What the hell is emo music? The only certainty that question offers is: No one will agree. There's the proto-emo puritans (see '80s acts Rites of Spring and Minor Threat), young fans experiencing the modern emo revival (led by acts like Into It Over It and The World Is a Beautiful Place…) and the early aughts pop-punk fans (and even in that sector, Brand New stans will do battle with My Chemical Romance diehards). To get some perspective, though, let's turn back the clock and revisit the genre's most formative acts from when the media had just begun abbreviating the "emo-core" designation to the more succinct "emo." Here's five emo bands from the '90s worth taking a look back at.
Sure, Mineral didn't last long. The band broke up shortly after putting out its inedible 1997 debut, The Power of Failing, but the band's ephemerality—much like that of similarly short-lived act American Football—only amplified the mythological aura that grew in the years following the record's release. The songwriting—which combined an air of wistful despondency turned triumphant, careening dueling guitar lines and an ear for builds—laid the genre's groundwork for years to come. And you can thank Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins for galvanizing the recent reunion tour after he called on the formerly defunct crew to open for his own band's 20th anniversary run.
Masterwork album: The Power of Failing
Best song: "Gloria"
2. Sunny Day Real Estate
This Seattle outfit's 1994 debut, Diary, formed a blueprint for every ensuing band that would come to claim the "emo" title. Jeremy Enigk's vocals oscillate between weary groans and tormented wailing on songs like "In Circles," in which a whispery verse suddenly erupts into a fuzzed-out scream-along chorus. Those particular elements—quiet-loud dynamics, introspective yet explosive lyrics and brooding pain transforming into its own fervent exorcism—soon became the genre's central stylistic pillars. Post-reunion, on albums like 2000's The Rising Tide, the band turned towards a more ambitious trajectory, incorporating a newfound eclecticism that bordered on prog. The style transformations in SDRE 2.0 didn't quite abandon its emo roots, so much as refine the crew's ear for misery.
Masterwork album: Diary
Best song: "In Circles"
3. Cap'n Jazz
Founded by brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, Chicago band Cap'n Jazz sounds like an experiment in sloppiness. In particular, the former's vocal messiness forms the lynchpin of the band's skittish energy. Even through his most spastic screeching, the lyrics seemed to drool inadvertently out of his mouth, stumbling over their own feet in an indecipherable mumblecore shuffle. Cap'n Jazz drew on the agitated, urgent energy of hardcore, but diffused the tension with glimpses of vulnerability. Makes sense considering the band started its melancholic navel-gazing when the term emo was still emerging from its etymological roots in emotional hardcore.
Masterwork album: Shmap'n Shmazz
Best song: "Little League"
Earlier this year, Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler voiced excitement at the prospect of a reunion, but don't get your hopes up. Reunion rumors have cropped up continuously in the two decades since the band's breakup—so much so that fledgling Bard College musicians recently capitalized on the SEO opportunities by titling their band Jawbreaker Reunion. The original trio's cult fandom congregated around melodic sensibilities and an angular energy that made constant misery sound not only cathartic, but fun too. It's a concoction that bands have attempted to replicate for decades, but that probably won't be realized again until "Jawbreaker Reunion" becomes more than just an in-joke.
Masterwork album: Bivouac
Best song: "Accident Prone"
5. Rainer Maria
Yes, the band takes its name from the early 1900s poet Rilke—singer Caithlin De Marrais met guitarist Kaia Fischer at a writing workshop. That poetic sensibility apparent in the moniker shines through in its intricate imagistic lyrics. Unlike its peers, Rainer Maria's rainy day despondency drove more toward high drama than melodrama, painting convoluted inversions like "Everything that came out of me was wrong-colored / Or wasn't at all" on its first album. While the literary tendencies lend a certain maturity, it's not all highfalutin pondering as later albums like Catastrophe Keeps Us Together explore messier, more exuberant atmospheres.
Masterwork album: Look Now, Look Again
Best song: "Always More Often"