We’re not even going to entertain the insanely boring ‘emo: what is it?’ debate. You know it when you see and hear it, or you don’t. What we will say, by way of a disclaimer and guideline, is that you can probably argue for the inclusion of 101 different bands in a list like this and the ones that have made it are largely from a certain time and period, bearing no real relation to one another musically. Other than there’s a case to be made for all being included under the umbrella term of emo, of course. Disagree? We do not care.
Obviously, it’s a list that could have included the likes of Mineral, American Football, The Promise Ring, Texas Is The Reason and… [insert your personal overlooked emo band of choice here] But really, those are entry-level names that always pop up in emo retrospectives. The idea and point here is that you might actually hear at least one band from this lot you’ve not heard before. Like emo, we’re all about the sharing here at the big K!. So please, don’t come crying to us that we didn’t include Indian Summer, Yaphet Kotto, Brandtson or whomever it is you like better, there’s only so much time and space my dudes…
This Lindenhurst, Long Island five-piece only put out a handful of 7”s and one solitary full-length, (1999’s) My Funeral, but they shone oh-so-brightly for the short while they were around. There’s also a lot of gold to be mined from their collected singles comp, Seven Inches To Walldrug (in particular, the Stephen King/Stand By Me referencing standout, Ray Brower) but it was on that one shot at doing it across a whole album where their promise glistened to its fullest. In possibly the most emo move ever, they broke up shortly after, but in frontman Mike Mallamo, they possessed a vocalist of rarefied talent, with a delivery that veered between guttural howling and quivering delicacy, where you can almost taste the pain as he pushed for the big notes. Nominal local notoriety and some internet curiosity in the years since their disbanding would see the band later reform for something of a belated victory parade, but it was only ever limited to a small selection of shows in the U.S., which is a huge shame. For their records at least, it’s not too late to show some love.
CHECK OUT: Jill Came Tumbling After, My Funeral (1999)
I HATE MYSELF
Does an emo band name get any more emo than i hate myself? Yes, they even insisted on the stylised affectation of lowercase lettering. Better yet, initial songs didn’t even bear a title, which, alongside minimal, self-deprecating info on inlay artwork, led to speculation that the Gainsville, Florida trio – brothers Jim (vox and guitar) and Jon Marburger (drums), and Steve Jin (bass) – were actually sending the whole genre up. No-one really knows, but if they were, they did a hell of a job of perfecting the art in the process, with a sound that ranged from vicious screamo aggression to low-key indie-rock mutterings.
CHECK OUT: The Lightning Says, Three Songs (2005)
It says a lot about how overlooked this Midwest quartet were that their biggest claim to fame is probably the fact that ‘90s-post-grunge college rockers Nada Surf once covered their ‘hit’, Why Are You So Mean To Me? And truthfully, not many people even heard or cared about that either. Straddling between the artsy lurch of Sonic Youth at their most straight-rocking, mixed with a slacker style, abandon, and loser-ville emo lyrics, their posthumously collected singles – titled Posthumous, handily – is a testament to their power (when they put their feet to the throttle) and vulnerability (when they park up and hope to score… yet inevitably don’t).
CHECK OUT: Sharin’ Stone, Posthumous (1998)
CHRISTIE FRONT DRIVE
This Denver, Colorado crew released a split with emo behemoths Jimmy Eat World once upon a time, but the band’s fortunes would ultimately spin off in very different directions. Built upon sparse rhythms, melodic threads that guitars would swallow and entwine, and vocals that that felt more like part of an overall puzzle rather than a central focus, theirs is a strangely entrancing kind of emo. Kind of like post-rock with a pay-off that isn’t just loud bits interrupting the quiet parts. Like a lot of these bands, they did reunite for short bursts of nostalgia in 2007 and 2017, but given their quality, and influence on the generation that followed in their wake, it’s criminal how few dues they actually get. CHECK OUT: Valentine, Boys Life split (1996)
Something of an acquired taste, thanks to the unique (no, genuinely) vocal of Billy Werner (later of the also formidable Hot Cross), this New York gang never really got off the ground, but amid the small coterie of folks who stumbled upon them in the aftermath, they would find a lot of warmth and appreciation. More appropriately placed at the screamo end of the scale, their scratchy, agit-noise was as audibly combustible as it was deliciously satisfying. Once you get past how odd it sounds on first impressions. They’d influence the likes of Alexisonfire and Touché Amoré years later. So much so in fact that the latter’s vocalist Jeremy Bolm, made it a personal mission to put together all of the band’s recorded work and released it through his Deathwish Inc. imprint, Secret Voice in 2016.
CHECK OUT: Some Natures Catch No Plagues, Collected (2016)
Another in a long line of bands whose popularity seemed to snowball after the fact, following their split in 2000 just as the kinds of bands they paved the way for started to break through. For proof on that point, take one listen to 1997 second album Day Three Of My New Life and if you look close enough you can trace a line that runs through from The Get Up Kids to the more plaintive edges of present day pop-punk. The Davis, California group got some kudos for their legacy and efforts in 2013 when they played a few reunion gigs (including that year’s Fest), followed by an opening slot for Coheed And Cambria two years later. All of which in itself amounts to a pretty meagre lap of honour for a band whose musical output is richly deserving of so much more.
CHECK OUT: Decorate The Spine, Day Three Of My New Life (1997)
‘Is that a fucking piano?’ Why yes, yes it is dear reader, but don’t let that put you off. By the time this second record came around these Kentucky heroes preferred a grown-up approach to all things emo, eschewing the lo-fi production of their 1998 debut, U.S. Songs, and adding in a lot of polish, gloss and finish. It needed it, too, such was the darkness in the seams of the songs that frontman Chris Higdon was singing. Musically in service to its melodies and the feeling in his voice, False Cathedrals brooded with an evocative bleakness and a sense of loneliness that felt universal, relatable and yet never anything less than oddly welcoming.
CHECK OUT: Calm Americans, False Cathedrals (2000)
CITY OF CATERPILLAR
They put out just one self-titled record, released in 2002 on the esteemed Level Plane label, broke up a year later and reformed in 2016 when Repeater Records reissued its seven songs. Those are the bare bones of the story of City Of Caterpillar. But within those seven songs – which range in length from a shade over two minutes to sprawling, nine-minute epics – the Virginian quartet crafted something special. Nestling somewhere between the haunting, ethereal territory of post-rock and the frantic, whites-of-the-eyes basement-show screamo, it’s a record that demands headphones and zero distraction.
CHECK OUT: When Was The Last Time We Painted Over The Blood On The Walls?, City Of Caterpillar (2002)
You never really hear about Spitalfield when it comes to retrospective re-evaluations of the ‘00s alt. music output and that’s a Crying. Emo. Shame. The Chicago quartet’s Victory Records debut, Remember Right Now, pretty much perfected the poppier side of the emo schtick, with its odes to growing up, relationship troubles and ruminations on getting out of the space you’re in – in other words, every trope ripped off by every single band who came after, some of whom made themselves millionaires off the back of it. If your inclinations are towards the more melodic and accessible side of the emo scales, go back and find out where a lot of that stuff found its roots.
CHECK OUT: I Loved The Way She Said L.A., Remember Right Now (2003)
THE JULIANA THEORY
Initially starting out in 1997 as a summer distraction and side project where former Zao guitarist/bassist Brett Detar could indulge his more sensitive side, The Juliana Theory would eventually become the Pennsylvanian native’s main gig for almost a decade after. Among the first of the bands in the new century’s burgeoning emo scene to fully embrace pop hooks and electronic flourishes, they were a lot more forward-thinking and bold than they were credited with being. It would see some of the snobbier sections of the rock fraternity dismiss them as a “punk rock boy band” but free of context and with the gift of hindsight, all that’s left is a collection of near-perfect emo pop songs by a band wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
CHECK OUT: Into The Dark, Emotion Is Dead (2000)
Words: David McLaughlin