Why it’s daunting: Can you say “emo” without wincing? In 2010, the word has become associated with so many things that it’s become practically meaningless, and whatever connotations it does have are overwhelmingly negative. To defend it is to invite the most withering of scorn. And why not? If all you knew of the word was dudes in eyeliner with stupid haircuts, what would you think? It doesn’t help that the bands that self-identify as emo are generally terrible—and often too young to know any better themselves. Ask them about Rites Of Spring, and chances are they’ll tilt their heads like confused puppies.
More confusingly, virtually every good band associated with emo never identified with the label, not only because few artists like to identify with subgenres (especially ones with silly names—see also: chillwave), but also because emo’s sonic attributes have changed since the mid-’80s. What began closely aligned with melodic hardcore and punk morphed into more removed and moody sounds, then gradually grew poppier to the point that its only association with punk was power chords.
So, to recap: Emo as a descriptor has been misappropriated into meaninglessness; no good bands ever associate themselves with it; and the ones that do are generally awful. Why dig through all of that dirt to find the diamonds? Well, because they’re diamonds—even a genre as maligned as emo has produced its share.
Possible gateway: Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary
Why: What the first Ramones record was to a legion of kids who started punk bands, Diary was to a group of bands that would cohere into the second wave of emo. Although Sunny Day hailed from Seattle, it drew heavily from the post-punk sound that developed in Washington, D.C., in the late ’80s and early ’90s around Dischord Records. Bands like Jawbox, Shudder To Think, and most notably, Fugazi, had popularized a more cerebral strain of punk that experimented with dynamics—part of the loud/quiet revolution also incited by Pixies and Nirvana. What Fugazi harnessed better than any other was the power of restraint. Hardcore had been all about balls-out intensity, but Fugazi’s twisty rhythms and patient calculation made the louder, more intense parts of songs that much more powerful.
That dynamic plays out plainly—but magnificently—on Diary’s first two tracks, “Seven” and “In Circles.” “Seven” in particular shifts dramatically between loud and quiet. “Sew it on,” sings singer-guitarist Jeremy Enigk, just his vocals and a chord progression on his guitar. Then the rest of the band launches in for just a measure, each beat emphasized by drummer William Goldsmith and Enigk and guitarist Dan Hoerner’s dramatic melody. Enigk’s voice and guitar by themselves again: “Face the fool.” BA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-BUM, then into the verse, and the kind of oblique yet intensely personal lyrics that would inspire thousands of copycats:
December’s tragic driveThen a bridge that alternates an exhaling guitar solo and the gut-punching breakdown from the intro, another verse, then the bridge, which gives way to a simple but brilliantly anthemic chorus:
When time is poetry and
Stolen the world outside
The waiting could crush my heart
You’ll taste it“In Circles” boasts a similarly majestic chorus, a more pronounced loud-quiet dynamic, and lyrics even more heart-bleedingly emo:
You’ll taste it
Meet me there, in the blueWhen people like Chris Simpson of Mineral would later squeal “I wanted to taste that victory, but my mouth was dry, MY MOUTH WAS DRYY-YYYY,” or Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eat World sang “I really want to care when you say: ‘I'll change that.’ / I just don't feel a thing when you say, ‘We'll get there...,’” it was easy to trace the lineage of such bald sentiment back to Sunny Day Real Estate. (The album was called Diary, for crissakes.)
Where words are not and feeling
Trust me to throw myself into your door
I go in circles running down
I dream to heal your wounds
But I bleed myself
Enigk’s lyrics are so unflinchingly sincere and guileless, it’s almost uncomfortable. They reflect the powerful longing that fuels Diary, but it never feels overly saccharine. SDRE owes much of that to the execution of the material—the music never wilts. Hoerner and Enigk’s guitar theatrics bear more than a passing resemblance to Treepeople, who were tearing up Seattle indie label C/Z Records around the time SDRE formed. Diary veers into dreamy atmospherics (like the piano and bass of “Pheurton Skeurto”), but it never wusses out. That sounds simplistic, but a little oomph goes a long way. When Enigk opens “Shadows” with his voice over a dreamy guitar singing “In the shadows buried in me lies a child’s toy,” it’s not long before the rest of the band kicks in, propelled by Goldsmith’s busy beats. (He is Sunny Day Real Estate’s secret weapon.)
Diary hovers in a difficult-to-find sweet spot, alternately contemplative and cathartic, an engrossing mix of melody, power, and atmosphere. For so many bands that came after Sunny Day Real Estate—who would essentially break up (for the first time) just months after the album’s release—Diary was the blueprint.
Next steps: If it’s historical perspective you seek, check out End On End by Rites Of Spring. (Really, you should get it regardless, if for no other reason than to hear the fantastic “For Want Of.”) While you’re ordering from the Dischord store, pick up the self-titled debut from Embrace. After the end of seminal hardcore outfit Minor Threat, frontman Ian MacKaye took an introspective turn in Embrace, a shocking move for a guy who’d formerly been known for his hoarse-throated polemics. Although even in 1986, the “emocore” label chafed:
Emo as a style really didn’t catch on until the early ’90s and the beginning of its second wave. Diary represents the apotheosis of that sound, though several bands were mining similar territory around that time. Colorado’s Christie Front Drive played a particularly contemplative music prone to long buildups with Eric Richter’s vocals buried in the mix. Its so-called “Anthology” record from 1995 is a classic, though emo completists may want to check out the band’s split album with the similarly minded Boys Life (a perfect moniker for the generally female-less emo scene—only "White Boys Life" would be more apt). It doesn’t really get more emo than calling your album The Power Of Failing, and Mineral couldn’t really be more emo. The band’s brooding style favored slow tempos and big releases, but Mineral was at its best when it rocked out.
A trio of other albums really helped define the second wave: Do You Know Who You Are? By Texas Is The Reason, Nothing Feels Good by The Promise Ring, and Frame And Canvas by Braid. The guys in Texas came from the New York hardcore scene, and the band’s guitar-heavy sound reflected that. The Promise Ring was the poppiest band of the second wave, a clear influence on The Get Up Kids, who would sell a ton of records a few years later. Braid had the most ambitious sound, heavily indebted to the twisty, jerky time signatures of the D.C. bands on Dischord Records. (Jawbox frontman J. Robbins produced the album.)
But the two biggest records that arrived after Diary came in 1999: Clarity by Jimmy Eat World and Something To Write Home About by The Get Up Kids. Where Sunny Day Real Estate held its punk roots close, both of these bands were more interested in pop hooks. Jimmy Eat World began its life as a pop-punk band years before, then added the formidable Static Prevails to the canon of second-wave emo, but by Clarity, the group’s transformation to an outright pop band was nearly complete. Still, Clarity retained a few of the sonic signifiers of the second wave, and the lyrics sent thousands of hearts a-flutter with lines like the aptly titled “Crush,” “Take in restraint like a breath / My lungs are so numb from holding back.” Where Jimmy Eat World favored rock songs (many with gigantic guitars, like “Your New Aesthetic,” “Crush,” “Blister,” “Clarity”) and only a couple of ballads, The Get Up Kids punctuated practically every other track of Something To Write Home About with a ballad (“Valentine,” which is about exactly what you’d think, “Out Of Reach,” “Long Goodnight,” “I’ll Catch You”). And thus emo’s third wave was born, producing a lot of bands you should avoid.
A few from that era stick out as worthy: Motion City Soundtrack owes more than a little to The Get Up Kids in its keyboard-heavy pop songs. The hallmark of emo’s third wave was the emphasis of pop over punk, though Motion City balances the two better than most. 2005’s Commit This To Memory is probably the best place to start, though last year’s excellent My Dinosaur Life works as well. Although it hasn’t aged particularly well, and the band’s subsequent albums have faltered considerably, Taking Back Sunday’s 2002 debut, Tell All Your Friends, qualifies as one of the better entries into the generally dreadful “screamo” subgenre. (If nothing else, “Cute Without The E (Cut From The Team)” is really catchy.)
Speaking of catchy, Fall Out Boy’s sensitive-boy pop-punk earned the emo association early on, and 2003’s Take This To Your Grave finds the band at its most guileless. It’s almost maddeningly catchy and full of the kind of lovelorn lyrics that would typify the third wave, for better or worse. (When it comes to the bands that emulated Fall Out Boy, it’s definitely for the worse.)
Where not to start: Take your pick, as chances are you’ll find the bad stuff before the good. Although Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional has experimented with a more rocking sound (relatively speaking) made with a full band, and he’s long been an easy target of anti-emo zealots, the acoustic mope-rock of his breakthrough, The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, should be avoided. Emblematic of the full dissociation of emo from punk is a band like Boys Like Girls, who cite Dashboard as an influence but are as vapid as any hair-metal cock-rock band from the ’80s, which is precisely the kind of music they’d be playing if they were alive in those days.