Remember thickly lined eyes and floppy hair strategically covering half of your face?
Remember high school hallways circa 2005?
Remember staring off into the suburban conformity and thinking “No one gets me”?
Then it is fair to say that you remember emo.
Emo is a genre with long roots in the alternative rock scene, and it was birthed out of a heady blend of street punk, social malaise, and experimental tendencies taking root in the early eighties.
For many Gen X and millennial readers among us, emo was the sonic current of the early years of this century and brings back memories of ostracization, stroppy adolescent temper tantrums, and thirty-page diary entries.
Before you write off emo as a self-indulgent, moody genre, give the 25 best bands of the genre a listen.
You will be pleasantly surprised, intrigued, and maybe even delighted by the raw emotions and complex instrumentals that the genre offers.
Enjoy our list of the best emo bands of all time!
1. Rites of Spring
The first and finest in the estimation of countless emo aficionados, I’ll throw them a bone and agree on this count.
Rites of Spring has a decidedly street punk flavor and differs significantly from the modern iteration of emo with its focus on tender melodies and downtempo atmospherics.
Rites of Spring bring a thrashing disposition, a vicious guitar, and a self-assured mien to emo, and they embody a certain rage and displeasure with the status quo.
You’ll get street cred in the emo and the eighties punk scenes if you dabble in their sounds, and you might even transform your sadness and alienation into actionable anger.
2. Bright Eyes
Sad boy prince Conor Oberst and his Bright Eyes entourage could not be more different than Rites of Spring with their self-conscious, twee navel-gazing, and carefully calibrated minimalism.
They have the energy of a hesitant poetry slam participant and the surly insecurity of a kid who was always picked last for dodgeball.
Throwing out words like “arduous” and “despondent” without irony they are poetic, self-indulgent, and dreamily endearing.
A strong current of folk forms the instrumental bedrock of their delightfully speculative lyrics.
Give hilariously “At the Bottom of Everything” or the downtempo “First Day of My Life” a listen for the lighter side of emo.
3. My Chemical Romance
The name is so indulgently emo it hurts – just as it should for the most popular emo band of the last twenty years.
Emo is, after all, a genre that is patently, defiantly theatrical and one that never shies away from the histrionic and the excessive.
My Chemical Romance captured the hearts of outcasts of all stripes when they came onto the scene with their veritable anthem “Welcome to the Black Parade”, a riotous song that showcased their melodic abilities and rousing vocals.
Though they hail from the country capital, Tennessee, Paramore’s sound is anything but down-home, patriotic, or acoustic in style and attitude.
They encapsulated the “scenester” sub-genre of emo with brightly dyed hair, kitschy and discordantly brash outfits, and self-conscious, dork-core poses and photo ops.
Hayley Williams was the patron saint of misunderstood suburban kids the world over and brought a vivacious energy and cheerful surliness to the genre.
Paramore’s fast-paced tempos and raucous disposition prove that emo is a dynamic genre that doesn’t merely bring on the waterworks, but inspires big, fully-inhabited emotions of all kinds.
5. Mayday Parade
Refreshing and amicable while still speaking to personal matters of the heart, Mayday Parade had an endearing candor that set them apart from their stroppier peers.
Their vocals are like Yellowcard dialed up to eleven and their songs talk about the lighter side of life with themes of romance, wistful breakups, and youthful nostalgia.
Their sound has the requisite amount of fuzzy guitar and animated pacing but is still anthemic and heartfelt enough to convince your straight-edge friends to give them a spin.
Songs like “Jamie All Over”, “Jersey”, and “Ocean And Atlantic” off their seminal 2007 album, the aptly named A Lesson In Romantics, make for high-quality, sing-along road trip music.
6. Taking Back Sunday
Taking Back Sunday nailed the insolent, stroppy vocals of the pop-punk movement and brings to mind Sum 41 and Box Car Racer.
They put power-pop sounds to good emo use with moody lyrics and defiant attitudes.
Giving their songs like “Cute Without The ‘E’” a re-listen is like hopping into a time machine back to the lonely, restless afternoons of youth circa 2004.
Emo has always been a distinctly adolescent genre, with its prioritization of self-reflection, self-centeredness, and individualism, and Taking Back Sunday pays heed to this estimation with its reflective, indulgent lyrics.
7. A Rocket to the Moon
A Rocket to the Moon cut its teeth with serene scenester numbers that served as the soundtrack for countless journaling sessions back in the early 2000s.
Were you even an adolescent in this century if you didn’t have overwrought tantrums while listening to the strident youthful misery of “I’m Not Saying Goodbye.”
Lyrics like “I’ve been sleeping with the lights on, baby” and “Does he sing to all your music?” are unadulterated high-flown melodrama and they make for delicious corny modern listening.
8. Something Corporate
A strategic choice of name for an emo band that follows the genre’s prescribed philosophy of anti-corporate, anti-mainstream, and against-the-current.
Something Corporate was semi-OGs, getting their start at the turn of the century and informing the many, impassioned sound that emo was about to take with the blossoming of the music genre around 2002.
If you want a quick primer of all the emo conventions and vocal conceits all you have to do is listen to their groundbreaking gems “I Woke Up In A Car” and “Hurricane.”
You might need a visit to your therapist after they’re done with you, that overwhelming is the high school nostalgia.
9. The Used
Bridging the divide between pop-punk and emo, which if you haven’t already intuited, is not a very big divide at all, The Used had an emotive authenticity that attracted scores of lone wolfs to their ranks.
From the unlikely provenance of Orem, Utah, they took the repressions of their small-town upbringings and channeled them into amped-up, symphonic magic.
Emo-punk goodness oozes out of the histrionic, high-voltage “The Taste of Ink” and the metal-core screamo pretensions of “Pretty Handsome Awkward.”
The Used is the perfect crossover between harder emo and screamo pop that enraptured the world in the noughties.
Go listen to “All That I’ve Got” immediately.
10. Panic! At The Disco
The ultimate example of the performative current in emo, Panic! Gained instant notoriety and polarized the music scene with the release of their first quirky, indulgent hit “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.”
They took an arthouse, affected the approach to emo and they thrived in creating an ostentatious silhouette, sound, and stage presence.
Some consider them pretentious, but that is part of their strange charisma and their allure – they embraced their own chauvinisms and savored their own self-assessment of being legends in their own time.
Lead singer Brendon Urie is a Las Vegas drama king and continues to helm the band as his own solo project.
11. All-American Rejects
Oklahoma-based All-American Rejects reached the pinnacle of mainstream success in the mid-noughties and Tyson Ritter et al were verified, teenage heroes.
Their heavy-hitting, stadium-radio anthems were packed with audacious riffs, self-assured tempos, and charming arrogance.
Their 2005 album Move Along powered one thousand teen movies and wafted through the airwaves of countless locker rooms and sleepovers.
Their power-pop sound was unapologetic, occasionally crass, but always shamelessly addictive.
12. Fall Out Boy
Illinois-bred Fall Out Boy brought an infectious, frenzied, cheeky energy to emo and had a tongue-in-cheek approach that won over audiences both mainstream and alternative.
Their anthems were soaring, and playful, and became veritable go-tos for a generation of keg stands and skate park sessions.
They incorporated a Myspace-era vernacular into songs like “Thnks fr th Mmrs” and they proved their rowdy house party creds with bangers like “Sugar We’re Goin Down.”
They brought a good-humored levity to the genre and brought mainstream listeners into the emo-pop fold.
13. Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World were the OG emo-wunderkinds of the 1990s with their juvenile delinquent energy and piquant, charming melodies.
“The Middle” will go down in emo, pop-punk history as one of the most delightfully apt anthems of high school growing pains.
Formed in Mesa, Arizona in 1993 they became the bards of lonesome, frustrated youth and dominated the airwaves for a solid decade.
2001’s Bleed American is required listening and should be on any top ten list of best pop-punk-emo albums.
They remain one of the most palatable and popular emo bands of the turn of the century era.
14. The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
With speedy tempos that will have the hair on the back of your neck standing up, these Florida rocker’s sound is melodramatic catchy bliss and is nigh-impossible to listen to while remaining still.
“Face Down” is one of the electric, visceral classics of the emo genre, with power-punk pacing, screamo bridges, and an anti-domestic violence message.
Their 2006 classic Don’t You Fake It is one of the foundational albums of the noughties-emo scene and was one of the most commercially popular, as well.
They do deeply-felt emotions just as masterfully as they do unhinged and unrepentant guitar riffs.
They are like the rough around the edges neighborhood bad guy with a corny heart of gold.
15. American Football
Their melodic “Never Meant” and haunting “Honestly?” might be two of the warmest, most delicate, satisfying songs in the emo canon, and are profound in their studious, simple beauty.
American Football has a more mature, elegant approach to emo with downtempo, carefully structured melodies, and intentional chords that feel soothingly academic.
This is the emo band to turn to for background studying or when you want to experience emotions expressed in a pared-down, reflective way.
Their 1999 self-titled album was lost in the fray of high-voltage pop-punk emo but is worth a sustained relisten if only because it proves that emo is for grown-ups, too.
16. Say Anything
A hearty, nourishing, and eclectic indie-emo synthesis, Say Anything came out of Los Angeles with a plucky verve and sly humor that brought a quirky generosity to the emo sound of the noughties.
Unlike many of their woefully sincere peers, Say Anything takes a slightly silly, DIY approach to emo and infuses their lyrics with innuendos and whimsical flourishes.
Their 2005 album Is a Real Boy is arresting with its heady dose of mischievous aplomb and its outrageous lyrical subject matters.
Proof that emo plays nicely with the ridiculous and irreverent aspects of life.
17. Death Cab For Cutie
Dreamy and dreary all rolled up in one, Death Cab For Cutie is an uncommonly sensitive band with a maddeningly opaque name.
Their rootsy, down-home sounds blend emo sensibilities with a folksy, pared-down ethos that belies their Pacific Northwest roots.
Their vocals are sublime, a gratifying combination of indie-folk and emo-lo-fi.
Their dreamy, serene, introspective 2003 album Transatlanticism garnered them mainstream cred and a sustained critical buzz.
They are emo for the more discerning and less histrionic among us.
Every starry-eyed adolescent had an emotional night playing “Here (In Your Arms)” on repeat while they wrote missives to the lover who had spurned them.
Hellogoodbye paired the twee, kitschy conventions of emo with synthy, electronica which created a charming scenester sound.
They doubled up on the quicky factor with alien and zombie references and by paying homage to early Web-2.0 lingo with albums like 2005’s OMG HGB DVD ROTFL.
They sound delightfully dated now but their California optimism makes them an endearing listening experience in our own cynical times.
19. Hawthorne Heights
Hawthorne Heights brought a melodic screamo patina to emo and were the cult fave of the harder, tougher, angrier kids among us.
Out of Dayton, Ohio, they defied Midwestern politesse with enraged tempos, dizzying instrumentals, and discordant compositions.
Their 2006 album If Only You Were Lonely is a perfectly hostile introduction to the curious appeal of Screamo.
Their post-hardcore ethos kept them from mainstream popularity but they had a fiercely loyal following among the more experimental and brave among us.
20. Dashboard Confessional
The name truly says it all, no?
Confessions are part and parcel of the emo ethos, with their emphasis on intimacy, matters of the heart, and melancholic candor.
Straight out of sunny Florida, they had an unarguably un-sunny approach and lead Chris Carrabba quickly became a complicated, romantic emo icon.
Their plaintive wails and harmonic vocals go straight to the heart and they spare nothing in their quest for a sincere emotional experience.
Their poignant verite can be felt potently in their 2000 album The Swiss Army Romance.
21. Cute Is What We Aim For
Twee as heck and unironically confessional, Cute is What We Aim For encapsulates and gives form to the angsty, “the world is all about me” attitude of anyone under the age of twenty.
Their songs are frustratingly catchy with tightly-constructed instrumentals and melodic, compelling choruses that have you bopping around without your consent.
Their bubblegum-with-a-twist sound is saturated with sexually frustrated energy and detention blues surliness.
Sure, they sound kind of juvenile from the vantage point of 2022 but their happy insolence is a cheeky and enjoyable guilty pleasure listening.
22. AFI (A Fire Inside)
AFI is best remembered in the mainstream for their eminently catchy, pop-punk anthem “Girl’s Not Grey” which is as satisfying as anything Green Day or Blink 182 was coming up with at the time.
Their name is a shortened version of the intriguing and dark A Fire Inside and their musical philosophy certainly pays heed to this evocative moniker.
They have never been content to typecast themselves and have dabbled with horror rock, Gothic, street punk, to post-hardcore since their founding in 1991 in small-town California,
They are sadly forgotten by all but the most dedicated emo lovers but they were mighty popular during their heyday, with their 2003 album Sing the Sorrow reaching fifth on the Billboard charts.
23. Boys Like Girls
Cheerfully juvenile and happily melodramatic, Boys Like Girls anthems like “Love Drunk” were on the soundtrack of every teen as they labored over their unrequited love and stared at their Razr flip phone wondering why their erstwhile lover hadn’t texted them back.
They are kitschy in a poignantly sentimental, unstudied way and certain veracity is contained within their corny, emotive lyrics.
If you just got rejected by the coolest kid at school (or, um, the office) you need to give their dramatic, teen tragedy classic album Love Drunk a listen.
At the very least it will bring you back to rainy and listless afternoons in 2009.
24. All Time Low
All Time Low offered a cheerier reimagining of emo with a pop-punk foundation that made them darlings of teen culture.
Formed in Maryland, they had a playful and exaggerated scenester flair with floppy hair, tight jeans, and whimsical baggy tees.
Their 2007 release So Wrong, It’s Right could be heard on thousands of MySpace profile pages and captured the hopes and daydreams of young optimists the world over.
Their power-punk pacing and unfettered enthusiasm keep their music fresh and enticing.
25. Metro Station
Another scenester band with pop-punk credentials, Metro Station had the requisite dyed black floppy hair, tight jeans, and overwrought stylistic flourishes.
Formed in Los Angeles, their guitarist Trace is Miley Cyrus’s brother, which always lent them a certain normie appeal that they heeded with good humor and a dose of intransigent cheerfulness.
Metro Station appealed to the less dark and gloomy emo kids and the ones who wanted to get in on the spunky goodness without switching out all the colors in their wardrobe for black.
Best Emo Bands of All Time – Final Thoughts
Feeling despondent and like the whole known (and unknown) universe revolves around you?
Good – emo has done its job.
Indulge in the sheer, well, self-indulgence and go lock your bedroom door and drown out the world like you did in the bad old days when adulthood couldn’t come fast enough.
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