“Everything went back into the basement… We were the few people doing this in 2008. Really bad, wussy emo rock 10 years after it was relevant.” In 2013, this is how former The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die guitarist and Broken World Media founder D. Nicole Shanholtzer described the earliest days of what would be known as the “emo revival.”
A more accurate definition has yet to emerge. Everything did go back into the basement, in places like West Virginia, Willimantic, CT, suburban Chicago and a then-overlooked Philadelphia—perhaps cowering during the hair metal phase of emo warped by Fueled By Ramen and their ilk because, well, who else was going to book them? Even the greatest bands from this world had rough beginnings and, man, was it wussy—enough for “twinkle daddy” to emerge as one of this scene’s most common, notorious and accurate Bandcamp tags.
But while the first spasms of the emo revival did start to occur about ten years after the genre’s creative peak, Shanholtzer is wrong about “relevance.” If we’re to consider the common usage of the word in pop culture discourse—fashionable, important, cool—emo was never relevant and it likely never will be. And that’s exactly what allowed it to succeed over the past decade.
Since emo was going to be ignored anyway, this allowed bands, labels and the people and blogs covering it to develop their craft as organically as possible. This style of music always skews towards teens and college students and so Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, message boards and blogs like Absolute Punk, Washed Up Emo and Property of Zack were crucial incubators, spreading the word before everyone else was ready to take notice. When that did happen—let’s say, 2013—latecomers discovered a fully functioning ecosystem of young people absolutely losing their shit over truly DIY guitar bands. As writer Chris DeVille trenchantly noted in 2014, “indie” had been long overcorrecting in its genuflection towards pop, resulting in a new elitism and a “culture built on privilege, mystique, and celebrity worship.” In contrast, just look at this. And this. At the risk of turning correlation into causation, could there been a better time for this music to thrive?
What started out as quite literally a handful of bands that sorta sounded like Cap’n Jazz and American Football can now be seen in the longview as the groundwork for resuscitating indie rock as a whole—2017’s it artists like Vagabon, Jay Som, Girlpool and Diet Cig feel more like extensions of emo’s back-to-the-basement, earnest ethos rather than a new wave. But the revival is no more—the leading figures can stand on their own, Wrecking Ball and Modern Baseball are on hiatus, and newer darlings are starting to feel like emo revival revival bands. Likewise, there’s money now: Major labels are starting to swoop in and hopefully the Emo Night Wars will result in no fatalities or ruined branding partnerships.
The time feels right to reflect. What this past decade lacks is a proper canonization—even the most well-meaning “Best Emo Albums of All Time” pieces tend to tokenize the fourth wave, while helpful year-end lists from POZ and Absolute Punk preceding 2016 have disappeared. Finding candidates for this list was easy, but as with most discussions on emo, more effort was required to define it. Instantly eliminated were popular acts tagged as emo for the sole purpose of #hottakes—sorry, Drake, the 1975, Lil Peep and Lil Uzi Vert. The “revival” aspect meant that elder statesmen were DQ’d despite some of them making records that matched or even exceeded their previous work. No prominent indie bands from 2000s could be grandfathered into the genre either, despite the fact that Lenses Alien, Hold On, Now Youngster!, Attack on Memory, Visiter and Go Tell Fire to the Mountain sure seem like covert emo revival ops in retrospect.
The biggest challenge was drawing lines between emo, pop-punk and straight-up indie rock. For the most part, it came down to this: Which bands were really a part of the scene? If they were ever on Count Your Lucky Stars, Run For Cover, Topshelf or Tiny Engines, they probably count. If they ended up on Domino, Merge, Matador or any other major-indie, probably not. If they played Fest or Bled Fest or Wrecking Ball, yeah, probably. If they played Pitchfork Festival or Coachella, it’s a real stretch. This eliminated Waxahatchee, Alex G, Girlpool, Mitski and many others who shared stages with the bands who qualified. Meanwhile, trying to figure out a delineation between emo and straight-up pop-punk required very worthy candidates like Jeff Rosenstock, PUP, Charly Bliss and the Wonder Years to miss the cut.
With all of that taken care of prior to voting, we wondered whether this would be too exclusionary. Truth is, this could’ve easily been expanded to double its size or more and still be woefully inadequate. A story of emo’s fourth wave that excludes Tigers Jaw, Dikembe, Joie de Vivre, Restorations, La Dispute, You Blew It!, Balance and Composure is inevitably going to be incomplete. But this is meant to be celebratory, not comprehensive and every twinkle, every tapping solo, every off-kilter drum fill and crooked harmony earned its place. With no further ado, open the curtains. — Ian Cohen
30. Pity Sex – Feast of Love (Run For Cover, 2013)
“Don’t come too close/don’t try to know me because there’s nothing to know,” goes the opening of Feast of Love, a ringing mission statement for Pity Sex’s self-aware pop-punk. Brennan Greaves and Britt Drake’s co-ed vocals sound unaffected over fuzzy guitars and tender melodies, insofar as pity sex participants are so consumed with wallowing they become numb. It’s atmospheric dream pop with emo histrionics—nothing trail-blazing, but sedated and shameless enough to be memorable. — Briana Younger
29. Castevet – Summer Fences (Count Your Lucky Stars, 2009)
Though technically a standalone album, Castevet’s beloved debut Summer Fences has garnered somewhat of a fragmented reputation in the years following its 2009 release. Its greatest legacy lay not with the record writ large, but its playful post-rock instrumentals, exhilarating bookends which transcend (and by extension, justify) the Chicagoans’ otherwise pedestrian approach to Hot Water Music-style racket, not to mention the talents of frontman/guitarist Nick Wakim, who would eventually play drums for Into It. Over It. Together with Will McEvilly (who went on to play with controversial noise-rock band Rectal Hygenics), Wakim comprises one half of the genre’s greatest guitar duos, now and always. –Zoe Camp
28. Blowout – No Beer, No Dad (Lauren, 2016)
Contrary to the overwhelming pop-punk album title—imagine if they’d tack on a “Yes Pizza” to the end—Portland’s Blowout avoid formulaic musicianship. The short-lived emo band’s debut LP, No Beer, No Dad, is a collection of ’90s indie touchstones married to the Promise Ring’s most hopeless affirmations, a record whose mundane observations cut with cringe-worthy reality. In “Cents Cents Money Money,” frontwoman Laken Wright questions an unemployed existence and the limitations of maturation reflected in unhappy relationships. Her desperation finds delight in “Indiana,” a song where romance is reserved for Wright’s cat—in the track she reveals, “People just bore me.” No Beer, No Dad, and Blowout’s entire discography, never got a chance to age—and maybe they never meant to, anyway. Adult life is no fun. –Maria Sherman
27. The Brave Little Abacus – Just Got Back From the Discomfort – We’re Alright (Self-released, 2010)
The Brave Little Abacus’ final LP represents a comet hurtling through the twinkling cosmos of late-aughts emo—an amorphous dispatch from the doldrums, the offspring of a bleeding heart and a restless mind. Its jangled hooks and existential koans—the latter courtesy of lead vocalist Adam Demirjian, whose whines sounds like Spongebob Squarepants stuck halfway through puberty—subscribe to the broader canon. But Just Got Back From The Discomfort – We’re Alright’s greatest strengths are its transgressions, as opposed to its tributes. The New Hampshire band took a wrecking ball to the style’s modest confines, expanding their lexicon of woe to include everything from classical piano and xylophones to church organs and “Malcolm In The Middle” samples. It’s genre-blending bricolage, as viewed through post-rock’s high-definition lens. Seven years later, it feels just as unique as ever. — Zoe Camp
26. Glocca Morra – Just Married (Kind of Like, 2012)
Before Modern Baseball, Sorority Noise and their ilk helped to define Philadelphia as a new American hotbed for emo music, there was Glocca Morra. The Philly-by-way-of-Miami band operated in a space of ’90s emo worship (both Kinsellas are heard here) exasperated by math rock riffs, with tenuous tenderness and intricate shapes placed beneath spastic screams belted at will. Just Married, the band’s 2012 full-length LP encapsulates their particular prowess towards nostalgia while highlighting a thematic ridiculousness—they’re endearing when they’re drunk, but the revelations that arrive the next morning are just as sweet, bitter mouth taste and all. Songs like “Broken Cigarettes” are shaped like mistakes, made delicate by unexpected instrumentation (here, a gratuitous xylophone). If it feels too vulnerable, it’s because it hits too close to home. — Maria Sherman
25. Crash of Rhinos – Knots (Topshelf, 2013)
Despite the collective embarrassment surrounding the phrase “twinkle daddy,” it was a very useful shorthand for a set of qualities closely associated with 2013-era emo bands. Crash of Rhinos were the opposite of just about all of them. Theirs was a more traditional masculinity evoking the burly, beery singalongs of Constantines and Hot Water Music, performing with two bassists and two vocalists who both wanted to be the Guy Picciotto of the group. They couldn’t have picked a better title for this collection of unsustainably anxious anthems about unworkable emotional and romantic stalemates, each one just as suitable for squats at the gym or the barstool. Add that to the pressure the band must have felt to even be noticed in England, a country where emo had no scene to revive, and Crash of Rhinos left a document of a band too stressed to be blessed. Though Knots was one of the first Topshelf albums to garner mainstream press, the logistical burdens of being an older emo band in Britain caused Crash of Rhinos to pull a classic old school move by breaking up less than a year later. — Ian Cohen
24. Oso Oso – The Yunahon Mixtape (Self-released, 2017)
Oso Oso main man Jade Lilitri put “mixtape” in the title of his band’s second album as a safeguard against failure. Convinced no one but the diehards who’d bought CD-Rs of Oso Oso’s previous pop-punk releases would even bother to listen to Yunahon after he’d failed to find a label, Lilitri quietly uploaded the album to Bandcamp in January. The Long Island musician asked users to pay what they want, and many have tossed down at least a buck for the muscular hooks, easygoing melodies, and life-affirming vigor. Lilitri sketches out the lives of youngsters milling about in the fictional beachside town of Yunahon: Throughout the album he conveys the skittishness, trepidation, and confusion of youth with an assured hand, allowing his gracefully swirling guitars to guide the mood when his words cannot. — Leor Galil
23. Pianos Become the Teeth – The Lack Long After (Topshelf, 2011)
The appeal of “screamo” is its insistence that some feelings can’t be articulated with words—that sometimes the only thing left to do is just scream. And while most of us don’t have the space or abandon to actually do it, Pianos Become the Teeth are unafraid to channel that intensity and keep you there. Kyle Durfey’s apocalyptic wails coupled with equally visceral riffs and percussion don’t let up until The Lack Long After‘s final song: “I’ll Get By” subtly reels in the preceding turbulence but replaces it with unmitigated devastation out in the open. When Durfey shrieks, “I want to live” with just 90 seconds left, it’s as if he’s mustering the will to move forward on behalf of himself but also his listeners—a sacrifice Pianos makes over and over again. –Briana Younger
22. Joyce Manor – Joyce Manor (6131, 2011)
Joyce Manor now regularly write songs that eclipse the two and three minute mark, which makes the brevity of their debut record seem virtuosic. There’s barely any buildup before the band breaks into heart-hungry singalongs—”Ache through the days / Cause you’ll never mend your ways,” “I realize it’s true / Everything reminds me of you,” “In your new leather jacket, you’re somebody else / And it’s not nice to meet you in a fortress of self.” They sound like the Pogues as a hardcore band, ten wistful laments in less time than it takes to compose an e-mail to an ex. Why prolong your hurt when you can get right to the point? — Jeremy Gordon
21. Swearin’ – Swearin’ (Salinas, 2012)
Years before the Crutchfield twins became musical powerhouses of the day, the duo opted to stop writing together after the dissolution of P.S. Eliot, their cult pop-punk project. In some ways, it’s the best decision they could’ve made. Both sisters continued in their tradition of transparent storytelling through songwriting, but where Katie went quiet, Allison turned up—and Swearin’ was born. The band’s self-titled debut, their first of only two full-length albums, is a quintessential emo record, but one that plays to a variety of influences—the biting power pop of “Kenosha” and the downward melodicism of “Fat Chance,” in which Allison sweetly sings, “An artist’s mind is stimulated by the aesthetic / And I don’t know about art / But I think your music’s shit.” There’s a real joy to Swearin’, even when Allison confesses pain or revels in heartbreak. On the album, she picks sincerity over coolness, and it’s a battle well-won. — Maria Sherman
20. JANK – Awkward Pop Songs (Funeral Sounds, 2015)
The opening notes of Awkward Pop Songs make JANK sound like Rage Against the Machine meets Weezer meets… I don’t know, the kids ripping bongs beneath the bleachers. Are there even bleachers for kids to smoke weed under? JANK would find them. Beneath the pogo-ready rhythms and spirited riffage lie bittersweet feelings wrapped in winky jokes— “The Hat Store” falsely claims the lyrics of Linkin Park’s “In The End” as its own, and they cop to ripping off Title Fight in a song named after themselves. “Mother always said God loved me, but I couldn’t see how he could even stand me,” Matt Diamond sings. Right before that: “If you don’t like Built to Spill / then I don’t fuck with you or anyone you know.” Toke up and feel it all. –Jeremy Gordon
19. Foxing – Dealer (Triple Crown, 2015)
Foxing’s debut The Albatross felt like a literal shock to the system, a defibrillator for broken hearts. Relief doesn’t come much more immediate than screaming, “SO WHHYYYYYYYYYYYYY don’t you love me back” at Conor Murphy, to say nothing of “I’M NOT WAVING, I’M DROWNING” or “SHE SAYS ‘YOU DON’T LOVE ME YOU JUST LOVE SEX.’” But while the crowds got to go home and move on, Foxing had to relive this stuff nearly every single night for two years. Dealer certainly seemed like it went out of its way to preemptively deny such easy catharsis—drums would go silent for long stretches, the lyrics and arrangements were far more ornate and dense, there’s about nine total minutes of instrumental string interludes and all of it was given a cool, sapphire polish by post-rock maven Matt Bayles. Yet Dealer managed to be even more raw and vulnerable than The Albatross, working with the kind of dark matter excavated after years of therapeutic process rather than a night of heavy drinking: the psychosexual trauma of Catholic upbringings, survivor’s guilt, abortion, the emotional toll of reliving your darkest secrets night after night and bassist/songwriter Josh Coll’s PTSD from serving in Afghanistan. While The Albatross was way too over-the-top for some, thankfully the five members of Foxing were the only ones who said, “not emo enough” and dug deeper. — Ian Cohen
18. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost (Run For Cover, 2016)
Until a few months ago, Holy Ghost’s pre-eminent narrative was one of millennial apotheosis: After years of relentless tours and grassroots hustle, Modern Baseball arrive at the summit for their long-awaited sermon on the mount. Between the title track’s glimmering hooks and the glam-soaked thrust of “Apple Cider I Don’t Mind,” the Philadelphia quartet certainly sounded in high spirits, sporting a noticeable uptick in technical proficiency and melodic risk-taking. Taking the group’s eventual dissolution (several months shy of the record’s first anniversary) into consideration, a closer look at the victory lap belies a drearier gait, mired in the same doubts— channeled, as always, into frank confessionals which reveal the cracks in the band’s slacker grin (“I’m a waste of time and space/Drifting through my selfish ways/I don’t know how I got here”). Regardless of authorial intent, the record can’t help but scan as a swan song—and oh, what a song it is. — Zoe Camp
17. Everyone Everywhere – Everyone Everywhere (Tiny Engines, 2010)
Philadelphia four-piece Everyone Everywhere find power in the idea that the world is much bigger than the places they’ve been—and that they can make music that felt even bigger. Their 2010 self-titled album—not to be confused with their equally forceful 2012 follow-up, which is also named Everyone Everywhere—manages to magnify small-town intimacy and project it on a screen the size of Philadelphia. Everyone Everywhere play as if their soaring guitars could propel them to the stars, and show that their inspirations of yore, the Promise Ring, weren’t too far removed from the euphoric pop-rock that’s long filled arenas. Soft-voiced frontman Brendan McHugh has a way of singing about struggling to find #metime and the elfin nooks of a small apartment that feels vital, managing to make those subjects sound like they were the only things in the world that matter. — Leor Galil
16. Cloakroom – Further Out (Run For Cover, 2015)
Marijuana was the most unexpected influence on emo’s fourth wave, given the genre’s 420-unfriendly roots—decidedly unchill young people playing anxious, physically demanding music at all-ages shows in dead sober VFW halls and church basements. As such, “stoner emo” was a nullity before Cloakroom coined it during their muddled, formative phase and perfected it on their long-gestating proper debut Further Out. “Genre-mashing” is the wrong word for Cloakroom, given how coherent and effortlessly innovative Further Out is—their sludgy tempos and obsession with analog gear created a heft and immersive grandeur unique amongst their Run For Cover peers, while maintaining a sneaky melodic charm and bottomless Midwestern yearning that makes them the most accessible band on their new home, metal mainstay Relapse. The definition of “stoner emo” now seems painfully obvious—of course, it sounds like David Bazan and Hum bonding over medicinal grade shit or Diary played at 16 rpm. But as hard as it was to conceptualize before Further Out, it’s harder to believe that it took anyone this long to try it out for real. — Ian Cohen
15. Snowing – I Could Do Whatever I Wanted if I Wanted (Count Your Lucky Stars, 2010)
Save for I Hate Myself, few bands hit you with an immediate sense of self-hatred the way Snowing did by naming their debut I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted. At the very beginning the Lehigh Valley, PA foursome push beyond emo’s characteristic melancholy and opt for full-on apathy—they’re not flaccid, but completely without desire. The band experiment with meticulous math rock structures that distract from atonal vocals and vaguely threatening lyricism; I Could isn’t easy to listen to and that peculiar brashness is intentional. When people say emo is about catharsis, they’re talking about raw, purposefully painful songwriting meant to cut deep and leave you to bleed. –Maria Sherman
14. Touché Amoré – Stage Four (Epitaph, 2016)
Speaking on behalf of all hardcore bands, Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm joked to Spin, “If you get to a third record, that’s pretty unheard of.” But if they do get there, the choice is pretty clear: stick to the script or renounce your ties to hardcore by discovering things like, I dunno, Joy Division and post-rock. Touché Amoré chose by flirting with conventional songwriting on 2013’s …Is Survived By, and followed it with a record entirely about Bolm’s mother dying of cancer that managed to be even more accessible. Touché Amoré have it both ways and then some on Stage Four, following their most extreme impulses in all directions: After a triumphant Fest performance, Bolm finds out via voicemail that his mother passed, “while you were onstage living the dream” on “Eight Seconds,” a punishingly intense, physically jarring screamer that fittingly shares a title with a bull riding movie. He’s too raw to listen to his mother’s final message on “New Halloween,” but he summons the courage to do so after the gorgeous Julien Baker duet “Skyscraper”, denial, acceptance and resolve rendered with widescreen splendor owing as much to the National and Deafheaven. Hell, with a surprising wisecrack about rush hour traffic on the I-5 during “Palm Dreams,” Stage Four even manages to be Touché Amoré’s only funny album too. If you question whether Touché Amoré belongs on this list, remember that the original definition of “emo” is derived from “emotional hardcore” and nothing might be more deserving. — Ian Cohen
13. Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – What it Takes to Move Forward (Count Your Lucky Stars, 2009)
Fourth-wave emo would be in a much different place without Michigan band Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate). Keith Latinen started EEIWALE as a solo project in 2006, and after struggling to find anyone interested in his fragile, windswept emo, he decided to launch a label called Count Your Lucky Stars to put out his music. Along with Topshelf, Run For Cover, and Tiny Engines, CYLS helped document the emerging underground emo scene when no one else bothered to give it a chance, releasing music by some of the other bands on this list: Into It. Over It., Castevet, Foxing, and Snowing.
Along the way EEIWALE’s 2009 album, What It Takes To Move Forward, garnered a mythical cult status: Even before the band launched a 2015 tour to belatedly celebrate the record’s fifth anniversary, original vinyl pressings were a hot commodity on eBay, sometimes selling for more than $100. WITTMF is as much a love letter to Mineral’s everlasting influence on indie rock as it is a tribute to the idealized notion of the Midwest—the band’s dramatic, looping guitar patterns contemplate the flyover state’s great stretches of road and flatlands, which can be a place of great freedom or completely isolating, depending on your mood. EEIWALE excel when they play with ambiguity. On “Rally the Troops! Poke Holes In Their Defenses! Line Our Coffers With Their Coffins!” Keith sings about a young woman trying to escape an undefined social situation that’s left her rattled. He doesn’t sketch out the scenario, but rather provides an outline of the protagonist, giving her space to have her own complex emotions, her own sense of identity, and a history only she can see in the seams of her mother’s dress. Keith wisely withholds intimate details of his protagonist’s life, and in doing so recognized a human complexity that every person should be granted. — Leor Galil
12. Title Fight – Floral Green (SideOneDummy, 2012)
Title Fight’s catalog reflects a band unsatisfied with marrying itself to a single sound; every project takes an identity of its own, and Floral Green revels in its dissonance. The band pendulums between serrated vocals battling aggressive post-hardcore, and melodic restraint nestled in temperate post-rock. Though they lean more on the former, moments of measured emotion like slow-burners “Head In The Ceiling Fan” and “Lefty” are some of the album’s highlights. Even with the second half’s respite, Floral Green feels perpetually on the brink of chaos with only adrenaline to mute the pain. — Briana Younger
11. Into It. Over It. – Intersections (Triple Crown, 2013)
Emo is music for people searching for their place in the world regardless of their age, which might be why Evan Thomas Weiss has been pegged as the fourth-wave figurehead. The Into It. Over It. founder can still tell you where to find the best sandwich in his old hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, but he’s made Chicago his headquarters for nearly a decade: throughout much of that time he’s spent his days living on the road, touring with either as Into It. Over It. or with one of his side-projects (Pet Symmetry, Their / They’re / There, Stay Ahead of the Weather). On Into It. Over It.’s second proper album, 2013’s Intersections, Weiss pulls memories from his times in far-flung locales, translating them into concise, vivid songs propelled by cycling guitars and his personable vocals—even when he shouts Weiss’s voice contains a hint of honey. Weiss sounds like he’s still in motion, a man who’s seen a lot but is still energized by what’s around the bend, even when he’s struggling with his own sorrow. On the solemn “The Shaking Of The Leaves,” Weiss delivers the most trenchant ode to Mitch Dubey, a linchpin of the punk scene in New Haven, Connecticut, who was shot and killed in 2011: Weiss articulates the way a sudden shift in the wind can rekindle memories of people we’ve loved and lost, finding beauty amid the grief and confusion that still reverberates. — Leor Galil
10. Sorority Noise – You’re Not As ____ As You Think (Triple Crown, 2017)
They’re called “deaths of despair,” the ugly shorthand for Americans who die from things like suicide and opiate addiction. But Sorority Noise frontman Cameron Boucher lost friends, and he’s still looking for the right words on You’re Not As ____ As You Think, the fill-in-the-blank album whose title shifts with the cycle of grief: You’re not as strong, you’re not as bad, you’re not as guilty, you’re not as alone. Think is about death first, theirs and his, but on the way Boucher packs in reflections on all sorts of loss: of understanding, of stability, of faith. Sometimes it sounds like he’s yelling at God, or just straight-up praying. The album’s no dreary spiritual, though; the music has an edge like a broken bottle, alternating raw rock and exhausted melancholy. Boucher’s fatalistic humor streak comes out in spite of himself, producing laugh-to-keep-from-crying lines like, “My friends are dying quicker than I possibly can.” He doesn’t get over it, not in 30 minutes, but he does reach a kind of tentative solace: The knowledge that life is harder and more fragile, but we keep doing it anyway. It’s the kind of record you probably needed years ago. — Anna Gaca
9. Foxing – The Albatross (Count Your Lucky Stars, 2013)
As a concept album, The Albatross is burdensome and brimming with guilt, anguish and cogent references to water. Conor Murphy’s vocals have the desperation of someone drowning, and the backbone of someone refusing to let themselves be submerged. Foxing’s debut is bolstered by a single song that embodies the genre fusion that the band does best: “Rory” is all screaming melodrama and unrequited love, but a proud trumpet and a haunting piano melody mold it into something transcendent. The Albatross is littered with similar instrumental and stylistic ticks—the Broadway-ready arrangement on “Bloodhound,” the divine harmonies of “Quietus”—for a result that, much like the sea, can’t be contained. — Briana Younger
8. Pinegrove – Cardinal (Run For Cover, 2016)
Emo is stereotyped for the whiny yowl of its vocals, but on Pinegrove’s breakthrough record, Evan Stephens Hall sounds like he’s just talking to you. The slight drawl and plainspoken texture of his voice makes emotional revelations like “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them” and “One day I won’t need your love / One day I won’t define myself by the one I’m thinkin’ of” sound like intimate disclosures around a campfire, rather than some kind of pained catharsis from a forceful personality. Instead, Pinegrove come off like a band for friends; their vulnerability is enveloped by lazy, jangly melodies, and the rabidity of their fanbase shows the power created by the feeling that you’re just hanging out. With pals like these, why worry about a broken heart? — Jeremy Gordon
7. The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (Epitaph, 2015)
The history of emo is filled with broken promises and missed opportunities—bands that implode on the verge of a breakthrough, if they weren’t flat-out ignored or disdained in their time, brilliant albums hampered by shoddy production or shady record labels. The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die appeared to be a prime candidate to fall victim to any or possibly all of those fates. 2013 debut Whenever, If Ever was bursting with brilliant and hastily executed ideas, more driven by enthusiasm than expertise—an instant classic, but not a masterpiece. Their fluid personnel, chaotic live shows and aggressive social media presence all indicated that longevity was far down their list of priorities. They added a wildly unpopular element of spoken word to their touring lineup and then turned it into Between Bodies, the most universally reviled record of its scene, the emo revival’s answer to Lulu.
Having watched them from the beginning, Into It. Over It.’s Evan Thomas Weiss assessed that bigger labels would have no idea what to do with this band. He was right. When it came time to record Harmlessness, Epitaph wisely just let them do whatever the hell they wanted. TWIABP’s ambition and potential were never in question—just the ends to which they were sometimes used. As a result, Harmlessness resulted in one of the most stunningly accomplished indie rock records of the past decade, establishing an unexpected and perfectly logical bloodline from emo’s mainstream breakthrough to the primitivistic, collective mania of 2004-2005 to the craftmanship of 2009 “progressive indie rock” to the introspective and genre-agnostic bands of the present day. Their confidence is infectious and, more importantly, generous—taking six and seven minutes at a time to celebrate inclusive feminist allegiance, defiant self-actualization and overcoming depression through community, each victory lap preceded by the hard work and patience that makes it all feel truly earned. Every moment feels like TWIABP’s reach and grasp meeting at their exact apex and yet they still feel as limitless as they did back in their earliest days—they’ve already boasted that LP3 is done, which will surely make us regret not waiting a few months to run this list. These guys made Harambelessness T-shirts on a dare, for crying out loud—have they ever given us any reason to think they won’t follow through on their promises? — Ian Cohen
6. Hop Along – Painted Shut (Saddle Creek, 2015)
Philadelphia’s Hop Along successfully straddle several genres, and it’s easy enough to file them away in indie rock without batting an eye. But they derive some of their power from emo—before Saddle Creek came calling, frontwoman Frances Quinlan helped build the foundation for Philadelphia’s now-celebrated rock scene by blurring punk, emo, and folk, while her future bandmate and scene-engineer extraordinaire Joe Reinhart inspired a thousand bands to twinkle as the guitarist for Algernon Cadwallader. Hop Along have been Quinlan’s ship since the beginning, and she’s motored it with emo’s affection for complex guitars and herky-jerky instrumentation pivotal to many a Dischord band. On Painted Shut, Quinlan and company focused their frisson and aimed it towards pop, producing hits only they could create—the gentle opening of “I Saw My Twin” carefully pulls listeners to its ferocious chorus without rocking the boat much. Quinlan’s voice proves to be the band’s most disarming weapon, as she alternates between tender and savage, showing poise the whole way through. In a genre that’s elevated men who sound like they can barely sing, Quinlan stands so far above the rest it’s easy to consider her band an entity unto themselves. — Leor Galil
5. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again (Epitaph, 2014)
Most emo lyricists look back on their youth through wistful, tear-fogged lenses, reflecting upon their adolescent memories at a distance. Not Joyce Manor: the California band are the living embodiment of pop-punk c’est la vie, constructing their two-minute rippers like bristling valentines, or maybe letter-bombs. While their peers were cooped up flipping through the yearbooks, Joyce Manor were taking snapshots that were in the moment, musically and symbolically. This was especially true on Never Hungover Again, their 10-track, 20-minute triumph. “Heart Tattoo” remains perhaps the best example of the band’s unparalleled juggling act between empathy and aggression, condensed down to a simple, cutting symbol (literally): “I want a heart tattoo/I want it to hurt really bad/That’s how I’ll know/I’ll know it’s real.” — Zoe Camp
4. The Hotelier – Goodness (Tiny Engines, 2016)
The first track on Goodness is almost too difficult to hear. Vocalist Christian Holden reads a poem, intimate and unflinching, as direct as an audiobook: “This place speaks, it says many things of nothing…” So begins the Hotelier’s vast, transcendent Goodness, an album about how to get to universal truth from rural Massachusetts. Between its covers lie poetic heartbreakers like “Opening Mail for My Grandmother,” about accepting the nature of death, and the anthemic “Piano Player,” with its open-hearted refrain, “I don’t know if I know love no more.” Some of these songs have been around a while, first recorded during the band’s previous incarnation as the Hotel Year. They’ve earned the rich, broken-in quality that comes with years of reflection and refinement, holding fast to the heart of Home, No Place Is Like This even as they graduate from its angst. Turns out, the Hotelier do know how to be serious without being sad. Sometimes they even rip. — Anna Gaca
3. Algernon Cadwallader – Some Kind of Cadwallader (Be Happy, 2008)
It’s not easy to become an innovative emo band. Excellence arrives through a resourceful songwriting style, in reconfiguring the puzzle pieces laid before you. In an interview with Alter the Press in 2008, Philadelphia’s Algernon Cadwallader introduced themselves by saying, “We’re a DIY band from Pennsylvania. We sound like Cap’n Jazz.” They certainly did, but it wasn’t the summation of AC, or even their parts. They pushed past those limitations in their joking recognition of emo’s glass ceiling, in their individualistic musicianship and youthful delinquency–a lethal combination that would go on to define a new, math-y emo wave. Some Kind of Cadwallader is the apex of the band’s short career, epitomizing their excellence in songs about loves that were never realized, on percussion with ferocious intricacy that puts other acts of the time to shame. In “Motivational Song,” they pen a mantra for all emo generations, past and present: “If fucking up feels right / Then fuck it up.” It’s hard to imagine Cap’n Jazz writing such an embarrassing truth. –Maria Sherman
2. The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever (Topshelf, 2013)
As their name implies, TWIABP are a band that believes profoundly in the light at the end of the tunnel, and their debut outing is a masterful journey through the dark. Strings, horns and, yes, those twinkling guitars lend themselves to Whenever If Ever‘s lush textures—the instruments occupy their own space, and the songs simply bleed into each other. The arrangements are an experience unto themselves, but the band truly succeeds in the ambitious range of emotions they manage to capture. Where regret exists, hope still remains; where there is death, there is also life. Effective idealistic angst is a rare achievement for past and revival bands alike, but TWIABP pull it off with remarkable conviction. In its final moments, Whenever, If Ever gathers the pieces of itself in defiant optimism, as swelling drums and a triumphal chorus remind us what this is all about: “The world is a beautiful place but we have to make it that way…/if you’re afraid to die, then so am I.” — Briana Younger
1. The Hotelier – Home, Like NoPlace is There (Tiny Engines, 2014)
No offense to anyone who sat in rapt suspense while reading the first 29 entries on this list, but there was never any doubt as to what was going to show up in this slot. If it’s any relief, just flash back to 2014 and remember how Home, Like NoPlace Is There basically came out of nowhere. The Hotelier were long removed from It Never Goes Out, an auspicious album of anti-establishment pop-punk written by angsty high schoolers, released on a sketchy label under the name the Hotel Year, which was most likely an Ataris reference. In the ensuing two years, they barely engaged in any of the split-sharing, incessant touring or networking that led to inclusion in the emo revival trendpieces that were starting to pop up.
So when they returned with their sophomore album, they were able to do so as outsiders and firebrands, challenging their scene’s lack of political engagement, the residual bro influence in emo and commodification of art. Then again, a lot of bands have shit to say about this stuff and Home, Like NoPlace is There didn’t run away with this vote because of its principles. They’re certainly a major part of what established the Hotelier as a meaningful band—gender dysphoria, police brutality and the systematic failures of our social safety nets weren’t the kind of things that even the most erudite emo bands were discussing ten years ago. Nor is this the #1 album because it honors the lineage of Thursday, the Weakerthans and Cursive while adding the kind of undeniable, hair-trigger shoutalongs that could win over those typically unwilling to get no more emo than, say, Cloud Nothings, Japandroids or Titus Andronicus. It’s the album that tops this list because because the Hotelier made it undeniably clear that the most thoughtful, the most progressive and the most exciting thing in indie right now was happening right here.
Though modest in origin and thoroughly DIY in execution, just about every song has taken on a life of its own outside of western Massachusetts, Fest, or any basement show where it was once contained—the drop on “An Introduction to the Album” has resulted in a cottage industry of YouTube reaction videos, Christian Holden listened to his fans and retired “Housebroken” due to its capacity to be misunderstood, “Life in Drag” is still a point of contention whenever it spurs a mosh pit counter to its message, and “Your Deep Rest” has already inspired a record label. Check any profile on the band and it’ll likely mention the zealous, almost evangelical nature of Hotelier fanhood—the kind of thing that just seemed abnormal in the realm of tasteful, festival-friendly indie rock.
And indeed, in a year lorded over by the War on Drugs, Real Estate, Mac DeMarco and Sun Kil Moon, Home’s brash energy and relentless intensity made it barely recognizable as indie rock—ten months worth of frothing word-of-mouth couldn’t even get it to crack the top 100 in 2014’s Pazz and Jop. Two years later, reviews of Goodness invariably referred to Home as a classic, but by that point, the Hotelier had transcended a genre in which they always existed uncomfortably, challenging listeners to follow towards places where bands like them rarely get to enter. The reputation of Goodness may eventually eclipse that of Home or maybe the next album will change the trajectory of their scene for the third time. Whatever happens won’t be a surprise, though—and there’s just no duplicating the impact of Home, Like NoPlace is There knocking us all our asses when no one was looking. –Ian Cohen