Think back to every awesome/romantic/borderline-insane thing you’ve ever done during the summer. Chances are, there was music playing when you did it. And it was probably playing very, very loudly.
That’s because, perhaps more than any other time of the year, summer is practically made for music. It’s when we pump up, strip down, make terrible decisions and basically have the times of our lives. And, somewhat fittingly, music is always there with us. It’s the soundtrack to our every hookup, breakdown and tanning mishap. It’s what’s in the air at the beach, the time-share or the club (well, either that or Axe body spray). It’s part of our memories, along with that terrible tattoo you got down in Panama City.
So for a song to become a summer jam, it’s got to be great (and slightly stupid, but that’s a column for another day). And since the official kickoff of summer 2010 is right around the corner, I’ve decided to compile a list of the greatest of the great — the best, brightest, dumbest, funnest, lightest, loosest, freakiest, goofiest summer songs of all time. All of them are special, all of them are classics. And yes, I spent waaay too much time working on this. What can I say? I freaking love the summer.
Anyway, rather than just prattle on, I reached out to some of my favorite writers — all of whom are certified summer-jam experts, btw — and had them contribute their favorites too. The only thing I told them was that the cutoff point was 1991 (that’s when Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released their epochal “Summertime,” after all), and then I sat back and watched the brilliance flood my inbox. Here’s what they submitted, along with my picks. It’s a definitive list, as submitted by some of the best in the business. These are the Greatest Summer Jams of the Modern Era.
Amos Barshad, New York magazine’s Vulture blog
The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize”: He died a month before it was officially released, and I think it was clear then it’d be awhile until someone else would be making this level of lyrically brilliant, commercially viable hip-hop. Also, the mermaid fish tank in the video was awesome.
Young Money, “Every Girl”: Too raunchy to actually take the Song of the Summer crown, but hung around for a while last season, probably because the sentiment is so universal.
Rihanna, “Umbrella”: If you don’t like “Umbrella,” do us all a favor and move back to the USSR.
Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”: Stephan Jenkins believes in the sand beneath his toes, and so do I.
Adam Stewart, MTV News house-music expert/ dude from New Jersey
Tiësto, “Traffic”: When Tiësto released this dance-floor mega-bomb in 2003 under his Magik Muzik, the guido fist-pump was arguably born. I have yet to hear this song go off at the beach club without an ocean of hands in the air and strobe lights blinding every eye in the house.
Robin S, “Show Me Love”: Steve Angello — one-third of house music’s current holy trinity, the Swedish House Mafia — breathed new life into this timeless sing-along floor-filler in 2008. How could he make one of the best and most iconic dance songs even better? The Midas touch of Angello has ensured “Show Me Love” a place as a summer anthem for many years to come.
Swedish House Mafia (featuring Laid Back Luke), “Leave the World Behind”: Speaking of the Swedes, they’re responsible for one of the most epic dance anthems the world has ever heard. With the soulful vocals of Deborah Cox and melodic grand-piano stabs, Axwell, Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso will forever be looked to for producing thumping summer beats.
Benny Benassi, “Satisfaction”: The quintessential Jersey Shore anthem arrived on our doorsteps in the summer of 2003. It was the first year I ever bought a share in a beach house. I heard this song at least 17 times a day for three months straight, and now, years later, I still call it one of my summer faves.
Sarah McLachlan, “Silence (Delerium Remix)”: Honestly, this song can make the biggest guido cry. First released in 1997, it hit U.S. airwaves in 1999, and once Tiësto got a hold of it, the uplifting vocal-trance track became one of the most recognizable tunes to any dance-music aficionado. Ahhh, the memories I have from this song, most of which are not suitable for publication.
David Guetta, “Love Is Gone (Joachim Garraud Remix)”: A flashback to the pre-Black Eyed Peas days of mega-producer and DJ David Guetta. Ever hear the beginning riff to “I’ve Gotta Feeling”? It came from this track, and this explosive club destroyer gives me chills to this day. Almost 100 percent of the time, this song creates an impromptu dance-battle circle on the club floor. Awesomeness.
Christopher R. Weingarten, freelance writer and author of the 33 1/3 title “Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back“
The five best songs that hit #1 on Billboard between June and August, 1991-2010:
5. (tie) Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back,” and Destiny’s Child, “Bootylicious”: Two songs celebrating butts. Your mom probably knows all the words to them (mine does). The summer usually means butts come out of their winter hibernation behind sweatpants, they shed the raincoats giving them protection from spring precipitation, and they fearlessly brave the elements in shorts — or less! There’s probably some scientific study that can link the popularity of butt songs with the slow appearance of summer butts. If not, I would like to participate in that study. I cannot lie.
4. Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z), “Umbrella”: Holy sh–, Jay-Z’s on this?
3. Fergie, “London Bridge”: People front like Fergie’s terrible (and she generally is), but if these Polow Da Don broken marching-band drums and ecstatic “oh sh–s” were backing M.I.A. or Santigold or something, this would have been the hippest song of 2006, and cheeseball hipster blogs would have had apoplectic fits about their “acute angles” and “Residents-like dissonance.” The lyrics are generally nonsense and may be about fellatio.
2. Tupac (featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman), “California Love”: Tupac got out of prison and immediately released the most glorious summer-party jam in the history of time. Your move, Gucci Mane.
1. EMF, “Unbelievable”: This is pretty much ground zero for your Gnarls Barkleys, M.I.A.s, Sleigh Bells, Andre 3000s and Kid Cudis. Weird streaks of punk, dance, alt-rock, rap and whatever else kind of blur into an inescapable pop moment of screaming and dancing and wearing skateboarder clothes. Sampling Andrew Dice Clay for the “oh!” is either a stroke of genius, an Anthrax-style prank, or dudes just didn’t know where to find a James Brown record. Also one of our most postmodern Billboard hits is now in a commercial for Kraft Cheese Crumbles! Which you can use at a summer picnic. Wheels within wheels, people.
Eric Rosenthal and Jeff Rosenthal, ItsTheReal.com
1. The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize”: “Yacht Rock” may have its own week on Jimmy Fallon’s show, but for us, summer is all about Speedboat Rap. With mermaids in fish tanks and helicopter assassins, “Hypnotize” is a throwback to a time when MTV aired countdown shows like “Most Expensive Music Videos.”
2. Nelly, “Hot in Herre”: If you’re anything like us, then summer 2002 (or should that be “summerr 2002?”) was all about rebellion! Nelly and the Neptunes led the charge with their revolutionary anthem, “Hot in Herre.” We rebelled against correct spelling! We rebelled against proper pronunciation! Girls rebelled against their clothes! 2002 was the summerr when we changed the worrld.
3. Next, “Too Close”: Imagine if Marvin Gaye had two brothers and they all performed as a group. The trio that made up Next were nothing like that, but they did have one ultra-catchy song with some classically to-the-point lyrics. The you-on-me, let’s-do-it sex words found in “Too Close” were totally appropriate for when they played the song at my eighth-grade dance.
4. Juvenile, “Back That Azz Up”: Summertime marches in the streets for women’s equality, this song is not. But who cares?! Nothing makes suburban girls get down like disrespectful lyrics and Mannie Fresh’s bouncing drums. Well, except for money and the thought of getting TwitPic’d.
5. LFO, “Summer Girls”: LFO were the lacrosse-playing, male equivalent of a Stepford Ke$ha. They were in way over their heads as rappers. They were part of Lou Pearlman’s Orlando cult. They name-checked Abercrombie & Fitch. Still, “Summer Girls” is the perfect summer song — for when you meet a nice girl and you just want to take her home.
James Montgomery, MTV News rock editor
10. Sloan, “Money City Maniacs”: The air-raid sirens at the beginning. The windmilled guitar chords in the middle. The handclapped breakdown at the end. The general fist-pumping-ness of it all. Proof that they even have summer up in Canada.
9. 69 Boyz, “Tootsee Roll”: If you haven’t had too much to drink and displaced your pelvis while dancing to this song, then I probably don’t want to know you. Dip, baby, dip — indeed.
8. Britney Spears, “Toxic”: Only ranked so low because it was released in January of 2004, which sort of makes it the antithesis of a summer jam. Still, there’s no denying anything about this song — its longevity included — which is why it’s still played at clubs to this day.
7. En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”: This song is built around a James Brown sample, a decidedly funky flute loop and the vocal histrionics of four of the finest female voices in pop-n-b history, but none of that is what makes it great. It’s all about the breakdown, which launches this one into the stratosphere. And it still hasn’t come back down.
6. Ludacris, “Southern Hospitality”: Luda’s big coming-out party, an ode to shiny Cadillacs, well-endowed ladies and delicious Arnold Palmers (sweet tea and lemonade mixed together, duh), this is basically everything you’d ever want from a summer song. And don’t forget the buzzing, Autobahn beat, courtesy of the Neptunes. The beach never felt so chilly.
5. Jay-Z (featuring UGK), “Big Pimpin’ “: The lilting, tilting Caribbean beat; the iconic, laconic chorus; that video — oh, that video. Girl in the black fedora, I’ll hold you in my heart forever.
4. Beyoncé (featuring Jay-Z), “Crazy in Love”: A fierce, feisty, fun slab of power hip-hop, this one heated up the summer of 2003 (and thanks to it’s never-endingly energetic beat, probably caused more than a few hernias), and it hasn’t really stopped ever since. Also notable for being the song that basically launched B as a solo star, even if it does feature her (future) husband. History!
3. Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z), “Umbrella”: The greatest summer song in recent memory and the tune on which Rihanna made the leap. Dance floors still go nuts from the opening snare line, and it almost doesn’t matter that the production work here is downright frigid. Pack your parka, because you’ll be hearing this one for the rest of your life.
2. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Summertime”: There’s a reason this one is a classic. Sure, the chorus is legendary, but it also features Mr. Smith’s best work — his flow is smooth, sexy and swaggadocious — and Jazzy Jeff’s production work (a beach blanket full of horns and chimes and breezy synths) is truly something to behold, even 20 years after the song was released. But that’s probably getting too deep — let’s just sit back and unwind.
1. Nelly, “Hot in Herre”: From the triumphantly cheesy opening notes and the popping, locking beat to Nelly’s goofball, stop-n-pop delivery and a chorus so delightfully stoopid that it might actually be brilliant, “Hot in Herre” might just be the most ridiculous song ever recorded — which is also why it’s the single greatest summer jam of all time.
Kyle Anderson, MTV Newsroom blog editor
1. Nelly, “Hot in Herre”: It begins and ends here. It’s got a funky beat and a totally ridiculous chorus about getting naked. What more could you want?
2. Crazy Town, “Butterfly”: This song could be heard coming out of every tool’s car in my hometown during the summer of 2001, which is a sure sign of a hit. Also, even though it features a guy named Shifty Shellshock rapping about how much he wants to have sex with an underage girl, it holds up kind of well.
3. Pras (featuring Mya and ODB), “Ghetto Supastar”: Neat facts about this song: It was on the soundtrack to the forgotten classic “Bulworth,” which starred a rapping Warren Beatty and Halle Berry before she was a big deal; ODB drops rapping at the end of his guest spot to just make noises; the full title is “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” which seems weirdly redundant; the chorus interpolates a song written by the Bee Gees and made famous by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (who were definitely the ODB and Mya of their day).
4. Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”: Could act as the soundtrack to your crystal-meth bender or a trip to the beach. Versatile! Seriously, though, this song kind of rules and sounded awesome cranked all the way up on the radio.
5. Will Smith (featuring Sisqo and Kool Moe Dee), “Wild Wild West”: Yeah, most people would go with “Men in Black,” but I preferred Smith’s official jam of the summer of 1999. It borrowed a sample from Stevie Wonder, made Sisqo wail in an awesome chorus and was for a movie that was absolutely awful. Plus, Smith raps about the types of weapons the villain in the movie uses, so it makes utterly no sense now. Truly a song of its time.
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
Paper Boy, “Ditty”: This song, along with pretty much all of Biggie’s Ready to Die and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, gives me high school summer nostalgia vibes so hard, I swear I can almost taste the Zima.
Len, “Steal My Sunshine”: I did not know that Northeastern Canada had any sunshine to steal, but this brother/sister one-hit-wonder team from Toronto — God, this song is just bam, so summer. Maybe it’s the cowbell?
Phoenix, “If I Ever Feel Better”: I still don’t understand how their last album was so big, but this song wasn’t a hit when it came out 10 years ago. Still, in my opinion, the most transcendent slice of French synth-pop bliss — a perfect soundtrack for drive time, dance time, lifetime.
Lumidee, “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)”: Another one-hitter, and such a New York-y one: It’s block parties, open fire hydrants, double-dutch jump rope and those crazy neon-colored popsicles that give you high-fructose-corn-syrup headaches.
MGMT, “Time to Pretend”: I feel like everyone got so burnt on this album in the last couple years, especially the “singles.” But this one just feels like this distilled nugget of sun and fun and nostalgia and maximum irresponsibility, a.k.a. youth.
Miley Cyrus, “Party in the USA”: Seriously. When I hear the opening chords, it’s like a fat kid with a dollar hearing the Good Humor truck jangle — I just lose my sh–.
Maura Johnston, music journalist
5. Beyoncé (featuring Jay-Z), “Crazy in Love”: Still a staple at every too-sweaty dance party, thanks to its looped Chi-Lites hook and the “oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-no-no” that gets even the most curmudgeonly attendees shaking their hips. And the bridge is up there as one of the most joyous expressions of love in pop music ever.
4. Fastball, “The Way”: It sounds like a lost Elvis Costello track that a car radio settled on after flipping past Jewel and Madonna. But the one megahit by the Texas alt-pop band was a look at two adults who embarked on one last, crazy ride in which they shucked off their responsibilities and took off down the open highway.
3. Hanson, “MMMBop”: I still remember the first time I saw this video on MTV, which took place early one morning right before I graduated from college. I was pretty spellbound — not just by the skills of the extremely young drummer on display, but by its ever-bubbling chorus and guitar line, which practically radiated sunlight, its charms were so bright.
2. Rihanna, “Umbrella”: A song about rain embodying the hot, sunny season? Well, sure. Thanks to the way its synths push through the speakers, “Umbrella” actually sounds like one of those brief summer squalls that lasts for maybe five minutes, tops, pounding the ground with its rain until almost the exact moment when the sun comes out. Plus, what’s summer without a bunch of friends to get you through it?
1. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Summertime”: There are so many reasons it’s the obvious pick: the lyrical shout-out to the season; the lazy-day groove; the descriptions of summertime celebrations that seemed to come straight from Will Smith’s old photo albums. Plus, I lived in Philadelphia for two years, and if you claim residence there for more than one summer, you kind of have to take on this track as your top summer song of all time.
Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, author of the upcoming book “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran”
Unrest, “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl”: An old punk-rock summer romance 45 from the days of 1991. I’ve been playing it a lot because Unrest are doing some reunion shows this summer, and it’s incredible how those records hold up. I love how Mark Robinson sings about making out on the beach: “Kiss kissing all over your faces/ Smack smacking on my old Ran Races/ Suck sucking where there are no traces.” I have no idea what Ran Races are … sneakers?
Quad City DJs, “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)”: My all-time favorite Southern house-party choo-choo jam. I love the bass. I love the invitation to Michelle, Tamika and Tanya. I love the parentheses in the title. (“The train,” dummy! What do you think we’re singing about with all the choo-choos here?) I love how it goes on for five or six or seven minutes, who counts, and only an idiot would fade it out early.
Nicole (featuring Mocha and Missy Elliott), “Make It Hot”: What did summer sound like before Missy and Timbaland started making records? I’m not sure I can remember, and I don’t care. This has to be the sexiest, swampiest, most paranoid hanging-on-the-telephone song ever, with Nicole asking, “Can I get another shot?” and Timbaland answering, “Oh yes you can.” This song never became as famous as it deserves to be, but future generations won’t sleep on it.
LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”: My favorite song this summer. James Murphy busts out his Morrissey falsetto to sing, “I can change/ If it helps you fall in love,” which has to be the least Morrissey-ish sentiment imaginable. (Morrissey would claim that he can’t change, and that’s why you should love him.) Those synthesizer burbles are very early Depeche Mode, and early Depeche Mode is always perfect for summer listening, so it’s a no-brainer that I’m going to be playing this song nonstop for at least the next six months.
Britney Spears, “Sometimes”: Speaking of sometimes, I sometimes get misty over the pop-radio summer of 1999, the halcyon days when Britney could just spend a whole video dancing around on the dock while her elfin dancer boys pose around her in the shape of a heart. This is one of Brit’s most underrated summer hits, along with “Lucky” and “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Sheer genius.
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com. And share your picks for the best summer jams in the comments!