Ah, emo. The most fractious word in the history of the language of punk rock, a genre that has room for such delineations as “oogle,” “egg-punk,” “trash viper,” and “dumpster diver”; for such genre differentiation as “hardcore,” “slowcore,” “post-proto punk,” and “art punk” has often had a difficult time accepting what it considers its most derogatory nomenclature: emo.
At this point, everyone knows that emo is short for emocore, which is short for emotional hardcore. It might have been slung as an insult towards hardcore punk bands of the mid-80s who chose to take an artier, dare I say it, more emotional approach to the trending topics of the hardcore punk genre. Certainly, when members of pioneering punk bands began to form more mature bands, influenced as much by Joy Division and the Cure as they were the Germs or Sex Pistols, or even their own contemporaries, the music became more dynamic and wider ranging, but still remained somehow just as apoplectic and caustic (Rites of Spring weren’t exactly ready for the radio, despite what the spikey jacket crowd would have you believe). The music was still hardcore, still punk — the ideas were just a lot more open, varied, and musical — the performances more emotional. Thus emo was born.
An often overlooked aspect of the emo scene in Washington, DC in the mid ’80s is that movements like Positive Force and Riot Grrrl — stridently political movements that were both organizational entities or nebulous lifestyle aggregates — were forged from the communities these so-called “emo” bands dwelled in. A perusal of any “best of” emo list on the internet won’t often talk about this activist aspect of the culture, favoring instead to list bands who are more known for singing into their beers about lost girlfriends than they are about a woman’s right to walk down the street harassment-free, or about destroying monuments to a horribly racist cultural zeitgeist.
Moreover, even lists that do recognize the DC bands as being pioneers and perhaps even mention say, late ’80s to early ’90s Baltimore band Moss Icon (a seminal band that perfected the quiet-to-loud dynamic and many more of the post-rock musical tropes we take for granted today) usually stop there. Oh, sure, they’ll sprinkle in whatever college rock friendly pop punk band popularized by record labels like Jade Tree or Polyvinyl, but otherwise an entire decade and a half will be ignored. An entire decade of DIY culture, screen printed t-shirts, cardboard J-carded CDs and tapes, music festivals, anti-sexism workshops, stealing Kinko’s copy cards, zines and loud, aggressive, emotional hardcore music and art lost to the ether. They skip all that to tell everybody how great My Chemical Romance or Dashboard Confessional are, but neglect to mention how essential Universal Order of Armageddon or Spitboy was. It was in the 1990s that the scene became saturated with musicians trying out new things, developing the sound that we take for granted, where we explored the shape of punk to come.
So, I made a list. This list was harder than it looks; there’s a lot of bands to choose from. There seems to be just as many sub-genres: screamo, art-emo, spazzcore, noise rock, emo-violence, spock rock. Some are heavier than others, plenty would balk at being called emo, and most of them are punker than any band you’ll find in any suburban basement today. But that was the entire idea of that movement. The medium was/is the message: punk was not a sound. And while I could have taken the easy route and listed every band Toni Joy’s ever been in (Born Against, Breathing Walker, Great Unraveling, Lava, the aforementioned UOA and Moss Icon) and listed all three Antioch Arrow records, or hell just, like the entire Gravity Records catalog, I wanted to show the depth of that scene. This isn’t a best ever; for this list, I wanted to highlight the lesser known records in the genre. And so, in grand DIY fashion, the 10 most underrated emo records of all time.
Cornelius 10” (Assorted Porkchops); Yaphet Kotto The Killer Was in the Government Blankets; Harriet the Spy Unfuckwithable; Hose. Got. Cable s/t 12” (Old Glory); Okara Save the Last Dance (Spectre Sonic Sound); Fire Party New Orleans Opera (Dischord); Los Crudos/Spitboy split LP ; Indian Summer Angry Son EP (Repercussion); Current Is 4 EP (Old Glory); Honeywell Industry (Mollycoddle) s/t LP ; Stop It!! Self Made Maps (Perpetual Motion Machine); T Tauri Ending Deconstruction LP (stick figure)
10. 1.6 Band s/t LP (Gern Blandsten)
1.6 Band epitomized the Gern Blandsten style, a label highlighted by equally-as-overlooked bands Merel, Rorschach, and Garden Variety. Though this band wasn’t as political as Merel, not as heavy as Rorschach, and only contained some of the delightful melodies of Garden Variety, the way they melded those stylistic ideas was flawless. Mathy and weird without worrying about being technical, they had a brash, punk sense of humor that still feels fresh today (see also: The Last Crime, a more washy version of 1.6 Band with the same singer).
9. The Fisticuffs Bluff s/t LP (Troublemanunlimited)
A wild, messy band that took the noisy, art-rock aspects of the San Diego spazzcore scene and the heady melodies of the DC scene and blended them flawlessly. I first heard their song “Kid Jitters” from their split with the goth-in-training hardcore band Angel Hair on a Maximum RockNRoll syndicated radio show, and it stood out as the kind of crazed freakout I missed from being groomed by bands like Babes in Toyland.
8. Armstrong’s Secret 9 THE CORPSE CAME CALLING (Donut Friends)
This midwest Ohio band was a fiery 3-piece that combined the dissonant, piercing guitar sound of UOA with the crash-n-burn melodies of Husker Du. Typical of many bands on this list, the record is relentless, each song sounding like an “end of album track”, building on intensity as it barrels along. Through the miracle of Bandcamp, their discography is available.
7. KURT s/t (X-Mist)
A beast of a record, it’s hard to imagine this band as being “emo,” not by today’s standards. But the affectations are there: dirgey, almost dreamlike riffs; heavy basslines that sound like amps being dropped down a stairwell; intense as fuck political lyrics delivered in obtuse squawks. A far cry from, like, Panic at the Disco or whatever, this German record from 1998 helped bang some heads.
6. Anasarca DISCOGRAPHY (Second Nature)
Voted meanest band in the 1996 reader’s poll from top hardcore fanzine HeartattaCk (to their credit, they also got a few votes as the nicest) this enigmatic group straddled the line between total hardcore freak out and wistful indie-rock like no other. Their most powerful song, “East Bunk Hill,” tells the story of a war veteran striving to make sense of the world in the most dramatic fashion. The guitars are like buzzsaws– beautiful, elegiac buzzsaws, sure– but it’s the rhythm and dramatic vocals that make this a gem.
5. Spanakorzo DRAMA (Wrenched)
Almost a decade ago I sold nearly all of my vinyl LPs. Tons of stuff, from No Wave to avant garde jazz to, yes, precious emo records were disappeared in one fell swoop to a local record store. It was such a relief to not have to lug those things everywhere, and I’ve not regretted it. That said, I kept most of the records on this list. For Spanakorzo’s Drama, I kept BOTH copies that I somehow magically procured. This record is dense, with poly-ryhthmic syncopation, strained and minimalist guitar work, and desperate vocals. The San Diego band comprised of members of other underrated San Diego bands like Second Story Window, may not have been the first gothic math rock band but the heartfelt energy, sweaty live shows, and ultra stylish, proto-Romulan fashion sense, solidifies them as emo legends.
4. Shotmaker/Maximillian Colby split LP (Nervous Wreck Kids)
Technically, Shotmaker was the first emo band I’d ever seen. They played in a house show in Greensboro, NC, on July 4, 1994. They’d opened for Propagandhi and the Quincy Punx somehow, and my entire pop-punk fueled existence was being wiped away with every wailing guitar chord, every thundering bassline, every rattling snare hit. Also, technically, Maximillian Colby was the first emo band I ever booked. They brought the passionate, emotional chaos that people who’d put both Black Flag and Slint on the same side of a mix tape would appreciate. These two bands together on the same platter was a truly blissful marriage. I have to credit these bands for introducing me to zines, home screen printed t-shirts, and DIY culture. This record is the pure sound of that.
3. John Henry West 7” (Gravity)
Probably the “hardest” record on this list, John Henry West was a blistering, lightning burst by comparison. A wall of noisy guitar and ultra frantic drumming, this band lit the entire country on fire for one summer. Then, like many of these bands, they disappeared. Apparently, though, the record didn’t do them justice compared to the live show (yet another “complaint” about a lot of the bands on this list– hey, we didn’t have Garage Band like all of you young ‘uns!), so much so that my first copy was gifted to me by the singer of Constatine Sankathi (yes, another great mid ’90s emo band!) because he swore he never listened to it after being blown away by the live experience. Still, this record smokes. John Henry West’s soul was found by vocalist Cory Linstrum (a wiry, energetic singer who also lent his vocal stylings to two other manic hardcore punk bands, End of the Line and Han*Shan) and their always hyper-enthusiastic guitarist Sarah Kirsch. Sarah was a fixture in the Bay Area hardcore punk scene until her untimely death, but her guitar sound, raw passion, and love for DIY culture will live on through the unrelenting legacy of the emotional, artistic hardcore bands she founded: Fuel, Torches to Rome, Bread and Circuits, Please Inform the Captain This is a Hijacking, and more.
2. Policy of 3 DEAD DOG SUMMER LP (Old Glory)
The opening guitar screech on this record isn’t actually a guitar; no, it has to be a fucking air raid siren! In the annals of hardcore, post-punk, and post-rock, practically nothing sounds as shrill, ominous, and disconcerting as that opening riff. And, in true emo fashion, nothing sounds as resonate and dream-like. Borrowing heavily from Dischord Records’ own post-rock/heavy indie crooners Hoover, marrying it with heavy, plodding chugga-chugga hardcore, and then drenching it all in My Bloody Valentine-esque guitar swaths, this band created a record unlike anything of the era. While this kind of post-hardcore was being bandied about by the likes of ex-jockcore bands like Quicksand and Orange 9mm rather efficiently, it was Policy of 3’s powerful lyrical statement, austere artistic vulnerability, and the sheer weight of their intense live show that was burning down basements and VFW halls all over the East Coast. This band also played the aforementioned house show with Shotmaker and Propagandhi, and where Shotmaker was the hammer meeting the nail, Policy of 3 was the entire wall shattering into a million pieces.
1. Party of Helicopters ABRACADAVER (Donut Friends)
Bursting from the ashes of Harriet the Spy and other bands from the fertile Ohio punk/hardcore/emo scene in the mid-90s, Party of Helicopters appeared on the punk radar as an oddity. Their music was hazy, dreamlike, decidedly un-hardcore, but still easily punk. With strange song titles like “Crushes Easy (Like the Human Skull)” and “The Vengeful Biblical Character,” with their seemingly delicate guitar lines sort of wafting over the tumultuous rhythm section, with their entirely disaffected, irreverent singer’s voice delivering their sweetly cynical lyrics, this band exhibited a flair that was part Roxy Music, part Guns n’ Roses at their rowdiest (especially in their later years), part Lord of the Rings, and a final part anchored in the kind of nebulous art-punk of bands like Nation of Ulysses and The Contortions. While their sound has changed subtly over the course of each release spanning their two decades of existence (they still play the occasional show!), in the beginning they were a beautiful mess, a much needy injection of bliss in a scene mired by its own earnest intentions. This record showed you could be fun, artistic, emotional and thematic all at once, truly shaping the sound of punk to come.