Words: Mia Hughes
Before emo morphed into the drama and eyeliner of the 00s, it was a different scene altogether. Fans of the genre consider the 90s to be its golden age, before it was corrupted by commercialism. It was wide-ranging in style – although always some combination of indie rock and punk/hardcore – yet, was tied together by heartfelt lyricism that cut right to the core – even if still slightly dramatic sometimes. Here are the 10 best songs from that era of emo.
Jimmy Eat World – ‘A Sunday’ (1999)
Jimmy Eat World are now most well-known for ‘The Middle’, a pop-punk hit from their 2001 breakout ‘Bleed American’. But the album prior, 1999’s ‘Clarity’, is the one often cited as their emo classic; a gorgeous, expansive, wide-roaming everest of a record. On ‘A Sunday’, they didn’t so much throw the toolbox as place all of its contents gently and precisely; xylophones, strings and drum machines shape the song and allow it to swell into its bursting final chorus.
Best emo lyric: “What you wish for won’t come true / Live with that”
Mineral – ‘Gloria’ (1997)
‘Gloria’ is a masterclass in balancing beauty and energy. It opens with a storming riff, screeching guitars, before rolling into a serene verse and crashing back into life for the chorus. Vocalist Chris Simpson really makes the song, carrying such emotion and desperation in his voice, whether soft and restrained in the verse or crying out in the chorus.
Best emo lyric: “I just wanna be something more than the mud in your eyes / I want to be the clay in your hands”
The Promise Ring – ‘Why Did Ever We Meet’ (1997)
The Promise Ring’s ‘Nothing Feels Good’ provided a great template for the poppier strain of emo that would go on to see mainstream success. Had it been released a few years later, ‘Why Did Ever We Meet’ in particular would have been ubiquitous. The verse is driven by a pounding rhythm section and the chorus impeccably catchy, climaxing with a ‘Ba ba ba da ba ba ba ba da ba da’ that’s meant for a euphoric singalong. As 90s emo goes, this track is the life of the party.
Best emo lyric: “We lie together, why care about the weather? / It only ends, it ends in darkness”
Sunny Day Real Estate – ‘Seven’ (1994)
Sunny Day Real Estate always had a more theatrical feel than their peers, due in large part to frontman Jeremy Enigk’s striking vocals. They’re backed up on ‘Seven’ by an equally dramatic instrumental, as two foreboding guitar parts intertwine and converge. The rhythm section – Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith, who would go on to join Foo Fighters – is outstanding on this track, Goldsmith’s tight fills adding an extra tension to the track and Mendel’s basslines a dark presence beneath it all.
Best emo lyric: “When time is poetry / And stolen the world outside / The waiting could crush my heart”
Jawbreaker – ‘Jinx Removing’ (1994)
Jawbreaker had a straightforward punk approach reminiscent of their West Coast peers like Green Day, but what put them under the emo bracket was frontman and lyricist Blake Schwarzenbach, who wrote of love and heartache with a poet’s soul. ‘Jinx Removing’ is a heart-wrenching lyrical moment, while the instrumental is energetic and to-the-point, only further driving Schwarzenbach’s gruff and pained vocals straight to the heart.
Best emo lyric: “Someone said your name, I thought of you alone / I was just the same twenty blocks away”
Texas Is The Reason – ‘Back and to the Left’ (1996)
‘Back and to the Left’ has an urgency to it, from the staccato guitar build in the intro to the crashing half-time chorus. It stops for breath for the first time when it reaches the bridge, before finishing with an explosive outro section. It feels like a burst of emotion at its purest, unrestrained and desperate.
Best emo lyric: “It costs so much, I know / But I guess I need to know / What it would have felt like to be right”
The Get Up Kids – ‘Holiday’ (1999)
1999’s ‘Something To Write Home About’ arrived right before emo’s tipping point into the mainstream. ‘Holiday’ isn’t too far from the pop punk of New Found Glory or Blink-182, but there’s a feeling of catharsis that keeps it tied to the Midwest emo scene it came from. The vocals are yearning, aching, and the energy in the instrumental is oriented towards backing up that emotion.
Best emo lyric: “Maybe I can see you on holidays / Worlds away / I’ve never forgotten all our yesterdays”
Saves The Day – ‘Shoulder to the Wheel’ (1999)
Saves The Day came up through the hardcore scene, so ‘Shoulder to the Wheel’ features chunky guitars and mosh pit-ready energy. It’s a song about getting in the van and driving, the escape from the world that tour promises scrappy young bands. Listening to it feels like going seventy miles an hour.
Best emo lyric: “And I say I’m sorry / Didn’t mean to yell, I’m having a bad week / I miss my mom”
Rainer Maria – ‘Broken Radio’ (1999)
‘Broken Radio’ starts with a great, hypnotic bassline and a repeated lyric, like a CD skipping on a broken player, before letting the chorus highlight the interplay of vocalists Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer. De Marrais’ smooth vocals work even better when paired with Fischer’s rougher edges, and there’s a melancholy to it that matches the wistfulness of the lyrics.
Best emo lyric: “And I’m certain if I drive into those trees / It would make less of a mess than you’ve made of me”
American Football – ‘Never Meant’ (1999)
‘Never Meant’ is the quintessential 90s emo song, the stuff of memes and emotions alike. Its mathy opening riff is instantly recognisable to anyone who loves emo, and the singalong to the closing lines will always be ear-rupturing. Its fusing of emo with jazz and math rock would feel gimmicky if there wasn’t such heart in it, but as it is, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the genre.
Best emo lyric: “Let’s just pretend / Everything and anything between you and me / Was never meant”