The 20 Best Summer Jams of All Time
When it's summer, we crank up the KP and Snoop
Screengrab from "California Gurls"
If you're from L.A., or have spent more than a few years here, you know that for us, summer doesn't really get underway until after the Fourth of July, when the last vestiges of June Gloom have finally lifted and the daytime temps in Van Nuys start scraping triple digits. Only then do we Angelenos start causing beach-bound traffic jams on Washington and Venice and requesting outdoor tables at brunch.
It's also around this time that we start craving barbecue (with vegan options, please) and summer jams — those songs that, whether they're stone classics or guilty pleasures, just sound better when the weather is hot and the beer is cold. Here are 20 of our favorites — ranked, because even when it's sweltering, it's still fun to argue over whether "Get Lucky" is as summery as "Good Vibrations." (And, because our next pool party needed a soundtrack, we assembled these 20 tracks and some worthy also-rans into a Spotify playlist, which you can stream at the end of the list. You're welcome.)
20. The Allah-Las, "Catamaran"
When you come from the land of endless SoCal summer, like Allah-Las, it’s hard to imagine days where the sun isn’t always crisp and the air isn’t constantly 74 degrees. With "Catamaran," you’re looking at those hunky-dory daydreams through the grainy filter of forgotten Bolex film. Gaze into that amber-hued flickering and you'll see a string of wide-bodied woodies, gently curving longboards and high-waisted bathing suits, all just out of reach and set to soft surf melodies with a perfectly ticking drumkit. It soundtracks that lost summer when you never got sunburnt, sand never rashed-up any netherparts, and all thoughts of winter stayed where they belonged — somewhere else. — Paul T. Bradley
19. Icona Pop feat. Charlie XCX, "I Love It"
It’s no wonder this breakout tune from Icona Pop blew up two summers in a row in 2012 and 2013 — though it's technically a breakup song, really it’s an ode to important summer values like letting loose and having fun and reveling in wanton destruction no matter the consequences. Singing in bright, brassy unison, Swedish singers Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo describe throwing an ex’s shit down the stairs and crashing their car into a bridge — an indelible image that’s hammered home with a merry-go-round, 4/4 beat and some tasteful but still plenty gnarly post-Skrillex bass. Emphasizing to the listener that they “don’t care,” and they “love it,” these two effectively secure their status as Swedish pop’s answer to Thelma and Louise. — Peter Holslin
18. John Cougar, "Jack & Diane"
Back before he was John Mellencamp, Indiana's favorite folk-rocker penned this irresistible ode to teenaged summer romance. Even if you didn't grow up in the '80s and have no idea what "Dribble off those Bobby Brooks" means, something about the song's strummy acoustic guitar, handclaps, and that oddly fatalistic refrain — "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone" — makes you nostalgic for a rural, Midwestern childhood you never had, lazing around the local swimming hole eating chili dogs and trying to get in your girlfriend's cutoffs. Maybe you can't follow John Cougar's advice and "hold on to 16 as long as you can," but you can crank this at your summer barbecue and almost remember what your first can of Schlitz tasted like — Andy Hermann
17. Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues"
Swinging rockabilly with one of the most famous guitar riffs in history, Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" is what every teenager felt like in the summer of 1958. It's also his masterpiece, loaded with enough teen angst, sexual frustration and heat to make Cochran's trembling (and smoky) vocal delivery pop like Coke at a burger joint. That iconic half-step bass drives the song, which has been covered by The Beach Boys and included in just about every movie with an old Chevy revving its engine. Whenever rock & roll rebellion comes up at a pool party, "Summertime Blues" can be heard, literally or figuratively, in the background. It's the unofficial anthem of '50s California during the lazy days of summer. — Art Tavana
16. Kendrick Lamar, "Swimming Pools"
The lead single from Kendrick Lamar's dazzling 2012 major label debut, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, "Swimming Pools" masterfully toes the line between foreboding warning of the ills of overconsumption, and a boozy pool party anthem. "Imma show you how to turn it up a notch," instructs Lamar over a swirling, spacey beat. "First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you diiiiive in it." The track is simultaneously an intellectual rumination on excess and a give-no-fucks anthem for the ages. Whether that inspires you to throw one back, or thrust yourself in a pool, or just turn the volume up, is your decision. — Katie Bain
15. The Ramones, "Rockaway Beach"
Right from the hey-ho-get-go, The Ramones' music always nodded to the surf-rock of the early '60s, even as Johnny Ramone's grinding power chords kicked sand in the face of Joey and Dee Dee's sunny melodies. "Rockaway Beach," written by Dee Dee and included on the punk legends' third album, 1977's Rocket to Russia, made that connection explicit with Beach Boys-style harmonies and even some tom-tom fills, though Tommy Ramone's caveman stomp is a far cry from "Wipe Out." It's beach music for pasty-faced city kids who like to get a little sand in their Chuck Taylors every now and then. — Andy Hermann
14. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, "Get Lucky"
If you turned on your radio in 2013, “Get Lucky” was inescapable. After a few years lying dormant, the French house duo surprised many with the starry, swirling disco turn on the first single off Random Access Memories. Featuring a subdued, but spunky lick by Nile Rodgers, the song could be heard blaring the good vibes of Pharrell Williams’ smooth pipes at any club, party, bar mitzvah or beachfront barbecue. The future-disco warmth of the song may be closely associated with the year it was released (it won a Grammy the following year), but “Get Lucky” is that rare song that timelessly channels summer vibes, which made it one of the most universally liked songs in recent years. — Daniel Kohn
13. The Surfaris, "Wipeout"
Not all summer jams need a catchy vocal hook. From its opening, maniacal laugh to the tribal drums and iconic guitar riff, "Wipe Out" is one of the most iconic songs associated with the first wave of surf rock. At the time, the genre was in its infancy, and the Sufaris were just in need of a quickly recorded B-side to their single “Surfer Joe.” What they ended up writing was a 12-bar blues-fueled song that's as synonymous with surfing and the summer as surfboards, beaches and hanging ten. — Daniel Kohn
12. LFO, "Summer Girls"
OK, admittedly, LFO's 1999 jam "Summer Girls" is completely ridiculous. The only enduring track from boy-band rappers Lyte Funky Ones, the song was just so silly, and so catchy, that one couldn't help but like it, despite such absurd lyrics as "When you take a sip you buzz like a hornet/Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets." Anyone who was of high school age that summer (hello!) or who was just within earshot of Top 40 radio during the track's three magnificent months of pop music glory, can attest that "Summer Girls" is one vicious earworm that actually gets more endearing with each listen. The track peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart in August of 1999. Somehow, we still remember every damn word. — Katie Bain
11. Ice Cube, "It Was a Good Day (Remix)"
Smooth like malt liquor under the hot sun, Ice Cube's remix of "It Was a Good Day" is an easy-listening gangsta fairy-tale that perfectly captures the sweet fantasy of thug life; that euphoric feeling of giving no fucks on a day filled with cruising, sex, hoop dreams, and "drunk as hell but no throwing up." While the original version was dark and intimidating, the remix is sunny gangsta rap for the whole family. The lyrics flow over a Staple Singers sample that gives the happy-go-lucky beat a comically breezy feeling. "It Was a Good Day" is also the story nobody wanted to tell in the '90s: that living in the hood wasn't always scary; that the outlaw had good days, and that scary South Central L.A. was beautiful in the summertime. — Art Tavana
10. Mungo Jerry, "In the Summertime"
Based on the carefree, seaside imagery of "In the Summertime," you would think Mungo Jerry was the musical alias of a semi-retired charter fisherman from the Virgin Islands. But no, Mungo Jerry was, of all things, a U.K. jug band, led by the toothy grin and magnificent sideburns of a dude from Middlesex named Ray Dorset. "In the Summertime," the band's 1970 debut single, was a massive international hit, and though they never equaled it, Dorset certainly went on to prove that "Life's for livin', yeah, that's our philosophy" was no empty lyric. He's been married three times and released 20 Mungo Jerry albums, including his most recent effort, 2012's Cool Jesus. And we bet he's still hap-pap-py, especially when the weather's fine. — Andy Hermann
9. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, "Summertime"
Before he became the biggest movie star on the planet, Will Smith was the most affable guy in hip-hop, and "Summertime" showcased his laid-back Fresh Prince persona at its best. Over Jazzy Jeff's head-nodding groove and a spacey Kool & the Gang sample, Smith raps about cruising to the park "in your Jeep or your Benzo," getting some fly new sneaks "'cause basketball courts in the summer got girls there," DJs spinning at family reunions and kids in the street playing double-dutch. It's a postcard version of summer in the city, but Smith's charm sells what could have seemed hokey and makes "Summertime" a hot-weather jam every bit as sweet and refreshing as a glass of lemonade. — Andy Hermann
8. Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg, "California Gurls"
"California Gurls" has an innate ability to obliterate stress, which is why the track's a summer playlist essential. If the audio alone doesn’t transport you to your happy place, watch the music video. Sexy and juvenile at the same time, it features a scantily clad Katy prancing around a CGI Candyland where she sets out to defeat a legion of gummy bears commanded by Snoop Dogg. (Yes, the "California Gurls" video has a plot. You didn't notice?) Spoiler: Ms. Perry wins the final showdown against the Doggfather thanks to her weapon of choice: a brassiere equipped with whipped cream cannons. The vid's NSFW, but only because it’s hard to be productive after watching KP take down a candy army with her boobs. — Mary Grace Cerni
7. Van Halen, "Panama"
There are fewer bands that scream party rock louder than the mighty Van Halen. “Panama,” one of their most iconic anthems, encapsulates the sound of a hot summer day and was actually inspired by a car, not a country. Following the first verses, powered by Eddie Van Halen's explosive guitars, the breakdown in the song's last third builds to a climax that epitomizes the band's muscular sound. After singing about barely being able to see the road from the heat, suddenly David Lee Roth declares that he's “got the feeling, power steering/Pistons popping, ain't no stopping now!” if that doesn’t evoke an image of flying up the PCH while revving your convertible well over the speed limit, then else nothing will. — Daniel Kohn
6. The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations"
"Good Vibrations" is the kind of song that elicits nostalgia for the carefree summer days of the 1960s, even if you weren't born yet. The lyrics hint at possibilities as endless as a summer day, and the thrumming cello and double bass in the lower register are offset by the free-wheeling Electro-Theremin floating above Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Mike Love's stacked vocals, creating a vibrant soundscape. "Good Vibrations" works both as feel-good summer hit and immaculately crafted "pocket symphony," actually evoking the title emotion. — Katie Buenneke
5. The Kinks, "Sunny Afternoon"
You’re broke, your best girl buggered off to her mum and dad’s, and you barely know what day it is. You had everything, even a whole goddamned yacht, and now you’re basically the living embodiment of a drunk piece of shit. But dammit, that sun is shining right now and you have at least one frosty beer left. How well you’re really vibing summer rests solely on those latter two facts, and Ray Davies' jaunty melody nailed it. Though afternoons in the summer of ‘66 bear little resemblance to those today, one thing has remained constant: There’s a certain exquisiteness to doing absolutely nothing while that hot ball of hydrogen in the sky burns itself out. — Paul T. Bradley
4. Nelly, "Hot in Herre"
Let's just immediately address the fact that there is nothing subtle about Nelly's 2002 body mover "Hot in Herre." Out the gate with some breezy pop poetry, the St. Louis rapper exclaims "Good gracious, ass is bodacious!" while a slinky beat delivers us towards the chorus' deliciously simple directive: "It's getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes." Anyone who has ever unabashedly sung along to this song knows that that second "R" makes all the difference here, or uh, herre. Produced by Virginia's kings of stripped-down electronic funk, The Neptunes, and winner of the 2003 Grammy for Best Male Rap Vocal, "Hot In Herre" is for those dog days of summer when when one aspires to do nothing more complicated than get with some compadres at the beach, or a crowded nightclub, or just an air-conditioned apartment, and have some lighthearted, scantily clad summertime fun. — Katie Bain
3. Sly and the Family Stone, "Hot Fun in the Summertime"
Slowing Sly Stone's soulful funk down to a midtempo saunter, as though it was too hot to play anything faster, this 1969 hit still ripples from any good set of outdoor speakers like heat off a freshly stoked charcoal grill. Released right after the Family Stone made the hippies shake their bell bottoms at Woodstock, the song rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the waning weeks of the summer of '69, helping to close out that tumultuous decade on a feel-good note. The song is so iconic that its title has almost become a cliché at this point — but this is one cliché that still puts a smile on everyone's face at the backyard barbecue. — Andy Hermann
2. Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
Despite what most summer anthems tout, the excitement we feel as the warmer months approach isn’t about bikinis, beaches or barbecues. It’s about something altogether more evocative: freedom. For kids and kids at heart, this celebratory, even anarchistic liberation was never captured better than by a shock-rock creepster in makeup who dared to articulate it as a bombastic and utterly basic battle cry. Alice Cooper’s '72 classic “School’s Out” is the song we all sang — and a new generation still sings — when another semester of institutional imprisonment comes to an end. It’s beloved not only as an ode to disenfranchised youth, but as a nostalgic diss to the drudgery of the educational system. Plus, it’s catchy and chant-worthy. Yes, when the last bell rings, we all know summer won't last forever, but Cooper’s song is fiendish and fervent enough to make us believe it, year after year. — Lina Lecaro
1. Snoop Dogg, "Gin and Juice"
“Rollin' down the street smokin' indo/Sippin' on gin and juice.” A thousand years from now, these will be the words historians recite as they explain the ancient customs of summertime partiers on the 20th and 21st century West Coast. Nodding their heads to Dr. Dre’s rugged beat and infectious G-funk synth line, they will discuss in university lectures how revelers in the LBC and beyond cruised the streets in low-rider cars and invited friends over for massive blowouts when the parents were away. Paying heed to Snoop Dogg’s thick flows and laid-back rhymes, they’ll write academic papers debating the merits of indica/sativa blends and the evolution of “cock” as a term to describe not just the penis, but also the vagina. Nursing bubonic chronic spliffs and Seagram’s-and-cranberry cocktails, they’ll stay up till six in the mornin’ marveling at this immortal hip-hop classic, devising drunken PhD theses on how “Gin and Juice” taps into humanity’s primeval need to kick back on a hot, sunny summer day. — Peter Holslin
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