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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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 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.
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.
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.
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.