18 landmark emo & post-hardcore albums that turn 25 this year
1996 was a historic year for emo. Sunny Day Real Estate and Jawbreaker had already helped popularize the melodic "second wave" of the genre that took off in the '90s, but '96 is really when you started to see a slew of groundbreaking emo albums come out from all across the country, from the East Coast to the West Coast to the Midwest to Arizona to Austin. Tons of now-legendary emo bands released some of their best work that year, and since albums from 1996 turn 25 this year, this edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' is dedicated to 18 landmark emo and emo-adjacent post-hardcore albums from 1996 in honor of their anniversaries.
Some of the albums on this list are regularly recognized as some of the all-time greats, while others are a little more under-the-radar, but all of them stand the test of time, were widely influential, and continue to impact new bands today. As is usually the case when you're dealing with relatively obscure music from the pre-digital music days (and dealing with albums that were sometimes quickly re-released on other labels), some of these albums' release dates are uncertain, but I tried to make sure everything on this list was actually from 1996. Also, I know Pinkerton came out in 1996 and influenced like every emo band ever, but it's not really emo and you probably don't need to read more about Pinkerton anyway.
Read on for the list, in no particular order...
Texas is The Reason - Do You Know Who You Are?
A lot of the key '90s emo bands hail from the Midwest (or sound like they do), but Texas Is The Reason came straight out of the New York Hardcore scene, with members that previously did time in Shelter and 108, and an album on the seminal NYHC label Revelation. That album -- the only full-length TITR ever released -- is 1996's Do You Know Who You Are?, one of the most groundbreaking and influential emo/post-hardcore albums of all time. You can hear the weight of their NYHC roots coming through in the riffs and the rhythm section, but the songwriting is more expansive and dynamic and Garrett Klahn's yearning voice plants this album firmly in emo territory. The band broke up just as they were about to sign to Capitol so they never got as big as they deserved, but you could hear the sound of Do You Know Who You Are? reverberating throughout the entire emo boom of the early 2000s, as well as throughout the emo revival of the 2010s. The sound of this album is everywhere, but no matter how many times you listen to it -- or listen to the countless bands TITR inspired -- the songs on Do You Know Who You Are? never get old.
Jimmy Eat World - Static Prevails
Five years before Jimmy Eat World introduced emo to the mainstream with "The Middle" and three years before they released the emo masterwork Clarity, they were grinding in the emo underground, touring and releasing splits with bands like Christie Front Drive, Sense Field, Jejune, and Mineral. Today, it's almost hard to picture a world where those bands were Jimmy Eat World's peers, but when you listen to Static Prevails, you're brought right back to the days when these alt-rock titans were writing scrappy, intimate emo songs. You can hear hints of the arena-sized songs Jimmy Eat World would write in the 2000s on this album, but it largely feels like a collection of songs that are built for basements and VFW halls. Jim Adkins' now-pristine voice cracks and goes off key in all the most charming ways, and guitarist Tom Linton -- who would assume a backing vocalist role in the years to come -- splits lead vocals with Jim on this album, bringing a more forceful punk roar to many of Static Prevails' best songs. (Jim would go on to sing all the band's hits, but it's Tom who's responsible for the most radio-friendly song on Static Prevails: "Rockstar.") It's hard not to view Static Prevails through the lens of what Jimmy Eat World became, but this album is much more than an early look at a soon-to-be-world-conquering band. They never made another album like Static Prevails again, and if Jimmy Eat World were as short-lived as many of their peers from this era were, this would still stand out as one of the best albums of the '90s. When you're craving the raw sound of Static Prevails, nothing else scratches the itch.
Christie Front Drive - Christie Front Drive (aka Stereo)
When you think of emo that sounds cold, longing, and slow-paced, it can almost always be traced back to Christie Front Drive's sole full-length. Emo may originally have been born out of punk and hardcore, but Christie Front Drive eschewed the speed and aggression of those genres and came out with something closer in sound to slowcore and post-rock. They weren't the only band going in this direction at the time, but they were one of the first to perfect it for the length of an entire album. They helped open the doors for a version of emo that feels heart-achingly beautiful, and helped draw a firm line between "punk" and "emo" in the process. Bands like American Football and The Appleseed Cast would take emo even further into post-rock territory a few years later, but even as other great bands built upon the foundation that Christie Front Drive helped lay, nothing could take away from how complete and timeless this album has always sounded.
Portraits of Past - 01010101
Portraits of Past were one of the earliest screamo bands, and they took the burgeoning subgenre to more ambitious, more melodic places that laid the groundwork for some of the biggest emo bands (like Thursday) as well. When you listen to the melodic guitars in a song like the seven-minute "Bang Yer Head," you can hear the seeds being sewn for bands like Touche Amore and Pianos Become the Teeth a good 15 years before those bands started making music. Portraits of Past didn't do straight-up post-rock, but their songs ebbed and flowed in a similar manner, and they really knew how to combine aggression, melody, and heart-on-sleeve emotion in a way that would be echoed by hundreds of bands who followed them. They continue to be insanely influential after all these years, and even with all the very good bands who have pushed this sound in new directions, 01010101 holds up as one of the finest screamo albums there ever was.
01010101 is tracks 1-7 on this:
Braid - The Age of Octeen
As sort of the darker, heavier cousin to their Midwest neighbors/pals Cap'n Jazz, Braid were just as scrappy and out-of-breath but more into discordant post-hardcore riffs and gravelly roars than noodling and yelping. They'd streamline their sound on 1998's timeless Frame and Canvas, and right in the middle of that album and their rawest earlier work is their sophomore LP The Age of Octeen. It nails the balance between where Braid began and where they'd end up, and it's home to some of their most iconic songs ("My Baby Smokes," "Nineteen 75," "The Chandelier Swing"). Sometimes The Age of Octeen is as catchy and as punchy as anything on Frame and Canvas, and other times it feels like it's going to collapse at any second. It sounds like a band figuring things out as they go, allowing themselves to go down new paths without hesitation, and unintentionally creating a classic, extremely influential album in the process.
The Promise Ring - 30° Everywhere
There are probably more seminal emo bands birthed from the ashes of Cap'n Jazz than of any other band. After their breakup, the Kinsellas would go on to form American Football, Joan of Arc, Owls, Owen, and more, while guitarist Davey von Bohlen would form his own massively influential band, The Promise Ring. They released one of the all-time great emo albums with 1997's Nothing Feels Good -- which the literal book on emo was named after -- but before they got there, they put out their debut album 30° Everywhere. It's rougher around the edges than the power pop-inspired Nothing Feels Good, but still a lot more catchy and structured than Cap'n Jazz, and it proved Davey was a great singer and songwriter. He perfected his now-iconic approach to words and melodies on Nothing Feels Good, but he had already gotten pretty damn close on 30° Everywhere. And when you want The Promise Ring at their rawest and loudest, nothing does it like this album.
Mineral - The Power of Failing
There's some discrepancy over whether this album came out in 1996 or 1997, but the band says 1996 so that's good enough for us. The Power of Failing is the Austin band's first of two full-lengths, and it's the rawer and harder-hitting one, which is probably also why it's a lot of fans' favorite. EndSerenading took them further in the cleaner, post-rock-inspired direction that's hinted at on The Power of Failing, but Failing is the album you're looking for when you're craving the clamoring, punk-rooted sound of '90s emo. The Power of Failing has been compared to Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary for its entire 25-year existence, and those comparisons aren't unwarranted, but Mineral really made it their own and this became clearer and clearer as time went on. SDRE wrote the blueprint, but they sort of always felt larger than life. Mineral felt tangible, in a DIY punk rock kind of way. They felt like they could be yours, like you and everyone else who loved them were in on the same secret. 25 years later, their status as legends is pretty widely cemented, but once you click play that secretive feeling comes rushing back.
At the Drive In - Acrobatic Tenement
At The Drive In's final (until the reunion) album Relationship of Command will go down in history as the big bang of the 2000s post-hardcore boom, and its legacy looms large over the rest of ATDI's discography, but the El Paso post-hardcore band had been showing signs of greatness since their first couple EPs and debut album Acrobatic Tenement. The band themselves considered the album a failure, almost broke up after it, and might even tell you it was never properly finished - legend has it that Jim Ward's guitars have no distortion because he mistakenly thought he was laying down scratch tracks. Looking back on it, the mess surrounding the album is exactly what gives it its charm. ATDI were always more "emo-adjacent post-hardcore" than straight-up emo, but with those cleaner guitars on Acrobatic Tenement, they sound like the scrappier bands who where shaping emo in the Midwest. Even as a young band with a primitive recording, Cedric Bixler-Zavala's voice soars the way it would on Relationship of Command and you can already hear the chemistry between Cedric and Jim Ward's backing screams. (The only thing missing is Omar Rodríguez-López's dizzying guitar leads, because at this point he was the band's bassist.) ATDI would obviously raise the bar again and again after this album, but even in this early stage, their extraordinary talent was undeniable, and no one else in the world sounded like them.
Jawbox - Jawbox
The self-titled followup to Jawbox's most-loved album (1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart) made things a little cleaner and more accessible without sacrificing any of the intensity or intricacy that they'd had since day one. Like a few of the other bands on this list, Jawbox were post-hardcore but embraced by the emo community because of J. Robbins' soaring, aching melodies, and he brought some of his best ones to this album. Songs like "Mirrorful," "Iodine," "Spoiler," and "Desert Sea" are every bit as addictive as their iconic FYOSS single "Savory," while songs like "His Only Trade" and "Chinese Fork Tie" kept things as discordant as Jawbox's early work. (Not to mention this album is home to Jawbox's great cover of Tori Amos' "Cornflake Girl.") The band finally reunited for shows in 2019 and new music isn't out out of the question, but even if they never make another record again, Jawbox will always remain a perfect note to have gone out on.
Chamberlain - Fate's Got A Driver
Chamberlain started out as a post-hardcore band called Split Lip and they ended up turning into an alt-country band, and right in between all of that came their emo classic Fate's Got A Driver. The album was actually originally released in 1995 as a Split Lip album, but after they changed their name, they re-recorded the vocals and released it as a Chamberlain album, and the cleaner Chamberlain version is the one that really embodied mid '90s emo. They hadn't gone alt-country yet on this album, but they clearly wanted to polish up the Split Lip sound, and their more tuneful aspirations is what made Fate's Got A Driver such an important record to the bands who mixed emo with poppier alternative rock in the 2000s. It's a near-perfect record, and since Chamberlain made the switch to alt-country after its release, they never wrote another album like it again.
Sense Field - Building
Sense Field were from the opposite coast of Texas Is The Reason, but like that band, they were signed to Revelation and came directly from hardcore (their previous band Reason To Believe were straight-up punk/melodic hardcore). They'd get increasingly melodic over the years, and by their third and final album for Revelation, Building, they'd landed on the perfect middle ground between their heavier roots and their poppier conclusion. (After that album, major label troubles halted the release of their next album for five years, but it eventually came out and birthed their biggest song: the acoustic guitar-fueled emo ballad "Save Yourself.") A lot of emo bands were known for having strained vocalists with limited range, but what set Sense Field apart is that the late frontman Jon Bunch was a powerhouse who belted out stadium-sized hooks song after song on this album. (It makes sense that major labels wanted them after this came out.) If things worked out better, it could've been Sense Field rather than Jimmy Eat World (who they released a split with) to put emo on the mainstream map. They were churning out radio-friendly choruses with hardcore energy and attitude a good five or six years before this stuff became unavoidable.
Boys Life - Departures and Landfalls
The phrase "Midwest emo" usually brings to mind bands like Cap'n Jazz, Braid, and The Promise Ring, and if it doesn't also bring to mind Kansas City's Boys Life, maybe you just haven't heard Departures and Landfalls. The band's second and final album perfectly embodies the sound and feel of '90s Midwest emo, with all the nervous energy, strained vocals, power pop hooks, and restless rhythms that you want from this kind of music. It's as much of a reliable source for energetic, punk-inspired emo as it is for the slow, crawling kind, and Brandon Butler's slightly-off-key voice couldn't be better-suited for either one.
Rainer Maria - Rainer Maria EP
Rainer Maria knocked it out of the park on the first swing with their self-titled debut EP, and even as they kept progressing and improving their sound with each release, these six songs never lost their charm. Later on, Caithlin De Marrais took over as lead vocalist, but here she splits vocal duties with Kaia Fischer and the way their voices bounce off of each other is a big part of what makes their early work so special. They move seamlessly between harmonizing and call-and-response, and the unique qualities of both members' voices create something remarkable when they come together. You can tell that at this point the then-Wisconsin-based band were influenced by the fellow Midwest emo bands who came shortly before them, and though they'd get more and more original in the years to come, even this EP finds them taking those influences and twisting them into something of their own.
Far - Tin Cans with Strings to You
Far's crowning achievement is their more atmospheric 1998 album Water & Solutions (which, until their 2010 reunion album, was their final LP), but they put out plenty of other great material throughout the long, fruitful road to that album, including their 1996 major label debut Tin Cans with Strings to You. With a dryer, heavier sound than its successor, Tin Cans found Far delivering sludgy post-hardcore that would've fit on Dischord or Touch & Go at the time. After Far, frontman Jonah Matranga would continue his trek into melodic emo with New End Original (also featuring members of Texas Is The Reason and Chamberlain), Gratitude, and his solo project Onelinedrawing, but when you want Jonah at his heaviest, you need those early Far albums like Tin Cans with Strings to You. This LP's got capital-R Riffs for days, and Jonah's scream-singing is pretty ferocious. It frequently nears metal territory, but all that weight is balanced out by the kind of heartfelt singing and songwriting that's made Jonah such a big influence within the emo community, and that clash of sounds is what makes this album such a thrill to return to.
Grade - And Such Is Progress
Canadian band Grade were one of the first bands to blend screamo, post-hardcore, and clean-sung emo in the way that would blow up in the early 2000s (and their final three albums were on Victory, who would help popularize this sound with albums by Thursday and Taking Back Sunday), but they broke up just as this kind of stuff was taking off and they've remained underrated pioneers ever since. On their debut album And Such Is Progress, they were primarily a screamo band, but they were sewing the seeds for what was to come, working brief moments of clean vocals and cleaner guitars into their otherwise heavy sound. Viewing And Such Is Progress through the lens of the 2000s emo boom, it's easy to see how many bands this helped lay the groundwork for, but even taken out of that context, it's just a killer emo/screamo album that sounds as fresh today as it always has.
The Van Pelt - Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves
In 1996, the seminal NYC emo band Native Nod were calling it quits and frontman Chris Leo (brother of Ted) began turning his attention fully towards his other band, The Van Pelt, who issued their debut LP Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves that year. Compared to Native Nod's rougher post-hardcore, The Van Pelt had a more placid sound with half sung, half spoken vocals and post-rocky guitars that suggested the thieves they may have been stealing from were Slint. But Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves wouldn't have become a classic record if all it was doing was ripping off Slint. The Van Pelt mostly shied away from the power pop side of '90s emo but they could sneak in an anthemic chorus when they wanted to, and they channelled the nervous energy and fidgety rhythms of post-punk too. Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves can be as straightforward and plainspoken as it can be intricate and complex, and it's one of those albums that just gets better and better the more you immerse yourself in it.
June of 44 - Tropics and Meridians
Speaking of bands who took after Slint, Louisville's June of 44 (formed by members of Rodan, Lungfish, Codeine, and other) were doing a similar thing around the same time, but when The Van Pelt would get talky and nervy, June of 44 would get sludgy and forceful in a Jesus Lizard/Nirvana kind of way. That's especially true of their sophomore album Tropics and Meridians, which is home to some of the band's heaviest work. It's also home to its fair share of off-kilter math/post-rock passages, and while more "post-hardcore" than "emo," you can tell why emo kids have always loved this band. Those attracted to the knotty guitars of Braid and Cap'n Jazz who wanted much, much more where that came from could find it in June of 44.
Unwound - Repetition
For post-hardcore that was even noisier and more angular than June of 44, Jawbox, and The Van Pelt, there was Unwound, who released one of their best albums in 1996, Repetition. Much more post-hardcore than emo (but definitely influential on emo bands), it moves from twitchy, Gang of Four-inspired rhythms to bursts of shouty aggression to long, drawn-out post-rock-ish passages to noise rock that rivaled Sonic Youth. (And with the wall-of-sound guitars of the climactic closing track "For Your Entertainment," you can hear the seeds being sewn for Explosions In The Sky, Caspian, and a lot of post-rocky emo.) Justin Trosper's vocals on the album were as varied as the music, with everything from throat-shredding screams to talky post-punk to grungy angst to something a little more melodic and emotive. Repetition is an album that doesn't really fit neatly anywhere, and that's a big part of what made it so great. It played by its own rules, boldly forged new paths, and still sounds like nothing else in the world today.
Listen or subscribe to a playlist with one song from each album:
FIVE NEW EMO SONGS RECOMMENDED IF YOU LIKE '90s EMO
Nostalgia is fun but it's also important to look forward and support the new bands who are shaping the future. If you like the kind of classic emo represented on this list, here are five new songs I recommend checking out if you haven't already.
awakebutstillinbed - "beauty"
On the opening track of their first EP in three years, San Jose's awakebutstillinbed tap into the longing, wintry sound of bands like Christie Front Drive and Mineral and they do so with striking originality.
Record Setter - "A Portrayal"
Denton, Texas' Record Setter released one of the best albums of 2020 with I Owe You Nothing, which puts a fresh perspective on '90s-style emo and screamo. It's too honest and sincere to be called "revival," as you can hear on the impassioned track "A Portrayal," one of the album's many highlights.
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick - "We Love You So Much"
If you're into the post-rock side of emo and you haven't checked out Philly's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, that's worth changing. Their 2020 debut album Ways of Hearing is some of the most inspired music in this realm that I've heard in a while. The climactic, string-laden "We Love You So Much" is a fine introduction.
Ogbert The Nerd - "Snail"
If you've ever wanted to hear the scrappy sounds of Cap'n Jazz and Braid with a little of early Taking Back Sunday's melodrama in the mix, you need NJ's Ogbert The Nerd in your life. Their debut album I Don't Hate You is great stuff and "Snail" (which I wrote a longer review of here) is a major standout.
Annakarina - "You Weren't Ready"
Across its seven-minute running time, Pittsburgh band Annakarina's new song "You Weren't Ready" captures so much mid '90s emo charm at once. It incorporates slow-burning post-rock, apocalyptic screamo, melodic emo, spoken word, and more, and the blend is seamless.
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.