Nostalgia for the '90s is in full effect this summer. Recent tour stops from the likes of Everclear and Third Eye Blind – which not only happened, but drew well – confirmed as much. Perhaps it’s the longing for days gone by, or maybe it’s just summer nostalgia finally turning its focus to that little window in the mid-late '90s when a band could produce a couple of catchy pop-rock tracks and become platinum-selling superstars – not to mention future nostalgia acts – in the process.
Sugar Ray often gets lumped in with fellow mid-late 90s alt-rock bands like 3EB, Everclear, Collective Soul, Better Than Ezra, and any number of others who placed hit tracks on rock radio around the same time. Many consider these bands cut from the same cloth, mostly because they were popular around the same time and because they all kinda sounded the same.
The first half of this assumption is accurate; these bands all did rule rock radio while catering to high-school and college kids during the mid-late 90s. But to consider these bands one and the same is inaccurate. Which brings us back to Sugar Ray.
Front man Mark McGrath and crew are among the acts touring in support of the nostalgia-as-a-weapon I Love the '90s: The Party Continues tour, which plays NRG Arena on Sunday night. Sugar Ray won’t be taking part in this particular stop, as it's a rotating bill. Rather, audiences in the mood for some '90s throwback tunes can enjoy other stalwarts from that decade including Blackstreet, Naughty by Nature, Biz Markie, and the surviving members of TLC.
So, if you want to hear “Fly” or “Every Morning,” cue up Spotify or hit up your local karaoke joint. That said, Sugar Ray got me thinking about the music I enjoyed once upon a time. More importantly, it got me thinking about the music I still enjoy but of which I am no longer proud to admit. In short, can’t we just embrace our love of mediocre music?
Not that McGrath is under any delusions as to how and why Sugar Ray is still able to exist, inasmuch as Sugar Ray still exists as a current recording and touring band – the band hasn’t released a proper studio album since 2009’s Music for Cougars, though McGrath did release a solo EP a couple years back.
“There's no misconception as to what this tour's about,” McGrath told the Chicago Tribune in 2015, when he was preparing to venture out on a similar 90s-themed tour. “I don't want to hear these bands' new songs, just like the audience doesn't. I want to hear the hits.”
Make no mistake, Sugar Ray has hits, plenty of hits. “Fly” was once the most popular song in America, and even “Every Morning” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard radio charts. In addition, the band charted a few other tracks on pop radio during its commercial heyday between 1997-2001.
Now, not to disparage McGrath and his bandmates, who carved out a better career than one might have ever imagined, thanks to McGrath’s charisma and good looks, not to mention the band’s island-like vibe, which simply screamed “fun in the summertime.” But to compare Sugar Ray to Collective Soul and Third Eye Blind would be unfair, since those two bands are, you know, actually good.
Seriously, go back and listen to any Sugar Ray song that made commercial noise back in the day. It’s a tough listen. Yeah, “Fly” hasn’t exactly held up like “Semi-Charmed Life” or “Shine.” But that doesn’t mean Sugar Ray is a band worth condemning in hindsight. McGrath and crew, who aren’t exactly on the best of terms these days, weren’t the best band. Hell, they weren’t even a particularly good band. But their songs meant something in the moment, and that’s something worth celebrating.
Sugar Ray isn’t alone in this regard. Music is littered with acts who have come and gone. Some were good, others not so much. But thanks to the advent of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, we no longer have to buy entire albums to relive one or two songs. Rather, they’re available at the push of a button.
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Seriously, Marcy Playground was pretty nominal as bands go, but “Sex and Candy” still has novelty appeal. Play Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” at some local bar full of thirtysomethings and watch them erupt. Limp Bizkit, arguably the most derided band of the past 20 years, put out a number of catchy tunes before Fred Durst’s ego and inability to pen a halfway decent song after the band’s first two records finally did them in. Smash Mouth is now considered a joke, despite putting out some tracks of value.
So, yeah, I like Sugar Ray, despite knowing full well that the band isn't quite the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. “Falls Apart” has held up quite well, probably because it sounds unlike a lot of other Sugar Ray songs. The band’s cover of “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” is perfectly fine as covers go. And you’re damn right I sing along when “Answer the Phone” cues up on Pandora.
“Guilty pleasure” is such a misleading term. After all, musically speaking, why should one feel guilty over something that brings one pleasure? Sugar Ray wasn’t a groundbreaking band. Hell, its own lead singer admits the band was long ago relegated to travelling nostalgia act. But to shy away from singing along to “Someday?” Not a damn thing to feel guilty about there.