Stevie Wonder 1975
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The 50 Greatest Summer Albums, 1963-2013


Summertime, and the living is easy. The fish are jumping, and the cotton… well, you get the idea. Summer officially arrives this week, bringing with it afternoons in the park and rooftop parties and beaches. The thing is, though, every summer needs a soundtrack, and while every year there seems to be a rush to anoint a certain tune The Song of the Summer™, Flavorwire decided to go one better and choose a quintessential summer album for every one of the past 50 years, as something of a sequel to last month’s list of the 50 albums you need to own, 1963-2013. Click through and get a-listening!

1963: The Beach Boys — Surfin’ USA

The Beach Boys got infinitely better when they stopped recording songs (and albums) with “Surf” in the title, but nevertheless, this is a pretty fine place to start a list of essential summer albums. The title track is a classic, obviously, but there’s also a cracking version of “Misirlou” (you may know it from Pulp Fiction), along with another, lesser-known Dick Dale instrumental entitled “Let’s Go Trippin’.” A harbinger of things to come, perhaps.

1964: Stan Getz and João Gilberto — Getz/Gilberto

“The Girl from Ipanema.” Enough said.

1965: The Who — My Generation

Summer isn’t only about lounging on the beach, though. It’s also a time where the heat brings change and unrest — a feeling captured beautifully by this record, which was recorded in two sessions that bookended the summer of 1965. The title track was released in October of that year, and even now it still sounds like an incendiary call to arms (something captured all too well by the above performance on US TV).

1966: The 13th Floor Elevators — The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators

Recorded throughout 1966 — but not, curiously, during the summer, perhaps because Roky Erickson et al were too busy off getting blasted on acid in the local park. Whatever the case, this album basically invented psychedelic rock, and is home to 11 tracks that are less songs than they are great foaming juggernauts of psychedelic force. Especially “Roller Coaster” (above), which was later covered to great effect by Spacemen 3.

1967: The Doors — The Doors

While we’re on the subject of psychedelic rock — no, of course I wasn’t alive in 1967, but surely this was the soundtrack of choice to being immaculately stoned in the sun?

1968: Otis Redding — The Dock of the Bay

For the title track, obviously, which is one of the most beautifully melancholy summer songs ever recorded.

1969: The Beatles — Abbey Road

Released at the tail end of the summer of 1969, and something of a swansong for both the 1960s and the band that made it, Abbey Road is The Beatles’ last great record, even allowing for the presence of the risible “Octopus’s Garden.” “Here Comes the Sun” is the sound of the English summer incarnate, capturing the precious, dappled sunlight filtering gently through soft green leaves. (See also: Nick Drake’s “Saturday Sun,” released this very same year.)

1970: Neil Young — After the Gold Rush

An early example of your correspondent’s favorite genre of summer records: the melancholy summer album. It’s a form that Young would later perfect with 1972’s Harvest, but we have other plans for that year. In the meantime, After the Gold Rush is just as starkly beautiful.

1971: Harry Nilsson — Nilsson Schmilsson

You put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up. Why, yes you do.

1972: Various Artists — The Harder They Come

True story: your correspondent grew up with this record, and wore out several LP copies of it in his childhood. The film of The Harder They Come is pretty great, but this soundtrack is sublime, bringing together many of the era’s great Jamaican talents (most notably Toots Hibbert and Desmond Dekker) and also featuring several tracks by the film’s leading man and a reggae star in his own right, Mr. Jimmy Cliff. It’s alternately gritty, joyous, reflective and sad, but always evocative of the sun-drenched homeland of its creators.

1973: Bruce Springsteen — Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

Fast cars going nowhere; desperate love and lust; girls called Mary… Springsteen’s debut album set out the tropes that’d define his lyrics for decades, and it’s a perfect evocation of being young and restless in a nowhere town on the beach when the nights are long and restless and you yearn to just cut and run somewhere, anywhere.

1974: Shuggie Otis — Inspiration Information

An oft-overlooked classic, and a fine choice for a year where it seems the summer either didn’t happen or just didn’t inspire a whole lot of music. The title track is particularly good, but the whole thing’s worth hearing, sitting somewhere in a fertile border zone between funk and R&B.

1975: David Bowie — Young Americans

Shit got really weird with Station to Station, but before Bowie started living off bell peppers and milk and trying to exorcise his swimming pool, his time in Los Angeles yielded some rather pleasantly upbeat moments. He mightn’t remember much about making Young Americans, but its plastic soul nonetheless captures the feeling of long summer nights in LA, where every night is just the same and everyone is beautiful and you’re simultaneously alienated and fascinated by it all.

1976: Stevie Wonder — Songs in the Key of Life

Wonder’s great masterpiece isn’t all summery exuberance, but honestly, if you haven’t listened to “Sir Duke” at a rooftop party, you haven’t lived.

1977: Sex Pistols — Never Mind the Bollocks

The narrative of UK punk is curiously dependent on the weather — most notably the Winter of Discontent, when garbage collectors went on strike and England seemed to be descending into anarchy, all set to a suitably nihilistic punk-centric soundtrack. Before that, though, was the summer of 1977, a summer of social unrest and brooding discontent during which the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols recorded their one and only studio album.

1978: Bob Marley and the Wailers — Kaya

Marley’s most laid-back and peaceful record, the one that captures the great man chilling on the beach rather than railing at the injustices of the world. It’s not necessarily his best record (Catch a Fire and Rastaman Vibration can fight for that honor), but it’s definitely the best for a lazy summer day.

1979: Donna Summer — Bad Girls

No list of quintessential summer albums is complete without an entry by Donna Summer.

1980: The Clash — Sandinista!

Yes, it’s way too long, and yes, it wasn’t as good as London Calling. But it’s also a damn sight better than Combat Rock, and in its ongoing explorations of reggae, calypso, and R&B, it’s as loose and summery as The Clash ever got. Stick the whole thing on during an afternoon in the sun and you might be surprised by just how well it holds up.

1981: Tom Tom Club — Tom Tom Club

In which Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz dispensed with David Byrne, decamped to the famous Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas, enlisted the assistance of the studio’s house band, and recorded one of the best summer albums you’ll ever hear. Its breezy, reggae-influenced take on post punk is a perfect synthesis of NYC artiness and islander exuberance.

1982: Prince and the Revolution — 1999

From the era when the little genius could do absolutely nothing wrong. Tonight we’re gonna party like…

1983: Malcolm McLaren — Duck Rock

The obvious answer is Thriller, of course, but our self-imposed restrictions mean that we have to get somewhat creative here in a year where summery albums were few and far between. It’s between David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and this unlikely hip hop-influenced classic… so, all together, now, “First buffalo gal go around the outside, round the outside, round the outside!”

1984: Run-DMC — Run-DMC

Look, let’s face it — 1984 was a pretty stinky year for music, summery or otherwise. Thank god, then, for the burgeoning force for change that was early hip hop. I can only imagine that this was blasting from tenements throughout the summer of that year.

1985: Grace Jones — Island Life

This is strictly a best-of, but it’s such an essential purchase and such a quintessential summer record that it seems wrong to overlook it. Also, we wouldn’t want to upset Grace Jones, now, would we?

1986: The Triffids — Born Sandy Devotional

It’s nearly impossible to describe this record without using the adjective “widescreen,” so let’s just say that if there’s ever been an album equivalent to the strangely hostile atmosphere of the blazing Australian summer — a time when the landscape is baked into flat monochrome homogeneity and the sky is so huge and empty and endless that it’s somehow terrifying — this is it.

1987: Eric B & Rakim — Paid in Full

The album that found Rakim laying waste to his fellow rappers and raising bars for MCs everywhere. The great man’s laid-back but dextrous drawl defines golden-era hip hop, evoking images of bouncing boom boxes on Brooklyn stoops and long, sweltering NYC summer days.

1988: Pixies — Surfer Rosa

Imagery of blazing sun and scorching sand dominates the Pixies’ classic debut, but there’s always the sense of something lurking just beneath the surface, like one of those slimy rocks you freak yourself out by stepping on at the beach. It’s a shame that we’ll never hear new material from them, but honestly, they never really surpassed this.

1989: Beastie Boys — Paul’s Boutique

The summer of 1989 must have been a hell of a hot one in NYC — it was the year of Do the Right Thing, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, and also Paul’s Boutique. The cover shot of the eponymous Lower East Side boutique in blinding sunlight says it all, really, and the music within evokes a similar feeling, the sound of meting in your apartment on a stifling NYC summer day.

1990: Happy Mondays — Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches

Before Shaun Ryder became a mumbling poster boy for the dangers of doing waaaaaayyyyy too many drugs, the Happy Mondays were actually pretty great. This loose-stepping party record is still a staple of indie discos everywhere, and although it came out two years after England’s MDMA-fueled Summer of Love, it’s still identified with the acid house era, and seems to capture the E’d-up spirit of the era perfectly.

1991: Teenage Fanclub — Bandwagonesque

The record Big Star probably would have made if they’d reunited two years earlier, Bandwagonesque is flawless indie rock songwriting from start to finish, all wistful melodies and jangling chords that are somehow both uplifting and bittersweet. The songs on this record are timeless and beautiful, and they’re best appreciated sitting staring into an empty summer sky.

1992: Kyuss — Blues for the Red Sun

One look at the album cover is enough to let you know what you’re in for here — this is music that’s red and hot and blazing with intensity. It’s the sound of sun-drenched heat and anger and doing wholly inadvisable amounts of drugs way out in the desert, and it’s a whole lot better than anything Queens of the Stone Age have done of late.

1993: Salt-N-Pepa — Very Necessary

Seriously, how was anyone ever meant to compete with that guy in the three-piece suit?

1994: Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder — Talking Timbuktu

The desert blues of Malian guitar maestro Ali Farka Touré and the delta blues of Ry Cooder are such a perfect fit that really the only question about this beautiful record is how it took them so long to get together. This is a fine example of how cross-cultural fusion can work to create something both new and wonderful — in this case, songs that are the musical equivalent of a refreshing cup of hot mint tea on a sunny day.

1995: D’Angelo — Brown Sugar

Honestly, if there’s a better record for cruising with the top down and letting the summer breeze wash over you, I’d love to hear it.

1996: Fugees — The Score

“Fu-Gee-La” and “Killing Me Softly” really were the sound of the summer of 1996 — they were ubiquitous, so much so that it got to the point where I’d gladly have never heard them again. But with the benefit of a few years of separation, their charms have become clear again — as, indeed, have those of The Score as a whole. It’s an album that manages to be both melodic and easygoing, and also full of both social consciousness and discontent.

1997: Grandaddy — Under the Western Freeway

This is one of your correspondent’s all-time favorite melancholy summer albums — it’s music for sitting on the porch on a humid night, drinking beer and listening to the crickets (all of which are things that Jason Lytle actually does on this record).

1998: Gomez — Bring It On

If you didn’t know, you’d never guess that Gomez hailed from the north of England — their blues-influenced skanking sounds like it should be soundtracking lazy summer days in the Deep South, and Ben Ottewell’s preternaturally gravelly baritone sounded liked it should be emerging from a weathered 60-year-old, not someone you’d gently elbow aside to get to the bar at the student union. But however incongruous its creators appeared, this album is perfect for a summer day in someone’s back garden.

1999: The Flaming Lips — The Soft Bulletin

Both one of the best summer records of the 1990s, and the best records period. It’s full of warmth and light, the musical equivalent of stepping from a cold room into the sun, which only makes its profound meditations on the nature of love and existence all the more compelling. (Also, pro tip: even for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy getting stoned, smoking a spliff to “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” on a sunny day is pretty damn awesome.)

2000: The Avalanches — Since I Left You

This was the sound of the post-millennial summer in Australia, and pretty much everywhere else to boot — a genuinely groundbreaking sample-based album that displays both dizzying technical wizardry and a keen eye for a melody. Meanwhile, it’s been 13 years and counting for a follow-up.

2001: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci — How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart

Gentle psychedelic folk music from a hugely underrated band. Some 30 years after “Here Comes the Sun,” Gorky’s captured a similar feeling, the sense of sitting on a heath on a northern European summer’s day at the moment when the sun breaks through the clouds, and the landscape lights up, and everything is beautiful.

2002: The Polyphonic Spree — The Beginning Stages of…

Look, say what you like about the Polyphonic Spree’s uncomfortably cultish schtick, but if you don’t feel some sense of creeping joy when listening to “It’s the Sun” or “Reach for the Sun” as the sun rises above the horizon at the beginning of a beautiful day, well, you’ve got a harder heart than me.

2003: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros — Streetcore

The final statement the world would hear from Joe Strummer, and one of his best. The sound of summer is all over this album, from the dusty roadside notes of “Coma Girl” to the hot summer nights of “Get Down Moses” and “Arms Aloft” and the urban poetry of “Burning Streets.” And then, of course, there’s “Long Shadow” (above) — originally written for Johnny Cash, the song’s very title is an evocation of the sun, and also functions as a sad but beautiful summation of Strummer’s own career.

2004: Iron and Wine — Our Endless Numbered Days

Just a little more melancholia, if you’ll indulge me. Sam Beam’s most recent records have been rather too polished for my liking, but this one was the perfect tipping point between the lo-fi charms of his early work and the more radio-friendly sheen of their successors, and it’s gorgeous. The imagery of the deep south permeates its lyrics — bouganvilleas, long grass, lazy insects buzzing languidly by — and even the cover artwork seems to capture Beam laying back on the grass in the sun, an image both pretty and mildly discomfiting (is he sleeping? Dead?)

2005: Sleater-Kinney — The Woods

Carrie Brownstein used to be in a pretty awesome band, y’know.

2006: Lily Allen — Alright, Still

It’s easy to sneer at Lily Allen — the MySpace stardom, the fact that having Keith Allen for a father makes a pop career a whole lot easier — but whatever you say about her, she writes some killer pop songs. “LDN,” in particular, is as breezily catchy a summer song as you could ever hope for, and the whole record is jammed with similarly jaunty and sunny melodies, all leavened with a healthy dose of sly cynicism and distinctly English humor.

2007: LCD Soundsystem — Sound of Silver

“All My Friends” is perhaps the best ode to summer party alienation that anyone’s ever penned — “When you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tanned/ You think over and over, hey, I’m finally dead” — and this entire album can serve as the soundtrack to both such summer parties and the inevitable hangover the next day.

2008: Lindstrøm — Where You Go, I Go Too

Turn on, tune in, bliss out.

2009: Animal Collective — Merriweather Post Pavilion

Famously released in January of 2009, which only meant that everyone had the best part of six months to anoint “My Girls” that year’s song of the summer before the summer came along. And it was, obviously.

2010: Beach House — Teen Dream

The year in which it seemed like everyone went out of their way to make a summer album, perhaps spurred by the unlikely success of The Drums’ Summertime the year before (yes, Wavves and Best Coast, I mean you). In the event, though, it was a band whose moniker suggested that they’d always set out to do something similar who ended up making the year’s defining summer record, despite the fact that they’d previously spent their entire career avoiding doing so. Confused? So were Beach House fans.

2011: Woods — Sun and Shade

This could just as easily have gone to last year’s distinctly summery Bend Beyond, but there’s something compellingly ambivalent about Sun and Shade — as its title suggests, it addresses both light and the absence of light, and is all the more interesting for doing so. It’s an album for the end of summer, or perhaps just those early summer days where you’re willing the clouds not to creep across the sun and remind you how cold the air is.

2012: Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city

Everyone seemed to want to anoint Japandroids’ Celebration Rock as the official sound of the 2012 summer, which only goes to show how many people out there still harbor a bewildering affection for Anthemic Punk Rock™. Really, there was only one choice, and it was the best hip hop album of the year, an album that’s as quintessentially West Coast as it gets, with all the imagery that implies — where else, for instance, would you get a song about alcoholism that’s a) curiously upbeat and b) revolves around the image of diving into a swimming pool full of booze? Truly, LA, you are not like the rest of the world.

2013: Over to you…

Well, summer’s only started, so it’s hard to call a definitive summer album this early. Charli XCX? That Jai Paul record that might come out at some point? Yeezus? Or something else entirely? Let us know what you think in the comment section.