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The Summer Songs Canon: A Modern Songbook of Perennial Hot-Weather Favorites

Exceptional Christmas songs have the benefit of getting canonized so we revisit them every year. Why can’t we do the same thing for summer songs?

Juliet Litman: The passing of summer is melancholy. September will surely bring some hot days, but the sun sets increasingly early, kids are back in school, Halloween candy floods the grocery store, and the radio stations begin plugging fall events. “Fancy” is already giving way to “Shake It Off,” and soon “Rude” will be a distant sonic memory, only as relevant to this year’s dismal Song of the Summer race. The Iggy and Charli track is undeniably catchy, and I’ve witnessed its power on the dance floor at a few weddings this season. But if we’re not happy with this song, why must we accept it? I fear we’ve put too much pressure on pop music to produce a golden tune every year. We need to rethink the Song of the Summer system.

Here’s what I propose: Treat summer songs like Christmas music. If we expected to receive a musical gift as plentiful as “All I Want for Christmas Is You” every holiday season, we’d be constantly disappointed. But exceptional Christmas songs have the benefit of getting canonized, so we revisit them annually. It doesn’t matter that we may never get another pop Christmas song as lasting as the Mariah Carey classic, because we can keep going back to that one without spending too much time asking, “What happened to the Christmas album?” Christmas music is about a timeless feeling, and so is summer music. Everyone has a song that reminds them of a specific (or maybe horrific) summer, and some rite of passage.

Let’s round up all of these songs like our forefathers did with the great books of Western literature. I never again want to be beholden to some Canadian group that made the horrible decision of including an exclamation point in their band name. We’re not here to determine just the songs of the summer, but the songs of every summer. You’ve still got a few more days to blast these, and hopefully the arrival of Labor Day will be less painful, because we know they’ll will be waiting for us next year.

 

Warren G, “Summertime in the LBC”

Rafe Bartholomew: How do we do what we do when we do what we do hanging out late with no curfew?

Bran Van 3000, “Drinking in L.A.”
Len, “Steal My Sunshine”

Emily Yoshida: The first time I visited Los Angeles as a culturally aware human being was in 1998, when my mom was on Wheel of Fortune and we spent a long weekend wandering around Hollywood and West L.A., poking around the dusty shelves of janky souvenir shops and marveling at the widespread availability of sushi. I didn’t know I would someday call this city home for over a decade, but something about that late-’90s version of it stuck with me, like so much spilled Dr. Pepper residue on the dashboard of a rental car. Chili dogs and car exhaust and the particular odor of Hollywood Boulevard in its pre-Giuliani–Times Square squalor (an odor it still retains the further you stray from Hollywood and Highland). For some reason that vision of L.A. is still central to my ideal summer vibe: somewhat disreputable, kaleidoscope-colored, and almost pathologically chill.

Bran Van 3000’s 1998 single “Drinking in L.A.” crystallizes that feeling in a way that only a bunch of faux-fur wearing Quebecois weirdos could. From its almost-too-relatable lyrics about “feeling kind of groovy, working on a movie (yeah right!)” to its cheery ketamine haze of a beat, it has the potential to resonate down to the bone for any Angeleno, whether they love or hate their city, whether or not 26 is way in the rearview.

There has been a screengrab of the mopeds from the “Steal My Sunshine” video on top of my Twitter profile for the past four months. People seem to haaate this song; probably something to do with the weird brother/sister action going on in the video and lines like “impaired my tribal lunar speak.” It’s gross and cute and sinister in the same way the Bran Van song is, the voices a little too processed, everyone a little too happy. It sounds like the neon orange shag rug in the common room of a shady youth hostel makes you feel. But just that opening sample and its literal pop of a metronome makes me smile uncontrollably every time and long for a moped of my own. Len were from Canada, too, perhaps not incidentally. If Los Angeles ever needs a municipal anthem, lesson learned: go north.

Jane’s Addiction, “Summertime Rolls”

Steve McPherson: Many so-called “songs of summer” have a precision-molded air about them, an almost oppressively sun-bright gleam, all poolside, bare skin, and beads of sweat. Ironic, then, that summer’s haziest, lushest, most pastoral anthem would come from that most quintessentially and decadently plastic Los Angeles band, Jane’s Addiction. “Summertime Rolls” has only one part — Eric Avery’s casually plucked bass line runs through the entire song, a lazy day stretching off into infinity. Dave Navarro’s guitar swells hover at the edges like insects sprent across a lake and Perry Farrell twirls a finger through images of grass seas, orange buttercats, and girlfriends with pepper sunlight noses. It’s a peerless idyll in pop music, a song I used to save until the first heavy, humid day deep in July and then turn way up as I drove around with no shoes on and the windows down.

Tupac, “I Get Around”

Shea Serrano: When I listen to Tupac’s “Hit ’Em Up” it makes me want to fight an overweight man. “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” makes me want to ride around in a car at night and pretend to be very cool. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” makes me want to call my sister and tell her that I am so very impressed that she’s managing to raise two girls without the help of their invisible, runaway, deadbeat dad. “Dear Mama” makes me want to just cry and cry and cry. But “I Get Around,” the only thing I ever want to do when I hear that song is take my shirt off, which is the most appropriate “is this a good summer song?” barometer that I can think of.

UGK, “International Players Anthem”

Serrano: UGK’s “International Players Anthem” is a perfect summer song because it’s a perfect summer song. I suppose that’s the most circular way to describe it, but sometimes that’s just how it happens. You can single out the parts, if you like: There’s the brilliant structure of the track, most notably the first quarter of it. We get André 3000 rapping for one minute and 13 seconds as the song veryVeryVERY deliberately unfurls itself, and then that’s followed immediately by Pimp C and a few masterfully timed snare snaps that really just rocket-ship everything into orbit. There’s the obscenely perfect flip of Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You,” which is used as the song’s foundation. There’s the flawlessly blended styles of rap, from 3K’s silkworm charm to Pimp C’s cosmic confidence to Bun B’s rat-a-tat-tat to Big Boi’s elasticity. There’s more and more and more and even more after that. But you don’t need an explanation. UGK’s “International Players Anthem” is a perfect summer song because it’s a perfect summer song.

George Gershwin, “Summertime”

Brian Phillips: Not what you’d call a jam, but spiritually, it’s the first summer song of the first summer. Nothing has ever felt hotter than this; nothing has ever felt cooler.

The Isley Brothers, “That Lady, Parts 1 & 2”

Charles P. Pierce: Ever since July in the year of Our Lord 1973, there has been a ritual beginning of summer for me. In any given year, summer does not begin until I hear “That Lady, Parts 1 & 2” by the Isley Brothers. I must hear it randomly, on the radio, or it doesn’t count. If I first hear it in February, then summer begins in February. If I don’t hear it until Halloween, then summer’s late a’coming that year. Why is this the case? My god, it’s that fuzz-tone guitar.

Method Man & Mary J. Blige, “You’re All I Need”

Chris Ryan: “I’ll Be There for You/All I Need” came out in late April 1995, right as senioritis gripped my graduating class. I was in love with a girl, obsessed with Wu-Tang Clan, and couldn’t give less of a shit about homework, and this track — a remix of a single from Meth’s ’94 solo debut, Tical — banged for the next four months. I liked the original, and, in my later years, have come to prefer RZA’s “Razor Sharp” remix, but this was the song of my summer in 1995. I remember driving up and down Kelly Drive, or heading out to the Cherry Hill Mall, my girlfriend’s feet up on my mom’s ’91 Corolla hatchback dash, while I rapped the Biggie “Me & My Bitch” interpolation, thinking I was just about the coolest thing the tri-state area had ever seen. My girlfriend at the time couldn’t have cared less. She was actually a Parrothead.  

Aside from the obvious nostalgic reasons, “I’ll Be There for You … ” is my song of all the summers because it was the first track I ever thought about as a song of the summer. This Stephen Talty piece came out in The New York Times Magazine at the end of the summer of ’95. It described the way the song gripped a sweaty New York City, prompting people to call in to a radio station called Hot 97 (I had never heard of it), begging to hear it on the air. Most of them were crazy in love. The rest of them wanted to be.

This was the same city that I had seen in the video for “All I Need.” This was the radio station I wanted to be able to hear. This was a way of thinking about music that I had always felt, but didn’t know how to articulate. One year later, I had broken up with my girlfriend. Three years after that, I moved to New York.

Lil Wayne, “La La La”

Andrew Sharp: The best summer of my life probably came when I was 20 years old. Just old enough to have the complete trust of my parents, but nowhere near old enough to be actually responsible.

This same summer, Lil Wayne was smack in the middle of his glory days. Back when he owned rap and did nothing but smoke weed, drink cough syrup, and breathe out new songs every other day. He was recording Tha Carter III at the time, when all the recordings were stolen and leaked in early June. The result was The Carter III Sessions, a mixtape from some DJ called The Empire that was more or less a fully formed album, only with some old white guy saying “THE EMPIRE” every 90 seconds on every track. The CD didn’t leave my car for three months. Track 17 was “La La La”.

I also had my first real office job that summer. It was my first taste of Adult Summer, which is nowhere near as good as Real Summer. My best friend worked in the same office, where we were mostly filling spreadsheets all day. Then every afternoon at 5:00, we left, got in the car and put the windows down, and blasted this song all the way home.

The same way any alarm clock noise will begin to signal doom after a few weeks, this song signaled freedom. As soon as we put that song on, shitty adult summer was over, and we could go back to real summer, which mostly consisted of 20 year-olds making stupid decisions and/or drinking on a porch. It was great. And it always started with “La La La”.

So look, maybe I’m biased when I say this, but if you’re looking to put the windows down on the way home and enjoy summer, there’s just nothing better than this song. Try it this afternoon. Kanye and “We Major” are a close second, but even that falls short. Seven years later, Wayne’s spot remains, like a bleach stain. Or cranberry. It’s murder she wrote like Angela Lansberry. [/THE EMPIRE].

Smash Mouth, Astro Lounge
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication

Ben Lindbergh: June 8, 1999, was my summer-song Big Bang, the day when both Californication and Astro Lounge exploded into being and seeded every subsequent summer with catchy song-stuff. Twelve-year-old me wore those albums out on a first and only trip to summer camp, cradling a Discman that would start skipping if I held it less than perfectly level and trying desperately to look like a person who’d hit puberty. It was a weird pairing of artists (scare quotes, in Smash Mouth’s case) with only California in common: One Guy Fieri–befriending band whose members never met a fish-eye lens they couldn’t stare at through sunglasses and never produced another album I would take on a daytrip to a desert island; and another I never cared for until John Frusciante infused them with his melodic post-rehab powers. I can’t choose just one because in my head, they go together, much like Smash Mouth and RHCP did when they met on the main stage at the ’99 KROQ Weenie Roast, riding their summer-song high. So here, have both.

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”

Juliet Litman: “Call Me Maybe” was the song of the summer of 2012, and it’s an example of a cultural artifact coming along at the exact right moment. It’s impossible to think about the song without thinking about its life on YouTube. If you recall, it all began with a rough video of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and their pals dancing to this tune that no one knew about at that point. Ashley Tisdale gets top billing in the video’s name, which is pretty much all you need to know about this bygone era. It was also a time when we believed that Justin Bieber was capable of innocent fun, and that any video that he willingly participates in might not be a larger marketing ploy. We were all disabused of these notions a few months later when he faked losing his laptop in an attempt to promote his then-upcoming video for “Beauty and a Beat.” This “Call Me Maybe” marketing strategy would never work now, because any video that attempted to capture Biebs having fun would be filled with weed smoke and his surly face, and the faux-viral video campaign has become too familiar. “Call Me Maybe” came out just as pure-of-heart Bieber peaked and before we felt viral video fatigue. Its saccharine pop ethos might not have felt exactly fresh, but it worked in the moment.

But it didn’t dominate the summer of 2012 solely because of its auspicious beginning. It’s a great song! It evokes everything that makes me idealize summer. It starts quietly as it builds to the booming chorus, which is just how summer should go. May and June are easy and breezy, July is hot, and August brings some grand finale before fizzling out. The lyrics make enough sense but don’t go anywhere too deep, which, again, is just what summer should do. Summer is a wonderful season because, if you’re lucky, anything is on the table. Sure, Carly Rae doesn’t get the guy in the video because he’s not interested in women, but at least she got a good story out of it. Most importantly, “Call Me Maybe” deserves to be a song of every summer because it’s impossible to stay still while it plays. Even if it gets just a foot tap, it’s a genuinely rousing song that makes you bop along to the beat. Thanks to its onetime ubiquity, we all know the words, so that casual foot tap can be paired with an under-the-breath singalong. Next time you get in the car with friends, consider blasting it. I don’t think anyone will complain.