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10 great emo songs by non-emo bands

by Andrew Sacher

Morrissey

Our friends Washed Up Emo launched this site IsThisBandEmo.com where you can type in a band’s name and get the “emo council”‘s verdict on whether or not said band is emo. It’s a fun/funny site with some indisputable ones (like American Football), some that will surely anger people (sorry Fall Out Boy fans), and of course some on-the-fencers (let the Jawbreaker arguments begin). Whether or not a band is emo is of course an Extremely Important Issue, and we wanted to have some fun with it and stir it up some more by putting together a list of 10 great songs by non-emo bands that are pretty damn emo. Credit where it’s due: in coming up with the list, I googled a bit to see other opinions on how emo these bands are, and found that Popstache did a similar list in 2011, and it actually included two of the same bands as this one.

Emo isn’t meant as a bad word here, just a genre. Check out our list, in no particular order, below…

Weezer – “Why Bother?”

Emo as we know it wouldn’t exist without Weezer’s diary entry of a second album, Pinkerton, even if they were never an emo band themselves, and one of the strongest cases for this is “Why Bother?.” #NotAllEmo is about unrequited love, but we all know a lot of it is, and what’s a more emo reaction to deciding whether or not you should pursue someone than “Why bother? It’s gonna hurt me, it’s gonna kill when you desert me.”

Foo Fighters – “Everlong”

Though Foo Fighters share bassist Nate Mendel with Sunny Day Real Estate, one of the most seminal emo bands of all time, they never went in that direction themselves. Except for 4 minutes and 10 seconds on “Everlong.” Those chord progressions could be ripped straight off Static Prevails or Dear You, and at least in the verses, Dave Grohl tones down his rawk shout for something more introspective. Especially with the whole emo-grunge thing going on now (Balance & Composure, Superheaven, etc) you can’t tell me none of these emo bands are rocking “Everlong” in their vans.

Modest Mouse – “Trailer Trash”

If you did a double take earlier this year when Pacific Northwest indie faves Modest Mouse announced they’d be touring with Brand New, look a little harder and you’ll see that Isaac Brock and co. have a bit of emo in them too. Musically, “Trailer Trash” has “punk band trying to write a pretty song” written all over it, and lyrically this is Isaac looking back through the eyes of his childhood self, one of emo’s favorite recurring themes. The strained passion in his voice is there the whole time, but when he lets out “Taking heartache with hard work / goddamn, I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything” he could earn himself a spot in the emo hall of fame.

Built to Spill – “Reasons”

“Reasons” does sound like it’s written to a love interest (“Stay with me until I die, there’s nothing else I want to try”) but that’s not even what makes this such an emo song. Like Modest Mouse it’s got the punk-gone-pretty guitars, and the nasal vocals automatically make Built to Spill a more emo bunch of indie rockers than, say, Pavement. But the rasp in Doug Martsch’s voice on “They are all reasons to me,” only hitting the note because he means it, not because he can — that’s about as emo as it gets.

The Wrens – “Boys You Won’t”

There’s always been a little emo in The Wrens’ indie rock. 1996’s Secaucus shares a scrappy youthfulness with the emo kids of that time, and its matured 2003 followup, The Meadowlands, has a sweeping beauty that’s got more than a little in common (coincidental or not) with Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity. “Boys You Won’t” (from the latter) takes that beauty from quiet to loud to louder, the lyrics favor sincerity over indie rock irony, and the vocals soar. Not to mention an earlier version of the track called “Miss Me” appeared on a Drive-Thru Records compilation. Imagine if Drive-Thru put The Meadowlands out in ’03 instead of Absolutely Kosher? The Wrens might have had a lot more crossover with Early November fans if they did.

The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now?”

While The Smiths had a huge impact on Brand New, and Morrissey’s mopey qualities influenced a ton of the early 2000s emo bands, there really isn’t even’t a proto-emo vibe to their sound. But lyrically, “How Soon Is Now?” should make all those 2000s sad boys watch the throne. I’ll leave you with this:

There’s a club if you’d like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go, and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home, and you cry
And you want to die

Mmhmm.

Archers of Loaf – “Fat”

I’ll give you exactly 25 seconds to turn this song on and tell me it’s not some of the most emo shit you’ve ever heard. Just 25 because that’s all you need for the guitar intro to cut out and Eric Bachmann to wail with no regard for what key he’s in, “WHAT DO YOU FUCKING CARE FOR ME?” It’s the same kind of raw, emotion-packed shout that characterized emo heroes Cap’n Jazz and revivalists like Algernon Cadwallader or early Joyce Manor. And coming in at less than a minute and 20 seconds, that shout probably isn’t the only trick Joyce Manor picked up from Archers of Loaf.

Violent Femmes – “Add It Up”

On “Add It Up,” the Violent Femmes kind of sound like the emo band that never was. There’s nothing but sexual frustration in the lyrics (“Why can’t I get just one fuck? I guess it’s got something to do with luck”), the vocals are as nasally and full of teen angst as it gets, they come from punk rock, and they’re using acoustic guitars! Yet somehow all of those elements that eventually described emo came together here in a way unlike they did with Vagrant Records bands. Perhaps in an alternate emoverse, “Add It Up” is someone’s bizzaro version of “For Want Of.”

Kylesa – “Don’t Look Back”

And you thought you wouldn’t seen a metal band on this list. Metal is maybe a genre that loathes emo more than indie rock, but Georgia sludge masters Kylesa must not so secretly love it because they went ahead and threw an emo song on 2010’s Spiral Shadow. Those thick distorted guitars playing a pop progression are more “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” than “Blood and Thunder,” and look no further than the first line (“Pictures of my youth ask if I’ve become what I wanted to”) to find the same kind of looking back on youth as that Modest Mouse song. (Though ultimately Kylesa’s conclusion here is “keep moving, don’t look back,” but you get the idea.)

Pinback – “Penelope”

Okay, so this song may be about his pet fish, but a ton of Weakerthans songs are sung from the perspective of his cat and the council says they’re an emo band. So consider “Penelope” the most emo song ever written to a fish. And human or not, people love their pets. When Pinback sings to Penelope “are you filed with air, swallowed oxygen that makes you float up?,” tells her “don’t wanna see you floating upside down” and says “no girl, need you there,” it’s the same kind of fighting against the tragic death of a loved one that Thursday does in so many of their songs.

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