The 100 Greatest Emo Songs of All Time
7 min read
fairly difficult
A sweeping look at rock's most misunderstood genre.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photos by Getty Images and Shutterstock

"Rites of Spring existed well before the term did, and they hated it." —Musician-activist Jenni Toomey, speaking on behalf of perhaps the first emo band in Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good

"The stupidest fucking thing I've heard in my entire life." —Ian MacKaye on "emo-core" in 1987

Let's just blame it all on Washington, D.C. — it never gets old. The first known usage of emo dates back to the mid-1980s, when "emo-core" served as shorthand for "emotional hardcore," a label applied to a wave of bands that deviated from the macho aggression of D.C. punk during the so-called Revolution Summer. What they had in common: a greater emphasis on melody, dynamics, and, yes, lyrics about feelings. Among them were Rites of Spring and Embrace, which each released one self-titled album before breaking up, setting both the sonic and career template for emo bands going forward (and, judging by the above statements, also the prevailing attitude bands should have toward the term "emo" itself).

In the past 35 years, the meaning of emo has become almost completely inverted — it's more likely to mean "hard-core emotional" in the public discourse, extending beyond punk or even music itself as shorthand for anything defined by a kind of hyperbolic and demonstrative sadness. Drake is emo, Game of Thrones is emo, the Beach Boys and Shakespeare are emo, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is emo. It's now a fixed concept within popular culture and a resilient mode of expression. What could better appeal to teenagers than a genre accused of being overly serious and painfully self-aware at the same time? Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye, who eventually became best known for his work in Fugazi, was viewed as an ethical barometer when he claimed emo was "the stupidest fucking thing I've heard in my life," and since then, the line has been repeated by just about every emo band to warrant the distinction. Anyone or anything can be emo,…
Ian Cohen
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