Earlier this season, South Park aired an episode titled “Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers.” Within, the animated town’s resident outcasts are brainwashed into thinking they’re “emos,” instead of goths, which is truly horrifying stuff since they idolize Edgar Allen Poe — not, say, Morrissey. Overall, it’s a pretty one-note episode, but the hilarious peak comes halfway through: Michael, the goths’ de-facto leader, visits his friend Henrietta at home, where (to Michael’s dismay) she’s listening to Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Seven” during a typically suicidal evening.
“I’m not emo, OK?,” Henrietta pleads. But Michael, understanding the gravity of this situation, asks the dreaded question: “Then why are you listening to Sunny Day Real Estate?” Especially in the context of a cartoon caricature, it’s a sharp cultural observation: For most critics, Sunny Day Real Estate were the architects of that dirty-word genre, establishing the emo blueprint with their quiet-loud dynamics, their balance of heaviness and melody, and Jeremy Enigk’s tortured cries.
The band were (and arguably still are) defined by that label — as much as they defined it.
As grunge was ravaging their Seattle homebase in the early ’90s, Sunny Day emerged as spiritual opposites: Where Nirvana wallowed in their own misery, Enigk and company (bassist Nate Mendel, guitarist Dan Hoerner, drummer William Goldsmith) exorcised theirs, blending post-hardcore propulsion with an expressiveness and sweetness untapped in most modern rock.
But this early quartet version of the band only made two albums, and only one of them, 1994’s Diary, truly exemplifies that classic “emo” style. While certainly a landmark in terms of its influence (and host to several classic tracks, including the stellar “Seven”), that album feels tentative and one-dimensional compared to what Sunny Day accomplished subsequently. By comparison, I’m far more partial to 1995’s unfairly maligned LP2 (or “The Pink Album”), a more immersive studio document with a moodier textural palette.
But by the time of LP2’s release, they’d already broken up. (Enigk and Hoerner were so disillusioned during the recording, they didn’t even finish proper lyrics.) Hoerner literally bought the farm, Goldsmith and Mendel ran off to join Dave Grohl’s newly formed Foo Fighters, and Enigk discovered Christianity and reinvented himself with an ornate chamber-pop solo album, 1996’s Return Of The Frog Queen.
Of course, there’s another Sunny Day Real Estate — a markedly different version of the band that reunited (without Mendel) for two masterful albums, 1998’s How It Feels To Be Something On and 2000’s The Rising Tide. And calling Sunny Day 2.0 an “emo band” is a disservice to their newfound complexity and eclecticism: Ranging from the brooding modal chants of “The Prophet” to the turbulent 9/8 textures of “Roses In Water,” How It Feels borders at times on full-on progressive rock. Meanwhile, The Rising Tide is even more sonically ambitious, pursuing a more polished and grandiose sound layered with keyboards (“Disappear”), orchestrations (“Rain Song”), and effects.
So, just as there are two different Sunny Days, there are typically two types of Sunny Day fans: the old-school emo kids (the Henriettas, one might say) who only love the first two albums and the newcomers who only appreciate the band’s more sonically ambitious material. For me, the beauty of this band’s catalogue is its wonderful spectrum of maturity — from the wide-eyed, hormonal angst of “Seven” to the thoughtful elegance of “Rain Song.” Most bands struggle to make passionate, life-changing music in one incarnation — Sunny Day Real Estate have done it twice.
But they weren’t able to do it three times: In 2009, the band reunited (this time with Mendel) for a run of acclaimed live shows, even unveiling a new song, “10.” But after attempting to record a new album, the spark dissipated, and according to Mendel the sessions “fell apart.” “So that was probably the end of that band,” he told Music Radar. “If we couldn’t make any new music, what’s the point?”
It’s an especially apt time to look back on the career of SDRE — at least half the bands in the so-called “emo revival” owe a debt to Enigk and Co. With this list, I attempted to capture the band’s legacy in all its glorious sprawl. But it wasn’t easy: I literally lost sleep before having to cut personal favorites like “Snibe” and “100 Million.” Sunny Day only made four studio albums, but they never wasted a single track. Without further ado, here are the band’s 10 best songs.
10. “8” (from LP2, 1995)
Whoever curated the Batman Forever soundtrack is a weird fucking individual: Sitting on that tracklist next to U2 and Method Man and Brandy and Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” is “8,” a shapeshifting gem from Sunny Day’s polarizing “Pink Album.” Enigk unfurls another queasy vocal melody over violent dynamic moodswings, singing some of the loveliest gibberish of his career: “Whose side you on?/ Which side you on?,” he seems to snarl, “Silence near the battle cry/ Hollow victory.” Your move, Riddler.
9. “In Circles” (from Live, 1999)
With its flat mix, awkward backing vocals, and weak guitar tone, the Diary version of “In Circles” offers only a partial glimpse of this song’s true power. This live version (recorded during the How It Feels tour) improves upon the original in every way possible: By this point, Enigk’s voice had matured into a rich, singular instrument — a far cry from the loveably nasal whine found on Diary. And the arrangement breathes a hell of a lot more on-stage — from that agile bassline to Goldsmith’s nervously twitching hi-hats.
8. “Friday” (from LP2, 1995)
The opener on the band’s divisive sophomore LP, “Friday” is Sunny Day’s darkest, eeriest anthem. Enigk and Hoerner tangle their distorted riffs into a massive wall of sound, as Enigk’s throaty bellows chase crescendo after crescendo in a maze of Middle Eastern melody. It’s clear that, even in the interim between then and Diary, Enigk had learned how to better utilize the dynamic range of his voice: “Friday” is one of his absolute finest moments as a singer.
7. “One” (from The Rising Tide, 2000)
A lot of early Sunny Day fans took issue with Enigk’s turn to Christianity, but it’s also hard not to notice more emotional resonance in the band’s lyrics (which, by the way, are co-written with Hoerner) since that personal change. The final two Sunny Day albums are often surreal and imagistic in their approach, but they’re also littered with references to faith and redemption. On “One,” Enigk might be mourning the godlessness of the world around him, but the approach isn’t preachy — it’s malleable and universal. “If we try to lift up our eyes, replacing the lies we own this moment,” he sings, skyrocketing over massive, glistening guitars. “Everything and everyone and in the end we are all one.”
6. “Disappear” (from The Rising Tide, 2000)
In terms of pure musical composition, “Disappear” might be the band’s crowning achievement — a journey of major-minor tension and ornate art-rock bombast. Nonetheless, it all comes back to the drums: “Disappear” opens with triumphant tom-tom rolls, then marching snares, then metallic thunder, then disco-punk throb. Take away all the other instruments (the brooding piano chords, the snarling guitar lines), and Goldsmith’s percussion still paints a vivid picture.
5. “Seven” (from Diary, 1994)
Chalk it up to nostalgia, its position as the lead-off track on Diary, or the fact that, yeah, it’s pretty fucking awesome — but there’s really no getting around it: “Seven” is the definitive Sunny Day Real Estate song, the moment that crystallizes the sonic and emotional trajectory of the band’s early sound. In the two decades since its release, the quiet-loud dynamic shift in rock music has devolved into a cliché, but the dreamy-to-propulsive swings in “Seven” remain no less majestic. It’s a tour-de-force in every sense: Backed by a tapestry of distortion and a battering ram rhythm section, Enigk’s fragmented imagery (“Sew it on, face the fool/ December’s tragic drive/ When time is poetry and/ Stolen the world outside/ The waiting could crush my heart”) cuts mighty deep indeed.
4. “The Prophet” (from How It Feels To Be Something On, 1998)
“The Prophet” opens with a very unexpected flourish — Enigk layering his voice into a choir of deep, monkish chants. From there on, it’s a slow grind toward a big epiphany: Goldsmith and (temporary) bassist Jeff Palmer carefully carve a tribal groove, while Hoerner adds washes of hypnotic guitar texture. Sunny Day never wrote another song like this five-minute masterpiece — and neither has anyone else.
3. “Roses In Water” (from How It Feels To Be Something On, 1998)
There’s an evocative darkness at the core of this song—it’s hard to tell if it lasts three minutes or 85, but once you’re submerged, it’s tough to climb back out. With its eerie guitar atmospheres and 9/8 structure, this is the first Sunny Day track to qualify as prog-rock. Listening now, the progression from Diary to here seems logical if you listen close enough, but it was probably a bit jarring at the time. “Roses In Water” is an epic built for a laser-light show.
2. “Pillars” (from How It Feels To Be Something On, 1998)
One of this band’s greatest strengths is their sense of balance: The rhythm section is always as crucial as the guitars, and Enigk’s voice is simply another instrument in the swirl. “Pillars” is the best example of this principle: Enigk and Hoerner build a dreamy, minor-key guitar pattern so interlocked, their two six-strings sound like one chiming 12-string. Beneath, Goldsmith is the engine-driver, propelling the track with his snare ghost-notes and gradually opening hi-hats. “I know you want to be the rain,” Enigk sings, each syllable ping-ponging off the downbeat. “And you know that we could fall in there/ For a time and then unfall again.” Transcendent.
1. “Rain Song” (from The Rising Tide, 2000)
No, this isn’t a Led Zeppelin cover, but it’s just as lush as that Jimmy Page opus. Back in Sunny Day’s emo era, this kind of song — a languid ballad built on fingerpicked acoustic guitars, piano, and strings — would have seemed like a hallucination or a joke. But “Rain Song” is the loveliest melody Enigk has ever delivered, a marvel of cadence and timbre. This band’s songwriting had always been built on emotional grandeur, but “Rain Song” is grand in the literal sense: It’s overstuffed and all the better for it.
Listen to the Spotify playlist here.