30 Classic Emo & Post-Hardcore Albums Turning 20 in 2023
Nostalgia for the 2000s emo boom has been at all-time high lately, thanks to things like the My Chemical Romance reunion, the When We Were Young festival, and Billie Eilish bringing Paramore's Hayley Williams out at Coachella for "Misery Business," and also because the pivotal bands of that era have been celebrating 20th anniversaries. We've been celebrating these anniversaries with 20-year retrospective lists on the best emo albums of 2001 and 2002, and now that 2023 is here, we're moving right along with a list of 25 classic emo and post-hardcore albums from 2003.
Emo seemed to get exponentially more popular each year in the early/mid 2000s, and by 2003, it was unavoidable within both mainstream and underground rock circles. Bands who helped pave the way for the era's emo/post-hardcore boom like Thursday and Thrice released their major label debuts in 2003, rising bands like The Early November and Motion City Soundtrack released breakthrough debut albums, and indie-friendly emo bands like Cursive and Death Cab For Cutie released some of their most cultishly-loved albums. The emo/post-hardcore umbrella was also wider than ever, with music that ranged from pop punk to indie rock to metalcore all falling under it. With genre lines as blurry as these, making this list meant answering some nearly-unanswerable questions. Could I have shoehorned The Wrens' The Meadowlands or blink-182's untitled album onto a list of emo and/or post-hardcore albums? Probably, but both felt like they'd primarily belong somewhere else. Are there albums that did make this list that some fans would consider a stretch to include? I'm almost positive the answer is yes, but everything included here felt right (to me) for one reason or another.
Narrowing a huge year for emo/post-hardcore like 2003 down to 30 albums means leaving off a lot of heavy hitters, so no disrespect to Moneen, Elliott, The Fall of Troy, Anatomy of a Ghost, On the Might of Princes, The Bled, Snapcase, Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start, Boys Night Out, Park, Mae, Denali, Something Corporate, Small Brown Bike, The Casket Lottery, Hey Mercedes, The Juliana Theory, Boysetsfire, Gatsby's American Dream, From Autumn To Ashes, Sense Field, This Day Forward, Since By Man, Criteria, Trophy Scars, The Assistant, or The Forms; the list just can't represent everything. We also decided not to rank this one; instead of trying to establish a hierarchy and quibble about how one classic compares to another, we just wanted to shine a light on 30 albums we feel strongly about, all of which impacted the course of history and feel relevant to talk about today.
Read on for the list, in alphabetical order, and let us know your favorite emo/post-hardcore albums of 2003…
AFI - Sing the SorrowDreamWorks
By the time AFI released their major label debut and mainstream breakthrough Sing the Sorrow, they'd already been a band for over a decade and they solidified their classic four-piece lineup and their trademark horror punk/goth hybrid across two masterful albums, 1999's Black Sails in the Sunset and 2000's The Art of Drowning. But even the latter's minor hit "The Days of the Phoenix" couldn't have prepared anyone for Sing the Sorrow, which remains one of the most unique rock albums of the 21st century. With the production dream team of Jerry Finn, who helped elevate blink-182 out of the underground with Enema of the State, and Butch Vig, who helped do the same for Nirvana with Nevermind, AFI were able to make an album that competed with pop music but could still incite mosh pits. Some longtime AFI fans hit them with sellout accusations, but selling out implies compromising your integrity and AFI were doing the opposite. They spent more time on Sing the Sorrow than they had on any prior album, and it wasn't just the cleanest-sounding, most accessible thing they'd ever done; it was also their most musically varied and experimental. A "post-hardcore" album in a very literal sense, Sing the Sorrow found AFI dabbling in goth, industrial, heavy metal, gentle balladry, strings, piano, spoken word, and straight-up pop music without abandoning their hardcore roots. AFI never really made an album quite like it since, and no other band really has either. 20 years on from its release, it remains an anomaly.
The Appleseed Cast - Two ConversationsTiger Style
After The Appleseed Cast made the full pivot from second-wave emo to sprawling post-rock with 2001's double feature Low Level Owl: Volume I & II, they went in a more direct, more art rock-inspired direction on 2003's Two Conversations. The Appleseed Cast have always been a band that require patience, but this album has some of the most immediate songs they've ever written, and it's just one memorable moment after the next. So many of the band's most hummable hooks, most forceful instrumentals, and most brisk rhythms are on this album, and throughout it all, The Appleseed Cast still manage to harness the towering post-rock buildups of their previous album. With a lyrical concept that qualifies Two Conversations as a breakup album, The Appleseed Cast balanced out their cerebral experimentation with emotional weight, and they wrote about the topic in a way that was vivid and scene-setting and had a wisdom that so many emo songs about breakups lacked. Even with its catchy, lovelorn choruses, Two Conversations still sounded miles away from the version of emo that was on television in 2003, and it's also aged a lot more gracefully than much of the music that was more popular at the time. It's not hard to tell how many of this album's fans formed well-known bands in the years since its release, and Ed Rose's timeless-sounding production has helped Two Conversations sound as perennially modern as many of the bands who followed in The Appleseed Cast's footsteps.
Armor for Sleep - Dream to Make BelieveEqual Vision
Armor For Sleep hailed from the fertile NJ scene that seemed to be birthing breakout emo bands left and right in the early 2000s, and they fit right in with the emo-pop boom of the time, but were also going for something a little more atmospheric than some of their peers. The band said they were aiming to sound like "Thursday meets Radiohead" on their debut album Dream to Make Believe, and multiple reviews compared them to '90s space-rockers Hum, years before it became common to hear Hum's influence on emo bands. Their interest in dream pop and space rock came through in the lyrics of their debut LP too, which literally tackled subjects like dreaming and outer space, alongside the relationship themes that were commonplace in emo. And their interest in creating something a little more ethereal was assisted by the gracefully-aging production style and synthesizers of Ariel Rechtshaid, who did some of his earliest production work on this LP (before going on to produce Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, Blood Orange, Vampire Weekend, and more). Armor for Sleep clearly had good taste, but they were also great songwriters, and that more than anything is why Dream to Make Believe continues to hold up so well. Their masterpiece is its 2005 followup What to Do When You Are Dead, but they were already showing signs of greatness on Dream to Make Believe and classic songs like its title track and "My Town" remain some of their best.
Bear vs Shark - Right Now, You're in the Best of HandsEqual Vision
Emo's third wave wasn't all pop-friendly; crucial bands like Bear vs Shark helped make this era a lot more musically diverse than it might've seemed from afar. The short-lived Michigan post-hardcore band put out just two albums, including their debut LP Right Now, You're in the Best of Hands. And If Something Isn't Quite Right, Your Doctor Will Know in a Hurry, released in July of 2003 on Equal Vision (just one month after the same label released Armor for Sleep's debut). On this now-classic LP, Bear vs Shark perfected their unique sound off the bat, pulling from stuff like scrappy, mathy Midwest emo and Dischord post-hardcore, and topping it off with the gravelly, slightly-off-key, forever-distinct voice of Marc Paffi. They sounded raw and overtly underground, closer in spirit to emo's second wave than its third, but still forward-thinking in their own weird way. And for a record as scratchy and off-kilter is this one, Bear vs Shark also had bangers. It's easy to see why so many of the people who did latch onto this square peg became diehards.
The Blood Brothers - Burn Piano Island, BurnARTISTdirect/BMG
In an era flooded with a sea of pale imitators and sound-alike clones all desperately angling for their fleeting ten seconds of fame, the strident idiosyncrasy of The Blood Brothers stands as a testament to their fierce creative will. This is, after all, the same band that chose to front-load …Burn, Piano Island, Burn with three minutes of sheer unholy racket and then also have the hubris to call it “Fucking’s Greatest Hits.” Taking cues from the At the Drive-In/Glassjaw playbook, the Seattle quintet tapped Ross “The Godfather of Nu Metal” Robinson as producer for LP#3, resulting in a record that both sharpens and accentuates the group’s sassy and discordant take on visceral post-hardcore. Unhinged ragers like “Ambulance vs. Ambulance” and “God Bless You, Blood Thirsty Zeppelins” bristle and spark with piercing shrieks, demented wails, and unsettling spoken word passages from dueling vocalists Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney. The reggae funk of “Every Breath is a Bomb” maximizes the rhythmic lockstep of bassist Morgan Henderson and drummer Mark Gajadhar, while the psychotic punch of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon” lets guitarist Cody Votolato off the leash, riffing away with rabid intensity against a penetrating synth line. As Andrew put it in his 15 albums that defined the 2000s post-hardcore boom piece, “...Burn, Piano Island, Burn is an album that’s constantly in motion, whipping by at full speed but with weird, fidgety timing that’s far from straightforward hardcore.” [Owen Morawitz]
Coheed & Cambria - In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3Equal Vision
Just a year after releasing their instant-classic debut album The Second Stage Turbine Blade, Coheed & Cambria returned with something bigger, better, and bolder in every way. Their sophomore LP In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 found them expertly fusing contemporary post-hardcore and classic progressive rock, and--along with that same year's De-Loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta--this album helped lay the groundwork for a whole crop of bands who would do the same. The album's first proper song clocks in at over eight minutes and goes on all kinds of musical journeys with all kinds of proggy fretwork, and IKSOSE just goes further down the prog rabbit hole from there. It has a three-song suite ("The Camper Velourium" parts I, II, and III) that gets weirder and weirder as it goes on, and the album ends with two consecutive nine-plus minute songs, one of which marries floating Pink Floyd atmospheres to a classic rock wah solo and one of which channels the zany math-prog of Rush. (It's also worth noting that Claudio Sanchez's voice has been compared to Geddy Lee's for his entire career.) Some parts are more overtly '70s-inspired than others, but what made Coheed such a force in the early 2000s is that they really took the concept of prog and made it feel new; they didn't just borrow ideas from the genre's early days. They also snuck in a few screams borrowed from '90s screamo, and this album managed to produce two of the most prominent hits of the emo-pop boom ("A Favor House Atlantic" and "Blood Red Summer"). It's a significant feat that they were able to fit such concise, addictive pop songs on a sprawling prog album; what would Moving Pictures be without "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight"?
Cursive - The Ugly OrganSaddle Creek
A lot of the bands on this list were just finding their footing in 2003, but Cursive already had one classic album under their belts (their 2000 concept album Domestica) and they were looking to do something a little different. They'd recruited cellist Gretta Cohn for their 2001 EP Burst and Bloom, and her contributions would be put front and center on The Ugly Organ, an album that remains entirely in a lane of its own. Domestica was already a concept album, but The Ugly Organ might pass as a rock opera. It's broken up into three acts, it finds Tim Kasher at his most theatrical, every song segues directly into the next, and the band's guitar/bass/drums rock setup is augmented not just by cello but also organ, trombone, vibraphone, and a 10-minute closing track featuring a 12-person choir (including Cursive's friend Conor Oberst, members of The Faint, and more). (Jenny Lewis sings on three songs too.) The music is dark, experimental, and off-kilter, but still aggressive enough to count as post-hardcore and still hook-filled enough to birth so many of the band's biggest crowdpleasers. 20 years later, there's still nothing else in the world like The Ugly Organ, and these songs still hit with the same impact that they did when they were new.
Dashboard Confessional - A Mark A Mission A Brand A ScarVagrant
If blink-182 were the public faces of pop-punk at the turn of the millennium, then Chris Carrabba was the point man for the emo explosion. After stints as a fill-in guitarist for New Found Glory and tenure as frontman for Florida’s Further Seems Forever, Carrabba’s one-man acoustic side project would eventually find mainstream purchase with the release of 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most LP, a release bolstered by rock radio hit “Screaming Infidelities” and an impressive live appearance on MTV Unplugged. If Rolling Stone are to be believed, Carrabba’s success as “a tattooed love boy” came down to his tormented “ordinary emo geek” fortitude, refusing “to kiss a single hair on radio’s ass and connecting with fans on a gut level.” Bemusing hyperbole aside, in the diligent hands of producer Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, The Distillers, Jimmy Eat World), Dashboard’s third album buffed up Carrabba’s heart-on-sleeve vulnerability with the punchiness of a full-blown alt-rock line-up, rounded out by guitarist John Lefler, bassist Scott Schoenbeck and drummer Mike Marsh. Swift numbers like “So Beautiful” and “Bend And Not Break” start out gentle and unassuming before swelling with anthemic hooks and massive choruses, while the yearning “Ghost of a Good Thing” proves that tearjerker ballads can still pay dividends. But it’s album opener “Hands Down” that truly cemented Carrabba’s position as emo’s answer to Springsteen: a wistful ode to overcoming first date anxiety and the simple joys of what-could-be, sporting an outro strong enough to empty lungs at Emo Nites everywhere for another twenty years. [O.M.]
Death Cab For Cutie - TransatlanticismBarsuk
I don't know what was in Ben Gibbard's water in 2003, but it's not everyday that a singer/songwriter releases two all-time classic albums with two different bands in the same year. Ben began 2003 with the sole album from The Postal Service (because this list is in alphabetical order, more on that one soon), and in the fall he released Transatlanticism, one of the most widely-beloved Death Cab For Cutie albums. (And later this year, both of those bands will do a joint tour playing those two albums in full at some massive venues.) "In the year before Transatlanticism, Ben really started treating songwriting like it was a career," producer/former guitarist Chris Walla told AltPress in 2019. "There were a lot of songs for the record; he brought in 25 or 30 demos. [...] It wound up resulting in some of the most genuine and straightforward writing he’s ever done, really open and unguarded in a way that was kind of new." Ben had also said in a 2003 interview with Discorder that they aimed to arrange Translanticism "more like a proper album" compared to its predecessor The Photo Album. "We’ve tried to construct it with transitions of songs going in and out of each other, and I think it’s a little bit more expansive than the last record." That all came through on both a musical and a thematic level; Translanticism is a concept album about a long-distance relationship, and it really feels more like a capital-A Album than anything Death Cab had made before it. It's more of a grand, thorough statement than their earlier records, but it's also got the raw, DIY, classic American indie feel of those early records, which the band would move away from on the major label albums that followed. It's one of those classic indie-level blockbusters where the band was still firmly rooted within the indie community that birthed them, but bursting at the seams with so much talent and ambition and great songwriting that of course the music world at large was going to take notice. It's the kind of album that you just can't fake; you can't sound this humble, this genuine, and this ambitious all at once unless you're truly tuning out all the bullshit and just doing what you believe in. That's what Death Cab were doing on Transatlanticism, and that--combined with some of Ben Gibbard's most heart-wrenching lyrics--is why this record continues to strike a chord with so many people even 20 years after its release.
The Early November - The Room's Too ColdDrive-Thru
The Early November got scooped up by the pop punk-friendly Drive-Thru Records and booked on things like Warped Tour and Skate & Surf when they were still in their late teens/early 20s and had very little music to their name, and they were pretty much thrust into the spotlight of the mainstream emo boom while they were still figuring out their identity. It resulted in the kind of instant popularity that never would've been afforded to an emo band just three years earlier, but it never really seemed like the career path that The Early November were after. Their 2006 sophomore album The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path marked a firm shift away from emo and pop punk, and The Early November broke up the year after that. When they reunited in the 2010s, they did perform some classic albums in full but the reunion seemed less about nostalgia and more about getting a second go at their career, this time entirely on their own terms. Because of the bands they were initially grouped with, naysayers of emo's third wave may have turned their noses up at The Early November and wrote them off as just another pop punk band too, but their debut album The Room's Too Cold revealed something much more special than that. Like a lot of the early third wave emo bands, The Early November were big Get Up Kids fans, and they made that known with the "No Love" reference on "Baby Blue" and the Something To Write Home About-style acoustic songs that balanced out the louder material on The Room's Too Cold. They also flirted with fidgety math rock ("Something That Produces Results"), towering post-hardcore ("The Course of Human Life"), Clarity-style balladry ("My Sleep Pattern Changed"), and other artsier tendencies that differentiated them from the radio-friendly bands they were associated with. At the time of The Room's Too Cold, they were really just a talented young band who loved '90s emo, and their uniquely great singer/songwriter Ace Enders was able to take those tasteful influences and turn them into The Early November's own classic debut album, one that rivaled even their most beloved forebears.
Every Time I Die - Hot Damn!Ferret
The thing about doing these genre-specific lists is there are always gonna be bands who toe the line between the genre you're writing about and ones you're not. Not every metalcore band belongs on an emo/post-hardcore list, but Every Time I Die and their classic 2003 sophomore album Hot Damn! definitely does. ETID's version of metalcore existed within the metal world just as much as it existed within the punk/hardcore world, and if you were invested in the post-hardcore and hardcore-informed emo of 2003, I would be willing to bet that you crossed paths with Hot Damn!, one of the absolute best hardcore-derived albums of that whole year. Hot Damn! was the moment that ETID fully came into their own, the moment they moved out from the shadow of their influences and fused all of them into one new thing that was theirs and theirs alone. Everything that ETID would become known for is there on Hot Damn!--the Southern rock riffage, the dizzying mathcore tendencies, the hefty metalcore attack, the melodic post-hardcore hooks, the theatrics of vocalist Keith Buckley. Its raw, caustic production keeps it sounding like an underground hardcore record, but it's obvious on Hot Damn! that Every Time I Die had become too much of a force for the underground hardcore world to contain. They were well on their way to becoming one of the most beloved bands of a generation (or two), and even with 20 years of consistently great records, Hot Damn! still has some of their most enduring songs.
Fairweather - LusitaniaEqual Vision
To quote my writeup on 2001's If They Move... Kill Them from our list of the best emo albums of 2001: Fairweather followed the trajectory that a lot of emo bands follow: step 1) release a scene classic that epitomizes the emo sound of the moment, step 2) make a sonic departure with a genre-defying album, step 3) break up.
And if If They Move... Kill Them was Fairweather's scene classic, then 2003's Lusitania was the sonic departure. For my money, Lusitania is what elevated Fairweather as one of the truly great (and most underrated) emo bands of the early 2000s, and it sent them off with business that was left unfinished until nearly 20 years later, when their 2022 reunion EP Deluge doubled down on the more adventurous tendencies of Lusitania. (Their 2014 self-titled reunion album, as great as it is in its own right, was a faster, punchier detour.) On Lusitania, Fairweather mixed their emo roots with elements of post-rock, shoegaze, and other more experimental styles of indie rock--foreshadowing the sound of emo's indie-friendly fourth wave--and they did it without sacrificing the knack for catchy, easy-to-like songs that they'd already perfected on their debut. And, with production from Jawbox's J. Robbins, Lusitania is a big, clean-sounding record in a way that sounds a lot more timeless today than a lot of 2003's other emo albums do. It's one of those albums that really was ahead of its time--if you're reading this in 2023 and still haven't listened to Lusitania, it's not too late to give Fairweather their flowers.
Fall Out Boy - Take This To Your GraveFueled by Ramen
You know the type of person you meet at a show or house party, the one who will be like, “Oh, I remember that band… no, I don’t really care for their new stuff… the first album is still the best album,” when music comes on? When those people take time out of their day to be unnecessarily pretentious to a stranger, they’re likely thinking of a band like Fall Out Boy, and a debut record like Take This To Your Grave. Only here’s the thing: this technically isn’t their first album. That unfortunate honor goes to Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out with Your Girlfriend, an early 2003 mini-LP release disavowed and neglected by the Chicago outfit to this day. And, if we’re being pedantic here, it’s also not their best. That esteemed honor falls to 2005’s scene-staple From Under the Cork Tree (don’t @ me). So what’s the big deal with TTTYG, then? Well, it’s the definitive moment where Fall Out Boy’s signature brand of pop-punk alchemy fizzled into being. Bassist and chief lyricist Pete Wentz’s sardonic wit and withering self-deprecation found the perfect delivery vehicle in the form of frontman and rhythm guitarist Patrick Stump’s expressive croon. Anchored by Joe Trohman’s sticky lead guitar melodies and Andy Hurley’s fearsome backbeat, the quartet latched onto a winning formula that would quickly propel them into fame and the roar of stadium crowds. With a flawless track list that includes hits like “Dead on Arrival,” “Grand Theft Autumn/Where Is Your Boy,” “Homesick at Space Camp,” “Saturday,” and “Grenade Jumper,” it’s no wonder that TTTYG remains a dedicated fan-favorite and sure-fire genre classic. [O.M.]
The Fire Theft - The Fire TheftRykodisc
Sunny Day Real Estate were already legends by the time the early 2000s emo boom was underway, but the band--who broke up (for the second time) in 2001--wasn't there to reap the benefits, not that they ever seemed like they wanted to be anyway. Maybe that's part of why, when 3/4 of the lineup (Jeremy Enigk, Nate Mendel, and William Goldsmith) and their classic producer (Brad Wood) regrouped for a new album in 2003, they called it something else: The Fire Theft. A new name probably meant less fanfare, but The Fire Theft's sole, self-titled album rivals just about anything in SDRE's discography. It picked up where SDRE's art rock-leaning How It Feels To Be Something On and The Rising Tide left off, and added in a hefty dose of '70s-style progressive rock, with floating atmospheres, searing guitar solos, mood-setting pianos, stunning string/horn arrangements, and a children's choir that made it more Dark Side of the Moon than Diary. It's an album that does not suggest The Fire Theft had any interest in being called "emo," but Jeremy Engik's soaring, angelic vocals carried the same emotional weight that made SDRE's classics so impactful. And, regardless of whatever aesthetic choices or arrangements Enigk & co favored at this point in their career, these were just some of the best songs Jeremy had ever written. Anthems like "Uncle Mountain," "Chain, "Summertime," and especially the remarkable "Heaven" would give any SDRE song a run for its money.
Further Seems Forever - How to Start a FireTooth & Nail
It's never easy to successfully replace a lead vocalist, especially when that lead vocalist is someone as iconic as Chris Carrabba, but Further Seems Forever managed to pull it off, not once but twice. Chris left to focus on Dashboard Confessional after the band finished recording their classic 2001 debut LP The Moon Is Down, and he was replaced with Jason Gleason (ex-Affinity, later of ActionReaction) for their sophomore album, How to Start a Fire. (The band's third album was done with the late Jon Bunch of Sense Field.) The band--who also replaced guitarist Nick Dominguez with Derick Cordoba for this album--succeeded by not trying to recreate The Moon Is Down with a new singer, but instead evolving their sound and catering to Jason's strengths. Jason has more of a grungy tone than Chris, and songs like "The Sound," "Pride War," and "Insincerity As An Artform" sound like they could've been K-Rock anthems with the right push. But How to Start a Fire still had plenty of emo signifiers, both instrumentally and vocally, and as on The Moon Is Down, their secret weapon was drummer Steve Kleisath (ex-Strongarm, Shai Hulud), whose atypical rhythms put a hop in FSF's music that separated them from their legions of more-straightforward-sounding peers.
Hot Cross - CryonicsLevel Plane
Not only did the short-lived NYC screamo band Saetia inspire so many screamy bands that came in their wake, their breakup also launched two other very influential bands, Hot Cross and Off Minor. Hot Cross--whose lineup included Saetia's vocalist (Billy Werner) and drummer (Greg Drudy), as well as members of Neil Perry, You and I, Joshua Fit For Battle, the aforementioned Off Minor, and more--debuted in 2001 with the A New Set Of Lungs EP, and their first full-length came in 2003, Cryonics. It found them moving on from the harsh, raw sound of Saetia towards something a little more melodic, something a little more in line with the popular post-hardcore bands that Saetia paved the way for, but still in a way that felt lo-fi and DIY. The record is fueled by a patchwork quilt of tech-y yet catchy guitar work, and Billy injects his aggression with theatricality and flamboyance. Cryonics has maintained a steady cult following over the years, but it's really one of those records that feels like it should've reached a lot more people. It really captured the direction that emo/screamo/post-hardcore was heading in 2003, and it holds up way better than a lot of the era's bigger bands.
The Jealous Sound - Kill Them With KindnessBetter Looking Records
It's impossible to overlook the influence that Knapsack had on the 2000s emo boom; the punchy, punky, anthemic approach to emo that they took on '90s classics like "Thursday Side of the Street" and "Katherine the Grateful" directly foreshadowed the emo hits of the following decade, and in a just world, they would've been hits themselves. Knapsack broke up in 2000, but fortunately their singer/guitarist Blair Shehan formed another band, The Jealous Sound. With another '90s emo vet on guitar (Pedro Benito of Sunday's Best), The Jealous Sound took what Blair started with Knapsack and brought it to exciting new levels. Their 2003 debut LP Kill Them With Kindness was full of emo/punk/power pop gems that were catchier and grittier than so many of the band's peers. With cleaner production, more intricate arrangements, and some experimentation with synths, Kill Them With Kindness was a clear evolution from Knapsack, and Blair's knack for providing singalong catharsis had only gotten better in the five years since Knapsack's final album.
Kevin Devine - Make the Clocks MoveTriple Crown
Kevin Devine already had one solo album and multiple releases with his band Miracle of 86 under his belt before releasing Make the Clocks Move, but this album--his Triple Crown debut--is really what started it all for the version of Kevin Devine we know and love today. It proved to be a breakthrough, and it helped give Kevin some footing in emo, indie rock, and folk music circles all at once. (As with many artists in that era, the stigma of "emo" was both a blessing and a curse as the genre gained popularity, but Kevin's music has outlasted all that noise.) But more importantly than where it fit in or how successful it was, Make the Clocks Move remains so important because it established Kevin as a songwriting force. It only takes one line to show off Kevin's knack for hooky, introspective lyricism ("A good man doesn't drink, and I've been drinking alone/So what does that make me?"), and he goes on to prove how much power he has with just his voice, acoustic guitar, and a minimal rhythm section. Whether he's belting at the top of his lungs or nearly whispering, it's hard to hear this record and not pay close attention. 20 years on from its release, he can still get up on stage by himself, sing these songs, and keep an entire crowd under his spell.
The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the ComatoriumGSL/Universal
At The Drive-In had already pushed post-hardcore in a more progressive direction on their final pre-reunion album, 2000's immortal Relationship of Command, but when vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López started their next band The Mars Volta, they went full-on prog, and pretty much became the first post-hardcore band to do so this blatantly. The energy and volume of their previous band still informed the songwriting on The Mars Volta's 2003 debut LP De-Loused in the Comatorium, but so did the mind-melting prog riffage of King Crimson and the psychedelic Latin jazz-rock freakouts of Santana. The Mars Volta almost singlehandedly introduced the influence of those bands into the contemporary punk scene, and they did them justice too. This wasn't a case of imitation; De-Loused in the Comatorium felt as groundbreaking in 2003 as In the Court of the Crimson King and Abraxas did three decades earlier, and like those albums, it still sounds timeless today. Cedric had already honed his singing voice by Relationship of Command, but he was belting it on this album in a way you never would've guessed he could in the ATDI days. Likewise, Omar was fleshing Relationship of Command out with dizzying lead guitar, but on this album he's a straight-up guitar hero. And matching the over-the-top prog of the instrumentation is the fact that it's lyrically a concept album based on an accompanying short story about a man who overdoses and enters a coma. The whole thing is as excessive and flashy as '70s rock ever get, but it still hits as hard as Cedric and Omar did in their previous lives as hardcore kids.
Motion City Soundtrack - I Am the MovieEpitaph
Firstly, we should acknowledge that, yes, I Am the Movie was originally recorded and released in 2002. However, the debut record from Minneapolis outfit Motion City Soundtrack gets off on a technicality here thanks to the Emo Arms Race of the early aughts. After fielding tempting industry offers from Universal, Triple Crown Records, and Drive-Thru Records, Justin Pierre & Co eventually settled on Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records—a move that, alongside other emo-adjacent signings like Matchbook Romance and From First to Last, would garner the label hefty criticism for straying too far from their skate punk/hardcore roots. While much of the material had been kicking around their live set for years, the band had only ten days with producer Ed Rose (The Casket Lottery, Small Brown Bike) to record the album, followed by further hasty re-recording sessions following their Epitaph signing and the introduction of new bassist Matthew Taylor and keyboardist Jesse Johnson. These touch-ups shine through on punchy singles like “The Future Freaks Me Out,” mashing up a Weezer-esque stream-of-consciousness with kinetic choruses worthy of The Get Up Kids, and the propulsive “My Favorite Accident,” held aloft by Pierre’s layered vocals and Johnson’s addictive synth line. While it might lack the polish and experimentation of their later records, I Am the Movie has glimmers of the pop-punk verve Motion City Soundtrack would bring to emo throughout the 2000s. [O.M.]
The Movielife - Forty Hour Train Back to PennDrive-Thru
Before Long Island was "the new Seattle," The Movielife were already on their path to nationwide recognition thanks to a catchy, hard-hitting style of melodic hardcore indebted to bands like Lifetime, Gorilla Biscuits, and especially their hometown heroes Silent Majority. The Movielife weren't shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves, but Vinnie Caruana had an infectious voice, and he and guitarist Brandon Reilly were becoming great songwriters, increasingly capable of putting their own spin on the genre with each release. On their third--and, for many years, final--album, Forty Hour Train Back to Penn, The Movielife officially transcended every band that paved the way for them. You could still hear echoes of their heroes--The Movielife stayed more local to hardcore than most of their Long Island peers that took off during the emo boom--but Forty Hour Train Back to Penn was a musically vast, genre-defying album that really stood out from The Movielife's forebears and from their peers. From the chunkier, heavier riffing of "Faces or Kneecaps" and "Jamestown" to the softer, more overtly emo-leaning songs like "Kelly Song" and "Hey" to pop punk-ish singalongs like "Scary" and "Jamaica Next," Forty Hour found The Movielife pushing themselves in a variety of opposing directions without ever losing focus. They challenged the boundaries of hardcore, found their own voice, and wrote some of their most enduring songs in the process, coming out with a formula that, in many ways, was a precursor to newer generations of bands like Title Fight and Anxious. It's also one of those albums that always leaves you wondering what might've come next; The Movielife broke up just months after its release, with Vinnie going on to form the grungy post-hardcore band I Am the Avalanche and Brandon going on to form the Smiths-y Nightmare of You, not reconvening for a new album until 2017's Cities in Search of a Heart. Everything happens for a reason, and I think Vinnie and Brandon sorta needed to back away from the spotlight and give us two great bands in the mid 2000s instead of one, but it's a shame that The Movielife had to throw in the towel so soon after releasing their most uncompromising, most popular album yet.
The New Amsterdams - Worse for the WearVagrant
The Get Up Kids may have directly inspired the sound of the emo-pop boom, but they wanted nothing to do with it, and that was clear from the stylistic departures they made on their two early 2000s records, and even clearer from their side project The New Amsterdams. Having begun as primarily the solo project of Matt Pryor, their third album Worse for the Wear was a full-band album with The Get Up Kids' rhythm section (bassist Rob Pope and drummer Ryan Pope) and frequent Get Up Kids producer Ed Rose. It's full-on indie folk and alt-country, sounding more like Wilco than whatever emo bands were popular in 2003, but it had Matt Pryor's instantly-recognizable voice in the forefront, it was on the emo-centric Vagrant Records, and they supported it on a co-headlining tour with Taking Back Sunday offshoot Straylight Run, so--sorry Matt!--Worse for the Wear got sucked into the emo community anyway. A glass-half-empty person may say Worse for the Wear was too indie for the emo kids, too emo for the indie kids, but I'd argue it toed the line between the two things masterfully, and also served as a bridge for those who needed one. It's a record that I think works as well on this list as it would in a folk-oriented context, and it's also got some of the best songs Matt Pryor ever wrote. The McCartney-esque piano pop of "Hover Near Fame" especially rivals any Get Up Kids song, and a handful of other tracks on this album aren't far behind.
The Postal Service - Give UpSub Pop
In 2001, electronic musician Dntel (aka Jimmy Tamborello) released Life Is Full of Possibilities, an album featuring multiple guest vocalists, including on "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan," a glitchy track with lead vocals by Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard. The pair ended up having too much chemistry to stop at one song, so they planned to make an EP together, but after attracting the attention of Sub Pop, the label encouraged them to make an album. They called the project The Postal Service, named after the fact that Ben and Jimmy wrote and recorded their music by mailing audio files back and forth to each other, and eventually recruited Jen Wood and Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis as additional vocalists, the latter of whom became a permanent member. Written and recorded during the same creative outburst that led to Death Cab For Cutie's Transatlanticism that same year, The Postal Service's sole album Give Up was a revelation within alternative music, and it remains one of Ben Gibbard's finest hours. Give Up had its clear predecessors (Björk, Kid A), but its mix of glitchy electronics and Ben's tender, boyish, and frankly very emo vocals really felt like something new, something that was different from what was going on within indie, emo, and electronic music at the time. Themes ranged from the assassination of JFK to the apocalypse, but most of the album was about love and relationships and breakups, perfectly aligning it with the burgeoning emo boom of the time. But Give Up stood out, not just because its arrangements made it sound more unique and innovative than The Postal Service's peers, but also because Ben's lyrics had a maturity that early 2000s emo often lacked. "Such Great Heights" painted a picture of a love so real that even 20 years later it still gives butterflies. "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" is a rare third wave emo breakup song that takes ownership of being an unfit partner, rather than shifting the blame. And in a male-dominated genre that was full of songs that criticized women without ever giving them a face or a name or a voice, The Postal Service quite literally did the opposite with the Jen Wood duet "Nothing Better." "Will someone please call a surgeon who can crack my ribs and repair this broken heart that you're deserting for better company?", Ben begins, giving even the most melodramatic emo band a run for their money, before pleading the song's subject to spend the rest of her life with him. That's about as far a lesser band would go, but then Jen Wood interjects, tells Ben he's getting carried away, making up revisionist history, and feeding her "lines about some idealistic future." It's the rebuttal that one too many third wave emo bands needed but never made the space for.
Rainer Maria - Long Knives DrawnPolyvinyl
As many of their Midwest emo peers were breaking up by the end of the '90s, Rainer Maria soldiered on, and continued to evolve with each new LP. (They also left the Midwest, relocating from Wisconsin to New York City in 1999.) On 2003's Long Knives Drawn, they'd left just about all the scrappiness of their early work behind, with musicianship and production that sounded tighter and louder, and the boldest vocal performances that Caithlin De Marrais had recorded to date. At this point, they just sounded like a great rock band, and they had a ton of range, from singalong anthems like "Ears Ring" to the discordant post-hardcore of "Long Knives" to the emo balladry of "The Awful Truth of Loving" and "Situation: Relation." Their songwriting got sharper at every turn, and Caithlin wrote some of her most resonant lines ever for this album. It's an album that examines love in a way that's wise and weary, with lyrics so vivid that you can picture yourself getting dropped right into the scenes where these songs take place.
Saosin - Translating the NameDeath Do Us Part
Anthony Green had been putting out music with various projects since the late '90s, but Saosin was really where it all began for the Anthony Green that the world knows and loves today. They formed in 2003 and released their self-produced debut EP Translating the Name that same year, and it almost instantly struck a chord. These five songs spread like wildfire around post-hardcore-centric corners of the internet, and it wasn't long before Saosin were on the road with bands like Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance and attracting attention from major labels. Saosin had their clear influences--"Saosin was just me ripping off Geoff Rickly and Claudio from Coheed," Anthony told us in a recent interview--but they really brought something new to the emo/screamo/post-hardcore/metalcore orbit, and they helped establish a formula that so many other bands quickly took after. Anthony's mix of harsh screams and soaring, high-pitched clean vocals stood out from the post-hardcore pack, and the rest of Saosin matched him with inventive, shapeshifting patterns and remarkable musicianship. The EP was brimming with great songs and obvious career potential, but it wasn't meant to last; three of the members left shortly after its release, including Anthony, who went on to front Circa Survive and The Sound of Animals Fighting, with an interest in exploring something a little more experimental than the direction that most of the post-hardcore scene was heading in. Anthony eventually reunited with Saosin for 2016's Along the Shadow and they have more music together on the way, but neither he nor Saosin have ever really made anything like Translating the Name again. It captured and helped define a moment in time, and it holds up a whole lot better than so much of the music it was once considered similar to.
Saves The Day - In ReverieDreamWorks
Once the major labels started scooping up emo bands, it was inevitable that Saves The Day were gonna get signed. Their previous albums for Vagrant and Equal Vision were already some of the most widely-loved records in the scene, and their commercial potential was obvious. But as fate would have it, Saves The Day's major label debut was the least commercial-sounding thing they've ever done. Crediting a newfound love of The Beatles with the change in direction, bandleader Chris Conley started to explore more complex chord patterns, pushing the band in a shimmering, jangly power pop direction and departing from their punk-inspired roots. At the same time, Chris was learning to use his voice more properly, and In Reverie showed off a soaring falsetto that perfectly matched the lighter, more "mature" direction. And with production from Elliott Smith collaborator Rob Schnapf (who also produced the band's prior album, Stay What You Are), it had the warm, cozy aesthetic needed for these songs to thrive. The record didn't perform well, and when DreamWorks got absorbed by Interscope later that year, Saves The Day were dropped. They'd go on to reunite with Vagrant Records and their former producer Steve Evetts for 2006's return to form Sound The Alarm, but interest in In Reverie continued to grow over the years, turning it into a true cult classic. (At this point, if someone says an emo band has "made their In Reverie," the implication is well-known and well-received.) It's an album that the world wasn't quite ready for, but time has treated it well.
Spitalfield - Remember Right NowVictory
Once Full Collapse and Tell All Your Friends left the impact that they did, Victory Records was all in on the emo-pop boom, and in 2003 the Victory roster was full of bands that Tony Brummel presumably thought could be the next Thursday or Taking Back Sunday. The most underrated of them all was Spitalfield with their Victory debut Remember Right Now. They seemed more directly interested in pop punk than their forebears, and singer Mark Rose sounded more than a little like Geoff Rickly (not to mention the clear Jimmy Eat World influence), but there was something about them. They were great musicians, with a knack for busy drum fills, heroic guitar riffs, sturdy basslines, and a tightness among the group's four members, and they had the songs. Remember Right Now is just one punchy song after the next, and they've got more memorable hooks on this album alone than some of the bigger bands had throughout their whole careers. The record's a little top-heavy, the influences are a little obvious, and the whole vibe is a little dated, but even after 20 years, the songs remain pretty damn undeniable.
Thrice - The Artist in the AmbulanceIsland
After putting out one of the definitive albums of the 2000s post-hardcore with 2002's The Illusion of Safety, Thrice made the inevitable jump to a major for its followup, The Artist In The Ambulance. It brought post-hardcore to many new people and set a new bar for the genre, but for Thrice, it was nothing more than a logical progression. Thrice made the album with the same producer as its predecessor, Brian McTernan, who used to front the hardcore band Battery (and now fronts Be Well) and who also produced records by Cave In, Converge, Snapcase, Piebald, Hot Water Music, The Movielife, and more around that time. It was mixed by Andy Wallace (who mixed Nevermind), but still, Thrice didn't get some big-name pop producer/songwriter to make their music more palatable for a mainstream audience. They just took the larger budget that Island gave them, hit the studio with their same producer who was already a hardcore legend, and churned out a polished, larger than life album that could appease MTV watchers and the hardcore community alike. Its lead single "All That's Left" is basically an alternative rock song with a bit of a punk bite, and it helped give Thrice a good amount of MTV2 Rock and Fuse airtime. It's one of the era's best pop-friendly punk singles, but if you dig deeper into Artist, you find Big Four-rivaling thrash ("Under A Killing Moon"), heavy-as-bricks sludge metal ("Silhouette"), tech-y metalcore ("Blood Clots And Black Holes"), atmospheric heavy rock ("Stare At The Sun"), and more. Thrice would continue to casually defy genre as their career went on (by The Alchemy Index, they were experimenting with just about every style of music they could think of), but the hard-hitting, concise, filler-less Artist in the Ambulance found Thrice at the height of their powers and it remains one of the finest, most timeless documents of the early 2000s post-hardcore boom.
Thursday - War All the TimeIsland
While their second LP, 2001’s "timeless and relevant" Full Collapse, earned its place as a formative touchstone for the emo and post-hardcore landscape, Thursday’s much-publicized departure from Victory Records and eventual jump to Island/Def Jam in its wake (as detailed in Dan Ozzi’s brilliant 2021 bestseller, SELLOUT) led to considerable internal pressure and the unbearable weight of industry expectation. The New Brunswick group’s desire for a more weird, more angular, more challenging follow-up to their breakout album appeared to clash directly with a lavish major-label studio budget and demand for marketable hits. Look no further than lead single “Signals Over The Air,” a brooding mid-tempo track with an earworm hook focused on frontman Geoff Rickly’s sexuality and frustrations with punk rock ideology, sandwiched in between the jagged rhythms and the plaintive aggression of cuts like “Division St” and “Marches and Maneuvers.” It’s an act of eerie prescience then that the title of Thursday’s third full-length album (lifted from a Bukowski poem no less) feels even more prophetic now than it did two decades ago, reflecting both the “never ending struggle” that continued to plague the band’s efforts to the seismic shifts in music consumption courtesy of burgeoning file-sharing and social media platforms. And yet, despite this strife, War All The Time remains a dynamic artifact of Thursday’s innate ability to harness emotional tension to rapturous ends; a super dark, heavy, verbose record punctuated by narrative complexity, rich instrumentals, and career-best songwriting. [O.M.]
The Weakerthans - Reconstruction SiteEpitaph
After two albums as the bassist/co-vocalist of Winnipeg punk greats Propagandhi, John K. Samson began making lighter, more melodic, more sentimental music with The Weakerthans, and he fully hit his stride with 2003's Reconstruction Site. It's a concept album with recurring themes and melodies, Shakespearean sonnets, and the best indie/emo song ever sung from the perspective of a cat. It's got the most clever, literate, and impactful lyrics that John K. Samson had written yet (if not ever), and he and the rest of the band had also fully landed on a sound of their own, with chamber pop horns, flashes of alt-country, experimental atmosphere, acoustic folk nuggets, and faint echoes of John's punk past. It was an outlier that never fully fit in with any scene, and not exactly widely received as an instant-classic, but its influence has grown and grown over time, with comparatively newer artists like Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, PUP, The Wonder Years, and Touché Amoré all showing the influence, covering their music, and/or singing their praises.