A Track by Track Story of Emo
What started as an extension of Washington D.C.’s hardcore punk scene in the mid 1980s, the term emo has gone on to become an umbrella term for any rock act with personal lyrics and an unpolished vocal delivery. We all have uncensored, complex feelings. The forefathers of emo loudly broadcast theirs through an unbridled honesty and a youthful urgency. Although not an exhaustive list, these tracks give a foundational understanding of the genre’s primary milestones,
Rites of Spring
“Deeper Than Inside” (1985)
D.C. based Rites of Spring, fronted by Guy Piccioti, performed hardcore punk funneled through their own unique edge. The songs on their lone studio album have a greater emphasis on melody while the lyrics are far more personal and introspective. Although Rites of Spring resent the title, they are universally considered the founders of emotional hardcore or “emo”.
“Give Me Back” (1987)
After the dissolution of hardcore punk pioneers Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye started his new project Embrace, the most iconic band involved with Washington D.C.’s Revolution Summer of 1985. This movement took the visceral sound of hardcore punk while taking a stance against the sexism and hyper-masculinity creeping up in the scene. Later on, MacKaye and Rites of Spring’s Piccioti would go on to form the legendary post-hardcore outfit Fugazi.
Moss Icon hailed from Maryland and gave emotive hardcore a heightened sense of musical sophistication. Their songs were darker in tone and the playing was more jagged and angular. These were cues taken from the moody post-punk bands that Moss Icon was so heavily influenced by. Moss Icon gave way to a distinctive technique in emo music: mixing slower sections with heavier and abrasive phrases.
“Angry Son” (1993)
The emo sound would quickly move outside of the D.C. area and find its way to the west coast. Indian Summer added more diversity to emo’s evolving sound. Still with resemblances to the hardcore elements present in the bands that preceded them, Indian Summer’s songs were longer and featured quieter passages that abruptly shifted into chaotic climaxes. This loud-soft approach would influence many significant alternative and indie rock bands in following years.
New York punks Jawbreaker were a 90s underground phenomenon, though they never personally considered themselves an emo band. Their more melodic and hook oriented approach differentiated them from previous bands given the emo tag. Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics told about the band’s personal struggles with a jagged half sung/half shouted delivery. Jawbreaker was a stepping stone towards the more tender and sweet branch of emo to follow.
Cap N’ Jazz
“Oh Messy Life” (1994)
Chicago’s Cap N’ Jazz were arguably the most pivotal player in the burgeoning Midwestern emo scene. While maintaining emo’s DIY aesthetic and confessional lyricism, Cap N’ Jazz’s sound was less rooted in hardcore punk and more influenced by the musical characteristics of indie rock that was occuring tangentially to emo. Tim and Mike Kinsella’s songs were messy and chaotic, which was all part of the charm for these short-lived cult heroes.
Sunny Day Real Estate
“In Circles” (1994)
While emo had already been distancing itself from its hardcore origins, Sunny Day Real estate truly cut it off from those roots. Instead, these songs were sprinkled with jangly, arpeggiated guitars. Most of the songs featured quiet, introspective sections in contrast to the chaotic and abrasive sounds of emo’s past. Sunny Day Real Estate’s music was just as emotionally resonant, but the approach was noticeably different.
Often looming in the shadows of their peers Sunny Day Real Estate, this under recognized Austin outfit married a raw, lo-fi sound with wailing vocals, sharp guitar attacks, and intensely weary lyrics from Chris Simpson. Mineral’s influence on the emo genre is understated but undoubtedly present.
“Never Meant” (1999)
After the break up of Can N’ Jazz, Mike Kinsella would go on to form his new band American Football. Their debut, self-titled album holds up as a classic of 90s indie and one of the most celebrated milestones of Midwestern emo. American Football mixed their saccharine sound with elements of post-rock and jazz. Their sound distinguishes itself with alternative tuning experiments, strange time signatures, and interesting arrangements complete with horn sections and other instrumentation.
“Epilogue of a Car Crash” (1999)
While bands were making emo more melodic and sweet, others like Orchid went in the opposite direction. They took emotive hardcore to more chaotic and dissonant places that the genre had yet ventured. They instead borrowed from the heavier genres such as grindcore and powerviolence. This is the beginning of the subgenre known as screamo.
“In Love With an Apparition” (2001)
D.C. based Pg. 99 were an early player in screamo. Pg. 99 wrote violent sounding songs about personal struggles, anxieties, and anguish. It was a stark contrast to the bright and jangly sounds happening in the Midwest.
City of Caterpillar
“A Little Change Can Go A Long Ways” (2002)
City of Caterpillar was the next logical step in the evolution of screamo. The ferocity pioneered by Pg. 99 and Orchid was approached with more ambition. City of Caterpillar experimented with longer and more complex songwriting. While holding on to the intensity of their peers, City of Caterpillar was equally inspired by post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai.
Jimmy Eat World
“Lucky Denver Mint” (1999)
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Emo would foster a new mainstream audience and commercial viability. Jimmy Eat World was one of the first emo bands to gain major popularity as a result of their cleaner and more polished sound. Mainstream emo bands began sounding more like their pop-punk contemporaries, Jimmy Eat World functioning as the bridge.
“Your Deep Rest” (2014)
The Hotelier find themselves at the forefront of what scenesters have labeled the “modern emo revival”. The idea is that the new conventional concept of emo and the popular bands that perform it (My Chemical Romance, Fallout Boy, the entire Fueled By Ramen roster) have taken the genre too far from it’s DIY roots. This new crop of bands including The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, You Blew It!, and Into It. Over It have brought back the lo-fi, confessional sensibilities of emo’s past with a modern sheen influenced by the indie rock bands making their way around the summer festival circuit. The Hotelier make catchy, raw, and passionate songs for a new generation interested in emo’s rich history.