Summer is the rock star among seasons. It lives hard, dies young, and leaves a beautiful corpse. If you do the math, every season is exactly the same length. But somehow, summer always seems shorter, or maybe just a little more elusive. Is it because the body just craves warmth and sunshine? Because there’s a little more daylight to seize, and only for a few months? Or is it because, as Alice Cooper so astutely observed, school’s out?
Summer is so simple and free, yet so hauntingly brief. That experience of being a kid and counting down the days until they open the pool, until the carnival rides start spinning, until all the top notch bands swing through your town, until young love ignites under fireworks…that feeling never goes away.
Nor does the existential dread of summer’s inevitable end, the day they drain the pool, pack up the rides, close the lawn section, and conspire in the death of your summer romance. That summertime sentimentality will be with you forever.
You’ll always feel it. You know how I know? Because I listen to pop music, and there are few things more powerful in pop music than the perfect summer song. From the giddy anticipation of warmer nights and the simple pleasures they hold to the stinging reality of autumn’s inexorable knell, songwriters reserve perhaps their greatest memories and hardest lessons for summer. Then again, some of the best summer songs are just stupid enough to make you forget your worries for three and a half minutes.
While I’d like to offer you a whole bunch of sage advice for how to spend your summer vacation, I don’t claim to be an expert. The real experts occupy the highest reaches of our Billboard charts and the most vivid pictures in our memory banks. Their memories become our memories as they soundtrack the summers that will one day haunt us, even the insipidly stupid but crazy infectious song, the ones that become inextricably linked to a time and place now in the distant past.
Anyway, those are the qualifications for inclusion on my list of the Best Summer Songs of All Time. Scientific, I know. But there is a method here. The songs on my list must fulfill at least two of three qualifications for inclusion.
First, the song must have been commercially successful or culturally significant enough to have made an impact on a broad cross-section of listeners, if not in perpetuity, at least in their time and place. I’ve got all kinds of personal guilty pleasures when the summer rolls around. Don’t get me started on ‘80s Rod Stewart. I’ll only embarrass myself. But it’s not about that. This list is about songs that struck gold, and in many cases, continue to do so across a broad spectrum of formats, from radio play to film soundtrack inclusion to just plain cultural omnipresence.
Second, and most obviously, the song must be about summer, if not explicitly, at least conceptually. This means that we’ll accept songs about high temperatures, heat waves, busted fire hydrants, top-down automobiles, baseball, and the Bill Murray summer camp classic Meatballs. The point is, for inclusion on a list of summer songs, it really helps to be about summer.
Or, failing that condition…
A song must have been a summer hit, so culturally and historically linked to the summer it was released that it is forever regarded as a summer classic, a necessary addition to any Memorial Day BBQ playlist.
Again, super-scientific, I know. Here’s the thing. I welcome you to argue if this list makes you feel like arguing. I know for a fact that your summer Best-of list is totally different than mine. And that’s cool. You do you. That’s what summer is all about. But do you in the comments section so we can all hum along.
What’s your perfect summer playlist?
24. Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard (1988)
This one is kind of personal for me. The centerpiece to Def Leppard’s multi-platinum hair metal masterpiece, Hysteria, “Sugar” was released in the U.K. in the fall of 1987. But it crashed the U.S. in late spring of the following year, making it the song of summer 1988. One of the kids on our camp bus had a “boombox” (look it up, kids) and he used to blast this tune, and only this tune, for the entirety of the 45 minute ride. I assume our bus driver was ultimately institutionalized as a consequence of the experience. But this glam staple got all the kids on the bus totally jacked. Slick and grimy all at the same time, “Sugar” was completely addictive, a fact that propelled Hysteria to 25 million sales worldwide. And while we recognize that Def Leppard meant this song in an innuendoed way, we prefer to take it literally. Summer is the one time of year that it’s considered safe to buy ice cream from a guy who drives around your neighborhood playing nursery rhymes. Do what Def Leppard says. Get your high-fructose fix this summer, then sweat it out however you see fit.
23. School’s Out – Alice Cooper (1972)
In conceiving the basic premise of “School’s Out,” Alice Cooper (the guy) asked himself, “how can I capture the most joyful three minutes of a child’s life in son?.” He surmised that these three minutes could be pinned down to two moments every year: the moment just before opening presents on Christmas morning, and the final three minutes of the school year. Cooper observed that on “the last day of school… you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.” He surmised that “if we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.” He was right. Alice Cooper (the band) was largely viewed as a schlocky novelty horror act to that point, kind of a Black Sabbath-lite. But “School’s Out” came out in late April of 1972 and perfectly captured the impending sense of unshackling that comes with each school year’s end. It reached #7 on the U.S. Billboard charts, #3 in Canada, and the very top spot that summer in the U.K., proving that the desire to run amok at the sounding of that final bell is completely universal. In addition to making Alice Cooper (the guy) a superstar, and Alice Cooper (the band) a major touring act, “School’s Out” became an anthem of youthful rebellion. Some radio stations banned it over concerns that it encouraged youthful disobedience. Many educators also voiced their disapproval, even demanding local radio stations pull the song from their playlists. Obviously, that’s exactly the kind of attitude that makes kids count the minutes until the final bell. When it rings on the fadeout to Cooper’s song, it really does feel like the sound of freedom.
22. See You in September – The Happenings (1966)
A lot of the biggest summer hits deal in themes of summer love, the kind that blossoms in July and withers by September. But there are a few pretty classic tunes out there about the exact opposite, about waiting out the long summer months apart from a loved one, counting the days until the leaves of autumn turn. The Happenings had perhaps the best of them, a composition pitched somewhere between the Brill Building and the Beach Boys. Composed by Brill songwriters Sid Wayne and Sherman Edwards in 1958, it was originally paired with Pittsburgh vocal group the Tempos. As fast as they moved to release it—no joke, it was written on a Friday in June, recorded on Monday, pressed on Thursday, and playing on the radio in New York by the next Friday—it was too late. The record didn’t pick up steam naturally until August, with its momentum ultimately stalling it at #23. Summer was already pretty much over. Ironically, the Tempos were doomed by poor timing. It was in 1966 that a group called the Happenings picked it up, recorded it, and got it to market with enough lead time to dominate the summer charts. It hit the Top Ten in Boston by June, made the national Top Ten in August, and peaked at #3 in the month rhapsodized by its title, reminding listeners that summer is awfully cold when you’re love is away on vacation. For a thematically similar but slightly sappier take on this same topic, check out Brian Hyland’s take on “Sealed With a Kiss.”
21. Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams (1985)
If you claim you don’t like this song, you’re just lying. What are you afraid of. Admit it. This Bryan Adams song gets to you, and it gets to you even if you have no historical frame of reference for 1969, or what summer might have been like then. (I’ll let you in on a little secret. Adams has suggested that ’69 didn’t necessarily refer to a year on the Christian calendar. Just sayin’.) Anyway, there’s a universal truth in that Bryan Adams song, namely that we’ll all get older and we’ll all look back on our youth wistfully, perhaps even with an exaggerated sense of romanticism. For a song that seems markedly inspired by Bruce Springsteen, it is a notable coincidence that like Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” (also featured on this list) this one peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1985. A song about garage band melodrama and teenage sexual discovery, its reminiscence prompts Adams to swear that those were the best days of his life. You can probably relate to thinking that about some time in your past, and not because it was perfect or necessarily even that great, but simply because time is something you never get back. This is the feeling that makes “Summer of ’69” kind of a powerhouse, kind of a song worth clenching your fists, bulging your neck veins, and belting your power chords over. Go ahead. Do it. Nobody’s looking.
20. Boys of Summer – Don Henley (1984)
This is the sound of those long days getting shorter and shorter, of autumn creeping in, of memories fading into the sunset. The origin of this song actually begins in the studio with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Mike Campbell (criminally underrated among rock’s great axemen, it bears noting), had written the music for an unnamed song. Though Petty liked it, he didn’t feel it was compatible with the sound of their upcoming album, Southern Accents. With Petty’s blessing, Campbell gifted the song to former Eagles frontman, Don Henley. Henley added the wistful lyrics that give this tune a dusky beach-road vibe. He was reportedly inspired to write this reflection on aging and lost love after watching a Cadillac full of yuppies cruise by in a car with a Grateful Dead bumper sticker. The contradiction struck Henley as true evidence that the past can never be regained. If that theme sounds eerily similar to the one that runs through Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” you can start to get a sense of how sentimental and reflective people were feeling in the ‘80s. And amazingly, just like the aforementioned tunes, Henley’s summer song topped out at #5 in the summer of ’85.
For more on Don Henley, check out the entry on the Eagles from our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 greatest groups.
19. Sunny Afternoon – The Kinks (1966)
The Kinks authored what is surely the finest ode to summer indolence ever conceived. If you’ve spent a summer jobless, melted into a couch cushion, watching infomercials with the blinds drawn, this song is about you. Also, we should probably talk. You sound like you could use a motivational kick in the rear. But that’s for later. For now, just appreciate that the Kinks know exactly how you feel. At the time of its inception, lead singer Ray Davies was wrestling with a bout of illness. In a state of sedentary discontent, he imagined himself a detestable aristocrat, surrounded by dusty old money and overcome by listlessness. Released on June 3rd, 1966, it topped the charts that summer in Britain, Canada, Ireland, and the Netherlands. In the U.S., it topped out at #14. Like the Beatles “Taxman,” “Sunny Afternoon” draws explicitly on the onerous progressive tax that Britain’s Labour government used to, among other things, prey on the newfound wealth of rock musicians. Among the earliest of the Kinks tunes to depart from the pummeling blues riffs that first made them famous, this one hints at the more probing look at modern British life that would soon elevate the Kinks above many of their contemporaries. All of these conditions add a depth and perhaps even a mission to “Sunny Afternoon” that undermines its lyrical apathy. Still, it’s the atmosphere of “Sunny Afternoon” that elevates it. The tune droops elegantly, like a beautiful flower wilted.
For More on the Kinks, check out our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
18. Summertime – DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (1991)
To all you kids out there that only know Will Smith the actor, I’ve got news for you. This guy used to be a rapper. While Smith is better known today for his acting chops, he actually made his name recording candy-corn rap about non-topical stuff like Freddie Krueger and getting grounded by his parents. While the Fresh Prince—as he was known to his audience—was making the rounds on MTV, he wasn’t exactly breaking new ground. But that hardly mattered on “Summertime,” an absolutely flawless picture of summer in the city. And here’s the personal confession. Since the city he’s talking about is my hometown of Philadelphia, I’m a sucker for this one every time. Floated along on an ethereal groove lifted from Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” Smith’s tune trades on easy rhymes about scantily clad girls, slow-rolling convertibles, and block barbecues. The song is almost 30 years old now, and that would make me feel old if it weren’t for the fact that it remains as true today as when it was written. All these years later, this still describes summer in Philly to the note. (I would also strongly recommend Ween’s “Freedom ’76” for this purpose). Released in May of 1991, “Summertime” became a dominant radio presence, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, topping the U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Chart, and rolling out of car windows in Philly and everywhere else that summer.
17. Whiter Shade of Pale – Procol Harum (1967)
Many of the very best summer songs have a hot, sweaty feel to them, like the gritty pleasure of a mild sunburn well-earned. But sometimes, you’d do anything to find a cool spot in the shade, under the blast of an air conditioner, perhaps even just sticking your head into the refrigerated section of a convenience store. “Whiter Shade of Pale,” perfectly achieves the chilly sensation of coming in from the hot, producing a dirge-like exploration of sudden heartbreak that sounds like it was conceived under the high-vaulted ceilings of a cavernous cathedral. Even as the Beatles burned up the charts under the heavy promotion of “All You Need is Love,” the Procol Harum achieved a totally organic affiliation to the Summer of Love. Topping the U.K. charts upon its release in late spring of 1967, it crossed over the Atlantic and scaled to #5 on the charts without much of a marketing push. This was quite an accomplishment for a song that borrowed much of its compositional basis from Johann Sebastian Bach and which dealt in highly allusive and abstract lyrical constructs. Still, it was an absolute smash, its twinned piano and Hammond B3 organ pacing the song with an almost funereal pace and melancholy, the perfect reprieve to the summer heat.
16. Frank Sinatra- Summer Wind (1966)
You wouldn’t know it to listen to Sinatra’s version, but this song was originally written about the summer wind in Germany. Composed in 1965 by Heinz Meier, “Der Sommerwind” was adapted by American songwriter Johnny Mercer and ultimately found its way into the hands of America’s greatest interpreter of popular song. In 1966, Sinatra recorded the definitive version of this tune, one that rolls in like a wave gently lapping at the shore. A song about the fickle nature of summer love, this one is just a bit warmer than the typical take from Ol’ Blue Eyes. See, summer even makes Frank sentimental. Of course, this one came out in the midst of the rock and roll revolution, a time when guys like Sinatra were no longer shaping the game. It reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, surrounded by world-shaking hits from the Beatles, the Stones and the Beach Boys. Absent such stiff competition, it actually topped the Easy Listening charts (whatever that’s worth). But the real power in this tune is its timelessness, its inscrutable sense of chill, and the sense that even if your heart has recently been broken, you’re still the coolest person in the room.
15. Pipeline – The Chantays (1962)
For a brief and glorious moment, between about 1961 and 1964, surf rock was a major presence in popular music. On the one end of the spectrum, the Pacific coast was responsible for the beguiling vocal harmonies of groups like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. On the other end of the spectrum was a virtuosic instrumental subgenre that helped to expand the vocabulary of the rock guitar. Groups like the Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, the Ventures, and the Surfaris helped to mainstream a sound that invoked the tubular thrill of catching a wave. While the Surfaris “Wipeout” or Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” are probably the most famous of surf rock’s output, there is no better or more accurate a musical expression of the tides than “Pipeline.” Funny enough, this one was released in the dead of winter but still reached #4 on the charts. The Chantays’ “Pipeline” employs an arpeggiated bass line at the front end, subverting the lead guitar and drums to the back of the mix. The effect almost seems to place the listener behind a wall of water, the sonic experience of cutting through the curl of a wave. A landmark of the surf genre, it is the lone hit for the Chantays, but it was truly a significant one, capturing surf rock at its best and most vivid.
14. It Was A Good Day – Ice Cube (1993)
Ice Cube’s most relaxed performance lays on top of a melancholy Isley Brothers Sample (“Footsteps in the Dark”) and details a day in the life of a gangsta rapper arriving at the top of his game. A landmark for the genre on the whole, “It Was a Good Day” vibes like a slow roll through the city streets, windows open, bass booming. Ice Cub recalls that the song came to him on a hot summer day in the midst of contradiction. He was verging on success even as the South Central Los Angeles that he called home was burning in violence and rioting. “It Was a Good Day” imagines a hypothetical day where nothing in South Central goes wrong: no rioting, no car-jackings, no police pullovers, and even a win for the Lakers. That sentiment lends itself to a profound consideration, however. There is an anxiety that cuts through Ice Cube’s laid back day, the sense that the fortuitous series of events was a particular rarity, that tomorrow would be another day of violence and loss. But summer is about nothing if not capturing the sweet and short moments. Released in February of 1993, it was one of gangsta rap’s first true crossover hits, as important critically as commercially. Widely praised and topping out at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, “It Was a Good Day” revealed an entire genre’s capacity for greater depth, not just tackling the political and social climate of black life in America, but tapping into its sadness and joy.
For more on Ice Cube, check out the entry on N.W.A. from our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
13. Summer Breeze – Seals & Crofts (1972)
The late 60s were a pretty edgy time for popular music. From the Summer of Love in 1967, all the way through 1970, when the Beatles finally called it quits, a hard-tinged psychedelic predilection flowed through rock music. And then a whole bunch of people did too many drugs, overdosed and died. By the early 70s, everybody kind of needed to chill out. The rockers either retreated to life on the countryside to rehabilitate or simply spiraled further into their respective additions. The pastures were cleared for the emergence of country-rock, soft-rock, the singer-songwriter movement, and the host of sounds that would formi the backbone of FM-Lite. If you dig electric guitar shredding and searing vocals, this was not a great development. On the other hand, if you were also craving a gentle respite from those heady days, Seals & Crofts summed it up better than perhaps anybody. “Summer Breeze” is a lilting love note to the long, warm, open-windowed evenings of July, when it somehow seems we have just a little more time between the end of one work day and the start of the next. Peaking at #6 on the Billboard Pop charts in the summer of 1972, “Summer Breeze” remains the most perfectly bittersweet harmonic composition for laying lazily on a blanket and watching the evening sky turn from crimson to black.
12. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Glory Days (1984)
If you really wanna get deep about it, Bruce’s most evocative and majestic summer song is “Racing in the Streets.” But that’s not the one you’re going to play at a barbecue. It’s not the one on your 4th of July mix. It’s not the one that blasted from the car windows while my dad tried to get the air conditioner in our wood-paneled station wagon to kick on. That song would be “Glory Days,” a tune that contains the three key ingredients for a perfect summer smash: baseball, cold drinks, and bittersweet memory. The song was reportedly inspired by Bruce’s run-in with an old friend from high school, a Little League baseball teammate named Joe Depugh. Whatever they talked about during that encounter, it must’ve been heavy. Because the gist of the song is basically that if you think summer goes fast now, Springsteen suggests, just wait until you get older. “Glory Days” is all the exuberance of youth tempered by the sentimental regret of experience. If that premise doesn’t sound like fun, wait for the riff. Springsteen yelps and grins through a buzz-candy guitar lead-in on a stadium-ready rocker that became the fifth single off of the monumentally successful Born in the U.S.A. (1984) album. Released on May 31st, 1985, it topped out at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and was absolutely everywhere that summer. And for me, it’s everywhere every summer.
For more on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, check out our list of 100 Greatest Rock and Roll groups.
11. Time of the Season – The Zombies (1968)
It doesn’t get too much cooler than this one, a composition forged in 1967 that somehow took two years to become a success. “Time of the Season” captures the fever-dream quality of summer, the time “when love runs high.” It’s slinky, sexy, and punctuated by not one but two of the smokiest organ solos you’ve ever heard. By far their most popular song today (35 million Spotify spins and counting), the Zombies actually had no intention of releasing this as a single. Recorded in the high heat of the Summer of Love, “Time of the Season” was first released on the classic 1968 British psych LP Odessey and Oracle. The band’s label, Columbia didn’t view it as particularly marketable. At first, it seemed they were right. It was released as a late single only at the urging of Al Kooper, session musician extraordinaire and label A&R man. It flopped upon its release. And then the Zombies called it quits, disbanding one of the British Invasion’s more inventive but under-appreciatd units. That, would not, however, be the end of their story. In early 1969, with the band defunct for over a year, Columbia repackaged “Time of the Season” with a new B-Side. This time, it caught fire in the U.S., making it to #3 on the charts, inspiring a million kids to go out and buy lava lamps, and possibly even coining the creepy, sexually charged come-on, “Who’s your daddy?”
10. Summertime Blues – Eddie Cochran (1958)
Summer is supposed to be awesome, so there’s no bigger drag than a warm season wasted. That’s the dilemma driving rockabilly singer Eddie Cochran to distraction on “Summertime Blues.” Eddie’s summer is a teenage bummer, an endless stream of chores and late shifts at work. Brimming with frustration and futility, Cochran’s tune captured a mounting generation gap, perhaps even verging on something of a protest against ageism. The song’s thesis is best encompassed by the verse in which the narrator calls his congressman for advice and is told, “I’d like to help you, son but you’re too young to vote.” Originally released as a B-Side in 1958, Cochran’s tune spoke directly to a rebellious young generation of rock and roll listeners that was coming to identify less and less with the generation that came before it. Cochran’s biggest hit was late summer bloomer, popping in August and ultimately reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 by late September. Its impact would be even greater for the generation of garage rockers and British Invaders soon to come. Blue Cheer, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and countless others sympathized with Cochran’s youthful impertinence, adding important cover versions of their own to the song’s legacy. For his part, Cochran would remain forever that rebellious young man, dying tragically in a car accident just two years later at the age of 21.
9. Summer in the City – Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)
The Lovin’ Spoonful is a pretty underrated band when it comes down to it. Deservedly enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are nonetheless not really a household name. You probably know a few more songs by them than you realize. The 1960s folk-rock group specialized in short, sweet and remarkably well-crafted rock songs, pinned down by sophisticated harmonies and a light coating of dust from America’s backroads. This kind of made them the perfect outlet for countless summer nuggets, not the least of them being “Daydream,” “Coconut Grove” or “Do You Believe in Magic.” But ultimately, they will be best remembered for the single greatest ode to urban summers ever composed. Its lyrics capture all the haze, the looming ozone, the glare off a line of jammed up cars, the grimy, sweaty, disorder. The instrumental bridge is a cacophony of honking Volkswagens and jackhammers. Its chorus is the cool shady place you’ve been looking for all day long. And its release on July 4th, 1966 made it an inevitable smash. The Lovin’ Spoonful occupied the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 for most of August. If you’re heading to the beach, take “Coconut Grove” with you. If you’re grabbing a train into Gotham on a nasty hot day, “Summer in the City” is still the tune you’re looking for.
8. Heat Wave – Martha and the Vandellas (1963)
Never as famous as Diana Ross nor as virtuosic as Gladys Knight, Martha Reeves might nonetheless have been Motown’s most exciting front-woman. As the leader of the Vandellas, she lent a soulful urgency to some of the label’s earliest output. Indeed, in many ways, “Heat Wave” would forge a template for the emergent Motown sound. The Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, the Funk Brother accompaniment, the gospel call and response arrangement, and perhaps most importantly, its meteoric commercial success, were all building blocks for the legendary label in its earliest stages of evolution. Released in early July of 1963, “Heat Wave” channeled summer sweat into commercial gold, immediately topping the Billboard Hot R&B chart and staying there for three weeks. The song also earned the Vandellas a Grammy nomination, making them the first Motown group to achieve industry recognition. The Motown sound first showcased here would become the soundtrack of the summers to immediately follow, with artists like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and the Supremes coming to dominate the charts. But the Vandellas did it first, producing what remains today the definitive Hitsville summer smash.
7. In the Summertime – Mungo Jerry (1970)
Not only is this tune a perfect summer jam, but it may be the only chart-topping song of the 20th century with a jug solo. That’s right. These hairy British dudes are known for one song and one song only. That one song does happen to be among the fastest-selling singles of all time. “In the Summertime” moved more than 30 million copies and is largely distinguished by its jug band arrangement. But there’s so much more to this tune. Sure, it openly advocates drunk driving and offers some questionable dating advice, but it does capture that kickback vibe of summertime with a lolling, almost ramshackle performance. Loose-limbed and lazy, it feels like a cold drink in the early afternoon. Lead singer Ray Dorset has said that it took him just ten minutes to write the song. Ten minutes well spent. In 1970, it spent an incredible seven weeks at the top of the charts. It reached #3 in the U.S. and remains a reminder, even today, that the Billboard charts were so much more interesting and varied in the ‘70s. I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’d bet my finest growler there will never again be a chart-topping jug band tune.
6. Night Moves – Bob Seger (1976)
If you’ve ever gone to summer camp, you’ve learned the hard way that summer love burns brightly but fizzles when temperatures drop and cooler heads prevail. Summer love is a daydream, but the heartache hangover is real enough. That’s the premise behind Bob Seger’s aching, nostalgic portrait of summer in the teenage wasteland. If the wistful, sepia-toned memories recounted in Seger’s 1976 hit feel real, it’s because they are. The singer sought to capture adolescent life in Ann Arbor, Michigan and drew from the well of his own backseat fumbling. In interview, Seger has acknowledged that “Night Moves” is the story of a girl the aspiring singer fell for at age 19. One year older and awaiting the return of her boyfriend from the military, she and Seger spent one fleeting summer together. “Night Moves” tells the story of that summer, and the dreaded heartbreak that September promised. But it captures more than just the story of an older girl and a heartbroken boy. The song is tinted like a faded memory of a time and place that is as fleeting as summer love. For Seger, September brought cold hard reality. When the girl’s soldier returned home, they were married, leaving Seger alone, which was obviously a great inspiration. Upon its release, “Night Moves” catapulted Seger from regional heartland rocker to mainstream star, reaching #4 on the charts and capturing for countless listeners that deeply relatable sense that the sweetest moments of summers past can never be recaptured.
5. Up On the Roof – The Drifters (1963)
The Drifters found the cool calm center in the midst of the summer swelter. Penned by ace songwriting team Goffin and King, the 1963 release captures the search for chill in the rising heat of summer. The songwriters were inspired by the array of striking rooftop scenes depicted in West Side Story. The pairing of the song with the constantly evolving vocal unit called the Drifters proved a perfect match. Though previous vocalists Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King hailed from North Carolina, recently installed singer Rudy Lewis was born just down the turnpike in Philadelphia. He led the debonair vocal combo through a persuasive treatment of this urban escape. If you have roof access somewhere in the city, I would advise smuggling a kiddie pool, an inflatable palm tree, a cool drink, and this tune to your tar-papered paradise. Kick back and tune out the bustling streets below.
For more on the Drifters, check out our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
4. Be My Baby – Ronettes (1963)
There are few sounds in popular music more evocative than the fade-in drum beat and sneaky castanets that open “Be My Baby.” At under three minutes, this Barry-Greenwhich composition changed the world, transforming adolescent drama into something big and orchestral. This was the first production masterpiece created by studio genius (and certified crazy person) Phil Spector, a tale of young love channeled through Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. The Ronettes were fronted by the beautiful Veronica Bennett, soon to be Spector’s bride and a superstar under the name Ronnie Spector. Her raw, yearning vocals helped to create the mold that all girl groups immediately thereafter would follow. Like the best girl groups, the Ronettes offered a sound that was at once sweet and street-wise, suggesting a summer spent somewhere on the way from innocence to experience. Following its August 1963 release, “Be My Baby” reached #2 on the charts. But its real summer bonafides come from no less an authority than summer’s greatest auteur, Brian Wilson. The mastermind behind the Beach Boys called “Be My Baby” the “greatest pop record ever made.” Indeed, he spent many of his years beguiled by its production, seeking the same confection in his own compositions. Of course, the only way to really capture the sound and feeling was with the help of Ronnie Spector herself. To prove the point, she came out of retirement in 1986 (following years of marital abuse and court battles with Phil Spector) to reprise a few lines from “Be My Baby” for the Eddie Money comeback hit, “Take me Home Tonight.” That tune took Money and Spector to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and secured Spector’s legacy as the perfect voice for the lovelorn.
For more on the Ronettes, check out our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
3. All Summer Long – Beach Boys (1964)
I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s probably no harder assignment in the thankless task of Rock and Roll listmaking than identifying just one Beach Boys tune as the definitive summer song. The first ten hits these guys had were about surfing. The next ten were about driving to the beach in cars. And then there’s “Good Vibrations,” which obviously feels summery enough, but was actually released in October of ’66. Anyway, except my apologies in advance for not choosing the Beach Boys song you would have chosen, but here goes. “All Summer Long” has something unique among those early Beach Boys songs, a subtle melancholy almost totally obscured by the playful calypso lead-in and the group’s typical soaring harmonies. This is an early hint at the troubled beauty that lay within Brian Wilson, a song ostensibly about the simple pleasures of summer: miniature golf, cut off jean shorts, and that one tune that follows you around all season. But then, there’s the inevitable urgency, the reality that it “won’t be long till summertime is through.” Released in July of 1964, “All Summer Long” wasn’t actually entered as a single in the U.S. but served as the title track for the Beach Boys’ sixth studio album, a record which reached up to #4 and marked a distinct turning point for the group. The British Invasion was now in full swing. The Beatles had dramatically expanded pop music’s palette. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys would soon veer into the heady territory explored on Pet Sounds, making All Summer Long the last of its beach records. On the title track, more than any other, you get that sense that the days of carefree youth were behind the Beach Boys forever. “All Summer Long” captures the sweet brevity of it all.
For More on the Beach Boys, check out our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
2. All You Need Is Love – The Beatles (1967)
One could make a pretty strong argument that “A Hard Day’s Night” belongs on this list. The sweaty, jangling release was nothing short of earth-shattering during the summer of ’64, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic that August. That said, “All You Need Is Love” was basically the theme song and inspiration for what is fondly remembered as the Summer of Love. In 1967, the free love, anti-war hippie movement achieved full flowering, spilling out of countercultural meccas like Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and invading the larger culture. Suddenly, long-haired, tie-dyed, pot-smoking kids were everywhere, and so was their music. The folk boom and the British Invasion had transformed fully into a psychedelic melange of experimental sounds and sentiments. As always, the Beatles stood at the front of the curve. Fresh off the game-changing release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles were invited to compose a new song for the British Our World television program. The result was a John Lennon composition so simple and straightforward in its sentiment as to be revolutionary. Some called it his most profound and political statement, the assessment that “love is all you need” flew flagrantly in the face of the establishment and its increasingly violent response to civil disobedience, protest, and the global spread of communism. In essence, it was a message tailor-made for the Summer of Love, offering a thesis statement for the counterculture movement and placing the Beatles at its forefront. Indeed, the Our World program produced a lasting image of the Beatles, bedecked in hippie regalia, and surrounded by a choir that included the likes of Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Keith Moon and Graham Nash. This was a moment that truly elevated the Beatles above their contemporaries as popular music shifted into newly creative and confrontational territory. For a song as almost naively utopian as “All You Need is Love,” its message is nonetheless profound, even provoking academic studies aimed at determining whether or not, indeed, human beings need love above all other things. Whether the statement can be empirically proven or not, “All You Need is Love” topped the charts in the U.S., the U.K. and through much of the world that summer. Perhaps not the best song the Beatles ever produced, it may nonetheless best articulate the ethos of a thrilling and tumultuous time.
For more on the Beatles, check out our list of Rock and Roll’s 100 Greatest groups.
1. Summertime – George and Ira Gershwin (1935)
Never has a more important, evocative, or vivid song about summer been written than this one. More than 80 years since its release and still, it is the summer song to which all others owe their debt. It’s also the only song on this list that is technically an aria, written as it was, in 1934, for an opera called Porgy and Bess. Composed by brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the play is both historically important and controversial for its depiction of African American life from a white man’s perspective. Depending on who you ask, the play is sympathetic to its subject, laden down by its own dated stereotypes, or both. As a result, Porgy and Bess has undergone various periods of mainstream disavowal and reclamation. One thing that has not wavered since its 1935 release is mainstream perception of the steamy, baleful and eerily gorgeous “Summertime.”
It’s said that “Summertime” has been covered by more than 30,000 groups and artists, making it easily one of the most recognized songs in western history and the template for every summer song to follow. I would argue that Janis Joplin’s heart-rending take is the definitive rock and roll variation.
Other significant versions include an elegant powerhouse by jazz luminaries Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong; Herbie Mann’s smoky instrumental reading (familiar thanks to Sublime’s sampling); and Billy Stewart’s soulful but satisfyingly strange scat attack, a Top Ten hit in 1966.
So that’s my list (which you can listen to on Spotify below). But of course, my summers are different than yours, so I’m guessing your list is different too. What’s on your perfect playlist?