188719-the-best-emo-albums-of-2014

The Best Emo Albums of 2014

Like emo's first wave, today's revival has taken issue with the category itself. But concerns over labels shouldn't get in the way of appreciating the connections between the subgenre's up-and-comers and legacy acts that reconvened like Y2K never happened.

Contrary to some narratives, back when emo was emocore, more than a few people openly embraced the term. That’s not just pertaining to fans, either: ask Chris Broach from Braid about who owned the “Emocore” license plate back in the day. The guys in D.C. may have refused it, but years after the word first allegedly appeared in that issue of Thrasher magazine, it had become to many kids just one of the many subdivisions of hardcore. In the mid ’90s, that was how it got introduced to you.

The divisions were blurry, and only got blurrier. The hardcore kids who snickered at the more sensitive stuff would also have to concede that bands like Still Life and Portraits of Past had something going on about them. Regional differences accounted for more in that pre-Internet era as well, leading to tangible, if not coherently definable, differences between Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast emocore. The umbrella of definition kept expanding. Even Weezer, an L.A. glam metal band who decided to play worse on purpose in order to get on MTV, were baptized into the flock in absentia.

It seems as if some people in the current wave — be it a revival of the second, or a fourth of its own — are even taking issue with the name. Which is interesting: a new scene, increasingly less marginal but still kept to a tight circle of labels, mirroring the same growth issues as the old one it emulates, right down to the inner conflict over accepting the capital E. Perhaps that’s the lasting damage of the third-wave nadir. But concerns over labels shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating the dots that are connected when a band like Into It. Over It. goes on tour with Mineral, or when four guys who left things on a high note 15 years ago reconvene like Y2K never happened.

 

Artist: Two Inch Astronaut

Album: Foulbrood

Label: Exploding in Sound

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Two Inch Astronaut
Foulbrood

Fugazi were the most important emo band that was never actually emo. Not far behind them in that distinction were Jawbox, whose singer/guitarist J. Robbins would become the producer and engineer on records by the Promise Ring, Hey Mercedes, and so many others. Fugazi, Jawbox, and other Washington, D.C. bands from that era, are also clearly influences on Two Inch Astronaut, a trio from just outside the diamond, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Less tangibly “emo” than the other artists on this list, Two Inch Astronaut and their latest album, Foulbrood, nonetheless share enough strands of the same root DNA that they will undoubtedly appeal both to fans across the spectrum of post-hardcore who clearly remember the ’90s and those who were born in them.

 

Artist: Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)

Album: You Will Eventually Be Forgotten

Label: Topshelf

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Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)
You Will Eventually Be Forgotten

Married duo Keith and Cathy Latinen have been writing and recording as Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) since 2006, a time when almost everyone else had long given up making the kind of music they were setting off to do. In that time, they have put out a handful of EPs and a dozen splits, and yet somehow You Will Eventually Be Forgotten is only their second full-length. Retaining the wistful open-heartedness stamped on that considerable body of work, You Will Eventually Be Forgotten captures the band with an increased clarity, allowing them to sound more like themselves than ever. Bonus points are also in order for bringing out guest appearances from Bob Nanna and Chris Simpson.

 

Artist: Joie De Vivre/Prawn

Album: Split 7″

Label: Count Your Lucky Stars/Topshelf

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Joie De Vivre/Prawn
Split 7″

Could this split single released back in February come to one day attain a status similar to, say, the Texas Is the Reason/The Promise Ring split 7″? As a Polaroid snap of where the emo revival stands in 2014, you could hardly put a more suitable picture in the time capsule. Collaboratively put out by the two labels most in the thick of whatever exactly this is shaping up to be, the record brings together Rockford, Illinois’ Joie De Vivre and Prawn, of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Here, Joie De Vivre show themselves keen at compressing Mineral’s bombast into two-minute bursts, while Prawn continue to make less use of spindly Midwest guitar figures and more of the shout-along muscle that they employ on their new album, Kingfisher — though it’s nice to hear they haven’t completely put away the horn yet.

 

 

Artist: We Were Promised Jetpacks

Album: Unravelling

Label: Fat Cat

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We Were Promised Jetpacks
Unravelling

Before UK bands like Crash of Rhinos and Nai Harvest began taking a more literal approach, a distinct homegrown strain of emo was thriving in Scotland. When Fat Cat released both the Twilight Sad’s Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters and Frightened Rabbit’s Sing the Greys in 2007, it was impossible to hear the quiet-loud dynamics and the vulnerable lyrics and not hear the connective tissue despite the surface differences. Fat Cat then pulled off a hat trick when, in 2009, they released We Were Promised Jetpacks’ debut, These Four Walls, which seethed with a similar fire. All three of those bands have taken their sound in different directions while staying true to their intent since that time, and We Were Promised Jetpacks are faring all the better for it, as the brooding, searing Unravelling is their finest hour yet.

 

Artist: The Jazz June

Album: After the Earthquake

Label: Topshelf

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The Jazz June
After the Earthquake

As noted here not long ago, this one might be the biggest surprise of all on this list. Not simply because the Jazz June seemed to fully reassemble without too much in the way of advance notification, but also because After the Earthquake doesn’t sound like an album made by a group of guys who spent a decade apart getting older. Nor does it even sound much like a Jazz June record. Instead of returning to the early Promise Ring-isms of “When in Rome” or the math-ier barrage of The Medicine, the Jazz June made an immediate rock record with Superchunk-sized hooks and not as much time for time signature changes. After the Earthquake is proof that reunions don’t have to be about looking backwards.

5 – 1

Artist: Zookeeper

Album: Pink Chalk

Label: Count Your Lucky Stars

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Zookeeper
Pink Chalk

Even as the second-generation reunions kept stacking up, how many people could say they honestly thought for sure that Mineral would eventually cave in to demand? Whether it was the way they called it quits even before the release of their second and final album, End Serenading, or more just the sense of mystique that filled in the space they left behind, it long seemed like Mineral would be the last holdout. In the midst of Mineral’s long-awaited victory lap, singer/guitarist Chris Simpson put out his first Zookeeper album since 2007’s Becoming All Things. Pink Chalk is a more subdued outing than any of Simpson’s previous work, with mostly uncluttered structures of guitar and piano supporting his increasingly comfortable, soulful voice. Now if only he can see his way to finishing that unreleased second album from his too-often-overlooked post-Mineral band, the Gloria Record. . .

 

Artist: You Blew It!

Album: Keep Doing What You’re Doing

Label: Topshelf

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You Blew It!
Keep Doing What You’re Doing

If there really was an “Award of the Year Award”, it might go to You Blew It!; at the very least they could get a “most improved” nomination. Because their name screams sunny pop-punk, and group photos like the one of them all wearing tropical shirts do little to help the notion that they are not, the band make it easier than it should be to pass by them if simple goofy pleasures aren’t your thing. That isn’t to say that Keep Doing What You’re Doing is an overly tricky record, but it is marked by both an increased agility to their riffing and a welcome maturation of their sound. Taking at least partial responsibility for the latter is Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss, who served as producer (something he’s done for more than one record on this list), giving songs like the storming opener “Match & Tinder” and “House Address” the same balance of crunch and polish found on spiritual predecessors, like Hey Mercedes’ Everynight Fire Works.

 

Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate/Circa Survive

Album: “Lipton Witch”/”Bad Heart” split 7″

Label: Circa Survive

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Sunny Day Real Estate/Circa Survive
“Lipton Witch”/”Bad Heart” split 7″

Yes, it looks like it was too good to be true. There they were: all four original members of Sunny Day Real Estate on stage again, playing a new song. In 2009, Sub Pop reissued their first two untouchable albums, and the band obliged with their first shows together in 15 years. Not stopping there, tossed in among a set list heavy on early favorites was a new tune — and a promising one at that — which took the unofficial name “Song 10”. As bassist Nate Mendel explained it to Music Radar early last year, the band then, as rumored, really did get together in the Northwest and write an album’s worth of songs, only then to travel to Los Angeles, where the recording process completely derailed. Keep in mind that, in the beginning, Sunny Day Real Estate refused to play in California for reasons that went unexplained; clearly, there’s something amiss about the mojo between the band and the Golden State.

So here we are, almost five years after that tour, and a lone track from those recording sessions finds its way out of the ashes and onto a limited-edition Record Store Day single with a gentle flip side from Circa Survive, “Bad Heart”. The worst part, of course, is how good “Lipton Witch” is: they sound genuinely reinvigorated together, William Goldsmith is in vintage drum-demolishing form and Jeremy Enigk’s vocals are full-throated and forceful. It hurts to imagine the possibility of a whole album of these that will never see the light of day, but it wouldn’t be unlike them to leave it all on a mystery.

 

Artist: Owen

Album: Other People’s Songs

Label: Polyvinyl

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Owen
Other People’s Songs

Fair to say it has been an active year for Mike Kinsella, especially when it came to a project of his that had been inactive since 2000. American Football’s lone LP, one of those records that take half a generation to find its true following, was given the loving reissue treatment in May. Their fast-selling tour continues from now until at least half way into 2015, taking them much farther afield than the few gigs around Urbana-Champaign they played the first time around.

December brought Kinsella’s latest collection under his Owen moniker, Other People’s Songs, eight fondly reconstructed covers, some (Depeche Mode’s “Judas”) more surprising than others. Is there anything more emo than the guy from American Football covering the Promise Ring? Probably not. Because that’s all clearly not enough, Kinsella also represented this year with Owls — the guys from Cap’n Jazz playing somewhat slower under a different name — and the release of Two, their first album since 2001. Here’s hoping he gets time for a nap next year.

 

Artist: Braid

Album: No Coast

Label: Topshelf

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Braid
No Coast

The little wave of shocked surprise that rippled through the internet when “Bang” was dispatched and subsequently posted by dozens of sites from Alt Press to NPR alike was, in many a desk jockey’s mind, probably followed by a wave of second guessing: could the rest of No Coast be this good? Despite the general selling point that Braid have recaptured what made them great, No Coast doesn’t have much use with living in the past. Their lyrics — Nanna’s in particular — can still flutter with poetic flourish, but grounding life events like fatherhood and health concerns gives the record a real weight, the kind that can’t be derived from mere romantic longing and scene politics. More than any heyday Braid record, Bob Nanna and Chris Broach trade vocal turns and solder their guitar lines together, winding around the inimitable rhythm section of bassist Todd Bell and drummer Damon Atkinson. Instead of yanking their genius out of a hyperactive tug of war as they did on Frame & Canvas, Braid sound more like a team than perhaps they ever have, and No Coast is better than most anyone could have expected.

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