Billboard released the top song of the summer for each of the past 30 years, from Richard Marx to Nelly to Katy Perry.
The “song of the summer” has become an institution and, with June being here and all, I thought it would be a good time to look back at all of the past songs of the summer — and judge ’em.
Billboard recently released lists of the top (aheam) 10 songs that had the best performance on the Hot 100 charts between Memorial Day and Labor Day in each of the past 30 years. The number one song on each was that year’s song of the summer.
I ranked all 30 songs of the summer from best to worst, roughly using three criteria: Overall song quality (as a pop song, not as a fine music composition); its fit into the summer “vibe”; and how well it captured the cultural zeitgeist of its moment.
1 | Hot in Herre by Nelly, 2002
This was a surprisingly pretty easy pick for the best song of the summer on. It was a ridiculously catchy hit with the exact right vibe/theme/tone for a summer song. It’s also a perfect snapshot into the moment in time, the blending of post-9/11 escapism with corporate-approved strategic hedonism that would go on to drive much of the pop culture of the 2000s.
2 | Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen, 2012
This song virtually written in stone as one of the biggest pop hits of the current decade. And since everyone reading this can (hopefully) remember back three years, this song was everywhere. It has the proper upbeat tone as well.
3 | Alone by Heart, 1987
The best song on the list (go ahead, argue that point, I dare you). I gave it this high ranking even though it beat out a slightly more summer-y song in Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
4 | Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx, 1989
One of the most enduring songs of the ’80s; still, to this day, managing to hit the sweet spot between ironic and genuine appreciation. It also rescued a weak field in a weak year; Martika’s Toy Soldiers was second?
5 | I’ll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, 112, 1997
A real cultural touchstone moment. If you trace back when rap started making its ascent toward becoming the primary form of pop music it is today, this song might be it. And that’s big talk from me, since it beat out SO many songs that were more fitting of being a “song of the summer,” from MMMBop to Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).
6 | Waterfalls by TLC, 1995
I love this song — I recently devoted an entire post to 11 reasons why you should go chasing waterfalls. The song is getting a little close to a modern jumping of the shark, but it remains a cream-of-the-crop song from an era with a lot of enduring pop music. (It notably beat out Kiss From a Rose, Water Runs Dry, and Run-Around, among others.)
7 | (Everything I Do) I Do It For You by Bryan Adams, 1991
I have vivid memories of this song’s debut in 1991, when it was on every radio station 24 hours a day. (It would go on to fare far better than the movie it came from, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.) It was as ubiquitous as any song on this list (even Call Me Maybe). However, it’s egregious that Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince only came in eighth this same year. What were we thinking? How could THAT not be the song of the summer?
8 | I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas, 2009
It’s definitely a catchy party song, but I knocked it down a bit because I don’t think it really vaults anyone back to its specific summer (like the above songs all do). Still, it deserves a hearty “mazel tov.”
9 | Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot, 1992
I’m trying to look past how played out this has gone on to be (read more about that in my list of songs from past decades that got played out in the 2000s), but I couldn’t rank it above any of the previous songs. 1992 was an odd transitional year for music, which is evident in the wildly eclectic list of runners-up — everything from Boyz II Men’s End of the Road to Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain to Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart.
10 | California Gurls by Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg, 2010
Demerits because this was manufactured specifically to BE a song of the summer. Yeah, we all let it happen, but still. How ’bout some integrity?
11 | Vision of Love by Mariah Carey, 1990
I loved early Mariah Carey at the time and this song is still one of the crown jewels of her very long career. It also benefited from a weak-ish field; New Kids on the Block’s Step by Step came in second, and that was after they’d peaked.
12 | Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, 2013
13 | Macarena by Los Del Rio, 1996
Yes, it’s super dumb, but at least one of the past 30 summers deserved its own dance craze.
14 | Umbrella by Rihanna feat. Jay-Z, 2007
15 | Crazy in Love by Beyonce feat. Jay-Z, 2003
16 | I Swear by All-4-One, 1994
17 | Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO, 2011
Should NOT have beaten Pitbull’s Give Me Everything.
18 | Genie in a Bottle by Christina Aguilera, 1999
19 | Roll With It by Steve Winwood, 1988
20 | Promiscuous by Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland, 2006
Perhaps underrated. Seems like it almost won by default, although Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie is a worthy competitor.
21 | I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry, 2008
22 | Bent by Matchbox Twenty, 2000
I liked Matchbox Twenty well enough at the time, but couldn’t even remember how Bent goes. It beat out ‘N Sync’s It’s Gonna Be Me, which feels incorrect.
23 | Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna, 1986
A weak Madonna entry, plus it just beat out Peter Cetera’s Glory of Love which is, perhaps, the most infuriating loss of the entire three decades.
24 | Fancy by Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, 2014
25 | We Belong Together by Mariah Carey, 2005
Early Mariah was great. Not sure how later Mariah slipped in here.
26 | Can’t Help Falling In Love by UB40, 1993
Over Tag Team’s Whoomp! (There It Is)!?
27 | Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve feat. Gwen Stefani, 2001
28 | Shout by Tears For Fears, 1985
An inauspicious debut to the song of the summer metric. The Power of Love from Huey Lewis and the News was third.
29 | Confessions Part 2 by Usher, 2004
The list for 2004 is comically mediocre (Hoobastank is fourth), and this is its particularly mediocre king.
30 | The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica, 1998
Horrible song, zero percent summer-y, should never be spoken of again.
And that brings us to this summer. Fortunately, we’re at the tail end of the Uptown Funk era and it should avoid polluting the top of summer charts. The only eligible number one thus far is Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood, and I can’t see that going the distance. It’s wide open! Someone call the Fresh Prince and page DJ Jazzy Jeff to tell them to slap together a reboot to earn their rightful crown.