Everyone probably has certain albums that they associate with a certain mood - their favorite breakup album, their favorite blow-out-the-car-speakers album, their favorite soundtrack to seduction, and so on. The rise of iTunes has enabled the obsessive among us to easily program our own playlists to capture a certain mood, the unfortunate side-effect being a constant urge before I go anywhere to put together the assemblage of songs that would provide the ideal soundtrack for the event. One playlist I take very seriously is my annual Summer Jams playlist, an exhaustive search through my music library to find the best music for bumming around Massachusetts on hot, sunny days.
The problem is that it’s difficult to articulate what gives a song the indefinable essence of a certain season. It’s more of a feeling than any concrete aspect of the music or lyrics. So, in the interest of figuring out why I psychologically associate certain types of songs with the season, here’s some jams that connect to some aspect of my experience over the summer break these past few years.
Peter Bjorn and John’s new album is the embodiment of fun, breezy pop, and many of the tracks off of it will be accompanying my commute to work in June. This song hits all the main criteria for a fun summer jam. It’s fun and easy to sing along to, it’s impossible not to move to, and it has little ambition beyond being pure, sugary bliss. Most importantly, it remains musically interesting in its unexpected, unusual song structure - it’s fun without being something you have to turn your mind off to enjoy.
I’ve spent a few summers teaching music to kids at a summer arts program now, and this song reminds me of the way these talented campers are always pushing themselves in the stifling heat to push ever-closer to that perfect musical moment where all the effort pays off. Last summer, one of our young singers ended up tearing through Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say,” (side note on that video: French people - you’re not helping your case by clapping on the 1 and 3 beats of a soul song. So square). By the time we reached the last chorus, this kid, probably about 12 or 13 years old, leaped into a higher register he didn’t even think he was capable of hitting. Summer may be a time for relaxation, but its also the time where many of us work hard on projects we really care about, something that becomes even more impressive when the muggy air makes you want nothing more than to collapse on the couch in front of the AC and wallow in laziness.
Any collaboration between The Supremes and The Temptations would have to be pretty terrible for me to dislike. Both groups have a great sound combining sweet call-and-response vocals with the always expansive, imaginative support of The Funk Brothers. This track, in particularly, has a beat so laid-back, it verges on feeling a little too slow, capturing that lazy, mid-afternoon lull you feel in mid-July. But when the chorus finally arrives, even Diana Ross sounds like she’s straining to belt out those incredible high melody lines. You can practically hear the sweat from the musicians exerting themselves.
One of the strangest parts about summer, especially for college students, is returning to your hometown and finding yourself surrounded by people who know you from a different time in your life. In many ways, we tend to expect people from our past to be able to pick up where we left off and keep going as if we haven’t changed at all in the interim. Besides having a killer beat and powerhouse vocals, this track has a tinge of that idea embedded in its lyrics - the pre-chorus announces “I’m not what I was last summer / Not who I was in the spring.” It’s a song about being young, but also recognizing how stupid we can be as constantly-changing, shiftless people. The chorus, after all, laments “damn these wild young hearts.”
I’m not really sure what this song is about, but it has a nice nostalgic bent to it. To me, it sounds like wandering home at sunrise after a long August night talking with your friends by a fire in someone’s backyard. Sometimes less is more, so I’ll leave you to interpret it as you will.
PS - you’ll note that I don’t tend to post mp3s to download, since that is of course illegal and I wouldn’t want to get in trouble. Instead I’ll continue posting youtube videos and trust that if you readers want to get your hands on a song I talk about, you will find some way of attaining it.