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The Best Summer Songs of All Time

School’s out, and it’s time to get down and have some hot fun

Rolling Stone Jun 28, 2022

Dimitri Hakke/Getty Image; Rich Polk/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images; Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

The summer song is one of pop’s truest pleasures, be it a hit that dominates the Top 40 and every backyard cookout, or a sweet ode to the season itself. Here are our picks for the most sizzling summer songs ever — from rock to hip-hop, from Chubby Checker to Led Zeppelin to Cardi B.

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

50. Jonathan Richman, ‘That Summer Feeling’ (1983)

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.

49. Nelly, ‘Hot in Herre’ (2002)

Over one of the Neptunes’ 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 gettin’ so hot, I wanna take my clothes off.” Perfect for those days when the mercury hits the nineties and clothing becomes optional.

48. The Hold Steady, ‘Constructive Summer’ (2008)

“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.

47. The Drifters, ‘Under The Boardwalk’ (1964)

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.

46. Wilco, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ (2001)

Combining the wistful essence of alt-country and the gummy-groove fun of hip-hop, Jeff Tweedy came up with 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.

45. Chicago, ‘Saturday in the Park’ (1972)

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 aviary at the zoo, man. It’s awesome.

44. The B-52s, ‘Rock Lobster’ (1978)

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.

43. Eric Burden and War, ‘Spill the Wine’ (1970)

Even if Eric Burdon didn’t kick off with “I was once out strolling one very hot summer’s day,” everything about this 1970 gem screams the season — the bongos, the flute, the Latin-funk rhythms, and the woman that breezily enters to speak some Spanish. If you need any more convincing, check out the pool scene in Boogie Nights.

42. Jan & Dean, ‘Surf City’ (1963)

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.

41. Superchunk, ‘This Summer’ (2012)

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.

40. Led Zeppelin, ‘Dancing Days’ (1973)

“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.

39. Santo & Johnny, ‘Sleepwalk’ (1959)

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.

38. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, ‘It Takes Two’ (1988)

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.

37. Taylor Swift, ‘Cruel Summer’ (2019)

The ultimate Swiftie mystery: Why didn’t Taylor release this as a single so it could blow up into the summer blockbuster of 2019? We’ll never know. But with “Cruel Summer,” she devised the perfect bittersweet pop-lust swoon, sneaking out the window for a secret rendezvous, then crying in the back of a car.

36. Donna Summer, ‘Hot Stuff’ (1979)

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.

35. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, ‘WAP’ (2020)

All hail Cardi and Megan: In a time of national crisis, these two queens responded with the filthy Hot Girl Summer banger we needed. Megan and Cardi shocked prudes everywhere with “WAP,” chanting “wet-ass pussy” over a sample of the Baltimore club hit “Whores in This House.” Bring a bucket and a mop.

34. Dick Dale, ‘Miserlou’ (1962)

“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.

33. Koffee, ‘Toast’ (2019)

Koffee’s gratitude on “Toast” is contagious. It’s especially easy to identify with the song’s overwhelming sense of thankfulness in the summer, with hot rays on your face and dancing shoes on your feet. “Toast” commands you to celebrate.

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32. Snail Mail, ‘Heat Wave’ (2018)

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?

31. Chubby Checker, ‘Let’s Twist Again’ (1961)

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.

Harry Styles, ‘As It Was’ (2022)

Harry Styles’ Harry’s House is already a contender one of the finest summer albums of all time, a sensual world of love, food and late night talking. Its first single is a tender meditation on loss, all synth splendor and bold openheartedness, and just the thing to soundtrack late afternoon drinks at your favorite out-of-the-way patio bar.

29. Drake, ‘In My Feelings’ (2018)

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.

28. Sam Cooke, ‘Summertime’ (1958)

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.

27. The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘”Summer In the City’ (1966)

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.

26. Ginuwine, ‘Pony’ (1996)

The stickiest of dance-floor sweat, from the humid swamp breezes of Virginia Beach. “Pony” was Timbaland’s first huge hit as a producer, stunning the world with a whole new kind of Southern funk, with Ginuwine getting his saddle ready. “Pony” is the definition of a sex groove — all Channing Tatum fans know.

25. Luis Fonsi, feat. Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee, ‘Despacito’ (2017)

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.”

24. Grateful Dead, ‘Scarlet Begonias’ (1974)

Admittedly, it does open with the image of Jerry Garcia walking around London on a nippy night, which isn’t super summery. But this is the Dead’s brightest hippie-bliss banger, with the guitars spilling sunshine around Keith Godchaux’s funky keyboard. The studio version appears on 1974’s From the Mars Hotel. And live, paired with “Fire On the Mountain,” it’s one of their most transcendent immersive experiences.

23. Pavement, ‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’ (1992)

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.

22. Lil Nas X, ‘Old Town Road’ (2019)

Lil Nas X’s genre-defying creation blends banjo strums and jaw-rattling bass, rural imagery and hip-hop signifiers. Hooky, short and wildly loopable, “Old Town Road” took off on TikTok, then became the latest bizarre viral phenomenon. Soon kindergartners and grandmas alike were singing “Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty” while splashing surfside. It was one of those rare songs that seemed to unite the world — and looking back, it makes us appreciate the summer of 2019 even more.

21. Eddie Cochran, ‘Summertime Blues’ (1958)

“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.

20. Seals & Crofts, ‘Summer Breeze’ (1972)

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.

19. Eric Church, ‘Springsteen’ (2011)

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.

18. Len, ‘Steal My Sunshine’ (1999)

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.”

17. Ramones, ‘Rockaway Beach’ (1977)

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.

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16. LFO, ‘Summer Girls’ (1999)

With its jarringly specific references to Abercrombie & Fitch, Kevin Bacon and New Kids on the Block, this endearingly goofy recollection of a summer crush became a monster hit for LFO (a.k.a. Lyte Funkie Ones), the hottest boy band ever to bounce out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Some wistful guitar spritz, a lyter-than-air hip-hop beat and a stream of lovably clunky pop culture allusions made “Summer Girls” an enduring embodiment of the weird, sweet and awkwardness of a pre-teen romance.

15. BTS and Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Butter (Remix)’ (2021)

What a dream team: The Bulletproof Boy Scouts meet the Hot Girl Coach. BTS take their Number One hit to the dance floor with Megan, who gives them a hip-hop boost. Like she says, “They know that I’m the wave, take over every summer.” Houston’s finest, in the room with bosses.

14. Bananarama, ‘Cruel Summer’ (1983)

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.

13. Rauw Alejandro, ‘Todo de Ti’ (2021)

Rauw Alejandro was specifically looking for a song people would play at the beach, and that’s exactly what happened all over the planet in the summer of 2021. The Puerto Rican singer’s breakthrough came out in late May, a pop smash that rewired reggaeton’s circuitry with its transportingly buoyant New Wave synths and plush disco groove. By the dog days of summer it was a world-wide hit and a star-making coup for Alejandro.

12. Sly & the Family Stone, ‘Hot Fun In the Summertime’ (1969)

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.

11. Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin, ‘I Like It’ (2018)

In the summer of 2018, it was nearly impossible to stand on any street corner in any American city without hearing “I Like It” blasting from the window of a passing car. “I Like It” was where Cardi B really gave it up to her Latin heritage, with Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin, over a trapped-out sample of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.” While Cardi hits the timbale beat like a piñata, she gives the guests room to shine — this has to be the first Number One hit in history to namecheck Celia Cruz, Jimmy Snuka, and Lady Gaga in the same verse.

10. Wizkid feat. Tems, ‘Essence’ (2020)

Though “Essence” arrived in the fall of 2020, it took off in the summer of 2021, when it began to barrel to the top of the Hot 100, a rare feat for an afrobeats track. But if you were anywhere that mattered, “Essence” was inescapable, and for good reason — chill and sexy, romantic and bold, Wizkid’s duet with then-up-and-comer Tems is the perfect soundtrack for sunny days and sultry nights.

9. The Go-Gos, ‘Vacation’ (1982)

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.”

8. Prince, ‘When Doves Cry’ (1984)

The all-time king of summer hits. From “Raspberry Beret” to “U Got The Look” to “Alphabet Street,” Prince served. But he never shut down a summer like he did in 1984, when he dropped Purple Rain. “When Doves Cry” was radical avant-garde freak funk, but also a Number One hit — the ultimate Prince combo.

7. Alice Cooper, ‘School’s Out’ (1972)

“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.

6. Public Enemy, ‘Fight the Power’ (1989)

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.”

5. The Beach Boys, ‘California Girls’ (1965)

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.”

4. Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Gin & Juice’ (1993)

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.

3. Marvin Gaye, ‘Got to Give It Up’ (Pt. 1 & 2) (1977)

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 (not to mention Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s).

2. Martha & The Vandellas, ‘Dancing in the Street’ (1965)

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. The song took on political meaning during the riots of the 1960s, becoming a civil rights anthem in the process. Martha Reeves sounds like she’s doing more than just kick off a party – she sounds like she’s starting a revolution.

1. Chic, ‘Good Times’ (1979)

It might not seem like a seasonal tune at first, but this disco classic, which dominated the summer of 1979, and has been a staple of every summer since, 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. And as the song that provided the groove for the very first hip-hop hit, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” it stands tall as the proud parent of more subsequent summer jams than any song in history.

From Rolling Stone US.


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