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40 Greatest Emo Albums of All Time

C’mon get sad: the best of punk rock’s moody younger sibling

My Chemical Romance

Sarah Lee/eyevine/Redux

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
12

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
11

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'
10

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
9

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
8

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
7

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
6

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
5

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
4

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
3

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
2

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
1

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.

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