Music

The Best Emo Albums of 2014

Ian King

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.

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