My name is Caleb Luther and I’ve been reviewing film, music, and television on the internet since 2011.
The definition of emo is something that's been highly debated for decades. There are people that will legitimately cringe at the idea of certain bands being considered emo. On the opposite end of that, the term often gets thrown around so much that I've even heard nu metal bands like Trapt and Evanescence referred to as emo. Regardless, the 2000s were a time where pop punk and emo was thrown into the mainstream. The two genres often blended to the point where they essentially become the same thing for a small period of time.
To some people, emo was more about apparel than the music itself. Are you wearing all black with mascara on? Congratulations, you're now emo. For me, it's not quite that simple. In looking back at all the bands that could be considered emo from that era, I found several bands that followed the classic emo format while others definitely leaned into the more trendy new wave of emo. What you are about to see are 15 albums from that era that (to me) still hold up. I tried my best to not let nostalgia influence my decision. Honestly, nostalgia depresses me anyway, so it wasn't all that hard to eliminate it. With all that being said, these aren't the only good albums from that era, but more so the albums that still immediately catch my attention as a 30-year-old man.
Bayside - The Walking Wounded (2007)
Bayside was a band that I was absolutely infatuated with in high school. Their first two albums, Sirens and Condolences and Bayside, are filled to the brim with self-loathing lyrics and gloomy guitar melodies. For their third album, Bayside stepped up their game in a big way, evolving with complex song structures and more thought-provoking lyrical content.
The Walking Wounded feels like a band thriving at their creative peak while not caring if anyone else likes it or not. Luckily, it's still largely considered the band's best work to date. While still having its fair share of self-loathing lyrics, The Walking Wounded also tackles subjects like alcohol abuse, religion, and artistic integrity. Aside from new territory lyrically, Bayside also blends in orchestral bits in songs like "The Walking Wounded," "Head On A Plate," and "Dear Your Holiness." Not only that, but it also features my personal favorite song that the band has ever produced, "(Pop)Ular Science." Ultimately, The Walking Wounded is Bayside's masterpiece that they still have not been able to match.
- "They're Not Horses, They're Unicorns"
- "I And I"
- "A Rite of Passage"
- "(Pop)Ular Science"
Boys Night Out - Trainwreck (2005)
Leaning more into the post-hardcore aspects of emo, Boys Night Out managed to create ambitious and exciting songs throughout their run as a band. On their second album, Trainwreck, they created a borderline rock opera. The concept of Trainwreck is that a man murders his wife in his sleep and slowly loses his mind through the course of the album. Regardless if you want to follow the story or not, these songs run into each other with a nearly perfect flow.
Boys Night Out has always had a knack for making fairly heavy songs feel relatively poppy and Trainwreck is no exception. In songs like "Waking" and "Medicating," the band leaned into their pop-punk sensibilities while still adding that extra something to make them stand out above other bands in the genre. The album also has no shortage of heavy tracks, such as "Purging," "Recovering," and "Healing." When it comes to personal preference, I actually prefer their self-titled album, but as a creative statement, Trainwreck is undoubtedly their most grand and acclaimed album.
Circa Survive - On Letting Go (2007)
With the exception of maybe one other band, Circa Survive has probably had the most consistent career out of all the bands listed in this article. All six of their albums have either been good or great, meaning that their sound has arguably held up the best out of any emo act from the mid 2000s. On their sophomore release, On Letting Go, the band took everything good from their first release and multiplied it by about 20. Already having a very distinct sound with prog rock influences, Circa Survive allowed their creative juices to flow throughout On Letting Go to exciting and emotional heights.
Vocalist Anthony Green's unique vocal style elevates the spacey elements of the music while adding a powerful sincerity along the way. The album also has no shortage of thought-provoking themes, considering that their debut album, Juturna, was loosely based on the mind-bending film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Songs like "In the Morning and Amazing...," "Mandala," and "Semi Constructive Criticism" are flooded with complex intensity while other songs like "Kicking Your Crosses Down," "On Letting Go," and "Your Friends Are Gone" feel more cathartic and calm, making the album feel like an emotional roller coaster at times. Circa Survive has made a living off making albums that aren't all that different from each other, but why try to fix something when it's so obviously not broken?
- "Living Together"
- "The Greatest Lie"
- "On Letting Go"
- "Close Your Eyes to See"
- "Your Friends Are Gone"
Coheed & Cambria - Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (2005)
It's hard to really explain what this album meant to me at the age of 15. I can remember at the time, MTV had a feature on their website where you could preview an entire album a week before it was released. For whatever reason, I decided to sample Good Apollo. I really liked what I heard, so I decided to go out to Walmart the very next day and pick it up. What followed after were several weeks (maybe even months) of me being absolutely obsessed with Coheed & Cambria. Honestly, I think I may have even failed a couple of classes because I was more focused on listening to this album than doing my homework.
Fast forward to today and I still honestly think this album is pretty great. In retrospect, I think I prefer their debut album, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, but the power of Good Apollo is undeniably still there. Ambitious even for their standards, Good Apollo challenges the listener quite frequently with genre switch-ups, divisive vocal melodies, and long, strange songs. I mean, the final four songs on the album is essentially a rock opera with each song following the "The Willing Well" story. What is that story? I honestly have no clue. I've never followed the story that Coheed & Cambria told in their music. I just really loved their sound and found that the songs resonated with me regardless if I really knew what was happening in the big picture. In some ways, I kind of think this was Coheed & Cambria's last great release, but it would be asking a lot of any band to try and top this mammoth of an album.
- "Crossing the Frame"
- "The Lying Lies & Dirty Secrets of Miss Erica Court"
- "The Willing Well I: Fuel for the Feeding End"
- "The Willing Well II: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness"
- "The Willing Well III: Apollo II: The Telling Truth"
Cursive - The Ugly Organ (2003)
Cursive's The Ugly Organ is sort of unarguably the best album featured here. Coincidentally, they're also my favorite band on here. I actually prefer their 2006 album, Happy Hollow, but to me, that's absolutely not an emo album. The Ugly Organ was their last album that truly felt like it could slide into the emo genre. With that being said, Cursive never really fit in with any of the other bands of the genre from that time, more so fitting in with the indie rock and noise rock crowd. Prior to this album, Cursive made a career of making emotionally fueled albums, consistently wearing their hearts on their sleeves while delivering uniquely structured rock songs. With The Ugly Organ, they chose to make something a little more atmospheric and thematic.
There's a dreary and uneasy feeling all throughout the record, having a Gothic aesthetic at times thanks to the addition of cellist Gretta Cohn. It feels like a band having complete creative control and doing absolute wonders with it. In the song "A Gentleman Caller," noise rock takes center stage while ultimately coming to a beautiful and touching resolution by the end. Other songs like "Butcher the Song," and "Bloody Murderer" manage to find a balance between disturbing and catchy, blending the noisy guitars and cello in a brilliant fashion. Lead singer Tim Kasher even manages to use self-deprecating lyrics in an effective way, especially in the lead single "Art is Hard." The album's closer, "Staying Alive," is a powerful anti-suicide song that ends with a nearly six-minute loop repeating the line "The worst is over." In 2015, I was lucky enough to catch the entire album live and I'd be lying if I said some tears weren't shed. If you're new to Cursive, I highly recommend every single album that they've released.
- "Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand"
- "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale"
- "A Gentleman Caller"
- "Bloody Murderer"
- "Staying Alive"
The Early November - The Mother, The Mechanic, and the Path (2006)
Undeniably The Early November's magnum opus, The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path shows the band at their most musically diverse. This is yet another album I purchased on a whim. I was vaguely aware that it was a triple album, but had no idea what it was exactly that I was getting myself into. Before purchasing, the only song I had heard was their single "Hair," which is a quirky, light-hearted pop song. Soon after listening to the album, I found out that there is literally not another song on the album that sounds like "Hair."
The first disc, The Mother, features more traditional emo songs, sort of similar to some of the 1990s pioneers of the genre like American Football and Jimmy Eat World. This is probably the least diverse of the three discs, but still a fun and emo filled listen. Songs like "Decoration" and "This Wasn't In Our Plan" do an excellent job of staying true to the band's sound while adding complex and semi-heavy guitar melodies. The second disc, The Mechanic, almost sounds like a completely different band. Focusing more on acoustic, folk, and even southern rock songs, The Early November take a huge chance and honestly hits it out of the park. To this day, this is still my favorite material that the band has ever done. It's not crazy to think that songs like "A Little More Time," "Driving South," and "Scared to Lose" could have been moderate country hits if marketed correctly. The final disc, The Path, plays out sort of like an audiobook, featuring dialogue between a man named Dean and his psychiatrist while often breaking into song. It's my least favorite of three discs, but it's definitely worth at least one listen for the sheer ambition alone.
- "My Lack of Skill"
- "Driving South"
- "Scared to Lose"
Forgive Durden - Wonderland (2006)
Even though they were on the same record label as Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, Forgive Durden never really managed to break into the mainstream. However, this is partially understandable, considering that their debut album, Wonderland, is a concept album that literally refuses to stick to any sort of formula. In high school, I was fairly certain that I was the only kid who listened to this band. Their exciting song structures mixed with meticulous musicianship caught my attention almost immediately. For Forgive Durden, it was practically nothing for them to just completely change their song halfway through it, altering the mood entirely.
The album starts with the bass-heavy song "Ants," which sets the tone perfectly for the theatrical experience that is about to be had. "The Great Affair Is to Move" and "For A Dreamer, Night's the Only Time of Day" manage to get the most out of the band, having poppy elements while never lacking the artistic integrity that made them so unique to begin with. The album also has an understated sweetness to it at times, especially in "A Dead Person Breathed on Me!" and "I've Got a Witch Mad at Me and You Could Get into Trouble." Forgive Durden only released one more album after this and doubled down on their artistic integrity by releasing a full-blown musical in Razia's Shadow: A Musical. While I prefer Wonderland, I still highly recommend Razia's Shadow because there's literally nothing else like it.
- "Ear to Ear"
- "Parable of the Sower"
- "The Great Affair Is to Move"
- "For a Dreamer, Night's the Only Time of Day"
- "Cue the Sun"
Gatsbys American Dream - Volcano (2005)
Similar to Forgive Durden, Gatsbys American Dream refused to stick to a formula. Come to think of it, Gatsbys American Dream had a major influence on Forgive Durden's sound, as well as other bands. At the time, they were sort of notorious for having songs that lacked choruses, so much so that they made an entire E.P., In the Land of Lost Monsters, about that very thing. Featuring only two songs over three minutes, Gatsby's managed to fit as much as they could into incredibly short tracks. In that sense, their progressive rock influences allowed them to be as hectic as they wanted.
Lyrically, Volcano has a loose concept revolving around the theme of human emotions and how they're similar to a volcano. The band also uses their literary knowledge to excellent use by having several references to classic literature. A song like "Fable" is highly influenced by the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies while "The Badlands" has lyrics that directly references The Lord of the Rings. Muscally, Volcano is relentless, rarely giving the listener a chance to breathe. At a brisk 33-minutes, Gatsby's makes it an easy listening experience which thankfully makes it an even stronger re-listening experience. Gatsby's American Dream never really broke into the mainstream, which is highly explored in their angry and cathartic self-titled album released in 2006. Their entire discography is highly unique and diverse, ranging from straight-up punk rock to indie rock to progressive rock. Ultimately, they played a pretty major role in me being a musician and the way I approach playing the guitar.
- "The Guilt Engine"
- The Giant's Drink"
- "Shhhhhh! I'm Listening to Reason"
- "The Hunter"
- "Speaker for the Dead"
Jimmy Eat World - Futures (2004)
Jimmy Eat World played a major part in breaking emo into the mainstream, especially with their 2001 release, Bleed American, but it's their album Futures that really made an impact in my life. The funny thing is that I bought both of these albums at nearly the same time. While I recognized that Bleed American had more immediate appeal to it, Futures always felt more complex and meaningful. In a lot of ways, it has much more in common with their breakout 1999 album Clarity, which is widely known as one of the greatest emo albums of all-time.
I have very nostalgic memories of crying to this album in the ninth grade. I was fairly new to the world of emo and for me at the time, Jimmy Eat World was the peak of emotional music. The album features grand and sing-along worthy choruses, especially in tracks like "Futures," "Work," and "Kill." There's also two of the heaviest songs the band has ever produced in "Just Tonight...," and "Nothingwrong." For me though, the finest moments of the album come at the very end with the final two tracks, "Night Drive" and "23." "Night Drive" is easily one of the most unique songs that the band has ever done, focusing on atmosphere and intimacy to make for a subtly dark and relaxing listen. In "23," the band goes all out musically, delivering a grand and emotional finish to the album. This is yet another album that I was lucky enough to catch the anniversary tour for and it was absolutely nothing short of magical. Sometimes, I still catch myself listening to Futures and being transported back to just how I felt at the ages of 14 and 15.
- "Just Tonight..."
- "Night Drive"
Matchbook Romance - Voices (2006)
Arguably one of the most forgotten about albums of its era, Voices by Matchbook Romance was a daring reinvention of a band that may have ultimately killed their career. At the time, it was pretty common for some emo bands to adopt a relatively darker sound. Bands like Good Charlotte and The Used approached this in a fairly effective way, but none of them can match what Matchbook Romance did. Matchbook Romance tossed out their harmless but unremarkable sound for a daring and dark sound, leaning more into the progressive sides of emo. It's not only darker, but it's substantially heavier, featuring more guitar solos and borderline deafening drums.
The album begins with the slow-burning "You Can Run, But We'll Find You...," which is the first of several creepy yet melodic tracks featured on the album. At seven minutes, "Goody, Like Two Shoes!" makes the most of the orchestral arrangements in the song while ultimately exploding into a full-blown epic rock song. In the midst of the absolute darkness, they manage to squeeze in a few moving tracks like "Say it Like You Mean It," "What a Sight," and "I Wish You Were Here." "What a Sight" in particular kind of feels like the climax of the album, yet again using the slow-burn approach, but this time in a sweet and melancholic way. Not to mention that the lead single "Monsters" is easily the most popular song the band ever had, featured on several video games. It's really unfortunate that Voices still hasn't received the recognition that it deserves. Considering how much of an artistic risk it was, I think it paid off beautifully.
- "You Can Run, But We'll Find You..."
- "Goody, Like Two Shoes!"
- "Singing Bridges (We All Fall)"
- "What a Sight"
Motion City Soundtrack - Commit This to Memory (2005)
As an adult, Commit This to Memory is probably the album that I revisit the most out of all the albums featured here. It's kind of hard to explain, but it just hits way different as an adult. The sometimes self-deprecating lyrics manage to clash perfectly with the otherwise upbeat sounding music. As a whole, Motion City Soundtrack does an excellent job of being relatively sarcastic while never losing their relatability along the way. On Commit This to Memory, they hit their stride as a band, making a timely and extremely enjoyable album that still manages to hit hard 15 years later.To me, this is what ideal pop punk should sound like.
In the opener, "Attractive Today," the band establishes their playful attitude with a lead synthesizer that manages to be pretty predominant through the whole album. The most cathartic song on the album, "L.G. Fuad," is about desperately wanting to fit in but letting your social awkwardness and alcoholism stand in the way from truly pursuing any kind of happiness. Addiction is also explored in the lead single "Everything is Alright," with the lyrics "I used to rely on self-medication. I guess I still do that from time to time." Lead singer Justin Pierre consistently invites the listener into the depths of his mind, regardless of how ugly and uncomfortable it can be at times. As someone who is also somewhat socially awkward, "Together We'll Ring in the New Year" plays out like an anthem for me in situations that I absolutely don't want to be in. Commit This to Memory is ultimately an extraordinarily personal album that never feels too bleak thanks to fun and imaginative music.
- "Attractive Today"
- "Make Out Kids
- "L.G. Fuad"
- "Together, We'll Ring In the New Year"
My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade (2006)
In 2006 and 2007, My Chemical Romance was very likely the biggest musical act in the world. With the release of their third album, The Black Parade, My Chemical Romance transcended the idea of what emo could do by catapulting their music into the ears of literally anyone with a car radio or television. This is particularly funny because for how absurdly popular this album is, it's actually incredibly good. Suddenly, people who initially mocked emo were now rocking out to The Black Parade with absolutely zero shame. Since its release, one could make a case that no other rock album since has been able to dominate the mainstream quite like it did.
My Chemical Romance made a career of completely reinventing themselves from album to album. Their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, set the stage for The Black Parade to flourish. At the time, I kind of felt like I was listening to a band that I wasn't supposed to be listening to. Their songs would often creep into the seediest and most despicable aspects of life. On The Black Parade, they created something that's both conceptually rich and relatively dark. The back to back punch of "This is How I Disappear" and "The Sharpest Lives" explore some of the heavier elements of the band, almost floating into metal territory at times. In arguably the grandest song on the album, "Mama", the band establishes a whimsical tone early on, only to pull the carpet out from the listener to blast off into a full-blown prog rock epic. However, it's not all darkness that floods the album. In a surprisingly touching number like "Cancer," the band pulls at the heartstrings while vocalist Gerard Way sings about dying of cancer. Even if you didn't like their music, you almost had to respect them for the sheer audacity of the chances they'd take. Even on their follow-up album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, they created something entirely different from their prior body of work, for better or worse. It's always an exciting event when new music is dropped by My Chemical Romance. Let's hope that something like that will happen again one day.
- "This is How I Disappear"
- "I Don't Love You"
Saves the Day - In Reverie (2003)
In Reverie is the album that almost ended Saves the Day. Stylistically, it was a major departure from the band's previous sound and it had a relatively difficult time getting airplay. Shortly after the album was released, their record label, Dreamwork Records, was absorbed by Interscope Records and the band was dropped. The reason why I am saying all of this is because I think In Reverie is actually Saves the Day's greatest album by a landslide. Vocalist Chris Conley's vocals changed drastically from the prior record, Stay What You Are, taking on a more relaxed vocal technique rather than the often intense vocal delivery that had been established before.
To me, it fit in perfectly with the more nuanced musicianship and sonic textures in the production. Musically, In Reverie has more in common with a Steely Dan album than a textbook emo album of its era. There was more of an emphasis on complex chord structures while letting the bass dominate the mix quite often. Songs like "In Reverie" and "Driving in the Dark" feel laid back and pleasant, capitalizing on the band's new approach to songwriting. That's not to say that there aren't at least a few intense tracks. At under two minutes, both "Morning in the Moonlight" and "Where Are You" use the basic foundation of their prior work while subtly adding more sophisticated characteristics to them. I'm sort of ashamed to say that it took me nearly six years after the album's release to fully appreciate it. This is coming from someone who listened to their follow-up album, Sound the Alarm, all through high school. To this day, In Reverie is the first album that comes to my mind when someone brings up Saves the Day.
- "What Went Wrong"
- "In Reverie"
- Wednesday the Third"
- Tomorrow Too Late"
Say Anything - ...Is A Real Boy (2004)
Say Anything's ...Is A Real Boy feels like an hour-long identity crisis with frequent panic attacks. Vocalist Max Bemis literally writes his feelings on paper with absolutely zero shame. Even when Bemis presents a metaphor in front of us, it becomes fairly obvious what it is he's trying to say. The overall manic nature of the album can feel emotionally exhausting at times, but the themes and tone shifts make it an incredibly memorable album still to this day.
The opening track, "Belt," is the first of several emo anthems featured on the album, featuring gang vocals and vulnerable lyrics. The album's lead single, "Alive with the Glory of Love," feels like something taken straight from a 1980s coming-of-age film, only with more of a sinister edge. In unarguably the heaviest track on the album, "An Orgy of Critics," Bemis spouts out angry lyrics, commenting on music criticism while at complete war with himself as a songwriter. On the album's closer, "Admit It!!!," Bemis delivers spoken word verses, criticizing essentially every aspect of the music scene while certainly not letting himself off the hook. There's also a bonus disc entitled ...Was A Real Boy that features seven songs that fit in perfectly with the 13 from ...Is A Real Boy. While I do think this album is a masterpiece of the genre, I also highly recommend their follow up double album, In Defense of the Genre, which is 90 minutes of everything you could ever love about Say Anything.
- "The Writhing South"
- "An Orgy of Critics"
- "Chia-Like, I Shall Grow"
- "Admit It!!!"
Thursday - A City by the Light Divided (2006)
Last but certainly not least, A City by the Light Divided by Thursday is a beautifully dark and daring creative obstacle for the band. Thursday took on rawer production, establishing a bit of a wall of sound aesthetic. While certainly not ignoring their post-hardcore traits, Thursday found a perfect use for more guitar effects to add textures to the overall heaviness in their music. Similar to Saves the Day, I believe Thursday lost a lot of fans with A City by the Light Divided. But while losing fans, they also gained a ton of new ones, such as me.
I bought this album after hearing the electrifying lead single "Counting 5-4-3-2-1," but even I was stunned by the places this album managed to get to. The atmospherically dark "Sugar in the Sacrament" feels desperate and somber, branching off to an exploding ending while repeating the lyrics "This is all we've ever known of God. Fight with me. Let me touch you now." Even in the most old school sounding song on the album, "At This Velocity," Thursday still incorporates new production tricks to make it feel completely fresh. I also really appreciate how Thursday tackled multiple genres, especially in a post-rock song like "Running from the Rain" which just spews U2 influence. I know it's a controversial opinion, but I actually prefer the second half of Thursday's career compared to their first. As someone who loves essentially all things shoegaze, Thursday's moodier sound just hits me harder. My favorite album of theirs, No Devolución, further explores the elements of A City by the Light Divided to even greater effect. If you neglected some of Thursday's later work, I highly recommend that you go back and give it another chance because it's absolutely glorious.
- "The Other Side of the Crash/Over and Out (Of Control)"
- "Sugar in the Sacrament"
- "The Lovesong Writer"
- "Into the Blinding Light"
- "Autumn Leaves Revisited"