[9 July 2014]
Except for a couple, most of the picks on this list are at least 20 years old. It takes a while for a song to become timeless. In this case, listeners often need a few summers to absorb a song in order to begin relating to it as a seasonal staple.
While the list incorporates some songs that most listeners would immediately associate with summer, there are a few that speak of the season without being obvious. In an effort to make the collection as varied as possible, well-known songs are included as well as a few that have flown under the radar over the years. This means there are a lot of big summer hits (e.g.: “Cruel Summer“ by Bananarama, “Summer Breeze“ by Seals and Croft, anything by the Beach Boys, “Under the Boardwalk“ by the Drifters, etc.) left off the list in order to make room for some lesser-known gems.
What could be more summertime than a lyric like “Orange popsicles and lemonade“? In 1986, The B-52’s’ New Wave, surf pop ditty “Summer of Love“ was the first single released off of Bouncing off Satellites. While many would probably consider “Rock Lobster“ to be the band’s biggest summer hit, “Summer of Love“ is so balmy with its airy keyboards, you can almost hear the sun shining.
The Pixies’ surfer babe, Ana “undressing in the sun“ and about to surf a wave “eleven high“, paints the ultimate picture of summer. In fact all of 1990’s Bossanova, the alt-rock band’s third studio release, could have been included in this list for its preoccupation with California and rockabilly guitar. What makes “Ana“ so special, aside from the dreamy guitars and Black Francis’s spellbound vocals, is that the song is an acrostic, wherein the first letter of each line of the song spells “surfer“. Very clever, Mr. Francis.
In this Grammy-winning tune from 1991, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince recount classic summer diversions in their hometown of Philadelphia. Fresh Prince Will Smith’s vocals are layered over samples of Kool and the Gang’s mellow instrumental, “Summer Madness“, giving the tune a laid back vibe. The official video to the song depicts Smith and Jazzy Jeff riding around Philly and hanging out with folks dancing, grilling, and shooting hoops. You can’t get more “summer“ than that.
When you’re “living on sponge cake“ and “watching the sun bake“, there’s no better tune to have coming through the speakers than Jimmy Buffet’s laid-back “Margaritaville“. Inspired by the time he spent in Key West, the song captures the summertime blues of one man and his mission to drown them in tequila. Written in 1977, “Margaritaville“ has come to epitomize Buffet’s career, even inspiring the musician to open his own chain of restaurants named after the song. As overplayed as it is in dentist offices and waiting rooms across the U.S., this booze cruise anthem is perfect for when you’re sipping a tall one or lounging by the beach.
In the sixth track off their classic Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia album, the Dandy Warhols paint a vivid picture of aging beauty in Hollywood and the money and excess used to offset its demise. In his snarkiest voice, Courtney Taylor-Taylor sings about “itsy-bitys-teeny-weeny-riding-up-your-butt“ bikinis and “cruisin’ and boozin’ and rocking on the horse-sized pills“. Guitars grind while band members call out wisecracks and a chant of “pills, thrills“ repeats in the background. Unfortunately, the video for the song is a snooze. A song this colorful demands an equally vibrant video.
Summer is bike season and what better way to celebrate it than with Queen’s 1978 hit “Bicycle Race“? The track, released off of the band’s seventh album Jazz, pays homage to the time period it was released in, making references to Watergate, Star Wars, and Jaws. When Freddie Mercury croons “I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride my biiiike”, it’s almost impossible not to sing along. The song even has a bicycle bell solo in the middle. Also known for its naughty video, featuring a bike race full of nude women, the song is a summer classic on more levels than one.
While it was originally composed for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, over the years, “Summertime“ has become a jazz standard, covered by several artists. Miles Davis does it best with his sultry rendition from his album Porgy and Bess, released in 1958. Even though the lyrics are missing in this instrumental version, Davis is still able to paint the picture of jumping fish and high cotton with his signature trumpet wizardry.
Hearing this catchy 1997 track from Ween’s madcap album The Mollusk summons the beach, not only because the title has the word “ocean“ in it, but also because the tropical vibe is immediate. Gene Ween (AKA Aaron Freeman) sounds like he’s singing under water. It’s no wonder the tune was featured in the Spongebob Squarepants movie as it sounds like something that could be played at an underwater dance party. The fact that it has hand clapping in it doesn’t hurt either.
Don’t drink the water! At least that’s the sentiment behind this energetic song of a summer vacation gone bad by California’s finest and most underrated band. Released in May 1998, off of Grandaddy’s debut studio album Under the Western Freeway, the song’s spirited guitars and somewhat off-kilter vocals make it the perfect song for a day of riding around with the top down or skating a halfpipe.
Light up the tiki torches; nothing gets the barbecue/pool party going like a little Bob Marley and the Wailers. In 1967, Marley wrote “Stir It Up“ for his wife, Rita, and then released it with the Wailers in 1973. It marked Marley’s first big hit outside of his homeland of Jamaica and has since become a reggae classic. “Stir It Up“ offers up the perfect mix of pool-side relaxation and languorous dance rhythms.
This tattered summery song was recorded by Pavement and released in 1992 by Drag City Records just before it folded. The song was then re-recorded as “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” and became the opening track on the band’s debut album Slanted and Enchanted. Both versions are evocative, conjuring up a summer infatuation “mixin’ up cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar“. Steven Malkmus’ aloof, half-spoken vocals, mixed with the offbeat lyrics and guitar distortion are an archetype of the band’s signature lo-fi sound.
Released in 1983 off of Missing Persons’ Spring Session M, “Walking in L.A.” is a song that nails summer in Los Angeles. The imagery of walking through the heat of the city, seeing a “lame jogger“, a “shopping cart pusher“, and a “roller skater in some kind of headphone disguise“, coupled with the bouncy keyboards that open the song, make this tune a summer classic. You can almost see the heat rolling off the blacktop.
In addition to being one of the band’s most thrilling choral epics, “Summer and Lightning“ from ELO’s classic 1977 Out of the Blue is a quintessential summer storm song. When the swelling harmony comes in: “It’s all around me, It must be magic“, it’s guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck. “Summer and Lightning“ is a sparkling example of Jeff Lynne’s ability to create that unmistakable and original ELO sound.
Any song with clapping in it suggests summer; The Cars’ classic “Let’s Go“ from their 1979 album Candy-O is the perfect example. Written by Ric Ocasek and sung by the late Benjamin Orr, “Let’s Go“ is the ideal tune to play in the car with the windows rolled all the way down. If you were a child of the ‘70s, the song may very well conjure summers past. As Orr sings about a 17-year-old who likes the nightlife and “doesn’t wear her shoes“, the song’s springy synthesizers beg the listener to get up and go.
“When I’m out walkin’, I strut my stuff – yeah, I’m so strung out,” sings Gordan Gano on one of the most recognizable Violent Femmes songs. The carefree, bratty attitude of “Blister in the Sun“ goes hand-in-hand with summertime vacation and teenage mischief. Released in 1983 from the Femmes’ self-titled album, “Blister in the Sun“ was later featured in the film, Grosse Point Blank in 1997. The inclusion in the movie resulted in a wacky video for the song made up of movie clips and clips of Gano apparently plotting to kill President Clinton’s cat, Socks.
Alice Cooper’s end-of-the-school-year anthem is the perfect kickoff to summer vacation. Every year on the last day of school, someone somewhere was blasting this song while students waded knee-high through crumpled up exams and old homework. In Cooper’s book, Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock ‘n’ Roller’s 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict, Cooper reveals he wrote the song to capture “the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning”. Besides being a chant for America’s youth, the song, released in 1972 off the album with the same name, was Cooper’s first big hit single and has since been covered by everyone from Alien Sex Fiend to the cast of Glee.
The Go-Go’s’ 1982 song about using a summer vacation to repress heartbreak was the first single released off their album with the same name. The song has become synonymous with vacations of any type and has been featured in TV shows and movies alike. The single was also issued as the first cassette single (or “cassingle“) ever, and reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1982. The classic video, which showed the band waterskiing, has apparently been removed from YouTube for copyright reasons, but will forever be linked with the song.
That iconic maniacal laugh and the subsequent “Wipeout!” have been a mainstay in popular culture since 1963 when surf rock band, the Safaris, released the song. Since then, “Wipeout“ has been featured in countless TV shows and films, including Surf’s Up, Get Crazy, and Dirty Dancing, putting the band on the map and making the song one of the most recognized surfing anthems of all time.
This list wouldn’t be complete without the late, great lady of disco—she even has “summer“ in her name. Her hit “Hot Stuff“, the first single off of the classic album Bad Girls, was released in June 1979. The sweaty sexy summer hit includes a guitar solo by ex-Doobie Brother and Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, making it a surefire way get people bumping and grinding on the dance floor.
This Ramones hit from their 1977 album Rocket to Russia sums up summer in NYC “up on the roof, out on the street, down on the playground—the hot concrete”. Written by bassist Dee Dee Ramone as an ode to his favorite spot in Queens, “Rockaway Beach“ is a surf punk tune synonymous with youth and hitching a ride to the shore.