The lasting legacy of American Football’s 1999 debut album is the definition of an unlikely story. Considering the Urbana, Illinois-based band (originally comprised of vocalist and guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos, and now including Nate Kinsella on bass and several touring members) rarely played live and existed primarily as a studio project, its signal was boosted by its member’s other projects like Cap’n Jazz, Owen, Owls, and Joan of Arc. Given how influential each of those namesakes have been on their own, it would be (and for time, it was) easy for American Football project to languish in relative obscurity; well-known amongst those familiar with emo lore, but little discussed otherwise.
However, what existed largely as a cult classic within indie and emo circles would later be recognized as a staple influence for an entire generation of young bands rediscovering its shimmering guitar tones and off-kilter melodies around the end of the early 2000s. Much in the same way Botch’s We Are The Romans gained notoriety posthumously thanks to its influence on Norma Jean (and everyone that Norma Jean would subsequently influence), American Football’s unassuming self-titled release was aided immensely by the resurgent interest in underground emo that emerged roughly a decade ago.
Attempting to compile a definitive list of every record touched by this record’s influence would be a fool’s errand. It would also be erroneous to say this one record is responsible for the existence of each band on this list. However, American Football’s debut has—much like the more twinkly (pardon that tired adjective) side of emo as a whole—enjoyed an unexpected rise to prominence over the years thanks to bands copping its influence (and kids subsequently digging deep to find out where all this stuff came from). The fact that American Football could reform nearly two decades later and release a pair of new records (2016’s suitably-titled LP2 and this year’s fantastic LP3) is almost certainly thanks to this natural feedback loop.
If there’s another common thread between these bands, it’s that none of them are likely to say they ever intentionally borrowed an influence from anywhere in particular, nor had any grand ambitions of spearheading renewed interest in emo’s more musically challenging and less radio-friendly roots. The genre’s evolution has been an organic one, helped in no small part by the internet making it easier to find things most people missed the first time around. And yet if one were to attempt to draw a through-line between where emo is today and where it was two decades ago, it’s difficult to deny the near-ubiquity of American Football’s reach.
With that in mind, what follows is a selection of essential records that played a role in elevating the influence of American Football’s once-underrated and now widely-heralded debut across the broader emo spectrum, perhaps inadvertently turning what might have been a historical footnote into an undeniable cornerstone for the genre. This will not be complete (there are too many records deserving of space), and arguments will ensue (as they nearly always do whenever the word “emo” escapes anyone’s lips or typing fingers), but it is undeniable that each of these records has played a part in continuing to evolve the sound that American Football (and others) first put to tape two decades ago, carrying its influence forward in the process.
Algernon Cadwallader – Some Kind of Cadwallader
When Algernon Cadwallader released Some Kind of Cadwallader in 2008, they were intent on carrying the torch for an era of emo that had gone largely nonexistent outside of small DIY acts and labels. It was enough to catch the attention of NME when they toured the United Kingdom the following year, who praised the band for their “twinkly/gruff brilliance.” Bands fitting that description may well be a dime a dozen now, but at the time, that certainly wasn’t the case.
Much like American Football’s own debut, Some Kind of Cadwallader would take time to fully catch the attention of indie and emo kids worldwide. Thanks to word-of-mouth over the internet (and the fact that it’s widely accepted as one of the tightest records the genre has ever witnessed, and no, that is not hyperbole), it has since seen multiple vinyl represses and is almost impossible not to mention when discussing emo’s development over the past decade (and beyond).
Street Smart Cyclist – Discography
While Street Smart Cyclist never achieved the same level of recognition as Algernon Cadwallader, some ex-members did go on to form Snowing, a band that’ll get a more thorough mention later in this list. As a small DIY act that only released two EPs (which were later compiled and rereleased by Topshelf Records), they were emblematic of the era between the late 1990s and mid-2000s where the only place you were likely to hear new bands play this style of emo was on CD-Rs you bought after a show in a VFW basement.
Into It. Over It. – 52 Weeks
If the collective output from Evan Weiss’ musical endeavors over the past 15 years (including side project Their / They’re / There with American Football’s Mike Kinsella) have taught us anything, it’s that the man will not be outworked. And while it would be a misnomer to ignorantly reduce Into It. Over It. to nothing more than American Football descendant, the Chicago-based songwriter has done an incredible amount to continue his home state’s reputation as the epicenter of Midwestern emo.
This project—where he challenged himself to write one song per week for an entire year—remains an impressive testament to his drive to create, preceding years of heavy touring and several more releases that would cement his status as an indispensable figure in emo’s reemergence.
CSTVT – Summer Fences
Forced to change their moniker from Castevet to a vowel-less abbreviation (which was the style at the time) due to a legal conflict with a metal band of the same name, CSTVT’s 2009 debut Summer Fences was an immediate tour de force. A review from Punknews.org drew connections to the “aural beauty” of American Football, who were doubtlessly an influence on this fellow Illinois-based quartet. But underneath its shimmering guitars and capo’d riffs lies a driving rhythm section that almost owes as much to latter-day Small Brown Bike. A winning combination to be sure, and one that came perhaps just a few years too soon to catch the wider wave of other bands that’d go on to do similar things. Underappreciated, but not to be forgotten.
Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – What it Takes to Move Forward
As the co-owners of renowned emo label Count Your Lucky Stars (which released several of the records on this list), Keith and Cathy Latinen of Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) may have done more for the genre than any other couple in history. 2009’s What it Takes to Move Forward could be considered the closest thing the Fenton, Mich. band would have to a breakout record, making waves throughout the underground scene while establishing themselves as a key piece in the genre’s development.
Snowing – I Could Do Anything I Wanted if I Wanted
Somewhat similar to CSTVT, Snowing melded American Football-style clean guitar melodies with more traditional punk energy and structure. The results on I Could Do Anything I Wanted if I Wanted would play an integral role in the genre’s explosion into the underground’s collective consciousness, helping to launch (inadvertently or otherwise) what would become (unfortunately and often derisively) referred to as the “emo revival” (a widely abused term that would miss the fact that the genre never actually went away, even if you know what people mean when they drop the phrase). Who the hell cares about labels anyway though, right? This record rules.
Glocca Morra – Just Married
If there’s a Kinsella band which Glocca Morra bear more resemblance toward, it might be Cap’n Jazz’s noisier freeform approach to compositional structure, more so than American Football’s cleaner and more introspective vibe. Neither offers a perfect reference point, but a Venn diagram of kids who got into this record and American Football at about the same time would probably look like a perfect circle. It’s difficult to deny Just Married’s cult classic status as a record that carries itself well with an energetic and endearingly rough-hewn take on punk and emo orthodoxy.
The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever
Formed from the ashes of My Heart to Joy, a band that was itself heavily rooted in DIY emo and post-hardcore well before anyone outside those scenes publicly cared, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die are nearly impossible to describe in simple terms. Their free-flowing approach to crafting deeply layered and loosely structured soundscapes can be directly compared to exactly no one else, and yet retains a similar vibe and attitude toward experimentation that could be described as Kinsella-esque.
Crash of Rhinos – Knots
Hailing from the United Kingdom, Derby’s Crash of Rhinos proved American bands don’t have a monopoly on acrobatic double-tapped clean guitar melodies. Sounding something like their fellow countrymen TTNG but with a more overt emo emphasis, Knots remains a spirited example of American Football’s influence on bands that would later apply more energy and technicality to their instrumentation while tipping their hat toward classic Midwestern sounds.
You Blew It! – Grow Up, Dude
By the time Orlando, Florida’s You Blew It arrived on Topshelf Records and put out Grow Up, Dude in 2012 following a handful of prior releases, the mainstream music press’s newfound fascination with emo was just beginning to kick into full swing. They were the perfect band in the right place, at the right time to reap the benefits of a scene that was finally getting its rightful due, even if they were just doing what they had always done—write smart yet accessible tunes that kept their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but without ever coming off like a joke. That endearing ability to take their music and not themselves seriously continues to shine through.
Foxing – The Albatross
It isn’t fair to narrowly define Foxing as strictly an emo band. In fact, their influences on The Albatross and its increasingly expansive follow-ups Dealer and Nearer My God pull from so many places that it might not be accurate to say anything emo was ever actually their biggest influence at all.
And yet it’s easy to hear why writers (and most of the band’s fans) would have drawn connections between this St. Louis-based five-piece and late-90s emo forebearers. While narrowly defining Foxing as a throwback emo band would mean unfairly pigeonholing them to the exclusion of other influential hallmarks present in their sound, they were (and are) masters of layering complex melodies in a way that invokes some of the Kinsella’s finest work.
Tiny Moving Parts – This Couch is Long and Full of Friendship
Tiny Moving Parts were not the first band to blend clean Fender Telecaster guitar tones with capo-enabled double-tapped melodies played at light speed. They most certainly won’t be the last, either. But few have ever done so as successfully as Benson, Minnesota’s (population: 3,240) best-known family band. While subsequent records would sharpen their sound and bring them to ever bigger stages over the years, what has remained consistent is a commitment to technical adventurousness rooted in an admiration for the genre’s roots without ever constraining themselves to its boundaries. Even in a saturated scene, they remain inimitable.
The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace is There
The Hotelier almost feel too aggressive to make a direct connection between Home, Like Noplace is There and the cleaner sounds that more clearly descended from the Midwest in the late 1990s. And yet it almost feels unfair to omit this album from any discussion around anything even tangentially related to emo (a tag that admittedly is too narrow to contain the full breadth of their sonic palette). Even if this record doesn’t demonstrate as overt an American Football influence as some others on this list, its impact on the scene has been too immense to ignore. A modern classic by any definition, and one that will be remembered as a defining piece of its era.
Mom Jeans – Best Buds
Regardless of your thoughts or feelings on Mom Jeans (and it’s likely you have a lot of both, whether you’re a fan or detractor), this record marked the moment that twinkly emo fully hit the mainstream. The path from American Football’s open-tuned melodies to Mom Jeans’ earnest take on the genre can be drawn as a straight line, even if what Mom Jeans have to offer is decidedly more poppy.
Tailor-made equally for basements and big stages alike, the success of this record (and its 2018 follow-up Puppy Love) would have seemed unthinkable in 1999. And yet here we are, and even as this piece is being written, it’s likely there’s a whole new wave of kids catching this sound for the first time, ensuring it won’t disappear again any time soon.