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, girls and partying at the beach. 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 Go-Gos to Daft Punk. School’s out, and it’s time to get down, get sunburned and get lucky.
A gorgeously upbeat slice of melancholy from the self-styled world's greatest bar band. The song is from 1977, but the lightly forlorn melody and ringing guitars are Sixties Top 40 heaven. Singer Al Anderson sings about a summer fling that ended so bad he thinks about his ex-girlfriend every time he gets in his car.
A celebration of California living set to some cheerily buzzing guitars: "We've got the ocean, got the babes/Got the sun, we've got the waves/This is the only place for me," Bethany Cosentino sings. When she adds, "Why would you live anywhere else," it'll make you want to pack your bags for L.A. faster than Ted Chaough.
"We're gonna build something this summer," Craig Finn sings over an all-ages moshpit riff, as he sings about what punk-rock kids in America do to beat the summertime blues – namely, drink toasts to Saint Joe Strummer on top of watertowers. The song's relentless energy and shout-along Black Flag-style backing vocals ("Get hammered!") tap timeless school's-out mania but a dark undercurrent makes it stick – "getting older makes it harder to remember," he sings. A steady diet of double whiskeys with no ice doesn't help either.
Over impossibly tasteful string and brass accents, two young British men think about summer romances come and gone in 1964 and harmonize like angels. Only 2:39 long, it is one of the great early British invasion earworms while also being one of the softest.
Rivers Cuomo's tender to ode to splendid, sunny isolation. Over deadpan background "hip hips," the band zones out grandly and the bridge where Cuomo sings "we'll run away together" is slovenly power-pop ecstasy. This is seriously as happy as this guy gets. Summer will do that to you.
Loudon Wainwright III was one of the smartest, funniest, oddest stars of the early-Seventies singer-songwriter boom. While everyone else was writing serious songs of manly sensitivity he opened his 1973 album Attempted Mustache with this buoyant banjo-led tune about doing the cannonball and the Italian crawl: "Last summer I swan in the ocean and I swam in a swimming pool/Salt my wounds, chlorine my eyes I'm a self-destructive fool!" Kowabunga!
On this simple, mournful song, the former Modern Lover strums a tribute to the summer moments that haunt you and taunt you as you get older. You know you're in trouble, Richman croons, "When even fourth grade starts looking good (which you hated)." Pretty much every indie rock song about summer builds off this.
Pro tip: Always wear sunscreen, especially when you're pasty pent-up dudes like the Violent Femmes. Over a torqued up acoustic surf-punk, Gordon Gano gave us one of rock's great odes to pencil-necked, acne-scarred horniness. This unlikely hit exploded like an over-ripe zit all over John Hughes America in the mid-Eighties.
The brass-powered soft-rockers pretty much perfect Seventies mellowness on this radio staple, a shout out to Central Park written while the band was recording in New York. Singer Robert Lamm can't remember exactly when he visited the park ("I think it was the Fourth of July") but he had such a chill time he can't wait to get back ("I've been waiting such a long time/For today"). Check out the open-air tropical air aviary at the zoo, man. It's awesome!
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.
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.
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.
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."
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!
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Rock and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
"The few minutes waiting for that final school bell to ring are so intense that when it happens, it's almost orgasmic," said Alice Cooper. Released in May 1972, this instantly became the go-to anthem for kids who really really hate school and, no matter how old you are, it can still make you want to throw your papers in the air and run out into the blinding sun of the heavy metal parking lot.
"There had been a lot of songs about summer, but none about the hardships of summer," co-writer Jerry Capehart, who was Eddie Cochran's manager, said of "Summertime Blues." The 1958 rockabilly raver tapped into suburban teen boredom and angst, blazing a trail toward heavy and metal and punk by making edgy, bound-up energy seem thrilling. Years later, thunderbolt covers by the Who and Blue Cheer would make its trailblazing hard-rock legacy explicit.
The ultimate invitation to get outside and cut loose, "Dancing In the Street" reinvents the world as a giant summertime block party. Co-written by Marvin Gaye, it has the greatest party-jam lyrics ever written and the drums hit like a gunshot. Martha Reeves sounds like she's doing more than just kick off a party – she sounds like she's starting a revolution.