The 20 best pre-2000s emo albums
Before the hair flicks and mic swings that would go on to popularise the term in the mid-’00s, emo existed as something different entirely. That ‘something’, as it happens, was fucking great. From its true inception in the mid-’80s, right up until the turn of the millennium, emo existed more as an ideology than a sound or a fashion statement.
Here, we look back on 20 of the best albums from that golden, embryonic period. You’ll find strands of hardcore, indie-rock, pop-punk and more, showcasing both a changing landscape and more than a few hints of what was to come.
American Football – American Football (1999)
Ah, yes. The record that everyone seems to have agreed is the pinnacle of emo, despite the fact that you’d probably have to be in the band to name more than four songs from it. Still, Never Meant is one of the defining songs of the genre and the band’s open-tuned noodling went on to serve as the foundation for everything the ‘emo revival’ would become. Fair play.
Cursive – Cursive’s Domestica (2000)
Just over half an hour of arty emo brilliance as vocalist Tim Kasher works through his feelings on a then-recent divorce through one of the genre’s first true concept albums. It’s an excellently put together, heartstring-tugging journey at face value, but when you burn away the set dressing, you’re left listening to someone Seriously Working Through Some Shit. There might not be a better example of a band creating a great record while simultaneously using the form as a cathartic outlet than this.
Christie Front Drive – Stereo (1997)
Christie Front Drive had the drawn-out, melancholic guitar passage down to a fine art. All over Stereo, there are loads of opportunities for floor-focused head nods as lyricism takes a rare-for-this-list back seat to groove and feel. The result of that is one of the more expansive records of the genre. Oh, and they also had a massive influence on a certain Jimmy Eat World. Not bad going for a band no one really talks about, eh?
Embrace – Embrace (1987)
Embrace — along with fellow Washington DC outfit Rites Of Spring – invented emo. Simple as that. This project was singer Ian MacKaye’s attempt at a softer brand of punk rock after his other quite important band, Minor Threat, broke up. A posthumously released self-titled effort is the only album we ever received from the band, but what an album it is. Not seismic at the time, by any means, but we look back at it now as one of the sacred texts of emo and probably the band that had to happen to allow Fugazi to exist.
Cap'n Jazz – Shmap'n Shmazz (1995)
The album’s actual name is 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, but it was mercifully retitled to the delight of sub-editors everywhere. Shmap’n Shmazz was actually the world’s first introduction to future emo hall of famers, Mike and Tim Kinsella. It comfortably holds up today, too, given its frantic nature and easily traceable lineage to what emo exists as today.
Rites Of Spring – Rites Of Spring (1985)
This is where it all began. Legend has it that the term ‘emo’ was first coined as a derogatory insult used to describe this very band. Spawning from a super-macho hardcore scene, Rites Of Spring were the first band in that world to unapologetically wear their heart on their sleeve and, as you’ve probably guessed given that this list even exists, to say it caught on would be something of an understatement. Some of the albums on this list went on to change the game, but without this one, there wouldn’t have been a game to change.
Mineral – The Power Of Failing (1997)
Despite having maybe the worst album cover of all time – COMIC SANS, guys? – this is an absolutely essential listen. Taking the framework that Sunny Day Real Estate had built a few years prior (more on that later), and throwing in their own more shoegazing tendencies, Mineral hinted towards a possible next step in emo’s evolution, daring those around them to try and re-purpose the blueprint. They’d go on to push their boundaries even further on their next record, Endserenading, but as admirable as that move was, it just wasn’t as consistent a record.
Saves The Day – Through Being Cool (1999)
Along with The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day can be largely thanked/held responsible for the blurring of the pop-punk and emo lines in the ’00s. It wasn’t the only catchy emo record, not by a long shot, but very few others were coming up with melodies as good as the ones on All Star Me, or My Sweet Fracture. TBC also holds the unique honour of being the only album on this list with a song on it about how much the singer misses his mum. Bold move, that.
Saetia – Saetia (1998)
Revelling in melodrama to a new extreme, Saetia took what emo was and dialled the aggression all the way up. Instrumentally, this is a work of total fucking chaos and Billy Werner’s screamed vocals are sharp enough to cause lacerations. Screamo is sort of its own thing, but given Saetia’s undeniable influence on modern emo – give La Dispute a listen after this – this record more than earns its place in the annals of emo history.
Braid – Frame & Canvas (1998)
America’s Midwest is seen as one of emo’s spiritual homes and Braid are a huge reason for that. On third LP Frame & Canvas, the Illinois outfit rightfully saw critical acclaim and would go on to establish their label, Polyvinyl as a major player in emo – something it remains to this day. Braid also happen to be one of very few bands on this list that put out an actually good comeback record, too. Well in, Braid.
Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
Deciding whether or not Pinkerton qualifies for this list wasn’t easy. Given the success of their debut ‘blue’ album before it, Weezer were sort of bigger than emo by the time this was released. They certainly weren’t a part of the culture or the movement on the frontlines, anyway. But then, does that make their choice to write a darker, more unapologetically emo album than its hyper-successful predecessor even more worthy of praise? Hmm. Point is, this is a bloody brilliant album. Maybe the best on this list, but you just can’t give a title like Best Early Emo Album to the band that had already written Buddy Holly. It’d be cheating, right?
Texas Is The Reason – Do You Know Who You Are? (1996)
With somewhat generic instrumentation, typically awkward vocal deliveries, and a dorkily knowing obsession with conspiracy theories, it’d be easy to write Texas Is The Reason off as just another emo band as we look back on them today. But that wasn’t the case. TITR were one of the first bands formed after the ’90s emo movement had already gained momentum, and they were total students of the game. Their love emo shines through here and while there are more than a few occasions on this record where you could be listening to Christie Front Drive, Sunny Day Real Estate or Mineral, it’s that unapologetic adoration that makes this album so special. They didn’t care that they weren’t pioneers, they just wanted so badly to be a part of what the genre was. And that’s a whole new level of emo earnestness.
Rainer Maria – Look Now Look Again (1999)
Putting this list together proved something we probably all knew. Emo really was a massive fucking boys club, wasn’t it? Thankfully, Rainer Maria’s second album is a bona fide classic of the genre and we’re not just here talking about sad blokes in Converse All Stars as a result. Still, enough about what this album isn’t. Let’s talk about instead about how there weren’t many vocal melodies being written better than Caithlin De Marrais’, or how the chorus of Planetary is one of the best on this entire list.
The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good (1997)
Arguably the first sign of the radio-ready direction the genre would take at the turn of the millennium, The Promise Ring took all the awkward relatability of emo and turned it into something almost aspirational. Sure, emo was still weird, but now it had a carefree swagger and a neutral, lackadaisical voice for fans to project their slacker dreams onto. To say that emo was now ‘cool’, was something of a stretch, but it felt for the first time like it would be able to talk its way out of trouble, rather than getting its lunch money stolen again.
Jimmy Eat World – Clarity (1999)
Before we start, we’re not here to get into a debate about which is the best Jimmy Eat World record. If we’re talking about emo albums – and we are – Clarity is king. From the darkness of Your New Aesthetic to the wallowing introspection of Just Watch The Fireworks, this is the most openly Jim Adkins ever pinned his heart to his sleeve. Sure, it’s sort of the default Cool Kid thing to say that you’re into this album but, hey, sometimes the cool kids get it right.
Heavens To Betsy – Calculated (1994)
Though not typically considered part of emo’s tapestry, this under-appreciated gem is absolutely deserving of a more revered standing within the genre. Aside from having album-highlight Complicated as the centrepiece of one of the best parts of narrative-based indie game, Gone Home, and being the first band of Sleater-Kinney guitarist Corin Tucker, Calculated lives on the boundary between what riot grrrl was and what emo would become. It’s a wonderfully jarring combination and an incredibly telling document of what was going on in the alternative underground in the early ’90s.
Jawbreaker – Dear You (1995)
Yeah, sure, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy has Boxcar on it and we all like that ‘You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone’ bit, but its follow up, Dear You, is the better record. Yes, it’s the one that came out on a major label. Sure, it doesn’t have the bite its predecessor’s Steve Albini production job. Of course it was totally panned at the time. But in the years since its release, its importance has become apparent, with its shameless moodiness and bold choruses helping to shape what both emo and pop-punk would eventually become. In fact, if we’re being completely honest about it, literally every song with a guitar released since 1995 is just a less good version of Accident Prone.
The Get Up Kids – Something To Write Home About (1999)
A couple of years ago, when I was working a shitty bar job at a music venue in London, The Get Up Kids frontman Matt Pryor played a solo acoustic show. There was this one guy in his late thirties who struck up conversation with me in between bands about how he’d been looking forward to it for months given that this was his favourite album of all time and that hearing songs from it – even if it’s just one or two in a set – takes him back to the best time of his life. He cried when Pryor played I’ll Catch You to close the set. And fair play to him, it’s that sort of song. A year later, I saw that same guy at Riot Fest in Chicago watching the band play Something… in full. He cried again. The moral of this story is that this album is fucking wicked and it means a lot to a lot of people — especially that guy. Shoutout to him.
It also paved the way for a thousand sappy, hopeless romantic pop punk bands to make a career out of writing songs about the ‘friendzone’, but let’s not hold that against it, eh?
Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary (1994)
Benefitting from the post-Nirvana boom, Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate were the first emo band to see mainstream success and Diary is their masterpiece. Gentler, indie-rock sonics made for the most palatable version of emo yet, laying the foundations for all that would follow. It’s never easy to declare the ‘best’ record of any genre, but if Diary gets brought up, it’s pretty hard to argue against it. Especially given that almost every other album mentioned here was ripping this one off in one way or another.
The Appleseed Cast – The End Of The Ring Wars (1998)
This record encapsulates the brilliance of early emo better than any other. Song for song, Sunny Day Real Estate could have taken this spot, but Diary is almost too good to really take the crown. Emo in the ’90s was about scrappy, emotionally fuelled imperfection and Ring Wars is the absolute peak of that. The lyrics are earnest, the songwriting is brilliant, and the production is a bit of a fucking mess. It’s everything that emo’s golden age was, and didn’t try to be anything that it wasn’t. God bless it.
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