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The 100 Greatest Emo Songs of All Time

A sweeping look at rock’s most misunderstood genre.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photos by Getty Images and Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photos by Getty Images and Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photos by Getty Images and Shutterstock

“Rites of Spring existed well before the term did, and they hated it.”

—Musician-activist Jenni Toomey, speaking on behalf of perhaps the first emo band in Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good

“The stupidest fucking thing I’ve heard in my entire life.”

—Ian MacKaye on “emo-core” in 1987


Let’s just blame it all on Washington, D.C. — it never gets old. The first known usage of emo dates back to the mid-1980s, when “emo-core” served as shorthand for “emotional hardcore,” a label applied to a wave of bands that deviated from the macho aggression of D.C. punk during the so-called Revolution Summer. What they had in common: a greater emphasis on melody, dynamics, and, yes, lyrics about feelings. Among them were Rites of Spring and Embrace, which each released one self-titled album before breaking up, setting both the sonic and career template for emo bands going forward (and, judging by the above statements, also the prevailing attitude bands should have toward the term “emo” itself).

In the past 35 years, the meaning of emo has become almost completely inverted — it’s more likely to mean “hard-core emotional” in the public discourse, extending beyond punk or even music itself as shorthand for anything defined by a kind of hyperbolic and demonstrative sadness. Drake is emo, Game of Thrones is emo, the Beach Boys and Shakespeare are emo, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is emo. It’s now a fixed concept within popular culture and a resilient mode of expression. What could better appeal to teenagers than a genre accused of being overly serious and painfully self-aware at the same time? Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, who eventually became best known for his work in Fugazi, was viewed as an ethical barometer when he claimed emo was “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve heard in my life,” and since then, the line has been repeated by just about every emo band to warrant the distinction. Anyone or anything can be emo, and yet almost nobody claims making it.

All of which makes the creation of a “100 Greatest Emo Songs” list feel both necessary and nigh impossible to do correctly. On the one hand, the genre has long been denied serious critical assessment, often dismissed as music for teens but never subject to the generous leeway or empathy given to pop music specifically designed for adolescents. But unlike with grunge or goth or any other subgenre that evolved from a defined set of sonic characteristics to a fashion phenomenon, the definition of “emo music” is either too narrow or too vague to the point of being almost completely useless. Spend any time in the trenches where the battle for “real emo” is fought and you’ll be convinced that Rites of Spring and maybe Cap’n Jazz are the only bands that belong on this list. Go to your average Emo Night and you might wonder why Linkin Park or Evanescence are missing.

As we set out to define the parameters for this list, one guiding principle we agreed upon was to go back to the original definition whenever in doubt. No one would confuse Dashboard Confessional or Jimmy Eat World or Fall Out Boy with Dag Nasty or really any other hardcore band. Yet they all emerged from the lineage of DIY shows in youth-group scenes, churches, suburban basements, and VFW halls: Chris Carrabba was a fill-in on guitar for New Found Glory and fronted Floridian melodramatists Further Seems Forever before focusing on Dashboard Confessional; Jimmy Eat World was making splits with Jebediah and Christie Front Drive even after they were on a major label; and Pete Wentz came up in suburban Chicago’s hardcore scene, playing in bands with names like Arma Angelus and Racetraitor.

We found it helpful to use the “waves” as an organizing principle, though there’s still plenty of overlap and imperfect boundaries. The first wave starts in Washington, D.C., from 1983 to 1987 or so, and it slowly starts to trickle out toward other pockets of influence, places where it might have been considered post-hardcore, straight-up punk or just plain ol’ “indie rock” — like San Diego, the Pacific Northwest, the Bay Area, and, of course, D.C. again. While such bands as Jawbox, Drive Like Jehu, and Jawbreaker weren’t often called “emo” at the time, and they likely rejected the term wholeheartedly, it’s impossible to imagine the trajectory of the genre without their contributions.

The second wave is virtually synonymous with “midwestern emo” and begins with the first and only Cap’n Jazz album (see a trend with these canonical bands?). Though played with the velocity and intensity of hardcore, Shmap’n Shmazz (the commonly used substitute for the phenomenally unwieldy title of their debut) shifted emo away from the self-serious and often abrasive tone of the first wave toward a more playful, melodic, and expansive sound less beholden to punk-rock strictures. The breakup of Cap’n Jazz in 1995 propagated a family tree of emo. Tim Kinsella started Joan of Arc, a free-form collective that produced a mind-boggling catalogue of abstract art-rock, cultivating a diehard fan base and resonating through the scene for decades. Guitarist Victor Villareal’s Ghosts and Vodka project anticipated emo’s absorption into instrumental post-rock. Drummer Mike Kinsella started American Football, a band that made a warmly received EP and self-titled album before breaking up in 1999 and reuniting 15 years later, when the burgeoning “emo revival” recast them as one of the dominant influences in modern indie rock.

Meanwhile, Cap’n Jazz guitarist Davey Von Bohlen moved to Milwaukee and started the Promise Ring, which pointed the genre forward in a more immediate way, as up-and-coming bands like Braid, Rainer Maria, the Get Up Kids, and Boys Life shared sensibilities that felt specifically honed in large, midwestern university towns: immediately pleasurable power-pop played at anxious tempos with cracked vocals, more than a little bookish and very infatuated.

But even before the Promise Ring’s genre-defining Nothing Feels Good came along, emo had been slowly starting to converge with mainstream alternative rock, albeit with less than bountiful immediate returns. Texas is the Reason and Mineral became the targets of seven-figure bidding wars between Jimmy Iovine and Clive Davis, and both collapsed under intraband conflict before ever making a major-label record. After years of anti-corporate sentiment, Jawbreaker became labelmates with Weezer and Beck on DGC — and then made their final album, Dear You, with Dookie producer Rob Cavallo. “People weren’t into that major label record, to put it mildly,” Brandon Stosuy wrote in a glowing Pitchfork piece on a reissue of their previous album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. “My girlfriend at the time smashed the promotional cassette copy I gave her and walked away in disgust. People were shell-shocked at the glossier production: I honestly saw a man with a Jawbreaker tattoo weeping at the record store where I worked.” Meanwhile, Capitol scooped up Jimmy Eat World, only to drop them after two commercially underwhelming LPs. And then there was Weezer’s Pinkerton, the harsh and lyrically unflattering excavation of Rivers Cuomo’s psychosexual neuroses that followed up their massively successful Blue Album and was famously called the third-worst album of 1996 by Rolling Stone. 

But toward the end of the decade, Nothing Feels Good provided a glimpse of how emo could thrive on its own terms. The Promise Ring were the flagship band of Delaware’s Jade Tree Records, which also released crucial albums from Pedro the Lion, Lifetime, and Alkaline Trio. Vagrant Records would take things in an even more pop direction with Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, and the Get Up Kids, all bands that made the conflation between emo and the more commercially established pop-punk all the more complete.

And then, in 2001, Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” dropped as Bleed American’s second single, irreversibly changing the lives of Taylor Swift and countless other teens. That year, “The Middle” and “Screaming Infidelities” opened a door that would soon be bumrushed by kids from New Jersey and Long Island who appeared to internalize their surroundings and project them outward. Bands like Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, the Movielife, and the Starting Line were more aggressive, more assertive, more of an “East Coast sensibility” — and signaled the rise of emo’s third wave.

Tireless advocate and archivist Tom Mullen of Washed Up Emo calls it emo’s “hair metal” period, and you can interpret that however you want to: While this wave of bands will largely be remembered in the abstract for their absurd, asymmetrical haircuts, faux-castrati vocals, and ridiculous video concepts, as with hair metal, emo became the dominant and even definitive form of popular rock music in the early aughts. Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Paramore, and My Chemical Romance emerged as some of the biggest bands in the world. And this is how the governing definition of emo itself came into being, formed by some combination of MySpace page designs, Hot Topic, the Warped Tour, and MTV2. There’s plenty on this list that honors the tremendous influence and reach of this phase — not only did these bands serve as an entry point for music fandom period for a lot of teens, but many of them provided gateways toward emo’s roots or less-heralded peers. Fall Out Boy’s Decaydence label put out a Lifetime album, for crying out loud, while Hayley Williams has done guest vocals for mewithoutYou and American Football and tripled the Spotify followership of Gainesville, Florida’s math-pop prodigies Pool Kids with one Instagram post.

But the general consensus is that this wave probably did more harm than good toward every wave that came before and after. In the public eye, emo would become indistinguishable from metalcore, pop-punk, crabcore, crunkcore, and whatever the hell this is. Emo never had much luck being taken seriously, even during its ostensible golden era, and much like hair metal, the often puerile lyrical content and almost total lack of prominent female voices lent emo an assumption of implicit or even outright misogyny.

With each passing year, more revelations arise about just how much that criticism was warranted, and this is where we have to address the most difficult decision made during the voting process — how to deal with Brand New. “There has been a lot of consideration given to the question of what to do with an artist when their music has saved lives but their actions have caused so much damage to others,” Emma Garland wrote during our initial voting process. “[And] the allegations leveled against front man Jesse Lacey, detailing years of sexual exploitation that began when the women involved were under the age of 18, rightly place Brand New’s inclusion in any cultural canon under scrutiny.”

Initially, they were considered a viable candidate because telling the story of emo without Brand New would be like making a 1980s list without Thriller. “More broadly speaking, there’s a difference between not supporting a band going forward and writing them out of history,” Garland noted. But on further reflection, this isn’t simply a historical account of emo, but rather a series of subjective opinions organized to quantify greatness. Especially after witnessing Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly in the time since the initial voting, it became impossible to include Brand New on this list and not replicate the same mistake that’s plagued popular music throughout history — condoning an artist’s actions and minimizing the victims if the music’s good enough.

Perhaps on some level, a band of Brand New’s stature getting dismantled by fan and peer pressure alone is indicative of the shift in values that occurred during the most recent wave of emo — one that was widely seen as trying to undo the damage of the previous wave. Near the end of the decade, emo’s biggest bands were starting to plateau or disintegrate. Panic at the Disco dropped the exclamation point and released the mildly received Beatles cosplay Pretty. Odd. Paramore began to splinter with the release of Brand New Eyes. Fall Out Boy played its last show before a three-year hiatus in 2009, and, not long after, My Chemical Romance’s breakup was imminent. At that point, emo had become almost completely severed from its DIY and hardcore roots, with institutions like the Warped Tour and Alternative Press — once reliably grounded in punk ideals but with surprisingly diverse considerations — shifting hard to “scene” coverage.

All the while, clusters of bands were in the process of rebuilding emo in the image of Cap’n Jazz and American Football in basements and house shows throughout New England, Texas, West Virginia, Chicago, and especially Philadelphia. Fostered by Twitter, Tumblr, and Mediafire-trading message boards, as well as a slew of crucial labels, scrappy acts like Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing became minor legends (and broke up in the span of a few years), while Tigers Jaw, Joyce Manor, Title Fight, and many others began to develop impressively large and devout fan bases with almost no mainstream media coverage whatsoever. It hardly seems like a coincidence that this most unfashionable form of indie rock was beginning to thrive at a time when “indie” publications began their barefaced genuflection toward pop celebrity, and “indie rock” could refer to major-label backed synth-pop playing at an Urban Outfitters near you. But once it did start getting more mainstream-media attention, the “emo revival” was coined — about four or five years after it actually started.

Similar to the second wave, many of the emo revival’s most revered bands left behind small and indispensable discographies that wouldn’t be fully appreciated until years later. Unlike in the late ’90s, no one was under any illusions that these bands would achieve any kind of stratospheric commercial success, because basically no rock bands could. Emo-rappers, on the other hand, often transposed the MySpace era’s most divisive qualities — terrible tattoos and haircuts, playground melodies that antagonized ex-girlfriends and hyperbolized depression — onto an innovative and antagonistic form of pop suited for a generation raised on streaming, where producers placed themselves in the lineage of American Football, Mineral, Brand New, and Death Cab For Cutie by sampling their essence rather than replicating their riffs. This phenomenon was best exemplified by Lil Peep and Juice WRLD, two artists who both created occasionally transcendent pop and embodied emo’s most maligned stereotypes before dying tragically of drug overdoses at the age of 21, leaving monumental and complicated artistic legacies.

In 2015, Brand New were able to have their idols Built to Spill open for them and a year later, they did a previously inconceivable co-headlining tour with Modest Mouse that didn’t seem weird at all. Cloud Nothings’ 2012 album Attack on Memory sounded like a Steve Albini–produced Get Up Kids album, but those two bands could not be further removed on the spectrum of indie-rock credibility; their planned tour for this fall was unfortunately postponed. Cultishly beloved bands like Braid, the Anniversary, Hey Mercedes, and Mineral reunited for successful runs, while Jawbreaker and American Football were selling out 3,000-capacity rooms 20 years after playing to crowds in the dozens.

Most of all, emo had begun developing a social conscience, reactionary to both the stereotype of emo as a vessel for suburban dudes to whine about breakups and the view that it is an apolitical, entirely insular genre. Those unflattering aspects are still present (as they are in nearly all forms of pop music), and plenty of bands that have presented themselves as allies have been canceled after credible accusations of malfeasance. At the same time, many of emo’s most prominent bands have spoken earnestly about mental health, sexual assault, and political action while supporting these causes through charitable donations on tour. Likewise, most bands, listeners, and labels are conscientiously trying to expand beyond the scope of the straight white men who populate the majority of this list, so that the days of tours featuring four or five all-male bands becomes a thing of the past.

In the process, emo has guided what’s left of guitar-based indie rock away from its arms-crossed, soft-spoken typecast to what I’ve often seen referred to as “feeling stuff” music. Many of the most promising and prominent acts of the current day — Camp Cope, Mitski, Jay Som, Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, you name it — may not fit our definition but are no more than one degree of separation from the bands that are on this list. And while the excitement around once-brimming, traditionally-minded subgenres like “twinkle” and “sparklepunk” died down towards the end of the decade, Glass Beach, Prince Daddy & the Hyena, and Origami Angel, to name a few, invigorated a new generation in 2019 with fearlessly omnivorous takes on the genre that would have been inconceivable even two years ago. It’s quite possible that future lists of this sort will be molded in their image, which is an exciting thing to consider. But for now, we present a brief history of emo shaped by our 100 favorite songs.

100. Forests, “Tamago” (2016)

Over the past two decades, Asia has been steadily curating its own emo renaissance. China’s Chinese Football and Japan’s falls are perfect entry points for a YouTube rabbit hole, bands that picked up toe’s influence and vaulted towards unknown horizons. Of the continent’s new crop, Singaporean trio Forests have the most infectious spirit of the bunch. The trio’s breakout hit, “Tamago,” sees them finger-tapping their way into head-bobbing breakdowns while they yell about staying up late, making out to shoegaze, and cursing a crush for being so perfect. It’s the perfect example of a non-American emo band loving our sophomoric humor (“Fuck you! / That’s what she said”) while hating our ubiquitousness within the genre (“Fuck these songs from the Midwest”). For a genre whose origin story is constantly under debate and whose artists are treated like local celebrities, Forests are just trying to remind everyone that emo exists beyond Western borders. No wonder crowds scream these lyrics back at them like an act of reclamation — they’re certain that emo is here to stay, and not just in North America. —Nina Corcoran

99. Jejune, “This Afternoon’s Malady” (1998)

Precious few records resemble Jejune’s second and final album, This Afternoon’s Malady, which weaves sparkling Smiths-y indie pop, emo, and shoegaze into a single braid. The title track shape-shifts between all three, guitars sighing, then swelling, then rearing up like sudden mountains beneath Joe Guevera and Arabella Harrison’s sweetly unstable harmonies. It and the other songs on the record are emblematic of the omnivorousness of mid-’90s emo: Every few minutes, they seem to open onto a new space and sound. —Brad Nelson

98. The Van Pelt, “Nanzen Kills a Cat” (1997)

Emo thrives on its ability to shape-shift — not just over the course of a few decades but within the same year, as various subgenres let their gatekeeping guard down. When emo merged with indie rock and post-hardcore in the ’90s, it helped spawn the easiest identifier of the genre: If it feels emo, then it’s probably emo. While his brother Ted Leo was off playing in punk bands, Chris Leo wrangled some of his New York University classmates together to form the Van Pelt in 1993. They lasted four years during their initial run, but the band churned out four 7-inchers and two albums, the last of which contained “Nanzen Kills a Cat” — a near-perfect encapsulation of what they, and emo at the time, was capable of transforming into. Like the perpetually melancholic child of Spiderland and Leaves Turn Inside You, “Nanzen Kills a Cat” is all imperfect vocals and unhurried instrumentation. Sparse guitar melodies hang in the air while Leo’s perpetually off-pitch lyrics stumble out of his mouth, as if he’s reading poetry for the first time. Once his philosophical ramblings about existentialism reach their numbed peak, the guitars overlap and constrict, squeezing every last drop of dread out of him and, in turn, the listener. —Nina Corcoran

97. Copeland, “When Paula Sparks” (2003)

Aaron Marsh wrote Copeland’s debut album, Beneath Medicine Tree, as a song suite about illness and death, and its centerpiece, “When Paula Sparks,” evokes the intangible sleepwalking feeling of spending the night sitting next to someone’s hospital bed. The production eerily reconstructs that atmosphere, borders between sleeping and waking dissolving, the guitars glowing out of a distance so vast it doesn’t seem real. “Sleep now moon,” Marsh sings, as if to someone too remote to reach. In a genre so often shaped by heartache, “When Paula Sparks” stands out for being one of its deepest and richest examinations of grief. —Brad Nelson

96. Panic! at the Disco, “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off” (2005)

Panic! at the Disco. Photo: Getty Images

Before Panic! at the Disco effectively became Brandon Urie’s solo project, and long before “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” became a meme, they were one of the many MySpace emo bands that purists couldn’t help but hate. Signed to Pete Wentz’s Decaydance record label before they’d even played a show, Panic! at the Disco had all the trappings of an industry plant — and given their theatrical, pop-oriented sound, it was easy to dismiss them outright. Though they’d go on to have much bigger hits, “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have WIthout Taking Her Clothes Off” has always felt like an olive branch to emo elitists. Where there are easily identifiable nods to bands like the Anniversary or the Get Up Kids on A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, “Lying Is the Most Fun” is a restrained, electronic-flecked song that builds to an undeniable chorus atop Urie’s arena-packing vocal runs. “Lying Is the Most Fun” proves that all that chatter about the band’s bona fides is even more ridiculous now than it was in 2005; you don’t craft an emo song this good by accident. —David Anthony

95. Dads, “Shit Twins” (2012)

Like a lot of emo revival songs from this decade, “Shit Twins” feels like a classic American Football cut tightened by a screw: the guitars warping into different constellations, the lyrics gradually reeling out an episode of ex-sex that just thickens the loneliness around both of the people involved. But it’s the intelligence of Dads’ songwriting that makes it special; catchy hooks hold all of the separate spinning parts together. As “Shit Twins” builds into more and more intense variations of its chorus, it starts to feel like someone finally wrote an emo song in the shape of a thought spiral. This kind of intensity tends to have a short half-life; Dads only made two albums of this kind of twisted-up-inside-itself emo before splitting up. —Brad Nelson

94. Evergreen, “A Couple Curled Up Pictures” (1994)

Evergreen picked up where the Hated left off, putting feelers out for where emocore could go next. The Southern California band didn’t exactly experiment with the genre, but rather gave itself permission to slow down. On their debut album, Seven Songs, the trio introduced this expansive, faux-sloppy approach with opener “A Couple Curled Up Pictures.” What begins with a couple of distant, meandering guitar lines gets shoved out of the way for dizzying riffs and a sped-up chorus. The lyrics provide the context — the protagonist, staring at old photographs, can’t shake a difficult question from his mind — and the music provides the details, turning an otherwise barren, personal track into a melodramatic, relatable recounting. “A Couple Curled Up Pictures” introduced Evergreen as a band that could turn post-hardcore into an intimate affair, and since ending in 1997, it continues to be a low-flying influence, in part by drummer Jason Boesel going on to play for Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes in the following decade. —Nina Corcoran

93. Origami Angel, “Doctor Whomst” (2019)

If Origami Angel have proven anything during their short time together, it’s that emo bands don’t need to be so selective about their influences anymore. Ryland Heagy and Pat Doherty summarize the past two decades of emo in two-minute bursts, with “Doctor Whomst” unifying its most boisterous tendencies in ways few others could conceive. With vocal melodies ripped from classic Fall Out Boy records and nimble guitar runs that recall the knottiest parts of Algernon Cadwallader, there’s a fearlessness informing all of the band’s decisions, and “Doctor Whomst” shows just how well these things can fit together. It’s the kind of song that couldn’t have existed at any other point in emo’s history, and it’s proof that, as always, the genre is expanding in new, interesting ways. —David Anthony

92. Crash of Rhinos, “Opener” (2013)

With coarse voices and violent drums, Crash of Rhinos sound like they were just woken up from a deep sleep while simultaneously sounding like they never fell asleep to begin with. “Opener” isn’t actually the first track of their last album, but it is a perfect introduction to the British band’s sound — and, by extension, to the bands they sound like: Jawbreaker, Burning Airlines, and most acts on Dischord. It’s the musical equivalent of a house-show audience going berserk, with everyone taking turns climbing atop one another, grabbing ahold of the microphone, and screaming lyrics at the front man before someone else snatches it to do the same. As tempting as it is to credit their no-frills-punk style of singing as the song’s biggest allure, it’s drummer Oli Craven and his nonstop fills that keep the reckless energy of “Opener” going no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. As a new generation of emo opts for slick production, pop-punk song structures, or the twinkle of math rock, it’s increasingly uncommon to find a band making the sound of early emo sound this vital. —Nina Corcoran

91. Ethel Meserve, “Waltz of Gibraltar” (1995)

In the punk-rock void of Happy Valley, Ethel Meserve found a novel way to synthesize emo, math rock, and post-hardcore. Whereas others flaunted tricky change-ups and unexpected tempos, the group of friends spent their lone album and few 7-inchers one-upping melodies with technical intricacies. No song sees them deliver on this quite like “Waltz of Gibraltar.” The group alternates time signatures and softens pull-offs without demanding attention. It’s smooth and cohesive, the type of math rock that quietly flexes the ways in which it’s complicated. Unlike fan favorite “Calba’s Last,” this specific song sounds cleaner and more articulate than previous Ethel Meserve recordings, which builds a layer of subdued mania when they scream in the distance. It’s a delicate balance of genres so impressive that, most notably, it influenced screamo darlings Saetia, who likened it to “crazy understated rocket science” and fondly credited it as an influence on their debut album. —Nina Corcoran

90. Los Campesinos!, “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future” (2010)

Over the course of a decade, Los Campesinos! went from instantaneous critical acclaim, tours with Pitchfork darlings, and overt Pavement worship to openly campaigning for inclusion in the emo canon while advocating for the new generation they’ve directly influenced — meaning the self-proclaimed “UK’s first and only emo band” are the opposite of nearly everyone else on this list. Their pivot to elder statesmanship began with “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future,” the lead single of 2010’s Romance is Boring, their most divisive album and, fittingly, the one drummer Tom Campesinos! claims “inspired the most tattoos and Tumblrs.” For nearly five uninterrupted minutes of tidal post-rock, Gareth Campesinos! unspools a feverish monologue about a girl who lost her mother at 14 and tries to find a deeper meaning in the various forms of abuse to which she subjects herself. It’s as densely referential and verbally excitable as “You! Me! Dancing!,” but with a newly profound empathy in describing her struggle with anorexia, prescription pill abuse, self-harm (“you could never kiss a Tory boy/without wanting to cut out your tongue again”), and their shared view of the endless, gray ocean reminding them of their own cosmic insignificance. To paraphrase one of their would-be MySpace peers from the mid-2000s, the only difference between indie rock and emo is press coverage. The countless emo bands in the UK and abroad who’ve incorporated glockenspiels, cheerleading vocals, and variably candid, clever, and crass lyrics about sex and football have proved Los Campesinos! right: “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future” was a future genre classic, even if no one really knew what to call it. —Ian Cohen

89. The Used, “The Taste of Ink” (2002)

Pop-punk crested in popularity just as emo was exploding in the early aughts, and the Used found themselves in the exact midpoint between those two sounds. Famously, the Utah foursome had never left their home state until John Feldmann heard the band and got them signed to Reprise. And by the time The Used was released in 2002, they were able to fully capitalize on the moment both the aforementioned scenes were having. “The Taste of Ink” wastes no time getting going, as livewire vocalist Bert McCracken jumps all over Quinn Allman’s opening guitar riff with a look-at-me giddiness. The song’s hook was all but made for radio, but it carries just enough left turns, and an honest sense of excitement, that it remains as irresistible now as it was then. —David Anthony

88. Shotmaker, “Sky” (1996)

If you like your emo with throat-shredding screams and overpowering bass, Shotmaker is the band for you. The most aggressive trio to ever come out of Canada would have been (and, regardless, often was) dubbed a hardcore band because of their intensity, but their flair for the overdramatic rightly earned them an emo tag. Listening to “Sky,” it’s clear they have a knack not just for warped riffs or bloody screams, but a sense of ominous intensity in their volume: We’re here to fuck shit up right now, right here, no matter who stands in the way. There’s a sense they go all in because they knew the end was near — after releasing Mouse Ear [Forget-Me-Not] in 1996, Shotmaker called it quits — though it’s more than likely they were just letting off steam. Declaring death to the sky because it’s too bleak is one hell of a metaphor for depression, and the song’s collapse of an ending feels like they succeeded in tearing it down after all. —Nina Corcoran

87. Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), “Keep What You Have Built Up Here” (2009)

Keith and Cathy Latinen are the emo revival’s unsung heroes. Operating out of Fenton, Michigan, Count Your Lucky Stars was truly a labor of love for the husband-and-wife duo — perhaps the first label to organize emo’s fourth wave into a coherent narrative, but never achieving the acclaim or success of its peers, fostering bands that would go on to greater notoriety elsewhere (Foxing, Into It., Over It., Moving Mountains) and many, many more that just slightly missed their window: Brave Bird, Joie de Vivre, Two Knights, Football, etc., Annabel, Merchant Ships, and the Latinens’ own Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate). They’d be a justifiable inclusion on this list for purely sentimental reasons if not for the fact that How to Move Forward truly towered over 2009’s basement scenes; “Keep What You Have Built Up Here” is an exemplar of their dialectic, where massive scale and handcrafted fragility align like a skyscraper made of shoebox dioramas.

Whereas most of E!E!(IWALE)’s peers brought life to dormant formats, the Latinens rewrote history, imagining emo as the logical extension of the effusive and earnest maximalism of mid-aughts indie rock: keening coed vocalists, run-on song titles, precious conceptual gambits, lots of musical and lyrical exclamation points, basically Sufjan Stevens’s Michigan with stop-start, post-hardcore guitars. These days, it’s not so bizarre to draw a straight line from Funeral, Broken Social Scene, and Wolf Parade to the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Foxing, and the Hotelier, so don’t let E!E!(IWALE)’s humble presentation fool you: How to Move Forward fully earned its name, a bold directive from a band that was sadly a few years ahead of their time. —Ian Cohen

86. Hoover, “Electrolux” (1994)

One of the most stretched-out and mesmerizing songs of early-’90s emo, “Electrolux” starts with a distended, vibrating bass line, which forms a widening gyre for the song to constantly turn in. It initially sounds a lot like a Fugazi song, but there’s an extra sense of freedom to Hoover’s music, a permissiveness inherited more from jazz and dub than hardcore’s strict diet of aggression. As guitars swirl around and interfere with the recursive slip of the groove, the band sound boundless with possibility, perched on the edge of infinite space. Notes from a trumpet played by Fred Erskine sprout around the bass line — an approach he would later bring to post-Hoover bands like June of 44 and Abilene — as guitarist Alexander Dunham screams fragmented phrases that refuse to connect: “Carry your own! / Go it your own!” As much as Hoover could resemble Fugazi, Fugazi never got this far out. —Brad Nelson

85. Coheed and Cambria, “A Favor House Atlantic” (2003)

Photo: Getty Images/2005 Tim Mosenfelder

In 2003, a casual viewer of MTV2 might catch the goofy “A Favor House Atlantic” video between “Bring Me to Life,” “Somewhere I Belong,” and “Girl’s Not Grey” and think Coheed and Cambria existed in a similar space. It’s not exactly inaccurate. Claudio Sanchez’s lip rings and squeak-toy vocals, the Aqua Net sheen on the harmonized guitars — these were all fairly common at a time when nu-metal, mall-goth, and emo-pop were starting to coalesce into the near future of radio rock. But let’s suppose this casual viewer got to Best Buy and didn’t get the hint from seeing the title of In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 on the CD cover. Here’s that soaring hook explained by Genius: “This is the description of the moment when Claudio Kilgannon shows his true strength alongside his IRO-Bot cousin, Chase. They recite a passage from the Book of Ghansgraad as they begin the series of events that must take place in order to end all life on Heaven’s Fence (a solar system comprised of 78 planets in a triangular order held together by an energy field that is powered by the seven Stars of Sirus. The best visual description is the Coheed and Cambria logo).”

Whereas most emo bands reacted to their genre’s lack of credibility by stubbornly asserting their DIY roots or pivoting to indie rock, Coheed and Cambria went way the fuck in the opposite direction by melding their stargazing post-hardcore with the never-ending math equations of Rush and Dream Theater and a comic-book universe that extends to this day; any Coheed fan has no choice but to love them, and their merger of prog and emo opened a lane for Circa Survive, the Dear Hunter, and even the D&D-loving Foxing, who recently opened for them. But for those who choose to remain casual viewers, there’s “A Favor House Atlantic,” which smuggled the Armory Wars into a compact Trojan horse of a pop song. —Ian Cohen

84. The Appleseed Cast, “On Reflection” (2001)

This list doesn’t really do the Appleseed Cast any favors — after all, it only allows for one version of the long-running Kansas shape-shifters to be honored. Should it be the Midwestern emo purists from The End of the Ring Wars who were only a few years removed from naming themselves after a lyric from “In Circles”The oceanic indie rock of Mare Vitalis? What about their forays into boundless ambient or concise alt-rock? Or, how about just “On Reflection,” which answers “all of the above.” The studio version serves as a six-minute deep dive into the dual infinity pools of Low Level Owl, Vol. 1 and 2, a double LP that took the genre to a headier plane while poppier forms of emo were being absorbed into Clear Channel radio rotations. In a live setting, Appleseed Cast allows “On Reflection” to remain open-ended, either condensed or expanded, adding solos or cutting verses — a syllabus for an album and, really, a band who after 20 years have yet to exhaust its secrets. — Ian Cohen

83. Swing Kids, “Blue Note” (1994)

Featuring Eric Allen of Unbroken, Jimmy LaValle of the Album Leaf, and Justin Pearson of [insert laundry list of influential bands too long to list here], Swing Kids combined sociopolitical lyrics with chaotic song structures and a nerdy look that was later dubbed “Spock rock” (which they obviously hated). For those reasons, Pearson has often been referred to as the Ian MacKaye of the ’90s, and you can feel a similarly intense frustration on the spat-out lyrics of “Blue Note”: “I’m sorry to say, but it’s not over / I’ve been through it before / And I’m bound to go through it again / But still how come it happened / Been shot time and time again / Maybe it’s because we’re all so incomplete.”

After forming in 1994, Swing Kids stopped making new music after Allen’s suicide in 1998, with the remaining members going on to play two benefit shows as well as later reunions in 2009 and 2011. But, as many bands on this list will attest, longevity is no substitute for influence. A pit stop between the formative idiosyncrasies of Heroin and the more robust hardcore of American Nightmare, Pearson’s vocals are pure fits of anger, while the music is less about establishing rhythm and more about providing a wall of noise to throw himself up against. A landscape of extremes, it went on to become the unofficial sound of Pearson’s record label, Three One G, which gave us defining works from the Blood Brothers and the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower. That said, as Pearson’s memoirs will attest, the biggest influence Swing Kids arguably had was over Refused, whose Shape of Punk to Come took more credit than it was perhaps due for the fusion of jazz, swing, and hardcore pioneered by Swing Kids. One listen to “Blue Note” and you can see where that style of tension building and release originated, but no two storms can be the same, and the electricity of Swing Kids’ discography is impossible to recapture. —Emma Garland

82. Boys Life, “Fire Engine Red” (1995)

The stretches of emptiness between gigs, heat shimmering off the asphalt, wires humming overhead, train horns blaring in the distance — the second Boys Life album, 1995’s Departures and Landfalls, reflected all of this open midwestern American space in its songs; it’s the rare album that makes a small, short-lived emo band appear full of mystery and strange light. Opener “Fire Engine Red” is the most concentrated burst of energy on the record, guitars and vocals tumbling out of the mix and seeming to apologize for themselves as they happen. And even though they disbanded only a year after releasing Departures, you can hear Boys Life all over this list, even in the space between hooks on a Taking Back Sunday song; their influence radiates out invisibly like signals between radio towers. —Brad Nelson

81. One Last Wish, “My Better Half” (1986)

In the short span of time between Rites of Spring’s dissolution and their reformation as Happy Go Licky, there was One Last Wish. Featuring three-fourths of Rites of Spring and a member of Embrace, One Last Wish was effectively the first emo supergroup, though no one outside Washington, D.C., knew that. The band recorded one album in 1986, and by the time mixing was complete, they’d already broken up. The album sat shelved until 1999, and in many ways, One Last Wish feels a bit like emo’s missing link. “My Better Half” is a playful take on the kind of jangly pop music that the Smiths and R.E.M. popularized, and it almost sounds like the launch point for modern Joyce Manor records. These kinds of lost relics can often seem inessential in the present, but One Last Wish still sounds vital, and songs like “My Better Half” show a route that went largely untraveled by Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty, who would soon change the landscape of underground music with Fugazi. —David Anthony

80. Castevet, “Between Berwyn and Bryn Mawr” (2008)

Few emo bands were as capable of expressing grandeur in the same way as Castevet (later known as CSTVT). It makes sense, given that every member of the band now plays in a metal or hardcore band (Bongripper, Stay Asleep, Sea of Shit, and Rectal Hygienics), but when Castevet released Summer Fences, the Chicago act was interested in a different kind of heaviness. The album’s opener, “Between Berwyn and Bryn Mawr,” builds slowly, with Nick Wakim and Will McEvilly’s guitars dashing over one another until Josh Snader drops a perfectly timed drum fill to kick the song into its first verse. The song is largely instrumental, with Wakim’s deep bellows used judiciously, only coming in at the absolute right moments. All of this would be enough to make “Berwyn and Bryn Mawr” stand out, but it’s the world-exploding finale, which sees the band unleash their fascinations with heavier music that no one knew about just yet, that turns it into an awe-inspiring ordeal. —David Anthony

79. Boilermaker, “Slow Down” (1996)

San Diego’s emo scene was ripe for the picking in the ’90s with Drive Like Jehu, Honeywell, and Pinback coming into their own. But while Boilermaker was well known in local fixtures like Ché Café or La Paloma, the trio never quite got their due nationally, neither during their existence or emo’s recent revival. In “Slow Down,” a glacial ballad about time passing, their spacious guitars roll in like an ocean tide, and a recording of a conversation about honesty in relationships fades into the song’s yawning outro. There’s something numbing about the way Terrin Durfey, the band’s singer and bassist, stretches his words. He brings a sense of melancholy to every vague phrase he sings, particularly the chorus: “Not enough time to get anything halfway done.” Durfey doesn’t say much in “Slow Down,” but the delivery of his words feels like an enormous weight, as if he’s frontloading them with invisible meaning, letting the music itself do the translation in real time. —Nina Corcoran

78. mewithoutYou, “Wolf Am I! (And Shadow)” (2006)

Give self-loathing the stage and it will wreck everything in sight. As one of mewithoutYou’s most underrated and intense songs, “Wolf Am I! (And Shadow)” articulates that complex tension. Singer Aaron Weiss is eager to expose himself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing because of how his physical identity diverges from his spiritual identity. All the while, he remains self-impressed by the ways he puts himself down. “Wolf am I,” he sings. “No, ‘shadow,’ I think is better / As I’m not so much something / More like the absence of something.” Guttural bass slides and ominous guitar lines collide, swarming around Weiss like hostile bees as he hollers. The only peace of mind he’s able to find is in knowing the world will end, washing away himself and every clever, self-loathing one-liner on his tongue. —Nina Corcoran

77. Heroin, “Meaning Less” (1993)

Heroin released 19 whole songs between the years 1989 and 1994, but their discography hits the nail on the head so definitively it could stand alone as the beginning and end of screamo. Encapsulating the genre (at the time) in less than an hour, their songs shift from mood to mood faster than temperamental weather, throwing out chunky grunge riffs one second and fitful drumming the next. Opening with a sample of what sounds like a dreamy old film soundtrack, “Meaning Less” takes a gradual climb toward euphoria — layers of sinewy guitars wrestling their way to a few melodic chords that ring out to feedback — only to hurtle back down through nine levels of hell and feed directly into another song, offering no conclusion.

Realistically, any number of Heroin’s songs could be on this list, but “Meaning Less” is illustrative of the frantic but loose screamo that would go on to inspire bands like Thursday and From First to Last, as well as laying a blueprint for the San Diego hardcore sound housed by Gravity Records and Three One G. Even if you discounted Matt Anderson’s succinct but profoundly bummed lyrics about the insignificance of human existence, the instrumental alone is enough to put you through the ringer — attributing emotion and significance to things you don’t even necessarily need to put your finger on. —Emma Garland

76. Penfold, “I’ll Take You Everywhere” (1998) 

So many songs on this list feature vast, slow builds that you could almost accuse emo of being a genre of crescendos. “I’ll Take You Everywhere” is one of its finest: The guitar tones pale, diaphanous and stirring in the air like fallen leaves. The whole song is autumnal, a portrait of a slow-motion, rust-colored emptiness. Then the guitars thicken, the drums gradually accelerate, the chords start to swim around each other, and the feelings and tempo are sharpened so acutely that it almost threatens to straighten out into pop-punk. That’s emo summarized: a stretched-out feeling of longing that then collapses into a nervous breakdown. —Brad Nelson

75. La Dispute, “The Last Lost Continent” (2008)

La Dispute are one of the most unique and ambitious bands of the last decade. Choosing to base a first album on a Japanese legend about a celestial goddess and a farm boy, pepper it with literary references, drop the word “darling” more frequently than Rose says “Jack” in Titanic, and then have a 12-minute epic as its curtain call would have been a bold move for a band with a more conventional sound — but for La Dispute, it couldn’t have gone any other way. Counting jazz, blues, spoken word, screamo, and prog rock among its influences, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair is more emo in sentiment than in sound. The language and delivery that vocalist Jordan Dreyer employs is subversively feminine in the context of the band’s peers, while the tumultuous musical landscape mirrors his lofty sentiments. It’s rare you can claim an emo-adjacent song has “movements,” but “The Last Lost Continent” does. It picks you up and takes you with it on its journey toward a conclusion of building something positive out of suffering, and it set the standard for album closers, which have since become something of a party trick for La Dispute. That is, if the party was “life” and the trick was “making you feel less alone in all its crushing multitudes.” —Emma Garland

74. Oso Oso, “Reindeer Games” (2017)

For his second record, 2017’s The Yunahon Mixtape, Jade Lilitri of Oso Oso wrote the best Weezer song I’ve heard since 1996. While the rest of the album sprawls into different atomic collisions of emo and power pop, “Reindeer Games” seems to boil the genre down to its absolute essentials, hook plus feeling plus feeling bored and annoyed with feeling. “Reindeer Games” is also, in coy opposition to its title, designed for the summer, the guitar tones sun-baked and glittering as glass on a beach. Every hook Lilitri adds to the song increases its saturation, until it gets so bright and radiant it feels like it could give you a sunburn. —Brad Nelson

73. Pageninetynine, “In Love With an Apparition” (2001)

“Punk rock should mean freedom, liking and accepting anything you like, and playing whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, as long as it’s good and has passion.” By opening their song with a proclamation from Kurt Cobain that essentially justifies their own existence, Pageninetynine set the stage to go undefeated forever. Sure, other screamo bands came before them, but “In Love With an Apparition” served as a reminder to themselves, to listeners, and to the Washington, D.C., scene that there is no right or wrong as long as you really mean it. Whether it was letting loose at their live shows or shuffling their lineup from six to 14 members over the years, the Virginia-based band was surprisingly composed for being such a rowdy act. You can hear that throughout the entirety of “In Love With an Apparition.” From how quickly their guitar-driven fury halts for those isolated handclaps to take the spotlight, to the collective emphasis on downbeats as the tempo quickens, it’s a song that showcases how tight Pageninetynine was from the get-go and why they solidified their place in history as pioneers of the genre. —Nina Corcoran

72. Modern Baseball, “Your Graduation” (2014)

“Your Graduation” is written from and about the pivotal period in everyone’s formative years when everything bad that happens to you feels like (A) it will follow you around for the rest of your life and (B) the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone. It’s such a vivid retelling of unrequited love it almost prompts a smile, as Brendan Lukens (and a rare vocal appearance from drummer Sean Huber) capture the unhealthy level of hope that most of us have entertained at some point for a relationship whose reality doesn’t live up to its promise. A far cry from the revenge fantasy of emo’s mainstream tenure in the aughts, Modern Baseball have upgraded the narrative to include not just the sadness of giving up but the release of moving on. —Emma Garland

71. Saetia, “Venus and Bacchus” (1998)

Though Saetia wasn’t the first screamo band, it was arguably the first to perfect the form. “Venus and Bacchus” took the jagged pieces from bands like Antioch Arrow and Heroin and supplanted them with something resembling restraint. Instead of immediately jumping out of the gate, they allowed the guitars to play more delicate passages that, when they inevitably exploded into a mangled mass of distortion, came as a complete surprise. Front man Billy Werner pulled off a similar feat, opening “Venus and Bacchus” with a verse that resembled spoken word before flipping a switch into inhuman, indecipherable shrieks. It’s harsh, accosting music, the kind that would help solidify a nascent subgenre, one that would soon be full of blatant copycats. —David Anthony

70. Elliott, “Drive on to Me” (2000) 

In the early ’90s, hardscrabble cities like Detroit and Louisville were rife with hardcore acts defined by their chunky riffs and gruff vocals. Among them were Empathy and Falling Forward, whose former members aligned in Elliott with the intention of experimenting beyond the confines of their previous work. What they stumbled upon in “Drive on to Me” was something earnest and grateful, like some type of hidden emo formula that chases nostalgia above all else, even if the specificities of such get lost in singer-guitarist Chris Higdon’s opaque poetry. Though the lyrics don’t beat around the bush when it comes to unrequited love, the music itself — a rock song steered by plodding piano notes and generous vocal harmonies — has an intimate delivery to it, as if this full-band endeavor requested softer production to match the album cover’s faded sketch. Years later, “Drive on to Me” still has the feeling of an autumn walk spent thinking about the person you’re infatuated with, a prime candidate for an introvert’s version of a love song. —Nina Corcoran

69. Foxing, “Rory” (2013)

The post-millennial tension of Foxing’s brilliant third LP of electro-prog freakouts earned Nearer My God comparisons to the pre-millennium tension of OK Computer, Radiohead’s brilliant third LP of electro-prog freakouts — comparisons that wouldn’t hold as much weight if the St. Louis band didn’t already have their own version of “Creep.” As with most young artists, Foxing’s lofty, arty ambitions uncomfortably coexisted with the ugly teenage angst that inspired their earliest lyrics, and judging from the hallowed stature of “Rory” in their catalogue, it’s clear what won out in the beginning. “I swear I’m a good man,” Conor Murphy drunkenly slurs, making it clear he is not telling anything close to the truth. Over the bombastic, distorted rupture that splits their debut The Albatross in half, Murphy then screams “SO WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME BACK,” and I mean… does he really have to ask? The narrator of “Rory” is poisonously entitled, envious and self-loathing, a dangerous mix in a genre where fans often don’t assume poetic license. These are also wholly relatable and valid feelings that no amount of “do better” discourse will strike from the human experience. Anyone who’s felt that way can look back in disgust (Foxing have admitted they kinda hate “Rory”), but there’s no denying its potency in the moment. They still use it to close out nearly every show. —Ian Cohen

68. Gray Matter, “Burn No Bridges” (1986)

“Is there really such a thing as a waste of time?” If you aren’t sure, let Gray Matter front man Geoff Turner scream that question into your ears again. While fellow Washington, D.C., bands spent the Revolution Summer questioning their emotions, Gray Matter was busy defending downtime and reclaiming the value of life in “Burn No Bridges.” In what would become their biggest song — initially well received on Take It Back, their Ian MacKaye–produced 1986 record, and later made famous in skate videos — Gray Matter slosh through an honest back-and-forth about worthiness, self-sabotage, and the eventual need to accept yourself. They, too, prioritized intensity over speed, but Turner actually made an attempt to sing. What a difference that would make. The way he delivers his lines on “Burn No Bridges” re-creates the feeling of someone gasping for air — which makes sense, given he’s “been a step to the edge” this whole time. Leave it to emo to convince someone to take a breather and enjoy themselves for once. —Nina Corcoran

67. Sarge, “Beguiling” (1998) 

Despite a rotating cast of guitarists eventually resulting in the band’s dissolution, Sarge became an underground favorite beyond their hometown of Champaign, Illinois, racking up coverage in Rolling Stone, Salon, and the Village Voice at a time when emo was generally dismissed. Front woman Elizabeth Elmore knew the secret to getting away with her lengthy, downer lyrics was stitching them to unapologetically melodic hooks. In that sense, “Beguiling” should be a go-to example for emo songwriting that doesn’t lay all of its cards on the table. Taken from Sarge’s sophomore album, The Glass Intact, “Beguiling” sees Elmore reflect on an emotionally abusive relationship that keeps roping her back in. From bursts of anger to trademark insincerity, the musician she finds herself pining after repeatedly lets her down, onstage and off. Meanwhile, the song’s bouncy drumming gives Elmore room to lean into her pop-punk guitar lines. So as she retraces her history without a drop of self-pity, she comes to a stern conclusion — “I miss you but I’m giving up” — that makes her stronger than most for simply knowing when to draw a line. —Nina Corcoran

66. Knapsack, “Courage Was Confused” (1997)

More than their peers, Knapsack seemed stuck between the universes of emo and alternative rock. Their songs were always a little too curiously shaped to break into the mainstream, but you can still hear the crossover potential in the sensitivity of their dynamics. The main pleasures of “Courage Was Confused” are derived from the way front man Blair Shehan’s voice curls upward into a space between singing and screaming in the chorus: “Sounds good! Sounds all right! The secret’s in the sacrifice!” And it’s weird to hear, in the gentle strumming and the martial rhythm underpinning the breakdown, the sound of early-aughts pop emo unfolding in early 1997. Had they formed a few years later, Knapsack would’ve been Jimmy Eat World. —Brad Nelson

65. Fuel, “Cue To You” (1990)

Anyone who thinks emo isn’t political has clearly never listened to Fuel. Not to be confused with the alt-rock band of the same name, Fuel was a Bay Area act that bore a striking resemblance to Fugazi, which led to many kids jokingly calling them “Fuelgazi” instead. In many ways, Fuel would set the blueprint for bands like Hot Water Music, with dueling guitars and call-and-response vocal patterns creating a kinetic energy that was messy, urgent, and informed all at once. Vocalist Sarah Kirsch, who fronted many great hardcore bands until her death in 2012, gave Fuel a distinctly activist outlook, singing about dehumanization, the weight of institutional racism, and the monolith of religion in ways that felt deeply personal. “Cue to You” is not only one of the best songs on the band’s lone album, Monuments to Excess, but it highlights the moment when hardcore ethics were expanding into new scenes. As probably the only emo song to have a Gandhi quote inserted into the lyrics, “Cue to You” is a living reminder that emo and hardcore weren’t at odds but instead were simply two different paths that, when traced back, led to the same place. —David Anthony

64. Glocca Morra, “Irrevocable, Motherfucker” (2012)

The beauty of Philadelphia’s Glocca Morra is how they always seemed to treat the band with a bit of a shrug. That’s not to say the members didn’t take the band seriously, but they were never inclined to take it too seriously. At times, it’s easy to see how vocalist-guitarist Zack Schwartz’s “Eh, fuck it” approach would later inform his work with the experimental Frank Ocean faves, The Spirit of the Beehive. Glocca Morra’s second album, and first with Snowing’s Nate Dionne on second guitar, is uproariously fun, chock full of intricate guitar passages that are as memorable as the vocal melodies, but it carries the same slacker ethos that drove early indie-rock bands. “Irrevocable, Motherfucker” opens with the nonchalant line, “I’ll never learn, I guess,” and that hits on everything that made Glocca Morra special, sounding like the kind of song that was somehow effortless to write, as if it had arrived fully formed with the horn arrangement and uproarious “woo”s already in place. While other bands were racing to make their songs wordy and desperate, Schwartz was treating daily existence like a minor annoyance, the kind that was best fought off with a soft sigh and another beer from the fridge. —David Anthony

63. Tigers Jaw, “I Saw Water” (2008)

A month after the Rolling Stones kicked out Brian Jones, their original leader and founder, from the band, he was found drowned in his swimming pool. Police ruled it a “death by misadventure.” When singer-guitarist Adam McIlwee gives Jones a shout-out in “I Saw Water,” it feels less like a standard pop-culture namecheck than it does a worrisome comparison. His friends are enjoying themselves, the girl he loves is ignoring him, and he keeps thinking about being buried in the ground. Confessions pour out left and right: he’s feeling lost, he’s drowning in lakes, and swallowing pool water left him feeling lighter. “I Saw Water” takes emo’s ever-present fear of isolation and puts it into practice in the most realistic way: self-sabotage. There’s a reason the fluidity of each member’s yells on “I Saw Water” feels so primal and cleansing, so easy to sing along to. Where do you go when you’re teeming with angst and have nowhere to vent it out? If you’re Brian Jones, you go to the pool. So do they. —Nina Corcoran

62. Something Corporate, “Konstantine” (2000)

In a pop-punk mirror image of the world, up there on the same shelf as frequently requested songs like “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” is “Konstantine”: a nearly 10-minute-long piano opus that was never meant to be popular, off an EP exclusive to Japan. Now, like a running joke with the best intentions, the song haunts front man Andrew McMahon to this day in the form of audience requests long after Something Corporate broke up. Given how confessional the song presents itself as, from start to finish, it’s easy to guess how cathartic it must have been to write — and how difficult it is to relive, more than 15 years later. As a love letter from McMahon to a self-described underage girl, “Konstantine” transforms from a reflection on shared experiences with an ex to a desperate plea that goes unacknowledged. As McMahon’s brokenhearted rambles deepen, he eventually claims the whole point of the song is to own up to his mistakes and “live with what [he] did to [her].” Reading through the lyrics in plain text, the creepiness of what’s being suggested becomes rather vivid. But listening to McMahon shout out Jimmy Eat World and 11:11 time stamps through his nasal delivery, his tone shines a different light on the song. Eventually, the full-band buildup reaches its breaking point, creating a peak for McMahon to stand atop of and repeatedly call out, “Did you know I missed you?” They’re soothing words to a sea of lonely listeners eager to hear they’re missed at all, and a nail in the coffin on an underage relationship that should never have existed in the first place. —Nina Corcoran

61. Weezer, “Tired of Sex” (1996)

Weezer. Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/Getty Images

Just about every band on this list will tell you they aren’t actually emo, and none have a better claim than Weezer. There is not an atom of punk in Rivers Cuomo’s DNA, having been raised on KISS and the Beach Boys in a Connecticut ashram before moving to Los Angeles at 18 to work in the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and play in several failed metal bands. With a debut that combined timeless power pop with timely irony and Spike Jonze–directed videos, Weezer had an instantaneous success that felt like a rebuke to depressive grunge after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. And as you are all too well aware, Cuomo’s capitalist instincts remain ruthless and effective and maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with his cover of “No Scrubs” if the commercial rejection of Pinkerton didn’t drive him to spend the next 20 years ensuring that he’d never have to reprocess his abandonment issues.

Stripping off The Blue Album’s production sheen and revealing all of the sexual neuroses, questionable gender dynamics, and extreme bitterness that were hiding in plain sight, I cannot even begin to imagine the response DGC or even Weezer themselves imagined by leading off their sophomore album with “Tired of Sex,” wherein alt-rock’s most convincing nerd complains about how a litany of meaningless lays keeps him from realizing true love and that we should feel sorry for him. The fact that it’s even remotely believable, let alone nearly unmatched in its cathartic impact, is due largely to the redlining drums and atonal guitar solo transcending “masturbatory” to sound like Cuomo hate-fucking himself. “Tired of Sex” probably still isn’t emo, but it’s been irrevocably grandfathered into the genre because it’s impossible to conceive of the modern softboy without it. —Ian Cohen

60. I Hate Myself, “To a Husband at War” (1997)

It’s fitting that brothers Jim and Jon Marburger tried to convince people that I Hate Myself was a joke band. They knew the genre’s tropes inside and out and they used them perfectly, from the band name on down to the wordy song titles — that is, when they could be bothered to include them. It began to seem like the Marburgers weren’t joking but just trying to insulate themselves from whatever criticisms could be lobbed their way. Yet, despite whatever their intentions were, I Hate Myself helped perfect a certain sect of screamo, and “To a Husband at War” remains their rawest rendering. Like all the best I Hate Myself songs, this one focuses on how tiny moments bring about big, overwhelming feelings. The protagonist receives a letter informing them of their husband’s death in battle, but it’s the way Jim Marburger works with that cliché that makes it hit so hard. From the song’s forlorn bass line to the borderline inaudible guitar playing, “To a Husband at War” is full of subtle musical gestures, allowing the lyrics to carry the bulk of the weight. After learning of the husband’s death, the main character says, “I tried to laugh, but went back to my room and cried,” a phrase that dangles out there with a pregnant pause before a hurried correction comes rushing in, “I mean our room, I went back to our room and cried.” It’s the emo equivalent of watching the precise moment Ralph Wiggum’s heart rips in half, because even the best jokes can be moving sometimes. —David Anthony

59. Say Anything, “Alive With the Glory of Love” (2004)

Like just about every song on Is a Real Boy, “Alive With the Glory of Love” is a wildly ambitious and irresponsibly horny piece of musical theater, but there’s a big difference between this and, say, “Every Man Has a Molly” or “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too.” There’s no way around it: This one imagines what it might’ve been like to fuck during the Nazi occupation. While Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea constructed something similar as a naïve and illogical fever dream divorced from the time-space continuum, Max Bemis considered the experience of his Holocaust-survivor grandparents while writing “Alive With the Glory of Love” and visualized how the primal, procreative urge can still thrive when dead bodies are piling up by the thousands in front of you. This is the kind of song that Max Bemis and nobody else would even attempt, presenting the most shocking subject matter as a mock-Strokes rave-up and jazz-handing show tune, all while ensuring the horrifying details cannot be ignored by even the most impartial listener; cadavers are pillaged for their gold fillings, black eyeliner is used as a substitute for stockings, lovers are doomed to “separate work camps.” Is a Real Boy announces itself with a song of rebellion, but there were better ones to come — when Bemis and his mates shout “Treblinka is alive with the glory of love!” In the face of certain death, he makes the unthinkable truly believable. —Ian Cohen

58. The Jazz June, “The Scars to Prove It” (2000) 

Considering how minimal it is, the Jazz June’s sound is so tactile it almost feels uncomfortable to listen to. On fourth album The Medicine, the drums feel like they’re pounding against a window while the guitar lines splinter and cut like broken glass. Andrew Low’s vocals have the quality of someone trying to shout at you from the other side of a busy road, which only makes it all the more heartbreaking when he’s delivering lines like “The things we love most are the things we take for granted.” Hearing him try to push through the canopy of instruments makes everything feel more urgent, more like a warning.

The Jazz June’s fusion of emo and jazz pegged as a subtle prog-rock band at the time, with their appeal geared more toward theorists and “musician’s musicians” rather than casual listeners — though that’s not to say they’re short on melody, and you can easily spot their influence on more commercial bands like the Early November that came later. Essentially they’re the Steely Dan of emo: niche in crowd, but great in importance. —Emma Garland

57. Snowing, “Sam Rudich” (2009)

Of all the bands that came up during the emo revival, Snowing was the first that seemed to approach the genre with disdain instead of reverence. Calling their first EP Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit was a pretty strong signifier of that, but it was in their songs too, especially the way John Galm’s lyrics pushed back against emo’s self-seriousness while also indulging in it. “Sam Rudich” rips open with little warning, a jumble of borderline blast beats, loping guitars, and Galm’s high-pitched screams that command attention from the very first note. The song splinters off at several points, into a Promise Ring–indebted batch of “ba-da-da-da-da”s in the middle and a noisy dirge at the end, all of which play like attempts to distract from the song’s subject matter. At the end, though, Galm finally relents, his façade melting away as he screams, “I feel nothing like my father / He’s been sleeping underground.” It’s audaciously honest, dripping with gallows humor and, yes, top-shelf “emotional bullshit.” —David Anthony

56. The Anniversary, “The D in Detroit” (2000)

The Anniversary’s formula was deceptively simple: emo, but with a synthesizer added, the tone of which sounded like it was feeding out of a mosquito. Also: produce all of the other instruments so that they sound pale and faded as an old overexposed Polaroid. Listening to “The D in Detroit” and the rest of its parent album, Designing a Nervous Breakdown, is almost exactly like watching stars quiver in the night sky from someone’s rooftop. Adrianne Verhoeven’s synthesizer runs through Tetris-block-shaped sequences of notes as the guitars chug beneath it from a ghostly distance; in a space somewhere above this, Verhoeven and Josh Berwanger’s voices press against each other like sheets of transparent paper. It’s this dreamy layering that gives their music a kind of remembered feeling. “The D in Detroit” is a song you feel like you knew before you ever heard it. —Brad Nelson

55. Ignition, “Anger Means” (1987)

Revolution Summer’s impact could be seen, and heard, almost immediately afterward. The following year, ex-members of Faith, Gray Matter, and Soulside formed Ignition as D.C.’s first supergroup. They released a handful of records over the next three years, including their rallying cry of a single “Anger Means.” Singer Alec MacKaye, the younger brother of Minor Threat and Fugazi icon Ian MacKaye, spits his words with an unbridled sense of empowerment. Fed up with fascist government decisions and America’s perpetual state of complacency, he uses his anger as a way to reaffirm his ideals, not as an overbearing marker of masculinity. “I may be blind in my actions / And have no control of my rage,” he sings. “But this result was not unforeseen / I know what my anger means,” signifying a cultural shift toward emotional honesty from aggressive dominance. “Anger Means” in particular was a message that struck fans near and far, in part thanks to Ignition embarking on a European tour — making them one of the first Dischord bands to play overseas. —Nina Corcoran

54. The Jealous Sound, “Hope for Us” (2003)

If we’re being honest here, pretty much all Knapsack songs were the same. Blair Shehan’s tense, airy voice is an eye of the storm during the verses, sounding unsure about how much he wants to share with you and whether to do it in the first place. And then he leaps over striated power chords toward a higher octave for the chorus that rips everything apart everything in its path. It’s formulaic, but one hell of a formula that was put to its proper use when Shehan created the Jealous Sound as an attempt to make good on Knapsack’s unrealized promise of cracking alt-rock radio. Whether it’s sourced from Swedish Svengalis or emo kids angling for the charts, pop is a mode that exists as wish fulfillment, for ordinary people to feel capable of extraordinary things, and it’s frankly unconscionable that “Hope for Us” did not spend 2003 being played into aggravating ubiquity on KROQ and MTV2. “If you ever had a doubt / Kiss me on the mouth,” Shehan shouts heavenward, as if he’s demanding this consummation to be supernaturally ordained. It’s something no one would ever say in those words outside a rom-com, as much as they want to. And when that chorus lands, it’s shocking and as satisfying as having that wish reciprocated. —Ian Cohen

53. Rainer Maria, “Tinfoil” (1997)

When Rainer Maria came onto the scene, they did so with no regard for what people would think of them or what they sounded like. The proof is in “Tinfoil,” the opening song off the trio’s debut LP. With perfectly imperfect tempos, mixing, and strumming, the song charms listeners with its handcrafted sound, edged by the inexperienced vocals of Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer’s first go-around. Whether she’s comparing handwriting or cheering for the sedative qualities of drug stores, her lyrics read like the middle ground between diary entries and accusatory poetry. De Marrais is angry and she’s short and she’s not letting anyone else narrate her story. From the song’s first lines (“Goddamn it / I’m not talking about my heart / Like it’s something you could break”) to its last (“Call an ambulance / I don’t want to walk home alone”), she’s calling the shots while choked up and teary-eyed — and chances are, you are while listening, too. —Nina Corcoran

52.  Lifetime, “(The Gym Is) Neutral Territory” (1995)

While it’d be disingenuous to hinge Lifetime’s status as an emo band solely on singer Ari Katz, it’s undeniable that his vocal style helped pivot the melodic hardcore act into more sensitive territory. It took a few years for Lifetime to find themselves, but when they released Hello Bastards in 1995, the band was in full swing, with songs that invited people to mosh in between the more ruminative sections. On “(The Gym Is) Neutral Territory,” every word that came out of Katz’s mouth became a reason to push to the front of a stage and grab at the mic like your life depended on it. Lifetime’s hardcore spirit made them stand out from the pack, and listening to “(The Gym Is) Neutral Territory,” it’s easy to see why Saves the Day spent their first few years ripping them off, and why Pete Wentz and Adam Lazzara have always been so quick to tip their hats to the band. —David Anthony

51. Moss Icon, “I’m Back Sleeping, or Fucking, or Something” (1993)

In a 2012 interview, guitarist Tonie Joy stated that Moss Icon took very little inspiration from punk and hardcore beyond its DIY approach. “Our inspiration came from life for the most part, especially the fucked-up aspects of human existence, trying to survive, remain sane and human in a very insane, unjust world,” he explained, emphasizing: “We just thought we were a ‘rock’ band.” Which makes sense. “I’m Back Sleeping, or Fucking, or Something,” along with the rest of Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly, is so jarring and esoteric it’s difficult to place in any genre. Generally speaking, their style has more in common with Manchester’s post-punk scene than any of their American peers at the time, recalling the imposing drudgery of Joy Division (especially where bass is concerned) and Mark E. Smith’s caustic stream-of-consciousness. As is often the case with uncategorizable bands, it’s the vocalist who provides a throughway. Jonathan Vance’s lyrical style is on peak form here, veering from the sublime to “Sitting on the toilet / I went in to do a crap,” which makes this fragmented narrative about witnessing a death feel all the more uncomfortable. Twenty-three years on from their inception and Moss Icon still sound ahead of their time. —Emma Garland

50. Bright Eyes, “The Calendar Hung Itself …” (2000)

Photo: Getty Images/2011 Andrew Benge

Before he would go to master the art of being extra on Lifted, Conor Oberst was simply a lot on songs like “The Calendar Hung Itself …” He’s a self-immolating comet singing in a hypothermic quaver, confusing love with self-hatred and envy with altruism, smuggling “You Are My Sunshine” and G-funk synths into nervy folk-punk strums, a maximalist auteur on a couch-cushion budget, stuffing an entire orchestra into his bedroom. In a recent interview for his latest tasteful folk-rock endeavor, Oberst admits that he “was playing emo music without knowing what it was called” with his high-school band Commander Venus. The same could be said of Bright Eyes, even if Oberst was making a protracted effort to eschew punk to formulate a kind of Nebraskan answer to Elephant 6. “Pull quote, ‘Conor Oberst doesn’t know what emo is,’” joked his new bandmate Phoebe Bridgers. But even if “The Calendar Hung Itself …” is far afield from the genre’s roots, it fits Oberst’s own definition — you know this is emo when you hear it. —Ian Cohen

49. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, “January 10th, 2014” (2015)

Championing female vigilantism in a world rife with male violence, “January 10, 2014” is a rogue entry to the emo canon, centered on women but not from the vantage point of the male gaze. It brings together two stories: The first is the true story of Diana, Hunter of Bus Drivers, who murdered two late-night shuttle-bus drivers in response to decades of sexual violence on the women of Juárez, Mexico, due to the indifference of police. The second is Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt – a protective force associated with, among other things, wild animals, woodland, the underworld, fertility, and childbirth. It’s an ambitious concept but, in its own idealistic way, rewrites a common narrative — both within emo and the world at large — that seeks to confine women to one of two categories: “victim” or “evil.” By contrast, “January 10th, 2014” holds women up as beacons of bravery and strength and vigilante action as worthy of thanks. While it feels fairly deflating that the examples chosen are ones of abject desperation and myth, it works within the utopian framework of the song, whose soaring post-rock influenced landscape communicates its vision better from within clouds. However, what really elevates “January 10, 2014” are the dueling vocals and the passing of the most affecting lines — “Are you afraid of me now?” — to keyboardist Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak, which brings a much-needed sense of agency to a genre that often deprives women of it whether it means to or not. —Emma Garland

48. At the Drive-In, “Transatlantic Foe” (1998)

While many ’90s emo bands were solid live acts, At the Drive-In was one of the few truly great ones. But the challenge of being a superior live act is translating that energy to an album, and while there are plenty of people who claim At the Drive-In never achieved that, “Transatlantic Foe” is a perfect rebuke. Across an ever-shifting tempo, guitarists Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward dash their leads atop one another, sounding like they are trying to outpace the other at every turn. Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala anchors it all, sounding delightfully unhinged as he guides the song toward its triumphant finale. Where other emo bands treated their music like serious art, “Transatlantic Foe” showed that it was possible to inject a little fun in the process. —David Anthony

47. Jets to Brazil, “Chinatown” (1998)

Jets to Brazil cast a heavier shadow than Blake Schwarzenbach’s previous band, Jawbreaker; their songs moved slower, through well-contemplated chord changes, until they became harder and harder to confuse for punk. That’s why “Chinatown” moves the way it does — one of the most self-examining punk front men of all time is actively searching for new forms of expression, chords twisting upward and downward, slow and branching like seaweed. “I’m tired of fighting / So I’m demolished / That’s the way,” Schwarzenbach sings, stuck in his own song’s stasis. The song is hypnotically struggling in place. Many of Schwarzenbach’s Jets to Brazil–era songs are actively about writing, and “Chinatown” has the cramped-up feeling of getting typed out at a desk. When that squall of guitars storms in toward the end, it feels like a creative breakthrough. —Brad Nelson

46. Embrace, “No More Pain” (1987)

Embrace’s self-titled and only album is perhaps the most direct example of a Revolution Summer manifesto, if such a thing even exists. Essentially a list of things Ian MacKaye was fed up with at the time — which, naturally, was a lot of things, ranging from complacency to tough-guy hardcore to heroin — “No More Pain” is a call for real change. It’s one of the few emo records that encourages you to look inward in order to have empathy for everyone else around you through a series of confrontational lyrics that are just as pertinent now as they were in the mid- to late-’80s. Embrace’s sound may not be quite as influential as that of their peers, but the spirit of Revolution Summer is bottled in phrases like “The purpose is within yourself / The movement is within yourself” — not to mention the moment MacKaye calls the ruling classes “a bunch of silly kids” before erupting into scathing laughter, which is almost as iconic as his thoughts on caffeine. —Emma Garland

45. My Chemical Romance, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” (2004)

My Chemical Romance. Photo: Getty Images/2010 Shirlaine Forrest

If you ever felt alone, rejected, and confused, then you probably experienced high school. You also probably liked the music video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise).” Gerard Way had grand visions and even more determination for My Chemical Romance, and Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge was just the second step in achieving his dreams. “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” catered to a range of insecurities and struggles, the most basic of which is what today’s self-care obsessed culture would sell as, “It’s okay to not feel okay.” When paired with chunky power chords, Way’s theatrical singing style, and a music video MTV couldn’t shake, the song threw emo into the mainstream and into every Hot Topic in America. My Chemical Romance made the misunderstood look familiar, the goths look friendly, and depression look flattering. There’s a reason they were major-label darlings back then. And so with that indelible intro riff, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” helped usher in a wave of MySpace emo that would define a generation, whether emo purists wanted it to or not. —Nina Corcoran

44. Desaparecidos, “The Happiest Place on Earth” (2002)

In an era rife with antiwar songs, Desaparecidos managed to write one that still, over 15 years later, sticks out from the bunch. “The Happiest Place on Earth” wouldn’t be the last song Conor Oberst wrote about George W. Bush, but it reaffirmed the potency of a call-out song going forward. From the opening lines denouncing mindless nationalism (“I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live / I don’t want to be ashamed to be American”) to its criticism of anti-environmentalism and underfunding public schools, Oberst wastes no time pointing out the lows the country had sunk to. You can practically see the venom leave his lips as he spits them out. While he’s busy lyrically riffing off “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” the rest of the five-piece turns the volume up, giving an already emotional antiwar song its bitter musical kicker to seal the deal. —Nina Corcoran

43. Thursday, “Understanding (In a Car Crash)” (2001)

No one would mistake Thursday for a screamo band in the present day, but when their sophomore album, Full Collapse, hit in 2001, they were the first act with even a tangential relation to that subgenre to break outside the basement-show scene. “Understanding (In a Car Crash)” doesn’t hint at the refined rock band Thursday would become, but it does encapsulate why they felt special in those early days, as they felt like an amalgamation of every emo subgenre in a single band. With fluttering guitar parts, screamed backing vocals, and an uplifting melodic hardcore breakdown to close the track — after all, they did take their name from a Turning Point song — “Understanding (In a Car Crash)” felt like a perfect summary of the preceding decade, while also helping point the genre toward the future. —David Anthony

42. Owls, “Everyone Is My Friend” (2001)

The stature of Owls’ self-titled debut is in no way commensurate with what it actually is: a Cap’n Jazz reunion produced by Steve Albini. Save for the absence of Davey Von Bohlen, Owls is a natural reflection of how the collective’s visions had broadened since Cap’n Jazz unceremoniously called it quits outside a Little Rock hospital in 1995, its oblong, jazz-pop puzzles more in tune with Chicago’s academic post-rock than Champaign’s undergrad anthems. That is, with the exception of its most beloved song, “Everyone Is My Friend.” “The technique has always been in service of the feeling,” Tim Kinsella told the Quietus in 2014, and Owls had chops to spare on both ends. Prodded by Victor Villareal’s guitar squiggles, Kinsella’s wordplay is at his sharpest, interrogating coupling (“Would you two like each other / Or are you too alike?”), the limitations of self-help (“I know what I have to do and do it / But I don’t know what it is until it’s done”), and his own social anxieties. Even if there isn’t a happy ending, Owls find irrepressible joy in the process: “I know it’s not impossible to think of you thinking of me,” Kinsella yelps to cap off his wallflower’s anthem, honoring everyone who’s had to drink away their self-consciousness by hoping we all make it home safely. —Ian Cohen

41. Texas Is the Reason, “Back and to the Left” (1996)

There was something almost indescribably special about Texas Is the Reason, sometimes located somewhere between their song titles — detached from the songs themselves and weaving in and out of Kennedy conspiracy theories and Twin Peaks references. Or it was just in the songs themselves, built on wave after wave of guitars crashing against the gravel of Garrett Klahn’s voice. Their only album, the J. Robbins–produced Do You Know Who You Are?, conveys so much mystery and depth while still being recognizably punk music, it’s remarkable; each song is a small whirlpool of swerving guitar riffs. Sequenced on the record just after a gentle, drumless instrumental, “Back and to the Left” is a storm of chords and drums, every note caught in a constant rain. Its surge is so constant it intrudes on shoegaze from another dimension. —Brad Nelson

40. Jimmy Eat World, “Lucky Denver Mint” (1999)

Photo: Getty Images/2014 C Brandon

Though Clarity as a whole is far from the more straightforward power-pop indie rock they eventually leaned into, Jimmy Eat World’s brand of emo has always maintained an “everyman” appeal even at its most eccentric. There’s a dark current running through their music, an apprehension underlying even their most celebratory choruses, and that balance appeals to those who own their ’95 split with Christie Front Drive to those who enjoyed their rendition of “The Middle” with Taylor Swift and everyone in between. The midwestern sensibilities the band grew up with are all present on “Lucky Denver Mint,” but they’re assembled familiarly enough to have made it out of basements and onto the soundtrack for Never Been Kissed. The most accessible song on an otherwise experimental album, it’s an early example of a sonic chemistry that would later become Jimmy Eat World’s ticket to mainstream success. —Emma Garland

39. Orchid, “I Am Nietzche” (2000)

If you put Kurt Ballou’s record collection in a blender with the cornerstones of European critical theory, you’d get Orchid. Extreme both in sound and sentiment, their pioneering style combined the melody and poeticism of screamo with the harshness and speed of powerviolence. Like the second coming of Rites of Spring, doubled down to challenge the dissonant lengths screamo had already gone to, Orchid’s “ugly beautiful” sound became a touchstone for all forms of emotional hardcore to come. Though their entire modus operandi is packing as much into as little space as possible, “I Am Nietzche” is one of their most concentrated efforts. The song manages to reference the challenge Nietzsche posed to philosophical dogma while likening his criticism of traditional systems to the subversive possibilities of hardcore, all in one great hurricane-like swoop. —Emma Garland

38. Saves the Day, “At Your Funeral” (2001)

Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are is a watershed emo record. A hybrid of taut pop-punk, its more elastic cousin post-hardcore, and power pop, it defined the terms of the sound that later bands, like Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy, would ride into legitimate airplay and pop stardom. “At Your Funeral” is the record’s overture, boldly claiming its aspirations in the opening lyric, “This song will become the anthem of your underground.” The narrator of the song initially seems to be castigating a friend for getting stoned all the time, envisioning their elaborate death and burial. But the song gives way to singer Chris Conely’s more general fascination with the morbid fantasizing that he’s become the roasted pig on the table at the reception. It strikes a confusing, ambiguous note that rules the rest of the record and, honestly, most of the genre. —Brad Nelson

37. Joyce Manor, “Constant Headache” (2011)

The emo revival was already in full swing by the time Joyce Manor entered the fold, but their self-titled debut album sent ripples through the scene almost immediately. The band’s songs were short and snappy, taking cues from Weezer’s alt-rock hooks and playing them with the spirit of DIY stalwarts like Bust! and Shinobu. Anchored by Barry Johnson’s personable vocal delivery, Joyce Manor rushed through songs that barely lasted for a full minute, and that’s why “Constant Headache,” the album’s quasi-epic, is so effective. The band slowed the pace, worked through a traditional song structure, and gave Johnson the space to unfurl a vague story about a confusing romantic entanglement. “Constant Headache” presaged the next phase of Joyce Manor’s career, one that would allow for a little more room in their songs, but few that followed would ever be as punchy as this. —David Anthony

36. Braid, “A Dozen Roses” (1998) 

I’ve always found Braid songs to be elusive and introverted even at their most excitable, always slipping away into another hidden room within themselves or turning a corner so that it gets harder to follow them. They were one of the more appropriately named emo bands; so many of their riffs feel like the loose ends of a woven string. “A Dozen Roses” — the center of their best album, Frame & Canvas, a collection of emo songs like a garden of severed wires — is archetypal and classic Braid for this reason, the main riff bending in constant rubbery progressions, inverting and uninverting itself from verse to chorus as if folding itself down into the densest paper crane. “Static made old radio!,” Bob Nanna sings through a film of static, guitars shuddering beneath him in mathematically precise intervals, the flutter of a panicked heartbeat. In a way, Braid got closest to one of emo’s central themes, the terror of ambiguity: All of these strange, bent chords are like questions thrown at an answer that isn’t coming. —Brad Nelson

35. Fall Out Boy, “Sugar We’re Going Down” (2005)

Fall Out Boy. Photo: Getty Images/2018 Michael Tullberg

It’s a little funny that a song Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump wrote in ten minutes ended up being one of emo’s most defining and deathless cultural moments. “Sugar We’re Going Down” never seems to disappear completely, still rearing up in pop culture in sudden waves, as it did during bumpers for the Super Bowl this year. It’s an inventively simple song, a basic four-chord progression that somehow seems to move the earth around it. It moved the earth around the band too; when the song peaked at No. 8 on “The Hot 100,” they, and emo, became pop. Stump’s voice leaps impressively throughout the song, hitting perfect notes even as the words he sings tend to blur around them, his approach almost post-punky in its simultaneous directness and ambiguity. And the melodies that reel out of him engrave themselves immediately in memory; for example, as a result of writing this blurb I think I’m going to have “Sugar We’re Going Down” stuck in my head for the next week, and I’m not mad. —Brad Nelson

34. Death Cab for Cutie, “A Movie Script Ending” (2001) 

The band that launched a 1,000 shits blogs, Death Cab for Cutie burrowed deep into popular consciousness, from the 2016 U.S. presidential election to The O.C. soundtrack, where “A Movie Script Ending” prompts an epic argument about emo in which Summer not incorrectly describes it as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining.” Far from being simple or commercialized, though, Death Cab are popular in the same way an artist like Lana Del Rey is popular, not because their music is particularly radio-friendly but because of their uncanny ability to vividly render a scene and draw you into it.

“A Movie Script Ending” is Death Cab at their most cinematic, perfectly tracking the feeling of returning to your hometown after a period away (in this case, Ben Gibbard returning to Seattle after moving to L.A. for love). The sundrenched riffs, the bass keeping a steady pace like passing road marks, the seamless transitions between trepidation and excitement — this is peak scenic songwriting that pays homage to the mellow Midwest while hinting of the band’s indie future. “A Movie Script Ending” is the jewel of The Photo Album — striking a perfect balance between the intimacy of Something About Airplanes, which earned them their emo descriptor, and the vast romance of Transatlanticism, which redefined their parameters. —Emma Garland

33. Mineral, “Gloria” (1997)

More than any form of punk rock, emo is interconnected with theology — from the born-again Jeremy Enigk to the omnist Aaron Weiss to the lapsed skeptic David Bazan, many of emo’s leading figures have made no secret of their spirituality, befitting for a genre often fostered in church basements and described as “confessional.” It’s also frequently the province of kids in high school on the verge of discovering their true spiritual and sexual selves after years of indoctrination, and that element of anxiety and insecurity gives it a radioactive instability that runs counter to the unctuous complacency that inspired Mike Birbiglia’s bit about actual, mainstream Christian rock (that it sounds like Bon Jovi ballads until you realize, Oh wait, they’re actually horny for Jesus). Case in point, Mineral’s “Gloria,” which shares a name with one of Michael W. Smith’s most popular praise songs and little else. Despite the Diary comparisons that dogged Mineral in their early days, Sunny Day Real Estate was never as unhinged and raw as “Gloria”; Chris Simpson sings with a shudder, “I just wanna be something more than the mud in your eye / I want to be the clay in your hands,” and whether it’s about an unrequited crush or being forsaken by the lord, it all feels equally purgatorial. “The glory is the silence,” Simpson yells at the end, but the salvation is in the screaming. —Ian Cohen

32. Dag Nasty, “Circles” (1986)

Dag Nasty made it clear on their debut album, Can I Say, that they had the hooks and they had the opinions to be timely in 1986. Similar to his peers on Dischord, Dave Smalley recalls the inner shame of staying silent in the face of injustice so convincingly that, while still riding the melody, the lyrics of “Circles” are an earnest plea that still sounds fresh over 30 years later. While their presence and perspective remains timeless, it’s the lunging, lyrical guitar riffs, above all else, that makes “Circles” come across like it could have been written by a young Brand New or Cloud Nothings. Dag Nasty was an accessible influence for bands during the first wave of emo and numerous decades later; it’s songs like “Circles” that prove how musically relevant they remain within the genre after helping to kick it off in the ’80s. —Nina Corcoran

31. Alkaline Trio, “Bleeder” (1998)

Long before they became goth-punk royalty, Alkaline Trio were a scrappy little punk band with a penchant for heart-on-sleeve lyricism. Their early work, which owed as much to Bay Area pop-punk as it did Chicago’s art-rock scene, was messy in all the best ways, as guitarist Matt Skiba and bassist Dan Andriano sang over one another as if their songs were some sloppy, drunken conversation, while drummer Glenn Porter played with an unpredictable fury that made their songs feel like they were always on the verge of collapse. That youthful exuberance was plenty thrilling, but when the band slowed things down a bit, they were often at their best. While “Radio,” Alkaline Trio’s most instantly identifiable track, certainly fits that bill, it’s always paled in comparison to “Bleeder.” Built on palm-muted chords and Skiba’s throat-shredding vocals, Alkaline Trio sounds like Unfun-era Jawbreaker attempting to write the songs on Dear You. And despite whatever sonic limitations were before them, they succeeded at it, turning in the kind of rough-hewn epic that would help them build a devoted, cultlike fan base. —David Anthony

30. Cursive, “The Recluse” (2003)

Cursive. Photo: Getty Images/2004 Getty Images

“Awake, alone in a woman’s room I hardly know.” Tim Kasher sings this line at the top of “The Recluse,” the blinding glint of his trebly arpeggios masked by Greta Cohn’s cello smears, replicating a cruel sunrise peeking through the blinds and the heavy eyelids of a brutally hung-over man. “How’d I end up here to begin with? I don’t know,” Kasher later elaborates, but we knew how. “The Recluse” is an authorial peak from Kasher’s most prolific and beloved phase, where he wrote exclusively in concept albums that traced a relationship’s doomed arc — Domestica, The Ugly Organ and the Good Life’s Album of the Year were presumably cautionary tales, yet Kasher’s repulsive self-loathing was expressed so magnetically many took them as actual endorsements for alcoholism and divorce. But in most Cursive fan favorites, there’s some kind of action — an explosive argument, a cloth-rending pity party. On “The Recluse,” Kasher can do nothing but sit and wait in bed, plotting his next move or none at all. There’s no one to fight with except Tim Kasher, and whether he sees himself as the pursuer or pursued, he has to reckon with the possibility that maybe he got exactly what he wanted and that he’ll inevitably do it all over again. God bless if you’ve never related to this song. —Ian Cohen

29. Motion City Soundtrack, “L.G. FUAD” (2005)

According to developmental psychologists, while most people begin to detect sarcasm through tone around age 8, it takes until age 11 to understand sarcasm in its best form: deadpan, blunt, and unflinchingly solemn jabs at your own expense. Motion City Soundtrack front man Justin Pierre has always placed his quirks front and center in the band’s music, but “L.G. FUAD” reformats his hyperspecific storytelling into a one-of-a-kind congenial melodrama. He finds himself on the brink of a breakdown, and he’s warning everyone in sight of such. Yet Pierre keeps poking fun at his current state, as if jokes will slow his downward spiral: “Let’s get fucked up and die / I’m speaking figuratively, of course / Like the last time that I committed suicide / social suicide.” With its comedically timed ellipses and overall air of dark humor, “L.G. FUAD” is a how-to lesson in sarcasm as a coping method, and it’s only gotten better with age as your brain comes to grips with the multilayered purpose of sarcasm itself. —Nina Corcoran

28. Don Martin Three, “Transistor” (1996)

The next time people ask you how emotive hardcore differs from melodic hardcore, play them this song. Though relatively overlooked when it comes to the genre, Florida trio Don Martin Three poured every last feeling into their music in the three years they existed. “Transistor,” in particular, reveals itself to be an apotheosis in the genre. Over the course of five minutes, Don Martin Three build a relatively sparse guitar melody and some cymbal-heavy drumming into an explosive breakdown, musically and emotionally. The pain of loving someone deeply has never sounded as raw or real as when Colin McCann screams, “Yes, it’s true, I love you,” over an accelerated drumroll, the kind that sounds like the kit is falling apart midsong. It’s tight and sloppy all at once because passion is the driving force. So when “Transistor” enters its final minute and sounds like it’s driving off a cliff, the view is too remarkable not to cling on for the ride. —Nina Corcoran

27. Everyone Everywhere, “I Feel Exhausted” (2012)

The Philadelphians in Everyone Everywhere passed for honorary Midwesterners: Their exuberant rhythms and elliptical lyrics pegged them as descendants of the Promise Ring, Braid, and Rainer Maria, bands that channeled the nervous energy of shy intellectuals feeling both exhilarated and intimidated by the social stimuli of gargantuan Big Ten college towns. At the turn of the decade, their two self-titled albums didn’t relocate landlocked emo geographically so much as take it post-grad, tracing the evolution of its perspective after moving out of a dorm into tiny apartments filled with Ikea furniture and trading kegs for microbrews (or “super-awesome nanobrews”). Everyone Everywhere were the emo-revival Everymen, and “I Feel Exhausted” is our “Workingman’s Blues,” summarizing office culture’s overtaxed and understimulated existence in one line: “I wanna smash things / I want a coffee.” During the bleary first minutes, Brendan McHugh sings that line as if dragging ass through Monday morning; when he shouts it during the double-time dash toward the finish line, it’s like he’s discharging long-overdue tasks in a manic rush at 4:57 p.m. on a Friday. That’s the most quoted lyric, but an equally important one occurs during the Deftones-inspired bridge: “I’d get away from this big scene / From this bright screen.” In the weekend-less gig economy, there is no escape. —Ian Cohen

26. Drive Like Jehu, “Do You Compute” (1994) 

Photo: Getty Images/2016 Mariano Regidor

San Diego has given a lot to emo’s assorted subgenres, with screamo and sass-core having been all but invented there. But it was the inimitable Drive Like Jehu that had the biggest impact. The creative partnership between guitarists John Reis and Rick Froberg has paid dividends since they first linked up in the late ’80s with the band Pitchfork, and it was with Jehu that they effectively served as Southern California’s answer to Fugazi. “Do You Compute” highlights the pair’s interplay, as a spindly little guitar lead sounds both off-key and harmonious at the exact same time. It presages a good amount of back-and-forth between Reis and Froberg, as they compete to see who can play a weirder part before smashing together into a joyously distorted, cathartic wash that carries the song to its end just as it crosses the seven-minute mark. “Do You Compute” is so pivotal in execution that it may as well have been a dare to every band that followed in their wake to let loose and go long. And we’re all better off because of it. —David Anthony

25. Pedro the Lion, “Options” (2002)

If you want to make the best case for David Bazan as one of indie rock’s most potent and devastating storytellers, start with “Options,” a song where nothing really happens. That’s the whole point — the opener of 2002’s Control remains at the same volume throughout, the inflections of Bazan’s grave tenor never waver, and it moves at the same excruciating tempo of a nagging, persistent resentment. A long walk on the beach becomes a shockingly callous confession, which soon reveals itself as a one-sided internal conversation before a doomed marriage is reconsecrated with a loveless “I love you.” Throughout it all, Bazan’s exacting minimalism intensifies the gravity of each word choice. Control could be optioned into a Lifetime movie; there’s illicit affairs in cheap hotels, bitter spats, exhausting brats, and a horrifying act of revenge that makes a priest abandon his faith in God. But relationships never sour that quickly, and “Options” condenses years worth of grudges into a four-minute death march. —Ian Cohen

24. City of Caterpillar, “And You’re Wondering How a Top Floor Could Replace Heaven” (2002)

If the long song title didn’t give it away, City of Caterpillar is the band that could get even the dreariest post-rock kids into emo. Over the course of nearly nine minutes, the Virginia band uses “And You’re Wondering How a Top Floor Could Replace Heaven” as a melting pot for anything and everything that comes to mind: atmospheric wails in the distance, manic vocal delivery, frenetic hardcore drumming, noisy guitar melodies, and art-rock hammering. City of Caterpillar aren’t soundtracking an emotional moment so much as they’re soundtracking the evolution of a feeling. With such a masterful command of dynamics and themes, City of Caterpillar are able to make the song’s three sections replicate the structure of a play. All that’s left ringing in your head after the curtain call are Brandon Evans’s lyrical threats from mid-song: “Laugh yourself red / I know you’d choke.” —Nina Corcoran

23. The Hotelier, “Your Deep Rest” (2014)

The beauty of the Hotelier’s music is the way that Christian Holden’s lyrics can so easily slip past you. He’s wordy to the point where his choruses rarely repeat the same way twice, but the band’s music is so bubbly that their melodies become rooted in your subconscious whether you know the words or not. “Your Deep Rest” is a prime example of what the Hotelier achieved with Home, Like NoPlace Is There, a record full of dark emotions and hard-earned admissions, all coated in the shiniest lacquer their meager budget could buy. “Your Deep Rest” is a song about a friend’s suicide, and the feelings of guilt, shame, and calm acceptance that permeate the protagonist’s being, but it’s backed by the kind of pop-emo sounds that splits the difference between the mature, indie-leaning sound of the Weakerthans and joyous pop-punk of the Starting Line. It’s a song that brings all the simple pleasures of pop music but sneaks in an evocative story that, once you hear it, you’ll never be able to shake. —David Anthony

22. Dashboard Confessional, “Hands Down” (2003)

For over 15 years, Dashboard Confessional front man Chris Carrabba has been prefacing live performances of “Hands Down” with the same string of words: “This song is about the best day I’ve ever had.” First dates carry ample weight when you’re young because they’re filled with firsts, big and small. What his lyrics capture in “Hands Down” is the overwhelming anxiety that consumes you leading up to — and, oftentimes, throughout — the evening. In the song’s chorus, double-tracked vocals turn into double-tracked yelling, making his pleas for a death kiss of a wish feel particularly urgent. Have I run through the rain, jumped over a gate, and kissed my crush? No, but damn, does Carrabba make me wish I did. “Hands Down” is the Xanga-era fantasy every hopeful romantic dreams of. Best of all, the song’s core sentiment remains worthwhile all these years later: High hopes and low expectations pay off, especially when you eventually come face-to-face with the love you deserve. —Nina Corcoran

21. Taking Back Sunday, “A Decade Under the Influence” (2004) 

How could Taking Back Sunday possibly justify their insatiable thirst for melodrama on “A Decade Under the Influence”? “I got a bad feeling about this,” “Anyone will do tonight,” “I’m coming over but it never was enough,” “My worst brings out the best in you,” “To hell with you and all your friends”: The entire thing is written in the pithy dialogue of a Deadpool-esque anti-hero doomed to get dumped again and again. And yet, it’s not just based on a true story — it’s about a fucking Coldplay concert. Adam Lazzara revealed that he and his girlfriend bought tickets before they broke up, but they decided to go together anyway, because … this is the A Rush of Blood to the Head tour, so you make it work. Extrapolating a quintessential suburban conflict to nuclear brinkmanship is the kind of thing that makes skeptics hate emo, and that’s what also makes it transcendent. “A Decade Under the Influence” — and really, all the best Taking Back Sunday songs — validates and honors the sort of moments that will look ridiculous and petty in retrospect, because there are times when your world is so small that you can fit the impending apocalypse into an awkward car ride home. —Ian Cohen

20. Piebald, “American Hearts” (2002)

“American Hearts” is an emo rarity in that it looks outward. Hinged on an interaction between a narrator bemoaning economic inequality and a guy washing windows for a tenner, it’s a simple and wry reminder that changing the way a society works means actually being involved in it. Sense of community in music often comes through a shared set of sociopolitical values, or the experience of something that can feel isolating — heartbreak, grief, depression — but “American Hearts” takes a moment to step outside itself. It’s hopeful and relatively impersonal, gesturing toward what can be gained rather than dwelling on what has already been lost. It’s ironic, considering Piebald never neatly aligned with any one scene, but “American Hearts” is one of the most unifying entries to the emo catalogue, reminding those who didn’t “create the rules” that they have the power to change them. —Emma Garland

19. Indian Summer, “Angry Son” (1993) 

It starts with a voice, a ghostly, otherworldly peal, singing, “And when ya feelin’ blue, no one to talk to you / And you don’t know what to do, then see if I’ll care.” An electric guitar stirs through a narrow set of notes unrelated to the song the voice is singing. Then the voice disappears and the band swells in like unnoticed shadows. Someone starts to whisper a rambling poem that is probably about spiritual crisis and abandonment, the kind of verse a wavering disciple would whisper to themselves as they traversed a vast and cracked desert. “This is Earth, Earth which he has moved on and collected, settled to his own liking,” he says. “And still he moves on.” The music beneath builds and recedes then builds again, until it reaches a peak where every instrument, including the drums, sounds like it’s wailing. “This is the moment!” he screams. Then it all slips away permanently, lost in the spectral crackle of the Bessie Smith record that started it, as a trumpet cranks out a slow, bluesy phrase. Indian Summer, the band that produced this desiccated masterpiece of early-’90s emo, were only together for a year; they never recorded a full-length album and their existed recording material can feel itself on the verge of disappearance, crackling with vinyl static, howling as they sink through multiple layers of time and back into silence. —Brad Nelson

18. Christie Front Drive, “Radio” (1997)

Scrappier than the Gloria Record, poppier than Penfold, and as belatedly appreciated as both, Christie Front Drive were one of many midwestern emo bands here for a good time, not a long time. The centerpiece of their only full-length album, “Radio” is a perfect example of how much can be done with so little. The recording is so intimate you can feel the sweat staining your T-shirt and the snare smacking you on the back, which only elevates the beat-for-beat satisfaction “Radio” generates through tension and release. It’s a powerful reminder of how rudimentary components — four people, a basic guitar riff, and a handful of phrases — can create a band whose influence expands past the structures it originated in and into the next few decades. —Emma Garland

17. Straylight Run, “Existentialism on Prom Night” (2004)

John Nolan originally wrote “Existentialism on Prom Night” for Taking Back Sunday but ended up taking it with him when he and bassist Shaun Cooper left over personal and creative differences. The new group they formed — Straylight Run, completed by Nolan’s sister Michelle DaRosa and Breaking Pangaea drummer Will Noon — was a considerable departure from their previous band. Their sound was richer and dreamier, less vengeful and more introspective, their songs draining out of pianos and synthesizers instead of stacks of guitar amps. “Existentialism” is almost a statement of purpose for the project, a sublime, searching, capital-R Romantic piano ballad about love versus cosmic uncertainty, only truly emo in its unchecked earnestness. “Sing like you think no one’s listening,” Nolan sings as his fingers play spreading, increasingly impressionistic chords, building the song almost invisibly from a sad whisper to a cathartic scream. This is emo’s best slow dance. —Brad Nelson

16. Jawbox, “Savory” (1994)

The line between emo and post-hardcore has always been fairly thin. Given that emo’s original wave was built by musicians who, quite literally, grew out of hardcore, it’s easy to see how those designations always felt a little nebulous. And in the case of Jawbox, which featured Government Issue bassist J. Robbins at the front, they fluttered between those two sounds with more ease than their peers ever could. “Savory” is a prime example of the band’s ability to take pummeling riffs and use them for introspective means. Robbins and Bill Barbot play against one another, their opposing guitar parts giving the song a disquieting effect that sounds a bit like the artisanal version of “Blind,” by Korn. Yet it’s bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Zach Barocas that lend the song a necessary push and pull, allowing Robbins’s vocals to sound alternatingly disaffected and agitated depending on how the band sways around him. It makes sense that Jawbox would serve as an influence to the next wave of emo bands — Barocas’s drumming had a huge effect on Braid, for instance — and also inspire post-hardcore acts like Deftones to blow out the genre’s walls. —David Anthony

15. The Promise Ring, “Is This Thing On?” (1997)

“Is This Thing On?” shape-shifts with such determination that it takes longer than it realistically should to realize that vocalist/guitarist Davey von Bohlen is singing the same five lines on repeat. Unlike his other band, Cap’n Jazz — from which the Promise Ring was spawned as a side project — Nothing Feels Good is defined by its simplicity and likability. Sparse in lyrics and anchored by a bass line that acts like a balloon string for the rest of the instrumentation, which is often blown around by chaos, “Is This Thing On?” sounds like Superchunk on uppers. It sits confidently on the more melodic end of the emo spectrum but cements the notion that subtle ideas can be done fast and be done loud. —Emma Garland

14. Taking Back Sunday, “Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team)” (2002)

Taking Back Sunday. Photo: Getty Images

The intro to this song is like Pavlov’s Bell for aughts emos, triggering anyone who’s ever learned basic HTML just so they could put a broken-heart-shaped cursor on their MySpace page. Romanticized violence, overlapping lyrics, and a rivalry with Brand New over “which neurotic front man has the largest ego”: Taking Back Sunday had it all. Influenced by a combination of the Promise Ring, the Get Up Kids, and Jay-Z, “Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team)” was essentially the thesis statement for their 2002 debut, Tell All Your Friends. As well as being the best example of what the album was aiming for sonically, it also crystallised the themes of betrayal and revenge. Though the selection of lyrical props — lipstick, napkins, guns—– gave the song a tongue-in-cheek feel, the unabashed drama of it all seemed to mirror a shared affliction among young people at the time, a cohort that was literally crying out for recognition. —Emma Garland

13. The Get Up Kids, “Action & Action” (1999)

Vagrant Records bet the house on Something to Write Home About — and that’s not a figure of speech. With the Get Up Kids looking to break out of a stagnant, short-lived relationship with ska-punk stronghold Mojo, Vagrant co-founder Jon Cohen mortgaged his family home to finance the recording fees of the band’s breakthrough sophomore album. Matt Pryor couldn’t have known that the future of Dashboard Confessional, Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day, the Hold Steady, PJ Harvey, the 1975, and even Janet Jackson (she signed to the label in 2015) were riding on their success. Nonetheless, on a record mostly beloved as a nostalgic collection of crush songs, “Action & Action” is a jagged diamond forged by unexpectedly sudden and intense pressure, shuttling between sarcasm, defiance, gratitude, and acceptance. It’s just as equivocal musically, with a pendulous power chord riff swaying from major to minor over motion-sickness synths, and even the declarative chorus is delivered as both brisk power-pop and a half-time breakdown. Pryor has taken every opportunity to reject the emo label and reiterate that Get Up Kids’ roots are in DIY and punk, and it’s the ambivalence to commerce in “Action & Action” that serves as his proof. But there’s a rejection of indie rock’s valorized detachment when he shouts “Here’s all you get from me” at the end — there’s no question he’d already given his all. —Ian Cohen

12. Rainer Maria, “Planetary” (1999)

In a letter to the military-academy cadet Franz Xaver Kappus in 1904, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who gives the Wisconsin three-piece its name) wrote about sadness as a transformative force. Not in a nihilistic “South Park goths” kind of way but as a necessary part of the human experience. “The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise,” he said. “If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.” That, he goes on to explain, is why it’s important to be “solitary and attentive” when feeling sad — a sentiment that goes a long way to encapsulating Rainer Maria’s first two albums, which were so patient in their handling of emotions that you could almost feel them being processed in real time.

Taken from their second album, “Planetary” is wistful and slow-burning, like an audible sunset, with dual vocals following a “finishing each other’s sentences” style of writing that feels just as much like an internal dialogue as it does a conversation. As the narrator contemplates a relationship while on the road — in flux both geographically and emotionally — it’s a snapshot of the precipice of change. An act of contemplation that settles into the space between knowing an end is in sight and knowing what shape it will take. In more diaristic terms, it recalls another line from that same Rilke letter: “The future stands still, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space.” —Emma Garland

11. Sunny Day Real Estate, “In Circles” (1994)

The introductory guitar lead cycles in place, sounding like it was imported from a much faster song. The drums come in a hair too late, and the snare has the dulled thwack of a piece of Tupperware. The faint remnant of a distortion pedal clicking off precedes the first verse. When Sunny Day Real Estate play “In Circles” on 120 Minutes, Jeremy Enigk is wearing a Thrasher sweatshirt and Nate Mendel is rocking calf-length khaki shorts. Sunny Day Real Estate were a Seattle band on Sub Pop in 1994, so they inevitably shared some of indie rock’s scrappier audio-visual aesthetics of the time, but an entire genre was sustained on the seemingly rickety structure of “In Circles” because the foundation was so secure: Before the blood-boiling harmonies announce the second chorus, Enigk distills the entire ethos of emo into ten words: “I dream to heal your wounds, but I bleed myself.” It speaks to Sunny Day Real Estate’s uneasy but permanent state as legends in a genre that has no place for idols. “In Circles” is an eternal reminder that this music is by and for people who seek spiritual deliverance and would give anything to save others if they could only save themselves. —Ian Cohen

10. Hop Along, “Tibetan Pop Stars” (2012)

Hop Along. Photo: Getty Images/2018 David A. Smith

No lyric this decade has been as heartbreaking as Frances Quinlan singing, “My love is average” at the end of “Tibetan Pop Stars.” While emo is often stereotyped as being melodramatic, the genre’s best bands have always had a distinct subtlety to their attack, and that’s what Hop Along displays so perfectly here. While Hop Along has covered a lot of ground since they first started, no song has hit as hard, or become as iconic, as “Tibetan Pop Stars.” The simple, chunky riff that opens it melts away fairly quickly, giving drummer Mark Quinlan the room to keep a constant tom shuffle going during the verses, and allowing Frances to bring her showstopping vocals to the forefront. Those hard stops in the chorus see the band drop out, letting Frances’s vocals dangle out in the open, each word grabbing at the listener and pulling them in closer. Her delivery becomes more intense with each measure, building to a final section of simple, evocative, and leveling phrases: “Nobody deserves you the way that I do.” Arguably, Hop Along never wrote another emo song again, but “Tibetan Pop Stars” so succinctly summed up everything great about the genre they never needed to. —David Anthony

9. My Chemical Romance, “Helena” (2004)

Few emo bands matched My Chemical Romance for pure kinetic energy. Before they slowed down and were swallowed up by successive concept albums — which were even performed by different fictional versions of the band — they were a popular emo act whose songs were so quicksilver and explosive they exerted an irresistible gravitational pull. Of course, they were still ruled by concepts: “Helena” is both a tribute to singer Gerard and bassist Mikey Way’s late grandmother and the start of a vampire Western that runs beneath the remainder of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. Even those who were suspicious of emo in 2004 can’t bring themselves to deny “Helena”; when the drums kick in, it’s like they drag you into the song’s current kicking and screaming. When the song explodes into its chorus, it’s a perfectly exaggerated piece of melodrama, every feeling being inhabited as if it were the last. —Brad Nelson

8.  Algernon Cadwallader, “Some Kind of Cadwallader” (2008) 

If it weren’t for Algernon Cadwallader, the late-aughts emo revival would be a lot more mopey and a lot less fun. Though the original four members of the band were tweaking their sound in 2005, it wasn’t until Some Kind of Cadwallader came out in 2008 that singer-bassist Peter Helmis, guitarist Joe Reinhart, and drummer Nicholas Tazza kicked things into high gear. The influences of Cap’n Jazz and American Football can be heard everywhere but especially so in “Some Kind of Cadwallader”: the flailing yelps, the sunny guitar slides, the muddled mentions of punch stains on a tuxedo shirt. There’s a distinctly Tim Kinsella enunciation to it all, as if he patented his own form of syntax-warping poetry back in 1993. Despite most of Algernon Cadwallader’s lyrics being just as hard to decipher live as they are on record, those in the album’s title-track stand out for being firmly rooted in adolescence. It’s giddy and goofy and never once takes itself seriously, despite the fact that jubilation, like sincerity, is difficult to fake. Algernon Cadwallader predicted what every teenager getting sucked into the emo revival would find themselves saying at night, driving home from a gig at the local rec center, aware of a newfound budding love: “Oh man, it’s taking me over.” And there’s nothing you can do about it. —Nina Corcoran

7. Rites of Spring, “Deeper Than Inside” (1985)

Rites of Spring offered refuge for hardcore dropouts who weren’t keen on the increasingly macho and violent direction it was heading in at the time. Defined just as much by what they left out as what they took from it, the band’s eponymous (and only) album used the genre’s speed and ferocity to explore alternative themes — often to do with longing and confusion. Writing in largely abstract terms (another departure from hardcore’s direct approach), vocalist-guitarist Guy Picciotto deployed personal maladies like protest slogans. A combination of dramatic statements and half-rhetorical, half-desperate questions, “Deeper Than Inside” is absolutely tormented. It feels very much like the existential crisis that hits when you look in the mirror and think: Who is this person, and what are they capable of? “The world is my fuse,” then, comes as both antagonism and a catalyst for positive change. Experimenting more with loud-quiet dynamics and melody, Rites of Spring were responsible for a general softening of hardcore’s rigid framework, which is partly why they were the first to inspire the term “emo” both as a descriptor and a slur. The band never recognized it as a genre, of course, but they provided the most significant cultural touchstone for the next 25 years of it all the same. —Emma Garland

6. Paramore, “That’s What You Get” (2007)

“Misery Business” may be engraved in the cultural memory, but as a song, it’s less interesting and less honest than “That’s What You Get.” The superlative single released from Paramore’s breakthrough album Riot! is about feelings overwhelming the rest of the senses, about falling in love even when it’s obviously going to fall apart. It’s driven by a riff that is quintessentially Paramore, a synchronized bloom of guitars and drums that delivers the same fizzy cathartic rush as the best pop music. The almost dubby guitar echoes in the verses make them sound like the upward bubblings of carbonation. Hayley Williams’s voice is almost casually graceful; unusually for an emo singer, she never struggles between notes, and there’s a candidness to her delivery that makes you feel as if you’re in direct conversation with her about her life. “Pain make your way to me,” she sings, “and I’ll always be just so inviting.” She knows she’ll find herself in this position again, in this anxious wrestling between sense and the total nonsense of feeling. —Brad Nelson

5. Sunny Day Real Estate, “Seven” (1994)

The center of “Seven” and of Sunny Day Real Estate’s debut album Diary is Jeremy Enigk’s voice — which, after the stress of a previous tour, had worn down to a pale, eroded shriek just before the sessions for Diary began. “Sew … it on,” Enigk sings in a cracked whisper, the feeling he packs in and around each collage of words more meaningful than the words themselves. What happens next in “Seven” — Enigk, guitarist Dan Hoerner, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer William Goldsmith all align on an alternating two-chord pattern for seven hits — shifted the landscape of emo in 1994, redrawing the map from scratch. Traces of hardcore linger in Enigk and Hoerner’s scraping harmonies, but the guitar work and the songwriting were expanding beyond the genre’s already porous boundaries, each instrument combining into a singular wave of gnarled sound that resembled the Smashing Pumpkins more than Still Life. Everything and everyone that came after Diary followed its lead. —Brad Nelson

4. Jimmy Eat World, “Sweetness” (2001)

When Jim Adkins first asked, “Are you listening?,” the answer was “Probably not.” Jimmy Eat World was a mostly unheralded band when they recorded the demo for “Sweetness,” retroactively attributed to their masterpiece Clarity as a bonus cut on the 2007 reissue. As legend has it, Capitol didn’t think “Sweetness” belonged on the record — and it was right, even if the label didn’t get to reap the rewards of its foresight. The song was far more in line with the concise, blockbuster singles of Bleed American that made stars of Jimmy Eat World two years after Capitol dropped them for failing to thrive in a market dominated by nu-metal and teen pop. Though Jimmy Eat World could be considered power-pop by that point, “Sweetness” boldly honors their roots as a post-hardcore band that namechecked the Jesus Lizard as one of their formative influences: the call-and-response vocals; the stop-start, dual-guitar interplay; and Zach Lind’s endlessly churning percussion underpinning Adkins’s all-American hooks combine for a song that’s thrilling and pummeling, like any good crush. “Sweetness” didn’t achieve the same ubiquity as “The Middle,” but it negated any possibility of Jimmy Eat World being pegged as a one-hit wonder and thus kept the door open for bands who pushed emo toward even greater commercial fortunes. Regardless of what Rolling Stone or NME or anyone else told you later in 2001, the New Rock Revolution was already under way. —Ian Cohen

3. Cap’n Jazz, “Little League” (1995)

There’s a silliness to Cap’n Jazz that you rarely find in emo — which, on the whole, tends to take things seriously and demands to be taken seriously in turn. “Little League” is a cry from deep within the throes of romance, with all its hopes and pitfalls. It’s familiar territory, skewed by Tim Kinsella’s abstract and affectionate lyricism that was (and still does feel) out of step with both the sobriety of Revolution Summer bands that came before and the histrionics of those that came after. By comparison, “Hey coffee eyes / You got me coughing up my cookie heart” could almost pass as something Finn sings about a crush in Adventure Time.

Seemingly following Hemingway’s reported adage “Write drunk, edit sober” without making it to the second stage of the process, Cap’n Jazz’s style was too eccentric and their raison d’être too haphazard to form any hard ties to scenes beyond their own. But there is reason in their chaos, and “Little League” is a prime example of that. It presents itself like a teenager’s bedroom — a seemingly incoherent mess that, upon closer inspection, reveals the most intimate secrets. Darkness lies dormant, perhaps more so for Cap’n Jazz than many of the bands mentioned here, but “Little League” isn’t interested in confronting it. Instead, it’s almost compulsively shaken off. Healthy or not, distress is dragged — like cans tied to the back of a bicycle — into a territory that could almost be described as fun. —Emma Garland

2. Jawbreaker, “Accident Prone” (1995)

Photo: September Club/Vimeo

The lore surrounding Jawbreaker’s lone major label release, 1995’s Dear You, has been well documented. The beloved Bay Area band, which was vocally critical of major labels, as well as bigger punk imprints like Epitaph, signed a deal with Geffen. And, right on cue, the fiercely independent scene they were a part of quickly revolted against them. But while that context is important, it’s a testament to Dear You’s quality that even the band’s most disgruntled fans couldn’t deny the album’s charms forever. Not only is Dear You a superior sonic experience than what came before; it also features the band’s best song, the lumbering punch that is “Accident Prone.”

Taking the obtuse abstractions found on Bivouac — which were refined on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy — to their logical endpoint, Jawbreaker turns in the kind of ballad that mimics a sharp, persistent ache. Blake Schwarzenbach is at his peak as a vocalist, and his guitar playing, full of slowly arpeggiated chords, sounds as if he’s hitting the notes only so he can watch them decay in his hands. Those languid strums are a cunning bit of misdirection, as the chorus rips open with layers of power chords, turning Schwarzenbach’s guitar into a roaring jet engine while drummer Adam Pfahler punishes his kick drum and gives the song a constant thump that hits right in the solar plexus. Bassist Chris Bauermeister fills in all the open space he’s afforded, pushing the song to its heart-racing climax, a moment that feels truly cathartic given all the patience the band displayed in getting to that point. “Accident Prone” is the kind of song that’s so massive, so moving, and so utterly perfect in its execution it illustrates exactly why Jawbreaker remains so beloved — and why even the most jaded, cynical punk couldn’t stay mad at them. —David Anthony

1. American Football, “Never Meant” (1999)

Photo: Getty Images/2016 Miikka Skaffari

The greatest emo song of all time really does sound like it was never meant to be. At least for a few seconds, that is. The false start is one of the oldest tricks in the book, exalting the recording process by seemingly demystifying it first — a tossed-off drum roll, some errant guitar squeaks, a little studio chatter, all of it humblebragging: “Oh, don’t mind us, me and my friends are about to put some magic to tape.” And yet … that’s literally what happened on American Football’s self-titled debut. “When we first started making music, it wasn’t to be popular, or even be a band,” Mike Kinsella claimed upon their rapturously received return in 2016, and it checks out. American Football were simply three University of Illinois students interested only in what lay just beyond everything that defined them to that point — namely, punk rock and college. Nearly every song on American Football is at an enviable peace over the drastic changes that await anyone entering their 20s. Kinsella shyly yelps, “I think it’s best / Because you can’t miss what you forget / So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me / Was never meant” as the album-opener “Never Meant” fades out, cementing it as one of the sweetest and most sentimental breakup songs ever recorded. For a while, “Never Meant” scanned as prophetic metacommentary on American Football itself, given that the band called it quits months later. Let’s just be grateful that this beautiful fling happened rather than sad that it ended.

And then American Football wound up becoming indie rock’s Before Sunrise: All parties involved couldn’t seem to shake the idea that something this effortlessly magical was meant to be, and so they spent the next 20 years (and two sequels) trying to recapture that same chemistry. But you just end up wondering how much the initial romance owes to a lack of boundaries, expectations, or a traditional trajectory. “Never Meant” defies conventional song structure, severs emo completely from its hardcore roots, and disregards the distinction between “happy” major keys and “sad” minors. Kinsella and Steve Holmes’s guitars are both harmonious and slightly dissonant, as beautiful or heartbreaking or heartbreakingly beautiful as the listener wants, flowing like tears of joy.

“Never Meant” wouldn’t have topped this list 15, ten, or even five years ago — but a list like this probably wouldn’t have run in a major publication either. Though the impact of American Football cannot be overstated, its veneration was slow and organic and achieved the frankly inconceivable feat of replacing not just Rites of Spring or Sunny Day Real Estate as the working definitive article of “emo,” but also asserting the genre’s legitimacy (however successfully) after the MySpace era. American Football was the single biggest influence on the 2010s revival that challenged gatekeepers to reassess their biases and begrudgingly acknowledge a cultural shift that resulted in feeling stuff” music becoming the dominant mode of indie rock with guitars. Countless bands found themselves in the searching instrumentals and bottomless yearning of American Football and now capos, alternate tunings, odd time signatures, and trumpets are as ingrained in the perception of “emo” as red flannels or swoop haircuts. But American Football didn’t just reinvent the genre’s sound, it reasserted that its primary emotion isn’t sadness or spite, but an all-encompassing romanticism best expressed by “Never Meant” — a song that occupies the past, present and future, looking forward to nostalgia for right now. —Ian Cohen

The 100 Greatest Emo Songs of All Time