What is the greatest summer song of all time? There's only one way to do this, and that's with brackets.
All illustrations by Meaghan Garvey. Click image for hi-res.
In this great nation of ours, the time between June and August serves as the ideal time frame to stop caring about serious things and instead listen to the music that makes you the happiest in the simplest ways. In American nomenclature, we call these special songs the summer jams. We care not about where they came from; we merely appreciate the fact that they exist and help bring us together for barbeques, beach parties, joy rides with the windows down, shameless solo dance parties on the subway, or post-ironic wistful reflection.
So in tribute of the last month of the summer of 2013, I decided to create a bracket to once and for all establish what the greatest summer jam since 1980 is. Why 1980? Well, there’s only 4 branches on a bracket and we wanted to serve the most recent decades fully, but also despite titans like “Low Rider,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” and “Fly Like an Eagle,” the summer jam didn’t fully realize its potential until the synthesizer became a primary instrument.
Basically I’ve taken 16 exemplary summer jams from the ‘10s, ‘00s, ‘90s, and ‘80s, and have seeded them based on a preliminary idea of how strongly they’re favored in competition. So, instead of Duke at a #1 seed, it’s “Get Lucky” at a #1 seed. You can see the full bracket below. Over the next few weeks, these songs will be matched up against each other and eliminated one by one. Eventually, at the end of August, we will have crowned the greatest summer jam since 1980. While ideally we would have instituted some sort of overarching scientific formula to determine sonic greatness, part of the beauty of summer jams is sometimes what should work doesn’t, and sometimes what shouldn’t work does. This round, the verdicts were decided by me, but later editions will feature a voting panel of highly specialized specialists who will lend their expertise to to determine the winners.
I tried to maintain a sense of vague objectivity, but ultimately a great summer jam is like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Or hear it. Whatever. Time for Round One! 64 songs enter, 32 leave.
Click image for hi-res. In addition to Meaghan Garvey's INSANE art for this, we've assembled a Spotify playlist of our jams, so now they can be your jams too.
2010s - YOLO/Swag Bracket
#1 Daft Punk - “Get Lucky” vs. #16 Chief Keef - “I Don’t Like”
Look, you’re going to need to bring a whole lot of firepower if you’re toppling “Get Lucky.” Not that Chief Keef is a pushover or anything, but Niles Rodgers plays a guitar strung with unicorn hair, the robots paint rhythms out of pure titanium, and Pharrell is either singing about Greek mythology or scheming on girls in the club or both. I mean, “Get Lucky’s” music video is in front of a goddamn sunset.Daft Punk specifically built this song to be completely invincible in literally every single party situation throughout time, space, and dimension. While it shows Keef’s promise to be a contender in such brackets for many years to come, “I Don’t Like” never stood a chance against the masters.
Winner - “Get Lucky”
#2 Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass” vs. #15 M83 – “Midnight City”
While “Midnight City” is the ideal thing for Day Three of Lollapalooza or whatever, “Super Bass” is just as sugary without the cloying tweeness, and it’s got, “He a motherfucking trip, TRIP / sailor of the ship, SHIP,” which is categorically more fun to repeat than “waiting in the cooooold.” I mean, is there really any question what song you’d rather hear at a BBQ? (Unless you’re a boring loser. Which you are not. Probably.)
Winner – “Super Bass”
#3 Carley Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” vs. #14 Usher – “Climax”
Look, “Climax” is a great song, but does it really scream “summer jam” to you? Diplo trying to make an R&B Smiths song does not a barbeque soundtrack make, especially when it’s up against the strings on “Call Me Maybe.” Did you even know what summer was before you heard the strings on that shit? Verily, I say nay.
Winner – “Call Me Maybe”
#4 DJ Khaled (feat. Drake, Rick Ross) – “I’m On One” vs. #13 Autre Ne Veut – “Play by Play”
Have you ever ordered late night drunk food while “Play by Play” was play by playing? Because I haven’t, but I’m pretty sure we’ve all done it like a billion times when “I’m On One” was playing.
Winner – “I’m On One”
#5 Cee-Lo – “Fuck You” vs. #12 Kreayshawn – “Gucci Gucci”
This one is simple. With all due respect to the gleefully braindead “GUCCI GUCCI LOUIS LOUIS FENDI FENDI PRADA” mantra, it’s just more fun to yell the words “FUCK YOU” with your friends. It doesn’t feel right leaving a song with a line like “I’ve got the swag and it’s pumping out my ovaries” behind, but hearts have to get broken in a competition like this.
Winner – “Fuck You”
#6 Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built” vs. #11 Lady Gaga (feat. Beyonce) – “Telephone”
It’s obvious that “Telephone” is the better song for most traditional summer jam contexts. But summer jams aren’t always about having fun. Sometimes summer jams are about driving back from a party while feeling sad about a girl or boy, and turning on a song very loudly to help heal your soul. “The House That Heaven Built” is a song that unironically declares “BUT YOU’RE NOT MINE TO DIE FOR ANYMORE, SO I MUST LIVE,” which is just overflowing with such potent self-serving sappy bro-poetry bullshit that you can’t help but love it. I really think Japandroids are responsible for more specific summer memories than “Telephone,” and that makes it pretty clear who the victor should be.
Winner – “The House That Heaven Built”
#7 Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” vs. #10 Tyler the Creator – “Yonkers”
There are just too many lines. “You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me,” “We-EEE!” “With an indie record that’s MUCH cooler than mine,” “ooooooh-oo-oo-oo-ooooh,” “and I used to say, never say never…” Summer jams are generally songs that can make your mom happy too, so in this case, Tyler, the Creator loses out to the silent majority who are still grossed out by the cockroach thing.
Winner – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
#8 Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks” vs. #9 Solange – “Losing You”
This is tough, because technically “Pumped Up Kicks” is just some average fake indie song that happens to have a hell of a hook. It means you spend the entire song waiting for a 30-second chorus, but holy shit are those 30 seconds some of the most inscrutably catchy moments of your entire life. Meanwhile Solange wrote one of the top-5 greatest cruising jams ever. “Losing You” is a song that makes you want to buy a convertible just to know how it sounds with the top down. I’m pretty sure “Losing You” is a better song than “Low Rider” which is really fucking saying something.
Both these songs deserve to move on, because both will be in constant summer jam rotation for the foreseeable future. But I’m going to give “Losing You” the edge here, if only because there are some angry people in the world that still refuse to enjoy “Pumped Up Kicks,” and will totally sap your vibes while sitting sullen in the passenger’s seat. I know that’s a technicality, but as anyone who has ever watched boxing knows, sometimes that’s the only way to find a winner.
Winner – “Losing You”
2000s - Bling Bling/Crunk Bracket
#1 M.I.A. – “Paper Planes” vs. #16 Sleigh Bells – “Crown on the Ground”
We are not here to slander “Crown on the Ground,” which is a goddamn conflagrating banger that totally deserves to be on this list. But “Paper Planes” is the first seed for a reason—unifying, cross-cultural anthems that simultaneously become a lazy stoner jams while also making perfect sense in Slumdog Millionaire are once-in-a-lifetime things. Those are heights that Sleigh Bells couldn’t even dream of hitting. If you come at the king you best not miss, but Sleigh Bells had no idea they were coming at the king so it’s whatever. But they still just got their shit blown out of the fucking water.
Winner – “Paper Planes,” and may God have mercy on your soul if you disagree with me.
#2 R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)” vs. #15 Kelis – “Milkshake”
Two songs offering the same brand of everybody-to-the-floor immediacy, the kind of thing that will kill any lulls or awkwardness between strangers. The sort of go-to jams you put on when you’ve run out of ideas because they are literally perfect. “Milkshake,” of course has the immortal “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” refrain which still sounds like it was written for the internet. I’m pretty sure “Milkshake” was played during the trailer of every single American Pie movie between 2003 and 2008.
But at the end of the day, “Ignition (Remix)” is still immortal. It’s a song I’ve wanted to hear multiple times in a row, in fact I’m pretty sure we’ve all been to parties where we have heard it multiple times in a row. And the last time I checked, the line “it’s like murder she wrote, once I get you out them clothes” does not appear in “Milkshake.”
Winner – “Ignition (Remix)”
#3 Jay Z – “Big Pimpin’” vs. #14 Lil Wayne – “A Milli”
So “Big Pimpin’” is going to win this matchup because of the presence of UGK on “Big Pimpin’,” but at the same time I have a sneaking suspicion that in about 10 years “A Milli” will be far more ubiquitous at your average house party. It’s a sad fact that our future 20-somethings will have a much stronger connection with Lil Wayne than Jay Z and UGK. We can only hope that “Big Pimpin’” won’t start to sound like “My Adidas” or something. But fuck it, this song’s music video is on a yacht.
Winner – “Big Pimpin’”
#4 Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” vs. #13 Electric Six – “Danger! High Voltage!”
So “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is downright chilly. It sounds like the sort of neon dancefloor hit that bangs out of the Andromeda Galaxy. But honestly, I think I’m riding with Electric Six on this one, because I think Kylie Minogue might be a bit too on the nose here—like, the song is called “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” y’know? Its a mission statement that shouldn’t have to be articulated, aka POINTS OFF, MOTHERFUCKERS! Summer jams aren’t about self-awareness. They’re about bearskin rugs, Jack White guest vocals, and putting multiple exclamation points in your song title. I just think “Danger! High Voltage!” gets not getting it a little more.
Winner- “Danger! High Voltage!”
#5 T.I. – “What You Know” vs. #12 Mike Jones (feat. Slim Thug) – “Still Tippin’”
At first I thought this would be easy. “What You Know” is a gigantic record, the type of song that lets you know you can do literally anything. The first time you hear “What You Know” it feels like you’re fucking the Colossus of Rhodes.
But the more I thought about it, in its purest sunbaked form, is there anything more summer jam-y than “Still Tippin’?” Those lounging strings slathered over a Slim Thug who couldn’t sound more comfortably drunk? I mean even the name! It’s not “we tippin’” or “you tippin’” or “let’s go tippin’” – it’s “Still Tippin’,” a sustained, professional routine of laconic debauchery. Mike Jones and Slim Thug are from Houston, where it’s so hot that the paint literally drips off of your whip. They are from further down south than T.I., and therefore they understand the heat of summer more than T.I. does. I’m sorry, this bracket only makes sense if “Still Tippin’” moves on.
Winner – “Still Tippin’”
#6 Kanye West (feat. Twista) – “Slow Jamz” vs. #11 Nelly – “Hot in Herre”
Twista’s verse rhymes “bend her ass” with “Teddy Pendergrass.” The end.
Winner – “Slow Jamz”
#7 MGMT – “Kids” vs. #10 Sean Paul – “Like Glue”
I mean, it’s called “Kids.” Meanwhile, Sean Paul is, like, old.
Winner – “Like Glue”
#8 Outkast – “Hey Ya!” vs. #9 The Go! Team – “Get It Together”
With all due respect to the exclamation point in The Go! Team’s name, the song that launched a million first kisses at middle school dances takes the cake every time.
Winner – “Hey Ya!”
1990s - Peace/Whatever Bracket
#1 Sublime – “What I Got” vs. #16 Pavement – “Cut Your Hair”
Sublime wins in a landslide and Pavement gets bounced in the first round. Let this be a representation of the kind of bracket we’re running here. R.I.P. I just killed this blog’s indie credibility.
Winner – “What I Got”
#2 Len – “Steal My Sunshine” vs. #15 Souls of Mischief – “’93 ‘til Infinity”
This breaks my heart, because on certain days if you ask me what my favorite song of all time is, I might say “93 ‘til Infinity,” and you probably should too. But it’s up against Len, and you just can’t argue with that piano. “Steal My Sunshine” is such an accurate representation of summer jam ideals it’s almost sinister.
Winner – “Steal My Sunshine”
#3 Ginuwine – “Pony” vs. #14 The Verve – “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
So here’s the thing. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a great beginning of summer summer jam. The sort of thing you blast when you drive away from your high school, by yourself, thinking about the past. Maybe you go stare into the ocean for a while to try and convince yourself that you meaningless teenaged life has a true undercurrent of pain and deepness. Basically, it’s a very solitary song for people who think being alone makes them cool.
“Pony” is a song about comparing your penis to a horse.
Winner – “Pony”
#4 Warren G (feat. Nate Dogg) – “Regulate” vs. #13 Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Scar Tissue”
The coolest member of Red Hot Chili Peppers is Flea. Do you know how not-even-close Flea is to being as cool as Warren G? “Regulate” goes down like a frosty Arnold Palmer, “Scar Tissue” goes down like a kinda okay glass of water.
Winner – “Regulate”
#5 DJ Kool – “Let Me Clear My Throat” vs. #12 LFO – “Summer Girls”
DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA DENENENENENE-NE-NE DANANANANANANA-NA-NA
Winner – “Let Me Clear My Throat”
#6 – Sum 41 – “Fatlip” vs. #11 Blink-182 – “All The Small Things”
At first I thought “Fatlip” had to win this matchup because this is the type of song generally made by the most enthusiastic summer jam consumer, aka stupid drunk white dudes. However, I was faced with the undeniable reality that far more people know the lyrics to “All the Small Things” than everything Sum 41 has ever recorded combined. I am comforted by the fact that Blink 182 were only slightly less stupid and drunk than Sum 41, while managing to be just as white.
Winner- “All The Small Things”
#7 – Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life” vs. #10 – George Michael – “Freedom ‘90”
If “Freedom ‘90” comes on in the family van during the trip to Disneyland, all the old people will have a great time. If “Semi-Charmed Life” comes on in the family van during the trip to Disneyland, everyone will be having a great time. I’m sorry George, it really isn’t your fault.
Winner – “Semi-Charmed Life”
#8 – Tupac – “California Love” vs. #9 Everclear – “Santa Monica”
While “Santa Monica” takes place in California, the music video for “California Love” takes place in a dystopian future where Chris Tucker is still annoying and the vocoder can be played on a helicopter.
Winner – “California Love”
1980s - Playboy/Material Girl Bracket
#1 Guns ‘N Roses – “Paradise City” vs. #16 Loverboy – “Working For the Weekend”
The first five seconds of “Paradise City” is better than 99 percent of all human sound. Unfortunately, that includes the entire Loverboy discography.
Winner – “Paradise City”
#2 Dead or Alive – “You Spin Me Right Round” vs. #15 Paul Simon – “You Can Call Me Al”
So here’s the secret thing about “You Spin Me Right Round,” everyone secretly loves this song. Like, it might come on at your average club, and you might yell out an “OH SHIT” in a sarcastic “don’t worry guys I’m not actually excited I’m listening to Dead or Alive” way, but don’t fool yourself, friendo. You are feeling this to the very core of your body. And you should. “You spin me right round baby right round like a record baby right round round round” is a such a perfect hook that had to Flo Rida steal it.
While the entirety of Graceland deserves your adulation, my response to it in this context is a hearty getthefuckout.
Winner – “You Spin Me Right Round”
#3 Wang Chung – “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” vs. #14 Dire Straits – “Walk of Life”
If I wrote a bracket about summer jams and eliminated Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” in the first round there is a very real chance somebody would burn down my house.
Winner – “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”
#4 Michael Jackson – “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” vs. #13 J. Geils Band – “Centerfold”
“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” was written and performed by Michael Jackson.
Winner – “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”
#5 Whitesnake – “Here I Go Again” vs. #12 Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun”
80 seconds. That’s how long you have to wait for “Here I Go Again” to deliver anything worth screaming along to. Zero seconds. That’s how long it takes for Violent Femmes to deliver the sickest acoustic guitar riff of all time. Out of pure summer jam utility and efficiency, “Blister in the Sun” gets the edge.
Winner – “Blister in the Sun”
#6 Dexys Midnight Runners – “Come On Eileen” vs. #11 Madonna – “Like a Prayer”
This is an impossible matchup to solve, and it breaks my heart eliminating either one of these songs. But I will say that “Come On Eileen” is the least embarrassing song a DJ can play at a wedding for square people, so it wins.
Winner – “Come on Eileen”
#7 Hall & Oates – “You Make My Dreams” vs. #10 Bruce Springsteen – “Dancing in the Dark”
Another impossible matchup, so we’ll use our go-to criteria when we reach strangeholds like this. What works better at a BBQ? Hall & Oates’ giddy, acoustic float? Or Bruce Springsteen’s treehouse synths? We both know it’s “You Make My Dreams.”
Winner – “You Make My Dreams”
#8 New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle” vs. #9 Depeche Mode – “Just Can’t Get Enough”
I think we all agree, that fundamentally, “Bizarre Love Triangle” is the superior song. That being said, can you think of an ‘80s synthpop jam more memorizable than “Just Can’t Get Enough?” If you filled a room with kids who’d never even heard music before, they’d be singing along by the second verse. Also between the two, “Just Can’t Get Enough” worked way better in a Girl Talk song. If Girl Talk is not the authority on summer jams, I don’t know who is.
Winner – “Just Can’t Get Enough”
Luke Winkie is a certified crazy person. He's on Twitter - @luke_winkie
Meaghan Garvey is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. She's on Twitter - @moneyworth