I never need a reason to think about The Juliana Theory but their recent reemergence, including a pair of new singles and an upcoming album of ‘reimagined’ classics, provides a perfect excuse to talk about them here. More specifically, to talk about the best tracks from a band that was somehow both deeply beloved and deeply under-appreciated. And so, without further ado, these are the best ten songs from The Juliana Theory.
10. “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” from Emotion Is Dead
There is something intensely satisfying about a band calling out their haters in advance. “We knew you’d hate this before we wrote it,” Brett Detar sings on the third track of genre-reinvention experiment Emotion Is Dead. It’s the kind of middle finger to the nay-sayers that energizes a fanbase even if those nay-sayers are maybe hard to find because the album in questions is widely adored. (Panic! At the Disco would replicate this exact trick half a decade later with “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines.”) This song is as catchy as anything The Juliana Theory ever put out and also features a line or two of borderline screaming; it covers the gamut of everything the band ever did and acts as a perfect time capsule to 2000.
9. “This Is the End of Your Life” from Music From Another Room
I sang in bands from junior high through college so most of my friends knew what my singing voice sounded like. And even though I was a Juliana Theory truther who knew all of their material by heart, most of my friends’ exposure was limited to Emotion Is Dead. In some cases, their only exposure was having heard my high school band cover “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” so imagine my surprise when, a solid decade after the release of Music from Another Room, a friend suggested that Detar’s voice in the opening line of “This Is the End of Your Life” sounded just like me. This comparison is, obviously, flattering to me. But now that it’s been pointed out, I’ve got to admit that I hear it. The death of Myspace means there’s no easily accessible place for you, dear reader, to verify this claim and, honestly, maybe that’s for the best. For my pride, at least. Anyway, this song and its epic quiet-loud dichotomy absolutely rips.
8. “We Make the Road by Walking” from Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat
Even as I write this it seems like a meaningless thing to praise but here goes: Every time I listen to “We Make the Road by Walking” I think about how perfectly paced its tempo is. This song has plenty of hustle without ever feeling frantic. A perfect amount of energy runs through this one, through rolling beats and palm-muted chords and clean through Detar defiantly shouting, “I’m not going down that easy!” The lack of commercial success for songs like this will never stop confusing me.
7. “Congratulations” from Love
Love is the heaviest album in Juliana Theory canon and “Congratulations” is the heaviest song on Love. There are no sha-la-la-las here. It’s easy to see why fans who wanted more of the poppiest elements of Emotion Is Dead were disappointed by the guitar-forward Love and I’m not here to judge anyone’s listening habits but we listeners, and I’ll include myself in this, are far too quick to associate unexpected with unwanted. I did not expect Love and, at the time of its release, I didn’t know that I wanted it. But I did and I do, because Love—and particularly the bone crushing riffs and screams of “Congratulations”—rocks so fucking hard.
6. “Into the Dark” from Emotion Is Dead
If you had to pick one, this is the Juliana Theory song. The leading track from Emotion Is Dead was an immediate paradigm shift for a band that hadn’t yet staked its claim to individuality. That’s no knock on Understand This Is a Dream which is a fine introductory release, but Emotion Is Dead carved out such a singular space in the scene that it was immediately recognized as ahead of its time. “Into the Dark,” with its layered harmonies, massive chorus and hints of electronica, changed what a pop-punk-adjacent band could be. That success also brought with it a staple of early-2000s indie bands that got picked up by major labels: A re-recorded version of the song appeared a few years later on the band’s major label debut, Love, and couldn’t help but to be underwhelming when compared to the original. You can’t step in the same river twice.
5. “As It Stands” from Love
The only truly acoustic entry in Juliana Theory canon, “As It Stands” is the band’s sparsest song and also its most emotionally pointed. A gentle guitar track finger-picks ascending and descending scales, creating a compelling backdrop for Detar’s powerful vocals. “There’s a private hell,” he sings, “for anyone who lives to only love themselves.” While Emotion Is Dead rightly gets praised as being ahead of its time, “As It Stands,” a song in the grand singer-songwriter tradition of lamenting a life wasted in selfish behavior, isn’t recognized nearly enough for being timeless.
4. “10,000 Questions” from Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat
Each piece of “10,000 Questions,” the verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge, all make a case for being among the best that The Juliana Theory ever recorded, so let’s get pedantic. Detar does a great thing with harmony on this song, creating sonic tension out of thin air. By layering consistent harmonies on the verse, where harmonies are usually sporadic, then peeling them back for a solo vocal in the pre-chorus, Detar is able to bring the harmony back, alongside a wall of guitars, for a chorus that becomes, let’s say, 33% more dramatic than it would have been without that on-off-on switcheroo. Plus, the second verse’s “Now, I dance aloooooone” is worth the price of admission all by itself.
3. “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” from Emotion Is Dead
I mentioned above that my high school band used to cover this song and, without fail, after every show someone who had no idea who The Juliana Theory was would tell me that they loved “that shut your mouth song.” Was I offended that, out of our entire set, the song they clearly liked best was one of two covers that we routinely played (the other being Finch’s “Letters to You”)? Of course not. “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” is an unquestionably great song. It wastes no time getting into an explosive chorus and its extended bridge is better than the entire combined catalogs of several of The Juliana Theory’s peers. It’s also composed entirely of lines that are incredibly satisfying to shout: “Why don’t you say that to my face?” is exactly the kind of instigative thing I would never say to another person but loved to sing to a room full of people.
2. “Everything” from Love
“Everything” is what its title promises. All the best elements of Love pull together in the album’s finale, a constantly growing and escalating tour de force. The song’s central conceit—that love is everything—is simple, broadly applicable and, of course, true. It also packs a surprising punch coming on the dour heels of “As It Stands.” But the emotional journey of “Everything” is sonic, not lyric. Verses and choruses build slowly until everything (sorry) falls away in the vacuum of a bridge. Brick by brick and bar by bar the song is built back up until it cascades into a searing guitar solo and then Detar’s increasingly impassioned vocals. Drums pound. “Love is everything,” Detar shouts, until there’s nothing left.
1. “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight” from Emotion Is Dead
I was 14 when Emotion Is Dead came out and imprinted itself on me. “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” was the single, so of course I forced my band to cover that one, to let me cosplay as one of my rock heroes for a while. But that track is neither my favorite nor the best on Emotion Is Dead. Because the brilliant “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight” is a universe unto itself. The song gives not even the smallest of fucks. For its first four minutes, the song is built on gentle programming and flowing melodies interspersed with subtle guitar lines that pass like shooting stars. Then it goes supernova. Roaring guitars come rushing in with a constellation of power chords as a phasered riff melts the sky. The vocal performance becomes so histrionically grandiose that some will call it parody but it mocks nothing and is merely, like the bounds of space, without limit. More guitar riffs follow, then more incendiary vocals. A gang chant arrives. “What you want is what you get!” they cry. The song circles back into itself before eventually fading into the brilliant entropy of “Emotion Is Dead Pt. II” which warranted a spot on this list but, well, I’m talking about it here so I figured I’d give myself another track to discuss. When I finally got my drivers license, I would drive around my neighborhood on summer nights, a detour on the way home from band practice or a friend’s house, and with the windows down and the warm air rushing by, I would listen to these songs and the liberation they embodied. They were and are so unrestrained by expectation, so freely and whole-heartedly exactly what they want to be. How could a teenager discovering his own freedom and self-determination not be entranced? Age is no restriction, though. I drive home from an office now, rather than a basement practice space, but the windows still roll down and the stereo still plays these songs. Did you really think that it was over?