Home Music Music Lists

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
33

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
32

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
31

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
30

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
29

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
28

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
27

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
26

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
25

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
24

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
23

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
22

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.

EMO 40; Thursday; Rites of Spring; Rainer Maria; My Chemical Romance; Embrace
21

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'
20

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.