As a kid, I don’t remember hearing the phrase “song of the summer,” but it must come with a certain maturity, the need to define a season by a musical moment to make the inevitable nostalgia that much easier. And, as each of us has our own preferred palette of musical colors, this seasonal signifier will have a large degree of subjectivity. That said, there are also pop smash mega-hits, songs that become ubiquitous in a way that, in retrospect, made them the capital S “Song of the Summer” in an overarching sort of way.
There’s some potential crossover there, too, songs that by any sort of justice would’ve wound up qualifying for that crossover status but never got there, that just missed that echelon for some reason. Using Billboard‘s analysis of their own charts (in which they broke down chart position exclusively over the summer months) as a comparison point, we’ve listed some songs that by all rights could’ve (or perhaps should’ve) been the Song of the Summer.
Of course, there are tons of options for each and every year, so add yours in the comment section below!
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams
Our Song of the Summer: “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M.
In one sense, R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” would seem the more obvious choice for topping the summer’s charts. It’s just so gosh darn happy! (Or at least it would seem to be at first listen, but more on that later.) And Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” just reeks of sincerity — and while we weren’t quite at Daria levels of cynicism, the world at large was starting to see the effects of the Simpsons and Seinfeld. But then Adams’ ballad landed on the soundtrack to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and a Costner film will get you to buy anything. But, looking back, Stipe’s almost mindlessly positive lyrics (zonked out on anti-depressants, perhaps, evidenced by the lines “Put it in your hands/ Take it, take it”), that memorable jangle, the handclaps, the assist from the B-52s’ Kate Pierson — it all adds up to the perfect sunny summer jam, delightfully breezy for those pre-jaded Quinn types and an ironic twist on top for those of us more of the elder Morgendorffer persuasion. –Adam Kivel
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “Macarena” by Los Del Rio
Our Song of the Summer: “Straight Up and Down” by Brian Jonestown Massacre
It’s 1996, hip-hop is in its golden age, and the public is not yet aware that more than half of the MLB is on steroids. The music world is starting to tire of grunge and give way to less dreary interpretations of aural composition. Sadly, that is likely why the most popular song of the summer in ’96 (heck, the entire year) was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena”. And thus, swept under the rug like excess dryer lint or pretzel salt you can’t quite pick off the floor, we find “Straight Up and Down”.
The track hails from the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s end of May release, Take It from the Man!. And although it never charted, it holds exactly what we look for in a summer anthem, starting with a smooth riff that slides and guides reverb-heavy vocals with ease. One might say it’s the perfect song to accompany a mid-June stroll down a sunny Boardwalk. The vocal echo and subtle harmonies further give the lyrics that choral feel of most anthemic tracks (even “Macarena”). At four minutes and 36 seconds, the song takes its time, including multiple breakdowns that provide solid emotional rise and fall. Truly anthemic tracks all have this rise and fall because it transmits a feeling of accomplishment once completed. And here, that feeling energizes us as we press replay over and over again. –Kevin McMahon
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “Bent” by Matchbox Twenty
Our Song of the Summer: “Quality Control” by Jurassic 5
Remember the early 2000s, when “backpacker rapper” and “indie hip-hop” were derogatory terms in the music world? The recently reformed Jurassic 5 presumably do. “Quality Control”, the title track from a very fun and oft-forgotten record, is like a dusted postcard from that era, with an eminently old-school hook, a vaguely ’70s funk beat, and Chali 2na’s ever formidable rhyme flow. A J5 reunion makes sense, I suppose, because the group’s original run never quite reached its potential, straddling between frat boy party act and critical acclaim, but never quite achieving either. At their best, Jurassic 5 could adeptly mimic the sound and feel of hip-hop’s golden age, even if they never did release a classic to rival Low End Theory or Black Star. “Quality Control” represents the best of that knack. –Zach Schonfeld
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce feat. Jay Z
Our Song of the Summer: “Tropical Ice-Land” by Fiery Furnaces
So, a song that opens with a line about a goat’s head in a deli case (after some guitar ripples and bird-like squeaks, no less) might not seem like the most obvious choice, but “Tropical Ice-Land” somehow fuses the warmth that comes with a beachfront listen and the cool-down you’ll need to survive that heat. Fiery Furnaces’ expressive lyrics always bring you straight into the scene (no matter how strange), but when Eleanor Friedberger reaches in to “take a Klondike bar from the pop machine” and brother Matt arranges a bleary-eyed bliss-out behind her, the song becomes a portal to a summer afternoon on an island somehow filled with both “stray ponies and puffins,” both tropical (or is she singing tropicool?) and icy, icy. It might not have the epic pomp of “Crazy in Love”, but its evocative lyrics similarly focus on finding “all me and my baby’ll need.” –Adam Kivel
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “Confessions Pt. II” by Usher
Our Song of the Summer: “Surfing on a Rocket” by Air
Equally as smooth, though decidedly more astral, French electronic wizards Air delivered a humid tune much more approachable than the overshare of Usher’s “Confessions Pt. II” (even if we’re talking about “flying rockets”). While “Surfing on a Rocket” made its way into a car commercial, it never saturated the market the way the delightfully woozy jam should have. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel deliver stuttering guitar and percussive synth drips like an ice cream cone melting slowly as it drifts through space. This is the kind of song you listen to while you lie on the ground, holding hands with that special someone, pointing out the constellations (or pretending that’s what you did to keep the real details private, anyways). –Adam Kivel
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey
Our Song of the Summer: “I Turn My Camera On” by Spoon
Every 2000s indie rock band was entitled one falsetto-laced, Prince wannabe cut — think Flaming Lips’ “Free Radicals” or MGMT’s “Electric Feel” — but none matched the slinky, seemingly effortless groove of “I Turn My Camera On”. It’s these three-and-a-half minutes where Spoon takes the minimalist ethos of Kill the Moonlight and uses it in the service of an altogether more noble cause: funk. To that effect, Britt Daniel whips out a falsetto no one knew existed, someone closes out the proceedings with exactly 30 seconds of a guitar shorting out, and bassist Rob Pope plays three goddamn notes throughout the entire song.
The song was released as a single and eventually landed on a few TV and movie soundtracks (Bones, Stranger Than Fiction) but never achieved the ubiquity it deserved. It never was the song of the summer (apparently that honor went to Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” in 2005, though I recall much more of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”), but it was the song of the afternoon when my one-time-only high school cover band butchered it at a charity event in New Jersey in 2007. –Zach Schonfeld
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry
Our Song of the Summer: “Little Bit” by Lykke Li
While Lykke Li’s “Little Bit” is less blatantly provocative than Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” it’s still risqué — “For you I keep my legs apart,” she sings seductively. (Could being “a little bit” in love with someone, as the chorus proclaims, perhaps be called … lust?) Li’s coy, childish voice, coupled with the song’s infectious beat, makes it an effortless choice for a summertime hit — plus, the world would have been spared the rote, plodding drudgery of “I Kissed a Girl”. Li is a different breed of pop star than Perry, and a good bit quirkier, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t capable of having mass appeal. With “Little Bit” ruling the hypothetical airwaves in the summer of 2008, the season might have been just a little bit cooler. –Katherine Flynn
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas
Our Song of the Summer: “Help, I’m Alive” by Metric
“Help, I’m Alive” perfectly soundtracks hanging a hand out of the window of a moving car at sunset, and really, what other criteria does a song of the summer need to meet? It’s fierce and catchy, with enough major/minor key switches to keep things interesting. Topped off by Emily Haines’ sweet voice singing, “If my life is mine, what shouldn’t I do,” it adds a darker touch to the kind of seize-the-moment fervor that made “I Gotta Feeling” a hit, plus a few hundred more layers of complexity and nuance. “Help, I’m Alive” straddles the perfect line between subtlety and easy-to-remember refrains (“beating like a hammer” is the earworm that will inevitably get stuck in your head), avoiding the blatancy that the Black Eyed Peas insist on hitting you over the head with. –Katherine Flynn
Billboard’s Song of the Summer: “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
Our Song of the Summer: “Kill for Love” by Chromatics
How it happened still feels somewhat like a false phenomenon, but Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” managed to transform from a Rebecca Black-esque joke to a lyrically catchy pop tune whose chorus became a nationwide mantra. The hit blends together a clever cuteness with silliness and teenage romance, sensations that made the song the radio’s favorite track of 2012. Known to fewer and not exactly a radio hit, sullen synthpop group Chromatics released their lead single “Kill for Love” just before summertime, a good nine or so months after the initial release of “Call Me Maybe”. The track, despite its far more painstaking and melancholy undertone, has Ruth Radelet beckoning for romance akin to Carly Rae Jepsen’s, albeit she’s actually “killing” for it, whereas Jepsen’s more into passive-aggressiveness and cellular technology. The girl’s not a teenager, however, and though the radio and America as a whole indirectly chose “Call Me Maybe” as 2012’s summer standout, Chromatics’ synth-drenched, aggressively sad song speaks truer to an ache for summer (or any) love, an emotion oversimplified by pop tracks like “Call Me Maybe”. –Zander Porter