For a fleeting moment Brooklyn’s the Drums were the skinny jean-sporting indie band du jour. This is their crowning moment, all pogoing bass, petal-soft whistle riffs and a lyric about waking up on a sunny morning and running to the beach. “Oh mama I don’t care about nothing” feels like a very summer 2021 mantra, ook.
Who am I to argue with the Obamas? The 21-year-old reggae superstar Koffee’s positive-vibes-only Toast appeared on Barack’s summer playlist in 2019, while a year later it cropped up on Michelle’s workout playlist. Perhaps more importantly, it’s now on this here list of songs to enjoy in the summer months.
With hair the colour of parched grass and a strong too-much-Sunny Delight energy, teenage brother band Hanson briefly embodied long, carefree summer holidays. This effervescent debut single is a sun-kissed, preternaturally peppy ode to holding on to life with both hands, because in an mmmbop it could all be taken away. So true.
There’s something wistful about those seemingly never-ending summer nights. Exploring seasonal romance and the passing of youth, The Boys of Summer – all tactile 80s drum machines and searching guitar figures – feels like tumbling through sepia-tinged memories of summer’s past: “Those days are gone for ever, I should just let them go.” Ouch.
A weird, limbo-like summer needed a proper undeniable banger and that’s exactly what Head & Heart is. The chorus is an instant earworm, the 90s house piano immediately nostalgic, while the perfectly signposted drop feels like jumping into a cool pool. A hit of vitamin D after what felt like years indoors.
Hopped up on cherryade and remembered teenage lust, Call Me Maybe zooms in on the act of tentatively giving out a phone number and explodes it into an existential crisis with a rictus smile. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the way emotions are heightened when the sun shines and things can get messy very quickly.
Some of the best summer songs tackle the oppressiveness of the season, and this is pushed to the fore here. Focusing on how long summer can feel when you’re lonely, the video perhaps offers some solutions: shot in a heatwave in New York, the band have said they stayed alert thanks to vials of cocaine given to them by local dockworkers.
You couldn’t move for female-fronted house acts in the late 90s, but there’s something special about Free. The American singer-songwriter Naté doesn’t just sing the chorus, she shoots it skywards, espousing the song’s empowering “be yourself” message – which later helped it become a gay anthem – like she’s delivering a sermon.
Pharrell Williams has history when it comes to crafting summer classics (see: Gelukkig, Get Lucky), but there’s something truly intoxicating about his and Chad Hugo’s production on professional plaster-wearer Nelly’s sweat-drenched nudity anthem. It jolts, twerks and stutters around a beat that sounds like pots and pans being hit with a spoon, only more expensive.
Fun fact: Victoria Beckham doesn’t actually appear on the still gloriously chaotic Wannabe. According to her fellow Spices, she was either at a wedding or shopping instead of at the studio. It’s my view that this is exactly the sort of mindset we should be taking into our work lives in summer 2021: what I really, really want is extra holiday for all.
It’s a sign of just how good this song is that its brilliance is untarnished both by daardie dance scene in The Full Monty en actual Prince Charles later recreating daardie dance scene from The Full Monty. Adding a rock flavour to her disco confection, Hot Stuff finds a fiery Summer rejecting a good wallow in favour of going on the pull.
In the baking summer of 2017, it felt as if Wild Thoughts – DJ Khaled’s ludicrous, Santana-heavy sex jam – was blasting out of every shop, every car, every park, every heat-induced daydream. While Bryson Tiller tries to ruin it by comparing sex to being cremated, a prowling Rihanna effortlessly elevates it to top-tier status.
The video for Take That’s proper breakthrough single is like a vaguely artful take on a lads’ holiday. From Mark Owen’s chunky shell necklace, to pasty Gary Barlow’s reticence to strip off, to Howard Donald’s 10-minutes-too-long-in-the-sun “glow”, it practically reeks of After Sun. The song itself is a guilt-ridden call home after a sloppy drunken snog.
Nothing says summer holidays quite like a packed campsite in France, music drifting out of cheap radios in battered caravans. It’s in that context that I first heard this classic slice of hypnotic French house from one half of Daft Punk. Its swirling funk guitar riff soon became as ubiquitous as insect bites.
Even now, the Beach Boys’ psychedelic pocket symphony sounds like the soundtrack to a sweat-soaked fever dream. Or like running on sand and realising you’re not going anywhere, or the musical manifestation of those shapes you see on your eyelids after you stare at the sun for too long. Nice harmonies, ook.
It’s hardly surprising MGMT’s wide-eyed ode to the fantasy rock-star life quickly became a summer festival anthem. Eerste, that one-finger keyboard riff demands to be sung back as the sun sets behind a heaving mass of bodies, while lyrically it dismisses a humdrum life of office boredom in favour of living fast, dying young and having fun in between.
Billboard’s official song of the summer in 2016, the lilting One Dance mixes three sun-dappled genres – dancehall, afrobeats and UK funky – into an alluring, surprisingly potent cocktail. Breezier and more laid-back than Drake’s usual mixture of moping and self-aggrandising, One Dance focuses on the club and connection.
When people reference the “halcyon days of yore” they’re surely referring to the start of the 2000s when Sean Paul couldn’t move without dropping summer bangers. His Dutty Rock album alone houses Gimme the Light, Like Glue, Baby Boy (with Beyoncé) and this barbecue staple, Get Busy, which rides the then ubiquitous Diwali riddim into the centre of a sweaty club.
Manchester duo Sweet Female Attitude may have only had one hit, but what a legacy. Flowers – given a garage makeover by producer Sunship – still sounds as fresh as a daisy (sorry) in 2021, all urgent emotions, vest-weather production and a gold-plated chorus that feels tailor-made for park-based karaoke.
Tension and release are the key to Beyoncé’s debut single proper, a horn-smeared ode to new love that feels as heady as those early-stage emotions. Each musical element propels the song forward, from the blaring Chi-Lites sample, to Jay-Z’s ad-libs, to the “you ready?” that hails the arrival of “Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh, no, no”. By the time the chorus crashes in, we’re galloping towards peak delirium, but release never comes. It evokes an unexpected summer fling that has suddenly turned serious as lust is frantically alchemised into something stronger.