With more than three decades of making music together, picking out the best songs by Counting Crows is a tall order. Emerging from Berkeley/San Francisco in the early 90s while grunge was reaching the height of its powers, the group led by the charismatic lead singer and songwriter Adam Duritz championed a new sound that would arguably be just as influential. Borrowing influences from the rootsy soul of Van Morrison and the gothic Americana of R.E.M., the band’s breakthrough debut album August and Everything After was an instant success, eventually going seven-times platinum. With huge hits like “Mr. Jones,” ”Round Here,” and “Rain King” dominating rock radio, their influence on alternative rock bands like Matchbox 20 and The Fray is obvious. As the band released more albums that expanded their sound, Durtiz’ brutally honest lyrics and vulnerable lead vocals would serve as a template for a crop of bruised singer-songwriters and emo bands.
Listening to Counting Crows’ discography now, you hear a band eager to find the center of what it means to be an American rock band at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Beyond the huge hits, they have captured an audience by exploring difficult emotions in uncompromising ways. It’s a quality that has allowed them to amass an arsenal of unimpeachable classics.
21. Elevator Boots
Seven years after the release of 2014’s Somewhere Under Wonderland, Counting Crows returned with the Butter Miracle Suite One EP. The short release consists of four songs that seamlessly segue into one another to create a full piece that demands to be listened to in sequence. But if there is a song to single out, it’s the sundazed A.M. rock of “Elevator Boots.” The song follows a down-and-out rocker named Bobby who does what it takes to feel the high of getting onstage. Whether it’s wearing “Paul Smith suits and elevator boots” or shooting up until he feels alive, getting the opportunity to “play one more show” is worth risking it all.
20. Come Around
In over 30 years of releasing music, Counting Crows have penned many songs that have dealt with the loneliness that comes with the transient life of being in a massive touring rock band. But on the Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings closer “Come Around,” Adam Duritz lets go of the notion of disappointing those loose connections he left behind and embraces the vagabond lifestyle. Sure, he and the rest of Counting Crows now resemble “little pieces of the people” they once were. But he realizes at the song’s conclusion that if those at home doubt the band, they can just roll into another city to play for a group of new friends who will be excited to see them “Come Around.”
On this standout song from 2014’s Somewhere Under Wonderland, Counting Crows strike up a jubilant boogie as Duritz grapples with losing his old self to the fame the band enjoys. (He knows it’s a selfish concern, which is why he lumps in his woes with the likes of a near-extinct dodo bird dying of polio.) In the song’s final verse, Duritz compares the end of the world to the possibility of his fading relevancy, saying if the bombs fall you should “say a prayer for Oklahoma/And say another one for me.” It all begs the question: If a nuclear assault can’t force pop stars to let go of their egos, what will?
This Desert Life opens with the Counting Crows’s second greatest opening track, “Hanginaround.” Like a check-in on some of Duritz’s characters who succumbed to their unfortunate townie destinies, the song is a warm embrace of slackers working for the weekend while having no clue what day it is. Duritz and his friends hide inside watching TV, trying to sober up. His house winds up hosting a show that night. While a band plays, he’s asked by a girl where he’s been. To that, he replies by pointing where they’re standing. It’s then that he realizes he’s been hangin’ around this town “for way too long.” Unfulfilled potential never sounded this good.
After Counting Crows sugar-coated fourth album Hard Candy, their 2008 album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings kicked off with the energetic drums of Jim Bogios and a return to loud crashing guitars with the raucous “1492.” The song begins with a self-referential joke at Durtiz’ famous dread-locked appearance – “I’m a Russian Jew American/Impersonating African Jamaican” – before jumping to 1492 where “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and then to 1970 where “some people got their hands on me.” It all collides into the song’s chorus that ask the question: “When do we disappear/Into the silence that surrounds/And drowns us in the end?”
16. Einstein on the Beach (For Eggman)
After the success of August and Everything After, Geffen asked the band if they had any b-sides available for their 1994 DGC Rarities Vol. 1 compilation. It’s a fascinating time capsule, listening to songs from Nirvana, Weezer, Hole, Sonic Youth, Beck and Teenage Fanclub alongside the infectiously catchy “Einstein on the Beach (For Eggman).” Atypical of both the grunge and punk of the early 90s – as well as the maudlin material on August – the song is the sunniest moment from the band’s early days. “Einstein” deals with the double-edged sword of having an exceptional mind that might introduce innovations that could change the world (for better and worse).
15. Anna Begins
Out of all the emotional ballads on the Counting Crows debut album, “Anna Begins” catches Duritz at his most conflicted. In the verses, he speaks candidly with a friend who assures him that he has to be “all or nothing” with someone who he just shared a night of intense passion with. He keeps reiterating that he is “not worried” or “overly concerned.” But when he starts to think about what comes next… The whole situation makes him realize that he might have to admit that his relationship with Anna might be more than animalistic lust. He might actually have to be a good guy, a proposition that leads him to believe that he’s “not ready for this sort of thing.” Will he change or not? This tension is a hallmark of the best Counting Crows songs.
14. Goodnight L.A.
There is a scene in Parks and Recreation where Chris Pratt’s character Andy Dwyer realizes that since all of his favorite foods contain butter, then butter must be his favorite food of all. Durtiz comes to a similar conclusion on the lovelorn ballad “Goodnight L.A.” from the band’s fourth album Hard Candy. After wrestling with the loneliness of being “shuttled from station to station” on tour, Durtiz realizes it’s those who aren’t around that are actually causing his sadness. “What brings me down now is love,” he sings in the piano-driven waltz, “because I can never get enough of love.” It’s a moment of self-realization that may seem obvious to onlookers, but when are these moments ever easy to understand in the moment?
13. Daylight Fading
While grunge was taking over rock radio in the early 90s, the alt-country movement was also witnessing some of its biggest acts making their breakthroughs. With “Daylight Fading” off of Recovering the Satellites, Counting Crows wrote a country-rock song that would’ve made Gene Clark proud. (They would later make this influence plain by covering songs like “Return of the Grievous Angel” on the Underwater Sunshine album.) Co-written with new guitarist Dan Vickrey and Charlie Gillingham, the song deals with Duritz wanting to leave a situation before it gets too tricky. Or, as he says in the chorus, when they start to see signs of shadows getting too long from “daylight fading,” it’s time to skip town for warmer weather.
12. All My Friends
This Desert Life found Counting Crows nodding to the big string arrangements of some of their favorite songs from the 70s. The most elegant example is the often-overlooked “All My Friends.” Sounding like a classic Elton John or Harry Nilsson tune, the orchestra swells as Duritz pines about the dreams he had at 17 that haven’t come true at 33. “All my friends and lovers shine like the sun/I just turn and walk away,” he sings as the song reaches its climax, knowing they are viewing him in the rearview. “One way or another, I’m not coming undone/I’m just waiting for the day.” It’s a hard lesson to learn, but some dreams will always stay dreams.
Listening to August and Everything After, a few clear influences emerge. There is no question the group paid close attention to R.E.M’s evolution from their early post-punk days on I.R.S. Records to the Americana-wielding supergroup they would eventually become. What set Counting Crows apart from their contemporaries, however, was their embrace of artists like Van Morrison and The Band. On “Omaha,” the band sounds like Michael Stipe and the gang fashioning their own The Basement Tapes. The song opens with a lonesome accordion gradually joined by acoustic guitars and double-picked mandolin. While many of the lyrics in the verses are hard to decipher, the chorus evokes a need to head back to “somewhere in the middle of America,” away from the rush of the city. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your heart is to put as much distance between you and all the things that could potentially break it.
10. Have You Seen Me Lately?
Many of the songs on Recovering the Satellites found Duritz writing about how his life had been turned upside down by the band’s overnight success. Perhaps the most biting of all is the scorched earth “Have You Seen Me Lately.” The more the public has access to Duritz, the more he would like them to stay the hell away from him. As he hears himself singing on the radio, the less he recognizes himself. Looking for a sense of direction, he turns to those who know him for the person he used to be. “Could you tell me the things you remember about me,” he asks, “And have you seen me lately?”
9. Sullivan Street
Even though the ballad “Sullivan Street” isn’t one of August and Everything After’s biggest hits, its lore as a showstopping live staple has cemented the song as one of the Counting Crows’ best deep cuts. With light guitar strumming and keyboardist Charlie Gillingham’s pounding piano chords resonating throughout, the song takes a near glacial pace as Duritz takes a long walk down the street to reckon with a relationship that he doesn’t want to end. “Pretty soon now, I won’t come around,” he sings, trying to convince himself that it’s over. But the song’s tempestuous chorus reveals that both are in too deep to turn back now. The song is about the constant tension between the head and the heart. Pursuing love isn’t always the best idea. But can you live without trying?
8. Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
If Durtiz was bleeding for fame on “Mr. Jones,” then “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is the fitting sequel that sees him questioning everything he bargained for. Over a freight-train country rhythm, Duritz’s dreams have shifted from wanting to be “believed in” to simply wanting to fade into the background. The “Mrs. Potter” of the song is based on the actress Monica Potter, who Durtiz at one point wishes could “climb down from the movie screen” to spend some time with him. In a funny twist, the two actually met as the band was recording the song. After a disastrous session forced the band to consider leaving the song off of the album, she convinced them otherwise and it ended up becoming a Top 40 hit. “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is a seven-and-a-half-minute ode to the simpler things you long for when life becomes too complicated. It’s a high water mark for Durtiz as a lyricist.
7. Color Blind
Adam Duritz has a tendency to overwhelm the listener with poetic lyrics that spare no minor details. “Colorblind” from This Desert Life is the opposite. Over plaintive piano chords, Duritz ruminates on mundane routines in the most stripped down way possible – “coffee black and egg white” – to show how bleak things can get when it’s just you, alone in a room with your mind. In the song’s second verse, Duritz pinpoints the feeling of wanting to connect with the outside world but feeling too terrified to make a move. “I am covered in skin/ No one gets to come in,” he yearns, “Pull me out from inside/I am folded and unfolded and unfolding/I am colorblind.”
6. Rain King
A lot of Adam Duritz’s lyrics focus on two ideas: 1) Longing for a love that is destined to fail and 2) Longing to be acknowledged for the greatness he knows he is capable of. On one of August and Everything After’s most uptempo and braggadocious tracks “Rain King,” Duritz sets the record straight on how he thinks the world should see him. While he casts doubt on the idea of going to heaven after life is over right away, he warms up to the idea of being reincarnated as a “black winged bird.” In this new vessel, he would encompass all the things that matter – like faith, sex, and god – and be known to all as the “Rain King.” If that’s too much of an ask, he pulls back in the chorus, hoping to simply be acknowledged as something. “I belong in the service of the queen,” he proclaims, adding, “I belong anywhere but in between.”
5. Mr. Jones
“Mr. Jones” was the song that launched Counting Crows into superstardom. In many ways, the song plays out like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” for dive-bar regulars. The story follows Duritz and his friend Mr. Jones (based on musician friend Marty Jones) as they head down to their local bar The New Amsterdam to “stare at the beautiful women” and talk about their grand ambitions. Maybe Duritz will paint that picture full of autumnal colors? Or maybe he’ll be the next Bob Dylan? After a few beers, Mr. Jones just wishes he was someone “a little more funky.” All they know is that they are going to make it to the big time once the world catches up to them. It’s a tune that sounds like the film Reality Bites condensed into a single pop song, a perfect distillation of the dissatisfaction and boredom many in the United States were feeling at the beginning of the 1990s.
4. Angels of the Silences
If the band’s debut album cast Counting Crows as a roots revival act, Recovering the Satellites showed they could rock with the best of their contemporaries. The album’s lead single “Angels of the Silences” stuffed a fist full of feathers in the mouths of critics eye-rolling at the band’s softer edges. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of heart-racing punk in the vein of The Replacements, with one of the group’s most rousing and memorable choruses. As always, Duritz feels like he deserves to roast like a pig on a spit in order to be fully deserving of love. “All my sins, I would pay for them if I could come back to you,” he desperately pleads. While the band would try this kind of punk-twang on later records, they never sounded quite as convincing as they did here.
3. A Murder of One
As avowed disciples of R.E.M, it’s almost hard to believe that David Bryson’s tremolo-heavy guitar part here came one year before the Monster hit “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” The inspired bed serves as an opportunity for Adam Duritz to unleash one of August and Everything After’s nastiest and most thrilling performances. The song’s triumphant build sees Duritz yelping and hollering “change, change, change” like his denim jacket is being unraveled with a loose thread right off of his back.
2. A Long December
Rarely has a song radiated with so much loneliness and hope as “A Long December,” with Duritz braving a frigid L.A. winter in his luxurious Laurel Canyon dwelling, wishing he could be with the girl he lost when he became famous. The thought of sticking to any serious New Year’s resolution is out of the question, of course. His life is now predetermined in so many ways, given the successes of the band. Duritz’s simple hope? “Maybe this year will be better than the last.”
1. Round Here
With its sparse and dirty plucked out guitar chords, Durtiz sets the haunting tone of the band’s masterpiece debut, August and Everything After: “Step out the front door like a ghost/Into the fog where no one notices the contrast between white on white,” he sings, telling the tale of a doomed coming-of-age romance with an unpredictable woman named Maria. When she’s not looking for “a boy who looks like Elvis” or taking her clothes off on Durtiz’s front lawn, she considers jumping off of tall buildings when the boredom becomes too great to bear. Durtiz’s protagonist, on the other hand, is just trying to puff out his chest and act tough enough to make her believe he can offer a sense of stability. With the song’s thrilling conclusion, the constant feeling of being “under the gun” is enough to make Durtiz feel frayed to the point where he can no longer see a future in his hometown. It may be a town full of losers. But if everyone else is pulling out to win, what does that make them?
Think we missed one of the best Counting Crows songs, like their Vanessa Carlton featuring cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Accidentally in Love” from the soundtrack to the film Shrek 2? Let us know in the comments below.