For those of us who don’t live in tropical splendor all year round, the arrival of summer brings with it a certain set of seasonal enjoyments: from holidays spent by the beach to sunning yourself in the backyard – all of which are soundtracked by the warm, airy sound of the best summer songs.
Before “song of the summer” became an official superlative used by critics, it was merely measured by an instinctive feeling. What makes a great summer song? Well, for a start it’s all about the vibe, the feel, every bit as much as it’s about the lyrics.
Ever since the Billboard Hot 100 was christened in 1958, each summer’s seasonal hits have stood as a snapshot in time: a nostalgic mix of memory and sunshine that transports you back to the summers of your youth. Whether it’s 1958’s greaser classic ‘Summertime Blues’, by Eddie Cochran, or the 1991 block-party anthem “Summertime,” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, every era has thrown up classics worth of inclusion among the best summer songs.
While you’re reading, listen to our Best Summer Songs Ever playlist here.
Cardi B: I Like It
Powered by an infectious sample of Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That,” Cardi B’s “I Like It” defined what summer sounded like in 2018. The mix of salsa and trap elements, the frontline of reggaeton superstars (with Cardi joined by Bad Bunny and J Balvin) and the overall good time feel made it something car radios were made for.
Megan Thee Stallion: Hot Girl Summer
Summer songs and hot-girl songs have gone together for so long that it’s about time one of those girls wrote one herself. This song began when Megan took a cue from her online fanbase, who built a summer meme based around one of her older “hot girl” lyrics. The result gave “Old Town Road” a run for its money as the summer song of 2019, and the video – where she and Nicki Minaj celebrate their hotness – spawned plenty of tsk-tsk articles in the conservative press.
Li’l Nas X: Old Town Road
Surely you don’t need to be reminded of this one, which showed its mettle as a summer song by topping the charts for the entire summer of 2019. But “Old Town Road’s” success was not predictable. A chart-topper (in its original version) under two minutes long? A No.1 featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, three decades after “Achy Breaky Heart”? And above all, a song that could top the country and the hip-hop charts simultaneously? Just plain impossible, but Li’l Nas X did it.
Rihanna featuring Jay-Z: Umbrella
The more summers change, the more they stay the same: The sound of Rihanna’s hit is pure 2007, but its lyrical theme, of two lovers sheltering from the world under an umbrella, is timeless (just ask the Hollies of “Bus Stop” fame). Rihanna has said she’s grateful to Britney Spears, who turned this song down when she had first crack at it. It did especially well in the UK, which was hit by a series of floods that summer.
Zac Brown Band: Toes
Imagine “Margaritaville” without the underlying guilt, and you’ve got Zac Brown’s 2009 hit “Toes.”. In Brown’s worldview, the only downside to lying in the sun with alcoholic libations is that the money and the drink run out sooner or later – but even then you get to go home, switch to cheaper beer, and lay in the sun some more.
Lady Gaga: Summerboy
Sooner or later, every female pop artist seems to absorb a little of the Brill Building “girl group” sound. Lady Gaga’s song was done up with full modern production, but “Summerboy” is classic-model pop, it’s not hard to imagine it coming from a car radio on the beach. Of course, Gaga’s lyrics are franker than women could in the mid-60s; she comes right out and tells the guy that she won’t be seeing him in September.
Nelly: Hot in Herre
“It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” – a summer sentiment if there ever was one. With this good-natured come-on, Nelly found the magic formula that appealed to hip-hop heads, old-school R&B fans, and even the party veterans who were well familiar with the “roof is on fire” chant. The song won multiple awards including the first Best Male Rap Solo Performance Grammy in 2003, and it spawned numerous covers – of which the best and most surprising may be the one by Southern jam band Widespread Panic.
Demi Lovato: Cool for the Summer
Summer’s here and the time is right for…. sexual experimentation. Like Lady Gaga’s “Summerboy,” Demi Lovato’s 2015 hit is an invitation to a summer romance, with the understanding that it won’t last into the fall. The difference here is that the romance is clearly more physical, and there’s no boy involved.
Katy Perry: California Gurls
Few other pop artists radiate so much positivity, and “California Gurls” may be the peak of Katy Perry’s effervescent worldview. She even manages to sound wholesome while referencing Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” (and cavorting with Snoop himself in the video, which puts them both in a Day-Glo playground).
Eric Church: Springsteen
Eric Church’s sweet country hit speaks for all the Bruce Springsteen fans who’ll forever associate his music with the first love of their lives; the song even drew a thumbs-up from Bruce himself. It’s pretty clear what Church’s favorite Springsteen album is: Three of the four songs he mentions are on Born in the USA, and his song features a similar drum/keyboard sound.
Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: Summertime
There are hundreds of versions of this Gershwin chestnut – even R.E.M. made a pretty nice go of it – but nobody ever handled it more lovingly than Ella and Louis. Their 1957 version (on a full album of Porgy & Bess material) is bliss from start to finish, beginning with an Armstrong trumpet intro; they then trade off verses framed by Russell Garcia’s languid string arrangement. On the final verse she sings, he scats and it’s all heavenly.
The Drifters: Under the Boardwalk
One of the greatest summer songs actually has a sad backstory: The Drifters had lost their lead singer Rudy Lewis to a drug overdose just the night before, causing the lead to get handed to co-frontman Johnny Moore who did a heroic job stepping forward. The song’s good vibes have endured, even if some cover versions have a little more joy in them. We’re especially partial to the downright jubilant one by the Undertones.
Brian Hyland: Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
Well, it made sense in 1960: The poor girl gets so embarrassed about her revealing choice of beachwear that she won’t come out of the water and let anybody see. (Or maybe the polka dots were just too lame a fashion statement). Everything about this record screams early-60s novelty, especially the prompt before every chorus (“Two, three, four, tell the people what she wore!”) Brian Hyland went on to make more serious records; his 1970 cover of “Gypsy Woman” outsold Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions’ original.
Mungo Jerry: In the Summertime
Even in 1970 hit singles seldom got goofier than this one, with its silly rhymes, its one endlessly repeated melodic lick, and its vocalized sound effects. Of course, the record’s very silliness made it a classic, though leader Ray Dorset tried in vain to pursue a tougher image afterward. For added hilarity, seek out the version from one of those English hit-soundalike albums, sung by an incognito Elton John.
Jimmy Buffett: Margaritaville
Let’s forget for a moment about the empire that Jimmy Buffett built around this song, and appreciate “Margaritaville” as the clever bit of storytelling that it is. It’s also more bittersweet than you may remember: The singer’s doing a pretty good job of messing his life up, though the tropical sound suggests he’ll get by. Various live versions feature some alternate lyrics (including a discarded verse) showing the amount of care that Buffett put into it.
Katrina & the Waves: Walking on Sunshine
Guitarist Kimberley Rew was fresh from a cult-hero stint in the Soft Boys when he wrote this Motown-styled tune – one of his new band’s many 60s homages that were given irresistible voice by American expat Katrina Leskanich. Interestingly, the song went nowhere when originally released on a Canadian album in 1983; it took an ‘85 remake for the US market – with added horns and even higher spirits – to do the trick.
Frank Sinatra: Summer Wind
Given the breezy feel of this song, you might expect it was originally French or Brazilian. But it was originally German, given a fresh coat of sunscreen by longtime Frank Sinatra collaborators Nelson Riddle (arrangement) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) – the latter with the final hit of his lifetime. For Sinatra, the song continued a remarkable mid-60s run. It was his second hit of 1966 after “Strangers in the Night.”
Nat King Cole: Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer
Nat King Cole was not too down with the kids’ style of music – on one of his live albums, he even recorded a sendup number called “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock & Roll.” This 1963 hit was about as close as he got, with an odd hybrid of early rock and German oompah music (like Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” it was originally a German pop song). Cole’s sophistication carried the day; this and the similar follow-up “That Sunday, That Summer” were his last Top 20 hits.
ABBA: Summer Night City
With its layered harmonies and big beat, ABBA’s “Summer Night City” is not only one of the greatest summer songs, but one of the Swedish foursome’s sexiest records. It was a huge hit all over Europe, but it somehow managed to pass America right by.
The Lovin’ Spoonful: Summer in the City
It’s hard to pick a favorite Lovin’ Spoonful hit, since they managed so many good ones in a few short years. This one’s a sure contender though, and it may be the toughest rocker they ever cut – though its lyrics, about how much better things get in the nighttime, are right in line with the band’s good-time philosophy.
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66: Mas Que Nada
Lots of history in this one, and it ranks with “The Girl From Ipanema” as one of the most beloved Brazilian pop songs. Originally by Jorge Ben, whose Spanish lyrics were a celebration of the samba, “Mas Que Nada” was given a more romantic feel by Sergio Mendes and his singers. Herb Alpert released it on his A&M label, and lead singer Lani Hall is currently Alpert’s musical partner and wife. In 2006, Mendes scored again with a remake featuring the Black Eyed Peas, making him one of the few artists to chart with versions of the same song 40 years apart.
Blondie: In the Sun
“Surf’s up!” Debbie Harry’s shout as the song kicks off lets you know that beach party time is here. Much of Blondie’s first album was a loving homage to different styles of 60s pop, this one covers both surf and garage as Jimmy Destri takes the lead with some vintage-sounding Farfisa organ. Though never a hit single (and originally a B-side) it’s a fan favorite that they still played live well into the reunion era.
Squeeze: Pulling Mussels From a Shell
When it comes to pure joie de vivre, few new-wave classics can match Squeeze’s 1980 single. Everything about this record is a kick, from the Chris Difford/Glenn Tilbrook harmonies to Tilbrook’s breezy, Ventures-inspired guitar solo. Difford’s lyrics are a few shades naughtier than they appear at first listen: Whatever was going on behind that chalet, it’s probably a good thing nobody’s parents were around.
Jan & Dean: Surf City
Okay, so the promise of “Two girls for every boy!” sounds a little dodgy in this day and age. But this remains one of Brian Wilson’s greatest evocations of California sunshine, and he was about to throw it away before his buddy Jan Berry asked if he had a tune to spare. It began a long string of surf-and-drag hits for the duo, who later came up with a couple of classics (like “Little Old Lady From Pasadena”) without Brian’s help.
Kool & the Gang: Summer Madness
This oft-sampled track represents Kool & the Gang’s roots as a fusion group, coming in between their early funk hits (“Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swingin’”) and the later “Celebration” run of slicker dance hits. Driven by a very 70s Fender Rhodes piano, the instrumental evokes a summer sunset. Originally a B-side, it’s probably better remembered than its flip, “Spirit of the Boogie.”
Bill Withers: Lovely Day
Bill Withers was no stranger to darker lyrics in his hits; his “Use Me” had one of the messiest relationships ever celebrated in a pop song. By 1977 he was ready to loosen up and even visit the disco, recording this smooth track for his danceable Menagerie album. It still gets plenty of covers (most recently by Demi Lovato at Joe Biden’s inauguration) despite its being extremely tough to sing: Withers’ sustained notes on the choruses are some of the longest ever held on a (pre-autotune) pop record.
John Travolta / Olivia Newton-John: Summer Nights
One of the big songs in the musical Grease, this tune serves to give the backstory of Danny and Sandy’s romance, in a musical style somewhere between Brill Building pop and West Side Story.
The B-52’s: Rock Lobster
So many things about this record were cool, but The B-52’s surreal sense of humor was high on the list – and Ricky Wilson’s twangy guitar wasn’t far behind. There is of course no surf in Athens, Georgia, but perhaps Fred Schneider was flashing back to his Long Branch, New Jersey childhood.
The Kinks: Sunny Afternoon
One of the most important Kinks singles, this deceptively upbeat tune established Ray Davies as a first-rate social chronicler and satirist – and it’s still summery enough that even Jimmy Buffett could (and did) cover it without irony. Along with the preceding “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” it began a string of lyrically sharp, musically inventive Kinks singles. But in the US it was their last hit for four years, as landmarks like “Days,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Dead End Street” sank without trace.
Weezer: Island in the Sun
Rivers Cuomo wrote one of the greatest summer songs during a dark time in his life when he was seriously smarting over the initially cold response of Pinkerton. It’s a tune full of subtle Brian Wilsonisms, from the chorus harmonies to the lyrics about not being able to control your brain. This and the other Green Album single “Hash Pipe” did the trick of winning back Weezer fans, and in time they’d come around to Pinkerton as well.
Stevie Wonder: Happier Than the Morning Sun
Stevie Wonder actually made an all-summer album early in his career; Stevie at the Beach in 1964. Nearly 10 years and a few giant steps later, he put this beatific song on his first fully progressive album, Music of My Mind. With its layered vocals, it evinces both the new sounds he was exploring (the “Superstition” clavinet is far gentler here) and the freedom he was feeling.
The Style Council: Long Hot Summer
One of Paul Weller’s greatest, this 1983 single laid out the deep-soul territory he’d explore with the Style Council (and ever since, with plenty of side trips). At the time it was a pretty gutsy move away from the sound of the Jam – with prominent synth, no evident guitar, and a blue mood. Weller’s original liner notes summed up the mood nicely: “This summer some of you will fall in love for the first time, and others will fall out of love for the last.”
Chad & Jeremy: A Summer Song
Written mainly by the late Chad Stuart, this was an early British Invasion classic that hit the charts a few months after the Beatles made their splash. There was nothing really Beatlesque about it though; in fact, its folk-rock sound harks forward to the heyday of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Several movies (starting with Rushmore) have kept the song alive, and Jeremy Clyde (lately touring with Peter Asher, from competing duo Peter & Gordon) still plays it live.
Don Henley: Boys of Summer
Don Henley in the 80s was all about major statements, even when the song was a tailor-made summer single. “Boys of Summer” has a lot to say about changing times, the permanence of love, and Deadhead stickers on Cadillacs. Credit for the song’s great chorus hook has to go to Mike Campbell, whose original demo got turned down by Tom Petty.
Bryan Adams: Summer of 69
The best thing about this song – and the probable reason it was a hit in 1984 – is that the music doesn’t match the purely nostalgic tone of the lyrics. Though it’s all about looking back, it sports a modern rock sound and a kick-it-out feel. This song has spawned its share of X-rated parodies. Blame Bryan Adams for not coming of age in a different year.
Alice Cooper: School’s Out
Alice Cooper scored a triumph by originally releasing “School’s Out” just in time for the last week of school in 1972. Generations of kids have latched onto it ever since, and for good reason: No song has better captured the feeling of rebellion when summer comes, and the sense of freedom when that last bell rings.
The Motels: Suddenly Last Summer
Plenty of early 80s new wave hits sound downright campy nowadays – but not this one, thanks to the emotive performance by frontwoman and songwriter Martha Davis. Always a torch/cabaret singer at heart, she pours everything into this story of a fleeting romantic moment. It matched “Only the Lonely” as the Motels’ biggest hit; Davis still tours with the band and still delivers on both.
Lana del Rey: Summertime Sadness
The miserable summer song is a genre in itself, and this one did a lot to establish Lana del Rey’s tragic, romantic persona – especially the video, which shows a female couple saying their final goodbyes. But the song is haunting enough on its own, with its tearful vocal and synth orchestration.
Roy Ayers: Everybody Loves the Sunshine
Roy Ayers didn’t call his band Ubiquity for nothing. He was truly all over the place, doing fusion and bebop as a vibes player when he wasn’t singing and playing synths on smooth R&B jams like this one. Now remembered as one of the disco era’s ultimate feel-good records, it actually flopped as a single in 1976, though the clubs ate it up.
Jonathan Richman: That Summer Feeling
After breaking up the original Modern Lovers and going acoustic, Jonathan Richman became known for songs that were alternately humorous and romantically wistful. This one’s a little of both – it’s giddy and happy on the surface, but it also delivers the same warning Bruce Springsteen once gave: Enjoy those glory days, because you never really get over them.
Bob Marley: Jamming
Reggae icon Bob Marley remains the unequivocal king of sun-soaked island fare. From “Sun Is Shining” to “Could You Be Loved,” Marley’s music has a magical effect on anyone’s dopamine levels. But “Jamming” remains the quintessential summer cut, despite some of its more conscious-raising lyrics going over the heads of your pool-party attendees.
Chicago: Saturday In The Park
This 70s hit from soft rockers Chicago not only evokes the feeling of the season but can make you feel the warmth of summer even on the Windy City’s coldest day. Inspired by a day spent in New York’s Central Park, Chicago songwriter and singer Robert Lamm paints the picture of a perfect summer day. Can you dig it?
The Go-Go’s: Vacation
Some summer songs capture the thrill of a summer love, while The Go-Go’s sing about when it fades away, all set to a peppy beat. Featuring the hallmark Go-Go’s sound, with girl group stylings and surf guitars, “Vacation” is an infectious plea to “get away” and beware of summer flings.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince: Summertime
For a song that’s about sitting back and relaxing, Will Smith manages to pack in an impressive set of summertime activities, from hitting the court to cruising in the car, attending family barbecues, and washing his car down. Featuring one of the most laidback grooves in rap, the Kool & The Gang-sampling anthem sounds like a block party in a bottle.
Eddie Cochran: Summertime Blues
The majority of summer songs are about cutting loose, hitting the streets, and other winsome activities, but Eddie Cochran created a song for all those who have to work for the man all season long. The rockabilly icon created an anthem for anyone who’s had to toil away their best summer days, tapping into the teenage angst that was bubbling just below the surface. An evergreen song if there ever was one, this was a hit in the 50s (for Cochran), the 60s (Blue Cheer), the 70s (the Who), and the 90s (Alan Jackson) – not to mention all the other big names, from the Beach Boys to Rush, who also recorded it.
Seals & Crofts: Summer Breeze
1972 was probably the last time in history when a line like “blowing through the jasmine in my mind” still sounded profound. No denying the loveliness of this one though. And listening again you get struck by all the brilliant touches in the arrangement, like the toy piano playing the main riff, and the electric guitar that plays just one lick after every chorus. The Isley Brothers had a hit with it just two years after Seals & Crofts did, turning it into a soul ballad without changing it too much.
Sly & the Family Stone: Hot Fun In The Summertime
Sly and co. deliver exactly what the title promises with this psychedelic soul gem. Following the success of their historic Woodstock performance, the group pull out all the stops, from soaring strings to doo-wop harmonies and hammering piano on this funkified summer jam.
The Beach Boys: California Girls
What other band has embodied surf, sand, and sun more than The Beach Boys? Any number of their recordings can rank among the best summer songs of all time. From their 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), however, “California Girls” was Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s teenaged ode to the West Coast’s female populace. With its shuffling organs and crooning harmonies, “California Girls” created the ideal of American sun-tanned youth and emerged as one of the most enduring summer songs in the process.
Marvin Gaye: Got To Give It Up, Part 1
As the story goes, after relenting to his label’s insistence to go disco, Marvin Gaye turned out a summer jam that eclipsed anything else on the charts. A reluctant dancer himself, Gaye convinces both himself and the wallflowers of the world to hit the dancefloor with his infectious groove. The singer recruited friends and family alike to create a party atmosphere in the studio, resulting in a song that raged its way to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Martha & The Vandellas: Dancing In The Street
When Martha Reeves sent out her “invitation across the nation” to get people on their feet, she had no idea it would evolve into a civil-rights anthem. Thanks to the one-two punch of famed Funk Brother James Jamerson on bass and Marvin Gaye on drums, “Dancing In The Street” became one of the best summer songs on record in 1964 – and lost none of its infectious energy in the decades that followed.
Enjoyed this list? Check out our Best Summer Songs Ever playlist here.