A band defined as much by their shifting eras and changing personas as by individual songs, it isn’t the easiest ask to draw a Top 20 from My chemical Romance’s sprawling catalogue. Strip away the razorblade eyeshadow, ghostly foundation and striking hair dye, however, and there are common goals running throughout: to balance the romance and nihilism at odds in their songwriting, to process the demons (addiction, anxiety, loss) within, and to prove that these four together – vocalist Gerard way , guitarists Frank lero and Ray Toro , bassist Mikey way could take on anyone.
“We all felt like outcasts,” Gerard told Kerrang! back in the day. “That’s what brought us together. We thrive on conflict, opposition… everything. At first it felt like us versus New York City. Then it felt like the band versus America. Now it’s us versus the world.”
These are the tracks that helped MCR win the war…
20. THE LIGHT BEHIND YOUR EYES (CONVENTIONAL WEAPONS: NUMBER THREE, 2012)
‘So long to all of my friends, every one of them met tragic ends’, sings Gerard Way on this diamond in the rough, retrieved from the band’s abortive Conventional Weapons sessions. ‘I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I miss them all tonight…’ One of the softest cuts in the entire MCR back-catalogue, the gently-strummed acoustic guitar and understated orchestration offers a warm relief in contrast to much of their other spiky material. More importantly, it finds the band on easier terms with the idea of death, focusing on leaving a positive message for those left behind rather than luxuriating in the vivid darkness awaiting beyond the veil.
19. SKYLINES & TURNSTILES (I BROUGHT YOU MY BULLETS, YOU BROUGHT ME YOUR LOVE, 2002)
The song that started it all. Witnessing the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan’s World Trade Centre while aboard a ferry from New York to New Jersey changed something in Gerard Way, compelling him to start MCR and wring something better from his life. All of his fear and uncertainty, urgency and hope is poured into the tellingly-titled Skylines And Turnstiles. ‘Our memories blanket us with friends we know like fallout vapor’, lament powerfully evocative lyrics. ‘Steel corpses stretch out towards and ending sun scorched and black…’ The gouging horror-punk instrumentation was still a jagged work in progress, but glowed with undeniable burning promise.
18. KILL ALL YOUR FRIENDS (FAMOUS LAST WORDS B-SIDE, 2006)
In a series of 2013 Tweets, Gerard way made it clear that, with 20/20 hindsight, this Black Parade B-Side should really have made it onto the end of the album proper rather than being relegated to relative obscurity. A playful, attitude drenched lament on how friends only seem to come together at each other’s funerals as they get older, it sees Gerard posit the idea of murderously boosting the death toll to get the party going. Memorable concept aside, the song is a standout for its unstoppable chorus: ‘‘Cause we all wanna party when the funeral ends, bah-bah-bah, bah-bah-bah!’
17. YOU KNOW WHAT THEY DO TO GUYS LIKE US IN PRISON (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
A jaunty piano catches fire into one of MCR’s most gleefully off-the-rails bangers as the band draw parallels between a life on tour and one behind bars with chaotic punk verve and an almost vaudevillian sense of showmanship. Understandably a live favourite for players and audiences alike, there’s a runaway energy across its 173-second span, as they lament the lack of personal space on the road while also challenging traditional views on masculinity and sexuality. The band were on tour with the used during the writing of the song and that band’s frontman Bert McCracken drops unhinged vocals throughout.
16. THE GHOST OF YOU (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
Named after a peripheral perfume ad-line (“Oh, how the ghost of you clings…”) glimpsed in the back of a frame of Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen graphic novel, and best remembered for its epic music video, the sheer songwriting of The Ghost Of You is too often overlooked. Of course, the Hollywood quality of that luxuriant, million dollar clip – featuring a USO dance followed by the death of bassist Mikey Way’s character during WWII’s D-Day beach landings – was a pivotal step in the band’s ascent to rock’s upper leagues, but the song for which it was made delivers its own crashing waves of heartbreak and catharsis.
15. VAMPIRES WILL NEVER HURT YOU (I BROUGHT YOU MY BULLETS, YOU BROUGHT ME YOUR LOVE, 2002)
Another of the band’s rough hewn early cuts, Vampires Will Never Hurt You saw the band exit New York state’s Nada Studio not just with a gleefully theatrical, blood-sucking earworm, but also the gothic-tinged direction that would set them apart from so many of their contemporaries caught up in suburban angst and abortive romance. Although the Children Of The Night aesthetic fit the band like a custon made coffin, lyrics such as ‘And you must keep your soul / Like a secret in your throat / And if they come and get me / What if you put the spike in my heart’ actually deal with everyday forces of corruption and the struggle to keep hold of oneself.
14. HOUSE OF WOLVES (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
A fine tuning of the formula that made Three Cheers’ Hang ‘Em High such a blast, House Of Wolves was The Black Parade’s proof that MCR could cut loose while still sounding like the biggest band in the world. Borne from a Frank Iero riff written to his father’s tastes (with the purpose of breaking a passage of writer’s block), it grew into a swaggering soundtrack for the most sinful swing club either side of the River Styx, fitting into the album’s overarching narrative at the point The Patient is plummeting towards hell. Gerard’s plea to ‘Tell me I’m a bad, bad, bad, bad man…’ suggests that might be no bad thing.
13. CEMETERY DRIVE (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
There’s a deep darkness at the heart of Cemetery Drive. The tale of a woman who has been cheating on her husband but opts to take her own life rather than admit her wrongdoing, it could feel like a misery dirge – or distastefully lurid – in the hands of a lesser outfit. For Three Cheers-era MCR, however, it was the perfect showcase of their dark Tim Burton-esque talents, building on a propulsive drumbeat with dark romance and a poignant sense of tragedy. There are echoes of the album’s bigger hit Helena to be picked at, but with a lyrical treatment to match its haunting concept, it stands as a shadowy monument in its own right.
12. MAMA (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
Mama isn’t the best song MCR have ever written, but it might just be the most they’ve ever packed into one. A four-and-a-half minute, multi-movement plea for forgiveness written by The Black Parade’s protagonist to his disapproving mother, it takes us on a trip from the trenches of war to the gates of death via a maniacal polka-punk beat and a whole range of character impressions by Gerard, before widening out into a pirate shanty sung by the Way brothers’ parents and Frank Iero’s mum. Oh, and did we mention that Hollywood legend Liza Minnelli crops up to chuck on her uber-distinctive vocals and cry all over the end? She does. Brilliantly bonkers.
11. NA NA NA (NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA) (DANGER DAYS: THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS, 2010)
As an introduction to MCR’s post-Black Parade reinvention, Na Na Na had a lot to accomplish, burning away any lingering darkness from the previous era and painting over it all in glorious Technicolor. ‘The future is bulletproof’, it announced. ‘The Aftermath is secondary. It’s time to do it now and do it loud. Killjoys, make some noise!’ Introducing a world of face masks and ray guns, muscle cars and outlaws, it did the job with gleeful aplomb, diving headfirst into the new aesthetic with zero hesitation and dropping an instantly memorable chorus that on-the-fence emos had little choice but to get behind.
10. THE KIDS FROM YESTERDAY (DANGER DAYS: THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS, 2010)
The final single of the Danger Days era might come across as a deceptively straightforward alt.rock song on first listen – shimmering and smouldering away like so many others. Dig into the band’s reckoning on success and legacy, however, or consider that it might be the final studio album single they ever drop, and there’s a hell of a lot of poignancy in here. There’s even something of an end credits finality in its fake-out ending. ‘You only live forever in the light you make’, Gerard reckons. ‘You only hear the music when your heart begins to break, now we are the kids from yesterday’. For devotees who grew up with the band, it was an invitation to consider how much we’d grown and how much this band had given, a point emphasised when fan Emily Eisemann was invited to direct the music video.
9. THIS IS HOW I DISAPPEAR (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
A Molotov cocktail of desperation, anger and regret, This Is How I Disappear was the set opener for much of the Black Parade era with good reason. It’s a fast-paced adrenaline shot, for one. More than that, however, it delivers a cathartic burn-off for traditional feelings about death before the album’s more outlandish flourishes, with Gerard inviting himself to ‘drain all the blood and give the kids a show’. Critics have pointed out that it errs a little too closely to the sounds AFI had been making in the years previous, but MCR’s composition is far spikier and more urgent than anything their contemporaries could conjure.
8. BOY DIVISION (CONVENTIONAL WEAPONS: NUMBER ONE, 2012)
Although its title openly invokes English post-punk miserabilists Joy Division, Boy Division is actually a balls-out punk song more evocative of their own earlier output than anything committed to record by Ian Curtis and cohorts. With the title having reportedly been kicked around by the band for years, it’s easy to imagine them writing and rewriting this, distilling down its intricate structure, heavy-as-hell guitars, la-la-la flourishes and lyrics as playfully pointed as ‘I’m not dead, I only dress that way!’ MCR’s last masterpiece? Perhaps.
7. OUR LADY OF SORROWS (I BROUGHT YOU MY BULLETS, YOU BROUGHT ME YOUR LOVE, 2002)
The fact that this I Brought You My Bullets cut was originally titled Bring More Knives tells you a lot of what you need to know. Riding close to the edge of outright mania, it’s the most momentous of MCR’s early recordings – and was actually accelerated when played live – but is also one of the most richly-written, with their signature themes of brotherhood and taking on the world together surging through lyrics like, ‘Stand up fucking tall / Don’t let them see your back / Take my fucking hand / And never be afraid again!’ The foundations were being laid for the altar at which so many fans would come to worship.
6. DEAD! (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
The Black parade’s unhinged second track was listeners’ proper first introduction to the blistering wit, OTT musicality, and daubed-on darkness of that landmark third LP. A flatlining heart monitor crash cuts into pyrotechnic guitars before an unstoppable chorus asks, ‘Have you heard the news that you’re dead?!’ There was a world controversy around this era of the band, and it’s easy how some sensitive/ignorant listeners could take this the wrong way, but this death dream was borne from defiance rather depression, its rampant horn sections and off-the-leash solos still sounding so boldly full of life.
5. I’M NOT OKAY (I PROMISE) (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
There are a hell of a lot of negative stories about A&R interference with bands’ visions over the years, but Warner exec Craig Aaronson (alongside Three Cheers’ producer Howard Benson) really earned his cut by pushing the still-fledgling MCR to pursue this song in which the band themselves didn’t see much promise. Bringing together an utterly infectious arrangement – from that opening chord-progression to the anthemic ‘I’m not okay’ refrain – and the ultra-relatable subject matter of high school disenfranchisement, this was mid-noughties pop-punk painted black and ready to take over the world. That brilliant, Marc Webb directed music video was the fire that lit the fuse.
4. HELENA (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
After the emotional exhaustion of their first album cycle and racked by the guilt of having spent so long away from home, the passing of Gerard and Mikey Way’s maternal grandmother Elena Lee Rush hit the brothers like a sledgehammer. In processing that loss, however, MCR produced their rawest, most stunningly emotional track. Although the song fits the Demolition Lovers concept – Helena being the lost love whose partner passed away in a car wreck – and the gothic flashmob of the music video lives long in the memory, there’s no sidelining the deeply personal nature of the song and all the feeling contained within: self-loathing, despair and just the faintest glimmer of hope.
3. WELCOME TO THE BLACK PARADE (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
It’s impossible to overstate the impact The Black Parade’s lead single had on listeners when it dropped at the end of summer 2006, most of them experiencing it for the first time alongside that unprecedentedly extravagant music video. While so many fringe-flicking contemporaries seemed to be narrowly perfecting the sun-dappled pop-punk formula, here was a band incinerating it. Those famous opening piano notes and the crescendoing guitars of the song’s climax were more reminiscent of stadium rockers Queen than anything else, while the immediate theme of hope beyond death left everyone else’s tales of high school heartbreak looking positively small scale. The ecstatic performances to follow did that even more so.
2. THANK YOU FOR THE VENOM (THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE, 2004)
MCR’s most underrated song, by far. For all the talk of their inky darkness, serrated edge and unstoppable swagger, no other track manages to pack in all those elements half as convincingly as this snarling classic. The ‘Thank You For The Venom’ concept existed before they’d even played their first show, where Gerard appeared onstage wearing a shirt bearing the phrase. It also turns up (in French) in the CD liner notes for I Brought You My Bullets… It’s an open challenge to all the naysayers to just try to derail the momentum that these four players could generate when they come together. ‘So give me all your poison’ the lyrics dare, ‘and give me all your pills, and give me all your hopeless hearts, and make me ill’. It’s music weaponised for the fightback.
1. FAMOUS LAST WORDS (THE BLACK PARADE, 2006)
Famous Last Words works on so many levels. As a punctuation mark at the end of The Black Parade’s sprawling concept it combines a musical will to burn out rather than fade away with the daringly positive lyrical promise that ‘I am not afraid to keep on living, I am not afraid to walk this world alone’. On a personal level, it is a heartfelt love letter, written by Gerard when Mikey had to step away from recording to deal with anxiety issues. From the fans’ perspective, it is a standalone classic, representative of everything that makes My Chemical Romance great: the unbending resilience in the face of adversity, the explosive interplay between guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro, the endless quest to wring a flicker of light from the sea of darkness. Even its fiery music video – the shoot for which saw Gerard, Frank and then-drummer Bob Bryar in need of medical assistance – feels like a defining statement from a band willing to put everything on the line for their fans.