American Football’s highly influential debut album turns 20
Earlier this year, American Football released their best album yet. Considering the lush production, incisive lyricism that tugs at the heartstrings, and wonderfully-executed guest vocal appearances from members of Slowdive, Paramore, and Land of Talk, that shouldn't be a crazy claim to make. But there are diehard emo fans all across the globe who will scoff at the idea that anything American Football has done or will do in the 21st century could possibly be their best work, and that's because of the pedestal that the band's cult-classic 1999 debut has been put on. It is, in many circles, the holy grail of emo. It wasn't very successful at all when it was released, and American Football broke up shortly afterwards. But it went on to inspire hundreds of copycat bands to put their guitars in weird tunings and sing slightly out of key about their feelings over a melodic math rock backdrop, birthing an entire subgenre in the process. Its status as a cult classic only grew over time, until the love for it became so widespread that American Football finally reunited. Without the '99 debut, there would be no second (2016) or third (2019) album for us to even debate about. It's one of the most important, influential emo albums of all time, and it turns 20 this week, so we're looking back on its legacy to celebrate.
To reiterate, American Football have gotten much better since writing an accidental classic in their early 20s. They're twice that age now, and though the band was inactive for 14 years, frontman Mike Kinsella never stopped making music. He quickly went solo under the moniker Owen (and also played as a member of a handful of other bands), and by Owen's 2002 sophomore album No Good For No One Now, Mike really learned how to properly use his singing voice and how to write songs with an even greater emotional impact than he did on the first American Football album. When he finally reunited with guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos (and roped in his cousin Nate Kinsella on bass), he was able to apply the skills he developed with Owen to the American Football formula -- first on the rust-polishing LP2 and then on the career-best LP3 -- so it's no surprise that American Football are even better at what they do now. They have sharper tools, more experience, and the means to incorporate things like high-profile guest vocalists, string arrangements, and a children's choir -- of course they sound better. But it's understandable why so many fans feel that the charm of their debut will never be replicated. They made that album without any of this stuff, no expectations, and not much of a fanbase. Some classic albums are written with the goal of being considered a classic -- like Loveless or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness -- but American Football was written by a relatively small band in a relatively small scene where classics weren't made. Emo hadn't hit on a mainstream level yet -- that would start to happen about a year or two after American Football broke up -- and these bands often didn't think it was even realistic to aspire to much more than playing shows with your friends' bands in VFW halls. So it was even more special that this humble band could write this groundbreaking album without even fully realizing how much ground they were breaking. Now, American Football's importance is well documented, but if you had a copy of American Football in, like, 2004, you felt like you were in on some kind of major secret. And then, by about 2008 or 2009, when lots of American Football-inspired bands started emerging, you realized just how many other people felt like they were in on that same secret.
American Football didn't really have much direct influence on the sound of the mainstream emo boom that followed their career -- though some of those bands, like Paramore, have expressed their fandom -- but the genre's breakthrough did play a part in the band's debut gaining its cult classic status. As very popular bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco took emo in a more overtly pop rock direction, enough fans started to yearn for more music that recalled the genre's underground roots, and a mass rediscovery of '90s emo -- often spearheaded by people who were too young to have experienced the music in real time -- began. Albums that were once considered flops like Jawbreaker's Dear You, Weezer's Pinkerton, and Jimmy Eat World's Clarity became considered classics. Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary became the bible. But all of those bands at least had brushes with fame; when the emo archaeologists found the then-defunct American Football, they were nobodies, and they became somebodies through word of mouth and pure, fervent fandom. Just as popular emo was getting further away from the genre's roots than ever, a noticeably large wave of bands influenced by American Football (and pre-American Football band Cap'n Jazz) emerged on the underground, including Algernon Cadwallader, Snowing, The Brave Little Abacus, Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate), Castevet, Into It. Over It., Grown Ups, Glocca Morra, You Blew It!, Joie De Vivre, Dads, Prawn, Two Knights, 1994!, Duck. Little Brother, Duck!, and so many more. Some of these bands -- and others like The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and Foxing -- would go on to push Kinsella-inspired emo in new directions and come out with some of the most adventurous guitar rock records of the past decade in the process. These days, the term "emo revival" is used as a catch-all for modern emo bands operating on an indie/underground rock level, but it was first used to specifically describe a new wave of bands reviving the sounds of '90s emo, and many of them -- like the ones just listed -- were specifically paying homage to American Football's first album.
To backtrack to Cap'n Jazz for a second: before Mike Kinsella formed American Football, he drummed in Cap'n Jazz, which was fronted by his even-more-off-key brother Tim Kinsella. They made a type of mathy punk rock that also turned out to be very groundbreaking -- a lot of the first-wave emo revival bands were sort of a mix of Cap'n Jazz's reckless abandon and American Football's tender melodies and atmosphere. By the time American Football started, Mike and his two bandmates were getting into things like jazz and minimalist composer Steve Reich, and working those influences into the mathy emo that bands like Cap'n Jazz and their friends Braid had already started to pioneer. The results were a very promising 1998 EP and then the 1999 full-length, an album that was gorgeous, unique, and inherently flawed. It has a false start, a few meandering jams, songs that don't really pick up until about the two-minute mark -- it felt like American Football were figuring things out as they went, and baring it all, imperfections included. The imperfections and flaws never hurt American Football though; just the opposite. The made the album feel more human, in that punk rock "you can do this too!" kind of way. (And, again, many bands did do this too.) They also made the more perfect moments hit even harder. Whenever American Football starts to drift, it comes back around and hits you with another impactful hook or lyric or melancholic trumpet line. This songwriting style gave the album ties not just to math rock, but also to post-rock, in the way the songs would move gradually through peaks and valleys rather than transition smoothly between verses and choruses. And so many moments of brilliance popped up throughout all of it: the now-iconic guitar riffs of "Never Meant" and "Honestly?," the sweeping elegance of "I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional," the shrugged off sighs of the sprawling "Stay Home," and too many one-liners to count. Revisiting the album now, you can hear the blueprint for so many bands -- including other Mike Kinsella projects -- that it's almost eerie to think of how prescient it sounds. But American Football is more than a necessary stepping stone in the development of emo. The reason it became so beloved in the first place is that the songs are so powerful. They sound as great today as they did before the album's stature grew to be as large as it now is. Even with American Football themselves taking their music to new heights on this year's LP3, there is nothing outdated or lacking about LP1. It's perfect in its imperfections. It's exactly what it will always need to be.