Emo (noun): a hotly contested music genre where bands and fans alike refuse to agree on who qualifies for a place in the rankings for all eternity, where no band admits to falling into the criteria of emo, and no fans admit to listening to it either. Of course, the one precursor to belonging to the emo genre is refusing to accept that you belong to the emo genre.
In a move that will likely offend fans from both the original wave of emo from Washington, D.C.’s Revolution Summer in 1985 right down to key figures in the success of the revival, we’ve collated the 25 most inspirational outfits who influenced the movement’s key figures, the scene’s openness to diversity and the 2000s revival itself.
Rites Of Spring
Although vehemently refuted by the band itself, Rites Of Spring are considered as the starting point for emo. Washington, D.C.’s Revolution Summer of 1985 gave rise to a new brand of hardcore, deeply rooted in passionate expressions and despairing vocals. With only one album to their name, listen closely to “For Want Of” and you’ll hear the roots of My Chemical Romance and Jimmy Eat World reaching for the surface. The emo genre in its entirety wouldn’t exist without the pioneering wails of the D.C. outfit’s sole studio album.
Death Cab For Cutie
Blurring the contentious lines between emo and indie, Death Cab For Cutie have delivered all the self-deprecating content we’ve needed since 1997. As the downhearted “Expo ’86” comes at odds with the road trip contemplation “A Movie Script Ending” and the warm, fuzzy feeling of “Soul Meets Body,” the introverted Washington act neatly transitioned between both spectrum opposites to ensure each album haunts you for days. Where the Jesus And Mary Chain and the Cure inspired their insecure style, Death Cab invited the emo scene to bleed emotion in an acoustic, nostalgic manner that leaves the listener emotionally drained and suitably questioning the reality of the world around them.
Fall Out Boy
Call them pop punk (and more recently pop) all you like, but the poetic nuances of Fall Out Boy’s lyrics taught emo bands to step up their game, delivering emotionally cutting anthems with all the eloquent venom Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump could muster. From the insular reflection of “Calm Before The Storm” to the self-referencing, theatrical audio resumé of “What A Catch, Donnie,” Fall Out Boy’s contribution to each variant of the emo strain earns them an honorary spot in the ranks of a deep genre they may have attempted to avoid throughout their career but never quite escaped.
Before Paramore were even a twinkle in the revival’s eye, Rainer Maria broke through emo’s seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling armed with the two-pronged attack of Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer. Overthrowing the patriarchy of an overwhelmingly male-dominated genre seemed effortless for an outfit producing such traditionally touching reflections such as “Artificial Light” and “Breakfast Of Champions,” but it takes a certain amount of guts to command with De Marrais’ vocal range belting such deeply personal lyrics. Without the Wisconsin set’s invasion of the status quo, the scene would’ve long since fizzled out from a stifling lack of diversity.
Sunny Day Real Estate
The sincere reflections of Sunny Day Real Estate established the solemn tone of the second wave of emo recognized as Midwest emo. Charged by a generous drum presence and smooth riffs almost drowning out understated vocals, Seattle’s emo scene ignited with 1994’s Diary holding tightly on to the legacy of the glittering “Seven” and wrenching “In Circles” as pivotal points where the genre found its sentimental feet again. It went on to inspire the likes of Thursday toward their heartfelt output.
My Chemical Romance
Purists should take a deep breath now. As reluctant as the NJ set were to fit into the emo stereotype, there’s no denying My Chemical Romance will forever be associated with the 2000s incarnations of the genre. If you were to subtract the swirling melody of “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville,” the existential crisis of “The Ghost Of You” and the heart-wrenching rock opera of “Famous Last Words,” the scene would be far less theatrical, heartfelt and wholesome. As bitter a pill as it may be, without the influence of this dramatic outfit, the livelihood of the emo genre would have faded into obscurity two decades too early.
Taking Back Sunday
“Your lipstick, his collar, don’t bother, angel/I know exactly what goes on”—Taking Back Sunday provided some iconic emo opening lyrics from one of the hardest-hitting debut albums in the genre. Injecting the wry passion back into a scene that turned to introversion as expression, TBS openly raged through 2002’s Tell All Your Friends in a style many emo bands have tried to recreate ever since. Inspired by Dag Nasty and emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate, Adam Lazzara supplied all the angst necessary to survive a tough year at high school and a traumatic summer to follow. After all, no teenage heartbreak would be complete without an overdramatic lyric such as “And with my one last gasping breath, I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.”
“I’ll be just fine pretending I’m not/I’m far from lonely and it’s all that I’ve got”—drawing upon the genre’s flair for the dramatic, the wails of Bert McCracken and captivating riffs of Quinn Allman gave vitality to a revival of emo’s original intense expressions. From the energized screams of “Take It Away” to the venomous “Pretty Handsome Awkward” via the sorrowful “Blue And Yellow,” the Used encompass each emo stereotype with enough vigor to attract the mainstream charts’ attentions. Self-destructive, desperate and wearing its heart hanging from its sleeve, the most compelling emo outfit brought about a revival emo desperately needed.
In the same way that indie and post-hardcore idolized swaying contemplations, Mineral produced some of the most gutting emo that didn’t need to rely on excessive production or show-stealing theatrics to convey its pain. Insular and insecure, “Parking Lot” melted lulling guitars with raw, exposed lyrics to draw the listener into its gloom, much like the rest of their powerful debut, The Power Of Failing. Fueling the darker, troubled side of emo that leaves every ounce of agony on track, Mineral effortlessly took the genre deeper than it had dared to venture before.
Up until 2007’s Riot!, the frontline of emo had been an unbridled male extravaganza. Finally given a chance to bite back after two decades of slanging matches against women all over, Paramore and feisty frontwoman Hayley Williams drew upon their inspiration from Rainer Maria and Pretty Girls Make Graves and carried the torch into the mainstream. Planting one foot in the neon scene subculture and another in the theatrics of emotional hardcore, unforgettable anthems (“Misery Business”) and gutting reflections (“When It Rains”) paved the way for a generation of powerful bands such as Tonight Alive and Against The Current to step into the emo limelight.
Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World combined infectious riffs with lyrical apathy in a way that punk never could, let alone emo. Anthemic vibes melted in with a despairing undertone created iconic tracks such as “Sweetness” and “The Middle” to earn the Arizona outfit their emo title. The contentious genre discovered its turning point with 2001’s Bleed American, as contagious singalongs became the hot new development transforming a once insular subculture into a mainstream contender. So much so that any kid growing up on a diet of Tony Hawk video games heard “Pain” on an endless loop throughout the 2000s.
Emo doesn’t get much more emo than the spirit of tear-jerking ballads living through Mayday Parade. It takes a strong constitution to make it through the likes of “You Be The Anchor…” and “Miserable At Best,” even more so to survive “Terrible Things” without streaking eyeliner down your cheeks. This outfit made heartbreaking, gutting serenades look effortless. That said, they were never solely about the extraordinary sorrow, charged with belting choruses. That fueled the emo revival with cutting anthems such as “If You Wanted A Song Written About You…” and the lighthearted “Jamie All Over.” Emo learned to feel intensely, love passionately and hurt tremendously.
With a tongue firmly pressed into their cheek, Say Anything have gladly ribbed the emo genre around them for its fickle nature. From the shamelessly theatrical interpretation of a Holocaust love story known as “Alive With The Glory Of Love” to the floor-filling cringe of “Baby Girl, I’m A Blur,” Say Anything taught the genre to quit taking itself so seriously, leave gatekeeping at the door and accept a band’s changing face as time goes on. After all, who else could pull off a song as hilariously honest as “Every Man Has A Molly”?
Panic! At The Disco
Panic! At The Disco are the emo Marmite. Purists passionately refuse to attribute them to their genre, whereas younger audiences simply wouldn’t have discovered the genre without them. Like it or not, their phenomenal debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, introduced a generation to emo through the medium of extravagant theatrics and lyrics that didn’t make sense (and didn’t need to, anyway). Merging into their later pop-doused output became a natural progression for a band bigger than emo itself. But we’ll never forget one lyric as the start of a shift in emo’s priorities: “I chime in with a, ‘Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?’”
Funeral For A Friend
Emo started out of the gates as a predominantly U.S.-reigned genre, while the U.K. had somehow avoided making a significant effect despite being moved by its rising popularity. That is, until Bridgend outfit Funeral For A Friend broke through with 2003’s captivating Casually Dressed & Deep In Conversation. Fusing emo’s despair with the powerful, structured tones of melodic hardcore, their debut spilled its heart out on the compelling “Juneau” and expanded their cocktail of emotional fragility on 2005’s “Roses For The Dead.” Their fresh outlook on the dark depths emo could reach finally gave the U.K. its emo credentials.
Without the overwhelming vitality brought by “Ohio Is For Lovers,” it’s likely the emo revival would’ve never left the ground. Drawing back the hardcore energies of the genre’s original intentions, Hawthorne Heights’ early material fused wrenching desperation with screams to reignite the flame that gave rise to the emo genre in the first place. Thanks to the pleading tones of “Saying Sorry” and the impassioned “Niki FM,” the scene resurrected its purpose with endless singalongs and Myspace-worthy lyrics.
Following in the footsteps of predecessors Sunny Day Real Estate, Thursday transformed their inspirations with Geoff Rickly’s show-stealing wails. They sowed the seeds for an emo revival that would inspire fellow NJ band My Chemical Romance to pick up their mic and guitars. Thursday’s bridge between the early incarnations of an elusive genre brought the intentions of emo right back to the surface. Take the lasting legacy of Full Collapse’s “Understanding In A Car Crash” as lighting the blue touch paper to a resurrection of the once D.C.-isolated genre.
Finch’s 2002 effort, What It Is To Burn, stands alongside Thursday as the turning point for emo into its revival state. Bringing punchy singalongs to the frontline of a genre consistently retreating inward and reflecting backward, the Cali emo outfit fused melodic alternative-rock tendencies with self-conscious lyrics and slick production to make radio-worthy hits out of “Letters To You” and “What It Is To Burn.” With the rise of Finch came the mainstream’s attention, eyeing up this genre that had long since operated underground. Emo stepped into the light, whether it liked it or not.
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
Fueled by singalongs that would live rent-free in your mind for years to come, the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus rose to prominence in the emo revival by simply being themselves. Need an acoustic number to get your tears flowing when they won’t come naturally? OK, turn to “Your Guardian Angel.” Need something to scream along to when it feels like life isn’t going your way? Here, have “Face Down.” At the height of emo revival hysteria in 2006, Don’t You Fake It gave emo a vibe check and provided some of the most iconic tracks from the new impassioned era.
From the seeds of late ’80s hardcore came San Diego rebels Heroin, the up-in-your-grill outfit who gave rise to the development of screamo. Fusing chaotic riffs and tight basslines with harsh vocals akin to Black Flag, these pioneers made themselves heard above the forlorn tones of grunge ruling the mainstream. From the catchy drone of “Indecision” to the reckless “Leave,” their short four years together pushed the boundaries and inspired the future of emo, from Thursday to From First To Last.
Isolating and extracting the sunken solemnity of Rites Of Spring to revive it for a new age, the hushed tones of Dashboard Confessional sneaked into the emo party and sat in the darkest corner of the kitchen, staring into an empty Solo cup to avoid eye contact. Before the mainstream success of “Vindicated” featuring on the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack in 2004, the outfit unleashed three albums of wall-to-wall sentimental despair, as if they had always been lurking in the shadows waiting for their time to shine. From the nostalgic “Hands Down” to the subtly venomous “Screaming Infidelities,” Dashboard Confessional are as emo as emo can get.
American Football brought the ideal climate for a rejuvenation of the traditional genre’s intentions to flourish just before the turn of the century. Harboring an unhealthy amount of self-loathing throughout each of their eponymous and understated records, the Illinois outfit gifted us their glittering first effort and the delicate depression of “Never Meant.” Then they made us wait 17 years for another. If that’s not a typically emo and nonetheless risky career move, we don’t know what is.
Emo may have returned more times than a boomerang, but it hasn’t distanced too far from its roots in D.C.’s Revolution Summer. The resounding success of Senses Fail lies in their approach to combine the genre’s most compelling aspects: taking the crucial emotive side of Rites Of Spring, snatching the infectious riffs from Sunny Day Real Estate and merging them with the singalongs made prominent by melodic hardcore. At the height of the emo revival, NJ’s Senses Fail crafted a new branch that made emo command your attention, refuse to let you turn away and demand to be heard. With a debut album as strong as Let It Enfold You, visceral tracks such as “Bite To Break Skin” brought screamo to the mainstream.
Saves The Day
Emo is commonly misconceived as a vain genre, but the success of Saves The Day, despite their ability to blend in, suggests that emo isn’t a book to be judged by its cover. Exposing the forlorn heart of “At Your Funeral” and the contagious “Shoulder To The Wheel,” the NJ emo outfit and their music videos showed a carefree side to an otherwise carefully orchestrated genre. With their relaxed approach, Saves The Day somehow made emo a less depressing affair and issued a challenge to listen to Through Being Cool without smiling from ear to ear.
Co-founders of the emo uprising amid the Washington, D.C. Revolution Summer, Embrace left behind a legacy that lasted longer than their brief time as an active outfit. Establishing the order of emotional hardcore that would endure from 1985 up to the present day, the D.C. outfit actively refuted their participation in the birth of a new genre, but their self-titled record and only studio effort suggests otherwise. Its cutting-edge balance between despairing hardcore vocals and a driven melodic undertone through “Give Me Back” and beyond gave rise to a culture of its own, whether they liked it or not.