Indie

Ian Cohen’s Favorite Emo Albums Of 2021

Emo was going to survive in 2021 — I just wasn’t exactly sure how.

There isn’t a single aspect of the music industry that didn’t face an existential crisis in the pandemic, and I mean a real existential crisis. As in, “how are we actually going to exist?” But we can at least agree that emo, at least the kind that’s adjacent to the indie rock industrial complex and excludes legacy acts like Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional, always operates from a precarious position. Let’s just start with the obvious: emo music is typically made by cramming three to five people in a studio, their time financed by proceeds they scrounged together from service jobs or teaching gigs or the like. Besides, if we can think back even to the most recent “good old days” (i.e., 2014), the most celebrated bands were playing to maybe a few hundred people on tours where they were lucky to break even. And it’s not like any of these guys can just write off an entire year knowing a couple of Goldenvoice festival fees will put them back in the black.

The old way of doing things wasn’t perfect, but it was at least a viable means for a band to sustain attention after they released new music. Even after the past decade, emo’s presence in the broader indie narrative feels subject to the whims of a few writers rather than ironclad institutional decree. As Stereogum’s Chris Deville put it, “Many of the key bands in emo’s so-called fourth wave were breaking up or disappearing into indefinite hiatuses. The critical zeitgeist moved on to new sensations.” Moreover, the rumors of impropriety — often justified — that seem to constantly orbit this realm make it nearly impossible to fully invest in any ascendant band.

I’ll make the argument that when Home is Where’s Brandon MacDonald proclaimed “5th wave or die”, it made a bigger impact than any emo album released in 2021 — including their own. There had been plenty of exciting bands and micro-scenes bubbling up over the past few years and by organizing them into an easily understood (if highly contestable) taxonomy, MacDonald created a new narrative that drew attention the way no single band could; the same way that “emo revival” had done years earlier when few mainstream sources were paying attention to Algernon Cadwallader or Everyone Everywhere on their own. Detractors claimed this whole fifth wave thing was extremely silly and very online, which missed the entire point. Obviously, it was an online phenomenon. Where else were emo bands supposed to go in 2021?

As anticipated, the bottlenecks in vinyl production and live bookings means that things aren’t truly back to normal. They probably will never be. Perhaps the ceiling doesn’t feel quite as high for these bands as it used to be a few years back, but the distribution of attention feels far more egalitarian now — a band with less than 1000 monthly Spotify listeners is privy to the same amount of hype as one who is four albums into a celebrated career. It’s one of the reasons 2021 felt like the most exciting, truly new year for emo and its many offshoots in a long, long time.

As such, creating a top ten of 2021’s best emo albums required a significant narrowing of definitions. Does this include EPs? And if so, what’s an EP when Home is Where’s I Became Birds and For Your Health’s In Spite Of were explicitly deemed as albums despite running less than 18 minutes each. Were landmark releases from One Step Closer and Fiddlehead truly emo or hardcore-adjacent? Were Portrayal Of Guilt, Knocked Loose, and SeeYouSpaceCowboy screamo or metalcore? Were Parannoul and Dltzk shoegaze and digicore innovators or artists who reversed decades of assumed wisdom by pivoting to emo and creating their masterworks? Probably both. Do we focus solely on emo’s fifth wave or acknowledge how some of the previous wave’s biggest names emerged with music that was just as challenging and thrilling (and often divisive) as the new vanguard?

But regardless of how much I struggled with the criteria for defining the best emo albums of 2021, what I can say for certain is that everything here truly earned its spot.

10. I Feel Fine – The Cold In Every Shelter

If they hadn’t reached the point of total cliche by the end of 2019, gang vocals are at least acknowledged as a cheat code by now. Yeah, yeah — we’re all in this together, you can’t really stay in key during the chorus, but man… I’m still gonna point and shout. Even after two years of mandated social distancing and livestreamed concerts, hearing four guys crowd around a microphone at the same time failed to regain any sort of novelty until I Feel Fine’s debut LP asked a question so obvious that nobody seemed to take it seriously before — what if the gang vocals were all the vocals? Better yet, the Brighton band comes across like the blissed-out Crash Of Rhinos we never knew we needed, setting their massed yells against the sort of classic, revivalist twinkle that itself became a cheat code towards “pretty” and only seems to take on new forms outside of America. It’s still all rousing and moving and emotive like this music should be and one of the year’s most unexpected triumphs of transformative engineering — The Cold in Every Shelter somehow restarts two dying batteries with the same pair of jumper cables.

9. Johnny Football Hero – Complacency

Critics spend their waking hours trying to taxonomize taste and then a band like Johnny Football Hero comes along and once again makes it all look pointless. The Philadelphia trio claim Attack! Attack!, Dance Gavin Dance, and At The Drive-In as simply three formative bands that whip ass and who’s to argue when they submit Complacency as evidence? The Emo Diaries or MySpace? Chops or hooks? Mineral or MCR? At any given minute, Johnny Football Hero revive the same debates that have troubled emo fans for decades and shut them down by only answering yes and yes.

8. Origami Angel – Gami Gang

Origami Angel Broke Minecraft probably wasn’t intended to be the most bittersweet document of what the pandemic took from the scene in 2020, but here we are. Though its madcap execution and instantaneous success confirmed Somewhere City’s status as an instant classic, Origami Angel was supposed to be spending the summer spreading the Gami Gang gospel to beanie’d and air-tapping kids in dank rooms across America, not playing DJ sets that crashed internet servers. They were basically finished with a new 20-song album that would take them to the next level, but instead, they reworked some of the titles and dropped a couple of remixes on vinyl just to keep themselves afloat. Clocking in at about 50 minutes, the version of Gami Gang that eventually dropped in April had the heft and duality of a double album, if not the length. It’s at once a refinement of Origami Angel’s acrobatic motivational anthems and an explosion of their boundaries, incorporating bossa nova, bedroom folk, nu-metal, and trap instrumentals. It’s an album of giddy fan service for a band that’s virtually inseparable from their fanbase, while finally allowing space for the darkness that was banished to the edge of Somewhere City. It’s an album that provided closure on a grim chapter of Origami Angel and a show of supreme confidence from a band that will never take their future for granted.

7. Really From – Really From

Saying “this album should’ve gotten more attention” felt more futile than usual this past year — aside from, say, Olivia Rodrigo or Adele or maybe 5-10 other Big Indie artists, who didn’t deserve some kind of signal boost in 2021? And yet, while Really From (fka People Like You) had been difficult to classify even before they underwent a sudden name change, their self-titled album seemed aligned with a number of broader cultural and sonic trends: a widespread reckoning with Asian identity in American culture, interrogations into family systems and upward mobility, an uptick of interest in both ambient and jazz. But if Really From still feels like it hasn’t gotten its proper due, that might have less to do with the fickle nature of the narrative than the Boston quartet’s unwillingness to let themselves be pinned down. Their instrumental passages aren’t jazz-tinged but actual jazz, the result of improvisational flair that only comes from hundreds and hundreds of practice hours. It’s often Michi Tassey’s elegant voice taking on the album’s most defiant and abrasive themes, whereas Chris Lee-Rodriguez’s divisive, classically emo yelp centers the most considerate and conflicted moments. It sounds like nothing besides other Really From albums and feels exactly like 2021.

6. Ogbert The Nerd – I Don’t Hate You

There’s the Emo Revival that you read about in respectable mainstream outlets, starting in about 2013: a wave of ambitious, considerate bands that set the genre on a course correction after a decade under the influence of MySpace, Fuse TV, and Hot Topic. And then there’s the actual Emo Revival that took place before all of that, a bunch of snarky, sloppy, and self-loathing bands that could still sound the greatest thing you’ve ever heard in your life in a beer-skunked basement. Their spirit lives on in Ogbert The Nerd, who released I Don’t Hate You deep in December, because that’s the least careerist move possible (they are also named Ogbert The Nerd). They identify as “New Jersey’s only emo band” despite being from the same city as Thursday. They shout “I RUIN FUCKING EVERYTHING!” within the first ten seconds and rarely does a minute go by without several more f-bombs. Madison James screams about kissing in parking lots and finding hidden copies of The Bell Jar like they’re a matter of life and death. The song that’s actually about a funeral ends with laughter. “Malkmus” sounds absolutely nothing like Pavement. “Matthew Renzo Vs. The Hoboken Parking Authority” has the lyrics from Cheers’ theme song on its Bandcamp link and it’s actually an instrumental. But no one who was truly on Ogbert’s wavelength could mistake their irreverence for indifference: name another album that inspired a full-length tribute by its first birthday.

5. hey, ily! – Internet Breath

“Being very online” is the unifying thread of fifth-wave emo and as the title of their dazzling EP indicates, hey, ily! might be the most online — an act whose music mimics the dazzling, dizzying, and disorienting experience of reading a friend post about their struggles with disordered eating, gender dysphoria, and depression on Twitter while a nightcore playlist plays on a hidden tab. The seemingly tossed-off tag on the riotous opener “Digital Lung.exe” becomes apt as hey, ily! dashes through its chiptune melodies, screamo interludes, and bit-crushed pop — Internet Breath indeed comes across as fifth-wave emo compressed into a compact, shareable file, to be blasted out from Billings, Montana to anyone who wants to hear the genre’s future.

4. For Your Health – In Spite Of / In Spite Of II

In spite of what, exactly? You fucking name it — cops, exes, abusers, genre convention, and, again, cops, whether they’re acting in the interest of the carceral state or DIY clout chasing. On their bracing debut, For Your Health are not paralyzed by rage but propelled by it, 12 gleaming and jagged shards of serrated screamo, sasscore shoutalongs, and mall-punk melody bound by centrifugal force — and that’s not even getting into their notoriously entertaining Twitter feed, which might as well have an executive producer credit. If it often sounded like For Your Health crammed several albums’ worth of ideas into 17 minutes, the remix album In Spite Of II proved it — in allowing their songs to be transformed into folk, chiptune, and metalcore EDM by many of the acts that populate this list, For Your Health confirmed that anger is a gift and one worth sharing.

3. Foxing – Draw Down The Moon

The singles strongly suggested a bold intention to infiltrate the gilded halls where ad syncs, festival lineups, and Clear Channel playlists are dictated. The band themselves admitted that Draw Down The Moon was a record they could only make after accepting that their audience might not ever grow beyond the one they already have. This apparent contradiction was reconciled by the actual reception of Draw Down The Moon — within a month that saw Deafheaven, Lorde, Kanye West, and Drake erect new lightning rods, Foxing was somehow subject to the most contentious critical divide, a buildup of enthusiastic raves completely undermined by a single, spiteful punching down. If it wasn’t the response that Foxing deserved, it still seemed somewhat apt for a band too often defined by sublimating bad luck into powerful art. As well as Conor Murphy’s virtuosically cracked voice served Foxing’s past incarnations of progged-out emo, it’s even better suited for a record of pop songs pressurized by precarity: If “Go Down Together” ever does pump from a festival stage, it’s speaking to the person who is quietly freaking over how to tell their partner they withdrew their last $20 from the ATM. When Murphy spends the title track begging to show you he can keep it all together, it’s only because he’s desperate enough to make up for all the times that he couldn’t. On “Cold Blooded,” he howls at the moon trying to summon the pitiful and beautiful sadness that once came so easily. Whether trying to communicate with the dead or put their faith in love or art or themselves, Foxing are speaking to a higher power that only seems to answer back like a father who’s not mad, just disappointed. Foxing knew all along that they will never make music cool enough for the foregone conclusion of critical acclaim or complacent enough fade into background chatter at an Ace Hotel — Draw Down The Moon is the only “pivot to pop” album of 2021 that bore the excitement of real risk, a band familiar enough with defeat and disaster to propel themselves to the next level and not look down.

2. Home Is Where – I Became Birds

Brandon MacDonald sees transformation in everything around her — tadpoles, cops, bongs, and electric grids alike are in a constant state of flux, slowly gathering power or bursting into flames. These are the vivid images that populate Home Is Where’s indelible debut LP I Became Birds, where MacDonald’s own story of gender transition is told not literally, but very clearly. It’s in part because Home Is Where are a thoroughly modernist act utilizing the kind of instruments you’d find around a campfire — acoustic guitars, harmonicas, a reedy, piercing yell. And while their knockabout arrangements and surrealist poetry rightfully earned comparisons to Jeff Mangum and their patron saint Bob Dylan, what MacDonald shares with them more than anything is a truly charismatic presence that makes every word sound like a future prompt for academic analysis. At barely 18 minutes, I Became Birds leaves plenty to the imagination — there’s no telling where Home Is Where goes from here, only that MacDonald will boldly lead the way.

1. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Illusory Walls

Not gonna lie, when I saw “We Never Broke Up And We Never Will” in the liner notes of Illusory Walls, my heart sank a little bit. The urgent maximalism that made The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die the most exciting indie rock band of the 2010s felt like the cause and effect of living on borrowed time. A band with that many members and that name — especially an emo band — was bound to magnificently implode at some point, so whether it was the charitable causes or the April Fool’s Merch, “Getting Sodas” or “Derrick Talks Shit About The Venue/20 Minutes Of Harsh Noise,” Harmlessness or Between Bodies, they never held anything back.

And so the cloud of indifference that hung over 2017’s Always Foreign felt more like a matter of context rather than content — they moved to Philadelphia and wrote songs that were interpreted through the lens of Donald Trump’s rise to power. There were things that people had come to expect from TWIABP and Always Foreign mostly did them. More than that, their claims of solidarity were tainted by the ugly departure of several key band members. The crowds were noticeably smaller at their shows. In 2019, they wrangled a bunch of previously available singles and EPs and called it Assorted Works, the kind of move that typically stinks of contract obligation. They basically did nothing else for three years. They were an indie rock band now and didn’t seem to be enjoying it one bit.

TWIABP were not broken up, just broken down to the point where they couldn’t just run it back and Do TWIABP Things. At least not without making you wish they’d just broken up instead. But rather than trying to recapture their past glory or trying to replenish the substantial songwriting talent they’d lost, Illusory Walls bet on a remaining brain trust whose skill now appears to be have been underestimated or underused on their prior masterpieces — resulting in yet another transcendent album in a catalog full of them that still manages to be shocking. If Whatever, If Ever and Harmlessness were culmination events for emo as a whole, Illusory Walls is a monument to TWIABP itself, an imposing monolith towering over everything else.

Freed from any lingering, false hopes of indie crossover and embracing his new role as producer and musical director, Chris Teti fostered a prog-metal technicality that sets Illusory Walls from anything going in emo or indie rock as a whole. Yet he rarely gets enough credit for how judiciously this element gets employed: the tapping runs, detuned churn, and spasmodic time changes are only utilized to replicate the full-body panic of reliving religious trauma, stress eating in a cubicle, dying of a heart attack on a treadmill, or comparing the dimensions of your apartment to a coffin. When Illusory Walls shifts to the perspective of West Virginia’s downtrodden workers or David Bello’s grandfather, TWIABP create their most warm and intimate arrangements to date, where even a 15-minute meditation on dementia is more welcoming than intimidating. No longer aiming at specific bad actors, Bello and Katie Dvorak see a bigger, impossible corrupted picture where a poisoned Ohio River, the Sago Mine Explosion, Sackler Pharmaceuticals, WVU frat parties, and Philadelphia’s skyrocketing stratification all work in concert. Illusory Walls clocks in at 71 minutes, nearly half of which is contained in its final two songs, and feels like a band just getting started again.

In hindsight, “We Never Broke Up And Never Will” is redundant in light of the 20-minute closer “Fewer Afraid.” The former tells, the latter shows by reprising “Getting Sodas” — there isn’t the same desperation in this rendition that might inspire an audience of Fest attendees to crowd surf on stage. Instead, they regally ease into a chorus of their most quoted lyric, a band fully coming to terms with their legacy and in complete control of their future. TWIABP might actually break up one day. Illusory Walls will endure.

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