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What’s the All-Time Best Song of the Summer?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Every summer has (or should have) at least one Song of the Summer: A catchy, upbeat banger that takes over the airwaves between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But which summer had the best Song of the Summer ever? That’s what our staff is here to find out, here are our selections:

“Hot in Herre,” Nelly (2002)

Kate Knibbs: I am a Song of the Summer purist. I believe that the true Song of the Summer should not only be the most popular song of that summer, but that it should also be: (1) explicitly about summer, and (2) explicitly about fucking. Nelly’s 2002 hit “Hot in Herre” satisfies these requirements. It was no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for all of July 2002, and it’s about being compelled into a state of sensuous nudity due to rising temperatures. “Hot in Herre” is the sonic equivalent of a Bud Light Lime — no, it’s not “high quality” and, sure, it’s deeply corny and primed for mass consumption, but there is nothing better at a sweltering barbecue.

“Regulate,” Warren G featuring Nate Dogg (1994)

Jason Concepcion: Theory: The first summer when you or your friends could drive is the summer that forms your feelings toward summertime forever.

Summers before that are all the same: hazy, structureless (unless: camp or summer school) wanderings, topping out at standing-up-on-the-pedals bicycle speeds, and occurring between various islands of familiarity — bedroom, friend’s house, movie theater, ball field, swimming pool, dinner table.

The first summer you ride in cars driven by your friends, though, that’s real. The soundtrack of sprinklers and cicadas is replaced by music rattling a car stereo speakers, and the relative safety of a bicycle frame gives way a metal machine moving at speeds that can decide life and death. Rendezvousing with friends in convenience-store parking lots, conjuring heroic fantasies — beat up the bad guys, romance the ladies — while gliding down strange backstreets going precisely nowhere, the dome light shrouded in cigarette smoke.

Playacting at having no responsibilities, but, softly, quietly carrying the weight of more responsibility than ever.

That’s the essence of summer.

That’s “Regulate.”

“Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry (2010)

Alison Herman: There are people on this list who will try to convince you the best songs of the summer are retro hits, socially acceptable to claim for one’s own now that they’ve acquired a sufficient patina of irony and/or cool. There are people on this list who will try to go the coward’s route: critically beloved, offbeat, or obscure.

Reader, those people are lying to themselves. There is only one true queen of the summer jam, and her name is Katy Perry. She dominates them. She owns them. The Song of the Summer debate still hasn’t recovered from the atomic bomb that was Teenage Dream and its umpteen monster singles, and its title track is the GOAT.

Katy Perry doesn’t do bubblegum pop. She does bubblegum, swaddled-in-cotton-candy, air-blasted-with-powdered-sugar pop. And it is fucking amazing. You want to talk undeniable? Find me a human being who can hear that Dr. Luke–engineered “YOU. MAKE. ME” and not start screaming along. “Teenage Dream” is the sound of youth, multiplied by infatuation, and filtered through an anthem. It’s the sound of leisure time and what your sun-dazed, hormone-addled brain does with it. It’s the sound of summer. Game over.

“Complicated,” Avril Lavigne (2002)

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Getty Images

Sam Donsky: Summer is about excess. It’s not hot, it’s too hot. It’s not 2 a.m., it’s 3 a.m. It’s not May, it’s June. Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” is the excess of summer wrung out in song form. There are enough hooks in here to last an album; there’s enough melody in here for 10 Songs of Summer. That Avril instead condensed it all into one perfect single speaks volumes: about her understanding of what makes pop work, but also of what makes it work when. “Complicated” is a song about someone who had to go and make things so complicated — a very spring thing to do. “Keep it simple,” the song is saying. It’s not much, but it’s too much. It’s not spring. It’s summer.

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A. (2008)

Alyssa Bereznak: A true summer banger — the type that instills in you the confidence to squeeze into a small bikini, shoot one too many tequila shots, forget to apply sunscreen, and burn to a crisp while flapping around on a giant inner tube — requires a few essential properties:

1. It can’t make too much sense.

2. It should invoke a feeling of casual rebelliousness.

3. It should have as many gratuitous sound effects as possible.

Setting aside any political significance, “Paper Planes” checks all these boxes. Its bassline, which samples the Clash, is so impossibly catchy that I have witnessed my meekest, most sheltered peers — people who wouldn’t dare steal a grape from Whole Foods — pretend to shoot each other while singing along to its chorus, slurring the lyrics “Pirate skulls and bones/Sticks and stones and weed and bombs” like it were their personal anthem. There’s no way that even a fraction of the college students that partied to this song in the summer of 2007 could relate to M.I.A.’s tales of fake visas and burner phones. But it was catchy enough to push them into full DGAF mode.

“All Star,” Smash Mouth (1999)

Ben Lindbergh: As an only child whose musical tastes were skewed by older-than-average parents, and also as a person who’s too white to tan, I’ve gone through some summers with a shocking lack of awareness of popular songs (only sometimes to my benefit). The songs of summer 1999 are exceptions: That summer I was at camp, where I couldn’t curate my playlist and so listened endlessly to whatever was on. Mostly, that was “All Star.” Four things about this ubiquitous song:

  1. You’re not having any trouble remembering how “All Star” sounds, because the song — which has spawned a steady stream of winking but heavily linked parodies and remixes — is still with us 17 summers later in a way that few other artifacts of its era are. How many 1999 all-stars are still standouts today? Only Jaromir Jagr and the Smash Mouth song.
  2. Widespread snark notwithstanding, if the song were truly terrible, we wouldn’t still be subjecting ourselves to it. Honestly, “All Star” was fun, at least for a crowd of varyingly pubescent preteens. It was catchy, it was perfect for sing-alongs, and it gave us an excuse to make the shape, of an L, on our fooooreheads.
  3. “All Star” is the rare summer anthem off an album that’s better than the song. I know this sentence makes me sound like Smash Mouth’s Sisyphean Twitter account, but Astro Lounge is legitimately strong from start to finish. Of the albums I remember buying at that time in labored attempts to fit in (Desireless, Dizzy Up the Girl…Baby One More Time), Astro Lounge is the only one I regularly revisit.
  4. If/when you think of Smash Mouth, you probably think of the Guy Fieri friend/look-alike who hates bread, but “All-Star,” like almost all of Astro Lounge, was written by guitarist Greg Camp, who left the band in 2008. The downside: Late-career Smash Mouth sucks. The upside: You can let yourself like Astro Lounge while still sneering at the aggressively uncool incarnation of the band that haunts our timelines today.

Julie Kliegman: In the summer of 1999, “All Star” lit my world on fire (how about yours?). Smash Mouth will have you know they were a big deal even before the Shrek soundtrack graced our ears, and, honestly, they’re not wrong.

I have very few specific memories of summer camp that year. They basically all involve blasting “All Star” and belting the words with my socially awkward and constantly sweaty new frenemies. As with any Song of the Summer worth its salt, the lyrics are virtually impossible to mess up. They’re also a huge ego boost. Regardless of how uncool you actually are, you can’t sing this song and not feel like a rock star, which is the biggest song-of-summer prerequisite. The only people who haven’t felt awesome belting it, I assume, are the band members themselves, who had a shaky-at-best grip on the chorus when I saw them performing for demanding, mostly drunk college students in 2013.

But Smash Mouth, my first favorite band, politely asked me to give them a second chance, and I just might — even if their overzealous Twitter presence and general lack of hits mean they have a shape of an “L” on their foreheads.

“Two Step,” Dave Matthews Band (1997)

Katie Baker: Look, I’m just going to address the elephant in the room: If you’re in, oh, your 30s, there’s an excellent chance that you spent some hot summer nights wearing a hemp necklace, clutching a Sprite bottle half-filled with vodka, and jamming out to THE Dave Matthews Band. (Extra points if it took place at a venue with general admission seating on a grassy hillside; mega extra if someone’s dad drove you.) “Celebrate we will / ’Cause life is short but sweet for certain” wasn’t just the perfect lame lyric to scream in earnest while noodle-dancing in an American Eagle halter top, it was also the perfect lame yearbook quote. Stay cool this summer, okay?

“Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days),” Monica (1995)

Sean Fennessey: Here are the people with a songwriting credit on 14-year-old Monica Arnold’s first single: Dallas Austin (author of TLC’s “Creep”); Monica Arnold (genius, deeply feeling 14-year-old); Willie James Baker; Derrick Simmons; James Todd Smith (LL Cool J); Carlton Ridenhour (Chuck D); Quincy Jones III; Abrim Tilmon Jr.; Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy production legend); Eric Sadler (ditto); George Clinton (Dr. Funkenstein); James Brown (Mr. Dynamite; Soul Brother Number One; The Godfather of Soul).

With 50 years of soul music bound in a bundle of oscillating samples, kick drums, and the assured voice of a teenage girl from College Park, Georgia, a nation refused to take it personal. Monica would have bigger hits, and America would have more of dem days. But none quite like this.

“Semi-Charmed Life,” Third Eye Blind (1997)

Megan Schuster: This song holds many memories for me, but despite 19 years and hundreds of listens since its release, I still don’t know a majority of the lyrics. I also have no desire to learn them (I didn’t have a desire to learn the real meaning behind the song either, but middle school gossip ruined everything). You only need to know a handful of things to sing along convincingly with “Semi-Charmed Life”:

  • “Do-do-do, do-do-do-do” (repeat as needed)
  • Nod your head animatedly to the verses
  • “I WANT SOMETHING ELSE” … somethingsomethingsomething … “Semi-charmed kind of life, baby, baby I WANT SOMETHING ELSE” … blahblahblahblahblah “GoodBYEEEEEEEE”
  • That’s it

“Where the Party At,” Jagged Edge featuring Nelly (2001)

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Getty Images

Victor Luckerson: Approximately 50 percent of the professional emails, 80 percent of the texts, and 100 percent of the swipe-rights I send during the summer months carry the implicit question, “Where the party at?” God bless Jagged Edge for making a song about the only thing that’s on anyone’s mind between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This So So Def banger, complete with an exuberant Nelly feature on party etiquette, imagines a utopian world devoid of empty status symbols (“doesn’t matter what you wear, all that matters is whooo you wiiiith”) and full of Bacardi. It’s the ideal we’re all striving for whenever it’s 100 degrees out. The best part: The only time you’re likely to hear this song in 2016 is at an actual party. So raise a Solo cup when those electronic guitar licks start bumping and Jermaine Dupri starts ad-libbing. We all up in the club (or the beach, or the house party, or the office on Summer Fridays) just to have a good time.

“Wild Night,” John Mellencamp featuring Meshell Ndegeocello (1994)

Chris Ryan: This came out during a very stupid summer that started with the cloud of Kurt Cobain’s April suicide hanging over it and ended with thousands of people throwing mud at one another at Woodstock ’94. “Wild Night” wasn’t cool then, and it isn’t cool now, but sometimes you have to pick the song that doesn’t bother anyone. Moms turned this up in station wagons, teenage boys were transfixed by the video; you heard it on pop radio, adult contemporary radio, in the dentist’s office, and in movie theater lobbies. Parents liked it because they already knew it, because it was a Van Morrison cover, and younger people liked it because the drums went hard (even if they couldn’t pick Kenny Aronoff out of a lineup) and Meshell Ndegeocello ripped it. Some songs ask to be the Song of the Summer, some songs, like “Wild Night,” just are.

“Always Be My Baby,” Mariah Carey (1996)

Allison P. Davis: Some songs of the summer pull ahead because they are ubiquitous, some do so because they are perfect party anthems, and other do so because they somehow perfectly capture whatever collective vibe is in the air that year. Very few SOSs become part of the very DNA of the summer experience itself. Mariah’s “Always Be My Baby” does. It was the Song of the Summer in 1996, and continues to be the the ultimate Song of the Summer because it is summer. First, the narrative tells the quintessential story of every ephemeral summer love you’ve ever had or wanted to have. Second, the video takes place at a summer camp. Third, Mariah’s jean shorts, rope-swing situation is the platonic ideal of summer fashions. Most importantly, it is perms-listenable: You can still play it at every sweaty summer house party, every road trip, and every pool hang and start an earnest sing along. Other summer jams may come and go, but truly, time can’t erase a single this strong.

“Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly (2013)

Jason Gallagher: This is for all my Southern folk. You know that movie where a giant earthquake comes to town and kills everyone (except for the Rock)? That’s “Cruise” in the summer of 2013. This isn’t any sort of glowing endorsement of the track, unless you just happen to be reading this in a souped-up Chevy with a lift kit, in which case TURN THAT SHIT UP. No, this is a concession of the song’s pure summer dominance and eventual destruction of traditional country music, spawning a genre unto itself, BRO-COUNTRY. If you don’t know what BRO-COUNTRY is, just imagine a white high school quarterback having the time of his fucking life. That’s BRO-COUNTRY.

Florida Georgia Line did to country music what Kanye does for pop. Their music defined the genre for years — it’s a bad sound, nonsensical lyrics (and a misogynistic message) but nonetheless, Cruise owned country music radio that summer, and became the best-selling country song OF ALL TIME and the first country song to be certified diamond. Not Willie or Merle or Garth … but a band who named their first album It’z Just What We Do. (the z is on purpose). Add Nelly to the remix, and like it or not, you have yourself the ultimate summer song of the South.

“American Boy,” Estelle (2008)

Claire McNear: Why do we set aside summer songs?

It’s not because of weather or release schedules, or because that was the season when you spent all your hours driving around looking for something to do while the radio chattered along. No — it’s because a truly great summer jam totally dominates the airwaves for a few months, echoing from every last Ben & Jerry’s and looping endlessly through your head and crooning out of the over–air-conditioned corner store that never cards — and then, just as soon as the first autumn wind blows, it vanishes. The result of the total immersion/complete disappearance pattern, the thing that gives a true Song of the Summer its magic, is that when you hear it again, it brings you back to exactly where you were in those long muggy weeks.

“American Boy” was just such a song. It made it to the Billboard Hot 100 on May 3, right before the first really hot day of the year, and it peaked, at no. 9, on September 27. From there, it dropped steadily, and if you weren’t paying attention too closely, you might have thought it only existed during one long, hot summer break. That’s how it was for me. I remember where I was when I first heard it: home for my first summer of college, my last-ever jobless summer vacation, slouching at my computer in my childhood bedroom, and falling in love, really falling in love, for the first time over Gchat — Gchat! — from 3,000 miles away. Anyway: underrated Kanye verse, lazily Googled American locales (L.A., Broadway, Chicago, San Francisco Bay!), catchy-ass hook. Whatever. My desk chair was purple. The window was open. That summer — the summer of “American Boy” — will live forever.

“Frontin’,” Pharrell Williams featuring Jay Z (2003)

Donnie Kwak: Virginia is for lovers; summer is for fronters. Liars? Old and jaded. “Frontin’” is fleeting, fresh. Frontin’ like you have morals — or, more likely, frontin’ that you don’t. Frontin’ like some sweet talk, a little falsetto crooning, can’t get you anything you want. (That’s you, you and/or you from Love Hip Hop & Atlanta.) Frontin’ like Beyoncé isn’t your girl. Frontin’ like it will never end. And then it’s gone.

“Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell Williams (2013)

Rubie Edmondson: Close your eyes and travel back to a time before you knew “Blurred Lines” existed. Now, go watch the video (better yet, watch the NSFW version). It’s best remembered as a starmaker for Topless Emily Ratajkowski, who would go on to seduce Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, but there are so many other things happening here. The blinking #THICKE. The props. The baby farm animals (!). And of course, the music. We knew the music would be great; it was so nice of Marvin Gaye to write a song for Robin Thicke! And the tinkling cowbells and catchy melody sure make it easy to overlook the creepy lyrical undertones. “Blurred Lines” is an exquisitely crafted summer banger, tailor made for downing rosé and dancing your face off at a wedding. It even contains a “Carpool Karaoke”–ready T.I. verse, easily rappable by the average person with minimal practice (or Iggy Azalea after several intensive weeks of it).

Listening to the song with fresh ears, I know what you’re thinking: If words were meaningless and Blurred Lines were sung by anyone — literally anyone — other than Robin Thicke it would be perfect. And you are correct.

“Passin’ Me By,” The Pharcyde (1993)

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Getty Images

Danny Chau: From Jimi to Quincy to Jaco — that is the sequence born of immaculate DNA splicing. It’s the opening melange of sounds that form the backbone of “Passin’ Me By,” hip-hop’s most important tribute to the nostalgia of unrequited love. The chorus was a strained Jim Morrison impression. The song was recorded in a South L.A. studio just off the La Cienega Boulevard exit of the 405 freeway, the most congested interstate in America. It was inspired by their flirting with all the beautiful girls who would drive past their block, an endless procession of glances and missed connections, of perfect moments that had no future and didn’t need one. “It was real fun, like sunshine and soda pop,” SlimKid3 told Spin. He dreamt of a Shelly in his verse, and so did I once upon a time. Summer loving happens so fast. In L.A., it drifts away even faster. But seasons don’t change around here, so we’ll chase the feeling forever.

“Get Lucky,” Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams (2013)

Riley McAtee: Daft Punk has toured exactly twice: once in 1997, and once in 2007. I desperately need them to tour again (2017?), and “Get Lucky” is a big reason why. I need another live album after Alive 2007 with the tracks from Random Access Memories mixed in. RAM got me through quite a few lengthy drives in the summer of 2013, and “Get Lucky” was the catchiest track on the record, dominating those three months for me. And what’s a Song of the Summer if you don’t play it in the car? “Get Lucky” is a perfect background to a warm summer night spent cruising around.

“Slow Motion,” Juvenile featuring Soulja Slim (2004)

Micah Peters: This was Cash Money’s first no. 1 single, so it was, quite literally, when Cash Money took over for the ’99 and the 2000. When it first came out, I’d only just learned how to talk to girls, so Slim’s musings on pimping and how it isn’t easy, and “outside dick” were completely lost on me. The only time I ever got to watch the video was in the barbershop when it chanced across MTV (and on BET: Uncut after my parents went to sleep, sorry guys) but at some point, I have tried to recreate every outfit in here. Including Juve’s black-tank-top-fedora number. My mom kept faith that I would “grow out of it,” and I eventually did.

But it took me like six years to figure that the tightest thing about this song is that it actually sounds like floating above a packed after-hours jook joint somewhere in Chalmette, watching things unfold in slow motion. Faces barely made visible by low fluorescent lighting, the walls sweating, everyone either spiritedly forgetting their problems or frantically trying not to be alone. I know that’s not exactly the carefree whimsy that you want in a Song of the Summer, but whatever. This song is the fucking best.

“Return of the Mack,” Mark Morrison (1996)

Justin Charity: There’s a strange power to the first eight measures of this song, which magically splits the difference between blossoming into (a) a 2Pac single or (b) a Blackstreet record. Of course, “Return of the Mack” truly belongs to Mark Morrison, the U.K. singer and club rat whose big break came in 1996 on the strength of the most empowering stepping-out rejoinder in the history of the pop charts. This heartbreak song is a hook-up anthem, and a indispensable jam at wedding receptions, too. In the grand scheme of summer pop hits, “Return of the Mack” incinerates the many other admittedly competitive entries in this list: “Slow Motion” and “Paper Planes” are both great records, but they’re lifeless compared to unholy vengeance in Morrison’s voice, set to the greatest R&B bassline of the past quarter-century.

“Lollipop,” Lil Wayne featuring Static (Major) (2008)

Carl Brooks: You heard this song everywhere — from cookouts to car doors. This was the song where Weezy reached international icon status. It was a sweet spot in Wayne’s career where he had more or less figured out how to use autotune but before he went rock star lite. Normally a song of this caliber doesn’t get better when remixed, but when Kanye jumped on it?!? 15-year-old me was in rap heaven.

“Without Me,” Eminem (2002)

Caitlin Blosser: When I was in middle school, Eminem epitomized rebellion. I felt so cool sneaking listens to his explicit lyrics and trying to out-rap my friends — as if I had any ounce of swagger whatsoever. He not only reminded us how truly empty it was without him, but also taught us kids how to insult people. Thanks, Shady!

“Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock (2011)

Gabe Fisher: There are great songs that have happened to peak in the summer months — think “Trap Queen” or “Crazy in Love” — and then there are bad or otherwise unworthy songs that mysteriously overloaded the airwaves during one three-month stretch of sun and heat.

A true Song of the Summer is one that comes to define a summer, but never transcends the confines of that summer. A great song is a song that you would listen to at any time. A great Song of the Summer is a song that when it comes on you say, “remember that summer?”

“Party Rock Anthem” is a bad song but it is the best Song of the Summer. It was no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks in July and August 2011, and, according to my totally anecdotal experience, no one has ever willfully listened to the song since.