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Misery Business: The Most Underrated Emo Albums

In honor of Valentine's Day, Q counts down the most under-appreciated emo albums.

Source: MEGA; Shawn Brackbill (Courtesy of Polyvinyl Records)
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Valentine’s Day is great if you have someone to celebrate with. It really sucks if you don’t. Q initially wanted to send a heart-shaped box of chocolates to each of our uncoupled readers, but that wasn’t in the budget this year (we just relaunched after all). That’s why we settled on this list of underrated emo albums instead. Make sure to keep a box of tissues on hand while listening.

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Hidden in Plain View, "Life in Dreaming" (2005)

Hidden in Plain View is an accurate name for this band. Their 2005 studio debut Life in Dreaming was on the front lines of New Jersey’s booming emo scene, but seemed to fly right over people’s heads. The record defined by its precise dual vocals is packed with searingly urgent tracks like “Bleed For You,” “Garden Statement” and “Ashes Ashes.” The band’s potential was plain to see for anyone in the know. That’s how they got signed to the legendary (and defunct) label Drive Thru Records, whose former roster also includes mainstream figures like Jack Antonoff and Gabe Saporta. Hidden in Plain View sputtered out after releasing just one more album in 2007. They reunited in 2014 and have released two more EPs since. -- Noah Zucker

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Northstar, "Pollyanna" (2003)

It’s shocking that this album didn’t get more attention back in the day. Tracks like “The Pornographers Daughter” and “To My Better Angel” are true emo masterpieces. It could be because Northstar was located all the way down in Alabama. Tyler Odom’s sultry, winding lead guitar lines pack a subtle southern punch. They fit perfectly with Nick Torres’ exasperated lyrics that walk an alluring line between cryptic and relatable. There’s a subtle but clear country vibe to this album, which makes sense since Torres and Odom went on to create the alt-country project Cassino in 2005. Although they were the band’s main songwriters by 2003, neither was an original member. It makes sense that they would want to invest their creative energy in something that was theirs from the beginning. -- N.Z.

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Mae, "The Everglow" (2005)

Few albums are so polite as to actually welcome you into the experience of listening to them, but that’s precisely what kicks off Mae’s sophomore effort: a young voice saying, “Hello, and welcome to The Everglow, by Mae.” Mind you, the voice then goes on to inform you that there’s more to the album than just the audio: for the complete experience, you need to have access to the booklet that accompanies the album.” But don’t despair: even if you’re only streaming the album, you’re still in for a damned good time, from the piano-powered “We’re So Far Away” to the anthemic “Suspension” to the epic pop deliciousness of “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making.” We always knew we were going to include a Mae album in this list, but when we reached out to Mae guitarist Zach Gehring and asked which of their LPs was the most underrated, this was his pick. “It’s a fan favorite,” acknowledges Gehring, “but I feel like it flies under the radar in terms of the emo nostalgia discourse.” Now seems like a perfect time to add it to the conversation. -- Will Harris

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Rainer Maria, "Past Worn Searching" (1997)

You can't say that Rainer Maria hasn't gotten its proper flowers in recent years. After initially breaking up in 2006, the band reunited for a number of shows and a comeback album in 2017, and its peak efforts like Look Now Look Again have since been held up as seminal works in the emo canon. But there's still something special about its often under-heralded debut, where the band’s electric push-pull between abrasiveness and vulnerability was especially raw, and especially affecting. -- Andrew Barker

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Tigers Jaw, "Two Worlds" (2010)

Tigers Jaw has put out a lot of great material in recent years, but none of it quite compares to what they did with founding guitarist/vocalist Adam McIlwee. Two Worlds was the last album where he was a full-fledged member of the band. McIlwee also appeared on 2014’s Charmer, but had already decided to leave Tigers Jaw when the album was recorded. Most fans love the 2008 self-titled record (which is also great), but Two Worlds feels like a more thoughtful approach to that indie-emo sound. Tracks like “Coil/Recoil,” “Let’s Go/Trashed Floors” and “I Saw The Wolf” are among the band’s most memorable compositions. Brianna Collins’ reedy keys are the perfect complement to McIlwee and Ben Walsh’s haunting dual vocals. McIlwee went on to create the acclaimed emo rap project Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. -- N.Z.

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Taking Back Sunday, "Where You Want to Be" (2004)

Taking Back Sunday’s sophomore effort was sandwiched between two massive albums. Tell All Your Friends played an integral role in making emo mainstream. By Louder Now the band was officially a major label juggernaut. This makes it easy to forget Where You Want to Be, even though it arguably has more bangers per capita than any other TBS album. Tracks like “A Decade Under the Influence,” “One-Eighty by Summer” and “Bonus Mosh Pt. II” are unforgettable earworms that won’t be leaving your head any time soon. The record was the first of two to feature guitarist Fred Mascherino, who brought a more calculated approach to the band’s songwriting. -- N.Z.

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Tickle Me Pink, "Madeline" (2008)

Colorado was never exactly a bastion of great emo bands, but Tickle Me Pink still managed to shine through on their sole full-length studio album. The lyrics on their biggest track “Typical” wouldn’t fly in 2024, but it’s still a deeply cathartic breakup song. Deeper cuts like “I Can’t Breathe,” “Go Die” and “We’re Not Alone” are also exceptional. The album represents the end of an era. It was one of the last breakthrough emo records that utilized the softer emo-pop template pioneered by bands like Saves the Day and the Early November. By 2008, the more macabre sound popularized by groups like My Chemical Romance and From First to Last had taken over. Madeline made it to No. 21 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but Tickle Me Pink’s time in the spotlight was brief. Their career took a turn for the worse when founding bassist Johnny Schou died from a heroin overdose on the same day the album was released. The band tried to soldier on without him, but only managed to release one more EP in 2010. -- N.Z.

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The Rocking Horse Winner, "Horizon" (2002)

You certainly can't question the Rocking Horse Winner's emo bonafides: they were tourmates with the likes of Sense Field, Coheed & Cambria and Dashboard Confessional (with whom frontwoman Jolie Lindholm would collaborate numerous times), they all had deep roots in hardcore punk, and they named themselves after a melancholic English Lit 101 staple. But on their final studio album, the sadly short-lived Florida band had a quality that you couldn't always attribute to some of their fellow travelers: they were just flat-out fun. -- A.B.

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I Set My Friends on Fire, "Astral Rejection"

In 2008, I Set My Friends on Fire was known as an antic-driven crunkcore band. After their iconic “Soulja Boy” cover went viral on MySpace, the group got another big boost by writing two comedy songs for the YouTube channel Smosh. That’s why the leadership at Epitaph Records was not happy when they listened to Matt Mehana and Nabil Moo’s original demos for Astral Rejection. They were sure that slick post-hardcore tracks like “Narcissismfof” and “Cantaloupe the Antelope” wouldn’t resonate with the band’s fan base. That’s how the best album ISMFOF ever wrote got filed away for nearly a decade. Moo, the band’s main songwriter, departed and left Mehana to record a new, much worse version of Astral Rejection that debuted in 2011. The original demos were eventually leaked online and finally got the proper release they deserved in 2019. -- N.Z.

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