Sugar Ray has never been known for deep, sad songs. So it’s fitting that their upcoming album Little Yachty — the band’s first collection of new songs in a decade — is packed with joyous tunes ready for a beach party. But when the group’s frontman Mark McGrath got on the phone with Rolling Stone to talk about his favorite tunes by other acts, he went for the dark, heavy stuff, songs that he says cause a “visceral reaction.”
“You could also say these are songs that make me cry,” the singer adds. “This is the manly way of saying they are tearjerkers. More than anything, these songs make you listen to them. No matter what you do, you are pulled into their aura, their being.”
The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”
This is the gold standard for all visceral reactions. The song is a religious experience and I pray to the church of the Beach Boys. When you first start hearing those French horns at the start of the song, you know that you’re in for something special. I can’t imagine hearing that in the mid-1960s when you were surrounded by the British Invasion and the bubblegum pop and the Beatles and the Stones and Herman’s Hermits and all that good stuff and then “God Only Knows” comes out of Torrance, California? The layers of harmonies, the song structure … it’s a religious experience. It truly sounds like the Bible is singing to me.
The first line of the song is “I may not always love you” and that really throws you at first. It’s confusing, but it’s not. Some of these narrative songs are tearjerkers. They tell a story. That’s important because they get you in the music. Sometimes the lyrics are abstract and it leaves it up to listeners to make their own interpretations and makes it super visceral.
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Carl Wilson songs lead on it and he really has the voice of an angel, so there’s so many religious components working in that. You have the voice of an angel. You have the production and creative songwriting of an angel and the harmonies that are so angelic. It’s probably one of the most beautiful bridges of all time and Mike Love’s baritone is in that. He gets lost sometimes in the Beach Boys story, but he’s so important back then. He was a lot more important to the songwriting than I think history has told. That could only be Mike Love singing that part of the song. I promise you Brian told him what to do, but that is Mike Love’s voice.
This song didn’t blow people’s wigs off back then. It took years for people to appreciate Pet Sounds. They were like, “This is either the worst record ever made or the best record ever. Time will tell.” That was Melody Maker. It’s timeless. It’s genre-less. It’s almost not even musical. It’s beyond. That’s why it’s truly a visceral song.
Bonnie Raitt, ”I Can’t Make You Love Me”
If you’ve never fallen in love, you don’t even need to turn this one on. If you’re 16, 17 and listening to a little of this and a little of that, this isn’t going to speak to you. But if you’ve ever had your heart broken once, this song will go right down Broadway and take you for a ride in a pedicab and hold you gently on your shoulder and go, “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
It’s so tender that I can almost cry thinking about it. And it’s one of those songs that I love because it really got me through a breakup. “I love you so much, but I can’t make you love me.” It’s simple words. It’s frustrating, but the way she articulated it is so beautifully done. And the piano on that by Bruce Hornsby is such a beautiful accompaniment to Bonnie Raitt’s understated vocals. She’s got a perfect plaintive tone in the vocal and it’s so beautifully articulated. It’s lying there and knowing it’s the last night of a relationship. We’ve all been there. Basically, a beautiful way to say it’s over. It gets me every time. I didn’t think this song would make me cry just talking about it. That’s the power of this song. Bon Iver’s version is just as beautiful, sung in a falsetto.
Carl Thomas, “I Wish”
I’m a 1990s R&B fool. You give me a little Jade, Brownstone, and all that that other early-1990s R&B stuff like Carl Thomas and Ginuwine … The 1990s was just a heyday of R&B to me. The 1970s was great for R&B, but the 1990s production-wise took it to another level. Carl Thomas was on Puffy’s label and wrote a song called “I Wish.” It’s such a beautiful and brilliant song. It actually makes you feel bad for a guy that is cheating on somebody! That’s how good the lyrics are. He’s like, “But she cannot stay with me/She chose to stay at home/So they could be a family.” The way he articulates those phrases makes me feel for the guy even though he’s cheating! And I love the way he says “family.” He makes it like seven syllables.
It reminds me of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” and those 1970s suicide songs like “Alone Again (Naturally)” where the melody is nice and pleasant, but when you hear what the song is about you’re like, “Oh, my God, I want to kill myself.
Don Henley, ”The Heart of the Matter”
This maybe isn’t the hippest choice for a lot of people, but as a songwriter Don Henley is untouchable. If you ever want to hear the economy of lyrics in music, it is “Heart of the Matter.” It is a perfectly written song. Not a lyric is wasted. It’s another song resigning to the fact that a relationship is over, but thinking it’s about forgiveness even if you don’t love me anymore.
That song was written around the same time as “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and I was involved with the same person. My relationship was over and this song really spoke to me. Listen to it. It’s telling a story the entire time. It’s very literal. Glenn Frey was more, “Let’s do some peyote at Joshua Tree and see the stars.” But Henley was the guy that was like, “I’m angry.” He was an angry, salty dude. But this song really shows the heart that he had. Who knew that Don Henley would say, at the end of it all, when people break up, it’s about forgiveness? Someone has to give up. It’s so perfectly articulated. When I hear that augmented D chord I’m into that song the entire time. No matter where I go when I hear that song, I will stop and listen to it. I have to stop myself from crying. And the bridge! “There are people in life who come and gone…” So perfect! There’s not a wasted lyric. That song … to me, it’s a visceral joy.
Band of Horses, “No One’s Gonna Love You”
This is a little modern for me being 52 years old. And if I have to explain to you why this song is visceral, you’ve never heard it. Do yourself a favor and go download it and listen to the acoustic version as well — the YouTube a video of them playing it acoustically. It is so powerful and so abstract. “It’s looking like a limb torn off …” Limb torn off? Is this Game of Thrones? Immediately I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t speak his language, but I understand everything he is saying. That’s what makes a song visceral and great. It’s not literal. That is his own story and his adjectives and his own metaphors in his vernacular and it speaks to all of us. It’s just such a beautiful, soaring chorus. It just gets you. Its a simple song without a lot of chords.
Most of these songs are just two or three chords, but it’s in the lyrics. There are such abstract lyrics here. Ironically, when he sings “things start falling apart at the seams,” that’s when it all came together for me in the song. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s the power of music, man. And if I talked to you tomorrow, I’d name five different songs.