In honor of the 20th anniversary of emo’s breakout year, this edition of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ looks at the 20 best emo albums of 2001.
Emo started in the 1980s and really came to be a widespread genre throughout the 1990s, but emo’s massive breakthrough moment came in 2001, with a series of albums that would take the genre out of the underground and onto television screens, radio stations, festival lineups, Myspace top 8s and Hot Topics all across America and beyond. Like when grunge broke into the mainstream a decade earlier, it was the culmination of a sound that had been building for over a decade, but once it did start to take off, it happened almost overnight. Bands quickly went from obscurity to MTV, and countless others followed in their footsteps. Once the doors were kicked down in ’01, an onslaught of bands started getting mainstream attention. 2002 saw even bigger breakthroughs than the previous year, and by the mid 2000s, emo was one of the biggest genres of music in the world. The popularity led to backlash, and a rapidly-changing music industry eventually turned its attention away from punk-adjacent bands in the mainstream, leaving the genre stigmatized by the end of the 2000s, and eventually — as far as the mainstream was concerned — dead. Of course, it wasn’t actually dead, and by the early/mid 2010s, a new wave of underground emo bands began enjoying critical acclaim, and later that decade, rappers like the late Lil Peep and Juice WRLD pioneered the new subgenre emo-rap, which continues to leave an impact today. Emo as we knew it in 2001 never returned to the level of popularity it had two decades ago, but it’s proven to be the dominant form of alternative rock for so many music fans over the past 20 years. The mark emo made in 2001 is still felt in many ways today.
With the class of 2001 celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, I decided to look back on the 20 best emo albums from that year. As 2001 was a crossroads for the genre, emo came in a lot of different varieties that year. There were bands who were still playing the style of second wave emo that was prominent in the 1990s, as well as bands beginning to define the sound of the third wave. Some bands leaned more towards post-hardcore, others more towards pop punk, others towards indie rock, and others towards softer, acoustic guitar and piano-based music. Any subgenre like this is hard to define — and I’m not getting into a debate about “real emo” — but I stuck to albums that feel primarily emo, leaving off some emo-adjacent albums where post-hardcore, screamo, metalcore, hardcore, or punk feel more like the primary genre (as good as the pg.99, Majority Rule, Envy, Small Brown Bike, Unwound, Fugazi, Frodus, and Planes Mistaken For Stars albums from that year are, they’re not really for this list). Some of the albums on this list were very popular, or by soon-to-be-popular bands, while others were more obscure, but all of them feel like necessary parts of the puzzle that was The Year That Emo Broke.
Read on for the list…
20. Breaking Pangaea – Cannon to a Whisper
Philly’s Breaking Pangaea got better known later on, when frontman Fred Mascherino became Taking Back Sunday’s guitarist/secondary vocalist and drummer Will Noon formed Straylight Run with former Taking Back Sunday members John Nolan and Shaun Cooper, but before TBS even released an album, Breaking Pangaea had put out a great debut LP of their own, 2001’s Cannon to a Whisper. Cannon can often pass for a mid ’90s emo album, but it was nudging the genre towards the future. (And it actually had a very direct impact on emo’s future, when Fred re-used the hook from “Wedding Dress” on “My Blue Heaven” from Taking Back Sunday’s major label debut, Louder Now.) Fred was still finding his own voice — here, he sometimes sounds a little like Chris Carrabba — but he had clearly already honed the lead guitar chops that he’d show off to the world as a member of Taking Back Sunday. The same goes for Will Noon, who was already a beast behind the kit. The album caught the attention of Equal Vision Records, who put out Breaking Pangaea’s next and final release, 2003’s Phoenix EP, on which they fully came into their own. Phoenix is really the definitive Breaking Pangaea release, but Cannon — their sole full-length — was still a crucial stepping stone for both this band and the development of emo.
19. Benton Falls – Finding Starlight
Right down to the album artwork, this album looks and sounds so much like the mid ’90s that it risked feeling retro on arrival, but Benton Falls did a ton of justice to the sound of mid ’90s emo and they rivaled a ton of the greats in the process. (And it probably helped that guitarist Ryan Gerber had already played in ’90s emo band Ethel Meserve.) It was released on the iconic ’90s/’00s emo label Deep Elm, home of The Emo Diaries, the compilation series that helped introduce Benton Falls to the world on volume 6. Musically, the band’s got all the knotty guitar patterns and loose-but-tight rhythms that exemplified the second wave, but Michael Richardson’s warm, soaring voice set them apart from their forebears. Where so many similar bands favored yelped, strained vocals, Michael’s voice was strong in the traditional sense, and it wrapped around you like an old blanket. And on a song like “No Hero,” where he sings about losing someone to a heroin overdose, he shakes you to your core.
18. The Starting Line – With Hopes of Starting Over EP
The year emo broke was also the year blink-182 had a number one album, and thanks in large part to Drive-Thru Records and their flagship band New Found Glory, emo and pop punk became more and more intertwined. One of Drive-Thru’s key signings at the time was a young band from Philly called The Starting Line, who recorded their debut EP With Hopes of Starting Over for the label when vocalist/bassist Kenny Vasoli was just 15. The EP immediately put The Starting Line on the map. Presumably taking influence from labelmates New Found Glory and emo-pop progenitors The Get Up Kids, With Hopes of Starting Over wasn’t the most unique batch of songs in the world, but it was obvious that this band could write songs, and that Kenny was about to have one of the most recognizable voices in the scene. All four original songs (two of which were re-recorded for their 2002 debut LP Say It Like You Mean It and one of which appeared on the blink-182-curated Atticus: …Dragging the Lake compilation) are pop punk/emo classics, and the raw production gives them a humble charm that Say It Like You Mean It (home of breakthrough song “Best of Me”) stripped away. (There’s also a cover of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” for some reason.) Today, so much of the emo-infused pop punk scene can be traced back to early Starting Line, including this EP specifically. It’s not their best work, but its influence is undeniable.
17. Fairweather – If They Move… Kill Them
Fairweather followed the trajectory that a lot of emo bands follow: step 1) release a scene classic that epitomizes the emo sound of the moment, step 2) make a sonic departure with a genre-defying album, step 3) break up. For my money, their second album (2003’s Lusitania) is their finest hour, but their 2001 debut If They Move… Kill Them is their scene classic for a reason. It totally captured the spirit of turn-of-the-millennium emo, and it’s just ripper after ripper. On If They Move… Kill Them, Fairweather embraced a little of the chuggy pop punk that was infiltrating emo at the time, but they moreso stayed true to the rawer sounds of mid ’90s emo. It made sense that Lusitania was a decidedly more indie rock album, because even on this album you could sense that Fairweather weren’t interested in being a pop band. They didn’t shy away from good hooks, but you could tell their roots were in heavier post-hardcore and melodic hardcore. Sometimes they sounded like a cross between Texas Is The Reason and Lifetime, two bands who also knew the power of a good hook but never lost touch with hardcore.
16. Something Corporate – Audioboxer EP
Though emo started out as an offshoot of hardcore, it had started to get a lot sappier by the end of the ’90s, when albums like The Get Up Kids’ classic Something to Write Home About helped teach emo kids the power of acoustic songs and piano ballads. Some artists then made entire careers out of the former (Dashboard Confessional, Owen), while Something Corporate became the prototypical emo piano band. They stirred up buzz for their self-released 2000 debut album Ready…Break (the original home of their now-signature song “Konstantine”), which generated interest from Drive-Thru/MCA, who signed them for their breakthrough 2001 EP Audioboxer. The EP’s three best-known songs also ended up on Something Corporate’s full-length album Leaving Through the Window the following year (“Hurricane,” “If You C Jordan,” and “Punk Rock Princess”), but they were already emo-scene hits by then, thanks to the instant success of Audioboxer. It was obvious from this EP that Something Corporate couldn’t stay underground for long; they embraced mainstream-friendly production and power pop hooks that sounded much more like ’90s radio rock than ’90s emo. (“Punk Rock Princess” was a better 2001 Weezer song than half of Green Album.) Some emo fans turned down their noses at the band’s pop ambitions, but even haters would have to respect the originality. You can pick out Andrew McMachon’s voice the moment it comes in, and nobody was combining emo with piano-pop the way this band was. Plus, these songs hold up. They still sound pretty organic compared to a lot of the pop-emo that followed, and once those heart-on-sleeve hooks lodge their way into your brain, you don’t forget them.
15. New End Original – Thriller
As many second wave emo bands dissolved, several of the musicians started new bands, and one of those bands was New End Original, who lasted for one album and were basically a supergroup of ’90s emo greats from three different regions/subgenres. They were fronted by Jonah Matranga, whose previous band Far came out of the same Sacramento post-hardcore scene that birthed Will Haven and Deftones (and who had recently begun his more stripped-back solo project Onelinedrawing); guitarist Norman Brannon and bassist Scott Winegard previously played in the NYC emo/post-hardcore band Texas Is The Reason; and drummer Charlie Walker hailed from Midwest emo-turned-alt-country band Chamberlain. And on their sole album Thriller, you could hear the influence of all of their different musical walks of life. Jonah’s voice is unmistakable no matter what band he’s singing in, and New End Original kind of fell right in between the heavier Far and the softer Onelinedrawing. The punchy, punk-rooted guitars felt more like Texas Is The Reason than Far, and Charlie’s knotty, busy drumming gave it that Midwest emo twist. New End Original always felt too intimate and humble to really be called a “supergroup,” but some of these songs had a real concise pop feel that was more similar to what Jimmy Eat World were doing in 2001 than New End Original usually got credit for. It also had a somber side, like the piano ballad “Leper Song” which could’ve fit in with Onelinedrawing’s early material. It’s a gem of an album that rivaled the members’ more famous bands, and it holds up exceptionally well today.
14. Hey Mercedes – Everynight Fire Works
When Braid broke up, guitarist/secondary vocalist Chris Broach formed The Firebird Band, and the remaining three members — frontman Bob Nanna, bassist Todd Bell, and drummer Damon Atkinson — recruited guitarist Mark Dawursk of Alligator Gun and continued on as Hey Mercedes. They recorded it with Jawbox’s J. Robbins, who had also produced Braid’s classic 1998 swan song Frame & Canvas, and in many ways, it picked up where Frame & Canvas left off. It’ll never be considered as important as that album was, but Bob Nanna & co. had gotten even better at what they do, and Everynight Fire Works proved it. The songs were sharper and catchier than most of what Braid had done, and Bob Nanna’s voice had actually gotten kind of pretty at this point — a noticeable progression from his raspy yelps in Braid. There were, of course, fans who missed Braid’s more shambolic sound, but it was tough to deny how strong the songwriting on Everynight Fire Works was. These were just great, anthemic rock songs, and they helped predict the path emo would be on throughout the 2000s. It established Bob Nanna & co not just as underrated forebears of the emo boom, but as one of the era’s best active bands.
Pick up ‘Everynight Fire Works’ on clear with blue/green/white splatter vinyl.
13. Dashboard Confessional – The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most + So Impossible EP
By the mid 2000s, the idea of the acoustic emo song became a cliché, but when the decade began, that wasn’t the case yet. It wasn’t really until Chris Carrabba popularized the form with Dashboard Confessional that it became so commonplace, and Chris’ breakthrough came with his 2001 sophomore album (and Vagrant debut), The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Chris was already an established emo musician before starting Dashboard (he fronted Further Seems Forever), but Dashboard was something different. Early on, it was almost nothing besides Chris and his acoustic guitar. (Though Places introduced a rhythm section on some songs.) There were a few other likeminded people at the time with similar ideas, but for the most part, singer/songwriters and emo musicians were not the same in 2001. Dashboard Confessional is largely responsible for changing that. It’s admittedly a little sappy, but haters be damned, this music really connected with people. All you have to do is go to any Dashboard Confessional show to see it; people sing their hearts out. Places helped introduce emo to tons of people who had never heard of it, and you can still feel its lasting impact today — it’s undeniably in the DNA of emotional singer/songwriters like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. Places was Dashboard’s breakthrough, but also necessary to include on this list is the So Impossible EP from that same year. It’s a mini concept EP, and it ends with the original acoustic version of “Hands Down,” which became Dashboard’s signature song after the full-band version came out on 2003’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar.
Pick up this album and other Dashboard classics here.
12. On The Might of Princes – Where You Are And Where You Want To Be
These days, the phrase “Long Island emo” makes most people think of melodramatic bands that fuse screaming and clean-singing thanks to the popularity of bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New, but before either of those bands reached the mainstream, Long Island’s On The Might of Princes had perfected the formula. They pulled from ’90s Midwest emo, harsher screamo, lighter indie rock, and their hometown’s hardcore and punk scenes, and they fused it into something that almost no other band was doing at the time. For much more on this album, read my 20th anniversary interview with drummer Chris Enriquez.
Pick up a vinyl copy of the OTMOP album here.
11. Owen – Owen
Mike Kinsella released arguably the most important emo album of all time with American Football’s 1999 debut album, but he wouldn’t have known it at the time. The band broke up a year later, and their biggest show had something like 40 people at it. It would take a while for American Football to become as influential as they are now, so when Mike released his debut solo album as Owen in 2001, he was still far from the spotlight that he’s in today. Accordingly, Owen is a very humble affair, perhaps the most humble-sounding album Mike Kinsella has ever released. Its hissy, lo-fi bedroom folk vibe was almost closer to what The Microphones were doing in 2001 than what was going on in the emo scene, but Owen also proved to be the most vulnerable, open-hearted project of Mike Kinsella’s career. (It still is.) Mike’s singing and lyricism on the first American Football album was very emotional, but it took a somewhat abstract approach, conveying more of a feeling than a specific scenario. Owen was the exact opposite. When you listen to Owen songs, you’re right there with Mike, witnessing every thought that goes through his head, every move he makes, every minute detail of whatever situation he’s in. He would get even better at this as his career progressed; in some ways, Owen feels like a rough draft due to the primitive production style, Mike’s still-developing voice, and the instrumental sketches that break up some of the songs, but it’s a hell of a first draft. Listening to it 20 years later, you can hear plenty of moments that rival Mike Kinsella’s most loved work.
10. The Movielife – Has A Gambling Problem EP
Long Island’s The Movielife carried the melodic hardcore torch for bands like Gorilla Biscuits, Lifetime, and their hometown heroes Silent Majority on their Revelation Records-released 2000 sophomore album This Time Next Year, but after signing to Drive-Thru and putting out the Has A Gambling Problem EP the following year, they dove headfirst into their poppier side and came out with something that wasn’t unlike the pop punk of the era. I’m sure there were disappointed fans who blamed Drive-Thru for the new sound, but 1) The Movielife never abandoned their hardcore grit, and 2) these are some of the best songs they’ve ever written. It’s not just a stop-gap EP, but a crucial chapter in the development of their music that sounds like nothing else the band ever released. Their first Drive-Thru full-length (and final album, until the 2017 reunion LP), 2003’s Forty Hour Train Back to Penn, went in a more post-hardcore direction, with slower, darker, longer songs. And right in the middle of TTNY and Forty Hour came the catchiest, punchiest release of their career. The under-17-minute EP truly leaves you wanting more, and every track on this thing feels like a stone cold classic.
9. Rival Schools – United by Fate
Emo as we know it wouldn’t exist without Walter Schreifels, who helped pioneer the genre’s melodic hardcore side with Gorilla Biscuits (directly inspiring Saves The Day, New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy, and more) and then did the same for the darker post-hardcore side with Quicksand (inspiring Thursday, Glassjaw, Box Car Racer, and more). Those bands qualify more as proto-emo than as emo proper, but in 2001, as the genre was experiencing its biggest boom yet, Walter’s then-new band Rival Schools released an album that positioned him as a peer of the newly-popular artists he himself inspired, and it fit right in with the emo of the era. United by Fate was Walter’s most melodic album yet, leaning even more heavily into the shoegaze, Britpop, grunge, and indie rock influences that poked their heads through in Quicksand’s music. Those became increasingly common ingredients in emo, and that’s thanks in large part to Walter’s influence. As he was in the ’80s and ’90s, Rival Schools established Walter as a trailblazer in the 21st century too. The album’s split between emo-punk bangers (“Travel By Telephone”), sprawling slow-burners (“Undercovers On”), adventurous post-hardcore (“Used For Glue”), power pop (“My Echo”), and more, and Rival Schools go full acid psych-rock freakout on album closer “Hooligans For Life,” which almost nobody in the emo/post-hardcore realm was doing at the time. United by Fate pushed the genre’s envelope, and it contained some of the best songs Walter Schreifels ever wrote.
8. Owls – Owls
Like many emo bands, Cap’n Jazz weren’t fully appreciated in their time. But after they broke up and members formed Joan of Arc, The Promise Ring, American Football and other bands, interest in Cap’n Jazz rose. The post-breakup release of Analphabetapolothology in 1998 on Jade Tree Records helped a lot too. So, in 2001, when every member of Cap’n Jazz except The Promise Ring’s Davey von Bohlen revealed they’d be reuniting in a new band, that was a big deal, even back then. But if you were expecting Shmap’n Shmazz Vol. 2, you’d have to look elsewhere. The band’s Steve Albini-recorded debut LP stayed true to the math rock influences that defined the Chicago scene, but this time around, the tempos were slower, the guitars were cleaner, and Tim Kinsella was doing his best to really sing, almost entirely avoiding the off-key shouts that defined Cap’n Jazz. Tim had already started exploring softer, more melodic sounds with his band Joan of Arc, but Owls was more focused and less avant-garde. It was a little more similar to Tim’s brother (and Owls/Cap’n Jazz drummer) Mike Kinsella’s band American Football than to any of the music Tim had released at the time, but still with that unmistakable Tim Kinsella-ness. At this point, “Kinsella” is basically a genre of its own, and Owls epitomizes that genre as much as any other Kinsella album did. But even within the Kinsella context, Owls stands out as an album unlike any other in the family tree, and it remains one of the best.
Pick up Owls vinyl here.
7. Further Seems Forever – The Moon Is Down
Chris Carrabba helped bring emo to the mainstream with Dashboard Confessional’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, but one week after that album came out, his former band Further Seems Forever released their first album, The Moon Is Down. Carrabba had already officially left FSF before they hit the studio, but he agreed to record vocals with them, and what came out of those sessions was a crucial record that bridged the gap between emo’s second and third waves. Even two decades later it remains one of the strongest records Chris Carrabba was ever part of, and a total outlier in his career. Read my 20th anniversary review for more.
6. Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album
These days, it’s common for a band to exist within both the emo scene and the indie rock scene, but in the 2000s, there weren’t many who managed to do it. Death Cab were one of the few. Eventually, they got so big that they transcended both scenes, but if you ever need to remind yourself why emo can claim Death Cab For Cutie, just revisit those first few albums. Up through The Photo Album — which remains one of their best — they shared all kinds of traits with the emo underground. On The Photo Album, you had the twinkling guitars of “A Movie Script Ending,” the mathy post-hardcore of “We Laugh Indoors,” the punchy yet off-kilter guitar stabs of “Blacking Out the Friction,” the slowcore-ish climax of “Styrofoam Plates,” and of course the somber, boyish, expressive voice of Ben Gibbard. Ben could sing the phonebook and people would still tear up, and on The Photo Album, his heart-on-sleeve rumblings were matched by some of the best-executed emo-centric instrumentals of Death Cab’s career. The album is just about as focused and accessible as the music Death Cab put out from Transatlanticism onwards, but it still maintained that scrappy emo knottiness of their earlier work. It’s the sound of a great band starting to finally realize how great they are.
5. Rainer Maria – A Better Version of Me
Rainer Maria’s 1996 self-titled debut EP and 1997 debut LP Past Worn Searching totally captured the sound and feel of Midwest emo, but by their 1999 sophomore LP Look Now Look Again, they began taking their sound in a cleaner, tighter, more indie rock-oriented direction. By 2001’s A Better Version of Me, they pushed their sound even further in that direction and came out with some of their best songs yet. This was a far cry from the scrappy Rainer Maria of Past Worn Searching; these were grand, towering songs that felt big enough to take over the world. By this album, Caithlin De Marrais had developed a soaring voice that stood out amongst the countless emo and indie rock bands of the era, and her singing on this album is still an unparalleled force today. And she used that voice to deliver the same kind of longing, heart-wrenching emotion that typified emo in the early 2000s, but in a way that felt more poetic and less than direct than many of the band’s contemporaries. And when she does go for something more blunt (“My baby is in the ground, and she’s not coming back now”), it’s hair-raising.
Pick up Rainer Maria vinyl here.
4. The Appleseed Cast – Low Level Owl: Volume I & II
The Appleseed Cast started out in the late ’90s channelling influences like Sunny Day Real Estate (and doing a damn good job of it; The End of the Ring Wars rivals any of the OGs), but they started to explore post-rock and art rock influences on their 2000 sophomore album Mare Vitalis, and by the time they released their sprawling two-part Low Level Owl album(s) in 2001, they had become an entirely different beast. Chris Crisci’s emotive voice still landed The Appleseed Cast in “emo” territory, but their musical climaxes and glistening guitar work helped shape the post-rock movement that was gaining steam at the time, with bands like Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky taking off and crossing over with more mainstream audiences. The songs are often long and meditative, and they flow right into each other, making for an experience that’s best experienced as a whole, compared to some of The Appleseed Cast’s more “song-oriented” albums. (If you wanted to compare The Appleseed Cast to the Stones, this would be their Exile on Main St.) Whether or not it’s their best album, it’s certainly their most epic and their most purely gorgeous, and it’s very influential. When the “emo revival” took off in the late 2000s/early 2010s, a lot of bands channelled the mathy Kinsella style of emo, but there was a smaller sector of bands who reconnected emo with post-rock. All of those bands were indebted to Low Level Owl.
3. Saves The Day – Stay What You Are
Though in recent history, frontman Chris Conley admitted to harmful behavior, it would be dishonest to tell the story of the year that emo broke without this album. It’s a key pillar of emo’s transition from the underground to the mainstream — “At Your Funeral” was one of the genre’s first big crossover singles — but popularity wasn’t its only impact. It marked a huge creative step forward for both Saves The Day and emo overall. They had previously put out two increasingly good albums that worshipped at the altar of fellow NJ band Lifetime, but on Stay What You Are — their first for Vagrant and their first produced by frequent Elliott Smith collaborator Rob Schnapf — they finally found a sound that was entirely their own. Rob helped them achieve a much warmer, cleaner production style, which made slower, spacious songs like “Freakish,” “Nightingale,” and “This Is Not An Exit” really soar. Those songs were ambitious and unique in a way that stood out from Saves The Day’s past material and most of their peers, but they had rippers too, like “See You,” “Certain Tragedy,” and the best one: album closer “Firefly.” Stay What You Are was an album that knew how to channel the thrill of the pop punk, the intellect of indie rock, and the raw emotion of emo all at once. Saves The Day never made another album like it again, and I don’t know if anyone else did either.
2. Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American
After releasing the musically ambitious, commercially unsuccessful 1999 album Clarity, Jimmy Eat World were dropped from Capitol Records, and — with nothing left to lose — they got to work on an album inspired by “people like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen – guys who wrote really great, big American rock songs.” The result was Bleed American, one of the greatest rock records of its era in any subgenre, and the album that brought emo to the masses. Read my 20th anniversary review for more.
1. Thursday – Full Collapse
Thursday came out of the thriving New Brunswick basement scene, and they’d internalized the sounds of just about any band you could hear in that scene (emo, punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, screamo, metalcore), and they fused it with the influence of bands like The Cure and Joy Division. Today, those bands are widely seen as influential on emo, but in 2001, incorporating that stuff was still a new idea and Thursday helped break down those doors. Full Collapse is such a unique, original, important album because Thursday didn’t hold back at all. They went all in on every idea they had, and they did it with the modesty and naivety of a basement band. There were other bands with similar ideas, but the way it all came together on Full Collapse was like nothing else. It became the blueprint for the entire emo/post-hardcore boom. Read my 20th anniversary review for more. Also, members of Touche Amore, Deafheaven, La Dispute, and more spoke to us about the album’s impact on them.
Read past and future editions of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ here.