As classic an earworm as Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” is, one cannot subsist on it alone all season long. “Boys of Summer” has lost its charm by the end of June. And with all due respect, The Beach Boys’ view of the summertime — cute girls, cars, surfing — is pretty narrow. But that’s not to say songs about the summer — and by extension, sunny days, the beach, and all that accompanies them — are all clichés. From “White Light/White Heat” to “1979,” here are 25 “alternative” summer songs that still get the job done.
Weezer — “Island In The Sun”
Weezer are chock-full of alternative summer anthems, from “Holiday” and “Surf Wax America” off Blue Album to Green Album single “Island In The Sun.” The latter takes the cake, however, with its homage to running away and never feeling bad anymore. The sunshine-y video filled with cute baby animals doesn’t hurt, either.
Alice Cooper — “School’s Out”
It doesn’t matter how old you are, summer and freedom are linked in the minds of many. Thanks to Cooper’s teasing chants, maniacal percussion, and an unmistakable riff, the invincibility felt by those under 18 has an eternal theme song. God bless the Cool Dads who continue to blast this song for their kids on the last day of school.
Len — “Steal My Sunshine”
As the 1990s came to a close, we were reminded once again that it was truly the Decade of Alternative when Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” became 1999’s Song of the Summer. What started as a sleeper hit on indie radio for the Toronto alt-rockers would go on to remind the masses that Andrea True’s “More, More, More” (which it sampled) was one helluva disco gem.
The B-52’s — “Roam”
The biggest hits from The B-52’s are all great summer songs, from the hedonism of “Love Shack” to the summers-at-the-Cape flair of “Rock Lobster.” Then there’s “Roam,” a song that, instead of laying out a specific plan of attack for achieving fun, encourages adventure in whatever form it takes. If you’re lucky enough to carve out the time to take a road trip this summer, “Roam” deserves a spot on the accompanying playlist.
The Velvet Underground — “White Light/White Heat”
Before you leave a comment proclaiming my stupidity, allow me to say: I know this song is about shooting up. Rid your mind of everything you know about VU and hard drugs, and on the next truly blazing summer day, listen to “White Light/White Heat” and try staring at the sun for just a moment. It’s nice — for just a moment.
The Hold Steady — “Constructive Summer”
A double whiskey and Coke with no ice is not a refreshing drink to order in 100-degree heat, but at the reckless urging of Hold Steady leader Craig Finn, it is something I have done. On 2008’s Stay Positive, Finn and co. wrote an homage to laboring under the hot sun. Use your hands, earn that booze, do it again for the next two and half months.
Vampire Weekend — “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
Vampire Weekend’s debut glorifies an East Coast undergrad world most of us did not have the luxury of experiencing. With “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” we got a sneak peak at the summers spent running around in Topsiders and Benetton with Kennedy kids.
Violent Femmes — “Blister in the Sun”
The Violent Femmes’ enduring hit gives off a specific visual that’s a bit gross if you mull it too much, so it’s best if you don’t overthink the lyrics (no, they’re not about masturbation). But the appeal of this 1983 hit lies within the interplay between its snare drum hits and its twisty acoustic guitar riff. If I had only five seconds to capture the sound of summer, it would be the opening of “Blister in the Sun.”
Best Coast — “Summer Mood”
The summer is not all fun and games. The heat can make your skin crawl and your brain itch. There’s little worse than trying to pout and sticking to the furniture. Best Coast gets this.
Wilco — “Heavy Metal Drummer”
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has no shortage of over-the-top moments, but few are as jubilant as “Heavy Metal Drummer.” It’s the high-energy emotional reprieve from songs like “Ashes of American Flags,” but that’s not to say “Heavy Metal Drummer” is totally frivolous either. “I miss the innocence I’ve known,” Jeff Tweedy sings, striking a note, “Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.”
The Breeders — “Cannonball”
Nothing feels better on a hot day than a fearless cannonball in the deep end. The Breeders manage to match the raw exhilaration of such a moment in their signature song, off 1993’s brilliant Last Splash.
Buffalo Tom — “Summer”
Nineties alt-rock favorites Buffalo Tom capture the youthful frittering of warm months in this wistful 1995 hit. Few songs capture the slow, slight dread of the last few days of summer vacation like “Summer” does with its angsty riffs.
Lou Reed — “Perfect Day”
Whether the “you” in “you just keep me hanging on” in “Perfect Day” is heroin or a companion is irrelevant. Reed’s ambiguity makes the song an anthem to many, even — at most frivolous extreme — those searching for a flawless summer weekend spent drinking sangria in the park. A good day is nothing if not an escape.
Pavement — “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”
This being Pavement and all, Stephen Malkmus’ semi-sensical lyrics have been dissected to shit through the years. With regards to the opening track on Pavement’s classic ’92 debut, Slanted and Enchanted, what we can be sure about is that there was a girl who ate up his summer. Some say it’s a girl he pined over all season, others say it was a seasonal fling he’s reminiscing over by the time winter comes.
The Ramones — “Rockaway Beach”
Rockaway Beach would likely only be someone’s New York beach of choice if they were factoring in its subway accessibility, so it feels like an appropriate landmark for commemoration by New York’s quintessential punks. Adopting a surf-rock style, The Ramones seemed like distant cousins the Wilson brothers were barred from seeing after they returned to the West Coast with rap sheets and leather jackets.
TV On The Radio — “Forgotten”
Commentary on celebrity culture and its obsession with physical perfection comes packaged in a song about living for the summer, off TVOTR’s 2011 album, Nine Types of Light. Contempt for the season has never sounded so magnetic, glamor has never sounded so moody.
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers — “Ice Cream Man”
The late-1970s redux of the Modern Lovers, dubbed Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, spawned a remarkable eight albums over the course of 12 years. Few of those lived up to the greatness of the first two proper Modern Lovers LPs, but there are gems tucked throughout, such as “Ice Cream Man.” It’s a goofy, jangly doo-wop ditty with a mean triangle part, an ode to a child’s favorite person come summertime.
The Kinks — “Sunny Afternoon”
Summer songs are often thought of as the soundtrack to frivolity, but The Kinks balance a cheery track with political satire on “Sunny Afternoon.” The rich can barely afford their yachts with all the taxman’s demands — how are they supposed to enjoy their lazy summer days?
The Go-Go’s — “Vacation”
Paradise has never sounded so bummer. On 1982 hit “Vacation,” the Go-Go’s give voice to getting away from, and subsequently missing, someone who may or may not be breaking your heart. The only consolation are all those Mai Tais and the song’s toe-tappin’ good fun.
The Smashing Pumpkins — “1979”
While not a song about the summer per se, “1979” remains one of the finest odes to the invincibility and frustration of youth. More than any other age group, those still in school — high schoolers in particular — have a special relationship with the summer. “With the headlights pointed at the dawn/ We were sure we’d never see an end to it all,” Billy Corgan sings. Good or bad, it’s a sentiment that never felt more true than it did when you were 17, driving around with the windows open, so free yet so careless.
Primal Scream — “Higher Than the Sun”
In what is likely the sexiest track on this playlist, Scottish alt-rockers Primal Scream walk us through a sensual trip to the edge. The sun serves merely as a comparison point in this 1991 single, off Primal Scream’s breakthrough Screamadelica, but there’s some small bit of the Summer Attitude amidst the acid house: “I live just for today/ I don’t care about tomorrow.”
Friendly Fires — “Jump in the Pool”
The second single from UK dance-punks Friendly Fires works on two levels: an ode to hurling your body into the deep end, or an homage to taking a risk in your personal life. Both are quite on brand for summertime, if I do say so myself.
Modest Mouse — “Ocean Breathes Salty”
One of the thematically heavier songs on this playlist, “Ocean Breathes Salty” features some of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock’s sharpest commentary on religion. He questions those who dedicate their lives to forces they can’t see, juxtaposing it to nature’s clear truths: the ocean breathes salty. A loftier topic to consider next time you’re sunbathing at the beach, I suppose.
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon”
It’s hard to believe Young released “Harvest Moon” in 1992 when it sounds like a gem from his ’70s prime. But the wisdom within the ballad, among Young’s most beautiful, shows that this is a man who has lived, loved, and lost. “Harvest Moon” is not about the summer at all, except to say that Young wants to dance under the moonlight. Where he lives in Northern California, that’s a desire for any season. For those of us who live with four seasons, it’s reserved for the balmy nights of summer.
Wavves — “King of the Beach”
Guys, it’s a song called “King of the Beach” by a band named Wavves. If you don’t get why this is a summer song, god help ya.
And here’s all 25 in a Spotify playlist, for blasting at the beach or barbecue.