Our Top 10 Counting Crows Songs list takes a look at a band that was first formed in California in 1991. The Counting Crows originally started life as an acoustic duo consisting of Adam Duritz (vocals) and David Bryson (guitar). The two would play gigs around San Francisco and eventually attracted the attention of the band’s other members, who would organically join and leave the band as it grew and developed, with Counting Crows having multiple lineups over the years with just the two founders as consistent members.
Live performances have always been the main focus for the group, who will often ad-lib and perform alternative versions of Counting Crows songs during their live shows. Over the years, the band have straddled a number of genres, ranging from pure rock to folk, pop and alternative, although Duritz’s deep and melodious vocals have always been there to provide a steady coherence.
In 1993 the band signed to Geffen Records and supported acts like Bob Dylan, Suede and The Cranberries. The band released their first single Mr. Jones later that year and were pleasantly surprised when it was picked up by MTV, resulting in their first album August and Everything After becoming the fastest-selling album since Nevermind by Nirvana.
Following the addition of guitarist Dan Vickrey, the band’s second album Recovering the Satellites (1996) had a noticeably heavier sound, discussing themes such as the band’s new-found fame. A track from the band’s third album This Desert Life (1999) was used in the soundtrack for the teen movie Cruel Intentions, further strengthening their legacy. It was before the release of this album that David Immerglück, one of the band’s session artists, joined the band full-time.
The band’s next album Hard Candy (2002) was the group’s most radio-friendly to date, thanks to its upbeat and high tempo sound. It’s follow up, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2007), was split into two halves, the first pure rock with the second introducing folk elements. In 2009 the band announced they would be leaving Geffen records after sixteen years. After a successful tour, the band took a break to work on their own projects and also released a few live LPs and a covers album, finally releasing their sixth studio album Somewhere Under Wonderland in 2014. Since then, the band have gone rather quiet, but thankfully their considerable discography has left fans with a vast collection of wonderful music.
# 10 – American Girls
Starting out our Top 10 Counting Crows songs list is the lead single from the album Hard Candy. The track is typical of the album’s aforementioned radio-friendly sound, being poppy and irresistibly glossy. Whilst the usual rock ingredients form the bulk of the song, which contains some incredibly catchy riffs, the track also has some more unusual elements. The song begins with some old-school keyboard, which almost sounds harmonica-like in places, and features a guitar so jangled that it somehow manages to resemble a sitar. There are also some lush synth chords which permeate the second half of the song’s first minute.
Sheryl Crow sings backing vocals on American Girls, providing a light airiness to the track, her sweet voice being the perfect foil to Duritz’s gruffer male vocals. Despite the song’s largely shiny production, there are hints of something darker lurking underneath the surface. This manifests itself as the occasional heavily distorted guitar note and some surprisingly frantic and shrill background guitar layers. This echoes the song’s narrative which, despite first impressions (as well as its easy breezy instrumental) is actually quite dark. Anyone studying the lyrics closely will find that, rather than being a song about the wild nature of American women, it is actually about an arrogant man who takes his girlfriend for granted, believing that she is easily replaceable. Once the girl realizes this and leaves the guy, he begins to pine for her, refusing to take responsibility for his own actions.
American Girls is a fun riot of a track, which hides a surprisingly deep story behind a bright and brilliant pop-rock production.
# 9 – Big Yellow Taxi
This cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 classic has proved extremely divisive, with one side of the warring factions labeling it as an insult to the original, and the other asserting it’s a decent enough version of the track which brought the song to the attention of a whole new generation. Big Yellow Taxi is – ironically – one of the best-known Counting Crows songs
Which side of the divide you stand on will depend on personal taste, but not even the song’s biggest detractors can take away from the fact that the Counting Crows’ version features stunning vocals and a gorgeous instrumental, full of soaring strings, head-bobbing bass and some magnetic guitar strums. Perhaps the cover’s most noticeable addition is the background vocals of Vanessa Carlton, her dreamy take on the song’s “ooh bop bop bop” hook manages to make it somehow more approachable to listeners, compelling them to want to join in. Similarly, the mesmerizing duet between Duritz and Carlton during the song’s bridge is a genius move, their voices blending together into a blurred and hypnotic harmony.
Just as with the original version, the song discusses environmental issues and living in the moment, as such, this version’s slower tempo and cooler, calmer, more nuanced instrumental is the perfect match to the song’s themes. No one is claiming this version is superior to the original, but it is more than deserving of being given a chance.
# 8 –Palisades Park
This eight-minute long epic was the lead single to the band’s most recent album Somewhere Under Wonderland, and it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The song is about nostalgia, with the narrator reminiscing on summer nights spent at the titular New Jersey amusement park (which shut down in 1971).
Editor’s note: I used to go there as a kid, it was an incredible amusement park that was housed just over the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey to New York. It was an immensely loved park by New Yorkers and was given tribute in the classic original Palisades Park song released in 1962 by Freddy Cannon and written by Chuck Barris. The original is a far different song from the one written by the Counting Crows. The 1962 Palisades Park song was covered by many artists including The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and the Ramones. New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen also covered the song on his Tunnel Of Love Tour. Blondie also covered the song live at CBGBS in 1977 and many other stops during their 77 tour.
Nostalgia is something which everyone can understand, so including it in a song is a sure-fire way to add relatability. Palisades Park doesn’t disappoint, with the track’s narrator remembering the adventures he had over the years with his friend Andy. It is immediately obvious that Andy is somewhat of an unconventional character who wants a break from reality. Andy is often going missing without explanation, with much of the track being the narrator asking if anyone has seen them. It soon becomes clear that Andy is a cross-dresser, with Duritz switching from male to female pronouns as the song develops. The track ends, perhaps years later, with the two reconnecting in Reno.
The song’s hazy nostalgia is echoed by the instrumental, which is largely made up of piano chords and syrupy guitar – even beginning with an extended trumpet section, an atmospheric way to set the scene of the song. Given the ample length it’s no surprise that the song has an unconventional structure, simply featuring repetitive elements and phrases in place of a real chorus. This works remarkably well, reflecting how that the narrator is remembering things in a slightly disordered way.
Palisades Park is undoubtedly the standout from the album, reaffirming Duritz as a talented writer, and his band as truly unique.
# 7 – Angels of the Silence
While much of Counting Crow’s discography is somewhat light and soft, this is one of the Counting Crows songs which does not follow this trend. Coming from the band’s heavier second album Recovering the Satellites, Angels of Silence doesn’t manage to reach the fearsome heights of 1492 (see below) but it certainly does go off.
There’s something reminiscent of King’s of Leon about this track, which features a tough and multi-layered wall of sound, barely stopping for a breath even during the slower tempo of the bridge. The track begins with a distortion effect, which is the first of many traditional rock motifs featured on the track, often absent from the band’s music. As mentioned, there are layers of guitars on this track, including a broad and fizzy sound for the main hook, a deep and resonant guitar track throughout the song, and shrill, wailing notes which come into their own during the song’s second half.
Lyrically, the song seems to be about faith, with references to angels and sins, but the track is not just about religious faith – a failed relationship is at the heart of the story. The protagonist’s lover has left him, leaving him distraught, alone and struggling to find meaning – he is losing faith in life and is fighting to get it back. The titular Angels of the Silences seem to represent the “voices” one has in one’s head, which are often in conflict about what is the best choice to make.
This guitar-heavy track shows a different side to Counting Crows, proving they can rock out with the best of them.
# 6 – Hanginaround
The lead single from This Desert Life, Hanginaround is actually the band’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching number 28. It’s no surprise that the track did so well, as it’s a very radio-friendly number, with irresistibly chiming drums and rolling, rousing guitar riffs. As well as this, there are many opportunities for audience/listener participation, including a hand clap beat throughout the song and some chilled out backing vocals during the chorus.
The track is actually an example of the band’s willingness to experiment, as it’s the first Counting Crows song to make use of loops, with the instrumental featuring a number of different piano loops that are used in different combinations throughout the track. The song’s narrative is told from the point of a view of a man who is in a period of transition but not really sure what to do with his life. The protagonist fills his days with partying but knows he should be doing something more. Cleverly, the use of piano loops reflects the looping nature of the man’s party lifestyle, something which is underlined by the repetitive chorus and outro.
The song does feature some unusual elements, which could perhaps be seen as symbolizing the need to break out of repetitive loops – there are some odd shouts during the song’s beginning, which sound almost like literal cries for help, and the song finishes with all of the instrumental except the piano stripped away. It sounds almost like a person playing at this point, rather than a loop, perhaps suggesting the man has broken out of his routine. Hanginaround is a fun and jubilant track which more than deserves its popularity.
# 5 – A Long December
The second single from Recovering the Satellites, this song did particularly well in Canada, where it reached number one on the singles chart. A Long December is an alternative rock ballad written after Adam Duritz’s friend was hit by a car. The very first line of the song sets up the track’s theme, looking back on the past and recognizing that things are finally going to get better.
The song was written whilst Duritz was spending his days with his friend in hospital and then going back to the studio to continue work on the band’s second album. As such, the song gently juxtaposes the tragic realities of life with the glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle. This is done subtly – the mere mention of Hollywood has certain connotations, along with the line which references oysters and pearls – but is a notable addition. The song’s instrumental is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics, with the use of accordion being particularly smart, managing to convey a certain festiveness (which ties into the song’s name and themes of hopes for the future) whilst simultaneously being slightly maundy and somehow grim. The track also features piano throughout, as well as some light and balanced guitar.
The way the song finishes on a sing along “nah nah nah” hook is a masterstroke, not only inviting listeners to join in on a show of hope and community, but also – as on Hangingaround – suggests that the protagonist has managed to break away from the pain of the past and is looking forward to what the future holds. A Long December is a smart and emotional song, with themes that everyone needs to be reminded of at some point in their life.
# 4 – 1492
This rip-roarer of a track is thought to have been intended for inclusion on Hard Candy, but Duritz was unhappy with the track in this form and had it reworked, making it the opening track and lead single of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. out of all the Counting Crows songs, this is, without doubt, Counting Crow’s heaviest track to date, full of jagged and rowdy guitar riffs. Given that this is one of very few bands to have three permanent guitar players, it was about time that they took full advantage of this peculiarity.
Lyrically, the song tells of hedonistic nights out and various midnight activities (unfortunately using outdated transphobic language at one point), with the song’s title only making sense during the bridge, which bizarrely follows the activities of Christopher Columbus and how they have apparently led to the rest of the song’s events. To be honest, the lyrics can be dismissed as an afterthought thanks to the song’s furious and wild guitar solo. Because of the songs that they are most known for, there can be no doubt that many would be shocked to discover that Counting Crows were capable of such accomplished guitar – proving that the band should never be underestimated.
Given the song’s overwhelmingly hedonistic focus, it’s a surprise that the song’s bridge announces that the protagonist’s decadent lifestyle is completely meaningless. This is a clever bait and switch which – along with the track’s monumental guitars – will leave you reeling.
# 3 – Mr. Jones
This was the band’s debut single. It seems to tell the tale of Marty Jones, the bassist of Adam Duritz’s previous band, The Himalayans, but Duritz has since stated that the song is actually about himself, and that he used Jones’ name simply because it was inspired by a night out the two had together. The song describes this night out, and how the two struggling musicians believed their life (and love life) would be much simpler and more fulfilled if they were successful and could achieve celebrity status.
This narrative is somewhat ironic since, as mentioned above, MTV picked up the song and catapulted the band to success and stardom. This rise to fame coincided with the suicide of Kurt Cobain, something which immediately soured Duritz’s views on the virtue of celebrity, causing him to replace the song’s original lyrics with more jaded and cynical versions in subsequent performances. These events inspired the song Catapult from the band’s second album.
The instrumental of the song is gentle and low-key, featuring jangled guitar which is full of ringing treble, and a simple drumbeat. The hard to decipher backing vocals that plague the song’s final minute serendipitously manage to add further depth to the track, suggesting a kind of fuzzy blurriness which echoes not just the song’s drunken conversations but also the protagonist’s incorrect and naive assumptions about fame.
Mr. Jones is a great introduction to the Counting Crows canon – not just because it was the band’s first single – it is a gentle and compelling song which is made all the more richer by its interesting backstory.
# 2 – Accidentally In Love
Despite being written for the soundtrack of Shrek 2, there’s no suggestion that this song was in any way phoned in. In fact, it’s easily one of the band’s best productions to date (hence its high placing on this list). This is a sweet and joyous pop-rock love song, bursting with zippy and upbeat guitar hooks as well as some euphorically jangly runs.
The drums on “Accidentally In Love,” are ridiculously infectious, and won’t fail to get toes tapping, but this is nothing compared to the insanely catchy vocal hook of the chorus, which even the most stone-hearted person couldn’t fail to be swept up by. It’s easy to see why the song was nominated for an Academy Award, it’s simply a pleasure to listen to. This would be the perfect song to be played a wedding, with its incessant positivity guaranteed to create a heartwarming and jubilant atmosphere.
As the title suggests, the song reflects on the unpredictable and fickle nature of love – how cupid’s bow can turn your life upside down at a moments notice, finding yourself unable to control or even understand these intense feelings. For a while, the song was only available on the official Shrek 2 soundtrack, though it was eventually included on later additions of the band’s greatest hits album Films About Ghosts. Duritz has stated that his music usually only reaches adults so he liked the fact its inclusion in Shrek 2 would give kids a chance to hear his work. A song as good as this absolutely deserves as big an audience as possible.
# 1 – Colorblind
It’s fascinating that a rock band’s best song could be one where guitar is not the main instrument, yet this is the case for Counting Crows. Colorblind is a dazzlingly personal low-tempo piano ballad, which sees Duritz’s indescribable voice at its absolute best. Alongside the gorgeous piano riff which haunts the song, the track treats listeners to some thoughtfully plucked guitar chords, melancholy wind work and strings which somehow manage to piece the soul.
This is a tender song which sees Duritz at his most raw. The lyrics use imagery to describe a certain numbness and the feeling of being trapped in one’s self. All hope is not lost though, with the song’s chorus suggesting that the protagonist is feeling strong enough to escape this rut and will ultimately be ok. What makes the song particularly interesting is that in 2008, almost ten years after the track was released, Duritz revealed that he suffers from depersonalization disorder. While he has never discussed Colorblind in terms of this, examining the lyrics with this knowledge presents a whole new level of possible meanings. The song seems to perfectly capture what one imagines it must be like to feel so distant and detached from yourself, aching to be free of these feelings.
Thankfully, the song does end on a positive note, with Duritz, his voice firm and strong, asserting that he is fine. The somber and deeply affecting track really takes listeners on a journey, so to finish it in such a way is a relief for everyone involved. Colorblind may not be the most well-known Counting Crows song, and it is certainly not their most rocking track, but this is a genuinely poignant and thought provoking number which will truly get under your skin. Simply stunning.
Although they haven’t released a single since 2014, you can be sure this will not be the last we hear from Counting Crows. Over their twenty-six year career, the band have built up an impressive discography, covering a lot of genres and touching the hearts of millions.
Updated November 9 2020