The emo floodgates opened in 2002. In honor of their 20th anniversaries, this edition of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ looks at the best emo and post-hardcore albums from that year.
2001 was the year that emo broke (on a mainstream level), and once the floodgates were opened, 2002 birthed even more now-classic albums that fall somewhere under the emo umbrella. 2002 was really the year that emo and its heavier sister genre post-hardcore began surpassing pop punk as the punk subgenre of choice for the youth of the era, and so many albums from that year are still influencing new bands today. As it became clearer and clearer that this type of music was quickly resonating with a new generation of music fans, record labels like Victory and Drive-Thru and Triple Crown and Equal Vision and eventually even the majors found themselves scooping up melodic, emotional punk bands like crazy, and though the new interest in that style of music might’ve outraged some older punks, the rise of this sound was largely ground-up and organic. A lot of these groundbreaking emo/post-hardcore bands had no idea they were contributing to something that was about to be a worldwide cultural phenomenon that would still be celebrated 20 years later; so many of them were just scrappy hardcore kids who liked Something to Write Home About and Clarity and wanted to make something a little catchier and more melodramatic than other hardcore kids.
Of course, when you look at the scope of 2002 emo and post-hardcore, it wasn’t all up-and-coming bands. A lot of the veterans who helped shape emo’s second wave in the ’90s were putting out records in 2002 that challenged (or entirely rejected) the boundaries of the genre. Some bands that had been grinding for years released their most-loved album in 2002, others released albums that remain divisive to this day. As a way of looking at this monumental year 20 years later, I’ve put together a list of the 35 best emo and post-hardcore albums of 2002, ranked from least best to most best. Genre is endlessly debatable, and often has more to do with scene or image than sound, so I stuck to somewhat liberal definitions of “emo” and “post-hardcore” for this list. Some albums on it lean more indie rock, some more metalcore, some more pop punk, and some of these artists would probably balk at the idea of being called “emo” (though there’s nothing more emo than insisting you aren’t emo!), but for one reason or another, they all scratch that itch.
Like any list, this one is bound to leave off some great albums, so let us know your favorites in the comments. Read on for the list.
In conjunction with the list, we’ve also got some of these records in our online vinyl shop.
35. Sparta – Wiretap Scars
After the initial 2001 breakup of At the Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López formed the more progressive rock-influenced Mars Volta, while guitarist/backing vocalist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos stuck to a more post-hardcore vibe with Sparta, which found Jim Ward assuming lead vocal duties and Paul Hinojos moving to guitar (the lineup was rounded out by bassist Matt Miller). Sparta signed a major label deal with Dreamworks the same year they formed, and debuted in 2002 with the Austere EP before releasing their debut full-length Wiretap Scars later that year. The album fit in perfectly with the emo/post-hardcore boom that had really started to explode just as ATDI were breaking up, and the album also served as a reminder of how crucial Jim Ward’s backing vocals were to the sound of At the Drive-In. He may have been previously best known as a sideman (a role he says he’s still more comfortable with), but Sparta gave him the opportunity to bring his voice and more of his ideas to the forefront, and it resulted in great records like Wiretap Scars. Read our new interview with Jim Ward about the album for more.
34. Funeral Diner – Difference of Potential
Ape Must Not Kill Ape
Funeral Diner released one of the most essential screamo albums ever with 2005’s The Underdark, but three years earlier they released their debut LP and only other full-length album, Difference of Potential, and it’s just as worthwhile for entirely different reasons. The Underdark communicated the band’s harsh sound with clean, atmospheric production, but on Difference of Potential they sound raw and skeletal, without an ounce of studio wizardry. Still, even in this unpolished form, it’s clear that Funeral Diner were one of the best screamo bands to ever do it. They shared traits with both post-rock and black metal, resulting in music that always felt more like a series of movements than a collection of verse-chorus-verse songs, with just enough passion in the screams to put the “emo” in screamo.
33. Pretty Girls Make Graves – Good Health
The post-hardcore and the post-punk scenes in the early 2000s weren’t always as disparate as the media tended to portray them, and one band who seesawed between both of them was Seattle’s Pretty Girls Make Graves. On their debut album Good Health, they dished out twitchy post-hardcore in the spirit of something like The Nation of Ulysses, but that band was pulling from Gang of Four. Good Health was as danceable as all the bands in the early 2000s post-punk revival and as vicious as the post-hardcore bands of the era. And I’ll be damned if I don’t hear a little emo in Andrea Zollo’s yearning, soaring delivery. Whatever subgenre you want to call them, they came out of the gate swinging on Good Health and 20 years later these songs still pack a refreshing punch.
32. Jets To Brazil – Perfecting Loneliness
There was talk of Jawbreaker becoming the next big thing with their 1995 major label debut Dear You, which was released by the label that put out Nirvana’s Nevermind (Geffen) and produced by the person who helmed Green Day’s Dookie (Rob Cavallo), but instead, the album was instantly hated by longtime fans and considered a commercial failure. The mix of fan backlash and inner-band tension led to Jawbreaker breaking up a year later, but that wasn’t the end of the road for Dear You. It ended up being discovered by a younger generation, and its influence directly led to the sound of third wave emo. Jawbreaker weren’t really considered an emo band in real time, but when frontman Blake Schwarzenbach picked up where Dear You left off in his new band Jets To Brazil (which also featured the drummer of emo pioneers Texas Is The Reason and who were signed to the primarily emo label Jade Tree Records), the word would follow him around for the rest of his career, whether he liked it or not. And in 2002, when just about every up and coming emo band was namedropping Dear You as a formative influence, Jets To Brazil released their third and final LP, Perfecting Loneliness, which captured the same spirit that was quickly becoming prevalent in that era. By the time of Perfecting Loneliness, Blake had shed his punk roots in all but spirit, and was instead focused on spacious, soaring indie rock with the occasional foray into alt-country, heartland rock, and sweeping balladry. His melodies were just as gorgeous and heart-wrenching as they were on Dear You and the two previous Jets albums, and his words were as vivid and literate as ever. It’s more intimate and tucked-away sounding than the big emo-pop albums of the era, and definitely didn’t sound like Blake was trying to fit in or follow any trends, but it didn’t hurt that he called it Perfecting Loneliness, a title that suited the genre as perfectly as Diary and Nothing Feels Good.
Pick it up on clear/black splatter vinyl.
31. The Anniversary – Your Majesty
A big part of being emo is growing out of emo, and that’s exactly what The Anniversary did on their second and final album, Your Majesty. They started out as a synth-infused emo-pop band not all too different than their Midwest neighbors (and labelmates and 1999 split-mates) The Get Up Kids, and then — as The Get Up Kids would also do in 2002 — they broke from that sound entirely. For their second and final album, Your Majesty, they recruited frequent Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf (who also helped Saves the Day and eventually Joyce Manor make “more mature” records) and they showed off their love of alt-country, folk rock, psychedelia, baroque pop, and other styles of music that Anniversary fans could probably find in their parents’ record collections. Like a lot of emo bands that made these kinds of departures, a lot of fans were left confused and disappointed, but if you take Your Majesty for what it is, it’s a great rock record. The hooks are just as sticky as the ones on their debut LP, the harmonies are gorgeous, and sometimes the band sounds even more comfortable making this kind of music than they did making scrappy emo-pop.
Pick up the gold Vagrant Records 25th anniversary vinyl edition.
30. The Get Up Kids – On A Wire
The Get Up Kids influenced virtually every pop punk-leaning emo band of the 2000s emo explosion with their 1997 debut Four Minute Mile and especially its 1999 followup Something to Write Home About, but as that sound started reaching the mainstream, The Get Up Kids shied away from it. That couldn’t have been clearer on Something to Write Home About‘s followup On A Wire. It was a complete 180 from its predecessor that sounded more like Wilco’s alt-country, R.E.M.’s jangle, and Beatlesque piano pop than anything you’d call pop punk or emo. (It also wasn’t out of nowhere; co-frontman Matt Pryor was already exploring these sounds in his underrated side project The New Amsterdams and even Something To Write Home About had some ballads that hinted at On A Wire.) It proved divisive at the time, but it holds up really well. It opens with its best song, “Overdue,” which kind of sounds like the middle ground between Something to Write Home About and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and rivals the highlights of both of those albums. An album that peaks with its first song is always tough, but if you keep listening, you’re treated to a fusion of emo and Americana that never really lulls, and feels a lot fresher today than a lot of the stuff TGUK were trying to distance themselves from.
Pick up a vinyl copy.
29. Mclusky – Mclusky Do Dallas
Abrasive, sarcastic, noisy, and tons of fun, the second and best album by Cardiff post-hardcore greats Mclusky still goes just as hard as it did 20 years ago. Its raw, forceful sound was thanks in part of the engineering of Steve Albini, and it has understandably been compared to past Albini collaborators the Pixies over the years, but where so many bands try to rip off “Where Is My Mind?,” Mclusky were more like “Tame” or “Broken Face” — the Pixies at their punkiest, shoutiest, and most chaotic. Mclusky broke up after just one more album and never got as big as they deserved, but Mclusky went on to become a cult classic and influenced a new generation of bands like Japandroids and Bully, both of whom have covered songs off this LP. And two decades later, Mclusky are giving younger generations the chance to get up, close, and personal with these songs — they’re playing Mclusky Do Dallas in full on their first North American tour in 17 years.
28. The Promise Ring – Wood/Water
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: emo band releases a scene-classic album, starts getting more popular, doesn’t wanna be emo anymore, releases an album that branches out from the genre, reactions are mixed, band breaks up. It’s a story that’s almost as old as emo itself, and it’s what The Promise Ring did with their final album, 2002’s Wood/Water, five years after revolutionizing the genre with their still-unparalleled Nothing Feels Good. They’d already started branching away from emo on 1999’s power pop-infused Very Emergency, but Wood/Water drew a thick line in the sand between The Promise Ring and the E word. It came one year after their pals Jimmy Eat World helped introduce The Promise Ring to the mainstream by quoting their song titles on “A Praise Chorus” and having TPR vocalist Davey von Bohlen sing the song’s memorable bridge, but The Promise Ring were clearly not looking to embrace mainstreamo themselves. After a stint on Jade Tree, Brett Gurewitz was looking to sign them to Epitaph, but they insisted on signing with Epitaph’s sister label Anti- Records, in order to further distance themselves from punk and emo. They recruited producer Stephen Street because of his work with The Smiths and Blur, and the songs on Wood/Water seemed to take influence from both of those bands, as well as Wilco, The Flaming Lips, and other spacious, arty rock bands. The album pulls from Britpop, psychedelia, and alt-country, and brings in strings and a choir on the climactic “Say Goodbye Good.” It really didn’t have a shred of emo on it. (It probably doesn’t even belong on a list of emo albums, but also it does, ’cause there’s nothing more emo than trying to escape emo.) Wood/Water disappointed fans that wanted another Nothing Feels Good, and it didn’t catch on with its intended audience either (it was mocked by Pitchfork in a 3.2 review by Brent DiCrescenzo, for example), but over the years, Wood/Water‘s profile has risen, and some (like Texas Is The Reason’s Norman Brannon) consider it their best. It’s an ambitious, unique album that the world wasn’t really ready for, and 20 years later, it still feels ripe for discovery.
Pick up a vinyl copy.
27. The Gloria Record – Start Here
Third wave emo as we know it doesn’t exist without the influence of Mineral, whose two ’90s albums left (and continue to leave) an impact on the genre that’s impossible to quantify, but like a lot of second wavers, they broke up shortly before the genre exploded outside of the underground. Members continued in other bands after the breakup, including frontman Chris Simpson and bassist Jeremy Gomez, who formed The Gloria Record. They picked up where the post-rock-infused vibes of Mineral’s final album EndSerenading left off, and gradually evolved that sound over the course of two EPs — 1998’s The Gloria Record and 2000’s A Lull In Traffic — before landing on the grand sounds of their first and only full-length album, Start Here. Chris Simpson was already namedropping artists like Radiohead, Bjork, and Blur as influences for A Lull In Traffic, and they went in an even more overtly art rock direction with Start Here, seamlessly fusing elements of prog, psych, and baroque pop and mixing synthetic sounds with acoustic ones in a way that was totally modern. On a purely instrumental level, this was miles away from the scrappy DIY emo of The Power of Failing, but no matter how adventurous the music got, Chris’ yearning voice always gave off that emo feeling. The Gloria Record has flown a little more under the radar than Mineral, and that’s a crime given how ahead of its time Start Here still sounds. The emo of 2002 was stereotyped as something similar to pop punk, but that perception has changed over the years, as emo’s connection to indie and art rock becomes more and more prevalent. If your taste in emo leans in that direction and Start Here isn’t already in your life, change that now.
26. Alexisonfire – Alexisonfire
When you think of early 2000s emo, what comes to mind? Two singers, one who screams and one who whine-sings? Chaotic song structures? Bright melodies even at the most aggressive moments? Verbose teenage poetry, sometimes delivered as tense spoken word? An overwhelming amount of melodrama? If you’ve said yes to all of the above, you’ve probably felt the impact of Alexisonfire, whose 2002 self-titled debut album perfected all of those things and helped establish them as dominant traits of the early 2000s emo/post-hardcore boom. Some of those traits also led to some of the most maligned emo bands of the era, but Alexisonfire themselves were always a step above of the pale imitators, and they were leaders, not followers. As this kind of stuff got oversaturated, AOF pushed their music in unpredictable directions, and that approach has continued on their 2022 reunion album Otherness, which is unlike anything else they’d done prior. “The fact that someone’s listening is an opportunity to do something bizarre and cool. And any band that uses an opportunity to go middle of the road? I just don’t know why they’re a band,” Wade MacNeil told SPIN when Otherness was announced. If you really think about it, that’s been the band’s M.O. since the start.
25. Hopesfall – The Satellite Years
Hopesfall were far ahead of their time and the world only recently started catching up with them. These days, it’s pretty normal for punk, emo, hardcore, and metal bands to namedrop Hum as a reference point for wanting to stay heavy but make things a little shoegazier, but Hopesfall were doing that all the way back in 2002, way before it was a trend. Hum frontman Matt Talbott produced Hopesfall’s sophomore album The Satellite Years and sang guest vocals on its penultimate track “Escape Pod for Intangibles,” so not only are his fingerprints literally on this album, you can also clearly hear Hum’s influence on the pillowy, atmospheric parts. Hopesfall are currently reunited and their new material finds them getting even more atmospheric and sounding incredibly modern, and the reunion material really solidifies the legacy they started leaving on The Satellite Years. There’s a lot about this album that sounds very 2002 and not a whole lot different than the countless post-hardcore bands of the era, but that more ethereal side really made Hopesfall stand out and makes them hold up better than a lot of their peers today.
24. Northstar – Is This Thing Loaded?
People throw around the phrase “your favorite band’s favorite band,” but it’s a very deserved description for Northstar, especially if your favorite band is Taking Back Sunday. TBS included a note with their debut album Tell All Your Friends (more on that one soon) that said “Northstar is the greatest band ever,” and it’s not hard to tell that Northstar — who hailed from Adam Lazzara’s original home state of Alabama — also influenced TBS, especially on the albums they put out after Is This Thing Loaded?. Released on NYC label Triple Crown Records (also home of TBS’ frenemies Brand New), Northstar’s debut LP remains one of the best and most underrated albums of the entire early 2000s emo boom. Its rawer production makes it sound a little dated, but the band’s expressive, melodic sound was prescient, especially when you consider how much of an impact it had on one of the genre’s biggest bands. Too baroque to be pop punk, but too poppy to be post-hardcore, Is This Thing Loaded? occupied that thrilling middle ground between melody, aggression, and experimentation that so much of the best emo from this era did. It beats a handful of the bigger bands at their own game, and all these years later, Is This Long Loaded? remains one of the genre’s true gems.
23. The Velvet Teen – Out of the Fierce Parade
When The Velvet Teen released their Chris Walla-produced 2002 debut album Out of the Fierce Parade, critics tried to paint them as just the latest band in a long line of Radiohead copycats. And okay, maybe there are moments on Out of the Fierce Parade that sound influenced by OK Computer — who in those days wasn’t? — but pigeonholing The Velvet Teen in that way is a massive misjudgment. Judah Nagler does have an airy falsetto, but as with Thom Yorke’s, you’d be hard-pressed to find another singer on the planet who actually has a voice that sounds like this. The Velvet Teen were a much more distinct band than they were initially given credit for being — as they solidified across a series of increasingly strange, ambitious albums — and maybe mainstream music critics didn’t know what to do with them, but the emo scene did. The Velvet Teen weren’t exactly emo themselves, but their soaring, swinging-for-the-fences indie/art rock songs shared sensibilities with certain corners of the emo scene, so it made sense that they gained the approval of fellow emo-adjacent misfits Minus the Bear, who took them on tour multiple times, and underground emo true believers Topshelf Records, who signed The Velvet Teen for their 2015 comeback album All Is Illusory. On Out of the Fierce Parade, The Velvet Teen were bridging the gap between the more traditional indie rock of their early EPs and the artsy records that would follow. It’s their most straightforward full-length, with driving rock songs like “Radiapathy,” “The Prize Fighter,” and “Caspian Can Wait” that sat especially nicely next to the emo bands of the era, and looking back, it reminds you that when The Velvet Teen do decide to write guitar/bass/drums rock songs, they’re really good at it. But the album also includes immersive ballads like “Red, Like Roses,” “Penning the Penultimate,” and “Death” that hinted at something more unconventional. Call them emo, indie, art rock, or whatever you want, but the truth is The Velvet Teen don’t really fit neatly into any genre. There’s hardly anyone like them.
22. City of Caterpillar – City of Caterpillar
City of Caterpillar came out of the same fertile Virginia screamo scene as pg.99 and Majority Rule (and shared members with both bands at various points), and their once-sole full-length (their first in 20 years is on the way!) is one of the key albums in shaping the sound of the screamo/post-rock crossover. City of Caterpillar really has as much in common with the raw, harsh sounds of early screamo as it does with the gorgeous, soaring sounds of a band like Explosions in the Sky, and you can still hear the sounds of this album reverberating in newer bands today. It nails the heavy/beautiful divide as well as just about anyone ever has, and its spastic drum patterns make it more lively and unpredictable than most bands who attempt a similar thing. It is totally and utterly intense.
21. The Blood Brothers – March On Electric Children
Three One G
The Blood Brothers brought chaotic, sassy hardcore to the mainstream with their 2003 breakthrough …Burn, Piano Island, Burn, one of the most important post-hardcore albums of its generation, but they had already figured out their sound on the Three One G-released, Matt Bayles-produced March On Electric Children, which came out the year prior. It’s just as anarchic and over-the-top as …Burn, Piano Island Burn, and it’s just as strangely accessible too. Songs like the title track and “Kiss of the Octopus” are just as immediate as the bigger hits The Blood Brothers would score throughout the 2000s. It’s also a concept album that’s more ambitious in scope (and better produced) than their 2000 debut This Adultery Is Ripe, but clocking in at less than 25 minutes, it’s a more compact, fat-trimmed version of The Blood Brothers than the later albums. It’s the perfect middle ground.
20. Poison the Well – Tear from the Red
Poison the Well’s 1999 debut album The Opposite of December helped kickstart the scream/sung melodic metalcore movement that blew up in the early 2000s, but instead of joining the Killswitch Engages and Avenged Sevenfolds of the world and capitalizing on the popularity of the sound they helped create, Poison the Well went in increasingly experimental directions that were too outré for them to be neatly lumped in with metalcore. While The Opposite of December‘s production style is very emblematic of ’90s metalcore, Tear from the Red has a rich, spacious sound that defies any particular niche and sounds as fresh today as it did in 2002. It’s heavy, but in a much more ethereal way than its predecessor, and it’s also full of somber acoustic passages and clean-sung vocals delivered in more of an emo/indie rock fashion than on the band’s debut. The Opposite of December spawned a lot of imitators, but few bands dared to pull off copying Tear from the Red.
Pick up our exclusive half neon violet, half white with black splatter vinyl variant of the 20th anniversary edition of Tear from the Red.
19. The Starting Line – Say It Like You Mean It
In his now-classic 2003 book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, Andy Greenwald described the bulk of Drive-Thru’s roster as “a seemingly interchangeable crop of young, vaguely punky boy bands that produce eminently hummable guitar pop in the vein of blink-182 and New Found Glory,” before pointing out that one of the better examples of these bands is The Starting Line. That was just one year after The Starting Line had released their debut album Say It Like You Mean It, and the description wasn’t totally off-base, but over the years The Starting Line proved to be much more than NFG/blink soundalikes. They made this album with producer Mark Trombino, who had produced blink-182’s Dammit, but they chose him because of his work on Jimmy Eat World’s 1999 emo masterpiece Clarity, which Greenwald said in his book was The Starting Line’s collective favorite album. Say It Like You Mean It‘s picture-perfect pop punk didn’t have the sprawl of Clarity, but you could tell The Starting Line owed more to heart-on-sleeve emo than to potty humor pop punk. The album birthed their breakthrough hit “The Best Of Me,” which remains one of the most iconic singles of the era, and that song is a lot more popular than any other track on the album, but it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the LP quality-wise. From the fired-up album opener “Up and Go” to should’ve-been-a-single “Leaving” (which appeared in a more primitive form on their 2001 debut EP With Hopes of Starting Over) to more ballad-driven songs like “A Goodnight’s Sleep” to guest screams from Finch’s Nate Barcalow on “Cheek to Cheek” to the Get Up Kids/Dashboard-esque acoustic emo of “The Drama Summer,” Say It Like You Mean It covers a lot of ground, and it never lulls. Kenny Vasoli’s yearning, yelpy delivery separated The Starting Line from their snot-nosed pop punk forebears, and when you listen the newer generation of pop punk and emo-pop bands, I’d say you hear even more echoes of Kenny’s voice than of Tom DeLonge’s or Jordan Pundik’s. The Starting Line would increasingly distance themselves from pop punk on their next two albums, and Kenny would abandon the genre entirely with his next two projects, Person L and Vacationer; unlike so many of their peers, The Starting Line and Kenny himself have been in a state of constant evolution, and in hindsight, you can hear so much more in Say It Like You Mean It than just another pop punk album. You can hear a great songwriter finding their voice, and an album that sounds so much fresher today than most of what was considered similar at the time.
18. …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – Source Tags & Codes
After two albums (including one for Merge), Austin post-hardcore band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead signed an unlikely major label deal with Interscope, and they used their new budget to make the most ambitious record they could come up with. It journeys through Sonic Youth-style jams, ’90s-style post-rock, and strings and horns and bells without ever losing sight of the band’s punk energy. Three of Trail of Dead’s four members trade lead vocal duties, and even the album’s most meandering songs turn into yearning anthems that qualified Source Tags & Codes as emo-adjacent, if not straight-up emo. On later albums, Trail of Dead’s growing ambitions sometimes sent them off the rails, but Source Tags & Codes earns every second.
17. My Chemical Romance – I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love
As legend has it, Mikey Way pulled Thursday’s Geoff Rickly aside at a party, grabbed a broken out-of-tune acoustic guitar, and showed him a song he was working on for his new band with his brother Gerard called My Chemical Romance. As most people would be if you cornered them at a party to play them a shitty version of a song you’d just written, Geoff was more annoyed than impressed, but after the band got their act together and recorded a demo of their song “Vampires Will Never Hurt You” to give to Geoff, he knew there was something special about this band, and he signed on to produce their debut album. By the time they’d finished recording, Mikey said to Geoff “you don’t think we’ll ever be as big as Thursday?” and he replied, “Dude, I think you’re gonna be so much bigger than Thursday it’s not even funny.” By the time they signed to a major and released 2004’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, Geoff’s premonition began becoming very true, but when they released their 2002 debut I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love on the small local label Eyeball Records, they had yet to reveal their full potential to the world. The recording was a lot scrappier than anything MCR would release going forward, the band were still wearing some of their influences on their sleeves, and they were still coming into their own as a tight-knit unit, but the album also strongly hinted at a band who would soon be capable of taking over the world. They had a knack for fusing together multiple styles of music (punk, emo, goth, metal, pop, hardcore, etc), they had an arsenal of riffs, great hooks, and it was clear that Gerard Way had a great and unique voice that would make My Chem stand out from the emo pack for years to come. But perhaps more so than any musical element, the thing that made I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love a cut above the rest was Gerard’s conceptual vision. Having doubled as a comic book creator, Gerard didn’t just write songs, he created universes, and that was clear from the vivid stories and themes that ran throughout I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. By 2006’s The Black Parade, they’d have written emo’s most prominent rock opera, and they were already sowing the seeds for that on their rougher 2002 debut. Bullets never got as popular as MCR’s later records, but it’s a crucial part of the band’s story, and I’d argue it sounds even better today than it did back then.
16. Norma Jean – Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child
Norma Jean’s debut LP Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child was one of the several landmark metalcore albums produced by Killswitch Engage’s Adam Dutkiewicz, but as KSE and many of their peers were taking metalcore in a more melodic direction, Norma Jean further explored the genre’s darker, more aggressive side. Early reviews regularly compared the album to ’90s bands like Zao and Botch, which makes sense, but undersells how forward-thinking this album was. Norma Jean and vocalist Josh Scogin (who left the band after this album to form The Chariot and currently fronts the hard rock band ’68) would turn out to be architects of metalcore’s second wave, and looking back, you can hear that everything they achieved began right here. The album feels rawer, harder, and more sincere than a lot of the big records that came out of metalcore’s mainstream explosion, and it’s more varied too. It offers up metalcore at its most furious at times, and completely defies the genre at others. It has an atmospheric post-sludge-metal side that comes through on songs like “Organized Beyond Recognition,” “I Used to Hate Cell Phones, But Now I Hate Car Accidents,” and especially “Pretty Soon, I Don’t Know What, But Something Is Going to Happen,” the album’s 16-minute centerpiece that earns every second and genuinely deserves to be called “epic.” “Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste” finds time for the unmistakable shout-singing of Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou (who Norma Jean released a split with that same year), and it speaks to Norma Jean’s range as musicians that Aaron sounds as comfortable on this album as he does with his own much different band. These subtleties in the songwriting have helped the album age well and continue to stand out from Norma Jean’s peers. For an album that so frequently got compared to ’90s bands when it came out, it sounds pretty timeless today.
15. Hot Rod Circuit – Sorry About Tomorrow
Hot Rod Circuit caught the tail-end of emo’s second wave with two increasingly good albums for Triple Crown and a few splits/EPs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and by the time the third wave was in full effect, they signed to one of the genre’s most dominant labels, Vagrant Records, who put out their breakthrough (and still best) album, Sorry About Tomorrow. Even people with a passing interest in early 2000s emo have probably heard the album’s lead single/opening track “The Pharmacist,” a power-poppy anthem that remains HRC’s only song with plays in the millions on Spotify, and as irresistible as that song is, it’s far from the best that Sorry About Tomorrow has to offer. It seamlessly varies between revved-up punk, brainy indie rock, and sentimental ballads, with at least five other songs that sound like they could’ve been singles. Andy Jackson has a delivery and a lyrical style that captures the sweet, yearning emotions of emo without falling into “whiny” territory, and the country-loving Casey Prestwood is an inventive lead guitarist that gave HRC a flair unlike most anyone else in the emo scene. (This album’s sturdy, deceptively simple rhythm section is one of its secret weapons too.) Sorry About Tomorrow may not have ever had the commercial success of albums like Something to Write Home About or Bleed American, but its arsenal of anthemic hooks and tender moments scratches a very similar itch. Like both of those albums, it’s a stone cold emo classic.
14. Hot Snakes – Suicide Invoice
After Drive Like Jehu pioneered an emo-friendly version of post-hardcore and then split up in 1995, guitarist/backing vocalist John Reis dedicated himself full-time to his punk ‘n’ roll band Rocket from the Crypt, before reuniting with Drive Like Jehu vocalist/guitarist Rick Froberg in the post-hardcore band Hot Snakes. (Meanwhile, Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino had become one of the most in-demand producers in emo and pop punk.) Hot Snakes were less sprawling and emo-adjacent than Drive Like Jehu, instead taking cues from energetic garage rock and angular post-hardcore like Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard. They were more an extension of the underground ’80s/’90s post-hardcore scene than part of the genre’s early 2000s mainstream boom, but that didn’t stop Suicide Invoice from sounding just as fresh and innovative any post-hardcore record in 2002. It’s the Hot Snakes’ most consistently relentless work, with one anthemic ripper after another. With Suicide Invoice, Rick Froberg and John Reis weren’t counting on their reputations to precede them; they were starting anew and coming out with some of the most fiery music of their careers.
13. Coheed & Cambria – The Second Stage Turbine Blade
My Chemical Romance weren’t the only band in the Northeast emo scene with a love of comic books and concept albums. Nyack, New York’s Claudio Sanchez had begun crafting a comic book universe based on songs by his band Shabütie, who would change their name to Coheed & Cambria and release their instant-classic debut album The Second Stage Turbine Blade in 2002. The album took place entire within Claudio’s comic book world (known as The Armory Wars), and it served as a fully-formed introduction to a band that would go on to become one of the most prominent and unique alternative rock groups of the 21st century. Along with the ambitious musical themes, Coheed incorporated complex progressive rock instrumentation, Claudio had a high-pitched wail that’s been compared a zillion times to Geddy Lee, and the band had just enough background screams and punchy power chords to remind you of their roots in post-hardcore and screamo. On a song like lead single “Devil In Jersey City,” they gave every hit-making emo-pop band a run for their money, while the album’s more sprawling, technical tracks showed off a band with much more depth than the version of emo that was being shown on MTV. Even 20 years later, there’s not really anyone that sounds like this.
12. Desaparecidos – Read Music/Speak Spanish
Political emo – more likely than you think! Conor Oberst had already proven to be as emo as it gets with the personal songs he wrote for his lo-fi folk project Bright Eyes, but when he formed the more traditionally emo-sounding Desparecidos, he opened up about capitalism, the wealth gap, government corruption, war, and other topics that frequently dominated the political climate of post-9/11 America. (And just to be fair, there were still some personal songs too.) Desaparecidos only lasted for one year (until their 2010s reunion that resulted in their 2015 sophomore album Payola), but that was enough time to release Read Music/Speak Spanish, which still stands tall as one of the best albums in Conor’s massive discography. His loud, distorted guitar rock songs were at least as impactful as his shambolic acoustic ones, and his shaky voice and scream-singing abilities were perfect for this style of music. Musically speaking, the album fit in perfectly with the direction that emo was heading in 2002, and its lyrical themes — which are sadly still relevant — have helped it age better than the whiny ex-boyfriend bands that dominated emo at the time. Not everyone was ready for it in 2002, but if fits in with today’s emo landscape better than a lot of Desaparecidos’ former peers.
Pick up the 20th anniversary color vinyl reissue of Read Music/Speak Spanish.
11. Box Car Racer – Box Car Racer
As blink-182 became superstars, Tom DeLonge started going down the darker, heavier rabbithole of post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Quicksand, Jawbox, and Refused, and he needed an outlet to write his own songs in that style, so Box Car Racer was born. Travis Barker — who was responsible for getting Tom into that kinda stuff — joined on drums, and they linked up with blink-182 producer Jerry Finn to make the record, so even though Tom intended to make something a little rougher and less commercialized, it’s no surprise that the record was still a hit, given the team involved. (Mark Hoppus duetted with Tom on one of the songs too.) Tom proved to be just as good at chunky, Quicksand-y riffs as he was at pop punk, and Box Car Racer also allowed him to go in the opposite direction, exploring a more somber, acoustic side than ever before. It was a drastic departure from blink-182 at the time, but its success convinced blink to try a similar approach on their remarkable 2003 untitled album, which transcended pop punk entirely. Read my 20th anniversary review of Box Car Racer for more.
10. mewithoutYou – (A→B) Life
Tooth & Nail
In the course of their 20+ year career — which sadly comes to an end this year — mewithoutYou expanded the boundaries of post-hardcore, incorporating everything from art rock to indie folk, and they remained a consistently rewarding band throughout. They were never radio-friendly enough to get as big in the Warped Tour era as some of their friends’ bands did, but they developed a cult following that only strengthened over the years, and proved to be a highly influential band on the less commercialized wave of post-hardcore that took shape in the 2010s. They’re true anomalies who defy easy categorization, but they had humble beginnings. On their 2002 debut album (A→B) Life, they sounded like a hungry young band in love with ’90s post-hardcore; it was produced by Jawbox’s J. Robbins and the influence of bands like Fugazi and At the Drive-In echoes throughout. Still, even on (A→B) Life, it was clear that mewithoutYou were not your average post-hardcore band. Aaron Weiss’ nearly-unparalleled (and oft-emulated) voice and lyricism stood out amongst a sea of post-hardcore vocalists even then, and the rest of the band worked in subtle embellishments that hinted at the genre-defying direction of their next record. A handful of songs on this record remain mewithoutYou fan faves today, and one of them directly led to one of the band’s most-loved songs; lyrics and melodies from “Nice and Blue” were reworked four years later for the Brother, Sister highlight “Nice and Blue (Pt. Two),” a technique that mewithoutYou employed a few times throughout their career. Taken as part of their whole catalog, it’s the raw, modest start to one of the most unique careers in all of underground rock, but even taken on its own, completely out of any other context, (A→B) Life still stands tall as some of the finest post-hardcore you’ll ever hear.
9. Owen – No Good For No One Now
Of all my opinions that will get me thrown in emo jail, possibly the most criminal one is that I think Mike Kinsella made his best music after American Football first broke up. (Their best album is LP3; don’t @ me.) His singing got stronger, his lyrics got more specific and impactful, and he never lost the ability to offset his heart-on-sleeve confessionals with noodly, alternately-tuned math rock. For my money, the moment that Mike Kinsella perfected the songwriting style that would define the past 20 years of his career was No Good For No One Now, the sophomore album by his often-acoustic solo project Owen. Prior to this album, he had already mastered a guitar style so unique that people still call it “Kinsella-style” when other bands do it, but on No Good For No One Now he combined that with a knack for narrative storytelling that could stop you in your tracks. A lot of early 2000s emo was about unrequited love, but — true to its title — few albums captured the way you feel like pure shit after a breakup like No Good For No One Now does. On “Poor Souls,” he’s drunk and alone in a bar, desperate for a one-night stand with just about anybody. Before we even find out if it happens (we never do), he already kinda regrets it, and already feels pathetic enough to admit “I swear to god I’ll die if I go home alone tonight.” On the sad-sack breakup song “Nobody’s Nothing,” when he says “you’ve only yourself to blame,” he’s almost definitely talking to himself. On “The Ghost of What Should’ve Been,” when he asks, “What else in this fucking empty room reminds me of fucking you?”, you can visualize the void that a breakup leaves you with. Some breakup albums are meant to empower, or lend a helping hand, or tell you everything’s gonna be alright, but that’s not what No Good For No One Now is. This is a snapshot of hitting your lowest low, when it feels like it might not ever get better, and you probably hate yourself more than you even hate anyone else. You might not want to look to No Good For No One Now for advice, but if you want an album that captures negative emotion at its rawest and realest, it rarely gets better than this.
Pick up a vinyl copy.
8. Pedro the Lion – Control
There’s a popular narrative that “second wave emo” (roughly 1994-2000) is a form of indie rock while “third wave emo” (roughly 2001-2007) is a form of pop or at least pop punk, but that was never entirely accurate. A lot of bands who hit their stride during the third wave were indie rock bands, like Pedro the Lion, whose breakthrough and best album Control came out right smack in the middle of 2002’s emo craze. Band leader David Bazan did start Pedro the Lion in 1995, but Control is the reason that they’ll always have a spot in the emo canon, and Bazan also wasn’t really pulling from the Dischord-style influences that the second wave bands usually were. He hailed from Seattle, he liked slowcore and Built to Spill, and he ran in similar circles as fellow emo-adjacent PacNW bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse. (He also looked up to Seattle emo god Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate, but who went against the emo grain more than Jeremy Enigk?) Still, Pedro the Lion signed to one of emo’s most dominant labels, Jade Tree, and as Keegan Bradford pointed out in his 20th anniversary review of Control for Stereogum, it was being on Jade Tree that helped push Control into the emo lane. “I think in the end [being on Jade Tree] probably influenced me to make more sort of like heavy records,” he said on Fucked Up vocalist Damian Abraham’s Turned Out A Punk podcast. “Like I don’t know if I would have made Control if I wasn’t on that label.” We’re lucky he did, because it all comes through on this album. The slowcore and PacNW indie rock influences are there, and he’s got louder, revved-up rock songs too. It’s also got a very emo concept; on album opener “Options” — Pedro the Lion’s most widely-beloved song — a married couple walks on the beach as the husband muses, “I could never divorce you without a good reason/And though I may never have to, it’s good to have options,” only to later profess, “But for now, I need you.” As the album goes on, he cheats on his wife, gets caught, and she murders him. “Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless?” the narrator wonders, as the album reaches its somber end.
Pick it up on clear/black mix vinyl.
7. Hot Water Music – Caution
With their rugged blend of punk, emo, and post-hardcore, Hot Water Music had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with as far back as their 1997 debut album Fuel for the Hate Game. At first they had a loose, spindly sound, but they started to tighten things up on 2001’s A Flight and a Crash (their first for Epitaph and first with producer Brian McTernan) and then they fully streamlined things with the following year’s Caution (also on Epitaph and with Brian). All eras of Hot Water Music are good in their own ways, but there’s a reason that Caution remains a favorite for so many fans. This is the album where they had bottled up all the great ideas they’d had previously, and spit them back out into the most focused batch of songs they’ve ever released. It opens with the one-two punch of “Remedy” and “Trusty Chords” — two of the most iconic punk songs of the past 25 years — and it’s hard to go anywhere but down after that, but Hot Water Music keep the energy and the great hooks coming. Caution sneaks in the more intricate aspects of the band’s earlier work, but for the most part, this is Hot Water Music at their most direct and least frilly. These are fist-in-the-air, screamalong ragers that light up the crowd every time Hot Water Music break one out at their shows. The album is so urgent and inspired that, no matter how many times you listen, it always feels like the first time all over again.
6. Minus the Bear – Highly Refined Pirates
I don’t know if Minus the Bear truly count as emo or post-hardcore, but with a guitarist who previously played in Botch, an equal love of math rock riffs and catchy choruses, and multiple tours with emo and post-hardcore bands, they’ve gotten lumped in with it many times over the years, and this list would be incomplete without their classic debut album Highly Refined Pirates. When the future “emo revival” musicians and fans were choosing the noodly guitars of Braid and the Kinsellas over most third wave emo, Minus the Bear fit right in. After arriving almost fully formed on their 2001 debut EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, they entirely perfected their formula on their debut full-length Highly Refined Pirates, a unique blend of indie rock, dance-pop, math rock, pure pop, and maybe a little emo and post-hardcore. The album didn’t break into the mainstream, and it wasn’t necessarily a favorite amongst tastemaking critics either, but to the cult following that Minus the Bear amassed over the years, Highly Refined Pirates feels like a greatest hits. A lot of bands on this list operated at the top of their lungs, but Jake Snider went for something much more subtle, and still managed to crank out anthem after anthem, with lyricism that could be imagery-inducing, conversational, funny, and impactful all at once. The interplay between his and Dave Knudson’s tapping guitars bounced right off of drummer Erin Tate and bassist Cory Murchy’s sturdy rhythm section, making for indie rock you could dance to that never veered into sleaze. Like emo bands, Minus the Bear were too sincere for that, and that’s probably one reason why the Seattle band didn’t party with the Meet Me in the Bathroom crowd. The truth is, Minus the Bear didn’t really fit in anywhere. They made remarkably innovative underground music that was ignored by many and cherished to death by those who gave it the time it deserved, and that is some emo shit.
5. Thrice – The Illusion of Safety
As bands like Glassjaw and Thursday were leading a post-hardcore revolution on the outskirts of New York City; Irvine, California’s Thrice were doing a similar thing on the West Coast, and they had a distinct West Coast flair, making a style of post-hardcore that pulled from SoCal skate punk and Bay Area thrash. They also owed more to the burgeoning wave of At The Gates-inspired metalcore than most post-hardcore/emo bands and more to pop punk and emo than most metalcore bands. Those influences were all on display on their 2000 debut LP Identity Crisis, but Thrice figured out to fuse them seamlessly on their 2002 sophomore album The Illusion of Safety. This album found Thrice pushing themselves further than ever in a variety of different directions. It was tougher and heavier than anything Thrice had released previously, more strongly embracing their hardcore, metalcore, and thrash influences while toning down the skate punk vibes. But it was also catchier and more inviting than the band’s earlier work. Each member of the band was an ace musician in their own right, and by the time of The Illusion of Safety, they had come together to form a four-piece unit that had a ton of chemistry. They had a thunderous rhythm section, heroic guitars, and at the forefront of it all was Dustin Kensrue, who on this album solidified himself as one of the most distinct vocalists of the emo/post-hardcore boom. He wasn’t “whiny” or “nasally” or whatever other stereotypical adjectives got thrown at emo singers; he had a warmer, thicker delivery that felt like it was coming from the bottom of his stomach. Even his most sugar-coated moments were aggressive, and even his screamiest parts had a melodic clarity. Read my 20th anniversary review of the album for more.
4. Piebald – We Are the Only Friends We Have
Big Wheel Recreation
Jimmy Eat World weren’t the only ’90s emo band who pivoted to power pop in the new millennium. Piebald, who started out as a screamy post-hardcore band in the same Boston hardcore scene that birthed Converge and Cave In, had inched towards something a little catchier on their great 1999 sophomore album If It Weren’t for Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains for Us All before fully abandoning their heavy roots on 2002’s stone cold classic We Are the Only Friends We Have. Utilizing big, chunky power chords, McCartney-esque pianos, classic rock riffs, and indie rock quirks, Piebald delivered a front-to-back album of power pop perfection that we’ve shouted along to for 20 years straight. Singer Travis Shettel’s voice cleaned up real good from the harsher delivery he had on Piebald’s earlier records, and he had the passion, the way with words, and the sense of humor to come up with infectious lyrics that were like virtually no other 2000s emo band. Whether Piebald’s making you pump your first to “American Hearts,” or drawing you in with a love song about a school bus on “King of the Road,” or offering up a rousing anthem about how being in a rock band is way better than working in an office and somehow not seeming mean-spirited or arrogant in the slightest on “The Monkey Versus the Robot,” We Are the Only Friends We Have is an album that throws a party and wants you to be part of it. Its layers of irony and sincerity go deeper than I can possibly address in a one-paragraph blurb, and the album holds up so well because it’s instantly thrilling on first listen and you can spend literally 20 years exploring it further without losing that initial thrill. In a just world, this album would’ve made Piebald as big as Jimmy Eat World or Weezer or any other band who filtered genuine emotion through sugary, power chord-driven rock songs. It didn’t, but the songs haven’t aged a bit and they’re still ripe for discovery, so maybe there’s still hope.
3. Glassjaw – Worship and Tribute
Glassjaw’s debut album Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence put Glassjaw on the map, but their 2002 sophomore album Worship & Tribute — which, for 15 years, was their latest album — is their masterpiece. Like At the Drive-In had done on their post-hardcore classic Relationship of Command two years earlier, Glassjaw worked with nu metal producer Ross Robinson, and Glassjaw actually sounded a little nu metal… or at least a little like Deftones. But the Long Island band were clearly rooted in their hometown’s long history of hardcore, as well as the NYC post-hardcore of bands like Quicksand and Burn, and Worship & Tribute is basically what it sounds like when a hardcore band tries to make an off-kilter alternative rock record. Like Relationship of Command, Worship & Tribute is always teetering on the edge of something more progressive and more psychedelic, and Daryl Palumbo is frequently utilizing the flamboyant clean-sung vocals that he’d fully embrace in Head Automatica, but Worship & Tribute is still a bludgeoningly heavy album. It’s kind of amazing to think this was a major label album with radio singles and a video on MTV (for the great single “Ape Dos Mil,” which is pretty accessible even for people who would never listen to hardcore), because it kicks your ass ruthlessly even if you’ve been regularly listening to it for the past 20 years.
Pick up a vinyl copy.
2. Rilo Kiley – The Execution of All Things
As emo course-corrected in the 2010s, its lyrical theme of choice largely shifted from unrequited love to mental health, but Rilo Kiley were already there on their 2002 sophomore LP The Execution of All Things. “I do this thing where I think I’m real sick, but I won’t go to the doctor to find out about it,” Jenny Lewis sings on the instant-classic album opener “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” and that’s one verse after suggesting we get together with our friends and share our anxieties about climate change. And I won’t even bother quoting anything from “A Better Son/Daughter” because I wouldn’t even know where to start. Rilo Kiley hailed from Los Angeles, but they linked up with the emo scene in Omaha, releasing this record on Saddle Creek, making it with the label’s co-founder/in-house producer Mike Mogis, and having members of Bright Eyes and Cursive contribute to the album, and this album perfectly encapsulated the emo/folk/indie rock blend that was often associated with Saddle Creek. It has the somber songs, the rockers, and plenty in between, and Jenny Lewis was not only one of the most impactful lyricists in early 2000s emo, she also had the perfect voice to carry all that emotional weight. (Guitarist Blake Sennett, who sometimes sang lead, wasn’t half bad at conveying emotion himself.) The Execution of All Things not only made a mark in real time; it’s become massively influential in recent years. A 2020 tribute LP to the album featured Mannequin Pussy, Sad13, Diet Cig, Adult Mom, Anika Pyle, Riverby, and other staples of the modern DIY scene; Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield has said “Rilo Kiley changed my life” and said Jenny Lewis was “a genius” on this album, Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan has expressed fandom for this album in particular, and Rilo Kiley has even been credited with helping to pave the way for the somber sound of Taylor Swift’s last two albums. Some of the albums on this list feel like a trip back to 2002, but The Execution of All Things sounds more like the past decade of emo than the early 2000s, and that’s because it’s more influential now than ever.
1. Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends
Emo’s big mainstream moment began in 2001, but the four-chord opening of “Cute Without the E (Cut from the Team)” was the emo shot heard ’round the world. That song is the reason that Long Island became the new Seattle, and I don’t know if emo would have become the dominant punk subgenre amongst millennial youths without its immediate impact. And it was no one-hit wonder; there’s not a dull moment on Taking Back Sunday’s 2002 debut album Tell All Your Friends, and this album alone might’ve had more one-liners that kids scribbled into their notebooks and pasted into their AIM profiles than any other album in that era. In many ways, it’s a product of its time, but its legacy has only grown over the years. Tell All Your Friends spawned imitators right away, and it’s continued to influence musicians for the past 20 years. Even some bands who don’t necessarily sound like Taking Back Sunday credit the band for introducing them to punk rock, vulnerable lyricism, or both. If you attend any Emo Nite, or any Taking Back Sunday show, or really just hear these songs at any kind of social gathering, it’s clear that the reactions that they elicit in people are just as strong and inhibitionless as they were 20 years ago. Nostalgia is obviously part of it for a lot of people, but nostalgia alone isn’t enough to establish the kind of legacy that this album still has. Read my 20th anniversary review for more.
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