Emo has been a dirty word for as long as I can remember, at least since some wimps from this nation’s cold northern fringes snagged the descriptor from our capital city’s emotive hardcore bands and deflated it of machismo. In the popular consciousness, emo is known as the sound of sniveling weakness and self-obsession, of slashed-open hearts and shredded vocal cords, of unseemly LiveJournal screeds and shameless self-pity. Given the predominance of white males in emo’s ranks, such withering catharsis scans as mansplaining at its most hypersensitive. It’s an over-correction from Tim Allen’s concept of the man’s man that ends like most over-corrections: with an ugly crash. Emo can be beautiful, but it ain’t pretty.
This was a genre born of prosperity and privilege at a time between the Cold War and the War On Terror. America felt invincible, and the only thing Midwestern whiteboys had to cry about were bad breakups and existential crises. Though the style never fully went away, it more or less died out in the underground that birthed it not long after the turn of the millennium, when the sound mutated into plasticine mall-punk and flatironed metalcore and became the province of teenagers only.
But like all musical styles, emo is due for a 20-year resurrection this decade. Right on cue, a new wave of bands has emerged to let their meek flags fly in the age of the selfie. The movement isn’t exactly nascent; key players like Algernon Cadwallader and My Heart To Joy have already come and gone, and a dense network of groups flourishes on Bandcamp, replete with its own emasculating lexicon (Twinkle Daddies???). It’s still a distinctly underground phenomenon too. None of these bands seemed primed to cross over in this pop climate without a Fall Out Boy-style digital makeover, and the bands that influenced them in the first place were never more than cult favorites anyhow.
Still, it’s worth noting the sheer quantity of bands picking up this mantle and doing something worthwhile with the sound. There’s a critical mass of worthy emo practitioners out there, many of which might even strike a chord with your average indie rocker. A significant chunk of them are aligned with Boston’s Topshelf Records, the standard-bearer for the emo revival. Stereogum’s chief metalhead Michael Nelson frequently cites Profound Lore as the best label in metal, the imprint responsible for releasing the awesomest, most groundbreaking music in the genre. Topshelf plays a similar role in this new wave of emo; it’s the label home to a wide range of the genre’s best bands, many of which I’ve compiled into this primer.
It goes without saying that fans of previous waves of emo will find something to like about these bands. So if your crusty old CD wallets are stuffed with Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, the Promise Ring, American Football, Pedro The Lion, The Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World, Braid, Texas Is The Reason and the like, you’ve either already discovered some of these bands or you just hit the jackpot. Those of us who don’t know Kinsella from Kinsella might be a little more leery of this scene; with that in mind, I’ve opted to use the RIYL category to draw parallels with alternative and indie rock artists that are more typical of Stereogum’s coverage, so as to build a bridge for the emo-illiterate among us.
OK, ready? Grab your tear-stained journal and get ready to scribble down these names.
A Great Big Pile Of Leaves
City: Brooklyn, NY
Sound: Jens Lekman goes pop-punk
RIYL: The Smiths, Broken Social Scene, Belle and Sebastian, Jens Lekman
Latest LP: You’re Always On My Mind, a melancholic yet propulsive set that sounds as brisk and autumnal as the band name implies.
Where to start: A title like “Snack Attack” might imply a cutesy non-entity, but it’s really just an indication of the whimsical spirit that always undercuts the romantic longing in AGBPOL’s best songs.
Balance And Composure
City: Doylestown, PA
Sound: Modern rock with Alternative Nation roots and shoegaze sheen
RIYL: Foo Fighters, Deftones, Idlewild, Silversun Pickups
Latest LP: The Things We Think We’re Missing, an album that would seem unstuck in time except for the complete lack of surreality; it’s an immediate, grounded, physical listen that just happens to sound airlifted in from 1998.
Where to start: The triumphantly dour single “Reflection” shakes off its resemblance to nu-metal with a monumental hook and a grandiose sense of dynamics borrowed from so-called “glacial” post-rock bands.
Crash Of Rhinos
City: Derby, UK
Sound: Bleary eyes, heavy hearts, can’t win
RIYL: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Archers Of Loaf, Battles, The Dismemberment Plan
Latest LP: The aptly titled Knots, a raging current of mathematical guitar figures and howled harmonies.
Where to start: “Opener” is actually not the first song on Knots, but its wounded arpeggios, hoarse howls and marauding drum tumbles set a scene as vividly as any rock song in 2013.
City: Gainesville, FL
Sound: Wind-sprint anthems for winded twentysomethings
RIYL: Japandroids, the Hold Steady, White Lung, Pretty Girls Make Graves
Latest LP: Broad Shoulders, a blistering compendium of energized ravings, emotive guitar lines and rhythmic ca-chunk ca-chunk set to the most classically emo song titles imaginable (“Librarians Kill For That Kind Of Quiet,” “Apology Not Fucking Accepted,” “I Watch A Lot Of Jackie Chan Movies”).
Where to start: Seven-minute Broad Shoulders closer “Sorry I Can’t Stick Around” is like riding an agony-fueled rocket all the way to its sputtering crash landing.
Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate)
City: Fenton, MI
RIYL: Superchunk (via Get Up Kids), Death Cab For Cutie, Rilo Kiley, Built To Spill, The Microphones
Latest LP: Technically that’s 2009′s What It Takes To Move Forward, but the flurry of splits and EPs since then means you could really tumble into their discography anywhere and get the gist.
Where to start: There’s so much music out there that this feels a little like closing your eyes and pointing to a random word in the dictionary, but “It’s a fate we can’t escape. Someday we will all pass away.” captures a many aspects of Empire! Empire!’s appeal, from the comically elongated song title to the multi-segmented structure to the intersecting high-range guitar prisms to the whimper/wail vocal spectrum to classically emo lyrics like “This is how my heart broke.”
City: Philadelphia, PA
Sound: Fiery indie rock with a soft heart and a widescreen scope
RIYL: The Mountain Goats, Death Cab For Cutie, the Microphones, Broken Social Scene, Jens Lekman
Latest LP: Everyone Everywhere (2012), the second of two self-titled records that show a way Death Cab could have evolved instead of the pop trajectory they chose.
Where to start: A driving-yet-dreamy composition like “The Future” is possibly the seasoned indie rocker’s easiest entry point into the emo revival.
Into It. Over It.
City: Chicago, IL
Sound: Studio rat singer-songwriter emo
RIYL: Death Cab For Cutie, the Decemberists, the Mountain Goats, Wilco
Latest LP: Intersections, an album that’s definitively emo despite purposeful noise-pop arrangements that bear the marks of Modest Mouse/Califone producer Brian Deck.
Where to start: Intersections opener “New North-Side Air” lives up to its name; like the rest of the record, it’s a breath of fresh air for the emo archetype.
Joie De Vivre
City: Rockford, IL
RIYL: Neutral Milk Hotel, John Vanderslice, Superchunk, the Wrens, Los Campesinos!
Latest LP: We’re All Better Than This, a richly arranged batch of heartstring-wranglers buttressed by enough self-awareness to title songs “High School Me Would Have Been Pumped,” “I’d Be Upset If I Broke Up With Me Too” and “Wait Wait Wait… How Soon Is Now?”
Where to start: Joie De Vivre is an archetypical emo band with a little perspective — call it self-effacing solipsism — and in keeping with that ideal, a song titled as baldly as “I Was Sixteen Ten Years Ago” functions as both an archetypical emo song and a knowing wink.
City: Middlesex, NJ
RIYL: Sigur Ros, Death Cab For Cutie, Pinback, Muse, the Wrens
Latest LP: Owel, a swooning mishmash of every emotive alternative archetype that manages to come off as kaleidoscopic vision, not haphazard jumble.
Where to start: Those jonesing for Jonsi will lose their shit during album opener “Snowglobe,” which could have been culled directly from ( ) if not for its distinctly American keyboard figure — and I mean that as a compliment.
City: Los Angeles, CA
Sound: Screamo tantrums at breakneck speed
RIYL: At The Drive-In, Converge, Fucked Up
Latest LP: Is Survived By, a furious half-hour of scorched-throat urgency via Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish, Inc.
Where to start: “Just Exist” sounds like all Touché Amoré songs sound: guitars galore, humongous stadium drums, pained poetic self-flagellation pumped full of life by fearsome coarse-throated delivery. It’s a quarter-life crisis manifesto set to the sounds of adolescent hormonal freakout.
The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
City: Willimantic, CT
Sound: And you thought the band name was over the top…
RIYL: Los Campesinos!, Built To Spill, Explosions In The Sky
Latest LP: 2013′s Whenever, If Ever, a gorgeously ambitious sprawl of bleeding hearts and far-flung instrumentation.
Where to start: The relatively understated ballad “Low Light Assembly” has a lovely, life-affirming video, but for a better approximation of all the band’s modes, the explosively neurotic “Picture Of A Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay” is your best bet.
You Blew It!
City: Orlando, FL
Sound: Big feelings, big sound
RIYL: Japandroids, Superchunk, Okkervil River, Cymbals Eat Guitars
Latest LP: Grow Up, Dude, a scrappy yet thoughtful set of angsty anthems.
Where to start: You can’t go wrong with any of the killer choruses on Grow Up, Dude, but proper opening track “Pinball House” is a singalong for the rafters, for the stars.
Check out all these songs in a single Spotify playlist here.