experiment between a bunch of band geeks gone wild. But little did anyone know that their first and only proper LP would provide a significant blueprint for dozens of emo and post-hardcore acts to follow. Tim Kinsella briskly slurs cracked lines like “Hey coffee eyes/You got me coughing up my cookie heart,” scrambling to meet his kid brother’s erratic time signatures. Kinsella’s zany lines meet some zanier blasts of French horn in “Basil’s Kite.” Victor Villarreal and Davey Von Bohlen (later of the Promise Ring) temper the absurdity with perfectly sublime tendrils of guitar and bass – before shredding it all to bits, most exemplary in the thrashy “¡Qué Suerte!,” a skittish love song for a very skittish crush. S.E.
American Football, ‘American Football’ (1999)
If there is one thing that nobody ever tells you about young love, it’s that your days are numbered from the start. Former Cap’n Jazz drummer Mike Kinsella learned this the hard way before graduating high school at 17, prompting one of the most devastating breakup albums in the history of breakup albums. Pulling lyrics straight from his old journal – including heart-stoppingly simple lines like “You can’t miss what you forget” – Kinsella shares his teen confessions atop a tightly wound fusion of jazz and math rock. He and fellow guitarist Steve Holmes remain in constant dialogue through calculated trills and seamless repetitions, their tension interjected by the occasional trumpet and a Wurlitzer organ, which captures the magnitude better than Kinsella’s words. Just as the prospect of college drove the star-crossed lovers apart, its conclusion would force the band to split as well – that is, until their reunion in 2014. S.E.
Braid, ‘Frame and Canvas’ (1998)
Braid weren’t shy about their Washington, D.C. emo influences – the Illinois quintet’s first two albums were practically homages to Rites of Spring and Jawbox. The band’s propensity for wearing its heart on its sleeve, however, is what makes Frame & Canvas so compelling. Written and recorded during a particularly tense touring cycle, Braid’s third album is a bittersweet lamentation on homesickness, long-distance love and, in standouts such as “Breathe In,” surfacing tension between singers/guitarists Chris Broach and Bob Nanna. Producer (and Jawbox/Burning Airlines alum) J. Robbins’ mix brings drummer Damon Atkinson’s wild, asymmetric grooves to the surface, elevating the songs beyond standard-issue melodic hardcore, while the D.C. worship gets subsumed under a new, uniquely Midwestern sound that would mark Braid’s own influence on the generation that followed. A.B.
Jawbreaker, ‘Dear You’ (1995)
Jawbreaker’s fourth and final release was initially panned by fans for its major label backing and frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s polished vocal stylings. “We took a lot of flack and it became very political, but it was never a political thing to us,” drummer Adam Pfahler said. “But I also remember honestly not giving a shit. … We didn’t have people breathing down our necks and making us change anything, or suggesting what the sound was going to be like, and when we were done we thought we had made a great record and we looked at each other like, ‘Well, either they’re going to get it or they’re not going to get it.'” It took awhile, but in the years that followed, Dear You has unexpectedly become one of the genre’s definitive releases. From the moody darkness of “Jet Black” to the upbeat pop-punk of “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault,” Dear You sounds as poetic today as it did 20 years ago. “It was very validating to have it get so popular later,” said Pfahler. “And it was a little bit like, ‘Where the fuck were you guys when we needed you?'” J.B.
The Promise Ring, ‘Nothing Feels Good’ (1997)
A month before the Promise Ring released their career-defining Nothing Feels Good, singer and guitarist Davey von Bohlen summarized the band’s second album for the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal: “The basic idea is that you think you know things, but really you never know.” With Nothing Feels Good the Promise Ring barreled into the unknown with ecstatic poise, and in the process pulled emo towards its pop future. The Promise Ring played pop like a hardcore band with a fondness for doo-wop – or maybe they played punk like a pop group led by an adrenaline junkie. Meanwhile von Bohlen’s lyrics captured the indefinable dilemmas of a 20-something better than most mumblecore films. L.G.
Rites of Spring, ‘Rites of Spring’ (1985)
The term “emo” itself started life as an insult hurled at this Washington, D.C. quartet – a barb used by punks who scoffed at Rites of Spring’s convention-defying hardcore. The band’s eponymous debut album evoked love, sadness, longing, confusion – none of the alpha-male absolutism that had made Eighties hardcore the province of jocks and thugs. Minor chords, dramatic pauses, vocals that sounded terminally on the verge of tears (and, live, sometimes coming to them): Yeah, this was emotional, all right. And, as the musical movement dubbed “Revolution Summer” swept D.C. in 1985, other punks saw Rites of Spring as inspiration for their own emotional liberty. But to the band members – two of which, singer Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty, would later form the equally revolutionary Fugazi – codifying a new sound was purely coincidental. “I’ve never recognized ’emo’ as a genre of music,” Picciotto told Mark Prindle in 2002. “What, like the Bad Brains weren’t emotional? What – they were robots or something? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.” A.B.
Sunny Day Real Estate, ‘Diary’ (1994)
In the early Nineties, Seattle was synonymous with grunge, but Sunny Day Real Estate didn’t bother reading the memo. Formed by a trio of hardcore lifers in 1992 the group found their secret weapon in Jeremy Enigk, an 18-year-old with a supernatural falsetto. Channeling the Dischord catalog’s melodic ferocity and U2’s arena spirituality, SDRE mapped out Diary during a series of lengthy jam sessions. Recorded after their first national tour in 1993, Diary captures the vague inner-turmoil of Enigk’s lyrics and propels those turbulent emotions to the heavens. In the ensuing years hundreds of bands have tried to replicate the magic of “In Circles” and “Seven,” though few albums had the same tectonic effect. L.G.