The Best Music for Summer

PopMatters writers offer up their favorite songs and albums for summer. From the transcendent vocals and trumpet of the incomparable Louis Armstrong to the contemporary beats and rhymes of superstar Kanye West, our picks traverse the cultural landscape, picking out summery tunes from every era of popular music history.


Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)

Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire won best album at the 2011 Grammy Awards for their third album, The Suburbs. Vocalist Win Butler calls the instrumental album a letter from the suburbs, which is a very good description considering most tracks, like “Rococo” and the title track, are evocative of long warm evenings in neat back gardens beside a smoking barbeque. Others, like “Ready to Start” put the listener in mind of summer nights driving along a coastal road with the top down, accompanied by a sultry breeze, 100,000 stars, and the laughter of friends anticipating a good night. Watch the fantastic music for “The Suburbs” by Spike Jonze to put you in the mood. Sally Fink


Louis Armstrong – “Lazy River” / “Georgia on My Mind” (1932) from Hotter Than That

Released as a single in early 1932, these two Hoagy Carmichael songs were ideal nap-in-the-backyard cuts from the beginning. Armstrong’s arrangement retains the brassy culmination at the end, but also keeps the entire thing unpredictable (in classic Armstrong fashion) by letting the piano provide a lounge-y lead-in to it. Even though you might know what’s coming, the light tap of percussion and the twinkling piano beforehand — not to mention his scatting, taking on a near-flinty tone by the end — doesn’t quite prepare you for the fanfare of brass that arrives with his solo. The B-side, meanwhile, is obviously familiar to all no matter who sings it, but the staccato chop that pushes it along seeps fluidly toward ambling harmonies and a relaxed guitar strum by the end. Both songs are rustic in sentiment and equally inventive in summer shade or sun. Nathaniel Wisnicki

And yet another great Louis from New Orleans on the tune…


The Avalanches – Since I Left You (2000)

Plenty of albums can summon up spirits of summers past, but it takes the special magic of the Avalanches to recall summers that never happened. In their sun-baked Aussie hands, the passable vocals of dusty pop vinyls become nothing less than beatific, evoking without strain the lovesick pursuit of a girl around the globe that was once their one-and-only release’s guiding concept. That journey, abstractly but luculently bittersweet, unravels against a big beat backdrop of leggy stewardesses and plastic suitcases, chattering tourists and disembarking cruises, crowded nightclubs, squealing sirens, braying stags, combative spaceships, Madonna’s “Holiday”, Divine in Polyester, Raekwon in “Glaciers of Ice”, heaps of delay, strings and choirs galore, and the Osmonds. Since I Left You is, above all, versatile in the way this season requires: generously danceable, rock-opera-smokeable, and ceaselessly likeable; as much for June looking forward to higher temperatures, as for August, looking back at June. Benjamin Aspray


Basement Jaxx – “Romeo” (2001)

If Basement Jaxx are to be trusted, it’s not so bad to break up with someone just before summer begins. Damned if it doesn’t sound like the protagonist in “Romeo” is having way more fun than should be expected from someone getting the “hold up”, from a now-lackluster lover (“When we get it on it’s so-so / You used to be a Romeo”). The chorus is a liberating anthem in the tradition of the best disco and pop divas, from “I Will Survive” to “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” — “let it all go” becomes a mantra for the fun side of rebounding, bathed as it is in tropical synth tweets. Like many songs on its accompanying album, Rooty (2001), there’s a distinctly raw quality to the vocals on “Romeo”. This is someone who’s ready to truly let it go, and then head somewhere warm and breezy. Not a bad way to start the summer. David Abravanel


The Beatles – With the Beatles (1963)

Though some hippies claim Sgt. Pepper’s as the ultimate Beatles summer album, for me it’s their second, With the Beatles. From its odd movie-credit title and cover photo of the Lads emerging from some serious blackness (so much cooler than Sgt. Pepper’s), to its kick-in of “It won’t be long! (Yeah!) Yeah! (Yeah!) Yeah!”, this is much more than merely the greatest sophomore record of all time. Though their first, Please Please Me, has a one-take immediacy, it still feels like the Boys trying to learn the studio. It only took them one album. With the Beatles is bold, wild, and super-melodic, boasting strong covers (“Roll Over Beethoven”, “You Really Got a Hold on Me”) and better originals (“All I’ve Got to Do”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”). Roll down the windows and turn it UP. With the Beatles is perfect driving music. Guy Crucianelli


BeauSoleil – Bayou Boogie (1987) / Cajun Conja (1991) / La Danse de la Vie (1993)

With a name that means “beautiful sun”, BeauSoleil are about as built for summer as one can get. It helps that they specialize in upbeat, bright, Cajun music capable of producing an instant party mood from the first few joyous notes of Michael Doucet’s violin and Jimmy Breaux’s accordion. In fact BeauSoleil pretty much single-handedly saved Cajun music from obscurity within the larger culture, spearheading a revival moment from their formation in 1975 that continues strong to this day. Cajun music is on heavy iPod rotation for me during the summer months and BeauSoleil is pretty much my favorite currently active band on the planet. The level of musicianship this band displays is simply staggering, especially in a live setting. An hour into a performance, Doucet seems to hit some sort of transcendant groove where the notes from his violin spiral into cascades that evoke the most complex forms of jazz, while simulaneously keeping the whole floor dancing. One album recommendation? Nah, I’m giving you three. Three of the best albums in American roots music, period. Each one of these is essential, so “eenie meenie minie moe” in picking one if you must just select one. Sarah Zupko


The Very Best of Bob and Ray: Legends of Comedy (2010)

I am so not recommending this five-CD set because I wrote the liner note essay…. at least, *ahem* not entirely. Besides inspiring — now that I think of it — really quite decent essays, radio comedy team Bob & Ray built a legend out of keeping it simple. They merely zeroed in on the madness of the mundane in American and/or life in general, delivering their hilariously razor-sharp satire wrapped in rambling, gently inconsequential drollery — which makes them the perfect philosophers to take along on a lazy summer’s day. Hey, even the darkest of cynics need brain candy when the mercury hits 90F in the shade. This comprehensive compilation works well either as a gateway to Bob and Ray’s 40-year career, or a way to keep all their high spots in one place. Plus — gosh, it’s undeniable, honestly — awesome liner essays, of course. Kerrie Mills

The Breeders, Canned Heat and more…

The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)

On its own, the bubbling, boiling bassline from “Cannonball” probably qualifies the Breeders’ Last Splash as the summer album of the ’90s. But there’s so much more on Last Splash that screams out fun in the sun, be it the Deal sisters’ pot-addled go-with-the flow attitude, the album’s lazy perspiration-drenched cool, or the giddy surf-rock riffs. “Cannonball”, of course, made the biggest, er, splash, a mad mix of wacky lyrics, distorted vocals, and buoyant reggae rhythms all wrapped into an unlikely hit. But it’s actually “Saints” that has the honor of being the Breeders’ summer theme song, a raucous, muggy three-minute pop ditty that all but reeks of sunscreen, sweat, and beer — and loving it. As the chorus of “Saints” goes, “Summer is ready when you are”, and you can bet the Breeders will be waiting for you, too. Arnold Pan


Canned Heat – “Going Up the Country” from Living the Blues (1968)

Heard more than 40 years after its release, Canned Heat’s irresistibly sunny blues masterpiece “Going Up the Country” channels not just summer but pop culture nostalgia’s ultimate season, the summer of 1969. Recorded in Los Angeles, immortalised at Woodstock Festival in rural New York, and still very nearly as wondrous when its played just about anywhere, the song’s immortality is owed to its ability to carry summer with it wherever it’s heard. The song’s playful guitar, plus Alan Wilson’s high, serene voice and that memorable flute part by Jim Horn is nothing short of a recipe for sunshine in audio form. Its meaning is deeper than it first seems, however — a close listen to its lyrics hint at a darker side of life that its sunny exuberance is intended as a release from. Andy Johnson


Chicago – “Saturday in the Park” (1972)

This 1972 single more or less put Chicago on the map for good, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart and, yes, it could be said that this song is one of the first indicators that they were gradually moving away from the jazz-rock fusion sound they’d helped to pioneer towards the style they’d become better known for: mom rock. “Saturday in the Park” is a fresh breeze of a summery song, led by Robert Lamm’s driving piano chords, and baseball knows it as a particular vital opener: according to Wikipedia, the song is played at Wrigley Field during Chicago Cubs home games on Saturday afternoons, and at Yankee Stadium before New York Yankees home games. “Saturday in the Park” is one of Chicago’s best known songs, and hearing it takes you back to a seemingly simpler era with its fake Italian lyrics and its recollection of the good times with “people reaching, people touching / a real celebration”. Zachary Houle


The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for — or at least can be fully appreciated during — specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar. Sean Murphy


Miles Davis – Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (1955)

Despite the title, this is not actually one of Miles’ mellower LPs — it’s much peppier than languorous records like Sketches of Spain or even Porgy and Bess, both of which fit the summer mood quite well themselves. But Relaxin’ is almost aggressively sunny, without a trace of the bleariness (or confrontation) that often characterized his later work; even the one slower track (“You’re My Everything”) is more soothing than sad or yearning, akin to a pleasant stroll. Yet “pleasant” is too trite a word: Miles works with one of his best-ever groups (including Coltrane and the terrific Red Garland), and there’s an upfront geniality throughout; the players often converse between spinning their bright tones, lending Relaxin’ a friendly, welcoming air. “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later”, Miles says from the get-go. Titles were clearly a formality, as many things are on a summer’s day. Nathaniel Wisnicki

The Miles Davis Quintet – You’re My Everything

The Miles Davis Quintet – It Could Happen to You


Fountains of Wayne – Utopia Parkway (1999)

This 1999 power pop album is notable for actually having a summertime jam on it in the form of “It Must Be Summer”, a swiggly keyboardy tune reminiscent of the Cars, but the whole record is loaded with tracks playable with the sunroof down. The lead-off track, “Utopia Parkway”, is punchy and upbeat, and from there you get sugary pop confections such as “Red Dragon Tattoo”, “Amity Gardens”, and one of the more summer-themed cuts on the disc, “Laser Show”. However, Utopia Parkway is full of songs to be played on a summer’s evening, with the lush “Prom Theme” and “The Senator’s Daughter”. Though Utopia Parkway was not a big seller, forcing the band’s label, Atlantic, to summarily drop them — and, yes, the group is still best known for its MILF-anthem “Stacey’s Mom” from 2003 — it’s a record worth revisiting, especially if you’re looking for something to play while relaxing on a porch somewhere, near a grill, with a beer in hand. Zachary Houle

Four Tet, Grateful Dead and more…

Four Tet — “Smile Around the Face” (2005)

“Smile Around the Face” is such an obvious choice for this list that it demands inclusion. The title in itself already sounds like a joyful cartoon, and the high-pitched vocal cuts do nothing to dispel this image. The real, goosebump-raising ecstasy comes close to the three-minute mark, however, when Kieren Hebden throws out warm, cascading collapses of guitar and chimes that signify a great big endorphin release of the tight drum machine rhythm that has thus far marked the track. It’s at this point that “Smile” has arrived at the backyard bar-be-cue, or the picnic by the river. If ever a moment of music captured the feeling of sun cutting through clouds and cool lemonade flowing through one’s body on a hot day, it was this one. David Abravanel


The Free Design – Sing for Very Important People (1970)

The Free Design are sometimes referred to as the East Coast version of the Mamas and the Papas. Released in 1970 but recorded at the tail end of the ’60s, Sing for Very Important People is a children’s record in the same sense that WALL-E is a children’s film — which is to say, by a loose definition. Sure, the lyrics reflect frolicking in meadows and blowing bubbles, which may not seem like “adult” concepts. (Regrettably.) But the Free Design — who were like a less-profitable, East Coast version of the Mamas and the Papas — tinged their songs with intricate harmonies and subtle instrumental textures, giving the music a nimble brightness to reflect a universal view of summertime. Nathaniel Wisnicki

The Free Design – Dont Cry, Baby


Girl Talk – All Day (2010)

Could there be a more apt soundtrack for all the summer parties than Greg Gillis’ schizophrenic journey through some of the most fun pop samples of the past 40 years? Girl Talk juxtaposes smooth soul grooves with aggressive gangsta rap. When Wiz Khalifa, the Rolling Stones, and Phoenix can coexist on the same musical turf, you know that an evening of fun is in store. The sense of discovery upon first hearing Gillis’ magical brew is exhilarating. While Gillis first dropped this album at the end of last year, it’s destined to be one of this summer’s greatest party records. Jacob Adams


Grateful Dead — American Beauty (1970)

Though released in November, this delightful Americana record was recorded in late summer and feels saturated with sunshine, warmth, and gentle breezes. To this day, it remains my favourite studio expression of the consummate live band, among the only times in their decades-long career that they were able to use the studio to produce something coherent, vibrant, and worthy of close attention. Featuring soaring harmonies, terrific musicianship, and some of the very best songs they would ever write (including “Box of Rain”, “Truckin'”, “Brokedown Palace”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Ripple”, and “Friend of the Devil”), this is the one Grateful Dead record everyone can agree on. Equally magnificent with a beer on a back patio as with a doobie on a rocky lakeshore as with a quiet drive in the country, this is my pick for your sunshine daydream. Stuart Henderson


Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he sounds like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him. Sean Murphy


Hüsker Dü – “Celebrated Summer” (1984) from New Day Rising (1985)

The ultimate punk song about summertime, this gem from 1985’s New Day Rising is the harshest and brittle ode to the season where another hour of daylight gets tacked onto the lingering day. The song is a marked change from much of Hüsker Dü’s previous work, in that there are extended 12-string acoustic guitar breaks mid-way through and towards the end of the track, highlighting the dichotomy between scorching guitar punk and tenderness. Of course, there’s a sense of yearning and nostalgia to be had, with memorable and truthful lines such as “Getting drunk out on the beach or playing in a band / Getting out of school meant getting out of hand”. The song has gone on to have a notable afterlife, being covered by both acts in the heavy metal sphere (Anthrax) and in gentle, folky circles (Mark Kozelek), showing the overarching appeal it has had on many different genres of music outside of trad punk circles. This is a must for both the pensive and those looking for an anthem to be blared out of their cars at high volume. Zachary Houle

Jellyfish, Fela Kuti and more…

Jane’s Addiction – “Summertime Rolls” from Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

“Summertime Rolls” by Jane’s Addiction perfectly captures the laziness of summer. It begins with some slow strings and sways, and then builds to a great rock-out mid-section. The lyrics are based on evocative, nostalgic imagery of childhood summers (remember holding buttercups up to your chin?) in simple, dare I say, innocent language. The song makes you long for the summer nights you spent (or now like to imagine you spent) as a child, staring up in to the sky, thinking about the whole big wide world, without a sliver of panic. Perry Farrell sings, “There’s so much space / I cut me a piece / With some fine wine / It brought peace to my mind / In the summertime / And it rolled”. and I want all my summers to be like that. Christine Brandel


Jay-Z ft. Mr. Hudson – “Young Forever” from The Blueprint 3 (2009)

Summer seems to evoke a feeling of perpetual youth, so what’s a better summer jam than a song that does the same thing? It’s a simple premise, appreciating hanging out with your friends, sipping wine and talking about everything and nothing. With a slow, heavy beat it paints a picture; you can almost feel the heat rising off the sidewalks. “Young Forever” is good no matter what the time of year you hear it, but the relaxed, chill vibe makes it ideal for summer. It’s an East Coast rapper giving us classic West Coast swagger and he kills it. Devin Mainville


Jellyfish – Spilt Milk (1993)

“What a lovely way: drowning sins in tooth decay.” So sings Andy Sturmer on “New Mistake” — Spilt Milk‘s infectious centerpiece about love, decadence, and temptation. That seems a fair summation for the album itself: though it boasts heavier guitars than debut Bellybutton (1990), Spilt Milk still drenches its sardonic humor and love-gone-awry story in pure sugar — Queen-style harmonies, meticulous orchestration, and the brightest power-pop songcraft this side of Skylarking. The album runs the gamut from suave power-ballad (“The Glutton of Sympathy”) to lush jazz-pop (“Russian Hill”) to dense pop-metal (“All Is Forgiven”). Somehow it all hits the mark — a kaleidoscope of colorful ‘70s power-pop nirvana — and somehow, despite its 1993 release date, it still sounds like next summer. Zach Schonfeld


Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit (1975) / He Miss Road (1975)

Fela Kuti, the Nigerian who invented Afro-Beat, released over 30 albums with his Africa 70 band during the ’70s. Many of these have been reissued in pairs, and really, any of these pairs would serve the purpose here. But the 1975 combo of Expensive Shit and He Miss Road is definitive. Here you get the perfect representation of Kuti’s thick funk/jazz/African/Latin amalgam, and provocative, fearless political agitation. “Expensive Shit” was composed as Kuti’s response to a raid by Nigerian authorities on his commune. As the legend goes, a marijuana joint was planted on Kuti, who then swallowed it, leading to the police’s inordinate interest in Kuti’s, erm, shit as possible evidence. As the song progresses from a simple James Brown guitar scratch, you can almost feel the heat rising and the sweat dripping amid the polyrhythmic drums, defiant horn blasts, and chanted vocals. The rest of the collection is no less groovy, with He Miss Road adding rich, psychedelic organ. For those sweltering days that can be just as primal and dirty as they are festive, Fela’s your man. John Bergstrom


Joni Mitchell – The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Certainly one of Mitchell’s most divisive records, you might think that an album called The Hissing of Summer Lawns — especially one by Joni Mitchell — would be wispy and comfortable. And it is…but not in the ways that you might expect. Packed with ambitious arrangements that hint at jazz while not quite meeting it head-on, Hissing is summer as seen from a decadent Californian perspective: imagery of vibrant coloring set to lush instrumental timbres, and yet languid and druggy instead of bouncy. And while Mitchell’s verse is admittedly not in top-form here (the most striking line might be that title), her vocal fluctuations (“mannerisms”. if you’d prefer) rarely sound as ghostly or distant as they do here. It’s an album not for relaxing on your own lawn, but for looking out at other ones as you wander through the humid nighttime streets. Nathaniel Wisnicki


Jim O’Rourke – Halfway to a Threeway EP (1999)

This EP could be heard as a 20-minute transition from a sunny afternoon to an idle summer’s evening. While beginning with a song called “Fuzzy Sun” and ending on a melancholy note of near-surrealism with the title track, the longer tracks in the middle of Halfway to a Threeway take their time to build relaxing harmonies and lush instrumental tones. They’re so leisurely in pace that some people may be surprised that they never exactly “peak” — not in a “look at me” way, certainly. But that’s the charm of the EP: focus on the melodies and feel relaxed, but focus on each instrument and you’ll hear them slowly weave around, twisting those lush tones until reaching an infectious calm, like the last 30 seconds of “Not Sport, Marital Art”. Luckily, summer days are long, which means that you can keep replaying these tracks until that aforementioned transition actually happens. Nathaniel Wisnicki


Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind. Sean Murphy

Louis Prima, Steve Reich and more…

Louis Prima – Capitol Collectors Series (1991)

Modern musicology is finally catching up with the fact that Louis Prima wasn’t just a fun Las Vegas lounge singer, but was, in fact, a fine jazz musician who spanned the New Orleans, swing and jump blues eras, as well being one of the progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about time, I say. It’s all to easy to dismiss the “entertainers” in our musical history as not as important as the more “serious” appearing musicians. Prima was from New Orleans like that other great Louis, and he, too, effortlessly blended his New Orleans roots with a host of popular music forms. He had a long career, but found his greatest success later in life when partnering with fellow NOLA Italian-American Sam Butera and singer Keely Smith in the ’50s and ’60s. Prima wrote the swing anthem “Sing Sing Sing” and honestly, any Prima record is worth owning and I do have them all, but Capitol Collectors Series is the ideal place to start. This is an album that trumpets “summer”, as its peppy beats and infectious tunes will have your finger stuck on the repeat button. Roll down those windows, turn up the volume, and let those horns blare. Sarah Zupko


Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered her today” to party through the summer and we are going to dance straight through to autumn with one of the best sets of songs to ever dominate the planet. Released on Warner Brothers records in the summer of 1984, Prince’s Purple Rain ruled the entire summer making Prince an icon and giving the world a soundtrack for every summer to follow. It’s stylish to put Purple Rain down in an act of hipster coolness, but doing so is just foolish. Purple Rain is as close to flawless as Prince has ever been, the entire album is filled with music that defied categorization more than any other set of tunes released before or since. R&B? Check. Pop? Check. Stadium Rock? Check. Dance music? Check. Steamy ballads and metallic guitars (in the same song if you’d like. Hello “The Beautiful Ones)? Check. Revisit it; play it all in one sitting and hear what summer sounds like. Perfection? Check! Gregg Lipkin


Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011)

Forget the chatter about this album being too inaccessible, or abstract, or electronic. Radiohead creates something rich, evocative and deeply rewarding here. Its supposed “bleakness” feels more like a deep-sea dive into the unconscious, where fascinating sights, sounds and emotions appear around every corner. Sure, you have to be in a certain mood to enter its cavernous world, but on those late nights, when formulaic pop-lite isn’t cutting it, let this album play and marvel at its intricate rhythms, layered textures and poetic lyrics. It’s appeal isn’t merely cerebral though — you can dance to it, too (okay, maybe not to “Bloom” or “Codex”). But look no further than Thom Yorke’s much-parodied, viral video for “Lotus Flower.” This music is intended to work through your body as well as your mind. As Yorke puts it: “Slip into the groove and cut me off/ And cut me off.” Joe Vogel


Ernest Ranglin — “Below the Bassline” (1996)

There are two music genres that articulate the liberties of summer better than most: reggae and jazz. Enter Ernest Ranglin, the man who taught Bob Marley how to play guitar and the midwife to the birth of ska in the late ’50s. Born in Manchester Jamaica in 1932, Ranglin was the first to successfully blend the bouncy rhythms of reggae with the free spirit of jazz guitar, creating what’s now known as Jamaican jazz. An album of pure acoustic brilliance, “Below the Bassline” is a must-have summer soundtrack. Ranglin’s silky guitar style is as smooth as it is jaw-droppingly dexterous. Though your ear will follow the subtle narration of his guitar, your body will be captivated by the rhythms of his incredible supporting cast. Not only is this a great introduction to Ranglin’s immense catalogue, it’s the album your friends will be jealous you knew about first. Kevin Smallwood


Steve Reich – New York Counterpoint (1985)

For those resistant to classical music, especially post-1950 classical music, this may come as a surprise. Composed for clarinets in three movements, the American “minimalist” composer manages to entwine simple phrases to evoke the sound of New York traffic. Sound annoying? It isn’t, actually, and despite the presence of an firm pulse and what seems like dozens of those clarinets, New York Counterpoint is quietly exuberant, recalling the feeling of having an entire city at your fingertips on a slack July weekend. Clarinets have always had a summer-y tone to them, going back to “Rhapsody in Blue” and long before that, and Reich makes use of them in a particularly unique way that few others could. And the whole piece is only 11 minutes long! Nathaniel Wisnicki


R.E.M. – Reveal (2001)

R.E.M.’s criminally underrated album, Reveal, is one that instantly conjures up summer in its lilting melodies, wonderful harmonies, and jangly guitars. Even the album art with the sun beating down on a field with a shadow looming in the corner feels unmistakably summery. From the achingly beautiful “I’ve Been High” and “She Just Wants to Be” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Summer Turns To High” to the undeniable hook in “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”, Reveal offers a full picture of a band still growing and delivering even after almost 20 years of recording. Perhaps no other song on the album encapsulates the freedom and escape that summer offers better than “Imitation of Life”. An album highlight, it’s a song that plays to all of R.E.M.’s strengths: a strong sense of melody, a combination of inscrutable and strikingly visceral lyrics, and a chorus so undeniable that the listener can’t help but feel the comfort and fleeting nature of summertime. J.M. Suarez

The Replacements, Slowdive and more…

The Replacements – Hootenanny (1983)

There’s something about this seemingly sloppy release that shouts summertime into my ear. It’s loud, loose, and runs the gamut from the silly (“Hootenanny”, “Treatment Bound”) to the sentimental (“Within Your Reach”). But it’s the devil-may-care feel of “Color Me Impressed” that really captures the spirit of late nights and long, loud parties. Yet this isn’t so much about the act of partying as it is the spirit of it and, for around half an hour, you become convinced that there is fun to be had without consequence. Of course, the eerie “Willpower” is a sobering but brief reminder that when life looks like you’re riding on easy street, there is always the possibility of danger. Jedd Beaudoin


Cliff Richard and the Shadows – Summer Holiday (1963)

John Lennon said the first rock record in the UK was Cliff Richard’s “Move It”, from 1958. At that time Richard was seen as a Euro-Elvis; a lewd, immoral, and rebellious influence. Yet by the time of his 1963 hit movie and record Summer Holiday, he was well on the way to becoming an all-singing and dancing wholesome cash-producing whirlwind. Peter Yates’ debut film remains a lovely piece of cultural escapism: an archetype of carefree fun for young people striking out for independence. It features Richard’s sometime backing group, the Shadows (one of whom married the young Olivia Newton-John) and also stars Una Stubbs, later to appear as the daughter in Til Death Us Do Part (remade in the US as All in the Family). The single reached number one in the UK charts and didn’t hurt the popularity of tourism to the continent where Greece, France and Spain were key destinations. Not even the intervention of Franco could slow the British tourist boom, despite the General secretly dictating that Spain’s “La La La” would pip Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations” by one point for pitifully cheery and tawdry glory in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest.

By 1977, British holidaymakers were going much farther abroad than the South of France and Johnny Rotten was rejecting the notion of “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”. The song “Summer Holiday” now exists outside of fashion and still sounds fresh and hopeful 50 years after I used to sing along to it as my dad drove us to a caravan holiday on the English East coast. The film has been produced as a musical on several occasions and another of Richard’s early hits unwittingly spawned the cult TV show The Young Ones. Before the ’60s were out, he became a celibate Christian, but has enjoyed a long career in pop music with a devoted following. In 1968, director Yates made Bullitt and, in 1979, the excellent Breaking Away. D.M. Edwards


Jonathan Richman – “That Summer Feeling” (1983/1992)

Summer in the popular imagination is often about longing for what might have been; think of cinematic and literary tales of summer romance, for example. Jonathan Richman’s song captures that longing as a “summer feeling” that haunts us all forever. It’s the romanticization of fleeting moments from the past, daydreaming about paths not taken; summer connected to freedom, youth and beauty. In its original 1983 version, the song is bright and, well, summer-y. The harmonies and fingersnaps represent the way we think about summer while the lyrics warn us that “that summer feeling is going to haunt you one day in your life”. The 1992 version is a revelatory rewrite that dwells on that haunting. He fills out the image of the flirtatious girl at the playground, sung with an outpouring of emotion, like he’s back in that moment. “You’ll throw away everything for it”, he sings, acknowledging that this idealistic, pop-culture version of what life could be is what leads to mid-life crises, marital breakdowns, and brash life decisions that we’ll regret when reality sets in. We’re always chasing summer, but we need to watch out for it, too. Or as indie-popper Jacob Borshard put it last year, “Summer Will Have Its Way”. Dave Heaton


Rush – “Lakeside Park” (1975)

The May 24th long weekend, or Victoria Day weekend, is considered in Canada to be the unofficial start of summer, a time when families open up their cottages for the first time, do some flower or vegetable planting, and fire up the grill. Rush’s “Lakeside Park” is the unofficial anthem of May 24, as that date is referenced in the song itself in fondly nostalgic ways. (“Everyone would gather / On the 24th of May / Sitting in the sand / To watch the fireworks display.”) The best track on 1975’s meandering Caress of Steel, which is arguably their worst album in their long and storied career, “Lakeside Park” is almost a ballad by Rush’s standards: just a simple sketch of an infatuation drummer/lyricist Neil Peart had with some green space in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario. Bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee has publically dismissed the tune as “lousy” in a 1993 magazine interview, but he’s wrong. This is a lush, gorgeous song with a lovely quiet break before the guitars roar back to life by its end, as potent as a group of fireworks going off. “Lakeside Park” might not make the playlist of recent Rush concerts, but it has a special place as a summer jam in the band’s lengthy back catalogue. It’s one that hits the sweet spot every time you here it, and is the mother of all national hymns marking the start of Canada’s all-too-short summer season. Zachary Houle


Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ (2011)

The great Raphael Saadiq has created a soul-infused tribute to legendary predecessors such as Sly Stone and treads boldly into the mighty sonic explorations of ’60s soul. At this year’s South by Southwest, journalists and fans alike were raving about his now-legendary performances through the week, with much of his set being culminated from this album. If you want to get people on the dance floor, put on the “Take You Higher” throwback “Heart Attack”, which boasts one of the most instantaneously electrifying moments of the year or for more mellow and soulful moments, try “Go to Hell” or “Good Man”, which harken back to the string-drenched trances of Motown. Josh Antonuccio


Sleigh Bells – Treats (2010)

If you ask me, summer is the ideal time for noise pop, and no band working today does it better than Sleigh Bells. The Brooklyn duo’s debut record is, well, just what the title says, a treat. Every track is filled with the kind of exuberant joy felt during a carefree summer holiday. With soaring guitar melodies, repetitive synth lines, and chant-like vocals combined with mainly superficial lyrics — see the lines “wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces” and “Ain’t life sweet with my true friends” — it doesn’t get much more viscerally primal than this. Jacob Adams


Slowdive – Pygmalion (1995)

Here in Southern Ontario at least, summer hasn’t necessarily gotten any hotter, but it has gotten more humid. And as much as summer is about parties at the beach, barbeques, and the like, it’s also about those first few days where the humidex hits you like a moist sledgehammer, when you just want to stay indoors with all the lights off and curtains drawn, a fan aimed directly at you while you lie on a couch and breath slowly. Slowdive’s underappreciated, almost ambient swansong Pygmalion is the perfect soundtrack for those days; just like you, “Rutti” barely moves at all, but by the time “Blue Skied An’ Clear” slowly unfurls heavenward, you might just have made peace with never leaving that couch all summer long. Ian Mathers

Slowdive – Rutti

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