More and more, we’re hearing about a supposed emo revival. Some might argue that emo (real emo) never died to begin with, and that the so-called “revival” is just a figment of music bloggers’ imaginations.
But as EMOvember draws to a close this week, I think it’s important we stop to appreciate some of the artists that shaped our tastes so indelibly.
By “we,” I mean the innumerable sensitive, troubled males that grew up in the post-masculine 1990s and 2000s with nowhere to turn but music.
You know who you are.
Here are some thoughts on five key emo albums that came out between 2000 and 2005, from five unrepentant emo fans. I chose this period somewhat arbitrarily, but with a focus on identifying as narrowly as possible the rapid creative output that formed emo’s tremendous third wave.
But it’s also no coincidence that these were the years I was in high school.
It was an impossible task to narrow it down like this. However, I think most readers will agree that this is a decent attempt at boiling the period down to its bare essentials. Please feel free to chime in with honorable mentions.
Whether or not the purported “revival” exists, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a decade later, these five albums still feel like home. As one faithful commentator wrote over the summer,
There’s nothing wrong with this sound, and you don’t have to outgrow these pound-the–steering wheel rhythms or yelp-y harmonies. It can grow up with you.
Dashboard Confessional - The Swiss Army Romance (November 2000)
by Braden King
Looking back on it, the timing seems almost unfair. Giving The Swiss Army Romance to my fifteen year-old self, when every problem is the end of the world and every heartache requires weeks of pining and obsession, was like giving emotional crack to emotional Rob Ford. I was addicted and kind of ashamed, but also weirdly proud of it.
Over the last decade I’ve had a lot of feelings about Dashboard Confessional (surprise! emo feelings!). When “Screaming Infidelities" started climbing the pop charts, it became cool to rip singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba and his painfully earnest songs. I was quick to joke about the band, despite loving the music and simultaneously being defensive of the album. The ridiculously titled "The Sharp Hint of New Tears” is ripe for ridicule, but it’s also one of the best songs Dashboard has ever made. Same goes for “Again I Go Unnoticed” and “Ender Will Save Us All.”
Even at the peek of their popularity, listening to The Swiss Army Romance was the ultimate guilty pleasure. The unique irony of listening to the album is that the solitary experience of listening to the music, which always had the potential to alienate or embarrass the listener, reinforced the outsider content of the song. It’s an awesome trick that no other album or genre pulls off.
Saves the Day - Stay What You Are (July 2001)
by Joe Syverson
Yo, I can’t believe how good Saves the Day still sounds! Of the albums under review in this retrospective, Stay What You Are is probably most aptly titled of all, given that the impetus of this blog post is the purported “emo revival” currently taking place.
I was twelve years old when I first became interested in this record, in the throws of the not-abnormal brutality that some of us experienced in Junior High. I suppose that now, twelve years later, my interpretation of it is markedly different than what I once perceived as a skinny, pimple-faced outcast that thought too much for his own good.
Today, Stay What You Are reflects, unlike a lot of third-wave emo at that time, a larger perspective on interpersonal relationships that their previous albums and the scene were not yet ready to investigate. Rather than there being a dichotomy between the ability to understand what you want personally and misunderstanding the wants of others, Saves the Day stepped outside of that framework.
The songwriting reflects first and third person perspectives, rather than the prototypical “I/me & you” that dominated the genre. Foreshadowed was the shift between the norms of that genre and the creative flowering of certain bands that genre could not contain; Saves the Day was the first to make the move (followed by some other greats addressed by my colleagues).
Easing off the rage (a little), growing up turned from anger and independence to a sorrowful compassion and hope, beginning with this record.
But I was a skinny, pimple-faced loser dodging the jerkoffs and sneaking glances at their suddenly, unbearably hot girlfriends. It was only sorrow for me!
Grow up with music.
Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends (March 2002)
by Dan Ambrose
Far from a perfect album, yet perfectly a perfect expression of a time, place and genre you’ll ever get, “Tell All Your Friends” by Taking Back Sunday is probably the last Compact Disc I ever purchased (used, at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, no less).
As Brad Nelson pointed out in that magical NPR piece on the genre, emo bands will eschew the emo designation and tell you that they are making hardcore. And where Nelson viewed the previous (and also the newest, fourth) wave of emo as a musically exploratory form of hardcore, the third wave— the one that was truly born at the moment of “Tell All Your Friends” release— was all about the opposite. It was a restricted, melodious study of grandeur and romanticism. TBS proudly and successfully re-married the personal-emotionality of the second wave with the fundamental classicism in early 90s hardcore— the musical crescendos, hooks, breakdowns and the cathartic need to scream your heart out.
This High Renaissance of Emo oversaw not just the last wave of rock radio, but also powered the last sputters of MTV as a musical delivery system, which hungrily lusted for pretty young men to grow their hair long again, to lament the turbulence of their adolescence and express their angst and anguish over the difficulties of getting laid and falling in love in a suburban feminist new world order where the old peacockish tricks of explosiveness and machismo only still sort of worked. In the landscape of “Tell All Your Friends,” male and female interactions are strictly tragedies, both genders bound to act out wickedly. Worst of all, the betrayal, competition, anger and disloyalty is perpetually recognized inwardly by the narrator; all the horrible things he feels about his friends are ultimately true of him, as well. I hate you, you hate me, but can’t we at least make out?
As with all TBS releases, there are throwaways and lesser tracks populating about 40% of the album. But those tracks which connect are grand slam game-winners that do what any emo does best. Like their literary bildungsromanian influences, Salinger, Stephen Chbosky and S.E. Hinton, they allow the listener to remember and relive the anguish and poignancy of their late, suburban teenage years in a safe, undiminished way. They say, “It’s ok. It really was hard. All the cushion of middle class life could never soften the blow of your first broken heart.”
As the manneristic fourth wave of emo blossoms, delayed almost a decade by the need to regroup after the critical shellacking of the third wave, simple earnest personal reflection is being eschewed for a cool and sarcastic reflexivity. These bands may be well advised to accept from the start what TBS knew in their very few first minutes of life. Whether you are proud of it or not, popular music is popular music. You’re cool today, you’re nothing tomorrow.
No matter how many Vice articles are written about you, in a few months someone will inevitably tell you “You’re So Last Summer.”
New Found Glory - Sticks and Stones (June 2002)
by Tom Syverson
New Found Glory always made me feel like things were going to be OK.
Most emo bands –including and especially the ones on this list –often have the effect of amplifying our personal anxieties. They remind us of our insecurities. They tear open old wounds. They deepen our bitterness. They help us explore and understand inner vexations. And of course, that’s why we listen.
But NFG was different. Rather than serving as accomplices in our sorrow, they wanted to say, “Hang in there, bro. We’re gonna make it.”
This sense of sincere positivity is what distinguishes them. Although they’re often considered the whiniest voice of the whiniest musical genre around, most of their songs are actually about feeling better about yourself –not worse.
Sticks and Stones was a perfect album in this respect. Their breakout single “My Friends Over You” rejects the genre’s characteristically slavish heartsickness in favor of admitting when it’s time to move on. “Never Give Up” reminds us to think with our heads rather than our hearts once in a while. “Sonny” comforts a friend that lost a family member. The whole album feels like your best friend wrote it.
On a subsequent release, they’d distill their message into the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten: listen to your friends. I can’t count the times I’ve repeated this mantra.
Listen to your friends.
For years, they’ve been the band that was there for me. And when I look back at some of the hardest years in my life, I’m not sure I would’ve made it without them.
Brand New - Déjà Entendu (June 2003)
Brand New released Deja Entendu in June 2003, right before my 15th birthday, and just after my freshman year of High School. The timing was sublime. My brain was developing a thirst for music. My emotional spectrum was increasing in range, for better or worse. At this time, Brand New, with the likes of too many others to count, were rocking their emotional little heads off with tales of woe, spite, and angst for all of America’s confused teenagers to cling to and agree with.
But I didn’t know any of this yet. I was still musically ignorant of anything past my parents’ influences.
And then it happened: I heard the bassline to “Sic Transit Gloria… Glory Fades” and I was hooked. I haven’t looked back since. It was the perfect song to suck me into the perfect album by a perfect band at the perfect time of my life. And I’m not exaggerating. Deja Entendu was made for the young man desperately searching for a girl to Love, Hate, Love to Hate, and Hate to Love.
But what made me connect to this album so well, and why I still feel strongly connected to it, was how effortlessly Jesse Lacey could go from “apathetic, selfish asshole” (see “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” – my pick for most underrated song of this genre) to “passionately romantic” (see “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” – my pick for best song of this genre) from song to song. I felt like I had that in me too, and I admired how he could turn it on and off.
To this day, I’m not really sure I understand what “emo” means, but I’m certain that I don’t care. I like the music that I like, feel free to call it whatever you want, it won’t change how it sounds to me. And nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever sounded better to me than Brand New.