Counting Crows will always be a band affiliated first and foremost with the 1990s. There are many good reasons for this fact, starting with the band’s 1993 debut album August & Everything After. A massive LP that spawned singles like “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here,” August remains the pinnacle of the band’s legacy. A few years back, when I saw the Crows live on a co-headlining tour with Matchbox Twenty, it was still the August songs that got the biggest response.
For me, though, I always affiliate Counting Crows instead with the mid-2000s. That’s not because I wasn’t aware enough to know about their music in the ‘90s. On the contrary, “Mr. Jones” is the first song I ever remember liking, and the band’s sound in general just makes me think of growing up. When I started really getting into music in 2003, I remember revisiting those first two Counting Crows albums—August and 1996’s Recovering the Satellites—and hearing so many songs that I recalled from my formative years. It felt like reconvening with old friends.
These days, August is pretty firmly my favorite Counting Crows record, as well as one of my top 10 favorites of all time. For a long time, though, Hard Candy was the one I loved most. I was in the minority there (and I still am) in regards to my love for this album. For many fans, Hard Candy was the album where Adam Duritz and company sold out. Certainly, single “American Girls” was arguably the band’s poppiest song up until that point. The Crows’ smash cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is also here, tucked into the album’s hidden track position—albeit, sans the Vanessa Carlton cameo listeners heard on the radio version.
I’m not sure why I gravitated to Hard Candy so much in my early teens. Perhaps it was because it was one of the first albums that really felt like it was mine. The music I’d grown up on—the first two Crows records, Matchbox Twenty’s Yourself or Someone Like You, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled LP, The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse, and Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?—were my brother’s music. The first records I had in my personal collection, meanwhile, were Creed LPs and burned CDs—a hilariously pathetic false start on the journey to reach my current point of musical obsession.
But rediscovering the Crows and championing their least appreciated album, that felt like a crusade I could stand behind. In early 2003, I picked up a copy of the Crows’ then-recently-released greatest hits collection, Films About Ghosts. One of the tracks on the album that I’d never heard—and one of the ones that impressed me most—was “Holiday in Spain,” a choice non-hit cut from Hard Candy. How many times did I listen to that song in my bedroom on my boombox, getting lost in Duritz’s lyrics about leaving everything behind? Some exploration on Limewire revealed that Hard Candy was stacked with unheralded Crows gems. I was particularly taken with the summer swells of the title track and the big symphonic burst of “Miami.”
It wasn’t until late summer that I managed to get my hands on a copy of Hard Candy. Back in those days there was no Spotify to pull up any album you wanted to hear. I was also 13 years old, which means I didn’t have a credit card and couldn’t order the album off Amazon. I could have tracked down all the tracks on Limewire, but I always felt uncomfortable about doing that—like I might be somehow pushing my luck with the illegality of illegal downloading if I went so far as to pirate a full album.
And so, instead, I had to wait until I found a copy of the CD at a store in my hometown. This feat proved challenging for the following reasons:
- I couldn’t drive anywhere! Instead, I had to wait to tag along on trips to bookstores or the mall with my mom or my older siblings if I wanted to buy CDs. I usually only had these opportunities about once a month.
- By this point, Hard Candy was a two-year-old album from a band that probably wasn’t anyone’s best seller. That meant I probably wasn’t finding the album in a Kmart or Walmart.
- There was no way to find out which stores had what in stock.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a single CD copy of Hard Candy at Borders (RIP). It was exorbitantly priced, relative to other CDs—a full, unreasonable $20, if I recall correctly. But I had to have it. To my mother’s chagrin, I spent the last of the previous year’s birthday/Christmas money to purchase a copy of an album I’d already pirated half of. This decision may have ultimately proved reckless, as it meant I was unable to buy some of the big album releases that fall. For instance, I had to wait two months to get a copy of Green Day’s American Idiot because I didn’t have any money left. (I ultimately received it as a gift for my 14th birthday.) I also had to break my rule about not pirating full-length albums, because I simply could not wait to hear Jimmy Eat World’s Futures after I discovered “Kill.”
Still, the act of searching hard (and sacrificing dearly!) to add Hard Candy to my CD collection made me value the album that much more. When I got the CD home and broke the plastic seal to play it on my boombox, it felt like I had something of genuine value. The music itself, meanwhile, was enchanting. It turned out a blessing in disguise that I didn’t find Hard Candy until August or so, because it was a bona fide summer album. For the rest of that season, I played little else, letting the songs from Hard Candy whisper me to sleep on hot, muggy summer nights.
That album started an annual tradition for me: the search of the summer soundtrack album. It’s a tradition that would link me with many of my favorite albums of all time over the next few years, from Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit to The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun. To this day, I put a lot of stock in summer music. I think Hard Candy is where that started.
Over the years, Hard Candy would become the album I relied upon to bookend summer. Parts of it seemed to summon the anticipation of the season. “Hard Candy” itself is a photo album of summer memories, with a vibe that glimmers with the excitement and promise of long nights. “Up All Night,” meanwhile, boasts maybe the quintessential almost-summer line: “We could drive out to the dunes tonight/’Cause summer’s almost here.” Other parts seemed fit to send the summer on its way, like the horn-inflected “Carriage,” a song fit for the last, lazy days of the season, or “Miami,” where Duritz solemnly proclaims “The bus is running, it’s time to leave/This summer is gone, and so are we.”
As I grew up, “Miami” especially became one of those songs that I played every Labor Day at around 10 p.m., just before turning in on the night before school started. The words of that song—coupled with other end-of-summer classics from the likes of Dashboard Confessional (“Dusk and Summer”), Jimmy Eat World (“My Sundown”), Don Henley (“The Boys of Summer”), and Yellowcard (“Back Home”)—seemed like a fitting way to encapsulate the fleeting nature of summertime. I didn’t realize that, as I got older and kept returning to those songs, they were slowly dragging my youth out the door along with the season. One year, I fell for a girl, it didn’t work out, and she went off to college leaving things unresolved. When I heard Duritz sing “This summer is gone, and so are we,” it broke my heart. I knew she wasn’t coming back, and I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore. My youth, the girl, and summertime all packed up and left on the same exact day.
All these years later, Hard Candy remains one of my all-time favorite summer albums. It’s a complex collage of memories for me, from the innocence of those youthful days to the turbulence of my young adulthood. It’s also one of the most misunderstood records in my collection. Somehow, Hard Candy is still underrated and still written off as being a lightweight, overproduced sell-out record from a band capable of deeper more textured work. In reality, Hard Candy is as dark as any Crows album has ever been. Under the umbrella of sunny pop production, Duritz tucked in songs about insomnia (“Goodnight L.A.”), losing your heroes (“If I Could Give All My Love”), miscarriage (“Carriage”), suicidal ideation (“Black and Blue”), and emotionally abusive relationships (“Miami,” “Holiday in Spain”). It’s a shame that fans don’t “get it,” because if they did, we might finally get a vinyl release.
Still, I at least am thankful for Hard Candy. In the age of streaming, it’s hard not for me to feel a little bit nostalgic about the lengths to which I had to go to make these songs mine. I’m still in love with discovering new music and unraveling the meaning behind the songs. But I miss the days when an album like Hard Candy would get my undivided attention for months. I doubt there will ever be a record that I connect with in quite the same way, and there’s something powerfully sad about that.
Note: This piece is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote in 2017 for the now-shuttered music website Modern Vinyl. There, it was part of the “Thanksspinning” series, where Modern Vinyl writers picked out albums they were thankful for as part of a Thanksgiving celebration each year.