American Football are a highly influential midwest emo band, born right here in Urbana, and have lived as Polyvinyl Records’ darling for all time. Vulture issued their list of “100 Greatest Emo Songs of All Time”, which named American Football’s “Never Meant”, the lead track on their 1999 self-titled debut, the #1 greatest emo song of all time. Pretty stellar recognition, no doubt. Other artists mentioned in the article that have ties to C-U include Sarge’s “Beguiling” (1998), Rainer Maria’s “Tinfoil” (1997) and “Planetary” (1999), Owls’ “Everyone Is My Friend” (2001), Braid’s “A Dozen Roses” (1998), and Cap’n Jazz’s, “Little League” (1995).
You can see what writer Ian Cohen has to say about the song and the band below, and he’s no stranger to writing about AF, having reviewed all three of their albums on Pitchfork over the last handful of years.
Late last year, we named American Football’s reunion the best of the decade as a part of our BEST Music of the decade feature.
From the Vulture feature:
The greatest emo song of all time really does sound like it was never meant to be. At least for a few seconds, that is. The false start is one of the oldest tricks in the book, exalting the recording process by seemingly demystifying it first — a tossed-off drum roll, some errant guitar squeaks, a little studio chatter, all of it humblebragging: “Oh, don’t mind us, me and my friends are about to put some magic to tape.” And yet … that’s literally what happened on American Football’s self-titled debut. “When we first started making music, it wasn’t to be popular, or even be a band,” Mike Kinsella claimed upon their rapturously received return in 2016, and it checks out. American Football were simply three University of Illinois students interested only in what lay just beyond everything that defined them to that point — namely, punk rock and college. Nearly every song on American Football is at an enviable peace over the drastic changes that await anyone entering their 20s. Kinsella shyly yelps, “I think it’s best / Because you can’t miss what you forget / So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me / Was never meant” as the album-opener “Never Meant” fades out, cementing it as one of the sweetest and most sentimental breakup songs ever recorded. For a while, “Never Meant” scanned as prophetic metacommentary on American Football itself, given that the band called it quits months later. Let’s just be grateful that this beautiful fling happened rather than sad that it ended.
And then American Football wound up becoming indie rock’s Before Sunrise: All parties involved couldn’t seem to shake the idea that something this effortlessly magical was meant to be, and so they spent the next 20 years (and two sequels) trying to recapture that same chemistry. But you just end up wondering how much the initial romance owes to a lack of boundaries, expectations, or a traditional trajectory. “Never Meant” defies conventional song structure, severs emo completely from its hardcore roots, and disregards the distinction between “happy” major keys and “sad” minors. Kinsella and Steve Holmes’s guitars are both harmonious and slightly dissonant, as beautiful or heartbreaking or heartbreakingly beautiful as the listener wants, flowing like tears of joy.
“Never Meant” wouldn’t have topped this list 15, ten, or even five years ago — but a list like this probably wouldn’t have run in a major publication either. Though the impact of American Football cannot be overstated, its veneration was slow and organic and achieved the frankly inconceivable feat of replacing not just Rites of Spring or Sunny Day Real Estate as the working definitive article of “emo,” but also asserting the genre’s legitimacy (however successfully) after the MySpace era. American Football was the single biggest influence on the 2010s revival that challenged gatekeepers to reassess their biases and begrudgingly acknowledge a cultural shift that resulted in “feeling stuff” music becoming the dominant mode of indie rock with guitars. Countless bands found themselves in the searching instrumentals and bottomless yearning of American Football and now capos, alternate tunings, odd time signatures, and trumpets are as ingrained in the perception of “emo” as red flannels or swoop haircuts. But American Football didn’t just reinvent the genre’s sound, it reasserted that its primary emotion isn’t sadness or spite, but an all-encompassing romanticism best expressed by “Never Meant” — a song that occupies the past, present and future, looking forward to nostalgia for right now. —Ian Cohen
Photo by Atiba Jefferson