Few music genres inspire as many eye rolls as emo. But so-called “emotional hardcore” was an inevitable outgrowth of hardcore, which was itself a response to the commercialization of punk. Emo kicked off in the mid-1980s, when D.C. acts wanted to express themselves a bit more, shall we say, tenderly. The genre reached an aesthetic peak in the early-to-mid-1990s, as a second wave of emo spread through the Midwest. (Its mall-core nadir would come later, in the aughts, though the less said about that the better.) In any case, the through-line is a sensibility based on uncompromising worldviews, alternately melodic and explosive guitars, and lungs eviscerated in the name of earnestness. Here are the 20 best albums of the genre. -Patrick James

See also:

Top 20 Emo Albums in History: 20-11

Top 20 Punk Albums in History

10. Embrace



Toward the end of their run, Minor Threat showed the shape of hardcore to come: The same energy, but with more melody and musical nuance. Just as punk had given way to the nervous angularity of post-punk, so would hardcore yield to the layered explorations of emo. Embrace is, effectively, Ian MacKaye fronting his brother Alec's former band The Faith, and the result is just about as powerful as anything that Minor Threat ever did, but highlights the musicianship of MacKaye's erstwhile project. -Nicholas Pell

9. Jawbreaker



Jawbreaker's second full length Bivouac hits the sweet spot between the relatively uncomplicated melodic punk of their debut album, Unfun, and the flannel-clad anxiety of grunge. Blake Schwarzenbach's gravelly vocals pierce through a thick layer of Seattle-flavored distortion — busy bass lines carrying the melody and a backdrop of tempo variations. Schwarzenbach's strengths are both his mesmerizing storytelling and his distinctive cadence, which turned out to be the result of a throat polyp. -Theis Duelund

8. Jimmy Eat World

Bleed American


Jimmy Eat World's breakthrough almost didn't happen. The Mesa natives' 1999 work Clarity was a commercial flop (by the standards of the day, anyway) and, in the wake of 9/11, Bleed American was stripped of its name. (It was for a time titled eponymously.) But the work went on to be a critical and commercial success, and the title track, “The Middle” and “Sweetness” are still popular with alt rock radio. Along the way, their power pop songs have helped provided the blueprint for mainstream emo success. -Daniel Kohn

7. The Promise Ring

30° Everywhere


You can straddle the line between pop and the underground for only so long. At the time of their first LP, second-generation emo band from Milwaukee The Promise Ring still had strong ties to their scene — singer Davey von Bohlen had previously played in Chicago's beloved and influential Cap'n Jazz — though those ties would weaken the following year with the release of the more widely appealing Nothing Feels Good. Still, 30° Everywhere is a spastic, fuzzy treasure, catchy as hell and guided by von Bohlen's heart-aching lisp. -Patrick James

6. Mineral

The Power of Falling


There's maybe no better distillation of mid-1990s emo than Mineral's The Power of Failing. The empyreal finger-picking crescendos, the punch-to-the-gut octave note explosions, the not-quite-in-key vocals issuing soft-then-screamed confessions about the shortcomings of self — it's all gorgeously imperfect, from opening notes of “5, 8, and 10” to the harrowing chorus of “Parking Lot.” Each successive song feels like an object lesson in Samuel Beckett's emo-appropriate mantra: Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -Patrick James

5. The Promise Ring

Nothing Feels Good


Smoothing out the rough edges found on their debut album, The Promise Ring's second work Nothing Feels Good is much cleaner, but no less riveting. Power pop played by four men filled with piss and vinegar, the songs have a kind of immediacy not often found in emo or punk. At the end of the day, the album documents how, in the late '90s, emo shifted from jagged math rock more into the pop realm. -Eric Grubbs

4. Texas is the Reason

Do You Know Who You Are?


Comprised of former members of prominent New York hardcore bands, Texas is the Reason's sound jettisoned fast tempos in favor of a sound that mirrored what they were truly moved by at the time. The result is an amalgam of Sunny Day Real Estate, Quicksand, and British rock, and Do You Know Who You Are? is one of the finest records of the '90s. The band never made another album, which is fine, because this one is practically impossible to top. -Eric Grubbs

3. Braid

Frame & Canvas


Much of Braid's back story should have prohibited its success: The Illinois quartet began as a side project, lost more members than it gained, and broke up twice. But the guys cared, and toured more than most of their peers, and in 1998, the twenty-somethings translated a fan-first attitude into sentimental confessions full of relentless energy. At once far-reaching and over-sharing, Frame & Canvas has become a pillar of the genre. -Kelsey Whipple

2. Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring


If the Reagan administration turned hardcore political, Rites of Spring made it personal. The DC band's eponymous 1985 debut, produced by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye, was as groundbreaking as it was singular in punk history. Striking out against the uniformity of early '80s hardcore, monochrome in its pissed-offedness, Rites of Spring's only full-length album (besides the 1991 compilation End on End) furiously dismantled genre steeples in favor of raw, unrestrained emotional expressionism. The album is elevated by Guy Picciotto's poetic lyrics and the haunting vocal presence that led Andy Greenwald, author of Nothing Feels Good: Punkrock, Teenagers and Emo, to dub him “a punch drunk Rimbaud.” -Theis Duelund

1. Sunny Day Real Estate



Diary has taken on a mythical status, as though it were handed down from some higher place. But despite singer Jeremy Enigk's reputation as a shamanic figure, the work of Diary appears to have been pretty straightforward: When he and fellow guitarist Dan Horner teamed up with bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, the rhythm guys had already written six songs. Hence the name of the indelible opener to Diary, “Seven,” which countless bands have tried (and mostly failed) to mimic. It's often noted that during the group's first hiatus a few years later, Mendel and Goldsmith would decamp for Foo Fighters, as a means of suggesting that Sunny Day Real Estate bridged a gap between the obscurity of emo and the ubiquity of mainstream rock. But their impact has less to do with connecting the frayed threads of various genres and more to do with the undeniable feeling of music itself: those first two notes of “In Circles;” the wistful vocals of “Song About An Angel;” the violent crashes of “48.” The work feels both personal and, somehow, universal. -Patrick James

See also:

Top 20 Emo Albums in History: 20-11

Top 20 Punk Albums in History

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