A Much Too Serious Ranking of Pop-Emo Bands

As most music fans know, rock music is hardly the most popular kid at the table these days.  Yet even while rock as a whole has lost some of its prominence in our culture, one strand has recently flourished : pop-emo, a ’90s/2000s movement that crystallizes the transformation of emo from Rites of Spring’s thrashing post-hardcore in the ’80s to more accessible but intensely personal pop-rock songs.  As someone who’s listened to an unhealthy amount of it, I couldn’t resist offering a list of my 10 favorite pop-emo bands that absolutely no one will agree with.

A great shot of Fall Out Boy in concert, from the band's official Twitter account.

A great shot of Fall Out Boy in concert, from the band’s official Twitter account.

Note: I wanted to be fairly restrictive with this list.  Original, ’80s emo bands weren’t considered, nor were pop-punk icons like Blink-182 or Sum 41.  Bright Eyes, despite brooding like no other, is too poetic and acoustic.  Paramore is too Avril Lavigne.  Pop-emo is hard to define, but you know it when you hear it.  Maybe.

10) Sunny Day Real Estate

They’re a critical group for the genre’s development, but I wouldn’t start a newbie here.  SDRE’s melodies pale in comparison to others higher on this list, the lyrics remain inscrutable and often indecipherable, and most of their songs don’t produce that overwhelming, orgasmic emotional feeling that emo is supposed to.  ‘In Circles’ is worth hearing, but it always feels like SDRE is trying a little too hard.

9) Weezer

I’m treading on dangerous ground here.  Keep in mind that I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, and I admit to betraying my ‘Skinny White Guys Who Like Introspective Rock’ brethren…but I’ve never really understood Weezer’s immense popularity.

Oh, sure, their early work is more taut and less ponderous than most of SDRE’s catalogue.  They’re not incompetent, and they have stretches—especially on one album I like more than most people—of excellence.  On standouts like ‘Hold Me’ and ‘Falling For You,’ they hit gorgeous emotional peaks.  And if you, uh, happen to have ever fallen in love with a girl who isn’t attracted to your gender, you’ll want to play ‘Pink Triangle.’  Over and over and over again.  Trust me.

Now, with that out of the way…Weezer’s music has always struck me as so slight that it could blow over in a stiff breeze.  Rivers Cuomo gets too much mileage out of relatively flat, repetitive hooks; you compare him with someone like Billie Joe Armstrong and he isn’t even in the same ballpark.  And his amateurish, on-the-nose lyrics too often pour out expressions of self-loathing without offering any sort of fresh take on the concept.  The blandness and extreme lack of confidence makes emo’s inherent solipsism stand out even more.  So get ready for a lot of eye-rollers like ‘What could you possibly see in little old three-chord me?’ and ‘Maybe we could get together, maybe you could break my heart next summer?’  But with his utter resignation and absence of wit, you can’t really blame the girl for not digging him.


8) Fall Out Boy

One of the integral players in the genre’s explosion in the 2000s, FOB somehow hit it big with neither an overly infectious single nor a memorable lead singer.  That said, their sophomore effort From Under the Cork Tree is a must for emo fans.  A restrained, pleasant listen, it effectively brings the genre back from the brink of excess.

Although there’s value in that, FOB’s ever-present restraint often leaves a strangely unsatisfying aftertaste.  Sure, emo songs can be subtle, but the genre—by virtue of its fairly simplistic instrumentation and obsession with youth-oriented subject matter—almost inherently precludes itself from acquiring next-level sophistication.  The easiest way for it to make an impact is through catharsis, and that’s where FOB never resonates with me.

By constantly muddying their guitars, reining in the vocals, and minimizing the scope of the songs, FOB ends up reducing their own power too much.  Nearly every FOB song feels like it should be faster, louder, less staccato, and/or more explosive than it is.  ‘Calm Before the Storm’ and ‘A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me’ are prime examples of this problem; but even on ‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner,’ ‘7 Minutes in Heaven,’ and ‘Dead on Arrival’-perfectly taut and punchy rock songs-there’s still a lack of freedom and fluidity that makes them feel shackled.

That said, it’s hard to know how much the writing and production are hemmed in by the limitations of lead singer Patrick Stump, whose voice is dry and prosaic—a bland piece of meat without any seasoning on it.  They’re the first band I’ve ever seen live who sounded better with the microphone pointed at the screaming audience than the singer.

And that’s a shame, because there’s talent here.  ‘Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year’ tackles a common emo subject—meta reflections on creating art—with verve and style.  ‘Saturday’ rocks live.  And I still have memories of ‘Thanks for the Memories’ (justifiably) captivating a girl I liked in high school.  Their first two albums, in particular, offer up plenty of slabs of enjoyable pop/rock, and those long-winded titles are more clever than you’d expect.  But the mediocre singing and something-short-of-cathartic songs keep FOB outside my top 5.

7) Boys Like Girls

BLG’s self-titled 2006 debut blended everything pop-emo into a radio-friendly mixer and spit out a) a couple great night-drive rockers (‘Five Minutes to Midnight’ and ‘The Great Escape’) and b) not much else.  The rest is all strained vocals, adolescent diary lyrics, and soft and generic tunes that only work if you’re really in the right mood.

But then Love Drunk hit me like a ton of bricks during my senior year of college in 2009.  Much like All Time Low’s (substantially inferior) Nothing Personal, released just months before, Love Drunk is a sugary rush of delectable pop-emo ditties.  And by orders of magnitude, it’s both more fun and more sturdy than their debut, a remarkable step forward that dovetailed perfectly with my too-good-to-be-true senior year.

[pullquote]Because it flirts so closely with meekness and passivity, pop-emo almost always works better when the protagonist is dismissive rather than needy, carefree instead of crushed…[/pullquote]

Because it flirts so closely with meekness and passivity, pop-emo almost always works better when the protagonist is dismissive rather than needy, carefree instead of crushed, and Love Drunk is a great illustration.  They’re having far more fun than on their debut, as they turn potentially dour titles like ‘Heart Heart Heartbreak’ and ‘She’s Got a Boyfriend Now’ into explosive, glorious kiss-offs.  The album oozes satisfaction and energy, and ‘Chemicals Collide,’ with its perfect chorus and that delicious wink that “The only thing that I could find to wear tonight was you,” is about as good of a stress-relieving song as I’ve ever heard.

6) Jimmy Eat World

Jimmy’s definitive album, 2001’s Bleed American, is undoubtedly a rousing, fun summertime listen, with tracks like ‘A Praise Chorus’ and ‘The Middle’ delivering the sort of ‘be yourself and life will be grand’ message that confused teenagers lap up.  But, although considered an emo legend, Jimmy almost feels too soft and mainstream to qualify.

Even more than most, they succeed on the back of their ballads.  Effortlessly pretty tracks like ‘Table for Glasses’ and ‘Cautioners’ resonate more strongly than their rockers, and Jimmy’s endearingly romantic streak make ‘Work and ‘Kill’ prom classics.  In fact, it surprises you to take a gander at their lyrics and see lines like “Sometimes I wish I could lose you again” or “I won’t always love what I’ll never have / I won’t always live in my regrets”—Jimmy never seems all that angsty and intense.

Bleed remains an essential purchase, but the rest of their oeuvre is mixed, full of albums with as much filler as terrific stretches.  2004’s Futures is a good example; much of the back half is laden with overlong tracks and strained melodies, but then you get to ’23’—which sounds like The Cure crossed with Doves’ ‘The Cedar Room’—and everything is redeemed.  As you lie back and let it wash over you, you recall every moment in your life that brought you some sort of emotional release.  All of a sudden, you want to cherish every deep feeling you ever felt, whether it was good or bad, and you ponder whether you’ve been experiencing enough of them.

Well, I do, anyway, and that’s the sort of impact I can’t ignore.

5) My Chemical Romance

Are they too goth for this list?  I couldn’t decide.  Even for an emo band, MCR have a lot of baggage.  Their genesis was none other than freaking 9/11, which inspired frontman Gerard Way to do something meaningful with his life…i.e., lead a macabre rock band.  The always-dramatic Way is prone to saying things like “[Our early albums were] a meditation on immorality…And this is a meditation on mortality.”

Yet, underneath all of the heaviness, the concept albums, the self-importance, MCR crafted thrilling songs.  With their grandiose openings, dark undertones, shredding vocals, and hugely soaring choruses, they’re a lot closer to Placebo than Weezer. (Don’t tell me you can’t imagine ‘Helena’ as done by Brian Molko’s outfit.) They paired hugely cathartic tunes with heavy production and dark themes, and the results were melodramatically spectacular.  They’ve always resonated so much with me because I feel that they’re owning what they are.

Occasionally they weren’t very emo; ‘Summertime’ and ‘Disenchanted’ are gorgeous, melodic, and normal ballads.  But, for me, quintessential MCR is something like their first hit “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” which Allmusic admits is “as ridiculously catchy as its title was ridiculous.”  If you’re in the right mood, MCR will feel like the most important music you have in your library, and that’s what this genre is supposed to be about.

Thank you for the venom, indeed.

4) Brand New

The greatness of Brand New’s debut album, 2001’s Your Favorite Weapon, lies in its refusal to apologize.  This is perhaps the quintessential pop-emo album, and BN own that fact with a series of pulsating blasts of grinding guitar rock tinged with adolescent aggression.  While their peers were taking shelter behind audience-friendly puppylove lyrics, BN were busy telling their conniving friend to drive drunk on an icy road and crash his head through his windshield.  Really, YFW has it all—the rants about lame girlfriends, the melodramatic mid-tempo tracks full of arena choruses, the unabashed romanticism, the lack of self-awareness—but while you weren’t looking, they pulled off their biggest magic trick: tying it all up with a hard rock bow that keeps it playable to this day.

Album #2 was called Deja Entendu, French for “already heard,” which is both ridiculous and somewhat reasonable.  It does gleefully borrow from its inspirations (not just 90s Britpop and New Found Glory, but also the quiet-loud dynamics of Blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket).  But Brand New are moodier and artsier than those groups ever were, and this time they branch out from the genre’s constraints.  Deja, full of some phenomenally affecting songs like ‘The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows’ and ‘Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis,’ satisfies more on a musical level than YFW, but its lyrics don’t form much of a coherent point.

That’s pretty much all you need from them—The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me, although well-liked, strips away too much of their power for my liking—but it earns them a spot on this highly scientific Mount Rushmore.

3) Cursive

Oh yes.  You know all those grinding shards of guitar noises that underpin songs from, oh, almost every pop-emo band you know?  They’re all taking their cues from Cursive, as any discussion of this genre has to include their 2000 masterpiece Domestica.

The emotionally draining work chronicles the unraveling of a marriage with whip-smart lyrics, a heavy rock crunch, and enough melodrama that it qualifies as “an exclamation point to the emo scene.”  Instead of relying on simple riffs, Cursive draw you in with devastating emotional metaphors and unpredictable instrumentation.  Though more corrosive than atmospheric, the songs project an uneasy sense of dread.  They tease you with their vocals, sort of how Bright Eyes does, but Bright Eyes never sounded this feral.  The climax of ‘The Martyr’ reminds the ex that “Your tears are only alibis, to prove you still feel,” when “You only feel sorry for yourself / And that’s how you thrive / Your sorrow’s your goldmine / So write some sad song about me / Screaming your agonies, playing the saint.”

It’s a ferociously compelling listen the whole way through, and though the group wrote some other good songs (notably on The Ugly Organ and The Storms of Early Summer), all other albums were merely solid.  Domestica is transcendent.

AAR Sign

1b) All-American Rejects

1a) Taking Back Sunday

I’ve said most of what I can about AAR already.  In my head, they still perfectly personify the idea of sugary, emotive rock music that has the melodic kick and life-affirming sense of amusement to merit wearing its heart so freely on its sleeve.  AAR tracks like ‘I Wanna’ and ‘The Last Song’ have the fluidity and freedom that many Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World ones lack.  Their 2005 album Move Along basically validated everything that Weezer and Yellowcard ever did, and they also have the consistency and deep catalogue to distance themselves from their peers.

So why does Taking Back Sunday take back the top spot?

Because they re-defined the entire genre’s approach to music.  When you listen to their debut album Tell All Your Friends, you want to go back to every other emo artist and wonder why they didn’t operate more like they did.  Tougher, more resonant, and resolutely smarter than anything to follow in its wake, Tell All Your Friends left a crater-sized impact in the emo world that has never been fully restored.

Through the course of the album—and much of their career—Taking Back Sunday pondered how someone can affect you so much more than you want her to, and whether getting over her is worth it if requires you to hate her.  It’s a more incisive question than you normally get, and they (attempted to) answer it with a collection of grander-than-life anthems, taut guitar lines, and quotable lyrics.

And above all, they defined themselves by those astonishing double-tracked vocals, a dueling conversation in your ears that managed to inspire, provoke, soothe, and question all at once.  Sometimes, the intense vocals—between the high-pitched, vulnerable cries of John Nolan and the grittier, deeper voice of Adam Lazzara—would conclude a song (‘Head Club’), and other times they would represent the climax to recover from (‘Cute Without the E’).

Sometimes, it was simple, as on the devastatingly effective chorus of ‘You’re So Last Summer’: “Maybe I should hate you for this / Never really did ever quite get that far.”  They never have the same purpose in any two songs, and both singers always sound as though they’re going to burst.

Nothing else equaled Tell All Your Friends, but their lesser works would still represent most groups’ peaks.  Whether on ‘MakeDamnSure, ‘My Blue Heaven,’ or ‘A Decade Under the Influence,’ TBS always made the general feel so intensely personal—and that, of course, is emo’s true power.  With lesser bands, you get that nagging sense that they’re striving for effect; other times, the song you’re listening to feels like the only one in the world that could be appropriate for what you’re feeling.

“You’ve got me right where you want me,” they cried out during the bridge of ‘Bike Scene.’  In reality, Taking Back Sunday, ever in control, had us right where they wanted the whole time.

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3 thoughts on “A Much Too Serious Ranking of Pop-Emo Bands

  1. Scientific or no, it’d be hard for anyone to argue that TBS and BN shouldn’t both be in consideration near the top of the list, and you’ve definitely stated the case for AAR. Although, I think a lot of people would put Dashboard in the same category as the former two bands. And, personally, I swoon over the first Straylight Run album, even if those may be fighting words in some crowds. (And Straylight Run doesn’t get to claim the same seminal importance as Tell All Your Friends.)

    It’s very interesting to me what bands get lumped into this genre-cluster. “Pop-emo is hard to define, but you know it when you hear it.” If we judged Weezer by their two best-selling singles, “Buddy Holly” and “Beverly Hills,” they feel much more pop than emo, but there’s plenty of emo to be found in their first two albums particularly. JEW has a clear emo streak in their poppy radio hits, but gets more intensely emo on their less accessible album tracks. And then you take a band like Cursive. Especially if you’re focusing on Domestica, I think the “pop” component is a hard sell, as beautiful and tragic as their songs are. If we’re stretching the definition, I’d be very tempted to slip Death Cab onto this list.

    Let me also add, I’m super pro-Fall Out Boy. You reference the lineages of pop-emo, and for me the milemarker bands are Rites of Spring (or someone from that scene) inaugurating emo in a hardcore form, SDRE creating a version that expressed similar emotions in very different ways with an emphasis on vulnerability, then someone like JEW or Weezer putting forward the first thing I’d label both pop and emo, then FOB for carrying the pop-emo banner forward while screamo and 2000’s post-hardcore were just starting to truly differentiate themselves. I see in today’s scene the descendants of FOB on one side and the spawn of Hawthorne Heights on the other. They made Fueled by Ramen a household name, and while they’ve inspired many, their arrhythmic lyrical patterns have proven hard to imitate. Plus, FOB released one of my favorite acoustic pop-emo records: my top three might be Sunsets & Car Crashes, Damnesia, then My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue.

    Last word: shout out to The Used, honorable-mention-worthy.

    • Thanks for the comment! I know I was stretching the definition with Cursive most of all, but I don’t know how to define them really, and I couldn’t imagine not including them. Too me, Death Cab is too…soft? to be counted in this grouping (also, I’m not a big fan, although they probably could have snuck into the back half of the top 10 if I’d considered them).

      And let me just clarify that Rites of Spring (and Fugazi, if we’re counting them) are better than anyone listed in this piece.

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