Comparing other bands in the 2000s emo scene to My Chemical Romance felt like a cheap shot at times. Often, the theatricality of other bands in their camp felt like posturing, their overly verbose lyrics hiding nothing but teen angst and fragile masculinity. With MCR, though, there was something different. The quintet possessed a sense of ambition and grandeur unparalleled by the scene they came to dominate. A macabre aesthetic and set of lyrics courted controversy, but the unwavering loyalty many “elder emos” have for My Chemical Romance to this day is proof that there was always more to them than gothic shock value. For all the controversy they courted as the flagship band of “the sinister cult of emo”, their fans defended them not for the sake of edginess, but out of a genuine love for the art they’d created.
The conventional wisdom amongst My Chemical Romance fans is that their 2006 rock opera The Black Parade is pretty much their magnum opus. It’s seen as the pinnacle of their poetic rock ballads and pioneering confessionalism, and far superior to the punkier subsequent album that slightly divided fans, but since I’m a pretty big Danger Days apologist, I’m going to disagree with that. Not only does this rose-tinted look at The Black Parade ignore the songs that can’t really stand on their own without their context amongst better songs, it excludes some unfairly overlooked anthems from the definitive band of my emo teen years.
Starting off this Perfect Ten is, to my memory, the first My Chemical Romance song I heard. I didn’t know anything about the band at the time, but I distinctly remember channel-surfing through the rock stations on my dad’s TV and seeing the now-iconic image of a corpse-white ballet dancer drifting through a funeral with wide, panicked eyes before dramatically collapsing to the floor. It was the beautiful kind of Gothic-with-a-capital-G that Corpse Bride has become to its fans, an artful darkness that went beyond the screaming nu-metal bands in dark fields that dominated Scuzz music videos at the time.
From its music video to its music to its lyrics, “Helena” introduces a band fascinated by the morbid, seemingly desperate to find the meaning in it all. If you know anything about My Chemical Romance’s formation in the wake of 9/11, this ethos makes a lot of sense. While its themes of death are prominent, there’s no going gently into that good night on this track. Instead, frontman Gerard Way’s voice cracks with pathos and shakes with injustice throughout. The focal line “so long and goodnight” is delivered in a grim hiss, as though resigned to the loss of the person in question, followed by a mournful cry of regret. Every member of the band delivers an arresting performance on this track; I knew once I’d heard it that this wasn’t a band I was going to forget any time soon.
“Thank You For The Venom”
“Thank You For The Venom” doesn’t waste time. The second this punk-inspired track kicks in, listeners are treated to a riff that tiptoes around the inscrutable boundaries of metal. My Chemical Romance promise a song full of power, and they deliver.
The real reason I’ve included this track on the list is that it sports some of early MCR’s best riffs. My Chemical Romance’s first drummer Matt Pellissier maintains the track’s hard edges with crashing cymbals and an insistent kick, but it’s the riffs of guitarist Ray Toro that really stand out here, played in the vein of those showoff hair metal solos you can’t help but swish your hair about to. The album’s first single “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” is definitely a better remembered contribution, and while I love it dearly, if I’m being forced at gunpoint to pick which fast-paced angsty track with a profoundly chantable chorus I’d rather listen to, I’ll always remember how blown away I was when I first heard this song at the age of 11 and I know which way I’ll swing.
Revisiting My Chemical Romance’s first album can be a bit of a let-down. If you got into them on album two or three, like I did, you discovered them at the peak of their artistry where even the deliberately unpolished aspects of performance felt purposeful and controlled. The rough edges on I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love aren’t the fun kind of DIY rough edges, and genre-wise it feels a little dated amidst other rock acts from the early 2000s, but the album’s closing track “Demolition Lovers” holds up better than everything before it.
“Demolition Lovers” shows us the beginnings of MCR’s grand ambitions that would be built on by their later concept albums. It’s a six minute long journey through a tragedy of love and death that shows off the impressive range and influences of My Chemical Romance. Instead of being confined by labels like pop-punk or even screamo, despite the song featuring the screamed vocals associated with the genre, it plays with these genres in a way that feels liberating. It’s a prelude not only to the themes of MCR’s next album, but to all the sweeping rock suites to come.
“The Sharpest Lives”
There’s something very ominous about the start of this track that I absolutely love. Maybe it’s the echoing backing vocals whispering like intrusive thoughts under the melody. Maybe it’s the eerie insistency of the one-note guitar riff, or maybe the low rumbling of the main vocal melody that’s quiet enough to force listeners to pay full attention. Whatever it is, it’s atmospheric as all hell in a concept album where atmospheric immersion is a necessity.
This track’s less of a singalong one—the chorus is pretty catchy, in my opinion, but it’s more of a boss fight than the rallying cry to gather the troops beforehand. There’s still that good ol’ theatricality there, particularly in the second verse with the melodramatic backing choir, but something about this track feels more down to earth, more grimly determined in the face of insurmountable odds. Or maybe I just love a good vampire reference in a My Chemical Romance song, I don’t know.
“Welcome To The Black Parade”
Yeah, you all knew this one was coming. Really, what choice did I have? Any run-down of My Chemical Romance’s most relevant contributions to music and popular culture would be incomplete without their defining single. Its title is an invite into the album, its themes of seeking redemption and righteousness, but it’s also an invite into My Chemical Romance’s worldview. It stands the test of time as their defining statement of radical hope in the face of tragedy. Over the years it’s been a symbol of resilience and defiance, a beacon with which to attract your fellow alternative folk with just one G note played on your nearest piano, and a rallying cry for a more empathetic world. Everyone has their own “Welcome To The Black Parade”.
For me, and a lot of people my age, we discovered the song in turbulent times. The ash-laden cityscape of the music video didn’t feel dissimilar to the political upheaval we’d lived through. More than that, though, for the scared teenagers like me who didn’t understand who they were yet, who were facing all the hardships of growing up with no preparation for just how difficult things could get, a song passionately declaring “we’ll carry on” was exactly what we needed to hear. Hardships aren’t denied in the song; after all, the speaker wouldn’t need to save “the broken, the beaten and the damned” if they weren’t there struggling in the first place.
However, the emotional honesty of the record is what propels it from a solid rock song into an anthem that truly never fades. Emo was often dismissed as hysterical, with hysterical teenaged fans, so a band admitting they were “not afraid to show [their] scars” had an immeasurably validating impact on the younger members of their fanbase who may have felt unable to speak up about their struggles. Friends of mine who struggled with mental health found a particular affinity with the song as a message of resilience. If the band many of us idolised as teens could speak up about grief and fear, unafraid to discuss the darker aspects of life but endeavouring to keep going anyway, maybe we could too. Even today, when this song comes on at emo night in a club, there’s a beautiful earnest spirit with which people grip their friends’ shoulders and scream back at the speakers that, through it all, they’ll carry on.
One of My Chemical Romance’s standout qualities was always their ambition. While they’re often described as a pop-punk act, they took their inspiration from unapologetic theatricality of classic rock as much as the unrelenting energy of early punk bands, and there’s not a song in their discography that shows this hard-rocking ambition better than “Mama”. It’s the stuff of rock legend, gliding through tempos and suites like the grandest theatre pieces without ever compromising on ferocity.
A morose eulogy morphs like the beast from a gothic body horror novel into a screeching portrait of grief, panic, and self-loathing. These wild swings of emotion are brought to life by one of Way’s strongest vocal performances on this album. In the verses, wavering vocals conveying carefully controlled emotion turn to primal cries as the speaker pleads “stop asking me questions, I’d hate to see you cry”. Then, of course, there’s the glorious turn into a three-time macabre waltz, where we hear the cooing, refined vocals of Liza Minelli before the speaker laments his violent actions in a voice shaking with repressed intensity. Truly, it’s a stunning track from start to finish.
Again, time to declare bias: this is one of my drag songs, and once my makeup skills get better and my outfit’s put together, I’m performing it as often as humanly possible. The cheer chant style of the choruses practically grab you and pull you into a kick line of chanting alt kids. “Teenagers” is probably the most feel-good song on this Perfect Ten. Even though it’s got that Foster The People “Pumped Up Kicks” vibe of a catchy little rock song hiding themes of teenagers committing horrible violent crimes, its ridiculously infectious sonics make it a justified fan favourite.
“Famous Last Words”
This is another track that means an awful lot to the kids who grew up hearing that My Chemical Romance were responsible for the downfall of adolescent mental health. “I am not afraid to keep on living”, repeated in the chorus without a hint of posturing or false theatricality even on an album this grandiose, made any tabloid arguments of the band encouraging harm in their audiences seem embarrassingly hollow. In the conclusion of their magnum opus, their final statement before years of hiatus, My Chemical Romance were telling their audience to stay around in spite of it all. I saw this line quoted in countless Tumblr edits by young people who, while they were clearly going through tough times, clearly didn’t want to give up on themselves entirely. So many people felt it was for them. It’s an easy song to chant along to, making this something of a plea for solidarity; as well as using bands themselves as a source of emotional scaffolding, fans could convene with each other over this track and feel heard.
Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys is seen by some as a huge departure from My Chemical Romance’s sound, morbid balladry for dystopian futures and flashy power pop. However, the record’s DNA remains firmly in line with previous MCR creations. It’s a melodramatic concept album spanning themes of destruction, existentialism, and rebellion against an uncaring society…sound familiar? “Party Poison” could probably be classed in the power pop category, along with the record’s most well-known single “Na Na Na”, but it’s got a lot more to say, snarling into action with the express intent of introducing listeners to the album’s lore and characters.
Taking place in a desert dystopia, Danger Days is a deceptively cynical record. For all its Manic Panic hair dye stains and singalong choruses, the stakes on the record are consistently pretty high, as the band play anti-government rebels combating corporate violence. These themes are prominent on “Party Poison”, which also contains references to the rebels of classic punk like Iggy Pop to bolster the messages of defiance. The song is named for Way’s alter ego, and its lyrics are as contradictory as the outlaw’s name. Lyrics of “this ain’t a party/get off the dancefloor” during one of the most danceable songs on the album feel like a direct challenge to listeners not to get caught up in the album’s poppier sound, and instead to pay attention to the hardships being discussed.
The dream collection of My Chemical Romance songs has to end here, with their best album closer (yes, I’ve already put “Famous Last Words” on this list and I still maintain that this one’s better, argue with the wall). Danger Days closing track “Vampire Money” puts a larger-than-life band in the down-to-earth shoes of your favourite retro rockstars. Its sonic identity is straight out of a 1950s dive bar, with a classic blues chord structure and stage banter to quote at your eyeliner-clad friends with reckless abandon. I personally have incredibly fond memories of singing the stage banter at my little brother, who shares a name with a member of MCR, in the car when he was just starting to love discovering new music.
What “Vampire Money” is best remembered for, though, is its middle fingers to the crew of the Twilight films who were desperate to get My Chemical Romance on the soundtrack to maximise the film’s appeal for the Hot Topic crowd. Paramore did a pretty good job with their soundtrack contributions, in my opinion, but My Chemical Romance didn’t want any part of it. The opening line “3, 2, 1, we came to f**k” puts the band very much at odds with the not-so-subtle puritanical messaging of Twilight, while the repeated line “glimmer/sparkle like Bowie in the morning sun” throughout this song’s verses associates a laughing stock of the franchise with the image of gender nonconformist rebellion. It has to close out my Perfect Ten. It’s the dramatic final song in an encore that blares out long enough for the audience to release their screams and applause in whichever cathartic way they see fit.