Friday Five (Six): Best Emo Records, Literary References Included


Before emo went MTV, it referred to a very specific sound (one that bears no resemblance whatsoever to My Chemical Romance, for the record). For example, Bright Eyes was quintessential emo (but I think his emo stuff is absolutely awful, whether solo or with Desaparacidos. Stick to the indie-folk stuff).

While it was born of the punk movement (specific roots lie with Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate), it bears no resemblance to the "pop-punk" with which the term is now exchanged synonymously with. In fact, the movement was resolutely against makeup and style. We knew it was over when the sorority girls starting showing up at concerts with studded belts freshly purchased from Hot Topic.

In our day, it was about angsty white people who were heavily into literature and poetry and lost love, all the better for this brown girl who had the first two and had never experienced the last. For me though, the best emo was a little less angsty and more earnest.

When these artists grew up, they grew into straight pop. But for a brief, shining moment, they were ours, and ours alone.

I'm doing six this week because I need to include Sunny Day Real Estate, as the forefathers of the movement, though it wasn't strictly one of my favorites (it is awesome though.)


Special Guest: Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate

The genre wasn't always consigned to the underground. In fact, Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate was headed for the big leagues. SDRE performed the song all over late night television, and hitched a ride with Soul Coughing and eventually the Foo Fighters in support of the album. Then they had songs on two MASSIVE soundtracks: The Crow and Batman Forever. Sadly, the band suffered from internal turmoil, and never quite made it.

But in Diary, you hear everything that would come to define emo: literary references galore, high contrast between clean guitar and distortion, a powerful sense of melody, and dynamic range.


Clarity perfectly captures the other main characteristic of emo: the music tends to be so damned pretty. While Jimmy Eat World would go on to the greatest success of any "emo" acts (many say by selling out, but I think Bleed American is awesome), Clarity remains the album that emo boys would play to the girls they liked.

There wasn't a single guitarist I knew in college that couldn't play "For Me This is Heaven." Intricate dual-guitar parts? Check.

And as for the requisite literary references? "Goodbye Sky Harbor" borrows lyrics directly from the climactic scene of John Irving's Prayer for Owen Meany.

My personal favorite is "Just Watch the Fireworks", but I couldn't find a good live video for it, so you get this FANTASTIC performance of "For Me This is Heaven" instead. It's got Rachel Haden, who sang backup vocals in the recording, and was in many seminal acts of her own, such as That Dog and, more importantly, The Rentals.


Like many on this list, their first album was classic emo, and then they transformed into another genre entirely (in their case, 60s psychedelic rock. Very odd, but very awesome.) But Designing a Nervous Breakdown still holds a very special place in my heart, as I first heard it when I was struggling to learn guitar, and played many of the riffs over and over again.

And because we love our literary references, there are songs on this album titled: "The Heart is A Lonely Hunter," and "Hart Crane."

These guys were also headed for the big-time before they split, closing things out with an appearance on The O.C., if memory serves.

"All Things Ordinary" is a fucking kick-ass song, and the video is pretty damned fun. That is all. I particularly enjoy the "hoedown" skin in the video. Let me know your favorite.


Rainer Maria has the decency of putting their literary reference right there in their name. This doesn't stop them from naming songs "Breakfast of Champions," however. I was really stuck on which album to choose. Look Now Look Again is more traditionally emo, but Long Knives Drawn is a great example of how to take everything that's great about emo and make it a little less maudlin.

But this is an emo list, so I guess Look Now Look Again takes the cake. "Broken Radio" stands as one of the first five emo songs I ever heard (so when people claim there weren't females in emo, I always bristle, even though statistics-wise, it's probably true). The band became extremely polished, but "Broken Radio" makes full use of the rotten production values, and can't quite handle Caitlin de Marrais' shouting (but at 18, I certainly could, and LOVED it).


Guys, words cannot convey my long-standing and everlasting love for The Juliana Theory. I've seen them live about ten times, and if they hadn't broken up, I'd see them live many more times. They were the second concert I ever attended (the first being The Bangles), and the first time I saw them was within days of heading to college.

They did some serious genre-fucking in this album and in its follow-up, Love, which meant that even when a major label picked them up, they had no idea how to sell the band. Even in their earlier days, they were considered an emo band because no one knew how the hell else to characterize them.

From "Into the Dark" all the way to "You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight," the band takes you on a journey from emo-pop all the way to metal, with bits of gospel in the middle (I know, right?). (The follow-up album went from rock to techno to soul, so this is not a band that's afraid of innovation).

I'd link a video to the 9 minute masterpiece rock finale, but I'm saving that for a future post. Instead, you get another old favorite: "Into the Dark."


I thought about cheating and including both Swiss Army Romance and Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. For all intents and purposes, all the songs are part of the same album, and choosing between the two is a fool's errand. In fact, Places has a couple of remakes of songs from Swiss Army Romance. But listening to them today, Swiss Army Romance is clearly superior.

I still remember the first time I listened to "The Best Deceptions." I was 16 years old, and on a trip to Paris with my family. Convinced by one of my "cool friends" to listen to this song and to Bleed American, I burned them on a cd. As we took the train to and fro Versailles, I listened to this cd over and over again, until I made peace with Chris Carrabba's voice (it's a bit of an acquired taste). And then the inevitable happened.

I fell in love with Chris Carrabba in a bad, bad way. When that MTV Unplugged aired in 2001, I recorded it and watched it until I wore out the tape. These two albums represented everything that life held in waiting, mistakes and deceptions and loves and lost loves and just a hell of a lot of poetry and guitar.

I may not listen to Dashboard Confessional anymore, but he's had an indelible effect on my guitar playing and my obsession with alternate tunings and dynamic shifts (Joni Mitchell also deserves credit for this). But once you get past the angst and melancholy, this record opened my eyes to the fact that acoustic guitar could be just as raucous as electric.

And can I give a shout-out to Jolie Lindholm, backup-vocalist? When you hear a female harmony, it's her. (She also had her own band, The Rocking Horse WInner, but it was more pop than emo.)

Here's "Sharp Hint of New Tears," a song that remains one of my favorites. Seriously guys, that is one guitar part, played solo.


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3 Responses to “ Friday Five (Six): Best Emo Records, Literary References Included ”

  1. The thing about fuzzy sounds is it makes it hard to hear the lyrics, which are probably  one of the most important parts of all these bands... Therefore on a first listen (and with crappy speakers) I have to vote number 4 as AMAZING and the rest as requiring repeated listens.

  2. that's a good point! it's definitely a combination of genuinely intelligent lyrics and poor production values that defines the genre.

    And yes, Rainer Maria = the best.

  3. I have just (legally!) downloaded the album. I shall now listen to it.


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