Warning: These songs may produce tears. The 2010s was a time ripe with emotion, no matter if you were a 21-year-old Claire Cottrill or a 48-year-old Thom Yorke. Breakups, depression, death, and many other topics fueled some of the most powerful songs we heard all decade. A lot of the time, too, it leapt forward thanks to the passionate playing styles of emo and hardcore. These 30 songs resonated with us deeply due to their subject matter and musical execution. They hit us hard not only when they came out, but to this day as they continue to maintain relevance in a world where hearts continue to ache.
A Day to Remember – “All I Want” (2010)
A Day to Remember’s rise in the early 2010s was highlighted by “All I Want,” the first (and biggest) single from What Separates Me from You. If the poignant message of being there for others at their low points wasn’t inspiring enough, the music video added to it by paying tribute to all of the bands who helped ADTR along the way.
letlive. – “Muther” (2010)
The most heart-wrenching song letlive. ever released can be attributed to atmospheric guitar parts and Jason Aalon Butler completely bearing his soul on the track. An earnest nod to the love he has for his mother, it’s a track so emotional that I once witnessed Butler skip parts of the second verse because of how much they hit home.
Merchant Ships – “Sleep Patterns” (2010)
It’s the most different of any song the underrated emo players included on their For Cameron EP, but it’s by far their biggest gut punch. It combines stories of seeing a deceased car crash victim, losing touch with a friend who moves away, and other tear-inducing memories through spoken word and acoustic guitar. (“Sleep Patterns” isn’t on Spotify, but you can experience it for yourself on YouTube.)
Defeater – “I Don’t Mind” (2011)
Defeater’s Empty Days & Sleepless Nights was a fascinating album for a hardcore band, as it featured a disc two of all acoustic songs. “I Don’t Mind” is a beautiful New England love story that only a stripped-down nature can nail sentiment-wise. Also try the Alcoa version, which replaces acoustic with electric guitar.
La Dispute – “King Park” (2011)
“Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” Jordan Dreyer screams from the perspective of a man overwhelmed by guilt after his stray bullet hit a young boy. It’s one of many stories La Dispute tells through spoken word post-hardcore on Wildlife — one so powerful that the band only demoed it once and still never plays it live.
Pianos Become the Teeth – “I’ll Get By” (2011)
Pianos Become the Teeth’s The Lack Long After was all about vocalist Kyle Durfey grieving the loss of his father. Everything comes to a head in closing track “I’ll Get By,” where the screamer squeezes out every remaining drop of sadness. The song is a tremendous, albeit hard, listen that has the feeling of a climactic screamo finale.
Switchfoot – “Where I Belong” (2011)
Jon Foreman sums up his career in Switchfoot by identifying a world that he struggles to find a home in. “Where I Belong” points to his hope in God, as well as a place greater than the broken planet on which he lives. He adds to the song’s momentousness by roping in other powerful lyrics from throughout Vice Verses.
Anberlin – “Type Three” (2012)
Stephen Christian’s Enneagram number inspired the title of the eighth track on Vital. It’s a deeply personal and autobiographical song that examines the Anberlin frontman’s aspirations for musical success (Enneagram type three is “the achiever”) a decade into his career. Strings and horns make it ever more potent.
The Ghost Inside – “White Light” (2012)
The Ghost Inside vocalist Jonathan Vigil screams about the brother he lost in “White Light,” the longest and darkest cut from Get What You Give. After pummeling listeners with their heart-on-sleeve brand of hardcore (and Vigil’s pain-ridden delivery), they leave them with a drawn-out guitar riff and the sound of the ocean.
Kendrick Lamar – “M.A.A.D City” (2012)
“If Pirus and Crips all got along / They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song.” It’s a lyric that immediately captures your attention before Kendrick Lamar raps blazing fire, warning of the dangers of Compton gang membership. His harsh stories are a clear indictment of the lifestyles of both gangs.
No Bragging Rights – “Hope Theory” (2012)
Back in the day, No Bragging Rights toured the Vans Warped Tour, urging attendees to buy CDs outside the gates. What made them more than your generic up-and-coming hardcore outfit was their positive lyricism, and “Hope Theory” was their selling point. For these impassioned players, hope wasn’t their theory, it was their reality.
August Burns Red – “Beauty in Tragedy” (2013)
Imagine being in the middle of a mosh pit mourning the loss of a friend. That was me in 2013, when August Burns Red toured Rescue & Restore and played this anthemic song. While the track takes on the sadness of loss, it transitions to hopefulness in its second half — an angelic choir bringing a sense of peace.
The Front Bottoms – “Twin-Sized Mattress” (2013)
“Twin-Sized Mattress” is a song about a struggling friend. The saddest, yet most heartwarming track on Talon of the Hawk looks down the scope of addiction with a caring mindset. Vocalist Brian Sella will do anything to keep his friend (even making him a member of the band), to the point that he even blames himself.
Listener – “It Will All Happen the Way It Should” (2013)
Listener’s Dan Smith was clearly in a unique state of mind when he recorded vocals for “It Will All Happen the Way It Should.” His metaphorical pondering comes during what is clearly a hyper-emotional state. “There’s a plan, there’s a way out,” he promises listeners struggling inside their own personal prisons.
The Wonder Years – “Passing Through a Screen Door” (2013)
No band better depicts the struggle of not fitting in with your peers than The Wonder Years. “Did I fuck up?” Dan “Soupy” Campbell asks on “Passing Through a Screen Door.” He relays the feeling of falling behind your fellow high school classmates who are getting married and having kids — and it’s so relatable it hurts.
The Hotelier – “Dendron” (2014)
The theme of mental illness was all-too-common throughout emo music in the 2010s, from Sorority Noise to Julien Baker. The Hotelier takes on an outside perspective, highlighting the resonating effects of depression. Their song “Dendron” does so even more uniquely, through a metaphor for nature (“dendron” is Greek for trees).
Sun Kil Moon – “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” (2014)
Touche Amore’s Jeremy Bolm mentions “track two on Benji” in “New Halloween,” which — upon looking up the title — makes sense why it’s such a deeply personal track he can’t even say the name. Sun Kil Moon doesn’t wait until the end of the album to throw such a brutal sentiment right at listeners. It’s the ultimate maternal anthem.
Foxing – “Night Channels” (2015)
On their second album, Dealer, Foxing stepped up to the plate and delivered an adventurous emo epic. From its reliance on piano to its religious and sexual themes to its 11-plus-minute music video, “Night Channels” is the LP’s clear standout. It’s not as much a difficult listen as it is a deep and ruminating one.
Julien Baker – “Rejoice” (2015)
In 2015, our staff was introduced to a fairly unknown (less than 1,000 Facebook likes!) indie musician out of Tennessee named Julien. Before we knew it, we were swept away by her tender songwriting and room-shaking voice. She calls “Rejoice” her theme song, and its Christian proclamations and aching vocals make it clear why.
Many Rooms – “The Father Complex” (2015)
While Julien Baker was off making intimate emo tunes, Brianna Hunt was doing the same under the moniker Many Rooms. “The Father Complex” is the perfect introduction to her musical identity. Hunt calls it “weird God shit,” but this song brilliantly explores the complications of faith in relation to an absentee father.
Sufjan Stevens – “Death with Dignity” (2015)
Death is an undoubtedly a dark topic, but Sufjan Stevens manages to add a stroke of beauty to its typically black color palette. The opening track off Carrie & Lowell, an album all about the loss of his mother, combines the singer’s multi-layered whispers with reflections on his distant relationship with mom.
Radiohead – “True Love Waits” (2016)
“True Love Waits” has one of the most fascinating backstories of any Radiohead song. It was written 21 years before it appeared on A Moon Shaped Pool, and Thom Yorke waited to put it on the right full-length. First written about a lover leaving, it hit harder in 2016 following the vocalist’s separation from his longtime partner.
Touche Amore – “Rapture” (2016)
Melodic hardcore instrumentation and Jeremy Bolm’s harsh yells are a fitting platform to relay the melancholy of losing a loved one. On Stage Four, Bolm losing his mother to cancer influenced an exasperating and devastating heavy record. “Rapture” touches on Christianity, the afterlife, and the difficulty to move on.
nothing,nowhere. – “Hopes Up” (2017)
Emo rap has never reached the quality it did on nothing,nowhere’s Reaper, the artist’s breakthrough album. “Hopes Up” was the first single, complete with a shimmering hook and instantly connective lyrics about heartbreak. Even better, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba jumps in for a verse too.
mewithoutYou – “Julia (or, ‘Holy to the LORD’ on the Bells of Horses)” (2018)
“Julia” is the epitome of mewithoutYou’s identity from a lyrical standpoint, though the grinding guitars (nearly bordering on shoegaze) and mid-tempo cruise is jolting following a hardcore-tinged predecessor on [untitled]. The track brings a multitude of religious and literary references — even from the Qu’ran.
Silent Planet – “Visible Unseen” (2018)
Across their three albums, Silent Planet covered a mountain of social issues in their lyrics. But it wasn’t until Where the End Began that Garrett Russell shed light on the struggles endured by the LGBT community. “Visible Unseen” is a reference to the LGBT homelessness he and many others have overlooked.
Soccer Mommy – “Scorpio Rising” (2018)
Sophie Allison’s project, Soccer Mommy, broke into the cultural consciousness with 2018’s Clean, and “Scorpio Rising” sure helped. It’s the clear climax of the bedroom pop/indie rock/emo/etc. release, where Allison reassesses her identity (including from an astrological outlook) behind simmering instrumentation.
Clairo – “Alewife” (2019)
You wouldn’t have expected “Alewife” to be a song about suicide, with as relaxed and pop-centric as it shows itself to be. But, as Claire Cottrill says, it’s a story that needed to be told. Immunity’s opener invigorates because of its keyboard bridge, but it lasts due to the musician’s lovely tribute to her friend Alexa.
Great Grandpa – “Split Up the Kids” (2019)
Great Grandpa waits until track 11 off Four of Arrows for the heaviest material they’ve ever written, and it was the right decision. The Seattle band takes a much darker and dynamic turn on their sophomore LP, and acoustic guitar is the only choice for a song that narrates the tribulations of a family torn by divorce.
Slipknot – “Solway Firth” (2019)
Slipknot’s Corey Taylor tackles his depression head-on throughout We Are Not Your Kind, the metal act’s most experimental and thoughtful album to date. He gets it all off his chest in “Solway Firth,” an adventurous closing track that finds Taylor vulnerably and furiously confronting every last demon.