Emo already had enough trouble competing for your attention in recent years; the biggest names of the revival had eased into legacy mode, releasing remasters and reimaginings of their most beloved work. Meanwhile, the chaotic, highly online fifth-wave fostered a lot of intriguing ideas and few projects with legitimate staying power, if the latter was ever really the goal in the first place. Some of the most exciting music in this realm is being made in places like Japan and Indonesia. Punk outlets turned their focus towards hardcore and power-pop and mainstream publications returned to the sort of benevolent ignorance of the genre that used to be an acceptable alternative to outright mockery in the late aughts. But in 2023, contemporary emo also had to contend with a more formidable foe than any of the above — its own recent history.
Yes, yes, the emo revival was long underway before 2013 and some would argue it was already played out by then. But in a year that produced literally dozens of classic albums and a previously unfathomable support from tastemakers, “emo revival” was rendered in all caps, a presumably permanent fixture in the broader narrative of indie rock going forward.
While it was a joy to see all of the sold-out reunion tours and heartfelt 10th-anniversary thinkpieces, I was left wondering if 2013 and 2023 were stuck in a zero-sum game. Did all of the revival nostalgia drain energy that could have been applied to the new generation, or was there just nothing that warranted the same excitement? Were upstarts like Ben Quad or Kerosene Heights or Saturdays At Your Place allowed to be judged on their own terms, or were they subject to the standards set by Whenever, If Ever or The Things We Think We’re Missing or Intersections or The Greatest Generation or The Albatross or hell…did we even have a Magnolia?
I imagine this conflict will continue into 2024 when we get to relitigate the impact of Home, Like NoPlace Is There and Rooms Of The House and You’re Gonna Miss It All and whatever other examples you can think of for big-deal emo/indie events. But here’s the thing — after years of bands actively trying to court some kind of crossover credibility and ultimately getting close enough to see how out of reach it truly was (trust me, I was there), most newer bands seem to understand that we’re not in that era anymore and perhaps we’re all the better for it.
Take the upcoming ‘Wax Bodega’ Tour of Arm’s Length, Carly Cosgrove, Ben Quad, and Saturdays At Your Place — the first three bands on that bill appeared in last year’s list, so it stands to reason that they might be touring in support of prime candidates for the Best of 2024. Maybe this has the potential to be looked back on as being every bit as definitive as ‘The Greatest Generation’ Tour or that one time Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, and Joyce Manor played the same venue in LA or whatever else felt like history in the making even on the night it happened — you’re just not reading about in the same places you were ten years ago, because nothing is like it was back then anymore, for better, for worse, and ultimately forever.
I’m unsure whether this is a collection of the best emo albums of 2023, the most important, the most interesting, or just the ones that were personal favorites and fun to write about. Probably some combination. As with last year, alphabetical order, no rankings, just vibes.
awakebutstillinbed – chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger
To hear Shannon Taylor tell it, she was the emo Jimmy Butler long before the actual emo Jimmy Butler – after years of gutting it out in promising, but short-lived bands that broke up on the verge of a breakthrough, Taylor was no longer willing to suffer teammates who didn’t have that dawg in ‘em. The instantaneous success of awakebutstillinbed’s self-released debut justified her confidence and Taylor spent 2018 making up for lost time, signing with Tiny Engines, becoming a seemingly permanent opening act for Joyce Manor, and booking cross-country tours that had peers questioning her sanity. awakebutstillinbed won, but at what cost? It took Taylor five years to do the math and the result was the only emo album in 2023 that could legitimately be called a “magnum opus” – borne of intense perfectionism and artistic fearlessness, chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger makes its impressive predecessor sound like mere prelude, an hour-long expansion on how Jimmy Eat World described the plight of the emo striver in 1999 — “what you ignore is priceless to me.” The opening, 15-minute gauntlet of “bloodline” and “road” shapeshift emotionally and sonically, recreating the vast stretches of nothing highways where Taylor questioned her life choices, while the compact power-pop of “airport” and “far” serve as the brief and brilliant glimpses of triumph where all of the sacrifice paid off and Taylor sounds inspired to do it all over again, no matter the price.
Bewilder – From The Eyrie
From The Eyrie was initially perceived as a soft launch for the newly revamped Tiny Engines — a low-key, low-stakes debut from a band that’s been on-again (but mostly) off-again for 12 years, setting the stage for splashier releases in the future. Months later, “soft launch” still feels like the best way to describe Bewilder’s approach — like its obvious touchstones in American Football and EndSerenading, From The Eyrie is never pushy but always uplifting, the kind of preemptively nostalgic emo that is instantly familiar yet always feels right on time when the summer ends.
Broken Record – Nothing Moves Me
Broken Record self-identifies as “stadium emo,” but if that makes you think of the emo bands who are actually playing stadiums in 2023, this is not the album for you. Nothing Moves Me could be viewed as an unrepentant throwback to the times when “stadium emo” was a tantalizing and purely theoretical construct, when major labels were trying to raid Revelation and Crank! and Jade Tree, figuring out whether this was the direction of alternative radio rock once grunge finally died down for good. Or, an alternate reality where second-wave emo emerges out of the southwest with Gin Blossoms and Jimmy Eat World as its twin guiding lights. But none of this should distract from the ultimate endorsement of the Denver quartet’s prophecy — they actually got a song played in the Ball Center during an Avalanche game.
Captain Jazz – Captain Jazz
From the very moment Ian Mackaye called it “the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard” during a contentious Embrace gig, emo has maintained a history of being mercilessly mocked most often by the very people who make it. And while fifth-wave emo has made a fundamental tenet out of opposition to Kinsella family values, Captain Jazz’s self-titled debut appears to be the apotheosis of shitposting — plenty of bands have flipped the bird at 704 W. High Street as a gag, but I guess these folks are banking on Mike Kinsella having a sense of humor or at least no copyright lawyers on retainer. It’s a great bit, and emo certainly isn’t lacking for that in 2023. Meanwhile, the cloak of anonymity under which Captain Jazz operates doesn’t do much to combat the assumption that this might really all be a bit. But come on — a band with that name and that album cover is not trying to connect with people who might otherwise be listening to Big Thief or Boygenius. And the most hilarious thing about Captain Jazz is that it still manages to be one of the most exciting collections of revival-style emo of the past few years, combining Snowing-style self-loathing, cybernetic screamo, TWIABP-esque post-rock majesty, and serrated singalongs that serve as proof that this project kids because they love. Fuck your emotional bullshit, long live Captain Jazz.
Del Paxton – Auto Locator
On Topshelf’s website, Del Paxton is compared to Braid, Mock Orange, and Jimmy Eat World – and it’s a testament to the label’s evolution that Auto Locator is the outlier in their otherwise stellar 2023 release slate. That said, Topshelf still knows great emo when they hear it, especially when it harkens back to the label’s days setting the fourth wave’s agenda in the early 2010s; while the Buffalo trio’s first album in six years doesn’t reinvent their approach to the genre — alternately effervescent, anxious, and autumnal as an introductory freshman dorm mixer — there’s a newfound sense of confidence and command on Auto Locator that takes age to access. As long as those same college kids grow up to document their modest, yet substantial, hopes and heartbreaks throughout the suburban heartland, records like Auto Locator will always find the audience they deserve.
Gingerbee – Our Skies Smile EP
The four members of Gingerbee hail from Toronto, South Carolina, Brazil, and Japan. The credits include singing saw, whistling, melodica, and also “Wise Uncle Skramz Advice.” The song featuring the lyric “our love will never end, one day at a time” samples The Bee Movie. Brave Little Abacus and theneedledrop are mentioned in the thank you notes. So when I asked “what the hell happened to fifth wave” in last year’s recap, the answer is Gingerbee and their intriguing debut EP Our Skies Smile — while nearly every fifth-wave project uses “highly online” as a starting point (and too often the entire point), Gingerbee’s unorthodox arrangement belies their edenic vision of community, a prickly and precious collection of twee-pop that comes on like a K Records curio unearthed from a corrupted hard drive.
Home is Where – the whaler
Most of emo’s canonical works are forged from a tension and turmoil that destroys its creators or sets them on a path to get as far away from it as possible. After the screamo purge of Dissection Lesson, a split single with fellow trans firebrands Record Setter, Home is Where appeared destined to clean up real nice on The Whaler – working with the legendary Jack Shirley, Home is Where expanded their vision beyond the hallucinatory swamplands of Florida, exploring the more welcoming spaces between their outer boundaries of dirtbag alt-country and blackened skramz, But after releasing one of the decade’s truly transformative albums two years prior, Brandon MacDonald mostly found herself both paralyzed and inspired by how little had actually changed since I Became Birds. “This counterfeit reality/ A perfect copy of a forgery / And after all these years, I still look a lot like me,” she yelled, and not for nothing did they choose “Everyday Feels Like 9/11” as its thesis statement. The greatest compliment you can pay The Whaler is also the most depressing — “Everyday Feels Like 9/11” feels even more true now than it did six months ago.
Hot Mulligan – Why Would I Watch
Whenever I question whether Hot Mulligan qualifies as emo, I just take another look at the Why Would I Watch tracklist. And indeed, when a song called “Shouldn’t Have A Leg Hole But I Do” gets into a 12-car pileup with another one called “It’s a Family Movie She Hates Her Dad,” it makes for the most thrilling opening segue I’ve heard since the “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will”-to-“DVP.” That’s not the only way Why Would I Watch resembles The Dream Is Over — much like PUP, Hot Mulligan leveraged a pathological grindset and Sispyhenian threshold for pain towards previously unthinkable success — their 886,000 monthly Spotify listeners are more than every other band on this list combined, even more impressive given their breakthrough album was released one week before the entire world went into lockdown. This is not an album that grows on you; Hot Mulligan savagely waylays the listener with an exhilarating and frightening look at what it’s like to live in their heads. And heaven knows they’re miserable now — the prettiest song is about Tades Sanville’s dead rat and the most upbeat one is about trying to quit smoking – but even as Sanville and Chris Freeman relive every romantic, platonic and familial conflict that they fostered by being on the road, Why Would I Watch is so cleverly crafted that it virtually guarantees they’ll have a chance to do the same thing all over again in even bigger rooms.
Loma Prieta – Last
It was a big year for skramz in 2023, and that was before Orchid announced their reunion. But even as the discussion within such an inherently volatile subgenre centered around the explosive upstarts and dormant legends, acts like Jerome’s Dream, Ostraca, and, most of all, Loma Prieta, made a case for longevity. Given its eight-year gestation period and (obviously) the title, Last could very well be the final word from the Bay Area luminaries and Loma Prieta left nothing unsaid on their most majestic and melodic album — sometimes screamo really should sound like the dingiest basement in San Francisco, but it can also sound as expansive and destructive as Loma Prieta’s namesake.
Magazine Beach – Constant Springtime
There are albums on this list that seized attention through novelty and others by familiarity — “you’ve never heard anything like this,” or “remember [X?] These guys sound like them.” Magazine Beach’s debut lies somewhere in between, as Constant Springtime replicates a memorable weekend hopping from stage to stage at Fest — some Midwest twinkle here, some razored power-pop there, sprinkle in some gang vocal punk and some harmonized acoustic ballads. It’s the type of album whose broad appeal and low-key likeability might lead it to actually be overlooked or underappreciated amidst bolder, buzzier bands vying for airtime, but the crafty songwriting on Constant Springtime continued to reveal its charms throughout the year, resulting in emo’s most deserved word-of-mouth success story in 2023.
Mauve – About The Weather
When I visited some friends in Milwaukee this summer, they talked about how the influx of coastal transplants and subsequent urban renovation inspired Cream City to see itself as “the Portland of the Midwest” before COVID sapped its momentum. I’m not sure how much reciprocal affection for the Midwest exists within Portland itself, but judging by Mauve’s About The Weather, it’s absolutely a real thing. About The Weather shies away from the slowcore and power-pop that dominate the region and instead imbues the more tap-happy, weeded-out variant of the genre with verdant hues and a depressive bent. If it doesn’t exactly nail their Bandcamp bio’s claim to “transport the listener to an alternate reality where Pacific Northwest Emo became a legitimate scene rivaling the Midwest,” About The Weather creates a present reality where Portland and Champaign can be spiritual sister cities.
Texas 3000 – tx3k
The influence of Zack Schwartz is immense in 2023, but compartmentalized — seemingly 95% of upstart bands orbiting “emo” right now are using Glocca Morra or Spirit Of The Beehive as a blueprint, but not both. Enter Texas 3000, a Japanese collective who never let their taste for warped sound effects get in the way of a brawny rawk riff or splashy drum fill or gang vocal chant that could bust through the drywall of any basement. Opener “Connector Fuck Man” fashions hooks out of tape manipulation, off-mic chatter, and a shout of their own name and tx3k only gets more strange from there — an album that seemingly took four years to create because no one wanted the fun to end. When Texas 3000 was tapped as local support for the Japanese run of Into It. Over It’s Intersections 10th-anniversary tour, it made for a fascinating contrast — the sound of emo in 2013 and, if we’re lucky, 2033.
Welcome To Berlin – …And It’s Blinding
Information on Welcome To Berlin is pretty scarce at the moment — they’re an extremely fresh-faced trio from Carrboro, NC, one of the band members is wearing an On The Might Of Princes t-shirt on their Instagram, and they describe their sound as “screamo dance music.” Wait, isn’t that just sasscore? Maybe, but …And It’s Blinding asks whether that could just describe a more abrasive version of early Modest Mouse, if “Shit Luck” was allowed to stretch out like “Trucker’s Atlas.” As with Just Got Back From The Discomfort – We’re Alright and Shmap’n Shmazz, just about any future seems possible here — what Welcome To Berlin currently lack in polish, they more than compensate for in potential. In ten years, this might have been a stepping stone towards a subgenre classic or a lost treasure from a band that broke up after they made a subgenre classic.
what is your name? – beyond old names; everyone’s song / My Name Is…
If we’re being real here, the most impactful discussions about emo in 2023 are probably taking place in r/emo or Rate Your Music or Album Of The Year, all of which tend to have a bias towards projects like Weatherday, Parannoul, and the less-heralded Toronto native what is your name? – an anonymous auteur dabbling in warped dream-pop, synthy shoegaze, and laptop IDM, but ultimately twee and twinkly enough to find itself in “Midwest Emo” discussions. There’s a lot to unpack in wiyn?’s two 2023 full-lengths, and I suggest you start now; by the time this publishes, wiyn? might have already dropped another one of the year’s most beautiful beguiling emo albums.