Fourth-wave emo has been brewing underground for a little more than half a decade, with groups in the U.S. and abroad finding inspiration in the cycling guitars and atypical vocals of groups from the genre’s second wave in the 90s—particularly acts from the midwest such as Cap’n Jazz, Braid, and the Promise Ring. Groups such as Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), CSTVT, and Tigers Jaw continue to do what many independent bands before them had done, releasing music on small labels and playing unconventional venues around the country—in Chicago they’d play now-defunct spots such as Summer Camp and Strangelight. Many bands broke up through the years, but emo’s underground network and fan base have grown exponentially, and now some of these bands can sell enough copies of an album to land on the Billboard charts. That’s also because the music is quite good, but I have a bias—I still seek out house shows with newbie emo acts on the bill. Still, there were a lot of impressive emo albums that came out this year, and in an effort to look back at the lot I decided to write about of some of my favorites. Here they are, listed in alphabetic order:
1994!, Fuck It (Square of Opposition/Inkblot/Ranch)
Raucous two-piece 1994! came out of the same Pennsylvania scene that produced Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing, whose jittery take on second-wave emo have inspired plenty of kids to give the music a try; of those bands 1994! is the most caustic, and its music can get a little deranged. Algernon and Snowing have since broken up and 1994! has gone off in a fascinating new direction, producing the aggressively strange Fuck It; 1994! embraces stark experimental piano melodies, barely audible guitar strumming, and screeching guitar feedback on the album, which the band recorded in a handful of European cities with an iPhone and a “shitty” microphone.
Balance & Composure, The Things We Think We’re Missing (No Sleep)
Like 1994! this five-piece calls Pennsylvania home—the state has been a hot spot for fourth-wave emo—but these guys shoot for the heavens and the pop charts with The Things We Think We’re Missing. Balance & Composure turn romantic despair and underground emo into soaring, supercharged tunes that every modern rock station aught to keep in rotation. (The album did debut at number 51 on the Billboard 200, so that’s something.)
Bonjour Machines, Level Up! (self-released)
This is Middle Eastern emo via the 90s midwestern scene. The Israeli band’s music evokes all the nervous, seemingly boundless energy of youth, and Ilai Ashdot’s garbled, exasperated yelps are particularly absorbing on “With My Chin Up and My Expectations Down.”
Crash of Rhinos, Knots (Topshelf/Big Scary Monsters)
UK five-piece Crash of Rhinos took me by surprise—prior to hearing Knots I’d heard a lot of fourth-wave emo from across the pond that recycled the kind of twee, mathy guitar patterns a lot of bands like to describe as “twinkly,” and most of it was unremarkable. Crash of the Rhinos, on the other hand, excel at using those guitar melodies economically and making huge, heavy, and hypnotic tracks with them—I could listen to the chorus for “Sum of All Parts” for hours.
Football, Etc., Audible (Count Your Lucky Stars)
Football is a religion in Texas—a quick read through Friday Night Lights and a few episodes of the NBC drama of the same name can easily prove that. Houston’s Football, Etc. pay homage to their state’s pastime with songs, albums, and their band. They crib from the playbook of fiercely beloved 90s Texas group Mineral for the tunes on Audible and the way they use sports as an allegory for vague life struggles on tracks such as “Forfeit” and “Time Out” is quite charming.
Foxing, The Albatross (Count Your Lucky Stars)
St. Louis outfit Foxing made one hell of an impressive debut album with The Albatross; the band melds beautiful and delicate symphonic passages, surging instrumental blasts, and touches of underground emo caterwauling and guitars. Foxing recruited plenty of friends to play the trombone, saxophone, accordion, violin, cello, and flute on the album, and brought in what sounds like a mob of folks to handle backing vocals—the end result is the kind of album that anyone who love indie-rock in the broadest sense but is wary of the word emo can easily love.
Into It. Over It., Intersections (Triple Crown)
I’ve been a fan of Evan Thomas Weiss’s solo project since before I moved to Chicago in 2009, and it’s been a pleasure to see him go from playing Logan Square basements to headlining Schubas (and, in a few months, Bottom Lounge). He’s progressed as a songwriter over the years, and the beautiful Intersections is among my favorite albums of the year. Weiss sings with a confidence and grace that make these tunes so powerful; his subtle vocal inflections on “The Shaking of the Leaves,” which is about the death of his friend and DIY punk musician Mitch Dubey (who was killed in a botched robbery in his home close to three years ago), can still move me to tears.
Lemuria, The Distance Is So Big (Bridge Nine)
Plenty of bands in the current scene emulate midwestern 90s acts, but not everyone does; Buffalo three-piece Lemuria takes plenty of inspiration from the D.C. posthardcore scene that birthed emo in the mid-80s with melodic tunes that rebelled against hardcore’s then-increasingly violent, macho aesthetic. Lemuria’s tunes are reminiscent of the era shortly after the Revolution Summer, when groups such as Jawbox evolved that posthardcore style into a slightly more accessible, hooky sound—on The Distance Is So Big Lemuria evolve the style into a bubblegum pop sound that’s still quite ferocious. Guitarist Sheena Ozzella’s earnest, lovelorn vocals help make songs such as “Ruby” um, shine.
Touche Amore, Is Survived By (Deathwish)
Emo’s aggressive subgenre screamo has a distinct lifeline of its own, and there have been so many strange, fascinating, and sometimes violent bands that have flown under that genre banner that it’s easy to think of screamo as an entity separate from emo. I consider the sound an important part of emo’s narrative, partially because it broadens the idea of what emo is and what it can be—in the case of this list I’m considering screamo an integral part of emo because I’m quite taken by Touche Amore’s third album, Is Survived By. The five-piece had me at the melodic opening chords on the very first track, “Just Exist.”
The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Whenever, If Ever (Topshelf)
The Connecticut group with the ludicrously long name was one of the first acts from the current underground scene to make it onto Billboard, and TWIABP did it with its lovely debut full-length, Whenever, If Ever. Like Foxing’s The Albatross TWIABP’s Whenever, If Ever has the kind of splendid, quasi-symphonic tunes that can sound only tangentially related to emo to an indie-rock fan with a fierce allergy to anything filed under the “e” word. The soaring guitars and wrenching vocals on “Heartbeat in the Brain” are devastating, and I yearn for the day when TWIABP can perform at a big concert hall with an army of string players.
Five additional local emo albums worth checking out: