The Best Emo Albums Of 2022January 5, 2023
What the hell happened to fifth-wave emo?
In large part due to Home Is Where’s I Became Birds and Brandon MacDonald’s online advocacy, “fifth-wave emo” emerged in 2021 as an organizing principle for the bands, scenes, and styles that managed to thrive during the pandemic. Though its various sub-categories — lo-fi/bedroom, post-emo, power-emo, twinklecore, and so forth — had seemingly little in common, just about everyone involved had a progressive bent, aspiring to displace “straight white guys with Telecaster” as the genre’s default character. And even if the backlash against Title Fight and Modern Baseball was an act on some level, it all served as a reminder that fifth-wave emo was every bit as defined by what it stood against as what it stood for — creating a chasm between itself and the preceding emo revival.
But in 2022, emo largely turned to the fun and familiar. Consensus favorites like Arm’s Length, Pool Kids and Anxious followed through on the promise of their early buzz with confident, easily lovable albums that evoked Fuse TV emo and pop-punk to varying degrees; this was not a year where, say, a Home Is Where or Glass Beach emerged like a bolt from the blue. After trying to do the “year-end essay” thing and formulate some sort of big-picture explanation for this trend, I found myself at a loss. Maybe there was some kind of contact buzz-like effect from the nostalgia emanating off the My Chemical Romance reunion and When We Were Young festival. Or maybe it’s nostalgia for Tumblr as Twitter becomes increasingly unusable. Or maybe there are innovative, game-changing albums out here, but they’re being incubated at Rate Your Music or other fora far outside the scope of mainstream critics.
The most likely explanation is that most of the bands responsible for making fifth-wave a thing spent the past year preparing for 2023. It wasn’t like the fifth-wave was repudiated or overtaken by a sixth wave. Four of the most potent bands of this scene — awakebutstillinbed, For Your Health, Home Is Where and Record Setter — shared splits that were both warmly received and contained some of their most adventurous music to date; the first three have all but confirmed new LPs on the way. Glass Beach also appeared to be hard at work on the second Glass Beach album (which will not be called the second Glass Beach album).
two things that are going to be difficult for y’all to hear, but we need to say:
-there won’t be a part 2
-it won’t be called “the second glass beach album”
— bass gleach (@glassbeachband) August 25, 2022
Either way, a lack of a greater narrative isn’t the only thing that made making a 2022 best-of list more difficult than last year’s. The past twelve months brought a wealth of good, really good, and great albums, but nothing that stood out as an instant classic (at least, not yet). This applies to the periphery of this discussion as well. Perhaps in 2019, Caracara, Joyce Manor, Prince Daddy & the Hyena, and Oso Oso would’ve merited inclusion. But while all four released superlative records in 2022, they’re emo only by association at this point. The same goes for String Machine’s Hallelujah Hell Yeah and Tree River’s Time Being, effusive and generous albums whose rootsy yet orchestral arrangements hearken back to mid-aughts indie rock more than anything overtly “emo.” The lack of activity from big-name revival bands is yet another factor; The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die and Foxing seem more likely to spend 2023 in legacy mode, celebrating the 10th anniversary of their canonical debuts.
But after seeing year-end list after year-end list hew towards the same Unifying Theory of 2022 narrative, why should any lil’ ol’ emo list do the same? Unlike in 2021, I decided to present this list in alphabetical order — partially because I want to celebrate every band here rather than present them in a hierarchy and the difference between my personal No. 3 and No. 7 is imperceptible and subject to minute-by-minute change, even to myself. And why stop at ten? I’m confident these twelve albums present a coherent overview of emo in 2022, and if not — rip it to shreds and offer up your own alternate canon. What’s more fifth-wave than that?
Here are the best emo albums of 2022.
Anxious — Little Green House
With so many worthwhile candidates, most of the tough exclusions from this list come down to whether bands actually fit within the genre. That isn’t the case for Anxious being a “maybe” — the Connecticut quintet jumped from Triple B to Run For Cover and occupied a familiar intersection of hardcore, melodic emo, and pop-punk. Think Equal Vision-era Saves The Day, The Get Up Kids doing shows with Converge and Coalesce, Title Fight produced by Walter Schreifels. But compared to scrappier, scruffier bands on this list, the songwriting sophistication of Little Green House makes it seem like a better candidate for the best power-pop album of 2022 — these are harmonies, not just two guys screaming at the same time, these are hooks, not just melodies that are played louder on the chorus. TWIABP’s Chris Teti did his best Mark Trombino impression behind the boards, rooted in hardcore and aspiring to pure pop, lending Little Green House a knife’s edge glimmer. Judging by their excellent recent singles, Anxious are, much like the aforementioned, primed to make their true pop move when LP2 comes, all but disqualifying themselves for 2023 when they get far too big to be restricted to an emo list.
Arm’s Length — Never Before Seen, Never Again Found
In every genre that communicates with its past, there’s a push and pull between the artists who define themselves by defying an established set of tropes and those who remind us why those tropes were so powerful in the first place. But this is a particularly fraught process in emo, a style of music that even its most fundamentalist advocates are expected to grow out of (hell, those are the ones who are especially likely to do so). By the time they get into alt-country or shoegaze or drumless rap or ambient, relapsed emos can only look back on their recent past and cringe, at least until enough time passes for them to mobilize their accumulated disposable income on nostalgia tours. All of which makes Arm’s Length’s debut Never Before Seen, Never Again Found one of the most unexpectedly daring albums of 2022.
After their self-released and TikTok-approved EP Everything Nice became a surprise success in 2021, the Ontario quartet soon found themselves in the paradoxically enviable position of having to explain their impostor syndrome in Spin. They recorded in the same Toronto studio as Kanye West, the Weeknd, and Justin Bieber and took that as a sign that they needed to justify their presence by making a classic album of their own. But Arm’s Length are not thinking along the lines of Neil Young or David Bowie or Kate Bush, nor Pavement or Slint or the Pixies or whoever else is the gold standard for indie legitimacy. Hell, they’re not even going for Diary or American Football. This is a band for whom Home, Like NoPlace Is There, The Things We Think We’re Missing and Peripheral Vision are “the canon.” With even the slightest hint of cynicism, Arm’s Length could be branded as mimics instead of mediums — from its sublimely on-the-nose introduction “Overture” to its sublimely on-the-nose closer “Dirge,” all of their moves are familiar but performed with enough zeal and intensity to resurrect Tumblr from the digital graveyard.
Avec Plaisir — An Album
Here’s pretty much all I could find out about Avec Plaisir: this is a band of 30-somethings from Montreal that plays a kind of mathy, melodic, and unmistakably “revival” type of emo that immediately brings hometown heroes Gulfer to mind. Why every one of their song titles begins with “J” is a mystery for another time. What I know about their debut is that An Album might not be as literal as the band name itself, which translates to “with pleasure.” This isn’t the kind of music that makes 30-somethings start a band unless they had their hearts in it, and every second of An Album radiates with the joy of artists revisiting the music of their youth with a sense of purpose and chops that can only be accessed with age.
Ben Quad — I’m Scared That All There Is
As long as Steven Hyden and I are hashing out trends on Indiecast, every December is likely to yield the same mailbag question — ranked or unranked year-end lists? At this point, I think we’re fairly secure in our answer: individual and genre lists are more inclined to serve as discovery tools, whereas publications need rankings to stoke online debate and differentiate themselves from every other list that features 35 or so of the same albums. Seeing as how this is both an individual and a genre list, I shouldn’t feel any particular reservations about going alphabetical. And yet, I sorta wish I ranked this list for the sole purpose of putting Ben Quad at the top.
I’m Scared That’s All There Is didn’t unexpectedly crash a bunch of mainstream year-end lists, nor did they signal a dramatic change in emo’s sound or perspective (though between Ben Quad, Chat Pile, and expat Bartees Strange, there’s an Oklahoma City trendpiece that no one’s touched yet). Though we went through this whole discussion last year when For Your Health and Home Is Where explicitly asked that their sub-20 minute releases be considered albums, I’m still in the habit of assuming a 7-song, 23-minute release is an EP. For those reasons, I feel ambivalent calling it the “best” emo album of 2022, a designation that requires some degree of objective criteria to explain why it mattered. That’s the ultimate differentiation between “best” and “favorite.” But man, it is definitely my favorite emo album of 2022 — reducing the past decade of Midwestern longing, Philly gang vocals, pop-punk and metalcore revivalism, and post-pandemic malaise into pure concentrate, no one provided more thrills and exuberance and less filler per second than Ben Quad. Even better, whereas most of the bigger releases of 2022 had plenty of momentum heading into the year, I’m Scared That’s All There Is felt like an album that people discovered purely through word-of-mouth; someone, rather than some publication, suggested you might fuck with Ben Quad and you did. Regardless of what it means for the artistic arc of emo, I’m Scared That’s All There Is is the kind of joyous discovery that ensures I’ll keep my ear to the ground every single year.
Brakence — Hypochondriac
Until all forms of streaming services and social media are eradicated, we’ll be subjected to hundreds of earnest and valid laments from artists and critics alike about The Lost Art of Patient Listening. Then again, our free time is a finite resource and sometimes you just gotta trust your gut. Being that very, very few emo albums are granted mainstream coverage or mandatory to keep up with the yearly narrative, I’ll always be open to recommendations from the darkest corners of message boards and reply guys. But I can tell pretty quickly if something’s not going to be worth my time — “bony knees”-style lyricism, aimless screamo spasms, any kind of allegiance to weed emo tropes, and so forth.
There’s also a “man, f*ck this” gag reflex, a reaction far more worthy of further exploration than boredom, no matter how strong the initial repulsion — the unmistakeable, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that I’m staring directly down at a generation gap, encountering music that was more or less designed to freak out people who don’t spend their time in the spaces in which it was made. This happens constantly with me while listening to rap and to a lesser extent with emo, as both are youth-oriented, constantly evolving genres intended to antagonize old heads who are stuck off concepts of “realness.” I felt this when I first heard Dashboard Confessional and the first Panic! At the Disco album and Columbus-born, Columbia-signed Brakence’s earlier material — which struck me as both post-Lil Peep and post-100 Gecs and proof that maybe I should start getting into jazz.
But when a trusted source told me that Brakence’s Hypochondriac was the “most important emo album since Harmlessness,” I mean… that puts things in a framework that I can understand, doesn’t it? I don’t think Hypochondriac is on the level of one of the 2010’s greatest indie rock albums and I’d argue that Jane Remover’s Frailty is a far more artful and compelling alchemy of hyper-pop and Midwest emo. But even if the thrills of Hypochondriac are cheaper or more immediate or subject to scrutiny, they’re thrills all the same and the kind that could signal a real-time shift in mainstream taste. This is high school, highly online angst weaponized, boastful and self-loathing, omnivorous and solipsistic in equal measure, instantaneously memorable hooks that stick in your brain whether you want them to or not (“my music be the snobbiest, somehow I’m still gonna get it done”?!?!?). This is the kind of music around which teens can build their entire identity, and though Hypochondriac sounds nothing like the music I loved as a 16-year old, it’s the album that most allowed me to commune with that version of myself – looking back with equal parts empathy and sympathy and trying to figure out what “Caffeine” lyric he’d quote in his senior yearbook.
Carly Cosgrove — See You In Chemistry
Carly Cosgrove was the breakout artist during the beautiful and brief Quarantine Emo Night era, insofar as we can claim such a thing existed. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m the most humble man I know,” Lucas Naylor shouted on “Buttersock,” an emo anthem for any age and a reminder of what had been lost in Philly, specifically in 2020: the opportunity to see a couple of kids with braces and cargo shorts become a rallying point at the epicenter of cool-ass American indie rock. Released on the ascendant Wax Bodega and produced by Joe Reinhart of Hop Along and Algernon Cadwallader, See You In Chemistry is aware of the newfound expectations placed on Carly Cosgrove. “I cherish my life / Before the sudden potential / For twenty-five minutes, I’m special / As soon as they’re over, I’m not,” Lucas laments on “Really Big Shrimp,” and Carly Cosgrove use the slam-dunk hook of “Munck” and the title track’s 7-minute sprawl as evidence that they’ve taken the higher stakes to heart. But for the most part, the tone of See You In Chemistry is lovably bemused about being the Next Big Thing and feeling like it’s no big deal, its subtly cutting lyrics and elastic, elliptical song structures the closest thing we’ve got to the hypothetical third Everyone Everywhere album. “Seven songs in two years, somehow you’re not bored yet,” Naylor jokes and ten songs later, we’re more excited than ever.
Foxtails — Fawn
Foxtails are often tagged as “art-rock,” a helpful shorthand for everything that distinguishes the Connecticut quartet from most screamo acts — mournful violins, found sound interludes, detuned guitar interplay that owes more to early Sonic Youth than American Football. But don’t let that give you the impression that Fawn begs for a cerebral, chin-stroking appreciation. The vast, brutalized landscape of fawn conjures the bleak beauty of a scarred, smoke-covered battlefield as Blue Luno Solaz’s haunted, harrowing howls are equal parts war reportage and ghost story. Though the band includes a passage from Peter Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving as required pre-reading, devastation is total on Fawn and redemption scarce.
Injury Tape — Songs I Mailed To Myself
I’ve gone on the record numerous times calling Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity my favorite album ever made. So, “with all due respect” should go without saying, but… with all due respect, Clarity kinda f*cked up the game for “pretty” emo. The normalization of drum machines, strings, synthesizers, and literal bells and whistles all but killed a certain type of austere beauty endemic to emo alone prior to Clarity. Recall the slower, sparer ballads from Sunny Day Real Estate or Texas Is The Reason or, hell, even Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails — dialed-down tempos, muttered vocals, spare reverb, a frosted, single guitar arpeggio. Again, with all due respect, we can blame American Football for standardizing interlocking guitar harmonies at all times. While emo and slowcore are adjacent but distinct subgenres that often commingle, it’s nearly impossible to find a reminder of their first subtle flirtations in the mid-90s. And I suppose that an album featuring songs called “Piss Cup” and “F*ck Off” would be the last place to look. Especially when Japanese ex-pats Injury Tape lead off their bristling debut with “Gone Away” and “Lightning Bug,” a couple of rousing, singalongs more reminiscent of any of the aforementioned bands in one-first-in-the-air, the other-on-heart mode. Yet, it’s the more tender and subtle second half that leant Songs I Mailed To Myself its staying power throughout 2022, befitting a low-key charmer that has spent most of its year in isolation, waiting to be discovered.
Lobsterfight — Sun Soaking
OK, this is the answer to “what happened to fifth-wave emo in 2022?” The credits of Lobsterfight’s explosive and effusive second album read like an A-list of the movement: Home is Where, Rookie Card, Summer 2000, Your Arms Are My Cocoon, Hey, Ily! True to fifth-wave’s aim to reroute the genre’s lineage away from “revival” and “Midwest” and establish a link from the Brave Little Abacus to the utopian experimentalism of Brave Little Abacus, Fiery Furnaces, and Elephant 6, Sun Soaking is a piñata stuffed beyond capacity with candied Beach Boys worship and caustic no-fi production tricks; every second seems to reveal a new texture or a new sound, everything except guitars. The most creative and the most divisive album on this list — Anguel Sanchez’s bleating vocals will scare off emo skeptics at 100 paces — Sun Soaking is proof that there are still artists willing to take emo to strange, new places so long as their trusted peers follow along.
Pool Kids — Pool Kids
Over the past four years, it seemed like the world (or at least Fest) was Pool Kids’ for the taking whenever they decided to drop the follow-up to Music To Practice Safe Sex To. They had the chops, they had the hair, they had the cosign of both Hayley Williams and John Darnielle. They also had a lot of bad luck — studio floods, death, displacement, and the dissonance between the expectations and financial stability of being the next big thing in twinkly emo. All of the above have broken Pool Kids’ peer bands to some extent and all of it gets addressed on their self-titled album. But they balance their struggles with a truly inspiring self-belief, something that’s extremely hard to pull off in a style of music that valorizes DIY misery. If Pool Kids feels like 2022’s definitive emo release, it’s because they never make anyone feel like they have to choose between silvery ballads and spiteful kiss-offs, pop hooks and Guitar Hero worship, or being Most Likely to Succeed and The People’s Champ.
Short Fictions — Every Moment Of Every Day
When it was initially released in December 2019, Short Fictions’ Fates Worse Than Death was an “auspicious sophomore LP,” a “sleeper hit” — the sort of modest and hedged acclaim that typically greets albums that drop after year-end lists have been completed. Less than four months later, it felt like the final document of pre-pandemic emo; all of a sudden, its glockenspiels and string arrangements and calls for neighborhood action and communal uplift felt of an entirely bygone era, when the political concerns were more immediate and cramming seven people on stage become impossible in numerous ways. A “darker, more introspective” follow-up from Short Fictions was all but inevitable, yet Every Moment Of Every Day — “EMO ED” — does so in an entirely unexpected way. Inspired by their brief tour with Origami Angel, Short Fiction kept its TWIABP/Los Campesinos! arrangements and reduced them into bittersweet confections about the futility of creating art in the current economy, screamo calls for worker solidarity and, on closer “Don’t Pinch Me I’m Dreaming,” a belief against all available evidence that a better day lies ahead.
Sonagi — Precedent
Had I known that 2022 would be my least prolific year as a music writer, I would’ve hoped that my newfound time and energy would be reinvested in listening. In fact, the opposite was true. An editorial mandate doesn’t just inspire greater engagement with a single album but the context in which it exists; keeping up with music is literally a full-time job and even a couple of off weeks can make catching up feel like a Sisyphean task where the boulder only gets bigger. This felt particularly true with screamo, a genre where even the best records — let’s be honest here — don’t have a lot of situational versatility. Typically, here’s how things went: one of my trusted screamo sources like Andrew Sacher at Brooklyn Vegan or Tom Breihan and Chris Deville at Stereogum or Eli Enis at Revolver would tout a new release, I’d take it to the gym immediately, maybe tweet that it rips or slaps or whatever and, without any realistic ability to replay it in my car or at work, lose track of it when the same thing repeated itself a week later.
Again, this is more my fault than that of the music, but we’re talking about screamo albums that managed to make an impact outside of their intended audience. Maybe it’s the recently announced hiatus of Closer that has me feeling a certain type of way, but Sonagi’s debut Precedent felt like the release I was most drawn to whenever “something screamo would be nice” struck. There were other albums that went harder or faster, and others that incorporated more brass or strings or reverby post-rock instrumentals to signify “ambition.” There were definitely other excellent screamo albums with grittier production or grimier vocals to signify “rawness.” This is not a masterpiece or a work of transcendence, because why should screamo be a subgenre of masters and mystics? Precedent enthralls with its flaws and humanity, by the way Sonagi pushed themselves to extremes only to realize there is still so far to go — a perfect encapsulation of both the desire for sublimation and the insatiable yearning that screamo satisfies better than any genre.
Sweet Pill — Where The Heart Is
Things move fast in this world — as Sweet Pill started trickling out advance singles for Where The Heart Is, their merger of tappity-tap guitar interplay and Riot!-ous vocals struck me as perhaps the first evidence of a “post-Pool Kids” era. And if we’re being honest here, Where The Heart Is felt a bit overshadowed when Pool Kids released their monumental self-titled less than two months later. But if the warranted comparisons still feel somewhat reductive, they’re also clarifying. Emboldened by a solid foundation, Sweet Pill use their debut to figure out how weird they can get with it — while Zayna Youssef has a brassy, bracing voice that could’ve sparked an alternate history in major-label pop-punk revival, she wields it alongside tricky math-rock grooves, flute solos, and just enough proggy sprawl to warrant their La Dispute and Circa Survive influences. And all of this in less than a half hour — Where The Heart Is, true to its title, the work of a band that likes its hooks and its quirks as immediate as possible
Their / They’re / There — Their / They’re / Three
I’ve been writing about music professionally for about 17 years, and emo has been my primary beat for about half of that. While the opportunity to shed any bit of light on this world is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve done as a critic, there’s a counterpoint I’ve heard so often, I can’t help but take it to heart — that mainstream attention was the worst thing that could happen to emo in the 2010s, infecting the scene with a competitiveness and expectations that it wasn’t equipped to sustain. Title Fight and Modern Baseball and The Hotelier all broke up at the peak of their powers and all did so as a matter of principle to protect their mental health or artistic integrity. Just about any band would be thrilled to be on the level of Foxing, Balance and Composure or You Blew It!, and yet when I’ve interviewed all three, the conversation inevitably shifted towards the unsustainability of being a full-time touring band without cracking the Big Indie Industrial Complex. After years of bands and listeners and critics advocating for these bands to be taken seriously or at least have an opportunity to escape the basement-or-Warped Tour ultimatum, many of them got close enough to the middle class to realize how far away they truly were.
Of late, I’ve thought about this dynamic through the lens of Evan Weiss — throughout the early 2010s, he was one of the most prolific strivers of emo’s fourth wave, as both an artist and an ambassador. But recently, he’s taken a sharp turn towards stewardship of Storm Chasers, LTD, his “community driven record release project” that has mostly lain dormant since 2015. Into It. Over It.’s 2020 album Figure arrived after four years of personal and professional turbulence and felt like an elegy for Weiss’ main project. But ever since, Weiss has gone into hyperdrive — last year saw the debut of the folktronica project Couplet, which reinvigorated Tanner Jones after post-YBI! burnout. The melodic and flippant Pet Symmetry also released a new album, while II.OI. released a couple of low-stakes, enjoyable splits with Hikes, and Malegoat. Storm Chasers also announced the release of the final LP from The Progress and the debut EP from Damiera, a late-aughts Equal Vision band in which Weiss played bass.
Though Storm Chasers has no intention of slowing down in 2023, Their / They’re / Three feels like a culminating event, in that it was truly a capital-E event. At one point featuring Mike Kinsella in its lineup, T/T/T has been around long enough to have once been viewed as a torch-passing. Nearly a decade after their self-titled EP, T/T/T has put aside their perpetual “long-delayed side gig” facade and emerged as the hungriest, most aggressive Weiss project since the mid-2000s. “Everything we need is right where we left it,” Weiss sings halfway through on “The Ultimate Ideas,” a prime example of what T/T/T has evolved into — aggressive yet approachable, honoring The Progress and prog nostalgia, a band with high-minded ambitions that would quit the very moment it stopped being fun.