Sounds of Sunshine: 10 songs that defined whole summers

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Music is intended to make you feel something distinct whenever you listen, whether jubilation or heartache. While plenty of tracks can grab the attention of a listener because they’re catchy, the very best songs often take you back to a particular point in time, whether this is the first time you ever had your heart broken to the moment when everything in your life turned around. That can happen at any time of year, but there’s a particular nostalgia imbued with the sounds of summer. Songs from bands like The Beach Boys have summer in their hearts, and weave their way into life like Vitamin D.

There is a powerful transcendence to a summer anthem, when it’s done right. Somehow, those who have mastered the craft can simply thread rays of sunshine into certain chord arrangements. Thus, for every great song that talks about people not having to go to school or basking on a beach somewhere, certain tracks define summer just for how sunny they sound outside of the song’s context.

No matter which way you slice it, the artists in the list below found a way to take a little bit of sunshine and preserve it into a neat little package for anyone to enjoy, regardless of what part of the world they’re in or their circumstances. Even if you’re stuck in the cold Arctic Tundra, you can feel a little bit warmer the minute that these songs begin playing. With that level of impact, it can becomes easy to look back at tracks as reminders of certain summers, quipping in your old age, “It was the summer of 1974 and David Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ was playing on the radio.”

It is those sort of anthems that we have assorted in this list. More than anything, these tracks just made fans feel hopeful as the temperatures started rising and the ocean became packed to the brim with vacationers. Whether it was the season of a lifetime or a cruel summer for some people, it didn’t really matter as long as these tunes started playing.

10 songs that defined whole summers

10. ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’ – Van Halen (1976)

For a brief moment, it felt like we all collectively forgot about how fun rock and roll can be. Sure, bands can get serious every now and again, but what happened to the kind of carefree rock and roll that made people run away from their problems instead of addressing them head-on? Wasn’t there still some time to just have a party? Yes, and come hell or high water, Van Halen would give it to us.

Although the band’s colossal debut album predated the summer by a few seasons, ‘Runnin’ With the Devil‘ transported you to the middle of a hot summer night in West Hollywood. Sporting one of the simplest basslines of all time, this was hard rock taken to the club, where people were just as likely to throw their hands in the air as they were to headbang along to the riff.

If this groove was enough to satisfy listeners, just wait until the rest of the world picked up the album and were introduced to Eddie’s signature brand of face-melting guitar solos. Arena rock may have existed well before this thanks to Led Zeppelin, but Van Halen were the kind of band that made these larger-than-life events seem a lot more lighthearted than everyone made it out to be.

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9. ‘Get Lucky’ – Daft Punk (2013)

In the grand scheme of summer bops, disco music tends to get lost in the shuffle. While many rock fans would stand by the idea that the genre is nothing but a punchline limited to a bunch of guys in leisure suits, there was much more going around then than just a steady groove and mountains of cocaine. The glory years of the genre could be transcendent, and Daft Punk helped remind all of us why those days were so great on ‘Get Lucky’.

While this may have defined the year 2013 to most people, chances are it would have delivered just as well had it been released in 1977. Thanks to the airtight groove and Pharrell Williams’ silky smooth falsetto vocals, Daft Punk created the technological equivalent of a summer beach party, even managing to sound effortlessly cool when they started making their glitchy vocal debuts on the back half of the track.

The master of groove is Nile Rodgers and his signature percussive rhythm parts are practically the cherry on top of the song. Millions of people had forgotten why disco even deserved to be remembered in the first place but in terms of defining what summer means in the big picture, I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

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8. ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ – Tears for Fears (1985)

Everything that came out during the 1980s felt larger than life. Whether it was the new blockbusters in theatres or the latest fashion trends that would look dated in just a couple of months, learning to keep up with the new trends was of the utmost importance, and usually, it was a matter of life and death if you were out of the loop. The biggest focal point was MTV, and while Tears for Fears might not be everyone’s first choice for spokesmen for the decade, they do have one indelible summer jam to their name.

Although most of Songs from the Big Chair is much more serious than many people realise, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ is about as tasteful as the album could get. Outside of the iconic guitar figure, the whole song gives off the vision of driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with the wind in your hair, as long as you ignore the lyrics about wanting to stay with this person until you’re both dead.

Then again, maybe the best thing going for this song is that it’s slightly sharp, making it fit in between the normal keys of a keyboard. Since you can’t play it on a standard tuned instrument, it feels more like a relic from a summer that time forgot. You can never go back, but you can always remember.

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7. ‘Rockaway Beach’ – Ramones (1977)

Not many people think of city life when they look at their summer plans. If you were to ask anyone what they want to do whenever they have time off when the sun’s out, not many of them would say they want to go into the industrial district or get to the final leg of their business account. It’s about going to the beach, and even in the golden age of punk rock, city rats like Ramones knew it was about having fun.

While half of Ramones’ catalogue tends to have a similar bent to it with standard power chords, ‘Rockaway Beach’ is the gold standard for what a punk rock summer jam should sound like. Despite ‘California Sun’ having a more beachy theme behind it, this feels more decidedly punk rock, combining the group’s more melodic sensibilities with the sounds of a crowded beach and salty seagulls in the air.

Then again, everyone who knows Ramones deeply understands why this kind of music works on a primal level. In essence, half of their songs are some of the best pop songs ever made, only played incredibly fast. You don’t have much time to savour the moment, but for the punks looking to kick down the door of the hit parade, nothing could have been better.

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6. ‘Holiday’ – Madonna (1983)

There’s usually some leeway between decades where trends fall into a virtual dead zone. Even though people remember the 1980s in neon colours and stylised clothes, the first few years felt like the 1970s were wearing out their welcome, especially with the amount of milquetoast rock on the charts. Once ‘Holiday’ started emerging on the charts, fans got introduced to one of the first true pop stars of the decade.

Whereas most artists have to sort out their sound on their first few albums, Madonna arrived fully formed on ‘Holiday’, taking cues from disco, pop, and even a touch of rock style production to create the perfect summer song. Despite working better when it was released in time for the actual holiday season in the winter, the icy tone of the keys screamed summer when it took over the charts the next year.

Considering this is where she started, Madonna probably wasn’t too far off when she said she wanted to rule the world when she grew up. Music was her oyster, and the golden age of pop music now had its queen to rally behind. Everyone else could try to match her, but for the most part, the decade belonged to Madonna.

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5. ‘Don’t Stop’ – Fleetwood Mac (1977)

There were so many dramatic tone shifts in the ’70s that it’s easy to miss them. Outside of the psychedelic utopia of the ’60s, the genre blew through everything from prog to heavy metal to glam to disco to even the beginnings of hip-hop within the span of just under ten years. There are bound to be many summer songs to choose from, but for most casual fans, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours set the precedent for what sunshine pop could sound like on ‘Don’t Stop’.

Granted, most people could take any track off of Rumours, put it in this slot and it would still work. Despite ‘Go Your Own Way’ having a knockout hook and ‘Dreams’ getting by on the song’s vibe, Christine McVie had the shuffle down to a science on ‘Don’t Stop’, hitting on the same beat with Lindsey Buckingham like clockwork. Given all the drama going on behind the scenes, the fact that it was able to sound this good at all is actually a miracle.

While the band wrestled with their own emotions in the studio day and night, their determination to get the right track always outweighed their animosity towards each other. And for a band that seemed to be on the verge of breaking up at any time, a song about always looking towards the future was exactly what they needed when facing a summer full of long tours and lonely nights.

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4. ‘Surfin USA’ – The Beach Boys (1963)

I mean, do we really need to discuss The Beach Boys for a list like this? The band has been so indebted to summer that they have stamped the world on almost any piece of advertising they make, so why couldn’t they have filled up this entire list? There needs to be a bit of variety when it comes to summer jams, but you can’t really go wrong with the song that birthed every other summer song that came after it.

Chuck Berry and Little Richard had already made uptempo rockers that made kids want to get up and dance, but the idea of capturing the sound of surfer dudes catching some waves never sounded more fun than when Brian Wilson started writing about it. Despite stealing the melody from a Chuck Berry song, ‘Surfin USA’ is The Beach Boys as we would come to know them, wanting nothing more than to talk about having no cares in the world as they play in Paradise Cove.

The British Invasion was still a few years away by the time they hit it big, too, so this was the closest thing to a rock and roll band that the US had at this point. If anyone could have represented the sound of American summers, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone better on this list. Other Beach Boys might sound better, but none capture the essence of that summer vibe quite like this.

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3. ‘Purple Rain’ – Prince (1984)

When talking about the greatest years in pop history, 1984 has to rank pretty close to the most important of the decade. MTV was still working out the bugs for the first half of the decade, but once everything kicked into gear, it felt like a white-hot spotlight was on every artist who managed to get their songs played on MTV. Prince didn’t just want to be a superstar musician. He needed to be the complete package, and that was what he would get with ‘Purple Rain’.

Instead of just having the movie soundtrack of a lifetime, the title track of the album might be one of the greatest ballads ever written. Which is strange because it’s actually a breakup song. For all of the fun summer jams on the list, this feels like Prince having an emotional exorcism onstage, knowing that he wants nothing more than to see his lover again dancing in the rain.

Even outside the context of the film, you only get this kind of euphoric experience once in a decade, featuring one of the most emotional guitar solos ever put to tape and a chorus that may as well be a mantra to anyone who’s ever felt heartbroken. Prince was probably a certifiable genius among other musicians, and with ‘Purple Rain’, he gave us the kind of song that starts in summer and continues on throughout the cosmos until the end of time.

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2. ‘School’s Out’ – Alice Cooper (1972)

No one really expected someone like Alice Cooper to come up with one of the best summer songs ever. If anything, the man behind some of the most horrific displays of shock rock should be more inclined to make the perfect Halloween album than anything having to do with days filled with getting a tan and drinking your troubles away. Nevertheless, everyone had to go to school at some point, and with just the right idea, Cooper became one of the biggest poster children for summer vacation.

Compared to the other theatrical songs in his catalogue, Cooper figured that the greatest feeling a kid could ask for was the last three minutes before the last day of school ends. With that in mind, ‘School’s Out’ is the sound of pure anarchy, as Cooper brings in every school-related pun he can think of alongside ferocious guitar work from Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce.

Cooper already had a habit of being every parent’s worst nightmare, but when ‘School’s Out’ comes on the radio on the final day of school, it’s not a celebration; it’s a warning. The kids are about to get crazy, and the only thing that you can do is prepare for whatever hell they’re bound to raise.

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1. ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ – The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles were always at the forefront of culture no matter what year. From the moment they started their reign on The Ed Sullivan Show, every teenager in the world was hanging onto their every word, trying to figure out what new surprise lay in store for them next. After spending the first half of their career running their way through every concert hall that would have them, the band finally departed from the road to give us the intro to The Summer of Love.

Timed perfectly with the beginning of summer in 1967, Sgt Pepper was everything the counterculture felt at the time. If there was one song that said it all for the record, it would have to be ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, modelled after a drawing that John Lennon got from his son, Julian. Despite Lennon denouncing the association with the letters ‘LSD’, it’s obvious there are some psychedelic undercurrents to the song, as if they took their traditional rock sound and dipped it in a tub of acid.

With just one album, the band marked a new regime in rock and roll, with everyone from The Doors to Jefferson Airplane getting mainstream exposure with their own odes to various hallucinogenic drugs. The rest of the world was already accustomed to the concept of tuning in and dropping out, but once The Beatles got that mentality onto the charts, it suddenly felt acceptable to mainstream audiences.

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