25 most influential albums that define what it means to be emo

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The genre affectionately known as emo started out as a wave of internalized rage bubbling under the surface of Washington, D.C.’s Revolution Summer in the mid-’80s. Within three decades, it had permeated the mainstream and changed beyond all recognition. Like it or not, the bands inspired by that initial breakthrough, including Rites Of Spring and Embrace, evolved away from their original hardcore-esque intentions and absorbed the changing scene around them.

From the upstarts who sparked a brand-new genre that wore its heart on its sleeve to the present-day pioneers of metal-infused emo (and making a pitstop to spotlight the key figures of the Myspace generation), we’ve collated 25 emo albums that developed what it means to be emo and how they shaped the world around them.

Read more: 10 bands that ultimately morphed into the ones we know today

Rites Of Spring – Rites Of Spring (1985)

The landmark first foray into the territory that would later become known as emo, Rites Of Spring were the standout product of the Washington, D.C. Revolution Summer that gave life to a genre that’s inspired and defined generations. Their self-titled effort from 1985 may be the emo founding fathers’ only studio effort, but it wielded the power to combine post-hardcore with a bitterly personal intent, baring lyrical sucker punches through “For Want Of” and “Drink Deep.” This brave first step for emo may not have realized at the time the depth and breadth of the culture it would come to influence, which only adds to its wonderful emotional onslaught.

Embrace – Embrace (1987)

Introducing the co-trailblazers of a genre later known as emo who vehemently denied that responsibility in their brief time together. Embrace reluctantly laid the foundations for emo alongside Rites Of Spring with their emotive approach to hardcore in the Washington, D.C. Revolution Summer of 1985. Their eponymous 1987 effort injected carefree punk expressions with deeply personal lyrics. Fueled by powerful drums and a boisterous vocal performance from frontman Ian MacKaye (formerly of Minor Threat), “Give Me Back” and “Do Not Consider Yourself Free” unwittingly sowed the seeds of emotional rebellion that would long outlive the band.

Heroin – Heroin (1993)

Screamo took its cues from Heroin’s eponymous debut and only studio effort from 1993, the step-by-step guide to forging a new genre almost as soon as the first one took flight. Sneaking in visceral, lung-busting screams between a chaotic punk wall of sound and emotionally draining lyrics was the modus operandi of a short-lived band rising from the Cali punk scene that would inspire generations, including Thursday, Silverstein and Senses Fail. On the driven “Meaning Less,” you can hear the roots of a movement growing beneath their cacophonous drum backing.

Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary (1994)

Expanding upon the blueprint set out by the Revolution Summer, Sunny Day Real Estate brought emo to the Midwest in 1994 with a show-stealing debut. Buried within the dark swirls of “Seven” lie the tones that gave rise to My Chemical Romance and Finch. “In Circles” pours honeyed melodies in your ear akin to Dashboard Confessional, and “The Blankets Were The Stairs” purveys the anguished tones that would later evolve into screamo. Within every note of Diary lies another trend set by the early emo frontrunners who formed the future of the scene around them.

Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)

Weezer’s 1996 effort, Pinkerton, began life as a planned rock opera before Rivers Cuomo’s studies at Harvard University got in the way. The finished product would prove to heavily influence the emo genre with its use of distortion and despairing vocals. From the post-punk melodic chaos of “Tired Of Sex” to the quirky drama on “The Good Life” and the diverse “El Scorcho,” Cuomo used the writing process of the band’s sophomore effort to express his disillusion with the rock world and the life of “asshole rock stars.” For a band so integral in the development of indie, this emo-tinged effort made a genre stop and think about its approach just as much as a band in their own boundaries.

Mineral – The Power Of Failing (1997)

Mineral introduced the palpable beating heart to emo in 1997 with their debut effort, The Power Of Failing. To a genre that had become too comfortable expressing its emotions through chaotic punk-infused rage, Mineral’s swaying approach seemed like the natural progression of a genre finding its feet. Subtract the stirring vibes of “Parking Lot” and the sinking “If I Could” from the equation and it’s likely emo never would have reached the heights (or ironic lows) of its heartbreaking potential, particularly through its revival. 

American Football – American Football (1999)

For a band who bluntly refused to conjure up witty album titles to decipher their back catalog from each other, American Football have remained consistent over the years. From their beginnings in emo and math rock to their recent collaboration with Hayley Williams for “Uncomfortably Numb,” that same reflective vibe remains at the center of all they create. Their first eponymous record defined a generation of down-turned insular emo by wearing its battered heart on its acoustic sleeve, crafting stirring lullabies with “Never Meant” and the twinkling “The Summer Ends.” Emo has never truly tugged at heartstrings as much as this.

Dashboard Confessional – The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most (2001)

Self-critical and devastatingly raw, Dashboard Confessional took it upon themselves to write an album that captures the breaking of a heart on record, later known as The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. Without production-laden radio hits and in-your-face anthems, they discovered that emo proves to be most pure when set to the tone of an acoustic guitar and a bucketload of soul-wrenching lyrics. Beyond the familiar tones of “Screaming Infidelities,” the bitterness of “The Best Deceptions” and insecurity through “Again I Go Unnoticed” forged a unique album that has never been rivaled since.

Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American (2001)

It may have taken emo revival firestarters Jimmy Eat World four records to reach the dizzy heights of their compelling melodies, but their injection of energy and singalongs brought their genre closer to the compelling state it is today. 2001’s Bleed American drew upon attention-seeking punk influences and wrapped it in post-hardcore and emo’s insecurities. Any record with the guts to open on a triple threat of “Bleed American,” “A Praise Chorus” and “The Middle” deserves a spot on this ranking. The addition of the legendary “Sweetness” to the mix proves this album went way harder than it needed to.

Thursday – Full Collapse (2001)

Even if Full Collapse only contained the inimitable “Understanding In A Car Crash,” Thursday’s sophomore release would still stand as a landmark in emo history. Luckily for us, there’s more than one timeless track to earn the record its place, blurring the lines between indie and post-hardcore at the same time as dominating emo. Emphasizing the chaotic onslaught of their most recognizable single, “Cross Out The Eyes” slammed its feet down and demanded its melodic despair be heard alongside the swaying “Standing On The Edge Of Summer.” An antithesis to Jimmy Eat World’s output in the same year, Thursday returned the forlorn roots of emo to the forefront once and for all.

Finch – What It Is To Burn (2002)

Attracting the attention of the mainstream alternative-rock crowd and captivating emo audiences at the same time is a balancing act that many have failed. Finch, however, made the feat look easy. Their 2002 debut effort, What It Is To Burn, was a prepackaged radio-ready success that can be attributed as the inspiration behind D.R.U.G.S. and Sleeping With Sirens, to name a couple. Armed with a show-stealing title track packing enough angst to fuel Myspace for a week and the post-hardcore melodics from “Letters To You,” not to mention the rapid-fire riff on “Perfection Through Silence,” the crew produced a record that would shape the scene around it for years to come.

Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends (2002)

The shadow of 9/11 revived the emo genre through the pain of youth, who turned toward music that honestly and agonizingly reflected their inner crises. Enter 2002’s Tell All Your Friends, a debut effort that expressed all that pent-up frustration at the world through Adam Lazzara’s signature wails and an album full of legendary lyrics (“And with my one last gasping breath, I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt”). A generation turned to “Cute Without The ‘E’ (Cut From The Team)” and “You’re So Last Summer” to yell out their lungs along with Taking Back Sunday, breathing life into a genre that music desperately needed.

Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism (2003)

Taking on the mantle of emo’s most stripped-back band, Death Cab For Cutie poured their hearts out on Transatlanticism. Exposed and unwaveringly honest with its emotions, the Washington emo set took four albums to find their front-to-back nirvana that blended downturned indie tempos with bleak lyrics. “Title And Registration” contemplated the purpose of a glove compartment, while “The New Year” resented the pointlessness of a new year. “Expo ’86” waits impatiently for something interesting to happen, like someone shooting their lover—just your average daily concerns.

Funeral For A Friend – Casually Dressed & Deep In Conversation (2003)

A consuming emo experience from beginning to end, Funeral For A Friend’s debut album set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the genre. Bridgend, Wales’ finest exports could do no wrong, with Matt Davies’ expressive vocals at the helm. Offsetting the hardcore vibes of “Bullet Theory” with singalongs such as “Juneau” and the traditionally emo “Bend Your Arms To Look Like Wings” amplifying the dramatic “Escape Artists Never Die,” there’s little room for fault on Casually Dressed & Deep In Conversation’s tracklisting to finally show off the U.K.’s emo capabilities.

Hawthorne Heights – The Silence In Black And White (2004)

“I’m outside of your window with my radio,” JT Woodruff cries on the unforgettable “Niki FM,” only one of many memorable lyrics from emo outfit Hawthorne Heights. Revolutionizing the sounds of Rites Of Spring for the 2000s revival by partnering screaming tendencies with sinister atmospherics, The Silence In Black And White introduced their fluid melodic habits, meeting screamo in the middle of no man’s land. Although “Silver Bullet” and “Screenwriting An Apology” would eventually become drowned out by the stereotypical mania around “Ohio Is For Lovers,” this debut effort inspired a generation to take emo beyond its boundaries.

Say Anything – …Is A Real Boy (2004)

Emo took itself way too seriously before Say Anything arrived on the scene, in part due to the fan divisions over who can be classed as emo and who doesn’t cut it. …Is A Real Boy defined the L.A. set’s mission statement of giving zero fucks about the scene’s border quarrels. Behind the scenes of a drama-fueled record lay vocalist Max Bemis’ subsequent breakdown, as he intended to write their sophomore effort as a full-scale rock opera. The resulting album is more scaled-down from its original blueprint but impeccable nonetheless. At the cost of Bemis’ sanity in the process.

Senses Fail – Let It Enfold You (2004)

Amid the cramped emo timeline of 2004, Senses Fail had to make a huge splash to be heard over the crowd. Luckily for us, the New Jersey upstarts’ first effort, Let It Enfold You, showcased a perfect blend of screamo intensity with 2000s melodic anthems that were certainly heard above the ruckus. “Bite To Break Skin” alone could’ve held the entire album with its bared teeth and racing screams that brought back echoes of emo’s roots from Embrace and Heroin. Yet, they had to throw “Rum Is For Drinking, Not For Burning” and “Irony Of Dying On Your Birthday” in for good measure. Emo finally came full circle.

The Used – In Love And Death (2004)

Energized by the success of their self-titled debut, 2004’s In Love And Death took emo-revival frontliners the Used to new dramatic heights. It’s a realm where the scream-along “Take It Away” slots perfectly alongside the heartfelt wailing guitars of “I Caught Fire,” where the blistering “Sound Effects And Overdramatics” transitions into an apologetic tear-jerker (“Hard To Say”) without fair warning. Later appearing as a bonus track, scene comrades My Chemical Romance joined them for an unexpected cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and made a timeless track their own. To the Used, emo was just getting started, finding its feet again and exploring its capabilities as if anything were possible. To the Used, anything was possible for emo’s storming comeback.

Panic! At The Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005)

Bursting onto the scene in 2005 with a fresh approach that sounded more like a bootleg from a prohibition-era bar soundtrack, Panic! At The Disco‘s introduction to emo revolutionized the genre in moments. Theatrical and extravagant, carefree and limitless in its scathing attacks on religion and mental health, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out smoothed over its serious intentions with unforgettable melodies and Brendon Urie’s indomitable vocal range. Aside from its iconic and overwhelmingly dramatic hit “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” their debut kept masterpieces such as “Time To Dance” and the glittering “Camisado” close to its heart, save for those who could see past the hype.

Fall Out Boy – From Under The Cork Tree (2005)

Beyond the pop-punk cynicism of their debut, Fall Out Boy’s sophomore effort definitively directed the course of the emo revival toward slick productions and sharp-tongued lyrics that demanded replay after replay. The commercial success of sing-along singles “Dance, Dance” and “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” detracted from the sincere self-deprecation of “I’ve Got A Dark Alley…” and the racing melody through “Champagne For My Real Friends…From Under The Cork Tree remains a milestone in both emo’s revival and reach into the mainstream psyche. With song titles longer than their list of insecurities, Fall Out Boy reach out to the listener with a pained self-reference that proved to be quite the opposite for the Chicago group: “The poets are just kids who didn’t make it and never had it at all.”

My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade (2006)

With Green Day’s American Idiot booming away at the fringes, it was only a matter of time before emo had its first rock opera. My Chemical Romance changed the outlook of emo with every output but most significantly brought about the genre’s most extravagant album with 2006’s The Black Parade. Telling an existential tale of a patient meeting the end of his life and entering the afterlife through epic narratives such as “Welcome To The Black Parade” and “Famous Last Words,” the New Jersey set revolutionized emo toward a new era of overdramatic grandeur.

The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus – Don’t You Fake It (2006)

Captivating singalongs defined the emo revival’s early stages, thanks in part to the contributions of the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. 2006’s “Face Down” captured the essence of the genre’s newfound aspirations for in-your-face anthems to scream along with. It was emphasized so much by “False Pretense” that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were a one-trick pony who tackled earworm choruses that the scene had grown to love. That is until “Your Guardian Angel” poured its heart out on tape. Holding on to enough Myspace-worthy lyrics to keep 2006 going forever, Don’t You Fake It’s emotive and melodic contagion gave emo its strength to compel audiences all over again.

Mayday Parade – A Lesson In Romantics (2007)

Emo got even more contagious in 2007 when Mayday Parade took the catchy choruses from pop punk and infused their own expressions with radio-friendly hits such as “Jamie All Over,” “Black Cat” and “Jersey.” On the flip side, however, the Tallahassee outfit flexed their emo strengths with some of the most heart-wrenching tracks to grace the scene since the revival began. “Miserable At Best,”I’d Hate To Be You When People Find Out…” and “You Be The Anchor…” pulled off a hat trick of solemn melodies. Its gutting closing lyrics round out a haunting emotional roller coaster of a record that taught emo to pull up its socks: “Does this deafening silence mean nothing to no one but me?”

Paramore – Riot! (2007)

Injecting a distinct pop-punk energy into the often dejected emo template, Paramore pushed the genre’s revival toward the neon and danced along the border with its “scene” equivalent. Plugging in irresistible singalongs, from “Misery Business” to “crushcrushcrush,” juxtaposed with disheartened ballads “When It Rains” and the injured “We Are Broken,” the band’s sophomore effort, Riot!, introduced a new generation to both sides of the emo spectrum. In a scene dominated by men, Paramore’s powerhouse Hayley Williams burst through the blur to become an iconic vocalist who paved the way for generations to come.

Pierce The Veil – Selfish Machines (2010)

Rapid-fire theatrics reign supreme under the command of Pierce The Veil. Selfish Machines is a captivating milestone that oversees the emo genre bleeding into the 2010s, along with Bring Me The Horizon and Sleeping With Sirens. The San Diego set’s sophomore record snatches the intensity of metal and post-hardcore to direct emo toward its new path, commanded by the inimitable tones of Vic Fuentes. Opening on the racing “Besitos” and evolving into the genre-bending “Caraphernelia,” then arriving at the heart-wrenching “Bulletproof Love,” Selfish Machines is an overdramatic warning that emo will never be the same again. Purists, beware. The natural progression of Rites Of Spring’s original intentions moved into the present day with one lyric: “My love for you was bulletproof, but you’re the one who shot me.”

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