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Black Sabbath, Billie Holiday, and Leonard Cohen’s best shots at a #1 summer hit

Data-mining finds sunshiny pop songs in some unlikely places.

“Of these bands, Black Sabbath has the lowest danceability, the lowest bounciness, and they’re the most dense, sonically,” Glenn McDonald says of Black Sabbath’s “Lady Evil.”

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“Of these bands, Black Sabbath has the lowest danceability, the lowest bounciness, and they’re the most dense, sonically,” Glenn McDonald says of Black Sabbath’s “Lady Evil.”

As we head into the final stretch of August, it looks like this year’s battle for “song of the summer” is coming down to a near-draw between “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell. Whatever you think of the songs, they’re ridiculously infectious—in the pantheon of irresistible summer singles like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.”

There’s something about a summer single that we’ve come to recognize—some ineffable combination of danceability and hook and sound that makes everyone listening want to walk, drive, or dance a little faster.

Not every artist has it in them to produce a summer single. Most never do—something those of us who prefer the moodier end of the pop music spectrum are reminded of every summer, when we scroll through our iPods and realize none of our favorite musicians—not Radiohead, not Yo La Tengo, not Black Sabbath—have ever recorded anything remotely appropriate to be blasted at the beach.

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You may even have found yourself in this situation—perhaps you set about making a playlist for drinks on the deck, only to find that none of the music you own would really work on a hot, happy night. Here at Ideas, we know your plight. And so, having tired of blurred lines and feeling not at all lucky, we asked Glenn McDonald, the principal engineer at the Somerville-based music analysis firm Echo Nest, for some help.

McDonald, an expert in the art of reading music’s digital fingerprints, aggregated all the biggest summer hits since 1980, ran them through the Echo Nest software, and produced an algorithm you might call “summer-singleness,” a combination of factors including bounciness, high energy, and danceable rhythms. Then he took a bunch of decidedly un-summery artists like The National, Elliott Smith, and Joy Division and scoured everything they ever recorded for their most summery song—the closest thing they ever recorded to the platonic ideal of a summer hit.

With a disclaimer that this is anything but bulletproof science, and perhaps a grumble about “deliberately misusing our powers,” McDonald assigned each song a number showing just how far it falls from true summer singlehood. On his scale, where 2.5 represents a rough boundary for what might strike people as summer pop, Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” falls neatly in the summer zone, with a score of 2.2. Black Sabbath, on the other hand, in its absolutely most summery effort, scores a grim 4.5 with “Lady Evil.”

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Click here to see the most “summery” songs from a set of artists you might not associate with summer, or even sunlight. To look at the list is to appreciate that a tiny bit of brightness can live in even the darkest sensibility ... if you have sensors fine enough to detect it.

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