Just as a fulfilling summer consists of familiar pleasures and thrilling adventures, summer soundtracks ideally should include obvious, reliable favorites and surprising gems. This is the guiding principle of the following list of hot-season tuneage. Of course, there are as many awesome summer songs as there are cases of skin cancer every year, but we have room for only 18. Nevertheless, put these tracks on an iPod/CD-R/iTunes playlist, and you're guaranteed an eternal sunshine of the overheated mind.
Roy Ayers, "Everybody Loves the Sunshine": Soul-jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers wrote this gorgeous, languid hymn to the benefits of that hot orb in the sky. Makes butter seem rough.
Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations": You were expecting "Surfin' USA," but that's merely a cute ditty about a summertime activity practiced by only a fraction of the population. "Good Vibrations," however, is the very essence of a utopian summer manifested in song. The ascending Theremin riff in the chorus alone is glorious enough to give hope that we can rebound from the Bush era's terrible legacy. The nurturing glow from "Good Vibrations" will last as long as the sun exists.
Cymande, "Bra": You might know bits of this song because De La Soul looped the supple, intricate funk rhythm and throw-your-hats-in-the-air brass motif from "Bra" for 3 Feet High and Rising's "Change in Speak." Turns out the entire five minutes of "Bra" is worth strapping on, for it is one of the greatest specimens of Caribbean-flavored funk on wax. Put that in your Jamaican jerk sandwich and (b)eat it.
Wolfgang Dauner, "Take Off Your Clothes to Feel the Setting Sun": Heed the title's advice and bask in this song's mellow, exotic euphoria. Somehow a balding old German dude best known for his avant-garde jazz excursions hit upon an indelible tune — plucked languorously on a sitar — that evokes the lascivious lassitude of a Goa beach and the inexhaustible joy of witnessing the sun rising from said sandy perspective. If ever there were an excuse to lounge naked outdoors, this is it.
Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough": Summer of '79, a certain music writer lost his virginity while Jacko's jackin' disco-funk stormer dominated radio in the Detroit area. Therefore, "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" earns a spot near the top of yours truly's summer-jams pantheon. You understand.
Jurassic 5, "Concrete Schoolyard": Fueled by a lazily rippling R&B piano sample from Ike Turner's "Getting Nasty," this track from L.A. hip-hop crew J5 pays homage to "playground tactics" while "tak[ing] you back like Spinal Tap." The sun-zapped, lethargic funk complements the four rappers' clever affirmations of old-school hip-hop realness, proving that nostalgia goes with summer like surfboard with wave.
Len, "Steal My Sunshine": Built around a sample of the swellegant piano/woodblock break (to which I can listen until it drives everyone around me crazy) from Andrea True Connection's seductive disco classic "More More More," this 1999 hit is unstoppable bubblegum-dance-pop joyousness.
Meat Puppets, "Swimming Ground": Arizonans, like Miamians, know from summer — ergo this riptide of bliss from Meat Puppets' fab Up on the Sun. Revel in Curt Kirkwood's radiant ripples of guitar and get your splash on.
Mercury Rev, "Chasing a Bee": Seesawing from woozy pastoral passages to cacophonous psychedelic maelstroms, "Chasing a Bee" epitomizes the stoner's enraptured indulgence in seemingly meaningless activities. The serene flute motif fluttering amid the shrieking, howling guitars and creepy, druggy narrative is unspeakably poignant. Check out the video on YouTube for some peak-time summer madness.
The Orb, "Little Fluffy Clouds": It begins with a cock crowing and a spacey Rickie Lee Jones rhapsodizing about Arizona skies, before shifting into an expansive, sun-glinted ambient-house chug. If you're coming down from something, you want this in your headspace.
Shuggie Otis, "Sweet Thang"/Van Morrison, "Sweet Thing": The guitar-slinging genius who wrote "Strawberry Letter 23" and turned down an offer to join the Rolling Stones bestows a sparse, funky blues that makes sitting on the porch with a cool one a loin-tingling experience. Morrison's similarly titled song is a tranquil acoustic/orchestral folk highlight from his masterpiece, Astral Weeks. It's one of the most affecting paeans to a lover ever conceived. And let's admit it: A summer without a passionate love affair is almost too painful to endure.
Seals & Croft, "Summer Breeze": More than three decades of radio overexposure haven't dulled the lulling charms of this soft sonic sigh of supreme sweetness.
Sly & the Family Stone, "Hot Fun in the Summertime": If you haven't kissed and/or groped anyone while this tune is playing and the temp is higher than 80 degrees, then you haven't truly experienced maximum summertime bliss. It's a perfectly formed expression of carefree pleasure in 2 minutes 38 seconds.
Small Faces, "Itchycoo Park": English blokes singing about skipping school (at a skipping tempo) to go tripping in a park, with supersonically flanged guitars and drums, plus righteous blue-eyed-soul vocals by Steve Marriott? Summer magic in less than three minutes, mate. "It's all too beautiful," indeed.
The Temptations, "Cloud Nine": Growing up in the Detroit area in the Sixties and Seventies, I was privileged to absorb dozens of Motown hits on the radio during the label's prime. "Cloud Nine" deeply affected my young mind with its exciting-as-hell wah-wah guitar, urgently funky bass and drums interplay, and the Temptations' nimble soul-vox choreography. This is a song about escaping reality, sung from the viewpoint of an oppressed minority, but it resonates with folks of all races.
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Velvet Underground, "Who Loves the Sun": Here's an uncharacteristically breezy choon from archetypal decadent, black-clad Noo Yawkahs. The lyrics express a broken-hearted lover's indifference toward ol' Sol, but with "bah-bah-bah-bahs" straight out of the Mamas & the Papas; a bright, peppy melody; and cleanly strummed acoustic guitars, "Who Loves the Sun" takes a walk on the West Coast's mild side with winsome results.
War, "Summer": To leave this off the list would be a crime against nature. That languid flute motif and those mellow vocal tones perfectly encapsulate luxurious twilight laziness after a hectic day of summer activities.
Ween, "Push th' Little Daisies": Many of my favorite summer songs induce a sun-drunk wooziness that spills into stoned immaculateness and/or lysergic bliss. Because summer should at least partially be about escaping responsibility and reality, right? Ween's odd ditty fits the bill. The phased guitar and slack, swaying rhythm obliquely whisper "tropical," while the Cartmanesque vocals flick the track into helium-inhalation absurdity. You can practically smell the funny fungus emanating from the grooves.