There’s no better music to wallow in than the heart-on-sleeve sonics of emo, a genre that from the early ’90s to the mid ’00s morphed from a grainy, punk cult concern to a mainstream cottage industry. We revisited a bunch of emo albums to see which still stood up. Here’s 20 that still sound great…
1Jawbreaker – ‘Dear You’
Jawbreaker – ‘Dear You’: An album that a lot of the other records on this list would fail to exist without. These early ’90s New Yorkers’ grinding guitars and murky tales from the brink of adulthood are one of the bedrocks of the genre’s first wave. Tracks like ‘I Love You So Much…’ had a grunginess that sat well with fans on tours with Nirvana, but ‘Dear You’ was a different beast.
2Alexisonfire – ‘Alexisonfire’
Alexisonfire – ‘Alexisonfire’: A milestone in grainy, melancholy-charged post-hardcore, Canadian crew Alexisonfire – who featured Dallas Green, now best-selling acoustic troubadour City and Colour – kept the production deliciously raw and scrappy on their debut album, a feverous mix of inventive punk guitars, David Lynch nods and punishing screams that made them cult favourites.
3Jimmy Eat World – ‘Bleed American’
Jimmy Eat World – ‘Bleed American’: Jim Adkins’ Arizona rockers’ ‘Clarity’ is considered by many to be their better album, but this fourth studio album’s unabashed pop punch is more memorable, having taken emo tumbling into mainstream view with lead single ‘Salt Sweat Sugar’. If there’s a more gloriously reassuring, optimism-inspiring ’00s song than ‘The Middle’, we can’t recall it.
4Sunny Day Real Estate – ‘Diary’
Sunny Day Real Estate – ‘Diary’: An album etched into the affections of emo purists, Sunny Day delivered with this Sub Pop debut a genre-defining 52 mins of huge singalongs and lyrics that, though similarly sad, moved away from the nihilism of their Seattle grunge peers. Bassist Nate Mendel now entertains arenas in Foo Fighters but for many, he’ll never better the intensity of ‘Diary’.
5American Football – ‘American Football’
American Football – ‘American Football’: There’s a reason why, 15 years after this eponymous, starry charmer of a debut album, there was delirious excitement at the news American Football are reuniting for UK shows. Full of chiming mathy guitars and scattershot drums, opening track ‘Never Meant’ rightly became an anthem for anyone who’d known the sadness of calling time on a relationship.
6Thursday – ‘Full Collapse’
Thursday – ‘Full Collapse’: Though New Jersey band Thursday’s thundering guitars were post-hardcore through and through, frontman Geoff Rickley’s lyrics were rooted in the despairing poetry of Morrissey and the Cure, full of bleak suburban imagery: birds caught in telephone wire (‘Cross Out The Eyes’), traffic accidents (‘Understanding In A Car Crash’) and more. A fearless cult classic.
7Taking Back Sunday – ‘Tell All Your Friends’
Taking Back Sunday – ‘Tell All Your Friends’: “So sick, so sick, so sick of being tired,” begins Adam Lazzara’s emo-pop brigade’s debut album, “and oh so tired of being sick.” It starts as it means to go on: in a blaze of snappy, anguished lyrics, layered over irresistible guitar hooks. ‘Cute Without The E’ was the album’s smash hit but the sprightly ‘You’re So Last Summer’ was its peak.
8Cap’n Jazz – ‘Cap’n Jazz’
Cap’n Jazz – ‘Cap’n Jazz’: Another gem from Chicago’s Kinsella family, which between brothers Tim (Make Believe, Owls) and Mike (American Football, Owen) and cousin Nate (Joan of Arc, Birthmark), have built a serious emo dynasty between them. Mike and Tim’s searing Cap’n Jazz isn’t the most immediate of their projects but, on this killer self-titled album, is definitely one of the most fun.
9Weezer – ‘Pinkerton’
Weezer – ‘Pinkerton’: The album where Rivers Cuomo best indulged the melancholy that has always stalked the background of his pop-punk creations. Darker and more upfront about his imperfections, it’s an intensely personal confession of sexual frustration, struggles with bi-polar disorder and dark thoughts that somehow, on tracks like ‘The Good Life’, still sparks a smile.
10Glassjaw – ‘Worship and Tribute’
Glassjaw – ‘Worship and Tribute’: Daryl Palumbo’s Long Islanders didn’t just push boundaries on this second LP: they smashed through them like a wrecking ball through butter, weaving jazz and Afrobeat into their pulverising post-hardcore din. The only downer on this record was a contract dispute with former label Roadrunner that meant its best song, ‘Convectuouso’, didn’t make the release.
11Braid – ‘Frame And Canvas’
Braid – ‘Frame And Canvas’: Another high watermark of early ’90s emo, cult Illionois act Braid took 16 years to follow up this sparkling third album, such was the pressure of replicating its excellence. 2014’s ‘No Coast’ won positive reviews but ‘Frame and Canvas’ is untouchable: a scuzzy, gently mathy tale of burning heartbreak.
12Texas Is The Reason – ‘Do You Know Who You Are?’
Texas Is The Reason – ‘Do You Know Who You Are?’: Another set of early ’90s pioneers, New Yorkers Texas Is The Reason took their name from a Misfits lyrics but were way more introspective than their horror-punk heroes on the beloved ‘Do You Know…’. The title of the record comes from what are alleged to be the last words John Lennon ever heard.
13Thrice – ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’
Thrice – ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’: Having cast themselves as post-hardcore heavyweights on 2002’s powerful ‘The Illusion Of Safety’, Californians Thrice began to open their sound out to spacey experimentation on ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’ – a less frantic record that, on tracks like ‘Cold Cash…’ redirected their inner-angst at the shady, greedy world of Wall Street.
14Brand New – ‘Deja Entendu’
Brand New – ‘Deja Entendu’: The lonely spaceman on its cover said it all… Jesse Lacey and co’s 2003 soul-purging was a punky, Morrisseyian essay on isolation. Written largely in Lacey’s bedroom on an acoustic guitar, songs like ‘The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows’ and the thrilling ‘Sic Transit Gloria…’ drew a massive audience – and understandably so.
15The Get Up Kids – ‘Something To Write Home About’
The Get Up Kids – ‘Something To Write Home About’: The success of the Get Up Kids’ previous album, ‘Four Minute Mile’ meant they could have gone with a major label for 1999’s ‘Something To Write Home About’. Instead, they stuck with an indie, Vagrant Records, allowing them an independence that ended up key to this second full-length’s darker, more mature feel.
16Rival Schools – ‘Rival Schools’
Rival Schools – ‘Rival Schools’: Walter Schreifels’ troop churned a single chord into one of the biggest-sounding singles of 2001 with ‘Used For Glue’, the lead track from their self-titled debut. The rest of that album struggled to quite hit the powerful high of ‘Used For Glue’, but didn’t disappoint either, with songs like ‘High Acetate’ and ‘Good Things’ more subtle charmers.
17The Used – ‘The Used’
The Used – ‘The Used’: ‘The Taste of Ink’, ‘Buried Myself Alive’, ‘A Box Full of Sharp Objects’… Utah’s The Used’s debut album had more radio-friendly, heart-on-sleeve bangers than you could shake a stick at. It was live the band really came to life, frontman Bert McCracken proving an expert showman on UK tours around its release, but this release was strong.
18Saves The Day – ‘Stay What You Are’
Saves The Day – ‘Stay What You Are’: The boyish emotional pop-punk of ‘At Your Funeral’ propelled Saves The Day onto mainstream TV and radio in early 2001. There were plenty more treasures to be found beyond this third album’s opening track and lead single, however, with nods to Bret Easton Ellis (‘This Is Not An Exit’) and Florence Nightingale (‘Nightingale’).
19My Chemical Romance – ‘Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge’
My Chemical Romance – ‘Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge’: The theatrical, fun ‘Three Cheers…’ saw MCR become, in many ways, a victim of their own success: released as emo’s mainstream popularity crested, purists attacked them as dumbing down the genre for a teeny-bopper audience. Though accessible, moments on the album like the haunting ‘Helena’ proved that to be untrue.
20Mineral – ‘The Power Of Failing’
Mineral – ‘The Power Of Failing’: Houston’s Mineral weren’t together long – only one more album followed this seminal debut, and by the time it was released they’d broken up – but made a pretty mighty splash in that short time nonetheless. Full of wistful longing and blueprint-laying guitar work, the spirit of 1997’s ‘The Power of Failing’ loomed large over a lot of later emo bands.