What is the song of the summer? It’s a question that’s practically been in the air since the radio was invented — even if it wasn’t always asked so directly, so annually, and so often. There’s a reason why people are constantly enamored with pinpointing which big tune will soundtrack barbecues, poolside hangs, beach-blanket blasts, and beyond: more so than any other season, summer is very superficially associated with Good Times, and more often than not there happens to be One Big Song that’s inescapable during its three-month duration. Whether you hear it blasting from passing cars, humming on the radio amidst the melted candy of your local corner store, or pulsing from a listening device of some sort while soundtracking low-level sidewalk revelry, there’s always a song of the summer, whether you like it or not.
In recent years, predicting the song of the summer has gone well beyond skipping around the FM dial or scanning the pop charts to get an idea of certain singles’ overall trajectories. Along with compiling year-end lists, middle-of-the-year lists, award-show predictions, and artists-to-watch roundups, attempting to guess what the song of the summer will be has become part and parcel of digital music writing. The theoretical online equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil, it’s arguable that summer doesn’t actually begin until song-of-the-summer debates start cropping up.
As with most internet discussion-flashpoint phenomena, song-of-the-summer debates tend to annoy people. Some have identified this bugbear commonality and managed to get a laugh or two out of it; since the release of Daft Punk’s Pharrell-featuring single “Get Lucky” in 2013, British comedian Brian “Limmy” Limond has made great hay out of regularly Tweeting recommendations of the song, proclaiming it to be the “sound of the summer” (even in the dead of October). Otherwise, there’s a measure of understanding as to why song-of-the-summer discussion gets under peoples’ skin. More than anything else, the discussion typically tends to center around widely beloved pop, and since the act of listening to music is in itself one that’s reliant on personal taste, one person’s song of the summer might simply be annoyingly ubiquitous to another.
With that in mind, we’re shaking things up a bit by taking a trip through the last 20 years of popular music not only to identify the song of every summer, but to present an alternate suggestion — a what-could’ve-been for those sweaty months of every year, whether it be a slightly-less-popular song that narrowly missed its window or an underground favorite that deserved more time in the theoretical and literal sun. And, yes, in case you were wondering, we took a stab at this year’s too — would it be summer, after all, without us trying to predict this year’s song of the summer as well?
Song Of The Summer: Santana — “Maria Maria” Feat. the Product G&B
Alternate Choice: Queens Of The Stone Age — “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer”
I can’t believe it’s not “Smooth”! Seriously, though: the infamous Supernatural single that featured the now-iconic line “It’s a hot one” was neither the song of the summer of 2000 or the previous year; it topped the charts near the end of 1999, narrowly missing the song-of-the-summer window for that year. But it’s more impressive that, more than a year after Supernatural‘s release, the sweltering “Maria Maria” reigned supreme for a whopping ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, all but ensuring an overall dominance of the airwaves in the months to come. But what doesn’t scream “sweltering, sticky heat” like desert-rockers QOTSA’s titular paean to the season itself? An overreliance on pharmacology aside, even Carlos Santana himself would approve of the riffage that Josh Homme and Co. brought to this one.
Song Of The Summer: Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink — “Lady Marmalade”
Alternate Choice: Herbert — “It’s Only”
In 2019, “Lady Marmalade” truly seems like the stuff of the ancient past: a star-studded single promoting Baz Luhrmann’s latest another-goddamn-circus movie Moulin Rouge, most memorable not only due to its flashy MTV music video (remember the Making The Video episode behind this one?) and larger-than-life awards-show performances. (It’s pre-9/11, both figuratively and literally; in the former sense, popular culture was simply flattened for the rest of the decade and beyond to allow for such needlessly ostentatious spectacle.) “It’s Only,” from Matthew Herbert’s glorious microhouse classic Bodily Functions, is pretty much the exact opposite of “Lady Marmalade”; it percolates and simmers, with whirring clicks and lovely woodwinds orbiting Dani Siciliano’s subtle, jazzy vocals. But caught in the right light, it’s exactly what you’d want to hear in the waning hours of a hot summer day, when night falls and the air becomes just clear enough to luxuriate in your own surroundings.
Song Of The Summer: Nelly — “Hot in Herre”
Alternate Choice: Red Hot Chili Peppers — “By The Way”
Nelly dominated the entire summer of 2002, no question. Between “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma,” both taken from his megahit album Nellyville, the St. Louis rapper spent most of the summer and fall on top of the charts, and “Hot in Herre” was particularly inescapable when the temperature was rising. With blistering production from the Neptunes — who, in 2002, were close to operating at their peak — “Hot in Herre” was and still is a fantastic song, albeit one sullied greatly by the multiple sexual assault accusations he’s faced in recent years. The summer of 2002 also saw the release of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By The Way, the follow-up to the surprisingly strong 1999 comeback album Californication; honeyed, melodic, and unexpectedly lovely at points, By The Way sounds as summer-y as a popsicle, and its title track (slap-bass section aside) still feels like a cool, dusky breeze you never quite expect but are always thankful for.
Song Of The Summer: Beyoncé — “Crazy In Love” Feat. Jay-Z
Alternate Choice: TV on the Radio — “Staring At The Sun”
Beyoncé… never heard of her. Kidding, kidding! Looking back at “Crazy In Love” and its accompanying album Dangerously In Love, the summer of 2003 was the exact moment that the literal biggest pop star in the world right now stepped out from the shadows of Destiny’s Child and became a solo star in her own right, her debut single featuring an artist she’d later marry and center one of her most critically beloved works around their infidelity. Wild stuff — and “Crazy In Love” is one of those songs of the summer that kind of feels like the song of every summer, the kind of aggressively enjoyable pop song that practically sets off car alarms from its opening seconds on. Brooklyn rock heroes TV on the Radio also stepped out that summer with their indelible Young Liars EP, and the slow-crawl build of “Staring At The Sun” felt like the flipside to “Crazy in Love”‘s instant party-hardy vibe — a controlled detonation instead of a Molotov cocktail, packing just as much firepower.