30 Essential Songs From The Golden Era Of Emo

| July 22, 2014 - 10:18 am

Ask anyone old enough to drink what they think emo is, and you’ll get about as many different responses as people willing to answer. They’ll just about all be right, too (if is any kind of reference, anyway). Everyone’s nebulous identification and loose understanding of the genre is both its best and worst quality — emo is just so damn personal. No matter if you credit Rites Of Spring or My Chemical Romance for introducing raw, bleeding-heart emotions into the lexicon of punk and hardcore, the bands you listen to and define as “real emo” are undoubtedly among the most important to ever appear in your life. And yet there was indeed a solid stretch of time, roughly under a decade, when everyone who cared to could wholeheartedly agree on what the hell emo actually was, and they could not get enough of it. I like to refer to this as the Golden Era of Emo. Starting in the early ’90s and sputtering out just after the turn of the century, it was an exciting period for underground punk and hardcore scenes. The Golden Era gave emo its unequivocally best songs, and it also birthed a number of bands and artists who would go on to become both huge commercial successes and revered darlings of independent music. This wasn’t when the term “emotional hardcore” was coined, nor was it when emo became a household word; this was that perfect pocket of time when a specific kind of unabashedly earnest rock was able to incubate out of the spotlight and thrive amongst a tight-knit group of eager and unjaded peers.

Between the old-school band reunions, the classic album anniversaries, the reissues, the re-emerging record labels, and that whole #emorevival thing, now seems like the ideal time to talk about the music that made all of this stuff important to us in the first place. And what better way to kick start the discussion than with a list? But let’s first lay down some ground rules. For the 30 Essential Songs From The Golden Era Of Emo list, I opted to leave out bands who I lovingly think of as “proto-emo” — that is, grandfathers of the scene such as Hüsker Dü, Rites Of Spring, Embrace, and Dag Nasty. I also did not include seminal screamo acts like Saetia, I Hate Myself, Antioch Arrow, You And I, Jeromes Dream, Pg.99, Orchid, etc., because, honestly, that’s a whole other list unto itself. No, instead I focused on the more melodic and relatively recent ends of the emo spectrum. And because there are simply just too many great bands to include in a list like this, I decided to only pick one song per group, though keen eyes and ears will undoubtedly notice a few different bands with shared members. Finally: This list is not ranked worst to best, or best to worst; it is presented chronologically by release date (or approximate release date, when the historical release date proved impossible to nail down), from oldest to newest. Now, with all of the necessary caveats in place, let’s take a song-by-song trip through the definitive age of emo.

1/94 Jawbox – “Savory” (from For Your Own Special Sweetheart)

Most people equate ’90s emo with the Midwestern sound popularized by bands from the suburbs of Chicago, Omaha, or Kansas City, and while that is unquestionably an integral part of the music’s lineage, it is not the be-all and end-all. There is another, admittedly much smaller region with a sizable stake in emo history, too: Washington, D.C. — the birthplace of “emotional hardcore.” The East Coast counterpart was more angular and aggressive, but no less unafraid of visceral expression, which is all on brilliant display in “Savory.” The closest thing to a breakout single by J. Robbins’ most well-known band, Jawbox, “Savory” gained mild popularity on MTV, offering a glimmer of hope to musicians who didn’t want to write grunge songs when it was released in January of 1994. Robbins would go on to become the underground rock scene’s preeminent record producer with his Magpie Cage Recording Studio, helping to shape the sound of a number of the bands featured on this list.

(See also: The Dismemberment Plan – “The Ice Of Boston,” Burning Airlines – “Pacific 231,” No Knife – “Minus One”)

5/94 Sunny Day Real Estate – “In Circles” (from Diary)

Little can be written about Sunny Day Real Estate’s masterful “In Circles” that hasn’t been said time and time again (though I certainly tried my best on the 20th anniversary of Diary). For countless people, this song is the epitome of emo, the defining anthem of the pioneering Seattle band and the era of music it inadvertently spawned. The song’s loud-soft dynamics, deep post-hardcore roots, artful lyricism, and unobtrusive pop sensibilities gave the Golden Era of Emo its blueprint, and as such, “In Circles” has still never been topped in terms of sheer influence and ingenuity.

(See also: Texas Is The Reason – “A Jack With One Eye,” Mineral – “Parking Lot,” The Appleseed Cast – “Marigold & Patchwork”)

9/94 Policy Of 3 – “Nine Years Old” (from the American Woodworking 7″)

Another entry in the list of emo bands owing a great deal to D.C. hardcore, New Jersey’s Policy Of 3 existed in the grittier outskirts of the ’90s underground scene, a world more interested in jangly instrumentation, dark iconography, and starkly DIY production than its relatively populist peers in the middle of America. Policy Of 3 wrote music that helped birth the nascent screamo sound proliferated by labels like Ebullition, Level Plane, and Gravity, but on songs like the winding and powerful “Nine Years Old,” they hold enough back to keep things tuneful and understated.

(See also: Rites Of Spring – “For Want Of,” Moss Icon – “Gravity,” Hoover – “Electrolux”)

1/95 Cap’n Jazz – “Little League” (from Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards In The Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On And Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over)

It sounds a bit strange to call a bunch of teenagers from Champaign, Illinois the godfathers of Midwestern emo, and yet here we are. Tim Kinsella, Mike Kinsella, Davey von Bohlen, Sam Zurick, and Victor Villarreal have been fixtures of the scene since the mid-’90s thanks to the popularity of Joan Of Arc and the Promise Ring, but their long-defunct band Cap’n Jazz didn’t rise to prominence until Jade Tree reissued its discography as Analphabetapolothology in 1998. With a 34-song tracklist, the double-disc release offers a ton of material to go through, so its no surprise that its two best songs — “Little League” and “Oh Messy Life” — kick off the whole bunch. (It’s also how they appeared on Cap’n Jazz’s original debut LP when it was released in ’95.) Everyone surely has their own favorite of the two, but if you ask me, the unbridled energy and raspy yawping in “Little League” is just way more fun to sing along with.

(See also: Joan Of Arc – “God Bless America,” Ghosts And Vodka – “It’s All About Right Then,” Owls – “Everyone Is My Friend”)

9/95 Jawbreaker – “Jet Black” (from Dear You)

I don’t know about everyone else, but I genuinely miss hearing movie samples in rock songs. Sure, it’s an antiquated, often clunky songwriting and production tool, but when it’s done right, it can make a song just as memorable as the movie it references. “Jet Black,” the moody centerpiece from Jawbreaker’s divisive major label album, Dear You, nails the trick when it samples Christopher Walken’s monologue from Annie Hall for a bitingly dark effect. Though Jawbreaker might be more lovingly remembered for punky gems like “Boxcar,” “Want,” and “Do You Still Hate Me?,” bandleader Blake Schwarzenbach’s introspective and nuanced songwriting on “Jet Black” (not to mention other Dear You highlights, like “Accident Prone” and “Fireman”) foreshadowed his work with the equally seminal Jets To Brazil.

(See also: Texas Is The Reason – “Antique,” Knapsack – “Courage Was Confused,” Jets To Brazil – “Sweet Avenue”)

4/96 Texas Is The Reason – “Johnny On The Spot” (from Do You Know Who You Are?)

As literally post-hardcore as it gets, Texas Is The Reason was born from the ashes of two revered NYC hardcore bands, and went on to make a more lasting impact on independent music than their previous projects combined. The four-piece outfit carved its Misfits-inspired name deep into the DNA of ’90s emo with an effortless juxtaposition of hooky riffs, powerful drumming, and a plaintive vocal style that never shies away from downright catchiness. Following a solid self-titled EP in ’95, Do You Know Who You Are? became the next canonical emo album after Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, though it would be Texas Is The Reason’s only full-length record. “Johnny On The Spot” opens the LP like a bold mission statement, clearly outlining the band’s charging style of melodic, emotional post-hardcore in a blast of high energy and thoughtful candor.

(See also: Elliott – “Dionysus Burning,” Jets To Brazil – “Starry Configurations,” New End Original – “Lukewarm”)

6/96 Christie Front Drive – “Radio” (from Christie Front Drive)

Christie Front Drive is your favorite emo band’s favorite emo band, and a perfect example of how fantastic music can go largely unnoticed until it’s too late, a story that a number of the bands on this list can relate to. Though they got their start in ’93 and worked with the likes of Boy’s Life, Jimmy Eat World, and renowned emo label Crank!, the Denver, Colorado quartet didn’t release a proper debut album until the tail end of ’96, after they had already broken up. (The CD’s liner notes actually end with the band writing “Goodbye!”) From that technically self-titled record (often referred to as Stereo), “Radio” is a glowing illustration of the subtly inventive and personable music that Christie Front Drive prolifically wrote throughout its brief career.

(See also: Cursive – “After The Movies,” Cross My Heart – “Dornier,” Penfold – “I’ll Take You Everywhere”)

9/96 Weezer – “Tired Of Sex” (from Pinkerton)

Chalk it up to revisionist history if you must: Weezer’s Pinkerton is the best “too mainstream to be real emo” emo record there is. Diehards will decry any significance that Rivers Cuomo’s breakup album has in the grand scheme of emo history, but for those of us who are willing to give genre archetypes a little more wiggle room, there are some classic songs for the brokenhearted here. Honestly, it doesn’t get much more emotional than someone screaming “Why can’t I be making love come true?” over crashing drums and intensely distorted guitars. Those qualities alone put the satisfyingly bombastic “Tired Of Sex” straight into the emo continuum, but if you need another reason, where do you think emo’s thick-rimmed glasses and sweater schtick came from, anyway?

(See also: Superdrag – “Sucked Out,” Smoking Popes – “I Know You Love Me,” Piebald – “American Hearts”)

1/97 Mineral – “Gloria” (from The Power Of Failing)

Originally released in ’94 as the A-side of a two-song 7″, “Gloria” is to Mineral’s The Power Of Failing what “In Circles” is to Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, a pitch-perfect encapsulation of what makes the whole album so absolutely good. The music’s energy jumps and dives with smooth, flowing movements, blasting through punk-informed choruses and bridges with the same resonance as each softly lilting verse. Singer/guitarist Chris Simpson’s songwriting and vocal skills would come to be revered on the same level as SDRE frontman Jeremy Enigk’s, and the enduring power of Mineral’s small discography — not to mention that of Simpson’s next band, the Gloria Record — is testament to the widespread effect his music had on the emo community.

(See also: Sunny Day Real Estate – “Seven,” The Gloria Record – “Grace, The Snow Is Here,” Pop Unknown – “Half Of Ninety”)

10/97 The Promise Ring – “Red & Blue Jeans” (from Nothing Feels Good)

The Promise Ring is about as deliciously upbeat and poppy as emo gets. Davey von Bohlen’s first post-Cap’n Jazz band channeled the unbridled enthusiasm of his earlier project into more refined songs like the bubbly “Why Did Ever We Meet” and 30° Everywhere’s wistful “A Picture Postcard” — caught between those dominant forces is “Red & Blue Jeans.” The Nothing Feels Good standout represents everything that has made the Promise Ring’s large and devoted fanbase stick with the band through bouts of gleeful abandon (Very Emergency) and a change of identity (Wood/Water): sticky bubblegum hooks, thoughtful lyricism, and thoroughly melodic rock delivered with a grin, a wink, and a sigh.

(See also: Jimmy Eat World – “Claire,” The Get Up Kids – “Don’t Hate Me,” Braid – “First Day Back”)

12/97 Rainer Maria – “Tinfoil” (from Past Worn Searching)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, female-fronted emo bands are especially hard to come by, but that doesn’t make Rainer Maria a novelty by any stretch. The Madison, Wisconsin-born three-piece didn’t rely on cutesy boy-girl exchanges between their two singers, nor did they write overtly twee melodies and saccharine riffs — Rainer Maria were as intensely expressive as any of their more masculine peers, if not occasionally more so. Opening the band’s debut album for Polyvinyl, Past Worn Searching, “Tinfoil” bursts out of the gates with singer Caithlin De Marrais commanding our respect and attention: “Goddammit! I’m not talking about my heart like it’s something you could break.” In many ways, Rainer Maria’s explosive song was the ringing announcement of both a band and a record label that would give late-’90s emo some of its finest music.

(See also: The Jazz June – “When The Drums Kick In,” Jejune – “This Afternoon’s Malady,” The Anniversary – “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”)

4/98 Braid “A Dozen Roses” (from Frame And Canvas)

Speaking of highly influential Polyvinyl bands, Braid was yet another fantastic emo export from Champaign, Illinois, whose last and arguably best studio album was released via the label in April of ’98. (They’ve since reformed in recent years, and actually just released a new full-length record called No Coast!) Frame And Canvas has no lack of excellent, inventive songs — in fact, almost all of its 12 tracks are core elements of Understanding Emo 101, and just about every #emorevival band out there owes roughly 80% of their sound to them. But for all of the wild energy and restless hooks that bustle through Braid’s third LP, it’s the mildly restrained centerpiece that stands a head taller than the rest. Maybe because of Bob Nanna’s offhandedly poetic lyrics, or the unexpected bounce of Damon Atkinson’s drums, or the fluid versatility of Chris Broach’s guitars, or how the band exudes such emotional resonance in both a whisper and a shout, but “A Dozen Roses” is somehow a song that only Braid could write.

(See also: Boys Life – “Golf Hill Drive,” Piebald – “The Sea And A Lifesaver,” Hey Mercedes – “The House Shook”)

8/98 At The Drive-In – “Napoleon Solo” (from In/Casino/Out)

Just because most emo bands sing about unrequited love, relationships, and heartbreak doesn’t necessarily mean that they all do. Case in point, the socio-political inclinations of one of emo’s premier innovators, At The Drive-In. Despite hailing from El Paso, Texas, the quintet set themselves apart from their peers with a distinctive take on the D.C. post-hardcore sound; intricate guitar work, esoteric lyrics, and a rhythm section prone to dance-friendly grooves landed At The Drive-In closer to Fugazi than Sunny Day Real Estate. But a song such as “Napoleon Solo” finds the band neck deep in the driving, loud-soft dynamics of Midwestern emo, albeit on their own terms. Between Omar Rodríguez-López’s hypnotic riffs and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s soul-shaking wail, “Napoleon Solo” is the first irrefutable example of what makes At The Drive-In an unforgettable chapter in emo’s history.

(See also: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – “Mistakes & Regrets,” Q And Not U – “End The Washington Monument (Blinks) Goodnight,” Sparta – “Cut Your Ribbon”)

10/98 Jets To Brazil – “Chinatown” (from Orange Rhyming Dictionary)

In the wake of Jawbreaker’s breakup after Dear You, frontman Blake Schwarzenbach made the move to Brooklyn and began working on new songs with bassist Jeremy Chatelain. The pair eventually recruited Texas Is The Reason drummer Chris Daly to help them write and record what would be Jets to Brazil’s first and most beloved album, Orange Rhyming Dictionary. The record was released via Jade Tree (home to the Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz, etc.) and featured two important names from the emo world, but its songs were more eclectic than anything either party involved had done before. Nonetheless, there are plenty of moments on Orange Rhyming Dictionary that evoke Schwarzenbach’s and Daly’s roots, not the least of which is “Chinatown.” It’s hard to pick just one defining element of the song — somewhere amidst its cynical outlook, deceptively simple instrumentation, and affable ambiguity lies the secret to Jets To Brazil’s exemplary debut.

(See also: Jawbreaker – “Accident Prone,” Pop Unknown – “Follow You,” The Van Pelt – “The Good, The Bad & The Blind”)

2/99 Jimmy Eat World – “For Me This Is Heaven” (from Clarity)

It might be hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, Jimmy Eat World was a young band struggling to break out of their underground roots and into the mainstream. Clarity, their third LP and second release with Capitol, was meant to do just that, but despite having a lead single (“Lucky Denver Mint”) featured as the theme of Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed, the record never reached the kind of cultural immersion it wanted. In underground circles, however, Clarity was heralded as a masterpiece, the new high-water mark of pop-oriented emo. And while each of its 13 songs resonated about as strongly as the others, “For Me This Is Heaven” epitomizes the album’s lush, astral arrangements, youthful romanticism, and subtly nuanced production from Mark Trombino. It also framed the kind of tender longing that emo has long obsessed over with one of the genre’s finest lyrical stanzas: “When the time we have now ends/ And when the big hand goes round again/ Can you still feel the butterflies?/ Can you still hear the last goodnight?”

(See also: Christie Front Drive – “Field,” The Promise Ring – “Become One Anything One Time,” The Jealous Sound – “Hope For Us”)

5/99 Piebald – “Grace Kelly With Wings” (from If It Weren’t For Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains For Us All)

The jokesters of emo, Piebald combined a goofy sense of sarcasm and wit with big, fuzzy guitars and hooks aplenty. Their first full-length, When Life Hands You Lemons…, hinted at an innate playfulness, but it wasn’t until the Boston four piece released If It Weren’t For Venetian Blinds, It Would be Curtains For Us All in May of 1999 that they started to fully realize their potential. At the start of that record is “Grace Kelly With Wings,” a uniquely sweet and shapeshifting emo song that jumps between soft balladry, upbeat pop, anthemic chords, and strangely unironic bar rock during its ambitious five and a half minutes. By the time Piebald finishes their second album’s opening song, it’s obvious that this is a band who will try just about anything, and with an extra bit of panache that few could claim.

(See also: Vitreous Humor – “Why Are You So Mean to Me?,” Reggie And The Full Effect – “Thanx For Staying,” Benton Falls – “All These Things”)

7/99 Further Seems Forever – “New Year’s Project” (from the From The 27th State split EP)

Like it or not, religion played a role in the Golden Era of Emo, and I’m not just talking about Jeremy Enigk’s conversion to Christianity or Texas Is The Reason’s past with Hare Krishna hardcore. Being a genre that resonated largely with teens and early 20-somethings, emo had to center around mostly all-ages shows, and if those weren’t held in cafes or VFW halls, they were more often than not held in churches. You can imagine the effect it had on the kids who attended those churches. Further Seems Forever — or, for the uninitiated, the first well-known band featuring Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba — came from that scene, releasing its first record as a split EP with Recess Theory via Christian label Takehold. The Florida band wound up re-recording two of those three songs for their solid debut album for Tooth & Nail, The Moon is Down, though neither “The Bradley” or “New Year’s Project” changed a note during the two years between those releases — and thankfully so. Each of them boast driving riffs and Carrabba’s soaring vocals, and yet something in the way “New Year’s Project” deals with love and devotion speaks to the kind of spirituality that Further Seems Forever fostered in its earliest music.

(See also: Sense Field – “Building,” Elliott – “Suitcase And Atoms,” mewithoutYou – “Nice And Blue”)

7/99 The Casket Lottery – “Midway” (from Choose Bronze)

There was always something sort of dangerous about the Casket Lottery, like the band would fight you just as soon as tell you a great story, and they were at their best when it felt like they were doing both. Coming from the same scene that gave us the Get Up Kids and metalcore band Coalesce, the Kansas City trio came out swinging with debut album Choose Bronze, a tour de force signaling the arrival of one the most important bands taking emo into the 21st century. Songs like “Trust Nolan,” “Ocean,” and “New Year’s Eve” delivered walls of searing guitar, singer Nathan Ellis’ raspy howl, complex and punchy drums, and a bass tone that could cut glass if not shatter it completely, but the excellence of the Casket Lottery’s fierce sound is no better encapsulated than on the mercurial “Midway.”

(See also: Penfold – “Microchip,” Small Brown Bike – “The Cannons And Tanks,” Hot Water Music – “Jack Of All Trades”)

8/99 Planes Mistaken For Stars – “Copper And Stars” (from Planes Mistaken For Stars)

Okay, let’s talk about Deep Elm. Here was perhaps the first label to openly and proudly wear the word emo like a badge of pride, releasing a widely known series of compilations called The Emo Diaries, which aimed to showcase the plethora of obscure bands working with the beloved genre. But for all of its efforts, Deep Elm only discovered a small number of bands who would last longer than one or two albums, and even fewer who ever left the label for greener pastures. Peoria, Illinois quartet Planes Mistaken for Stars is one such group, however, and “Copper And Stars” epitomizes their first record released with Deep Elm. Before the band started down a much darker, borderline sinister path with their equally brilliant second EP, Knife In The Marathon, they worked with a blistering style of emotive hardcore marked by Gared O’Donnell’s smoke- and booze-addled voice and a manic sense of dynamics. “Copper And Stars” remains one of the best songs in either Deep Elm’s or PMFS’s discography.

(See also: Race Car Riot – “Racing California,” The Casket Lottery – “A Dead Dear,” Small Brown Bike – “See You In Hell”)

9/99 American Football – “Never Meant” (from American Football)

The Golden Era of Emo is absolutely brimming with anomalies, one-hit wonders that seemed to have disappeared just as abruptly as they arrived. Yet no other flash-in-the-pan band seems to have connected so strongly and with as many people as American Football did. The first group fronted by singer/guitarist Mike Kinsella since his days in Cap’n Jazz and Joan Of Arc, American Football (the original lineup of which called itself the One Up Downstairs) released only one EP and one LP via Polyvinyl during its very short time together. But what they lacked in quantity they made up for with a flawless discography. Perhaps American Football’s finest accomplishment is the opening track of its self-titled album, “Never Meant.” All spindly guitar plucks, cross-hatched drums, and heartfelt vocals, the song seems to be built solely from fond memories of a teenage romance in a quiet suburb, which speaks to nearly every emo fan in the world. Kinsella’s band may have lasted less than a quarter as long as his current solo project, Owen, but the impact that American Football had on a generation of budding music lovers can not be overstated.

(See also: Very Secretary – “Nagarkot,” The One Up Downstairs – “Franco The Bull,” Owen – “Most Days And…”)

9/99 The Get Up Kids – “Holiday” (from Something To Write Home About)

Don’t let the lack of mentioning the Get Up Kids’ Four Minute Mile trick you into thinking I don’t appreciate the importance of their classic debut LP. It’s just that for every catchy phrase, bubbly hook, and restless drum roll that record delivered with rollicking eagerness, Something To Write Home About offered twice as many, and with an added touch of refinement. The Kansas City, Missouri band had become a core element of the Midwestern emo scene on the back of Four Minute Mile, but it was Something To Write Home About that launched them into worldwide acclaim, with Matt Pryor & Co. touring extensively alongside the likes of Green Day and Weezer. “Ten Minutes” and “Action & Action” wound up getting the proper single treatment, though nearly all of the record’s 12 punk-fueled emo-pop cuts could’ve done the trick. As such, it’s hard to pick just one favorite, but after having spent 15 years learning every lyric and riff on Something To Write Home About, I can’t think of a better representation than the song that first launched the album into the emo hall of fame, blazing lead track “Holiday.”

(See also: Reggie And The Full Effect – “Girl, Why’d You Run Away,” The Anniversary – “All Things Ordinary,” The New Amsterdams – “Lonely Hearts”)

11/99 Saves The Day – “Rocks Tonic Juice Magic” (from Through Being Cool)

There was a very fine line between pop-punk and emo in the final years before Y2K, and Saves The Day’s Through Being Cool LP all but diminished it completely. Amidst the double-time drums and palm-muted guitars of fan favorites like “You Vandal” and “Shoulder To The Wheel” was singer Chris Conley’s morbid prose, darkly personal lyrics delivered with a boyish whine. “Rocks Tonic Juice Magic” might feature some of his most graphic imagery, as Conley sings about digging out a girl’s eyes with a rusty spoon and listening to her cry. It’s sickly satisfying stuff, and when set between the band’s chunky riffs and sharp rhythms, lines like “Heart is on the floor! Why don’t you step on it?” just beg to be screamed at the top of your lungs. Though bands like New Found Glory, Brand New, and Taking Back Sunday would eventually turn the album’s brand of emotive pop-punk into their own infectious, burnt-sugar confections, there’s no doubt that Saves The Day were the first to make it cool.

(See also: Jawbreaker – “Do You Still Hate Me?,” New Found Glory – “Hit Or Miss,” Hot Rod Circuit – “Radio Song”)

1/00 The Anniversary – “The D In Detroit” (from Designing A Nervous Breakdown)

After the release of the Get Up Kids’ game-changing Something To Write Home About, Vagrant Records made a concerted effort to ingrain itself into the poppy, punky ends of the emo scene, signing bands like Alkaline Trio, Saves The Day, Hey Mercedes, and Dashboard Confessional. But just before that explosion in 2001, a little-known band that became close friends with the Get Up Kids while touring together released its debut album with the label. The Anniversary’s Designing A Nervous Breakdown was almost like a second coming of Something To Write Home About — in that it offered upbeat, youthful emo with the soul of pop-punk and dashes of synth — except that it was more interested in dreamy textures and featured singer Adrianne Verhoeven’s cooing voice. “The D In Detroit” is probably the best example of those elements which kept the Lawrence, Kansas band out of the Get Up Kids’ shadow, but it also shows exactly why fans of Something To Write Home About loved the Anniversary in equal measure.

(See also: The Get Up Kids – “Ten Minutes,” Rainer Maria – “Artificial Light,” Desaparecidos – “The Happiest Place On Earth”)

3/00 The Appleseed Cast – “Forever Longing The Golden Sunsets” (from Mare Vitalis)

In 1998, Lawrence, Kansas band the Appleseed Cast came out of obscurity to release its debut album via Deep Elm. And though The End Of The Ring Wars is still one of the best records in the label’s extensive catalog, it wasn’t until Mare Vitalis arrived in February of 2000 that the Appleseed Cast left the school of Sunny Day Real Estate to forge its own identity. Their second LP was more focused and developed, both instrumentally and emotionally — often taking its oceanic themes to heart with seafaring guitar riffs, foggy atmospheres, and complex drumming which evoked crashing waves and stormy rainfall. “Forever Longing The Golden Sunsets” has all of these qualities in spades, but its the beautiful, seaside imagery Christopher Crisci breathes into his lyrics that makes the dreamy song stand out among Mare Vitalis’ teeming instrumentals and sweeping emo classics.

(See also: Planes Mistaken For Stars – “Staggerswallowswell,” The Casket Lottery – “Optimist Honor Roll,” Hundred Hands – “A Replay”)

3/00 Death Cab For Cutie – “Title Track” (from We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes)

Take a moment and allow yourself to imagine an alternate reality, a universe in which The O.C. never became a TV show, Adam Brody’s Seth Cohen character never said Death Cab For Cutie was his favorite band, and “A Movie Script Ending” was never featured in the soundtrack. In this world, perhaps Ben Gibbard never wrote “The Sound Of Settling,” and instead of going down the radio-ready path blazed by 2001’s Photo Album, the Bellingham, Washington quartet kept to the sullen, indie-pop roots of Something About Airplanes and We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. “Title Track” would be the theme song of this world, reminding everyone how Chris Walla’s deceptively simple-sounding production and Gibbard’s downtrodden soul can make for some of the best emo-not-emo music there is.

(See also: Pedro The Lion – “Of Up And Coming Monarchs,” Kind Of Like Spitting – “Blue Period,” Pinback – “Penelope”)

6/00 Cursive – “The Martyr” (from Domestica)

Omaha, Nebraska might’ve been best known for giving the world Bright Eyes and the Faint back in 2000, but another band had been quietly building its legacy for five years before staking its own claim on that scene with a genius concept album called Domestica. Supposedly centered around frontman Tim Kasher’s divorce, Cursive’s third full-length was almost too personal, as it played like an uncomfortably real account of an intensely troubled relationship. On “The Martyr,” Domestica hits an early peak of frustration and regret with the song’s anxious instrumentation and anguished storytelling. It may not have the upbeat hooks of “The Radiator Hums” or the inventiveness of “Shallow Means, Deep Ends,” but no other moment on Cursive’s Domestica is as deeply cathartic as when Kasher screams out, “Your tears are only alibis!”

(See also: The White Octave – “Appeals For Insertion,” Waxwing – “All Of My Prophets,” The Good Life – “Your Birthday Present”)

8/00 Elliott – “Calm Americans” (from False Cathedrals)

Elliott might be the Golden Era of Emo’s most underrated and underappreciated secret, a band whose uncompromising vision of driving, emotive post-hardcore only continued to swell in size with each consecutive album. Sophomore LP False Cathedrals saw the Louisville, Kentucky band expand their sonic palette to include piano and subtle electronics (an oncoming trend in the genre’s later years), and the dreamy, sensual “Calm Americans” shows off just how well those new sounds blend with Elliott’s previous instrumentation. Few bands were able to maintain their emo cred while exploring ideas atypical of the genre, but Elliott’s eclectic discography — especially False Cathedrals — proves how seamlessly and tastefully it can be done.

(See also: Chamberlain – “Her Side Of Sundown,” The Gloria Record – “A Lull In Traffic,” Further Seems Forever – “The Moon Is Down”)

4/01 Thursday – “Understanding In A Car Crash” (from Full Collapse)

If the New Jersey suburbs were a lovesick Pablo Neruda poem in the eyes of Saves The Day, they were an Orwellian dystopia in the wails of Thursday. The band’s second album, Full Collapse, erupted into the 2001 post-hardcore scene with chugging guitars and gawky, gap-toothed frontman Geoff Rickly’s charismatic stage presence. Thursday’s impassioned reflections and a shared interest in heavy metaphors about the loss of innocence — not to mention an affinity for throwback “emotional hardcore” à la Rites Of Spring and Indian Summer — earned them the emo badge. “Understanding In A Car Crash” wasn’t Full Collapse’s only adored single, but the song’s sinuous riffs, understated breakdowns, and melodic vision of screamo are responsible for spawning an entire generation of swoopy-haired bedroom moshers.

(See also: Grade – “Life Gets In The Way Of Living,” Boysetsfire – “Still Waiting For The Punchline,” At The Drive-In – “One Armed Scissor”)

10/01 Brand New – “Jude Law And A Semester Abroad” (from Your Favorite Weapon, October 2001)

While Thursday usurped girl problems and sex appeal with raw emotional power, Brand New popped up on the other side of the street, exclusively fixated on those concerns. Love them or hate them, Brand New’s and Taking Back Sunday’s movie-script-perfect rivalry — complete with a backstory of best friends wronged by a cheating girlfriend — represented a kind of emo that was perfect for the popular kids. These were teenagers who fought, fucked, and got wasted, and not for the same reasons as Blake Schwarzenbach. In 2001, an idolatry of Morrissey, echoes of ’90s alt-rock, and a love for Saves The Day created an endearingly egotistical cocktail on Brand New’s Your Favorite Weapon, with “Jude Law And A Semester Abroad” making for its lead single. The song is a late-emo staple thanks to its neo-pop-punk format and sing-along choruses, but when singer Jesse Lacey quotes a girl telling him why she hates him in his lyrics, it’s an eerie foreshadowing of the selfie-obsessed third wave of emo.

(See also: The Juliana Theory – “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?,” Saves The Day – “At Your Funeral,” Taking Back Sunday – “Cute Without The ‘E’ (Cut From The Team)”)

2/02 Desaparecidos – “Greater Omaha” (from Read Music/Speak Spanish)

Say what you will about Bright Eyes, but Conor Oberst’s Omaha, Nebraska supergroup Desaparecidos filled a gaping void in the 2002 emo scene with their one and only full-length, Read Music/Speak Spanish. While most contemporary emo bands at the time were interested in traveling the roads paved by Saves The Day, Brand New, and Jimmy Eat World, the Midwestern five-piece returned to the genre’s roots, emblazoning each powerful blast of passionate rock with loads of gnarled guitar tones, punk-fueled tempos, flourishes of synth, and hoarse, shaky vocals. Most of Oberst’s lyrics were sociopolitical in content, but the way he would sing caustic phrases about suburban sprawl in the blistering “Greater Omaha” invoked the brazen expressiveness that colored in emo’s earliest days. With Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos were somehow able to make the final breath of the Golden Era of Emo sound as vital and invigorating as its first.

(See also: Commander Venus – “We’ll Always Have Paris,” Cursive – “The Recluse,” Bear Vs. Shark – “Buses/No Buses”)


Check out our Golden Era Of Emo Ultimate Playlist on Spotify.