Sometime between the April showers and the arrival of the cicada buzzsaw, I start thinking about my summer playlist.
There are many, many opinions on what constitutes a summer song. Some of us can spend far too much time curating our selections, precious as Fabergé eggs. This year, we’re out here vibin’ with Ariana Grande and getting “Screwed” with Janelle Monáe.
But there are also the mainstays, the songs that conjure up specific memories during the hottest part of the year — whether it’s just bees and things and flowers — and refuse to take the summer off.
This week, the PBS NewsHour asked its staff for a list of summer songs they keep coming back to — and why. In their words, here are 16 songs that deserve a spot on your summer playlist. And, yes, “Summertime” is one of them.
1. “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” by Roy Ayers (1976)
It’s a great soulful song. It reminds me of the fun I had during the summer as a kid growing up in New Jersey: riding my bicycle all day with my friends, playing basketball, and family BBQs with dancing, laughing and all the great food. It was a time of true community spirit.
— Branden G. Smith, WETA director of business development
2. “Walking on a Dream” by Empire of the Sun (2008)
I was in high school when Wiz Khalifa was really growing in popularity. He remixed “Walking on a Dream” for his song “The Thrill,” and my friends and I never knew where the original song came from. It wasn’t until a bonfire in junior year that someone played “Walking on a Dream.” From that point on, the song was played at every bonfire, every boat ride on Skaneateles Lake, and every late-night drive down winding country roads. “Walking on a Dream” became synonymous with both the feeling of starting summer, as well as the late summer depression that hits when you know the fun times are coming to a close.
— Joey Mendolia, digital video intern
3. “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (1991)
I challenge you to play the first few seconds of this song and not have the whole room singing along. From the first “drums please!” to the final beat, the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff constructed a near-perfect summertime song. It works at a barbecue. Pool side. Road tripping. It will never not make you smile. And it’s withstood the test of time. Mark it down as one of The Greats.
— Amna Nawaz, national correspondent
3 reasons that “Summertime” should be on any summer playlist:
- It’s a rare beat that can provide you just enough rhythm to give you something to nod your head to, while simultaneously a background track that makes you forget parts of your body are in sync with the track.
- The lyrics describe an idyllic summer scene, while creating a track that is made for that very scene. This is a song that is built to be played out of a freshly polished convertible cruising slowly on the main drag, and out of a brownstone window near a “water plug” where girls are playing double dutch, and a boom box next to a street-ball court. While Will Smith describes how the smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia, his track a quarter century later does exactly that.
- The name. Duh.
— Hari Sreenivasan, PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor
4. “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper (1971)
Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” celebrates that feeling of freedom that a summer vacation represents. It’s just wild and raucous. I can remember going up the steps at school for the last time before summer vacation with that refrain — “School’s out for summer! School’s out forever …” — just running through my mind. Somehow, it didn’t seem like school would ever be “out forever,” but it was summer vacation, and that always brought with it a world of possibilities. It was a schoolboy’s summer anthem to really get the season started right.
— William Swift, coordinating producer, Student Reporting labs
5. “Let the Music Play” by Shannon (1983)
The song commands attention like a whip crack. The Latin beat, the syncopated drum machine, and all the laser beam-like sounds create a nervous energy. That’s because Shannon’s tale of romantic desperation takes place on the dance floor: “We started dancing, and love put us into a groove. But now he’s with somebody new. What does love want me to do?” The chorus, naturally, has the answer.
Released in 1983, the song pioneered the sound of “Latin hip-hop,” or freestyle as it was later known. Musicology says it appeared at a time when disco was dying and hip-hop was emerging. Latinos in New York added their own beats to the sonic palette laid by Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” and gave their community something to dance to.
For me, the song recalls the father-son ritual of cleaning the brown family Mazda at a self-serve car wash. My father, a proud Mexican immigrant, would blast Shannon and her torchbearers of freestyle (Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, Expose) on the car stereo while we soaped up and watered down the car. The music, too, was loud enough to overwhelm the hums of the coin-operated vacuum hoses. Time may have forgotten freestyle, but I haven’t stopped listening to Shannon and her quest to keep her love.
— Joshua Barajas, deputy online editor
6. ”Cuentan Los Cerros” by Vox Urbana (2014)
As a desert rat and Baja Arizona local, I have a fierce — some say nonsensical — affection for sweltering Tucson summers. And nothing says “Tucson summer” quite like a dry, balmy June evening, the smell of monsoon-drenched creosote bushes, and sweaty locals tearing up a dusty dance floor to blaring cumbia trumpets. Any “T-loc” (Tucson local) will tell you that there is something magical about monsoon season in the desert, and the cumbia of Vox Urbana is what takes me back to those feels without fail.
— Jennifer Hijazi, news assistant
7. “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John (1975)
I first heard Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” the summer before college. I would be attending Temple University in Philadelphia that fall, and my mom played the song nearly every day — in the car, around the house, in the shower. She was so proud of herself for being so “on brand.”
Five years on, I still add that song to my summer playlists to rekindle some of the excitement of those long, hot days just before I left home for the first time.
— Lora Strum, audience engagement specialist
8. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty (1985)
This is not the most musically, nor lyrically sophisticated, but John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” always brings a smile and reminds me of warm summer nights at the ballpark or on the softball diamond, flirting with boys, and ordering ice-cream cones at the drive-up stand, as this song comes on over the outdoor speakers. It’s eternally summer when this song plays. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard it during a winter month. This song was released when I was 18 years old and it was a top 40 radio favorite for years. But now it is a standard at Major League baseball games. In 2010, Fogerty and the song were honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame when he became the only artist ever inducted into Cooperstown. If that doesn’t make him a boy of summer, what does? Now that reminds me of another great song.
— Sara Just, executive producer
9. “Summer Breeze” by Isley Brothers (1976)
“Blowing through the jasmine of my mind.” What more explanation is needed.
— Joe Bruns, chief operating officer
10. “Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)” by OMI (2015)
Nothing gets me in the mood to groove on a summer evening quite like Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader.” The 2015 hit’s conga beat alone would make anyone want to get up and dance, but add in a rousing trumpet and piano — two instruments not normally found in chart topping beats these days — and you have a summer song that is as unique as it is fun.
All that goodness aside, my true allegiance to this song is a personal one. The remix came out the summer my husband and I got married and just months after I hung up my poms poms after dancing with NBA Washington Wizards for four seasons. What better way to kick off the dance floor at our reception than with a song a refrain that belts, “Oh, I think that I found myself a cheerleader. She is always right there when I need her.”
I’d like to think my husband identifies with the line, “Mama loves you too, she thinks I made the right selection.” I think made the right selection, too — both about him and this song. Can somebody hold my mojito for a second? I need to dab my eyes before I start dancing.
— Julia Griffin, producer
11. “Eple” by Royksopp (2001)
For me, any kind of personal soundtrack to summer would have a large selection of downtempo, chillout tunes, and I don’t know how any such soundtrack could be considered complete without a nod to Royksopp’s “Eple.” This tune is a classic by any measure and it sounds just as fresh as the day it was released. Goes well with a good lager or cocktail.
— Stephan Rohde, senior developer
12. “Island in the Sun” by Weezer (2001)
“Island in the Sun” is emblematic of summer, not only because its melody is soothing, but due to its melancholy. Let me explain. The best summers are filled with moments you want to last. “You can’t find the words to say” to keep those feelings alive for as long as possible. This ephemeral nature is exactly why we cherish summer so much. But if we could spend some time there forever, maybe we would never feel bad anymore. Hip hip.
— Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer
13. “Wave of Mutilation” by Pixies (1989)
I discovered the Pixies during my sophomore year in college when a friend put “Wave of Mutilation” on a mix CD. I don’t know what it is about all the grunting and shrieking and eccentric lyrics and noisy guitars, but the “Doolittle” album still makes me think of summers in unfamiliar places and the thrill of being in your early 20s, everything raw and thrilling, all a little absurd and barely controlled.
— Jenny Marder, digital managing editor
14. ”All Summer Long” by Kid Rock (2007)
You know summer has arrived in northern Michigan when people head down to the lake with soda pop, Slim Jims, and a stereo blaring Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” Every northern Michigander knows it is our song, our summer anthem, and a tune that epitomizes the endless summer boat party on Torch Lake. Its blue water at depths of 300 feet sit next to the famous knee-deep south-end sandbar – where the party never ends.
— Teresa Carey, science and social media news fellow
15. “Gold Coins” by Charli XCX (2014)
My summer jam has been “Gold Coins” by Charli XCX. Something about the song makes me really, really ridiculously happy. I like to open my sunroof, roll down all my windows, and blast it while driving to the beach. The lyrics are just about being carefree and having lots of money, which for some reason makes me think of summer. I don’t quite know why, other than that it has a really catchy beat. It’s a good song to pay at the pool, or while getting ready with your girlfriends for a night out. It originally came out in summer too I think a few years ago. It reminds me of summer nights, the ocean, and girly sunglasses. I’ve also seen some great karaoke and drag versions.
— Jordan Vesey, producer and production manager student reporting labs
16. ”Ol’ 55” by Tom Waits (1973)
I love driving at night in Washington, D.C. During the day, the streets are full of disappearing lanes, confusing intersections and moms late to kids’ soccer practice. At night I can drive whatever pace I want, there are no honking horns, and I can cut across the required three lanes comfortably. Summer is also the only time of year I like to drive with the windows down — by far the best way drive. That’s why my top song for the summer is “Ol’ 55” by Tom Waits; it’s perfect night driving music and it’s fun to sing along to.
— Michael Boulter, news assistant