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Photograph: Shutterstock/Time Out

The 40 greatest summer songs of all time

From surf-rock anthems to sweaty hip-hop bangers, these are the most essential summer songs ever made

Ella Doyle
Edited by
Tim Lowery
&
Ella Doyle
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Summer is finally upon us, and that means we finally get to stop listening to sad girl music and looking out at the rain (unless you’re based in the UK, that is). Now it’s time for lively, summery bangers. The kind that make you want to drink, be merry and dance the night away. 

Luckily, summer is a pretty big genre in the music world. And though we’ve included this year’s bangers (Sabrina Carpenter, we’re looking at you), there’s got to be room for the very best golden oldies too. This list covers decades of summer jams. All you have to do is supply the drinks. Here’s our ultimate summer playlist for 2024. Enjoy!

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Best summer songs of all time, ranked

1. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by the Beatles

We know, this isn’t exactly the tune that makes you want to hit the day fests and sink vodka tonics. But it is sort of the ultimate summer banger to ever exist, if you think about it. When our cold, dark hearts get that first hit of sunshine, when we throw open the windows to see summer in bloom, that’s what this song feels like. Happy. Enchanting. Full of hope before the cold winter falls on us once again. Summer’s here, folks!

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Ella Doyle
Guides Editor

2. ‘Espresso’ by Sabrina Carpenter

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Liv Kelly
Contributing Writer
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3. ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ by Roy Ayers

‘My life, my life, my life, my life / In the sunshine’ – summertime odes don’t come much simpler, sweeter or sexier than this 1976 slow jam by jazz vibraphonist turned soul sensation Roy Ayers. Even if you don’t think you know this classic tune, you've likely heard it sampled by Mary J. Blige, Common, P.M. Dawn and plenty of others.  

4. ‘Houdini’ by Dua Lipa

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Georgia Evans
Commercial Editor, Time Out
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5. ‘Summertime Sadness’ by Lana Del Ray

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India Lawrence
Contributing writer

6. ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding

Okay, so this lazy-day masterpiece, recorded mere days before Redding’s death in a plane crash, doesn’t specifically single out that it takes place during summertime. But just try to listen to the lapping waves, Redding’s whistling and singing about clearing your mind, and that lovely sonic tranquility throughout without conjuring your most relaxing summer vacation.

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7. ‘Von Dutch’ by Charli XCX

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Georgia Evans
Commercial Editor, Time Out

8. ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac

Let’s be real: there’s a hell of a lot of Fleetwood Mac songs that could appear on this list. Their songs reek of summer, only to be played once it’s light out past 9pm and the BBQ’s been resurrected from its grave. But ‘Everywhere’, in my opinion, is the ultimate summer tune, to be sung while dancing around with your pals in the garden after many wines. It’s fun, it’s feel-good, and it truly never gets old. 

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Ella Doyle
Guides Editor
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9. ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers

Sun, rain or hurricane, it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, cue up this classic gem from revered soul man Bill Withers and you’ll agree that it is indeed a lovely day. Fun fact: Near the end of the song, Withers holds a single note for 18 seconds, which is purportedly the longest note in a U.S. Top 40 single in history. We can only assume the tune’s inescapable buoyancy is what lifted him to such a feat. 

10. ‘Summertime’ by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

‘Summertime’ is a gorgeous lie. As written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward for the seminal 1935 American folk opera Porgy & Bess, it’s a lullaby sung by a poor young mother in the slums of South Carolina, assuring her child of a tranquil world that is nowhere around them. (Fish don’t jump on Catfish Row, and the living sure as hell isn’t easy.) Originally sung in a classical soprano range, ‘Summertime’ has been reinvented in many modes, including Janis Joplin’s achingly desperate 1968 account. But it’s hard to beat the warm, soothing version that Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded for their 1957 Porgy & Bess album. Curled in the warm voices of these peerless vocalists, you’re transported to a gentler place, with the Daddy and Mammy of jazz standing by.

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11. ‘Baianá’ by Nia Archives

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Georgia Evans
Commercial Editor, Time Out

12. ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys

Teeming with key shifts, complex harmonies and unorthodox instrumentation (it features a cello, a jaw harp and an electrotheremin), this Beach Boys classic was a feat of both composition and production. It took seven months, four different recording studios and over $50,000 to create this sunny masterpiece. 

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13. ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves

Just try not to bop your body when the brass kicks in at the ten-second mark of this jolt of pure pop joy. Katrina and the Waves’ 1985 radio hit isn’t literally about summer at all; it’s about the excitement of awaiting a visit from someone you love (and the thrill of knowing that he or she loves you in the first place). But the song’s irresistible feel-good energy suggests that summer is less a season than a state of mind that can be tapped into anytime – even, in the original music video, on a cold and cloudy day.

14. ‘School’s Out for Summer’ by Alice Cooper

These days, shock-rock godfather Alice Cooper’s idea of summertime fun is hitting the links at some tony country club. But back in 1972, Cooper and his rough-and-tumble band perfectly captured the rowdy spirit of the last day of school – which Cooper rated as second only to Christmas as the most important day on the calendar.

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15. ‘Summer Breeze’ by Seals and Crofts

Nothing says summer like a little harmony-driven folk-pop, and this 1972 AM Gold staple epitomizes that mini movement about as well as any track we could name. We’re not sure what Jim Seals and Dash Crofts were getting at when they sang of the
‘jasmine in my mind’ – or what strain of weed might’ve inspired that trippy turn of phrase – but there’s no resisting the bittersweet tug of this tune, covered by everyone from Cincinnati soul faves the Isley Brothers to '90s goth-metal masters Type O Negative. 

16. ‘It’s Summer’ by Gladys Knight & the Pips

‘I can just feel that soft summer breeze,’ sings the aptly nicknamed Empress of Soul in this cut about finally – finally –welcoming the warm weather, as strings swirl against a syruppy groove and, of course, the Pips doing their thing.   

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17. ‘Dancing in the Street’ by Martha and the Vandellas

Martha and the Vandellas appear elsewhere on this with their 1963 Motown breakthrough, ‘Heat Wave.’ But their even more enduring contribution to the estival catalog is 1964’s ‘Dancing in the Street,’ an exuberant call to booty-shaking action cowritten by a young Marvin Gaye (who also played drums on the recording). In this case, it’s not love that brings a sense of summer, but summer that brings a sense of love: an occasion for people ‘across the nation’ and ‘around the world’ to join in celebration. This democratic attitude took on civil-rights overtones when ‘Dancing in the Street’ was appropriated as an unofficial anthem of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. But Martha Reeves insisted that it was not intended in that spirit. ‘My Lord, it was a party song,’ she said, and whatever else it might have become, no one can argue with that.

18. ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ by Sly and the Family Stone

Released in August 1969, ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ by funk trailblazers Sly and the Family Stone dropped at the height of the band’s career, after its legendary performance at Woodstock earlier that summer. It even landed the group the No. 2 spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, as well as No. 3 on the Billboard soul charts in the autumn of 1969. And how could it not? The song’s happy-go-lucky melody, coupled with frontman Sly Stone’s soulful tone, makes for a tune that perfectly encapsulates the mood of every summertime to come in a just a two-and-a-half-minute time span.

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19. ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly

For summer ’02 pretty much the entire planet was Nellyville, and the St. Louis rapper exhorted people of all genders (but mostly women) to strip down for their own good. A typical first response would be apprehension – from the man with the Band-aid on his face?  But logically speaking, his argument follows (if heat, then no clothes), and he was smart enough to tap the Neptunes for the song's frisky production. After enough listens, it's impossible not to agree, whether your ‘herre’ is a sweaty club, a hot summer night or, the argument could be made, anywhere on our globally warming earth. Hot, it certainly is.

20. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ by the Kinks

This is 1966 anthem is probably the only tune on the list that doubles as a tongue-in-cheek protest against high progressive taxation: ‘The taxman’s taken all my dough, and left me in my stately home,’ sighs Ray Davies's bon vivant narrator, adding, ‘And I can’t sail my yacht, he’s taken everything I’ve got.’ Wry and funny, ‘Sunny Afternoon’ is also one hell of a summer tune. From its languid melodies to Davies’s hypnotic vocals, we might as well all be ‘lazin’’ – or ‘blazin’’ depending on how you hear it– ‘on a sunny afternoon in the summertime.’

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21. ‘Water Get No Enemy’ by Fela Kuti

Pretty much any selection from the oeuvre of the revered godfather of afrobeat would suffice for setting a funky, chilled-out vibe at an afternoon shindig, but this cut from Kuti's lauded 12th studio album, Expensive Shit, is probably his best known. Clocking in at eleven minutes, a full five and a half minutes pass before Kuti even sings a note. By the time he does, there’s no escaping the groove. 

22. ‘Summertime’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Before rushing the stage at the Oscars and proving himself the ultimate Wife Guy, Will Smith just wanted to kick it in the park in a Speed Racer shirt with half the population of Philadelphia around him and reminisce about chasing girls, driving slow and eating barbecue at the family reunion. Maybe the only Big Willie hit that’s persisted as an unironic classic, ‘Summertime’ literally sounds like summer in the city, the chill-as-hell beat - sampled from Kool and the Gang’s ‘Summer Madness’ - radiating like heat off a sidewalk.

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23. ‘Cruel Summer’ by Taylor Swift

With an unlikely assist by indie glam-pop shapeshifter St. Vincent, Swift’s standout Lover track is slice of blissed out agit-pop lucidity. Producer Jack Antonoff seemingly channels French electronic hero Kavinsky, of all people, and adds a dose of sugary sweetness to the pulsing beat, allowing Taylor’s increasingly manic delivery to spill over into a controlled tailspin of frustration across the boardwalk without ever losing control.  You can practically hear Olivia Rodrigo taking notes in the background. 

24. ‘Sun is Shining’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers

This track might open with the reggae icon singing, ‘Sun is shining, the weather is sweet / Make you want to move your dancing feet,’ but it’s more likely to inspire you to lay outside with a frosty beverage in hand than get down. Mellow even by Marley & Co.’s standards, it's a perfect soundtrack choice for a chilled-out afternoon.

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25. ‘That Summer Feelin’’ by Jonathan Richman

No one does wistful nostalgia and pure, unadulterated joy quite like Jonathan Richman, the reformed punk godfather turned wide-eyed purveyor of childlike wonder. Still, there’s a knowing edge to Richman’s recollections: ‘That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life.’

26. ‘It Was a Good Day’ by Ice Cube

A few years ago, internet sleuths deduced that the specific ‘good day’ described in this gangsta rap classic was actually a random Monday in January. But hey, in Southern California, pretty much every day is summer, especially when you’re Ice Cube. Over a slow-stepping Isley Brothers sample, the usually scowling ex-NWAer details an exceptionally blessed 24 hours, one with no ham, no pigs, a romp with a high school crush and a Fatburger nightcap.  

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27. ‘Watermelon Sugar’ by Harry Styles

‘Tastes like strawberries on a summer evening,’ Harry Styles croons seductively on this low-key funk banger about his love for delicious, vitamin-enriched fruits in the sun. Wait… this is about sex, isn't it? 

28. ‘Summer in the City’ by the Lovin’ Spoonful

The Lovin’ Spoonful begins its brilliant rock portrait of urban mood swings in a prelude of pent-up anticipation. Three quick pullbacks on the musical slingshot, each followed by a bang of drums like a backfiring car – and then it’s straight into the fast lane, with hard-driving verses that barely come up for air. In tautly evocative language, the song limns a Jekyll & Hyde portrait of a city split into sweltering days (‘All around, people looking half dead / Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head’) and cool, exhilarating nights of randy tomcats on the prowl. Real street sounds (car horns, a jackhammer) add texture to the midsong musical interlude, which lets the song catch its breath before launching back to its urgent rhythms. 

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29. ‘Rock the Boat’ by Aaliyah

Ok, this one if very certainly not about the joys of mariner life.  Aaliyah’s horned-up slow jam makes Harry Styles sound like a master of subtlety, and the R&B groove makes this the perfect dockside summer jam. Or, more accurately, a great song for when you go below the deck.

30. ‘Saturday in the Park’ by Chicago

According to fellow Chicago founding member Walter Parazaider, Robert Lamm penned this 1972 single after a particularly inspiring jaunt through Central Park, while the band was in NYC recording their fifth studio effort, Chicago V. The song remains one of the outfit’s signature tunes and, as you maybe could have guessed, the perfect soundtrack for a sunny afternoon in the park.

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31. ‘California Gurls’ by Katy Perry

You can’t help but jam out to the absurdly cheery, bubblegum-smacking melody and catchy lyrics in this global megahit (featuring Snoop Dogg, no less). Perfect for driving down the highway with your windows down, ‘California Gurls’ is a summer tune for the ages, even if you are a die-hard, true-blue New Yorker. (It's a retort track to Jay-Z’s and Alicia Keys’ NYC anthem ‘Empire State of Mind.’)

32. ‘Heat Wave’ by Snail Mail

‘Heat wave, nothing to do / Woke up in my clothes having dreamt of you,’ sings Lindsey Jordan mournfully, before she and the rest of the band kick things up a notch to achieve an enjoyable, '90s-indie vibe. 

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33. ‘Hot Girl Summer’ by Megan Thee Stallion featuring Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign

When two of hip-hop's reigning queens declare it to be ‘Hot Girl Summer,’ then dammit it's hot girl summer... every single time the song comes on, from here to eternity, whether it’s summer or not. The song is well on its way to enjoying the same perrennial status as Will Smith’s ‘Summertime,’ only this time things are about as far away from Smith's G-rated beach bumming as you can get... unless that G has a string attached.

34. ‘Cruel Summer’ by Bananarama

To any fan of The Karate Kid – in which this icily funky 1983 dance-pop hit soundtracked Daniel LaRusso’s disastrous attempt to fit in at his new high school – ‘Cruel Summer’ will forever symbolize those sweltering dog days when the sun’s beating down and you just can’t catch a break. To everyone else, it’s a ready-made anthem for whatever warm-weather blues might have you bumming.

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35. ‘Summer Madness’ by Kool & the Gang

Madness isn’t exactly the emotional state that this gorgeous, easygoing 1974 instrumental track evokes; instead, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a sultry afternoon spent lazing in the park. Its swooning synth, shimmering Rhodes piano and hazy-day melody have been sampled countless times – notably for DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s ode to backyard barbecuing, ‘Summertime’ – but more than that, the track has served as inspiration for pretty much every chill-out act worth its downtempo groove, from Air to Zero 7.

36. ‘Summer Rain’ by Johnny Rivers

‘All summer long, we spent dancin’ in the sand,’ sings rock & roller Johnny Rivers on this urgent, romantic 1967 hit, ‘and the jukebox kept on playin’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ While your teenage, sandy embraces may have been soundtracked by something far more modern, it’s a blissful head trip to imagine yourself in the middle of this song.

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37. ‘Be Thankful for What You Got’ by William DeVaughn

There’s no escaping the smooth allure of this tune’s signature line, ‘Diamond in the back, sunroof top/ Diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean.’ Ludacris, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Parliament-Funkadelic, Massive Attack and Rihanna have all referenced the 1974 hit by the little-known Washington D.C. singer-songwriter, who may as well have been singing to New Yorkers when he said, ‘You may not have a car at all… Just be thankful for what you’ve got.’ Come summertime, that’s plenty.

38. ‘Ask’ by the Smiths

‘Spending warm summer days indoors…’ Oh, you know the type – maybe you’ve been the type – the kind of melancholically minded, poetic youth who simply can’t risk your delicate complexion or even more delicate disposition in the dazzle of sunshine and the risk of actual fun. Morrissey – the scrooge of summer – we salute you for this 1986 Smiths classic, urging shy types to come on out of their shells: ‘If there’s something you’d like to try, ask me, I won’t say no, how could I.’ It is summer, after all.

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39. ‘In the Sun’ by Blondie

Turns out the Ramones weren’t the only New Yorkers who yearned to hit the beach.… This deep cut from Blondie's debut LP conjures rolling waves and warm nights effortlessly, thanks in part to twangy surf guitars and Clem Burke’s rumbling drums.

40. ‘I Know Where the Summer Goes’ by Belle and Sebastian

Yes, summer is fun, but good gosh can it be melancholy, too. Beloved Scottish indie troupe Belle and Sebastian won over legions of sensitive fans with this swoonsome number from 1998 EP This Is Just a Modern Rock Song. As if its odd little Proustian sensory rushes weren’t enough (‘the smell of hot desk’), just get two minutes into the song, when angelically voiced Stuart Murdoch sings a line where ‘flowering cherries rain on kids like you’ – and all the music stops for just long enough to stall your heart. 

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