Crossfader’s Emo Primer
Let’s face the facts: your impression of “emo” is probably misinformed. Springing out of the Washington D.C. hardcore punk scene, emo was originally shorthand for the type of “emotional hardcore” put forth by bands such as Rites of Spring (most famously), and had its start as early as 1985. Though a hotly contested genre in terms of characteristics and definitions, the main unifying factor of music classified as emo is, well, an emphasis on the expression of unfiltered emotion, whether it be through instrumentation or lyrical capabilities. This primer will feature some bleeding through of subgenres – so try to check torches and pitchforks at the door – but will hopefully expose some of the most important records under the larger umbrella of emo as opposed to the kind found in shopping malls and on middle school iPods around the world in the early to mid 2000s.
Brand New – THE DEVIL AND GOD ARE RAGING INSIDE ME
Favorite Tracks: “Sowing Season,” “Jesus Christ,” “Degausser”
Going somewhat against the grain of the introduction, this is one that may have ended up on aforementioned middle school iPods. Amongst the more immediately accessible entries on this list, this is the emo album that is most likely to be known by the average layman on the street (except for perhaps Jimmy Eat World’s CLARITY). While distinctly doing away with the punk roots of emo, Brand New blends elements of melodic indie and alternative rock with the radio sensibilities of pop punk to concoct an emo album with several hooks and choruses that are damn near unforgettable. With professionally produced, high-quality instrumentation and vocals, Jesse Lacey’s lyrics are thrown into the forefront, detailing a properly traumatic and relatable struggle with love, loss, and most notably, religion. This album is probably a touch too “Hot Topic” for the seasoned OGs of emo, but its ability to transcend the tribalistic fan base of the genre deserves respect. And c’mon, it’s got one of the greatest covers of all time in addition to “Jesus Christ.”
Gospel – THE MOON IS A DEAD WORLD
Favorite Tracks: “Yr Electric Surge Is Sweet,” “Golden Dawn,” “As Far As You Can Throw Me”
A subgenre that received an even worse reputation than emo thanks to its popular suburban white kid incarnation, screamo is a rich and varied classification of music that deserves a primer in its own right. However, THE MOON IS A DEAD WORLD is being included to show the versatility and wide reach of the emo umbrella, and to prove once and for all that it’s not all eyeliner and tight black jeans. Featuring heavy post-hardcore influences that immediately bring to mind At the Drive-In, Gospel is fascinating for their incorporation of progressive elements that contribute to a depth of texture and atmosphere not often heard on emo/screamo recordings of a similar ilk. Undeniably heavy and possessing some of the most impressive drum work ever heard, THE MOON IS A DEAD WORLD proudly carries on the “hardcore” aspect of emotional hardcore without losing sight of the importance of melody and controlled dynamics. This just may be the emo album to show to detractors of the genre.
The Newfound Interest in Connecticut – TELL ME ABOUT THE LONG DARK PATH HOME
Favorite Tracks: “The Computers Stopped Exchanging Information,” “Okay, You Can Be Tigers But No Crashing,” “I Can Hear Your Footsteps Just Outside Camp – a Sah, Sah, Sah…”
First and foremost, take a look at that band name and those song titles; it doesn’t get much more emo than that. However, therein lies what makes The Newfound Interest in Connecticut so intriguing. In a genre where much of the derision gathered against it is a result of a supposed lack of maturity, The Newfound Interest in Connecticut stands out as a defiance of these stereotypes. Most readily notable about this album is that the band isn’t afraid to let things breathe, often resulting in tracks that toe the line of being emo, math rock, and post-rock. Although tracks such as “And It Sings for Itself” play things a little closer to the chest in terms of the classic emo sound, oftentimes things become so overtly technical that the listener will find themselves challenged. But within every challenge lies a reward, and this album must be included for its refusal to play by the rules.
Sunny Day Real Estate – DIARY
Favorite Tracks: “Seven,” “In Circles,” “Song About an Angel”
Although there are certainly better albums that emerged from emo, DIARY is one of those albums that deserves the reified pedestal it’s been placed upon in terms of influence. Acting as a sort of unified central force between emo, indie rock, and the kind of alternative rock that relies on post-hardcore, DIARY is best consumed as a standard template upon which to judge other releases in the genre. Jeremy Enigk’s vocals are distinct and memorable while still being generally appealing, and the songs on the album reveal their detailed (and occasionally abstract) composition the more and more the listener pays attention. Emotional and sincere while still packing a punch (listen to those snare hits), DIARY may just be one of the most important records in emo, if not the objective best.
The Brave Little Abacus – JUST GOT BACK FROM THE DISCOMFORT – WE’RE ALRIGHT
Favorite Tracks: “Pile! No Pile! Pile!,” “A Highway Got Paved Over My Future, I Drive It Getting to School,” “The Blah Blah Blahs”
Although active much later than many of their sonic contemporaries, The Brave Little Abacus brought a distinct sense of intricate craft to their music that many emo bands didn’t manage to concurrently offer. What immediately strikes the listener upon tuning in is the high level of musicianship, oftentimes feeling like a math rock record with a much more dominant level of melancholic melody and varied, experimental instrumentation. Whereas many emo albums stick to the classic guitar-bass-drum setup, over the course of JUST GOT BACK FROM THE DISCOMFORT – WE’RE ALRIGHT the listener will hear piano, brass, glockenspiel, and synths, amongst many others, all accompanied by one of the most distinctive voices ever committed to tape. Therein lays the biggest hurdle for The Brave Little Abacus, as the sounds emanating from Adam Demirjian’s mouth are anything but traditional. But if the initial barrier can be hurdled, one of the most rewarding emo records lays ripe for the picking, chock-full of masterfully employed dynamic juxtaposition and a tangible sense of pain.
Mineral – THE POWER OF FAILING
Favorite Tracks: “Gloria,” “If I Could,” “Parking Lot”
Unlike many emo releases which are perfectly happy (or sad, rather) to wallow in their misery, what’s intriguing about THE POWER OF FAILING is a certain sense of triumph and celebration. This is the album you put on after you’ve shed a few tears and are ready to smack yourself back into reality and get on with the day. Although some genre loyalists may lament the lack of punk influence, it’s hard to deny that Mineral are masters of the loud-soft dynamic, contributing to absolutely crushing guitar climaxes that are impossible to remain ambivalent towards. Coupled with the occasional soaring guitar riff and vocals that will ease the more casual listener in, Mineral are the perfect next-step-up once you’ve worn your Brand New and Jimmy Eat World records thin.
Snowing – FUCK YOUR EMOTIONAL BULLSHIT
Favorite Tracks: “Sam Rudich,” “Important Things (Specter Magic)”
It might be cheating to include a four-track EP that clocks in at just barely under 11 minutes, but have you heard FUCK YOUR EMOTIONAL BULLSHIT? Although the short runtime stacks the cards in its favor, this little EP stands tall as one of the most consistently enjoyable outings of the emo genre, existing as a perfect marriage of sparkling guitars, aggressive, punk-oriented drumming, and vocals that manage to fully convey the dejected frustration of John Galm without being too immediately inaccessible. However, the most notable talent Snowing showcases on this outing is their ability to steadily raise tension on tracks until they explode into some of the most powerful shout-along choruses of all time (“Important Things (Specter Magic)”). Another band that ended its career trajectory tragically early, FUCK YOUR EMOTIONAL BULLSHIT will make anyone wish Snowing had stuck around just a little bit longer.
Cap’n Jazz – 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
Favorite Tracks: “Little League,” “Oh Messy Life,” “In the Clear”
Admittedly quite an intimidating title, but one that ties in perfectly with the unfortunately late Cap’n Jazz’s steadfast dedication to the joys and follies of youth. Formed in 1989 with members as young as 12 (!!), Cap’n Jazz released one full-length of unbridled, unfiltered energy and audacity in 1995 before splintering off to craft the sound of emo at large, with members appearing in other seminal acts such as The Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, and American Football. What’s so endlessly charming about the album popularly referred to as SHMAP’N SHMAZZ is the degree to what Cap’n Jazz refuses to be self-aware. Throwing themselves full-force into a blistering 31 minutes of emo more closely indebted to punk, the music and vocals feel constantly on the brink of careening dangerously off-rail as the guitars and drums push endlessly forward and Tim Kinsella yelps and yips himself into a frenzy. Strained, exasperated, furious, and yes, angsty, the boys of Cap’n Jazz unknowingly crafted the soundtrack to many high school careers with their debut. You’d have to be heartless to not feel a tinge of nostalgia for the days of naive adolescence that this album transports you to.
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – WHENEVER, IF EVER
Favorite Tracks: “Heartbeat in the Brain,” “Picture of a Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay,” “Gig Life”
Arguably the finest record to emerge from the emo revival of the 2010s, WHENEVER, IF EVER is one of the most cathartic albums in recent memory. Just as reminiscent and nostalgic as its cover would suggest, this is the aural sum and total of every summer you spent as a teenager. Currently made up of nine members, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die makes full use of its potential, turning in track after track of post-rock indebted emo that features some of the most memorable compositional ability to emerge from the genre at large. From the crushing climax of “Heartbeat in the Brain” to the gripping horn intro of “Fightboat” to the shout-along chorus of “Gig Life,” WHENEVER, IF EVER is an album only the most stony of individuals will resist singing, shouting, and crying along to.
American Football – S/T
Favorite Tracks: “Never Meant,” “Honestly?,” “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon,” “Stay Home”
Simply the quintessential emo album. A member of the Midwest Emo subgenre, American Football’s singular full-length is the perfect representation of the signature “twinkly” sound that its genre label is noted for. What’s most impressive about American Football is how they’re able to make music sound intimately rooted to a geographical location; as soon as the first notes of “Never Meant” kick in, the listener finds themselves completely immersed in the sweaty nights of suburban Illinois, an effect that few, if any, albums possess in equal power. Despite featuring deliciously textured arpeggiated guitar passages and drumming that is more technically impressive than it has any right to be, the true power of American Football’s self-titled debut lays within the incredibly evocative lyrics, detailing a constant struggle with change and transition that anyone who was ever an adolescent will instantly identify with. It doesn’t get much better than this.