The thought of "emo" not being followed with words like "sucks," "is lame" or "is for sissies who shop at Hot Topic and have asymmetrical haircuts" is a thought that truly seems lost in the labyrinth of music history. For most folks today, those three letters simply refer to the leering 13-year-olds who hang out in the mall, paint their fingernails black and wear
tight-fitting, also-black t-shirts with neon lettering flaunting the name of their new favorite band (which features, natch, a singer and a screamer). To top it all off, said band's name is usually something like Oh, My Love, The Lord Has Left Us Alone In the Back of the Classroom, So Let’s Makeout, or Walking Slowly Down a Darkened Hallway, or something else brooding and lengthy.
The precise moment where emo jumped the shark is hard to pin down, but Hot Topic’s mid-2000’s takeover of suburban American would be a good start. It’s hard to keep a movement of deeply emotional punk rock earnest when it
moves in next to Sears. But emo wasn’t always such a vacuous pit of pre-teen
despair. Just in time to clear emo’s good name, both The Get Up Kids and Sunny
Day Real Estate are back on the road this fall to show the kids that music’s
about more than just haircuts. Indeed, the time is right to reminisce on the halcyon days of emo. And when you're finished with this list, you should head over to Carrie Brownstein's Monitor Mix blog on NPR's website for a personal recollection.
For now, though, toss aside your notebook of romantic/angsty poems and leave your girl-jeans at home. Here are 10 bands that prove emo wasn't always for the Hot Topic tween set:
1. The Promise Ring: Few albums sum up the mid-'90s emo
movement in sound or attitude quite like The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good. (Incidentally, the album gets bonus points for spawning Andy Greenwald's must-read emo manifesto of same name.) Future Maritime singer Davey VonBohlen’s voice quivers like a shy guy going stag to the prom over the band’s scrappy guitar punk.
Most emo moment: When VonBohlen sings, “Nothing feels good like you in your red and blue jeans and your white and night things,” during “Red and Blue Jeans,” you can practically feel guys and gals snuggling up in bed, whispering potential Dashboard Confessional lyrics to each other.
2. The Get Up Kids: There’s more fist-pumping to be done
during one listen to The Get Up Kids’ Something
To Write Home About than at a Judas Priest show, and it’s due to singer
Matt Pryor’s gravel-voiced laments about leaving home and breaking hearts.
Most emo moment: The waltzing piano ballad “I’ll Catch You”
could soundtrack the most romantic moment you’ve ever had. Then play “Out of Reach” a few weeks later when she dumps you.
3. Weezer: Say what you will about anything Weezer’s ouput in the last decade or so (we certainly have), but Rivers Cuomo and Co.’s Pinkerton remains not only the band’s best, but possibly the best emo album ever created. There’s more self-loathing, sexuality-confusing, emotion-flairing angst on this record then in all the high-school locker rooms
across the country put together.
Most emo moment: On the pounding “Why Bother,” Cuomo broods,
“Why bother? It’s gonna hurt me. It’s gonna kill when you desert me.” Ouch.Then he sings, “Maybe we could even get together. Maybe you could break my heart next summer.” Ouch with attitude.
4. Texas Is the Reason: Three years and one album is all it took for this totally-not-from-Texas band to crack our top five. From 1994 to 1997, Texas Is the Reason were one of the top reasons to listen to emo. The nine songs of 1996's Do You Know Who You Are? are a gut-wrenching punch of jagged guitar anthems rife with paranoia and frustration.
Most emo moment: For the album's 10th anniversary, the band reunited for only two shows, leaving plenty of their fans shedding tears of longing.
5. Sunny Day Real Estate: Sunny Day's 1994 debut, Diary, is 52 minutes of singer Jeremy Enigk purging his soul, howling like a madman over swirling guitars in a sinister, dark corner. Spooky.
Most emo moment: On "Song About an Angel," Enigk sings as an angel to himself, "You're married to your pain." Sounds like it's time for an annulment!
6. Rites of Spring: Welcome to proto-emo. Rites of Spring hit its stride a decade before most kids classified as "emo" today were born. Stride, though, might be an overstatement, considering the band only played 15 shows. Ever. With a hardcore punk sound (think Minor Threat) but lyrics straight out of a diary, Rites of Spring set the groundwork for the emo masses to come.
Most emo moment: Dudes came from the breakneck hardcore scene of the '80s and spoke about their feelings. 'Nuff said.
7. Braid: Another mid-'90s emo act (notice a trend?) that totally didn't suck was Braid. The vaguely math-y Illinois band bashed through its moody emo from 1994-1999, then again for a reunion tour in 2004. Singer Bob Nanna's wail moves like a drunken romantic swinging from a chandelier.
Most emo moment: On "Do You Love Coffee?" Nanna spends much of the song wailing "Is my heart your home?" Well, is it?
8. Jimmy Eat World: Be patient with this one. Yes, we know, you've heard "The Middle" more often than you care to count. You've watched the video with the kids in their undies. But good ol' Jimmy Eat World have a deep catalog. Just this year, the band toured playing its brilliant Clarity (1999) in its entirety. While bits and pieces of Clarity's emo heart showed up later ("23" from 2004's hit-or-miss Futures), the album remains JEW's gorgeous, oft-heartbreaking score to more than a few high school breakups.
Most emo moment: Jim Adkins' plaintive cry on Clarity's "For Me This is Heaven": "When the time we have now ends, when the big hand goes 'round again, can you still feel the butterflies?" We can now, Jim!
9. Alkaline Trio: Before frontman Matt Skiba's obsession with becoming a pop-punk version of The Cure fully blossomed, Alkaline Trio was a fast and furious punk band with lyrics about how to cure a broken heart. (Hint: Usually it involved massive quantities of alcohol.)
Most emo moment: Although Skiba revels in talk about death and armageddon, he's a softie at heart. Who else's notion of romance is, "I wanna wake up naked next to you, kissing the curves in your clavicle"?
10. Cursive: If classic emo is the shy loner scribbling love poems in his Trapper Keeper, Cursive is the guy whose poetry gets taken by the teacher and brought up at the parent-teacher conference. "Uh, we regret to inform you that we think your son may have some anger issues."
Most emo moment: Pick a song. Press play. There you go.