Summer Songs: Editor’s Choice

Being that this is the third time I’ve brought in this series, it’s been a challenge for me to find something new to say about summer songs each time out. Personally, I still like what I had down the first year, this idea of summer songs as encapsulating the fragility and idealism and nostalgia of the season. It’s not like I’m about to reinvent that.

However, I want to go back to my original question: what does a summer song mean? And for me, I’ve been realizing that there are at least two kinds:


What songs remind me of summer?

These aren’t necessarily songs about summer or that even came out during summer but rather, they’re songs that, for me, wiggle out the cork of a memory of summertime – a musical trigger for some time forgotten, then recovered through a song. For example, I’m almost certain that Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy” will always be associated with the summer of 2006, when I moved back to Los Angeles from the Bay Area and this song was on constant repeat through the early days of August.

There are other songs I’ve probably forgotten, summer songs from my childhood in Massachusetts or San Diego that have long faded into amnesia but might yet resurface in the right moment. However, the one song that always invokes a sensation of summer for me has been…

R.E.M.: Stand
From Green (Warner Bros, 1988)

My birthday is in mid-August (Leos, holla) and I spent the first part of the summer of 1988, practicing driving, trying to earn my learner’s permit so that when I turned 16, I could get my license ASAP and join that long parade of teenagers in Los Angeles who conflated their license with a passport to freedom. I had signed up with some random driving school out of the phonebook (no doubt “AAA Driving School” or “ABC School”) and on my second lesson, my instructor – who I thought was minorly mad for doing this – told me to get on the freeway and head West. It was my first time driving on the freeway and in L.A. no less and as you can imagine, I was a little shook.

I figured it’d be a quick jaunt down the 10 for a few miles than getting off and driving back home. Nope. He told me to keep driving: past downtown, past La Brea, past the Westside area where I live now, past Santa Monica, all the way from the 10, onto PCH and north towards Malibu. It was, to be sure, an incredible drive – scenic (and harrowing) and patient and what I remember from that drive was what was playing on the radio. Well, I remember “Stand” and that, at this point, might be the only song I can remember (pity too – I’d love to be able to say, “Yeah, I made that drive playing “Route 66” by Depeche! But honestly, I just don’t recall) but any time I’ve heard the song since, I’m taken back nearly 20 years (damn…20 years already?) to that car, to that drive, to that summer where I went from being a mere boy to…a mere boy with a driver’s license. Good times, good times.

What songs sound like summer?

This is a more amorphous – though no less valid – kind of summer song. It speaks to this idea that summer itself is all about your ideal of it vs. any actual reality. So these songs are the ones that capture what you think summer should sound like whether it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon lounger, a sweaty club night anthem or whatever tempos and attitudes come in between. For me, these songs are always changing, depending on the moment.

As I’ve written recently, I’ve really been into sweet soul songs and to me, there’s a summer-y quality to a lot of these classic, post-Chi-Lites/Impressions soul tunes. It’s not just the fragility of the voices and melodies – though that’s part of it – it’s also that so many of these songs are less about love and more about loss, about how fleeting infatuations and obsessions and romances are. And as I’ve said before, the feeling of summer is most powerful when you realize how quickly it passes; that you don’t really appreciate the magic of the season until it’s on the cusp of fading away.

For me then, the songs that sound like summer are the ones that either/both musically or/and lyrically capture that moment where loss is imminent and the desire to hold on never shines brighter. Lately, one of the songs that’s embodied this idea has been this one:

Soul Majestics: I Done Told You Baby
From 7″ (Al-Tog, 1971)

I owe a huge thanks to Joshua Alston, who is a reporter for Newsweek as well as the creator of the Joshua’s Jukebox blog. At the EMP conference this year, he presented a paper that centered on this song by Chicago’s Soul Majestics as an example of an older, now lost, form of Black masculinity – one that was open to embracing and expressing a vulnerability that few artists today are willing to cop to. As an example, he played this song by the Soul Majestics, which I had never heard before, but it quickly became an obsession, especially alongside the equally sublime “Together” by the Intruders. Even though Chicago is a long way from East L.A., there’s something about this song that screams lowrider soul to me, a tune made to float out of cars cruising under hot July suns or warm August nights, a soundtrack for falling in (or out of) love with a crush destined to fade by winter but whose memory will haunt ever summer after. So bitter. So sweet.