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

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Top 20 Emo Albums in History: 10-1

20. Jawbreaker

Dear You


Dear You was almost universally hated by longtime Jawbreaker fans upon its release. But after the San Francisco-based trio broke up in 1996, they somehow got a whole bunch of new fans, who didn't care that the work was a glossy record on a major label. Instead, they (rightfully) appreciated maudlin pop-punk songs like “I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both,” “Sluttering (May 4th),” and “Million,” the beauty of which still resonates today. -Eric Grubbs

19. Cursive



On Cursive's Domestica, singer Tim Kasher and crew tell the story of a marriage unraveling amid excoriating emotional violence that leaves literal holes in the walls. That the record came on the heels of Kasher's own divorce, as well as his vocal delivery, which is a guttural mess of bloody-throated candor, is probably why the work sounds so authentic. Domestica is easily the band's most cohesive record, not just thematically, but also musically, with a chorus-eschewing aesthetic closer to emo's forefathers in D.C. than Cursive's indie-folk brethren of Omaha. They were always Saddle Creek's “heavy” band, and Domestica is a about as heavy as it gets. -Patrick James

18. The Anniversary

Designing a Nervous Breakdown


The debut record from Lawrence, Kansas's The Anniversary sounds a lot more twee today than it did in 2000 — certain choruses evoke images of sparkly clouds of Pixy Stix blasting out of Moog synths. But between the keyboards, the back-up vocals of Adrianne Verhoeven, and the lo-fi orchestral crescendos, there's a lot to love here. The work's best tracks (“D in Detroit,” “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”) balance their frenetic earnestness with adolescent melancholy and the essence of timeless pop — unforgettable hooks and choruses. -Patrick James

17. Quicksand

Manic Compression


While emo is often associated with a softer, slicker, more melodic sound, there was a dark edge to the early movement. Bands like Quicksand set the template for this trend, also known as post-hardcore. The group showcased Walter Schreifels (formerly of the heavily melodic second-wave hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits) performing heavy, angular guitar explorations in the vein of Helmet or Fugazi at their more aggressive moments. -Nicholas Pell

16. Cap'n Jazz

Shmap'n Shmazz (aka Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards In The Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We've Slipped On and Egg Shells We've Tippy Toed Over)


Cult sensation Cap'n Jazz broke up before Shmap'n Shmazz, their only full-length release, hit record stores. Long out of print, its chaotic sound bridged the gap between dirty punky early emo and the cleaner preppy Midwestern college variety. Brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella give a full-fledged post-punk genre lesson while future Promise Ring frontman Davey von Bohlen caterwauls about the only thing other than failed relationships that emo kids care about: childhood nostalgia. -Paul T. Bradley

15. The Get Up Kids

Four Minute Mile


On Four Minute Mile, Kansas City quartet The Get Up Kids chronicle every type of high school heartbreak, as seen through the weak lens of college years. Shellac wizard Bob Weston's unflappable production propels the work beyond mere throb and whine, and its melodic energy disguises some beautifully depressing adolescent naiveté. Four Minute Mile forced countless depression-fetished late-'90s dudes into wishing that they could fall in love with an Amy, run away from her for some reason and then send her letters begging for her understanding. -Paul T. Bradley

14. The Get Up Kids

Something to Write Home About


On their second album, The Get-Up Kids affirmed Vagrant Records' co-owner John Cohen's faith; to fund Something to Write Home About, he borrowed money from his parents, who mortgaged their house. The result? A DIY effort featuring lyrics about the awkward state of the group's personal and professional relationships, along with big pop punk melodies. It was enough to put the Get-Up Kids at the forefront of a movement that was about to blow up. -Daniel Kohn

13. Jawbreaker

24 Hour Revenge Therapy


Focused on punk, girls and the angst created by both, Jawbreaker's third album is the soundtrack to three guys living, questioning and occasionally hating life in the grunge-era Bay Area. Their simple songs feature storytelling and creative melodies; it was enough to make fans fall in love, although, post-backlash, lyrics like, “You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone” still sting a bit. -Kelsey Whipple

12. Jimmy Eat World



Clarity could have been career suicide for Jimmy Eat World — instead, it was a masterpiece. At the time they recorded the work, their third album, the Mesa, AZ four-piece was a secret handshake in the underground punk scene. The 13 songs of Clarity, however, connected beyond the small, dedicated audience they had cultivated. It's no wonder; killer production by Mark Trombino blended with fantastic songwriting to create a work that's compelling from start to finish. -Eric Grubbs

11. Dag Nasty

Can I Say?


From the opening drum roll of “Values Here,” you know that what you're in for on Dag Nasty's Can I Say?: a high-energy exploration of hardcore punk. What you might not be expecting is something that's quite this tuneful. Dave Smalley, former frontman of Boston hardcore legends DYS teamed with former Minor Threat axeman Brian Baker to combine the wild energy of DYS's Brotherhood album and the slickness of their sophomore self-titled effort. Consider it the “other” lost Minor Threat record, alongside Embrace's self-titled effort. -Nicholas Pell

See also:

Top 20 Emo Albums in History: 10-1

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