Yet another reason to blame Robin Thicke – he single-handedly ruined the whole Song of the Summer mystique. After “Blurred Lines” stunk up the dog days of 2013 like a banana in the glove compartment, we had a couple of radio summers where nobody wanted to get stuck with the tainted association. The whole idea of a Song of the Summer was the last thing anyone wanted to hear, play or write. But 2016 might go down in history as the summer the radio finally shook off the Curse of the Thicke, because it’s been packed with full-fledged sweat-and-sand jams, rescuing a 60-year pop tradition. It’s not one of those years where there’s a clear-cut titan like “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, “Crazy” in 2006 or “The Humpty Dance” in 1990. Instead it’s like 1992, 1996 or 2003 where there’s a slew of worthy sun-dazed contenders spewing from all corners – pop, hip-hop, country, and, yes, even Smash Mouth.
Drake looms large with “One Dance,” which spent most of the early summer at Number One – bizarrely, it’s his first chart-topper, even if it’s not in the same league as “Hotline Bling” or “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” The song’s Caribbean and West African elements evoke the glory days of Lionel Richie in his leather pants/pastel shirt/Jamaican accent fiesta-forever mode. Drake sounds morose as ever – complaining about the mean streets of Toronto and/or how his girl won’t reply to his texts fast enough – the man is a walking “I Know You Read That” Bitmoji. But it’s really his piano groove that’s wearing less and going out more. Justin Timberlake tries even harder for summer gold with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” a wide-eyed puppy of a song so eager to be liked it hardly needs an exclamation point. It’s the first JT solo song ever to aim directly for the TRL-era N’Sync sound, reuniting him with Max Martin and Shellback. It ends up sounding like Swedish gospel, the kind of contradiction a pop aesthete like Justin can appreciate.
Speaking of faux-Swedishness, the Calvin Harris/Rihanna collabo “This Is What You Came For” is the third chapter in their Hopeless Place Trilogy, a well-deserved smash showing off the new purr in RiRi’s lower register. Lyricist “Nils Sjoberg” turns out to be a psuedonym for Calvin’s ex Taylor Swift, the first hit she’s written for someone else, adding a touch of dish to an otherwise softspoken disco hit. On the country side of the dial, Miranda Lambert scores her first post-divorce hit with “Vice,” striking the perfect balance between Sad Miranda and Salty Miranda without mentioning her ex Blake Shelton once. (Don’t speak, indeed.) She spins vinyl on the jukebox – “33, 45, 78” – with a weird rock ballad that sounds like Radiohead circa The Bends, doing the walk of non-shame at 7 a.m., from “another bed I shouldn’t have crawled out of,” a kerosene cowgirl looking for the next town she plans to burn down and then abandon.
For staying power, you can’t step to Desiigner, whose monster spring hit “Panda” stuck around to become a summer monster. What a story: a Bed-Stuy teen plays Grand Theft Auto all night, and puts his Atlanta fantasy on wax over a leftover beat he bought from U.K. producer Menace for two hundred bucks. Florida MC Kent Jones has his breakthough with the brilliant multi-lingual mack act of “Don’t Mind,” mixing up the como esta and the konichiwa over a synth-pop bounce that sounds so much like a classic ’96 Bad Boy production, you keep waiting for Lil Kim to show up.
For guitars crying in anguish, there’s no topping the Brooklyn dudes in LVL UP. Their fantastic new “Pain” is the indie sad-boy guitar-solo bomb of the century, imagining a world where Stephen Malkmus’ Strat could emote as hard as Elliott Smith’s voice. A rock & roll band expressing real live human feelings – what a concept.
Fifth Harmony won MTV’s Song of the Summer Moonman at Sunday’s VMAs for the sex-reggae Mad Cobra lilt of “All in My Head (Flex).” The catch is that nobody really seems to like it as much as “Work From Home,” for the excellent reason that it’s nowhere near as good: “Work From Home” is one of the most brilliant songs of recent years, whereas “All In Your Head (Flex)” would have been the sixth or seventh catchiest track on the first Ace of Base album. The Chainsmokers hover near the top with their Halsey duet “Closer,” an ode to the passionate millennial youth of today and their tattoo-biting, mattress-stealing, Blink-182-blasting adventures. It’s hard to deny that Halsey’s baked-in-Boulder vocals add most of the entertainment value, but depending on how you interpret the hook “We ain’t never getting older,” this could be a “Don’t Fear The Reaper” for our times. And “Closer” is always a welcome title for a summer hit – just ask Trent Reznor, though his summer-of-’94 hit was slightly kinkier.
And in case you were worried this summer wasn’t crazy enough: Ladies and gentlemen, the Smash Mouth comeback! If you’ve ever sat around the house blasting “All Star” or “Walking on the Sun” and musing, “These guys were the greatest band of the Nineties, at least besides Sugar Ray, so why can’t they come back with an EDM record?,” your watch has ended. “Love Is a Soldier” might be a shamelessly tarted-up EDM rave, yet also it somehow manages to sound exactly like Smash Mouth. Proof positive that you’ll never shine until you glow – or glowstick, as the case may be. And also proof that every summer needs a dash of the ridiculous.