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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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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