Summer songs aren’t concerned with the passage of time. In a great one, like “Despacito,” summer is forever.
A summer song ideally evokes the season: It’s youthful, breezy, usually danceable, often (but not always) light, shimmering with sweat and best heard while wearing fewer clothes than usual (and possibly fewer still by the end of the song; see, again, “Despacito”). It’s often communally shared and ubiquitous, the zeitgeist in four minutes or less.
But it can also be personal to a point that doesn’t even require explicit seasonal focus, simply the right song hitting in just the right way at just the right time, when the sensation of the freedom of having nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it is at its peak.
And even after its moment in the sun has passed, a great summer song continues to radiate those feelings for years to come. It’s transporting, a time machine, a weather machine, and a youth serum all at once. So keep your ears open. The time is right. Here comes the summer.
We asked Globe arts writers, editors, and contributors to tell us about a favorite summer song. Here’s what they chose:
“Summertime Thing,” Chuck Prophet. Some songs about summer don’t actually sound like summer. Chuck Prophet’s “Summertime Thing” sure does. The first line — “Well, the sun’s burnin’ down on the pavement” — sung/spoken over a languid desert-rock riff reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” establishes right away this is, in fact, a summertime thing, a whole vibe. It’s a testament to Prophet’s talent as a songwriter that he can namecheck the Beach Boys without being corny or banal, and when he says he and his sidekick should “take off our clothes and jump into the river,” you want to, too. — Mark Shanahan
“Cruel Summer,” Bananarama. Released in 1983, but not widely heard until summer 1984, “Cruel Summer” was poppier fare than my usual punk music diet, but something about the lyrics hit me just right as I graduated from high school, wandered around my hometown, and wondered what would happen next, after this last summer surrounded by family, childhood friends, all those crushes and loves. Summer isn’t all sunshine, the song said; sometimes it’s about the sun setting. — Kate Tuttle
“Summer Girl,” Haim. Hitting the exact tempo of a leisurely stroll, the crown sisters of alternative easy-breezy bring sunshine to your ears on this “Women In Music: Part III” bonus track. A ribbon of breath disguised as a saxophone flows through melody into your soul, reminding you how infinite a summer’s day can feel. “Summer Girl” isn’t just a song that suits sunnier weather, it seems to usher clear skies into any space. — Danielle Momoh
“Blue Star,” Benny Carter. Many years ago, I heard a friend who was a radio announcer introduce Benny Carter’s “Blue Star.” It’s on his classic 1962 LP, “Further Definitions.” Imagine yourself at an elegant dinner party, my friend said. The night is warm. You step onto the terrace for a breath of air. The sound of something magical and perfect comes wafting your way on a gentle breeze. That something is “Blue Star”: rich, relaxed, velvety, almost voluptuous. Ever since, whenever I hear “Blue Star,” I think of that description, and nothing so evokes June, July, and August for me: not summer as is, but summer as ought to be. — Mark Feeney
“Deja Vu,” Olivia Rodrigo. This was my favorite song on the Malibu-themed playlist my friends and I curated when I visited Los Angeles last year. It reminds me of eating overpriced dessert and being reunited with my best friends after spending much of the early pandemic several time zones away. It’s a bop–personal breakup drama, or not. — Serena Puang
“In the Flowers,” Animal Collective. For an album released in the depths of winter, the first track of Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” sounds a lot like summer: the fire-hydrant gush of synth noise, the triple-time rhythm that shimmers like roasting asphalt. I hear Avey Tare wish to leave his body for a night and the firework explosion of the pre-chorus, and my body remembers days that swim by as though through Jell-O, nights alive with noise, memories that take on a rose-tinted grain even before they’re made. Not summertime sadness, but summertime Sehnsucht. — A.Z. Madonna
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen. I’m 16 years old. I’ve got my driver’s license, a cassette deck in the car, and my first job (and my first lousy job). Most importantly, I can’t wait to escape my hometown. Into this ideal set of conditions comes my discovery of Bruce Springsteen. Blasting “Born to Run,” both song and album, while driving down my minuscule section of Route 29 provided the wild joint sensations of being 16 as summer flickered away too quickly and nostalgia for the 16-year-old self I still was. — Marc Hirsh
“Rich Spirit,” Kendrick Lamar. Summer is when we replenish ourselves, and that’s made this a season to blast Kendrick Lamar’s latest sermon from the mount, especially the standout track “Rich Spirit.” A sparse, haunting testament from “the aloof Buddha,” Lamar offers his thoughts on how to live with peace amid a world of chaos. Soulful without being saccharine, Kendrick is looking to preach his audience out of poverty, and we’re all wealthier for it. — Brendan McGuirk
“Hounds of Love,” The Futureheads. I’m a Kate Bush fan — I sleep in a Kate Bush T-shirt — so I was happy to see her song “Running Up That Hill” topping the charts over Memorial Day Weekend after its turn on “Stranger Things.” Around that time, I went on a Kate Bush kick and ended up re-listening to another song I’ve always loved: Not the original of “Hounds of Love” — which is on her eponymous 1985 album that also features “Running Up That Hill” — but the cover version by the British band The Futureheads. It’s fast, brash, and though the theme is gothic, the song somehow feels full of sunshine. — Brooke Hauser
“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Tom Petty. For me, summer means Tom Petty. Any number of Heartbreaker anthems bring summer vibes — “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “The Waiting,” “Here Comes My Girl” — but if I had to pick just one: “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Instantly, I’m at the old Great Woods. Petty’s harmonica, his flamboyant kicks and claps. Heartbreakers on fire. The whole crowd belting out into summer night: “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” — Lauren Daley
“Feels Like Summer’s Coming On,” Jimmy Delphs. One always dreams of summer during a long Boston winter — but the baking sun, humidity, and overcrowded vacation spots can get old quick. So here’s to those glorious first few days, captured by Detroit soul man Jimmy Delphs and a band likely made up of Motown Funk Brothers during one of their moonlighting sessions. This B-side to the flop “Mrs. Percy Please Have Mercy” recently found new life through a beer ad. — Noah Schaffer
“Umbrella,” Rihanna. Fifteen years ago, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” with its stormy synths and insistent hi-hats, was unquestionably the song of the summer, its “ella-ella-ella” refrain emanating from bodega radios, passing cars, and tinny computer speakers even after the equinox hit. I first joked in 2008 that “Umbrella” was the song of that summer, and I’ve been making that crack pretty much every year since; its sonics conjure up images of gray skies and rain-slicked streets during heat-wave-breaking storms, and even though it’s at its heart a love song, its lyrics echo the sort of down-for-life camaraderie that endless summer nights help cement. — Maura Johnston
“As It Was,” Harry Styles. I’d been sleeping on Harry Styles, I guess thinking I was too old to fangirl, but when my 14-year-old said she thought I’d really like “Harry’s House” when it was released in May, I woke up. There’s a lot to like about the album (“Matilda,” you are so lovely), but it’s “As It Was” that won me over completely, instantly, and made me a squatter for life in this house of Harry. Played loud, in the car, windows down, it’s the perfect pop song, the one we all agree on, the one we belt out, the one we bop to. Like summer itself, I’ll never get sick of it. — Chris Morris
“Lyin’ Eyes,” The Eagles. The most summertime thing I’ve ever done was to work as a ride operator at a Salisbury Beach amusement park. If you were assigned to one ride in particular, you got to be a DJ too. Sort of. The Bubble Bounce came with its own turntable and a ramshackle selection of 45s, snippets of which you could hear between the whooshes of all that spinning and bouncing. It had the fewest scratches, so “Lyin’ Eyes” was one record I played a lot, even though, as an up-and-coming rock snob, I was no Eagles fan. But nostalgia is a funny thing: Uncool songs from long ago sound fine to me now, and memories of those summers of low pay and crap hours and having to wear a goofy orange-striped shirt feel almost romantic. Like summers should. — Hans Schulz
“Daydream,” The Aces. “Daydream” is a sparkly, sugary song about long-distance relationships by indie pop girl band the Aces. It makes me think back to the past few pandemic summers, to long road trips spent traveling to visit friends and loved ones stuck hundreds of miles away. To me, it’s a song about adding synth and glitter to the in-between moments of our lives — to romanticizing long summer afternoons we spend waiting for the next adventure to begin. — Joy Ashford
“Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” Seu Jorge and Almaz. At our house, it’s not officially summer until the weather turns warm enough to spend every waking hour on the screen porch. No song I can think of better exemplifies the unhurried pace of the season than “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” “Just bees and things and flowers,” goes one refrain; Roy Ayers was clearly feeling the sweet lethargy of summertime when he wrote it. But my favorite version is the one by the Brazilian singer-actor Seu Jorge. In his hands — or more precisely his voice, which rumbles like Gil Scott-Heron’s when it’s not fluttering like bees and things and flowers — the song is an idyllic screen-porch breeze. — James Sullivan
“Behind the Wheel,” Depeche Mode. When I was a suburban kid growing up in the ‘80s, weirdness was hard to come by. The alternative radio station WLIR (motto: “Dare to be different”) was my constant soundtrack and formative influence, which is why a synth-pop band with a black-as-velvet sensibility will forever sound to me like summer. Depeche Mode is the truth playing through your headphones while watching your friends cavort at the beach. It’s dancing alone in your messy room during vacation, feeling bleak about ever fitting in but hopeful about the future because Sassy magazine promises it’s going to be OK. Depeche Mode recorded so many downer bangers it’s hard to choose one, but how about “Behind the Wheel”? “My little girl, drive anywhere. Do what you want, I don’t care,” singer Dave Gahan pleads/impels. It’s, um, not about a road trip. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great on one. It’s the song on your playlist you’ll listen to three times in a row — gorgeously layered, unhealthily romantic, catchy as hell. — Devra First
“Djouliet,” Al Olender. Sometimes a new song immediately becomes an old favorite, as if it’s been part of your personal soundtrack forever. Al Olender’s “Djouliet” is that kind of tune. Released in May on her debut LP, “Easy Crier,” “Djouliet” spills over with warm-summer-night vibes, possibly because I’ve been listening to it nonstop on warm summer nights. Over an unhurried bassline and spare beat, Olender sings about staying out late with a charismatic friend. Her voice lands somewhere between limpid and bemused, and the sparky piano interlude in the middle drifts down like shower of starlight. — Eric R. Danton
“Dancing in the Street,” Martha and the Vandellas. You’ve heard it beamed over the radio and through concerts, soundtracks, and countless weddings since it was a big hit in 1965. It is the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street,” sung by Martha and the Vandellas and co-written by Marvin Gaye. It finds Martha Reeves joyfully belting the words “Callin’ out around the world/ Are you ready for a brand new beat?/ Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.” Some folks claimed it was a cry for street protests, but Reeves denied it, saying, “My Lord, it was a party song!” Mick Jagger and David Bowie later did a performance video of it that aired during the Live Aid benefits in 1985. And artists as diverse as Little Richard, the Grateful Dead, Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson, and the Mamas & Papas have covered it. Summer is not summer without hearing its refrain booming through the humidity somewhere. — Steve Morse
“Cartwheel,” Lucy Dacus. Wistful and atmospheric, this track from Lucy Dacus’s fourth album provides the perfect soundtrack for an evening stroll, or as the backdrop to a summer thunderstorm. With gentle harmonies and muted, plucked chords, Dacus’s lyrics evoke childhood summer breaks of years past, full of friendship, heartbreak, dreams, promises, and betrayal. — Maya Homan
“Backstreets,” Bruce Springsteen. “One soft-infested summer/ me and Terry became friends.” So begins Bruce Springsteen’s “Backstreets,” one of the most powerful rock songs about summer passion and betrayal. Springsteen’s epic is about love lost and found — finding something so powerful and palpable, only to have it stripped away before it could come to fruition. The slow-building love song — told in poetic verses — erupts into a howl of desperation and pain. The song has been interpreted many ways (Are Terry and the narrator gay lovers? Are the backstreets dead ends or paths to freedom?), but one thing is clear: This is a quintessential summer song of love, passion, and the damage done. — Ken Capobianco
“Spill the Wine,” Eric Burdon & War. There’s just one brief mention of summer in “Spill the Wine,” in its opening lines: “I was once out strolling/ One very hot summer’s day.” What follows in the rest of the song is not typical summer action, but a summer pastime of a different sort, a substance-assisted daydream. Eric Burdon tells the strange tale, War propels it along with ferocious Latin funk that is anything but dreamlike, and it’s a perfect groove for a hot summer’s day. — Stuart Munro
“Vacation,” The Go-Go’s. “Vacation” celebrates its 40th birthday this month, and while the fizzy confection is very much a product of the early 1980s, lyrically, the song’s roots can be traced back to a genre we’ll call “Sad summer with a beat.” These textually sad but rhythmically perky tunes include the Happenings’ 1966 hit “See You in September,” Bobby Vee’s 1963 “It Might as Well Until September,” and Chad and Jeremy’s 1965 mid-tempo offering “A Summer Song.” The difference here is that the ladies of the Go-Go’s amp up their summer sadness with an amphetamine-fueled beat that makes it sound as if they’re having a better time stuck at home jamming in their garage than they would be sunning themselves at any resort. For a nation of Gen X kids who spent the summer of 1982 stuck at home in front of MTV, the Go-Go’s made not going on vacation far cooler than getting out of town. — Christopher Muther
“Our Love Is Here to Stay,” Michael Feinstein. When our son Matt was 2 years old, I used to take him to a nearby park early each summer morning and push him on a swing for an hour before I went to work. I’d been listening a lot to Michael Feinstein’s “Pure Gershwin” album, which includes George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Its lines spoke to me, for reasons that became clear during those mornings in the park. As Matt swung back and forth, I would sing it to him, from the opening verse (”Nothing seems to be lasting/ But that isn’t our affair/ We’ve got something permanent/ I mean in the way we care”) to the chorus: “It’s very clear/ Our love is here to stay/ Not for a year/ But ever and a day . . .” For this new dad back in 1992, it became a father-son song — a way of expressing how I felt about the little guy on the swing, and the promise I was making to him, and to myself. — Don Aucoin
“The Pretender,” Jackson Browne. Jackson Browne is part sad Bob Seger, part cerebral Bruce Springsteen. “The Pretender” is his ode to the common man who traded his dreams for predictability, living in the shade of the freeway and packing his lunch each morning, forever. I first heard it on WZLX cruising through the humid suburban streets of my hometown, bagged lunch wilting in the passenger seat, reporting to a ghastly summer situation at a textbook publisher. It was then that I vowed never to be chained down to a 9-to-5 job. I can still taste my limp PB&J sandwich, left too long in the sun, each time it comes on the radio. — Kara Baskin
Listen to our summer soundtrack: