Ranked: Summer Songs From Worst To Best
Fifty years of roadtrippy, picnic-y, beachy nostalgia.
Every summer there emerges a song that marks the season. As summer of 2013 comes to a close, we’ve gone back to the Billboard charts of the last 50 years, found the song that stayed at number one for the longest span of June, July and August and ranked them all (picking whichever one had the greatest accumulation of sales when there was a tie for the year).
50. Richard Marx – “Right Here Waiting” (1989)
This stinker of a piano ballad is about as flimsy, ridiculous and poofed up as Marx’s hair.
49. Katy Perry – “I Kissed a Girl” (2008)
I hate this song. I hate the clumsy electro-rock melody. I hate the strained, breathy vocals. I hate the way this airhead treats a small act of affection shared by millions of lesbian couples before they leave for work in the morning as some kind of accomplishment worthy of a merit badge.
48. Enrique Iglesias – “Be with You” (2000)
The Latin pop wave was a race to the bottom to see who could pound their sound into a mushy, pandering, cultureless pulp that could be played inconspicuously on the speakers of an Old Navy store. Congrats, Enrique, you and that awful club beat won!
47. Captain and Tenille – “Love Will Keep Us Together” (1975)
Just try to think of a possible karaoke selection more groan-inducing than this song.
46. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together” (2005)
By the late ’90s, Carey’s show-off-y moan at the start of the song had become a signal nothing fun or exciting would happen for the next three minutes. “We Belong Together” doesn’t disappoint.
45. LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock – “Party Rock Anthem” (2011)
There is nothing happening in this song. There is no melody, no hook and no lyrics that are not clichés or grunts. There is nothing but a synthesizer turned up to 11.
44. Brandy and Monica – “The Boy Is Mine” (1998)
Brandy and Monica were nearly identical lab creations: a duet between them is like a mix margarine and low-fat butter.
43. Olivia Newton-John – “Magic” (1980)
Xanadu, the film flop that produced “Magic,” disappeared a few weeks after its release. As for its soundtrack, the people of 1980 weren’t so lucky.
42. Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg – “California Gurls” (2010)
This song is a salad of rusty Cali clichés but it has a decent beat and the Auto-Tune software sings it well. If Snoop keeps doing stuff like this, explaining he was once a sly, dirty emcee will be like when my mom told me Rod Stewart used to be a rock god.
41. The Black Eyed Peas – “I Gotta Feeling” (2009)
Before going out, will.i.am has a feeling it’s going to be a good night and that is apparently worth a song.
40. Puff Daddy and Faith Evans featuring 112 – “I’ll Be Missing You” (1997)
Sampling like this is more cheap than lazy. (Take one central melody and you only need to pay one copyright holder.) Still, Puffy’s Sting-based memorial to Biggie sounds lazy and — I hate to say this — not emotionally affecting.
39. Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald – “On My Own” (1986)
A breakup song penned by Burt Bacharach and handed to lady funk icon LaBelle could have been great. Then yacht rock maestro McDonald got his hands into it.
38. Usher – “Burn” (2004)
“Burn” is not better, worse or different than any other Usher single, and no Usher single has been all that good.
37. Christina Aguilera – “Genie in a Bottle” (1999)
When Aguilera debuted, we were impressed because she sang better than Britney Spears. This song earns a few points for getting phallic innuendo on the radio.
36. All-4-One – “I Swear” (1994)
This ballad was first a country hit and then was taken on by a Boyz II Men clone to create slow-dance fodder for your mid ’90s prom.
35. Heart – “Alone” (1987)
The one-time “female Led Zeppelin” does an ’80s power ballad. The icy piano melody is okay but, good god, that over-the-top chorus.
34. Paul McCartney & Wings – “My Love” (1973)
This slow-tempo groaner was the first reason to be seriously worried about McCartney’s post-Beatles career. Still, any song Sir Paul has touched is better than anything listed so far.
33. UB40 – “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” (1993)
As slow and easy as the Mississippi, the original “Can’t Help” worked because of Elvis’ southern gentility and sincerity. It doesn’t fair as well with a big horn arrangement and a plastic beat.
32. Bryan Adams – “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” (1991)
It’s pure schmaltz but Adams, god bless him, sounds entirely earnest and invested in every cheesy word.
31. Nelly – “Hot in Herre” (2002)
If you’re up for a dumb club hit, it’s hard to resist “Hot in Herre,” even if the fact it took four people to write it should make each of them feel a little embarrassed. Some singers like to cover it ironically, Jenny Owen Youngs proving it actually kinda works as a folk-rock song.
30. Survivor – “Eye of the Tiger” (1982)
This one was made to order for the training montage in Rocky III when the studio couldn’t get Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s a classic scene but does anyone have any use for this song outside of the film or parodies of it?
29. Kim Carnes – “Bette Davis Eyes” (1981)
A gusty vocal performance turned a ’40s pop culture reference into ’80s chart gold.
28. Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink – “Lady Marmalade” (2001)
Few songs are recorded as quickly and thoughtlessly as covers thrown unto a soundtrack, but damn if these four didn’t rip into this one (and look great in lingerie).
27. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” (2012)
This tune has a kind of hook no one can resist, even if liking it inspires feelings of self-loathing in anyone older than 20.
26. Mariah Carey – “Vision of Love” (1990)
Before she was the most vapid, irritating pop star on the planet, Carey was a nice young lady with a stupendous voice who used it to put everyone else on lite FM radio to shame.
25. Andy Gibb – “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” (1977)
It’s more than Gibb’s dreamy eyes on the record jacket that makes your mom remember this one so fondly. It’s got a helluva groove.
24. Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing” (1978)
Gibb and his three brothers (who made up the Bee Gees) wrote quality songs, dated as they sound now, and this lush, full-bodied one is as good as any of them.
23. Gilbert O’Sullivan – “Alone Again (Naturally)” (1972)
This breezy-sounding number is actually about getting drunk and mumbling about the harshness of life to the point of suicidal thoughts — a beloved summertime tradition in the singer’s native Ireland.
22. Steve Winwood – “Roll with It” (1988)
Though he’s recorded more exciting songs in his myriad of projects, this top-grade vocalist can’t go wrong channeling Jackie Wilson-style R&B, complete with a sax solo.
21. Zager and Evans – “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” (1969)
The weirdest chart-topper ever, this folk-rock tune moves through a succession of bleak sci-fi futures. (“In the year 6565/You won't need no husband, won't need no wife/You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too/From the bottom of a long glass tube.”) Even at the height of summer, no one felt good about anything in 1969.
20. Tears for Fears – “Shout” (1985)
“Shout” might be the best example of these British crooners' singular ability to turn therapy into catchy pop.
19. Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland – “Promiscuous” (2006)
“I’m Like a Bird” made Furtado seem like the most boring woman not featured at Lilith Fair, but a brave embrace of slut pride and a trippy, flavorful beat from Timbaland can make all the difference.
18. Sir Mix-A-Lot – “Baby Got Back” (1992)
It’s a total novelty song, but the fact that any group of four or more milennials in a bar can reconstruct all its lyrics from memory proves that it's a great novelty song.
17. Donna Summer – “Bad Girls” (1979)
Inspired by an incident in which a cop mistook one of her friends for a prostitute, Summer’s sharp tribute to the season’s scantily clad women out on the town still has influence. Did you think R. Kelly came up with “toot toot, beep beep” himself?
16. Elton John and Kiki Dee – “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976)
Sure, it’s mom-friendly soft rock, but you’d have to be one cold soul to resist this catchy tribute to the Mo-Town duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
15. The Association – “Windy” (1967)
You know it from its ironic use in the street hooker montage from season three of Breaking Bad, but “Windy” was also the top hit of the Summer of Love (surprisingly beating “Light My Fire”) and it is a pitch-perfect bit of gleeful sunshine pop.
14. Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell – “Blurred Lines” (2013)
“Blurred Lines” is effortlessly smirky, sexy and fun. If you hate it for mildly chauvinistic lyrics, be consistent and hate all the she-done-me-wrong country songs, every bawdy Stones or Zeppelin tune, and the entire genre of hip-hop.
13. George McCrae – “Rock Your Baby” (1974)
You can’t blame people in the ’70s for thinking disco might have been a good idea when their first taste of it came in the form of McCrae’s sweet falsetto.
12. The Carpenters – “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (1970)
The Carpenters’ slow, somber approach never worked better than it did on this Bacharach/Hal David classic, perfect for a Sunday in the park. The Simpsons wisely used to for a flashback showing the bond between Marge and Homer being built.
11. Herb Albert – “This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968)
The third and best Bacharach song on the list, this one has a large, sweeping ensemble that kicks in at just the right time. Though not the most brawny or versatile vocalist, Albert does sing this song like someone who is actually in love.
10. TLC – “Waterfalls” (1995)
Once just an En Vogue-ish trio trying to sell you some sultry hip-hop/soul, TLC believed for a moment they could be a great band with the epic, earnest, self-help-y “Waterfalls,” and for a moment, they were right.
9. Carole King – “It’s Too Late” (1971)
This meditation on a love that just doesn’t work anymore, with its prime piano melody, might be the high point of the classic Tapestry. Though it hardly rings of fun and sunshine, it was number one across much of June and July of ’71.
8. The Dixie Cups – “Chapel of Love” (1964)
There were more epic examples of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique than this classic ode to old-school love and commitment, but none quite as sweet.
7. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony – “Tha Crossroads” (1996)
This song sat at number one a week longer than “Macarena” did in the summer of ’96 (though the latter reigned to November). It’s a gorgeous lament on the existential issues of death and brought an unprecedented level of harmonizing to hip-hop. Why was this band never great again?
6. Beyonce featuring Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love” (2003)
Back before 2003, kids of the pop radio age were being underfed with boy band garbage, “American Idol” small fry and the dying embers of all things electronica. With its bellowing brass, “Crazy in Love” was the first pop song in years built with the idea that a pop song could be titanic.
5. Rihana featuring Jay-Z – “Umbrella” (2007)
Given just how tacky female vocalist/male rapper collaborations had become by the late ’00s, who would have guessed the most successful such team-up of that variety ever would be built around a killer hook and a lovely, simple message of support and friendship?
4. The Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City” (1966)
With its skilled use of tempo changes and some choice sound effects, this one is a timeless pop micro-symphony. Baby boomer mythology says that every ’60s hit echoes with the turbulence of the times but with the alternating sections about sweltering frustration in the daytime and uninhibited madness by night, “Summer in the City” actually does.
3. The Police – “Every Breath You Take” (1983)
At his prime, Sting created songs that were beautiful and almost transcendental in their simplicity. This opaque, ghostly ode to a stalker, which haunted the top of Billboard for eight weeks, is the best he ever wrote. As always, the band is tight like a great jazz trio.
2. Prince – “When Doves Cry” (1984)
Hot guitar work, an irresistible beat, an earworm of a synthpop riff, bold words of world-weary angst — a great single could be built from any of these. “When Doves Cry,” a song that comes in with the flashy turbulence of an August thunderstorm, has them all. Also, Prince wrote it, sang it and played every instrument on it, just to underscore the point that he is a genius. [ed. note: All attempted youtube searches for this song yield an unhealthy dose of Rick Astley.]
1. The Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
“Satisfaction” is the point where classic rock begins. Everything before it (even other British invasion singles) sounds like an oldie. With its scratchy, unmistaken riff and boorish words of sweltering sexual angst, “Satisfaction” sounds like the rock and roll that is the default good-time backdrop of Middle America. Thanks to the Stones' enduring appeal, it might be the sound of your youth, even if you were born in the mid ’80s.