The Best Music for Summer

by PopMatters Staff

1 July 2011


The Small Faces, Kanye West and more...

The Small Faces - “Itchycoo Park” (1967)

Mod poppers, the Small Faces, are the most criminally underappreciated band of the ‘60s. Their blend of gritty soul, British pop, English psychedelia, and East End vaudeville has been hugely influential on a wide range of artists following in their wake, including most obviously the Jam, but also a group as seemingly far afield as Led Zeppelin. There are times when Robert Plant’s phrasing so closely approximates Steve Marriott’s that it makes you think the Led Zep main man learned a lot of his tricks from the lead Face. Many Small Faces tunes make for fine summer fare, but none is more perfectly suited to bright and relaxing days than “Itchycoo Park”, an ode to whiling away one’s day under the leafy trees, perhaps with a bit of chemical enhancement (always a mod favorite), enjoying a state of bliss. The tune is reportedly a tribute to London’s Little Ilford Park, near where Marriott grew up and, another interesting tidbit, the song was banned at one point by the BBC for “drug references”. You think? It’s “all too beautiful”, indeed. Sarah Zupko

Teenage Fanclub - Songs from Northern Britain (1997)

Really, I could have chosen almost any album from the endlessly sunny, effortlessly melodic Fannies, but despite including a song named “Winter”, this is the one that makes me think of summer the most. Partly, I’m sure, because of the blue sky on the cover and Gerard Love singing about “summer in the city” on the sweetly melancholic “Ain’t That Enough”. But mostly because Love, Norman Blake, and Raymond McGinley write and sing songs that, even when they’re sad, have a certain core of warmth and optimism that seems perfect for the warm weather and lessened responsabilities of summer. It helps that Songs from Northern Britain sounds great when you’re blasting a song like McGinley’s “I Don’t Care” (actually a love song) in the car, driving down the road with the windows down. Ian Mathers

The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa (2009)

Listening to The Very Best is like getting a shot of pure dopamine right into your veins. Their free mixtapes do the trick, but the group’s official debut album, Warm Heart of Africa, goes a step further. Vocalist Esau Mwamwaya has a preternatural gift for melody, and his strong, clear voice shows his unbridled enthusiasm for Belgian duo Radioclit’s maximalist production work. Mwamwaya sings in a mix of English and his native Chichewa, the language of Malawi. But don’t worry if you don’t speak Chichewa—here, ignorance works to one’s benefit, turning Mwamwaya’s syllables into the sound of pure, unadulterated joy. Crank “Yilara”, “Cholo”, “Julia”, and any other of these bangers, and just let the world melt away. Corey Beasley

Kanye West—Graduation (2007)

While perhaps not Kanye’s best album, Graduation is certainly his most celebratory, coupling the richest tones of “retro” synth-pop and the sheer largeness of arena rock and applying both to modern hip-hop. “Stronger” was the big summer single, but the “summer party” vibe is thorough: the fluid delivery in “Champion” or “Flashing Lights”, the buoyant joy of “Good Life” or “The Glory”. If memory serves, the summer and fall of 2007 seemed invigorated and optimistic, at least by pop culture’s terms—it was as though the anxiety of previous years had been briefly alleviated, as if we were all “graduating”. (It was even released on September 11.) Graduation seems tailor-made to represent the very best of being free and confident in the 2000s—whether we were or not. Confidence can sometimes be integral for a great summer. Nathaniel Wisnicki

The Who - Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear. Sean Murphy

Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Need pitch-perfect tunes for a summer road trip? Look no further than Lucinda Williams’ finest, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. William’s sad sweet country songs are perfect for driving: it only takes a line to get the listener in the passenger’s seat beside her on country routes early in the morning, or crossing Lake Ponchatrain in a yellow El Camino. Williams takes us places we’ve never been and makes us feel at home while we’re there. The lyrics combine melancholy and nostalgic storytelling that so many country singers chase, while also being immensely sing-a-long-able. I first heard Car Wheels driving through Utah and Colorado with my dad when I was 15. We got the sense that Williams is letting us in on a secret, something good. Car Wheels is a rambling angst-ridden letter to listeners. It’s the kind of album we return to—a rare collection of songs that stays true across moods, seasons, and years, but it’s best heard in the summertime, driving with the top down. Adele Melander-Dayton


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