Rites of Spring - "End on End" LP/CD [Dischord Records, 1985]. Essential for the sheer intensity and emotion of the vocals.
Moss Icon - "Lyburnum Wit's End Liberation Fly" LP/CD [Vermiform Records #15, 1988]. The beginning of the soft/loud emo crescendo, and advanced the emo vocals a long way. The CD has an almost-discography of stuff that's very hard to find now.
Native Nod - "Answers" 7" EP and "Bread" 7" / "Today, Puberty; Tomorrow, The World" discography CD [Gern Blandston Records]. The "Answers" record has some of the earliest full-on emo screaming. "Tangled" remains one of the very best emo songs ever. Excellent guitar stuff. "Bread" is a lot more developed, with some of the earliest emo-peggio (god, I hope that term doesn't catch on) twinkly guitar parts alternating with full-bore crashing distortion. The CD includes a later reunion recording (not as good).
Hoover - "Lurid Traversal of Rte. 7" [Dischord Records #89, 1993], and the later 12" EP/CD, which is a 1997 reunion recordings of songs that never got released before the band broke up. Wow. Some people say this sounds like Fugazi,and they miss the point. It sounds like classic DC twin-guitar midtempo style, as do Fugazi and a hundred other bands. The important part was the way the evil slithering basslines made it seem so dark and serious, and the way the singer worked up from whispering to a tortured animal howl at the end. "Cuts Like Drugs" has it all.
Hoover/Lincoln split 7" (Art Monk Construction #1). If you ever had to be stranded on a desert island with four emo records, this has to be one. Perfectly captures everything that was happening in emo in 1993. Gut-clenching pain and sublime beauty at the same time. Amazing.
Lincoln - both 7"s. The first, on Watermark in 1992, was fascinating because it was basically a heavy DC sxe record (Worlds Collide and such), with screaming emo vocals and slowdown emo parts in the middle. They were really the first to do that, and shortly thereafter most moshy sxe bands started doing the screaming thing. The second 7", Art Monk Construction #7, was full-on DC octave-chord painful-screaming emo recorded in 93 but not released until 1995. Both are amazing. The first is extremely rare, so snap it up if you see it.
Nation of Ulysses - "Plays Pretty For Baby" LP/CD [Dischord, 1992]. The first NOU record intruduced the world to the emo-as-über-stylish-mod-fashion-statement and band-as-mock-revolutionaries ideas, along with some of the best chaotic hardcore craziness. But it wasn't until this second LP that they really found their niche, with fantastic songs that just hang together perfectly, unexpected trumpet blasts and low-fi jazz interludes and all.
Still Life - "From Angry Heads With Skyward Eyes" 2xLP / CD (out soon?) [Ebullition Records], plus 8" and 7" EPs. Still Life were really the only emo band that stuck with the chunky palm-mute guitars. The vocals really took the gut-wrenching screaming to a whole new level. With two LPs worth of epic-length songs of unceasing intensity, this record really set a high mark. The earlier 7" was a bit moshier. The later stuff was less so, and more centered on darkly melodic basslines.
Navio Forge - "As We Quietly Burn a Hole Into..." 12" EP (no CD, may be out of print altogether) [Shadow Catcher Records #1, 1993]. Definitely the emo-est of all emo records. Powerfully churns through Fugazi-ish twin guitar attack and deeply sinister, turbulent emotion. Not the throat-shredding screaming, but rather slowly building sobbing and moaning breakdowns with heartfelt poetic lyrics.
all Indian Summer, especially their 7" and the Indian Summer/Embassy split 7". Indecipherable whispered words about milkweed and trees in between blasts of screaming and creamy, soaring, crushing octave chords, while low-fi Bessie Smith jazz records play softly in the background.
Current - "Coliseum" LP / discography CD (except for a few songs) [Council Records #2, 1993]. Just about as heartfelt as vocals can get, these guys had the quiet/loud poetic-lyrics catchy basslines emo down to a science.
Maximillian Colby / Shotmaker split 12" (Max Co songs available on a discography CD with other essential songs from their 7" and compilations) [nervous.wreck.kids, around 1995?]. Another perfect split record that captures everything about its time. MaxCo combined the DC beauty and fury with a Slinty sense of when to shut the hell up and listen to pins dropping. Shotmaker played rocked-out emo like they were pissed as hell and wanted desperately to play fast but somehow couldn't.
Policy of Three LP (Old Glory Records). DC style with a lot of Drive Like Jehu style mathematical tautness and complexity. They did the evil buildups bursting with tension like no one else could.
Floodgate LP and 2x7". Emotional punk with an insanely catchy songwriting talent stuck in its craw like a fishhook. Eventually the singer always goes crazy and screams like, "goddamnit get this thing out! Aiiiirrgh!"
Julia LP/CD (Bloodlink/Ebullition). Right at the tail of the emo boom, this record had a very tight, well practiced rocking DC groove with a wailing, just-barely-in-control singer always threatening to go completely nuts and topple the beautiful melodies the rest of the band was making. The best part is, strangely enough, an epic length song that slowly, purposefully builds up from nothing more than the sound of a ratchet driver drifting between speakers. There's also a Julia/Sunshine split 7" containing a live version of Julia's last song, and my god that song will break your heart. I saw three members of the band start crying and collapse at the end of that song once, and it broke mine.
Portraits of Past - LP (Ebullition). I personally know this band hated being called emo, but I don't care. This is emo of the highest caliber, with a crashing, shimmering beauty that was quite different from how they started out. Epic length songs build up to suprise stops, with long caressing indie rock guitar parts that break the melody down to its fundamental units, then slowly put everything back together again for a giant exploding finale.
"All the President's Men" compilation LP [Old Glory Records]. One of, in my opinion, very few cohesive and interesting emo compilations. At the time, this was essential for a demo version of Hoover's best, unreleased song "Breather Resist" (now on their reunion EP).