It’s hard to understand anyone whose favorite season is anything but summer. It’s more than a season; it’s the brightest part of the year. It’s when the best things happen and the most memories are made. Obviously, that’s not really true, that’s not how things work. Bad things happen in the summer, great things happen in the winter. But the way we look forward to summer and the way we remember it is always as the best version of itself. That intersection between excitement, actions, and memories is a real feeling. There’s a reason we’re excited to write a list like this, because when you think of summer songs it really means something.
Here are The 50 Best Summer Songs. Some feel like summer, some are about summer, some will forever be attached to a certain summer in history, but they are all perfect and timeless additions to your Summer 2012 playlist. Enjoy, and happy summer.
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50. Foster The People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
Foster The People have gone onto great things; topping charts, selling out shows and signing to a major label. But do you remember the first time you heard “Pumped Up Kicks,” before radio went all out and overplayed the hell out of it? That assured, catching bass riff and the impossibly infectious chorus are the building blocks for a great track that feels like it was recorded on the hottest day of the year.
49. Usher ft. Ludacris & Lil Jon – “Yeah”
Peace up, A-Town down.
And just like that, one of the ultimate party-starters of a generation starts. The longest running Billboard chart-topper of 2004, this was the one of the great pop songs of the early ’00s that hasn’t stopped coming up since. It’s stretch at the #1 spot lasted 12 weeks, providing a very fun soundtrack to the summer for what seems like the entire world.
48. Twin Shadow – “Shooting Holes”
Among all the sun-drenched synths and bright, catchy choruses that catch the ear during the day, songs that feel like summer evenings have no trouble standing out. “Shooting Holes” is about those nights when bedtimes became lax and rules fell by the wayside. Adventures were free to be had with whoever was around, the boldest actions in long, mosquito-ridden grass prompted by the dying light of a purple dusk.
47. Lil B – “The Summer”
Lil B makes music for every occasion. Lil B makes music for your life. The summer is no exception, it is just another time that Lil B loves and will bless with a classic track. Over an old Hot Boyz beat the Based God made a rare seasonal anthem that can be played any time between May and September.
Baby girl, it’s the summer / Work that pussy like a Nascar driver
46. Paul Simon – “Kodachrome”
Nothing matches the nostalgia of summer. When you’re in it, you’re blinded by all the brightness and you might not even catch the best moments, but you’ll always look back, and you’ll always want to hold onto those memories. Paul knew. Or maybe, like some speculate, this was just another great song about LSD.
45. Flight Facilities – “Crave You”
The narrator in this song seems irresistible. She’s wearing gold, for starters. The sultry singing is accentuated by the subtly deepening synths and syncopated toms that serve as chorus percussion. Before long the danceability of the song is going to take over, to the point where the narrative of the song doesn’t matter anymore. It just becomes a great song, seemingly made for a pleasantly muggy night. It’s hard to leave nu-disco like this off the list, because tantalizing summer nights are what this song was made for.
44. 311 – “Amber”
311’s music hasn’t aged well post Y2K, but they struck a chord with the celestial “Amber.” The reggae-tinged love song pairs perfectly with those late nights/early mornings and whatever Nick Hexum meant with his reference to amber, you can’t help but think of being outside in the open right at the point when the sun flirts with the horizon.
43. Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy”
It’s a testament to the classic pop sensibilities of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo that this song got so big. It’s unbelievably dark for a chart smash, essentially an ode to insanity, yet that didn’t stop it from dominating airwaves back in the summer of 2006.
42. Violent Femmes – “Blister In The Sun”
Depending on who you ask, the quirky, skip-along alt-rock classic is about masturbation, heroin use, adolescence, cheating on your girlfriend, herpes… whatever the case, if you ever saw My So Called Life, it’s about episode 17, when a young Claire Danes dances around her room to this Violent Femmes signature song. Shoutout to the ’90s. Shoutout to Claire Danes.
41. Outkast – “Rosa Parks”
Outkast has a handful of songs that could easily be included on this list but in 1999, almost everyone agreed: “Rosa Parks” was the shit. Catchy enough to reel in even those kids that were still holding on to grunge, technically proficient enough to please the rap heads, and poppy enough to get everyone on the schoolbus singing along all summer.
40. Blink 182 – “Dammit”
For the ’80s babies coming of age in the ’90s, this was a growing up theme song. Summer isn’t all puppy love and good times—you’ll go through some shit. But with this one track, Blink 182 summed it up simply and perfectly: “Well I guess this is growing up.
39. Grateful Dead – “Uncle John’s Band”
Hippie shit isn’t cool these days, but there’s a time and a place for it. The place is debatable. The time? Summer. Lie in the grass, forget about the sand in your shoes, stay up until the sun comes out at least a few times. Grateful Dead makes music for this kind of behavior, and “Uncle John’s Band” is perfect for your summertime hippie indulgence.
38. People Under The Stairs – “San Francisco Knights”
This underground classic keeps it simple: drinking, smoking, and warm West Coast nights. More than anything, it’s just that breezy vibe that conjures up images of swaying palm trees and concrete sidewalks that makes this one a must-have on any essential summer mix.
37. T.I. – “What You Know”
This song dominated 2006, soundtracking both T.I.’s motion picture vehicle ATL, serving as the lead single for King and, after that, the top of the charts. It was a summer smash, the kind that was absolutely everywhere. You could hear blaring out of radios and rumbling out of cars, on laptop speakers and cell phone ringtones. Its ubiquity isn’t the only reason it’s a summer song, though. DJ Toomp’s synth line, the iconic rollercoaster of mind-blowing keys was the real star of the show, and if production could be described as a color, “What You Know” would be gold. It’s a summer song because if the Sun made a rap beat it would sound a little like this.
36. Breakbot – “Baby, I’m Yours”
If you ever find yourself DJing a day party there’s really no other genre option other than disco. If you go in another direction, you’re wrong. I’m sorry. You might still do a good job, but if you had played some nu-disco it would have gone better. Take “Baby, I’m Yours,” for instance; it’s easygoing and danceable, with synths that feel like beams of sunlight. Romantic, fun, relaxed – it’s a unique combination that makes it a perfect summer song.
This Siriusmo remix? Honorable mention.
35. Vampire Weekend – “A-Punk”
Punk rock isn’t very summery, but Vampire Weekend managed to change that with a slight twist. “We had a riff that sounded like a punk song, but we played it on the high notes to make it sound more interesting,” Exra Koenig explains. The result is an upbeat, bright sound, and Vampire Weekend’s subtle African pop influence that has come to define their sound only helped to make this one a perfect fit for the hottest months of the year.
34. 2Pac – “California Love”
2Pac repped hard for the West Coast. At times it got territorial, at times it turned to war. When we look back, that ugly aspect will always be a big part of the story, but the most impressive thing? Getting people from all over the world to sing along with an anthem about California, and to feel good while doing it.
33. The Drifters – “Under The Boardwalk”
This is the smoothest of classics. The song describes when and where is best to listen to the song, but the feeling works anywhere as long as it’s sunny and warm. The strings and vocal harmonies are relaxing, the chorus is iconic, and it feels like the beach. We don’t know why we aren’t listening to this all day, every day.
32. Japandroids – “Young Hearts Spark Fire”
This Canadian garage rock duo makes music for people at their quarter life crisis. It’s fun, catchy rock about nostalgia, made by people too young to really know the feeling. It’s music to get reckless too – the best get-drunk-in-the-middle-of-the-afternoon-like-you-used-to-that-one-summer-in-high-school song.
31. Sublime – “Badfish”
Later in the list we’ll hit on Sublime again, but to anyone that grew up listening to “Badfish,” it hits like a wave of nostalgia every time. The tone is set perfectly—those voices in the opening of the song, speaking over clinking bottles and overlapping conversation of a space filled with friends:
“How’s it goin’ dude?”
“Hey man, what’s up?”
“Tell Todd he can turn the radio back on.”
It transports you to a garage, a porch, a house party, a parking lot, wherever. Wherever you were when you were young and it was hot outside and you had some spare time on your hands.
30. Cut Copy – “Feel The Love”
Associative hip-hop producer Hot Sugar told us that recently he’s been recording silence, amplifying it so it can be heard as a tone, then incorporating it into his songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cut Copy had picked up on the technique back in 2008, except instead of silence they recorded sunlight.
Cut Copy has always made bright music, but “Feel The Love” takes it to another level. It’s a track that seems imbued with warmth, and has already soundtracked a few summers so well that it’s impossible to think of it in any other light. It seems like it’s always been the song that’s turned up all the way when the car window’s open.
29. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – “Janglin”
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros essentially operate as minstrels, it seems. They travel the world in their converted school bus with all their instruments as a band of misfits, playing their music for those that will listen. While a lot of that may be part of their image and a folksy gimmick in reality, it doesn’t stop their music from taking on the feeling to match the image. ‘Janglin'” serves as a mission statement for the band and their purported lifestyle – it’s a great song that begs to be taken on a road trip.
28. Snoop Dogg – “Gin & Juice”
Snoop Doggy Dogg was, and still is, known for representing the feeling of summer. It might have something to do with the fact that he has no discernible motivations outside the music industry, is allowed to rap for a living and (presumably) smokes exponentially more weed than we do. It seems like he makes the most of an ideal lazy summer day every day of his life, regardless of the date. So when he raps about his life and is able to squeeze one of the most infectious choruses in all of hip-hop history into the same song, you better believe it’s going to be one of the best summer songs of all time.
27. Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
Mick Jagger to Rolling Stone, on the song that made them a smash hit in the U.S. in 1965: “People get very blase about their big hit. It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band. You always need one song. We weren’t American, and America was a big thing and we always wanted to make it here. It was very impressive the way that song and the popularity of the band became a worldwide thing. It’s a signature tune, really, rather than a great, classic painting, ’cause it’s only like one thing – a kind of signature that everyone knows. It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kinds of songs..”
26. Cults – “Go Outside”
It starts with the title. When Cults first told us to “Go Outside” they were an enigma, a mystery group on Pitchfork with one jaw-droppingly good piece of vintage indie pop. The song is sunny and perfect in its own way, combining those delicate chimes with a swinging, confident bassline, but once you listened to the slightly obscured lyrics it becomes the ultimate summer motivation song – if you’re the kind of person that needs convincing to make some moves and get out of the house and into the sun.
I think it’s good to go out, cause if you don’t you’ll never make a memory that will stay
25. The Doors – “Light My Fire”
This is an all-time classic, and one of the calling cards of The Doors. Released as a single in April 1967, it’s not hard to imagine what the song ensuing summer was going to be defined by. That chorus, sung by Jim Morrison, is a timelessly iconic hook to the rest of the compulsively listenable freewheeling piece of rock’n’roll. In mainstream rock criticism, “Light My Fire” is largely regarded as one of the greatest songs ever recorded and, for us, it’s an easy pick as one of the best songs for summer. Play it this year, it’s got the same feel as it did 35 years ago.
24. Bob Marley – “Stir It Up”
Playing Bob Marley non-stop all summer wouldn’t be a bad call. This is man who built his reputation off peace, harmony, and positive vibrations, and what more could you want for in summertime? To people that grew up on the classics, songs like “One Love,” “Could You Be Loved,” and “Three Little Birds” get slightly played out, but that bass line from “Stir It Up”—Bob’s first successful song outside of Jamaica—is forever fit for swinging on a hammock and smiling at any motherfucker that walks by, ’cause bitch, it’s summer.
23. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under The Bridge”
You don’t have to ever have listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers of your own accord before – this chorus plays and you will always find you’re singing along with everyone else. The band didn’t know they had a hit with this one, and when they released it as their second single in March of 1992, it would break the band in a major way. The song ended up spending 26 weeks in a row on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts, and even after years in the music game, RHCP’s sunny sound has never sounded so iconic.
22. Sly & The Family Stone – “Hot Fun In The Summertime”
We describe many songs as iconic in this list. For many of those, that means you recognize it instantaneously. In this case, it might not be immediately recognizable, but it’s iconic because within about 10 seconds of listening you just know that this is a classic. Released on the heels of their legendary performance at Woodstock, Sly & The Family Stone let loose a lush, beautiful ode to their idyllic visions of summer. The song is close to perfect, and no summer is complete without one or two plays.
21. Nat King Cole – “Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer”
Songs used to be straightforward. Nat King Cole had a classic on his hands when he told you his simple rules for what will make for a good summer. The blunt approach was backed by a full big band that complemented his smooth, attention-grabbing voice perfectly. The combination of those with Cole’s magnetic charisma and the inherent nostalgia that comes with listening to songs recorded some 50 years ago makes this an all time great.
20. Passion Pit -“Sleepyhead”
With a song titled “Sleepyhead,” it’s certainly a full-on cliche to talk about bed in a writeup about why it’s a good song. Does admitting to a cliche before committing to it make it less of one? Probably not.
That brief disclaimer aside, Passion Pit’s debut LP was a heavyweight contender for the summer soundtrack of 2009. While all of the songs were spastic, fluorescent indie-pop smashes the ubiquitous one was “Sleepyhead.” That track was being woken up by the sun on a weekend. Whether that feeling came from the titular lyric or, more likely, the gentle opening crescendo of synths and that swirling vocal sample, the result was the same: this might be the best alarm clock song you could ask for. As long as it’s not cloudy outside, that is.
19. Dr. Dre – “Let Me Ride”
People still talk about East Coast and West Coast rap like they’re very different. While certain artists identify heavily with one or the other, music from either coast certainly doesn’t associate inherently with a singular sound. Basically, things have changed. Back in ’92, Dr. Dre reinvented the California hip-hop sound with The Chronic by making music that remains one of the best sonically representative aesthetic of a locale.
“Let Me Ride” and the rest of the album was smooth gangster rap, taking funk, R&B and live instrumentation into the hip-hop fold. It was music to drive around L.A. in. Since most of us can’t enjoy the California sun Dr. Dre made this for and to represent year-round, this track works best in the summer.
18. The Outfield – “Your Love”
This song is one of the best to throw on at a family reunion if you want to see all the old people break out in song.
That being said, while it’s definitely grown into a near ironically sized anthem (second only to “Don’t Stop Believin'” and, arguably, a few others), “Use Your Love” is one hell of a singalong jam. It’s a summer story, one that evokes a John Hughes montage in the mind of porches and drive-ins and names like “Cindy.” It feels like it should be accompanied by fireworks and happiness and being outside and beer and a girl you really like but can’t have. The American traditions. And summer is just one big American holiday after all! Right?
This song has a video we won’t subject you to.
17. Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”
At some point during the making of this list, the discussion was made about what was the difference between a “summer song” and a “singalong song.” The answer is that there is a very thin fucking line that is better represented by, if you can picture it, an extremely overlapping Venn diagram between the two categories. In the middle of that overlap is “Wake Up,” by Arcade Fire.
“Wake Up” is the emotional crux of Funeral, the standout track from the debut album of the now enormously popular Canadian band. It’s become the emotional crux of their live shows, too; the unstoppable finale. It’s the song that can singlehandedly provide the defining moment of a summer, simply by being the biggest moment of a music festival (Arcade Fire has headlined many). Whether you’re in a crowd of thousands or just with your best friends in a backyard or a park – this song is impossible not to sing along with.
16. Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit”
One of the mainstays of psychedelic rock, Jefferson Airplane’s musical interpretation of the surrealist trip that is Alice In Wonderland is the kind of song that sticks with you for your whole life. The tinged-with-darkness melodies are inescapable and the full effect of the song is best described as hypnotic. The late ’60s were a complicated time, not able to be distilled to a single song. However, for a certain cross-section in the summer of 1967, this was the song for the season.
15. Matt & Kim – “Daylight”
“Daylight” doesn’t have to be about you summers. You don’t have to hitchhike to Maine, or do anything they describe, really. It’s about the feeling. Matt & Kim bottled up the anticipation for a season and the way we look at summer memories through rose colored glasses. Summer’s great because of the thought that maybe you could just turn off your phone for a weekend and hit a beach on a whim. When you play this song it doesn’t become about a specific summer – it’s about all summers and the weird, great way we look at this time of year.
It’s over the top in the best way, but when you’ve made a piano riff that catchy, how can it not be?
14. Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days”
Summer isn’t all about chilling out, hitting the beach, whatever, whatever, whatever. There are times in summer when it’s time to put on a bandana, do some work with your hands, get some dirt under your nails, fix an engine, chug a warm Budweiser, put that young body of yours to work. Because when you’re old and your bones start getting brittle, and your body is crooked and frail, you’re going to miss these days, you stud.
13. Ice Cube – “It Was A Good Day”
Ice Cube explains: “The inspiration was my life at the time … I was at the top of the rap game. It was the summer of ’92 and I was in a hotel room, really in a state of euphoria. I had all the money I had dreamed of. I was in a good frame of mind.” Half the time, summer is really just about listening to rap and and feeling like today’s going to be perfect. That might not always be the case, but even if you have just one day like Cube’s, consider your summer a success.
12. Jay-Z ft. UGK – “Big Pimpin'”
For anyone who’s seen the video, that treatment became the image of a perfect summer party. The kind of perfection we’ll never, ever be able to experience, but still. Yachts, champagne, beautiful women and Pimp C (RIP). Who could ask for anything better?
11. Atmosphere – “Sunshine”
We’ve all had these kind of days, and Sluggo lays it out real basic—you wake up feeling like shit, you go outside in the sun, you take a look around, and you feel better. It’s real simple, but there aren’t many lines in hip-hop that put it any better: “Every day that gets to pass is a success/And every woman looks better in a sundress.”
10. Washed Out – “Feel It All Around”
People talk about lazy summer days, but this is one of the first songs to really personify one. The snares seem sluggish, coming in at the last moment possible every single bar. The vocals are halfway there, like they’re sung from a couch. And the synths careen back and forth, like sunlight through squinted eyelids as you wake up from a nap. All of Washed Out’s catalog feels bright and made for hot days, but this is the best of them.
09. The Killers – “When You Were Young”
It’s interesting to see how much of our ideas of summer are caught up in an idyllic vision of Americana. There are these slices of life that seem unimpeachably American; fireworks, baseball, convertibles, kids – and they end up inseparable from a single season.
For Sam’s Town, The Killers took on those slices of America and added the ideas; Christianity, working hard, tragedy and romance, to American rock music, guitars blazing. “When You Were Young” is the perfect American rock single to exist post-9/11 and post-Internet. It’s stuffed full of beautiful ideas and chords and is retrogressively patriotic to a fault.
When you create a single that is, at its essence, America, you inevitably create a song inextricably linked with our images of summer. Just imagine listening to this song in a convertible, at a family reunion or blaring at a 4th of July barbecue. It works, doesn’t it? Perfectly.
08. Ben E. King – “Stand By Me”
We all see it in movies: couples making out in old cars, parked on top of hills overlooking small towns or major cities. It’s a universal image of young love engrained in our brains from movies and ideas we have of old times, before we were born, before we were seeing news stories of teens giving blowjobs on the way to school. During the summer of 1961, “Stand By Me” was the perfect soundtrack for pure romance. Since then, summer songs have gotten slightly less romantic, but while the raunchy sing-alongs come and go, “Stand By Me” remains a classic.
07. Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff – “Summertime”
Will Smith has a summer blockbuster out every year like clockwork, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was topping the charts instead of the movie theater. We guess he just has a feeling for what will be big in the summer. “Summertime” is a classic in its specificity – the Fresh Prince’s “It Was A Good Day” – that details his take on summer. It turns out to be a pretty universal view, and has been a barbecue playlist staple ever since.
06. Bob Dylan – “Like A Rolling Stone”
Without a doubt, one of the greatest songs ever penned, sung and loved.
With a reputation like that, “Like A Rolling Stone” clearly breaks the boundaries of a part of the year and, really, time itself. However, to not include it on this list would be a disservice for two reasons. First, the song was released (leaked) in July of ’65, becoming a worldwide smash hit nearly instantly. It was a summer song, whether intentional or not, and will be defined as such. Second, considering just how confrontational this song is, it’s essential to note just how bright this recording is. It’s an effervescent, immediate and universally relatable protest song, the kind only Dylan has ever been able to write.
“Like A Rolling Stone” has ambitions and meaning beyond summer. That doesn’t stop it being an amazing song for the summer, and this summer from being a reason to revisit a timeless classic.
05. Daft Punk – “Digital Love”
There are a large number of bands on here that, if we’re being honest, have an entire catalog that belong on a “Best Summer Songs” list. Daft Punk is one of them. The upbeat, organic and painstakingly detailed French House that the duo created made them into international icons for a reason – it’s arguably perfect music in that it can be enjoyed by anyone, in any situation.
We couldn’t include every Daft Punk song we wanted to on this list, but when we found out their catalog had to be cut to one, perfect summer song, “Digital Love” was the easy choice. Play it all the time this summer. It will go over well.
04. Sublime – “Doin’ Time”
Ever since Bradley Nowell died, nobody has filled his void. Not even close. His influence was a distinct West Coast mix of reggae and punk rock with a touch of hip-hop and rock, but it was more than that. Maybe it’s because he died. Maybe it’s always because they fucking die. It’s impossible to say for sure, and if you think you’ve got that figured out, somewhere along the line you’ve turned cold and mathematical. What he lacked in poetic eloquence and technical ability, Brad made up for with this personal touch of humanity that made him come across like a friend—the type of friend that you could sit down with and spill your heart to, and the kind of friend that you could grab a 40 with and sit outside all day, doing absolutely nothing and feeling absolutely fine about it. And this… this is the soundtrack.
03. Van Morrison – “Astral Weeks”
The story of Van Morrison’s legendary Astral Weeks album is almost epic enough to overshadow the music. Almost. It goes like this: Van got a bunch of jazz musicians together, and having never played together and never rehearsed or studied the music, they played. And they recorded. It’s wildly free-spirited, led by that unhinged, unmistakeable voice. The stand-up bass, orchestral touches, and woodwind accents all build an album unlike any other, and it’s clear from the eponymous first song. If you’re young and in love, you need to listen to Astral Weeks all the way through at least once.
02. Beach Boys – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
True to their name, The Beach Boys made countless songs for the sun and the surf. They are a band of and for the summer, crafting a career’s worth of pop songs that burst with sunny immediacy. We couldn’t include the catalog on this list, so we took the most iconic and timeless of their hits – the one you were singing in your head as soon as you read the title of this page and the one that still works as a perfect summer song this year and, we can only presume, for hundreds of years to come.
01. Mungo Jerry – “In The Summertime”
In May of 1970, the amount of fucks given by Mungo Jerry was in the negatives. “In The Summertime” was composed by Ray Dorset in ten minutes while he took a break during his day job, and it ended up being one of the highest selling singles of all time with over 30 million units pushed. The sound is cheery, the melody sung through a smile, but don’t be fooled—the song is as innocent as the guy who’s walking away from the crime scene whistling and burying his hands in his pockets.
In the summertime when the weather is hot
You can stretch right up and touch the sky
When the weather’s fine
You got women, you got women on your mind
Have a drink, have a drive
Go out and see what you can find
If her daddy’s rich take her out for a meal
If her daddy’s poor just do what you feel
Speed along the lane
Do a ton or a ton an’ twenty-five
When the sun goes down
You can make it, make it good in a lay-by
While the message is questionable, the feeling is not—it’s the unmistakeable, carefree essence of summer indiscretion, and Mungo Jerry nailed it. Happy summer.