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Best Summer Songs of All Time

School’s out, and it’s time to get down, get sunburned and get lucky

Best Summer Songs

Blondie, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer

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Whether you’re a total idiot heading out to party at the beach or a sane person staying inside to read Camus, the calendar doesn’t lie — it is, in fact, summer. And even this isn’t the summer we asked for, that doesn’t mean summer songs are any less essential. They might even more emotionally necessary than ever.

The summer song is one of rock’s truest pleasures, be it a dance jam that dominates every backyard cookout or a sweet ode to cars, romance, and partying. Here are our picks for the most sizzling summer jams ever — from unshakeable oldies to classic hip-hop, from hard-rock to indie-rock, from the the Go-Gos to Daft Punk.

[A version of this list was originally published in July 2013]

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

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46

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Vampire Weekend

In their bright collared shirts and boat shoes, Vampire Weekend looked like they just back from an Ivy League yacht party and this Afro-pop-tinged ode to Benetton babes chilling on sandy lawns was unnaturally brilliant, updating the sweetest Paul Simon for a new generation of restless rich kids.

Mac McCaughan of Superchunk

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45

“This Summer,” Superchunk

Arriving a year after these indie-rock heroes’ great 2010 comeback album Majesty Shredding, this is a fist-pumping tune about getting psyched for summer that reflects on summers past. The lyrics describe sleeping bags and tape hiss and a beach house with “sweaty sheets and an ocean view.” Mac McCaughan sings, “I age backwards when I’m next to you/So erase this summer with me” as the guitars burn away.

Pete Quaife, Ray Davies, Mick Avory and Dave Davies of The Kinks

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44

“Sunny Afternoon,” The Kinks

Released in June of 1966, this Ray Davies tune taps into English music hall tradition with a jaunty wistful melody; Davies plays a rich kid who’s been busted out by the tax man, scrapped by his girlfriend and left with little more than “my ice cold beer/lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime.” It’s like the Beatles’ “Taxman” as satire.

 

Morrissey of The Smiths

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43

“Cemetry Gates,” The Smiths

What does Morrissey do during “a dreaded sunny day?” Why, hang around among the headstone, arguing the merits of his man Oscar Wilde versus Williams Butler Yeats and John Keats, of course. The song’s supple groove – part acoustic guitar strum, part distinctive bass lope and lithe drums – lightens the mood considerably. Note to students on summer vacation: “If you must write prose and poems/the words you use should be your own.”

Martha Davis and Michael Goodroe of The Motels

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42

“Suddenly Last Summer,” The Motels

Motels singer Martha Davis reflects on the eternal cycle of good and bad summers: “One summer never ends/One summer never begins” on this spacey slice of good old-fashioned New Wave cheese. Shout out to the ice cream truck in the video!

Nathan Williams of Wavves

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41

“King Of The Beach,” Wavves

Surf-punk heaven from some guitar-slashing stoners. Nathan Williams whines about the sun burning his eyes and his back at the beach in his dreams as a basement-studio mix of fuzzed up guitars and crackling drums shred right through his sunstroke bravado.

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco

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40

“Heavy Metal Drummer,” Wilco

Combining the wistful essence of alt-country and the gummy groove fun of hip-hop, Jeff Tweedy came up the perfect song about rocking out in the landing in the summer, “playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” The nostalgic ache is undeniable to anyone who associates rock music with getting wasted by a lake.

Rob Bass and DJ E-Z Rock

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39

“It Takes Two,” Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock

In the summer of 1988, kids at block parties from Brooklyn to Boise skipped rope and played hopscotch and got down to “It Takes Two,” the quintessential James Brown-sampling club banger. Writer-producer Rob Base penned it with the hopes of coming up with a song so fun everybody couldn’t help but jam to it. Mission accomplished.

Courtesy of Len

38

“Steal My Sunshine,” Len

The late-Nineties was full of light hip-hop influenced alt-pop by bands like Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth, and this brother-sister duo from Toronto topped them all with this buoyant shot of Beck-esque bubblegum. Marc and Sharon Costanzo were thinking of the Human League’s summer-of-’82 smash “Don’t You Want Me” when they wrote this loopy tune about sippin’ slurpy treats, fryin’ on a bench slide in the park and teenage romance gone weird: “my mind was thugged, all laced and bugged, all twisted round and beat.”

Ricky Wilson, Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of The B-52's

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37

“Rock Lobster,” The B-52s

The great Southern New Wave party band’s 1979 novelty hit was a wild, winking throwback to the innocent silliness of Sixties dance crazes. The surfed-up guitar part and Fred Schneider’s brilliant Jacques Cousteau-gone-bonkers lyrics (“There goes a dog-fish, chased by a cat-fish, in flew a sea robin, watch out for that piranha, there goes a narwhal, here comes a bikini whale!”) made it a psychedelic beach rocker for the ages.

Donna Summer

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36

“Hot Stuff,” Donna Summer

In 1973, LaDonna Andrea Gaines married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and repurposed his last name for her own stage name, assuring her inclusion on this list. “Hot Stuff” topped the chart in June 1979, a sex-craving disco anthem with grinding rock guitar courtesy Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers sideman Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

Chubby Checker

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35

“Let’s Twist Again,” Chubby Checker

Rock & roll was only a few years old when Chubby Checker recorded the original nostalgic party jam – “let’s twist again like we did last summer,” he sings, looking back from the summer of 1961 on the twist-mad summer of 1960. The chugging beat and Chubby’s big, smiling delivery make this the ultimate “twist” song and a timeless dancefloor-filler.

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

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34

“(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” Martha & The Vandellas

A firecracker ode to unbearable weather, Martha & The Vandellas‘ second hit single shot up the chart in the summer of 1963, and it can still dial up the temperature any time a lazy oldies radio DJ uses it to follow a nasty weather forecast. Alabama-born Martha Reeves sings about a guy who’s hot she gives her a fever over a high-energy R&B groove that was one of the earliest moments of genius for Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team.

Debbie Harry of Blondie

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33

“In The Sun,” Blondie

Like the Ramones, Blondie mixed a tough New York attitude with a love of Sixties bubblegum pop. “Surf’s up!” Debbie Harry yells over a “Wipeout” drum beat on this sleek, moody surf-rocker from their 1976 debut, an ode to getting out the gray city and hitting the beach. “Where is my wave,” she wonders. Just a subway ride away.

Eric Church

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32

“Springsteen,” Eric Church

A perfect country song about memories of Born In the USA as the “soundtrack to a July Saturday night,” Eric Church’s 2012 hit is so vivid you can almost smell the bug spray and Budweiser. Hooked to a spare melody and full of unforgettable images (“Discount shades, store bought tan, flip-flops and cut off jeans,” he sings, describing his Boss-loving high school girlfriend), it evokes hot summer nights with bittersweet nostalgia.

Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic

Gus Stewart/Redferns

31

“Good Times,” Chic

It might not seem like a seasonal tune at first, but this disco classic (which dominated the summer of 1979) is all about getting down on steamy nights “’bout a quarter to ten.” (Its B-side was the luxuriant “On a Warm Summer Night”.) According to Chic, the sporting life includes clams on the half shell and roller-skating. Who are we to argue with those who can create a groove as recognizable as the national anthem?

Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy

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30

“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy

Commissioned for Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, this bracing hip-hop call-to-arms is a heart-racing jumble of samples that crash into the groove. Then Chuck D yells: “Nineteen Eighty-NINE!/ The number/ Another SUMMER!” His call to activist awareness was the hip-hop generation’s “Dancing in the Street.”

Pavement

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29

“Summer Babe (Winter Version),” Pavement

Wistful like the waning days of August before you have to load the car up and head back to the dorm, Pavement‘s watershed tune is all melancholic guitar prettiness and vague breakup blues. It could be found on roughly a million undergrad mix tapes during the Clinton administration.

Marvin Gaye

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28

“Got to Give It Up” (Pt. 1 & 2), Marvin Gaye

Soul music’s tortured prince goes disco by figuring out how to make heavy funk light on its feet. It is impossible not to move to this 1977 jam, especially because it is about a shy dude afraid of the world until he hits the dancefloor. Perfect for any backyard cookout, it obviously changed Michael Jackson‘s life.

Sam Cooke

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27

“Summertime,” Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke makes it look easy. A near-definitive version of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess standard from one of the greatest American voices who ever lived, this stunner was the B-side to his 1957 breakthrough single, “You Send Me.” It’s been done by everyone from Miles Davis to Nick Drake to Janis Joplin to Morcheeba, but no one brings out the beauty – and irony – in this elegant evocation of Southern living like Cooke.

Nelly

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26

“Hot in Herre,” Nelly

Over one of the Neptune’s signature beats, all rubbery head nod and shoulder-shake, Nelly keeps it simple: “It’s getting hot in here/so take off all your clothes.” Background singer Dani Stevenson keeps her answer to the point. “I am getti’n so hot, I wanna take my clothes off” Perfect for those days when the mercury hits the 90s and clothing becomes optional.

Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry

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25

“In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry

This British bubblegum blues band’s 1970 guide to doing what you please is one of oldies radio’s most recognizable jams thanks to its bouncy banjo plinking. Known best for the lyric “you’ve got women, you’ve got women on your mind,” the song also contains the exceptionally sketchy lines “If her daddy rich/ take her out for a meal/if her daddy’s poor just do what you feel.” Do not take dating advice from Mungo Jerry.

Don Henley

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24

“Boys of Summer,” Don Henley

Insistent and laidback like cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway, Henley’s 1984 classic ponders his lost youth and innocence over an oddly urgent drum machine, overcast synths and Heartbreaker (and co-writer) Mike Campbell’s guitar, which is spacey, menacing and lonely all at once. It’s a summer anthem that gets darker the closer you look.

Charlie Thomas, Bill Fredericks, Rick Sheppard, Abdul Samad and Johnny Moore of Drifters

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23

“Under The Boardwalk,” The Drifters

Released in June 1964, “Under the Boardwalk” is one of the greatest teenage symphonies ever recorded, a string-bathed evocation of a secret hook-up down by the sea. Lead singer Johnny Moore – who was taking his first lead vocal with the band after the heroin-related death of Rudy Lewis the day before the session – sings slyly about people walking the boardwalk who have no inkling of the illicit teenage action going on below their feet.

Jan Berry and Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean

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22

“Surf City,” Jan & Dean

A utopian vision of a city by the sea where the female to male population ratio is an awesome two to one, “Surf City” topped the charts for two-weeks in July 1963. Written by Brian Wilson and Jan Berry, it promises there’s always something goin’, a party’s always growin’ and you’re sure to find short-term romantic bliss.

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin

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21

“Dancing Days,” Led Zeppelin

“Dancing days are here again as the summer evenings grow,” Robert Plant sings on this hormone-crackling celebration of getting down and sippin’ booze on long evenings. Zeppelin recorded “Dancing Days” at Mick Jagger‘s mansion Stargroves; when they were done they were so psyched they went out on the lawn and danced to it – a testament to its searing boogie power.

Snoop Doggy Dogg

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20

“Gin & Juice,” Snoop Doggy Dogg

Not just a summer BBQ classic but a refreshing summertime drink as well, “Gin & Juice” is G-funk at its warmest and funnest. Snoop rides a slow humid funk groove and a cicada keyboard melody as he raps about a party full of bubonic chronic and a gang of Tanqueray provided by Dr. Dre himself.

Santo & Johnny

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19

“Sleepwalk,” Santo & Johnny

Part doo-wop dreamweave, part surf-rock chill session, “Sleepwalk” was a Number One hit for Brooklyn brothers Santo and Johnny Farina in 1959. Its steel guitar melody evoked gorgeous island evenings and blue drinks with cute little umbrellas in them; fittingly, it went Number One the same year Hawaii gained statehood.

Seals & Crofts

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18

“Summer Breeze,” Seals & Crofts

One of the signature soft-rock groups of the early Seventies, Jim Seals and Dash Crofts were childhood buddies from Texas who moved to California and had a huge hit with this sublimely mellow, CSN&Y-style ode to lazy, June-time domesticity. “Summer Breeze” rolled through the jasmine of America’s mind in 1972, with an innocent melody played on a toy piano.

Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee

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17

“Despacito,” Luis Fonsi, feat. Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee

Few songs have ever dominated a summer like this landmark Latin-pop smash — a seductive reggaeton groove that took the beats of San Juan to Middle America. “Despacito” hit U.S. shores in late spring, took over the Number One spot on the charts and refused to let go until school was back in, becoming your suburban grandmother’s favorite Spanish-language song since “La Bamba.”

Daft Punk

David Black

16

“Get Lucky,” Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers

The summer jam of 2013 is a disco inferno full of bright guitar shimmer, robot come-ons, falsetto soul and a beat that keeps you up having good fun until you see the sun. It may say something dire about the American economy that we need to outsource our Top 40 summer fun to a couple French techno dudes, but you’ll be too busy getting down to care.

Dick Dale

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

15

“Miserlou,” Dick Dale

“Miserlou” is a Middle Eastern folk tune that surf guitar visionary Dick Dale transformed into the very sound of hanging ten, all rippling reverb and horn punches. It’s the greatest surf song of all time and as the soundtrack to the opening credits for Pulp Fiction, it’s associated with one of the greatest movies of all time too.

Snail Mail

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14

“Heat Wave,” Snail Mail

This big, sad, skywrite-the-chorus song might be the best thing ever to be named “Heat Wave,” and that’s no light claim. For Martha and the Vandellas, a heat wave meant desire. For Snail Mail, it means getting bored enough to make some dicey emotional bets. Lindsey Jordan spends her vacation falling for a green-eyed dream who’s barely there, mostly because she has nothing better to do. “I hope I never get a clue,” she sings. Knowing what’s real would mean knowing it was never meant to be. Who wants to think about the future in the middle of July? —Simon Vozick-Levinson

Siobhan Fahey, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward of Bananarama

Mike Prior/Redferns

13

“Cruel Summer,” Bananarama

Bananarama wanted to write a song that keyed into the “darker side” of summer. Defined by a plinking earworm hook and drum-pad beats, this is essentially the British synth-pop answer song to Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” as if to say, “hey, we have humid summers, too, wot?” And yet, they chose to shoot the video in New York.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince Will Smith

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12

“Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

Over a funky laidback beat, a young Will Smith does a fantastic Rakim impression over a sample of Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness” and drops a sweet ode to hanging out and driving around his native Philly: “Honking at the honey in front of you with the light eyes/She turn around to see what you beeping at/It’s like the summers a natural aphrodisiac.” It’s still hip-hop’s finest summer celebration.

Go-Gos

Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns

11

“Vacation,” The Go-Gos

With a radiant keyboard melody and swirls of surf guitar, the Go-Go‘s nailed the feeling of trying to use summer vacation to try to get over a crush. It’s one of Belinda Carlisle’s most heart-tugging performances and its team-waterskiing video is one of greatest MTV clips of all time. “If you look at our eyes, we’re all so drunk,” Jane Wiedlin said years later. “We didn’t even try to make it look like we were really waterskiing.”

Lovin Spoonful

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10

“Summer In the City,” Lovin’ Spoonful

Tons of tunes celebrate the summer, but few note how oppressive and gross it can be: John Sebastian sounds seriously annoyed when he spits “back of my neck getting dirt and gritty.” But then the sun goes down and the partying starts – everyone is hooking up on rooftops and twistin’ the night away. With a barrage of car horns on the bridge, the record evoked its subject with urban grit and Gershwin-esque grandeur.

Sly And The Family Stone

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9

“Hot Fun In the Summertime,” Sly & the Family Stone

Summer 1969 was already under way when Stone handed in this heavenly soul ballad to Epic Records, which was wary of releasing a summer song in August – but it was a smash anyway. Sly and crew croon beautifully about summer days over string-sweetened light funk and while it’s hard to imagine a cat like Sly “at a county fair in the country sun,” they sure make you want to join them there.

Johnny Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Joey Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone of The Ramones

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8

“Rockaway Beach,” The Ramones

A bubblegum torpedo ride, this 1977 punk rock classic is about hitching your way out of the gritty city on a day trip to the largest public beach in the United States, located in the Ramones‘ native Queens. “Rockaway Beach” is a vacation getaway open to anyone and everyone, rich or poor, just like the Ramones’ all-American rock and roll vision on this song.

Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and David Marks of The Beach Boys

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7

“California Girls,” The Beach Boys

With apologies to the other forty-nine, Brian Wilson‘s ode to his home state’s hotties elevated California girls to mythic status. Wilson wrote the melody the first time he took acid and the swirling piano chords at the opening give the simple teenage fantasy a dream-like grandeur. The lyrics, written by Mike Love, were inspired by Wilson’s assertion that “everybody loves girls.”

Drake

Universal Music Group

6

“In My Feelings,” Drake

The ultimate summer hit, right after the music world decided we had entered a post-summer-hit era. With typical smoothitude, Aubrey Graham breezed into the Number One spot in July and parked there for two damn months — his second hit of the year to spend ten weeks on top. “In My Feelings” continues his fascination with New Orleans bounce, with an assist from City Girls along with 40, Blaqnmild and TrapMoneyBenny. Drizzy shares his feelings for a very special girl who thank-u-nexted her way out of his life, sampling Lil Wayne and Atlanta, inspiring a viral dance craze along with a few colorful conspiracy theories about the identity of his mystery muse “KiKi.” But as always, Drake gets everybody all up in his feelings, the way only he can.

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