Ask anyone old enough to drink what they think emo is, and you’ll get about as many different responses as people willing to answer. They’ll just about all be right, too (if Last.fm is any kind of reference, anyway). Everyone’s nebulous identification and loose understanding of the genre is both its best and worst quality — emo is just so damn personal. No matter if you credit Rites Of Spring or My Chemical Romance for introducing raw, bleeding-heart emotions into the lexicon of punk and hardcore, the bands you listen to and define as “real emo” are undoubtedly among the most important to ever appear in your life. And yet there was indeed a solid stretch of time, roughly under a decade, when everyone who cared to could wholeheartedly agree on what the hell emo actually was, and they could not get enough of it. I like to refer to this as the Golden Era of Emo. Starting in the early ’90s and sputtering out just after the turn of the century, it was an exciting period for underground punk and hardcore scenes. The Golden Era gave emo its unequivocally best songs, and it also birthed a number of bands and artists who would go on to become both huge commercial successes and revered darlings of independent music. This wasn’t when the term “emotional hardcore” was coined, nor was it when emo became a household word; this was that perfect pocket of time when a specific kind of unabashedly earnest rock was able to incubate out of the spotlight and thrive amongst a tight-knit group of eager and unjaded peers.
Between the old-school band reunions, the classic album anniversaries, the reissues, the re-emerging record labels, and that whole #emorevival thing, now seems like the ideal time to talk about the music that made all of this stuff important to us in the first place. And what better way to kick start the discussion than with a list? But let’s first lay down some ground rules. For the 30 Essential Songs From The Golden Era Of Emo list, I opted to leave out bands who I lovingly think of as “proto-emo” — that is, grandfathers of the scene such as Hüsker Dü, Rites Of Spring, Embrace, and Dag Nasty. I also did not include seminal screamo acts like Saetia, I Hate Myself, Antioch Arrow, You And I, Jeromes Dream, Pg.99, Orchid, etc., because, honestly, that’s a whole other list unto itself. No, instead I focused on the more melodic and relatively recent ends of the emo spectrum.