Interestingly, it seems Rolling Stone magazine have recently weighed in on this topic. I’m going to go ahead and assume they’re stalking me now. They’ve plumped for a number of different albums than I’ve got, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay attention to them. Damn the man, save the Empire.
Quicksand – Manic Compression: I added this myself to the list, because this was my introduction to the world of post-hardcore and its then sibling, emo. It probably ranks in my top twenty albums of all time, a perfect meld of the angular hardcore Walter Schreifels had pioneered in Gorilla Biscuits with pop hooks such as those displayed on Thorn In My Side, all wrapped up in gloriously self-indulgent lyrics. It is, quite frankly, a masterpiece….
Handsome – Handsome: …and if you turn it’s brilliance up to eleven you get Handsome. A vaguely post-hardcore supergroup made up of bits of Quicksand, Helmet and Cro-Mags, this is crunchier than pretty much anything else on this list, but contains some of the bleakest, most introspective lyrics you’ll see outside of a teenager’s tear stained diary, which to my mind makes it a true emo classic.
Cursive – Cursive’s Domestica: Over halfway through this list, I’m beginning to realise that the key to getting emo right is to walk a very taut line between introspection bathed in discordant minor keys and face-punching indulgence swathed in too much jingle-jangle. Cursive (who I’d always assumed were an industrial band for some reason) manage that high wire act to good, if vaguely unremarkable effect.
Rites of Spring – Rites of Spring: Wowsers. Pre-Fugazi Fugazi. I had no idea this even existed. This came out in 1986, and sounds like a punk band who are stumbling towards something they’re not even aware they’re creating. It also sounds like it was recorded in a shoe. It’s interesting, historically speaking, but I’m not sure I’d chose to listen to it again out of choice.
The Juliana Theory – Emotion Is Dead: This is just awful. You remember that line I spoke about before? This album can’t even see the fucking line. Remember how bad hair metal got? Ratt? Stryper? Winger? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that The Juliana Theory are emo’s Winger. It’s so tepid, even the bottle of water sat on my desk for the last week would feel scorching hot in comparison. That it ends on a drum and bass instrumental so utterly pedestrian as to make Incubus' efforts look like Roni fucking Size is like leaving a final turd on the carpet as it exits the room.
Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I: After the horrific drabness of The Juliana Theory, it’s nice to find something so captivating next on the list. Holding to the emo categorisation by the barest thumbnail of Fugazi and Jawbox worship, this is art-pop of the highest quality. More akin to the likes of Deus than anything else, this is smart, moving, groove-laden and pretty bloody fantastic. A great find.
Maritime – We, The Vehicles: This is very low key, kind of like taking the math-rock influence of Dismemberment Plan, and mixing in the cool detachment of The Promise Ring. Which is handy, seeing as it’s a band made up of members of Dismemberment Plan and The Promise Ring. And yes, I had looked them up on Wikipedia before I drew that analogy, what of it? Anyway, this is lovely, more like post-emo than anything else, it breezes in like a summer, well, breeze, and wafts out again before you can say ‘Fuck off, it’s still winter, and I’m cold.’
Hot Rod Circuit – Sorry about Tomorrow: Jesus, could this be any more stereotypically emo? The cover has a Polaroid image of a skinny, sad girl in a bathtub, staring wistfully at what I can only assume is the plug. Does she have ennui about a spider’s existence? Or is she filled with regret at flushing it down the plughole? Don’t worry, pretty girl, he’ll be clinging onto the pipe, and will doubtless be back in your bathroom within the hour! Don’t be sad! The band’s name and album title are scrawled in pen, but in that way that looks totally too neat to have been actually written by someone. If I wrote that I’d totally have fucked it up way worse than that, possibly having to go over a few of the letters to make them look like actual letters. The album itself is utterly generic, but in a not-awful way.
Hey Mercedes – Everynight Fire Works: In the distance between this scene and the now, I’d completely forgotten just how chipper this music could be. Sure, it’s wistfully chipper, but nonetheless, this is cheering me up no end, and on a Monday morning to boot. Not sure how something can be both emo, with its associated fringy moroseness, and cheery, but this manages it rather well. Maybe we need a new definition. Hmm, cheery emo – how about ‘chemo’?!
Wait, that’s not right.
Dashboard Confessional – The Swiss Army Romance: You can pretty well sum up this album with the opening lyrics of Hold On: ‘She had a history of killing herself / I had a habit of dying / I think she gave me something to live for.’ If that doesn’t make you want to curl up inside your own liver with its toe-curling on-the-nose awfulness, then maybe we shouldn’t be friends. That said, as much as this is overly winsome emo-pop, I have to admit I quite enjoyed it, albeit begrudgingly.
Thursday – Full Collapse: I remember the more backpack-attired of my friends being rather enamoured of this band, back in the day, and I can see why. There’s a certain amount of heft to Thursday that I’ve been missing from the last few albums on the list, but great big ladleful’s of melody, too. Very enjoyable.
Taking Back Sunday – Where You Want to Be: Ah, we’ve finally reached the tipping point, whereupon the incessant whine of guitars and overly earnest vocals of American white guys starts to feel like nails on a blackboard. There’s nothing about this that marks it out as being any worse as the rest of what I’ve been listening to, but I seem to be full. Stuffed full of emo. Good job I only have thirteen albums of this to get through then…
Crash of Rhinos – Knots: Actually, turned out all I needed was a better album. This is chaotic and urgent and all the things that weren’t really there on the Taking Back Sunday album, even though they sound like they could have been made by the same band. I’m getting confused.
Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me: This is utterly miserable, and given that as I listen to it I’m coming down with some abominable pox dredged up from the darkest recesses of my children’s playgrounds, quite the tonic. Some cracking songs, and thoroughly miserable to boot.
Jimmy Eat World – Clarity: This is very generic, in a summery kind of way. It’s not awful. It’s…
Oh god, I’ve run out of adjectives. It’s… Fine?
Shall we move on?
Jawbox – For Your Own Special Sweetheart: Kicking off with a fairly hardcore bark, this soon mellows and moves between top quality emo and blatent Smiths worship, but without the inconvenience of having Morrissey dribbling his ineffectual guff all over it. Sonically, it shares a lot of its tone with Fugazi, which is unsurprising really, since they hired Fugazi’s producer to make it sound like that. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Drive Like Jehu – Yank Crime: This is incredible, a veritable audible bomb of fizzing hardcore, discordant guitars and sheer dumb brilliance. I had no idea. It sounds like they’re playing live, in my ears, right now. I wish I could see them, because it sounds like a hell of a show.
Rival Schools – United By Fate: I adore this album. When it came out, it felt like a watershed kind of moment, the drawing of a curtain over the scene as it was, before the emo-glo-pop of the big boys took over. The song-writing on this album is second to none.
Sense Field – Building: I started this list before the tragic news of Jon Bunch’s death had broken, so listening to this stunning album again feels weighted with so much more than the others on the list. It was, and remains, one of my favourite albums, a glorious mix of everything that was great about this scene. I will admit to tearing up a tad. But that’s okay, it’s emo after all.
Brandtson – Fallen Star Collection: One of the bands that I discovered at the time via the excellent Deep Elm sampler series that was one of the staples of listening in the heady days of emo. Returning back to it now it’s almost a perfect crystallisation of what I would call emo. It’s jangly, the vocals are constantly half a note off key, and it’s sad enough to make a Kids TV presenter cry. I rather like it.
Camber – Anyway, I’ve Been There: This is a bit more discordant than the previous album, but in all honesty, apart from a slight variety in guitar tone and vocals, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart, which probably means that I’ve been listening to too many emo records in a row, and I really need to go and have a good lie down and have a hard think about my life choices.
Starmarket – Four hours light: Oh God, this one ticked over from the last one and I didn’t even notice that it was a different album for about three songs. Then, when it did a sudden about-face halfway through, I thought it had changed again, only it hadn’t, and now I’m increasingly confused. This is fine. It’s all fine. Is it nearly over yet? Actually, the further this album gets away from emo, the more interesting it gets.
Planes Mistaken For Stars – Fuck With Fire: Well blow me down and call me Mabel, this is excellent. It’s all teenage zest and energy, recorded with all the production nous of a bag of supermarket value brand dog food, but it’s tremendous fun. Once it calms down a bit, it reveals more layers than a hell of a lot of the stuff on this list. Good stuff.
Alkaline Trio – The Alkaline Trio: This was one I was dreading to a certain extent, the name having some distant connection in my brain to being awful, but this blend of pop-punk and emo is actually very enjoyable. It’s kind of Blink 182 go emo, before Blink 182 went emo. There’s a raucousness to it that brings to mind Lagwagon and No Use For A Name and the like. Very good.
Embrace – Embrace: And here we are, at the end. What better place to end than at the beginning, so to speak. Ian McKaye might disagree, but this is the blueprint for all of the 49 other bands on this list, taking the post punk/early hardcore template and adding something else, still undefinable at this point. Hey presto, emo-core is born. To be honest, I’d like to have enjoyed this more, but I didn’t really. It’s interesting, and has a few good tracks, but it’s never as compelling as Fugazi would go on to be, and sounds like it was recorded inside the fan of a laptop.
Still, that’s me done, and I feel like I understand this scene I was only ever on the periphery of. There is, as you’d expect, a fair amount of turgid generic waffle, but the gems littered amongst it made the whole thing worthwhile.