To mention the subgenre known grudgingly as “emo” is to argue about the term’s parameters or even its existence.
Like a lot of underground rock in the mid-1980s, emo was simply an answer to the question, “What happens after hardcore?” The Replacements’ extremely drunk power pop was one direction; Hüsker Dü’s high-velocity, flower-power trio noise was another; Dinosaur Jr.’s pedal-stomping prairie rock was another.
Emo was born around 1984 in the small, mostly middle-class punk scene in Washington, D.C., centered around Dischord Records. Punks like Ian MacKaye, formerly of the foundational hardcore band Minor Threat, needed to solve a problem: how to get violent skinheads to stop ruining shows. The solution: play something slower that they wouldn’t like — less breakneck, more melodic and less enraged punk rock with a certain heart-on-sleeve lyricism.
These bands would have been totally fine being called “punk,” but according to MacKaye, the former Minor Threat bassist Brian Baker derisively applied the term “emocore” to the music; the word got picked up in the punk press and went everywhere. (The joke was on Baker: His band Dag Nasty is known as the godfather of a certain strand of emo.)
Though perhaps obscure to a larger audience at the time, Rites of Spring, Embrace, Dag Nasty and Gray Matter were the moment’s big four bands out of Washington, all of whom loathed the term to varying degrees. The style mutated over the next decade or so in various punk scenes: San Diego, Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia. The riffs got heavier, the drumming more chaotic, the screaming more extreme. In the ’90s, major labels glommed onto underground rock (like Nirvana) and critics found their darlings (like Pavement), making emo seem ignored, ephemeral and still underground.
It’s been said that the golden age of emo fandom is 19, which is true, to a point: There is always a new crop of kids to call their young bands “emo.” By about 1997, bands like the Promise Ring, a paragon of emo, seemed — to listeners who turned 19 some years earlier — sonically indistinguishable from indie rock. By 2020, “emo,” a predominately male, predominately white music of extreme earnestness, has been applied to a wide swath of artists that might seem unrecognizable to the music’s initial wave.
For those who grew up in the greater D.C. area, (which musically includes Baltimore and Annapolis, Md., and all the way down the Virginia suburbs that wander toward Richmond) it seems perfectly obvious why emo started there: For about two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall, it’s blessed with weather so effortlessly romantic that the heart-bursting triumphalism on which the music was built seems a birthright. Here are 12 underknown bits of emo from that musically fertile region.
Happy Go Licky, ‘Torso Butter’ (1987)
When Rites of Spring ended, three members joined the guitarist Michael Hampton in a short-lived band called One Last Wish, which built on Rites’ melodicism. When that was done, all four Rites members — Guy Picciotto, Eddie Janney, Brendan Canty and Mike Fellows — got back together under the name Happy Go Licky and played a completely different music with nods to hip-hop, homemade tape loops, simpler riffs, slogans as lyrics and lots of guitar noise. It lasted less than a year and never cut a studio record, but its live tapes reveal a band thinking all the time about where to go next. A motto: “Nothing gets clean/’Till it’s called into question.”
Fire Party, ‘Engine’ (1988)
Too much of the first wave of emo, like too much rock music in general, was about men complaining about women. Fire Party was a corrective, four women whose work would seem fresh tomorrow, especially this nearly six-minute grinder, which stacks shakers on noisy bass and guitar, as the singer Amy Pickering declares, “I live a real life, the one I have now.”
Shudder to Think, ‘Drop Dead Don’t Blink’ (1989)
It’s astonishing to think this speedboat was an outtake for this quartet, which blended Craig Wedren’s near-operatic vibrato with complicated, sometimes hookless melodies. After an early, emo-punky LP for Sammich Records, the label run by MacKaye’s sister, Shudder to Think built an audience over three theater-kid punk records for Dischord. In 1994, it released “Pony Express Record” for the major label Epic, a deeply strange, beautifully recorded album that was largely ignored.
Three, ‘Swann Street’ (1989)
The acoustic opening reads as an old-school signal for sincerity, the singalong refrain invites everyone along, and the whole song is a perfect youthful fist pump. The singer and guitarist Geoff Turner (late of Gray Matter) seemed able to crank out these parts at will. And yes, the ginkgo trees that line various D.C. blocks do smell like dung.
The Hated, ‘I Am a Rock’ (1990)
Behold, arguably the most emo song that ever emo-ed. A thunderously savvy band from Annapolis covering a hit by a fellow middle-class outfit from 25 years earlier that also liked moping and books. This version should be laughable but sheer earnestness saves it; it’s a breathtaking tightrope walk.
The Nation of Ulysses, ‘The Sound of Jazz to Come’ (1992)
Quasi-academic and quasi-revolutionary manifestoes, hard bop suits, retro sleeve graphics, mod swagger, chaotic songcraft and a frenetic frontman with an almost Prince-esque scream: the Nation of Ulysses befuddled, annoyed, dazzled and slayed. Does anyone believe that Beto O’Rourke, a noted emo nerd and friend of the NOU fans At the Drive-In, named his son Ulysses after the guy in “The Odyssey”?
Lungfish, ‘Broadcast’ (1992)
Lungfish spawned a cult within the emo cult. The gnomic Baltimore crew was devoted to loping riffs, with a singer who sang like a mystic monk channeling transmissions from forgotten nature gods. The group just got more elliptical as time passed; this is a fairly straightforward anthem of hope after death, which runs into the album’s next song, “Descender,” about a vision too beautiful for this fallen world.
Universal Order of Armageddon, ‘Visible Distance’ (1993)
After the psychedelic Annapolis emo band Moss Icon ended, the guitarist Tonie Joy eventually put together this perfect next-gen emocore crew in Baltimore: the singer Colin Seven screamed, the drums of Brooks Headley (later a New York pastry chef/writer/restaurateur) rolled and slapped, and Joy’s riffs traded ring for roar.
Ashes, ‘Resurrection’ (1993)
Elena Ritchie’s voice provided a much-appreciated dreaminess where there would usually be male screaming; the layered harmonies add to this Bethesda, Md., band’s signature.
Hose.got.cable, ‘Heraland’ (1993)
This Richmond quartet excelled at something many of its heavier emo peers struggled with: killer hooks. Simple but devastating, this one was sung by its drummer, John Skaritza, who made it look easy and not ridiculous.
Maximillian Colby, ‘What’s the Matter River?’ (1995)
In the mid-90s, suburban Virginia hardcore kids were heading to college and starting a mess of bands that sounded like this crew from James Madison University: a slow, acidic meander of droning bass, distant guitar that suddenly snapped into focus and a singer tearing his throat out.
Fugazi, ‘Glueman’ (1988)
In 1987, MacKaye teamed up with Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty from Rites of Spring and an untried bassist named Joe Lally to form Fugazi. The band knew exactly what it was getting into: The phrase “beyond emo” was hidden in a flyer for its first show. Its internationally famous work lasted until 2003, when it went on a hiatus. Of course, this band is far better known than the others on this playlist, but it is impossible to end with anything but this song, when the group was at its improvisational peak. MacKaye likes to define punk as “the free space” where ideas can flow without commercial concerns. Here, the musical space is about as free as punk gets: When that seesaw chord started, audiences knew they were about to witness an event as Picciotto threw himself into a near-trance. (This live video is from 1995.) And “Glueman” does provide a motto for emo’s whole worldview: “I spent it all.”
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