Picking a “Song of the Summer” is a serious business these days. Nearly every outlet that at least tangentially covers music releases its own list, from heavy hitters Pitchfork, Complex and NME, to streaming sites Spotify and Pandora, to the likes of Red Bull, Time and HuffPost. Billboard even has an official Song of the Summer chart now.
Every year there also seems to be at least one article that argues the Song of the Summer phenomenon is little more than a sham. “There is no song of the summer; just a summer littered with songs,” The Washington Post put forth in 2016. Whether or not there is or isn’t a true Song of the Summer isn’t important in the end, nor does the argument hold much merit to me either way. It’s a fun exercise to conduct and play around with, nothing more and nothing less.
The summer of 2017 appears to be most notable for two reasons—the lack of female-fronted hits and Justin Bieber’s continuing cultural dominance. Most of the A-list female pop stars are in between album cycles right now, and the two who aren’t, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, are struggling mightily to hang onto relevancy. Meanwhile, artists like Paramore and Lorde haven’t been able to match the commercial success of previous efforts, although relative newcomer Halsey is gaining steam.
Currently only five of the top 20 entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 are fronted by women, with Rihanna’s feature on DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” this week ending the longest drought of women in the top 5 since 1972 (12 weeks). Female artists have largely run the pop landscape in recent years, so whether this marks a blip on the radar or a discouraging downward trend is something to keep an eye on.
On the other hand there’s Justin Bieber, who has reached rarified god status where everything he has his name on instantly turns into airplay gold, even if it’s subpar material. He has credits on both of the Hot 100’s top two tracks and on last week’s highest debut “2U,” a collaboration with electronic-dance producer David Guetta currently at No. 28 but likely to rise quickly.
His appearance on Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s Puerto Rican “Despacito” is heavily tipped to be 2017’s overall winner, currently enjoying a seven-week stay at No. 1, but it’s average at best. Still, it’s a step-up from No. 2’s “I’m the One,” the DJ Khaled-assembled superteam of Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne. Bieber’s hook is the strongest part in that one, which otherwise is a dull and uninspired waste of the talent involved.
With all that said, I’ve put together 32 of my favorite relevant songs I’ve heard this summer that deserve the attention. Most of them will probably be familiar, a few maybe less so, but they’re worthy candidates to remember when it comes time to forget what everyone else thinks and compile your own playlist for the season.
Bleachers – “Don’t Take the Money”
Jack Antonoff’s fingerprints are all over pop music, which in 2017 has included producing/co-writing Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” plus more collaborations with Taylor Swift, Pink, St. Vincent, the Killers and Carly Rae Jepsen still to come. Meanwhile, his second album under the Bleachers name came out this month, and while it doesn’t quite maintain the level of consistency as the first, Antonoff still knows how to make some of the best ‘80s-infused jams out there. “Don’t Take the Money” is exhibit A.
Childish Gambino – “Redbone”
Donald Glover has had about as good a calendar year as humanly possible. Atlanta was one of 2016’s most stunning TV shows, he got cast in Spider-Man, Star Wars and Lion King, welcomed the birth of his first son, and reinvented his Childish Gambino musical persona as a funk-soul throwback to the best reviews of his career. “Redbone” has made steady waves since its release last December, buoyed by appearances in the opening credits of Get Out, Netflix’s Dear White People and its turn as a popular internet meme. It’s now remarkably on the doorstep of cracking the Hot 100’s top 10, and if Glover is indeed going to be hanging up Childish Gambino soon, it’s a strong mark to go out on.
Cold War Kids – “Love Is Mystical”
“Love Is Mystical” is a worthy successor to the smash hit “First,” which spent seven weeks at Alternative’s pole position and 64 weeks on the chart in total, the second-longest-running single in its history. Cold War Kids’ latest single, the lead from sixth album LA DIVINE, is as rhythmically propulsive and catchy as we’ve come to expect from the band, and has been a mainstay in Alternative’s top 5 in recent weeks. Cold War Kids are still searching for their first song to cross over, and although “Love Is Mystical” probably won’t be it, they’re getting close.
Drake – “Passionfruit”
After the mixed results from last year’s Views, Drake responded with one of his most satisfying efforts of his career. “Passionfruit” is More Life’s best song, and finds the singer in tropical dance mode to a hypnotically enticing effect. Surprisingly, it is nowhere near the hit “One Dance” was, which ruled over the charts last summer, and has only peaked at No. 8. Drake still hasn’t released an official video for the song, so perhaps there is a second wind to come. It’s one of the year’s essential tracks either way, and has already proven a popular cover by artists like John Mayer and Paramore.
Foo Fighters – “Run”
“Run” was a surprise drop from rock stalwarts Foo Fighters earlier this month in advance of their just-announced ninth album Concrete and Gold, out in September, and the aggressive track quickly became this summer’s top fist-pumping mosh pit starter. No band has enjoyed a stronger singles run over the last 20 years and “Run” is cut from similar cloth, taking the formula into a bit of an exciting heavier direction while maintaining a serious dose of fun. The video, which depicts the Foos aged-up in makeup and leading a rest home revolt, is an instant classic.
Foster the People – “Doing It for the Money”
It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Foster the People, not since 2014’s Supermodel to be exact. But the band is back this summer with a new single and a new album out in July. “Doing It for the Money” is a promising start and proves frontman Mark Foster hasn’t lost his gift at creating earworms. They almost assuredly will never have another song as big as “Pumped Up Kicks,” but “Money” should comfortably slide into the mid-hit level along the lines of “Coming of Age.” I’m excited to hear more.
Francis and the Lights – “May I Have This Dance (feat. Chance the Rapper)”
“May I Have This Dance” is one of the best Peter Gabriel songs Peter Gabriel didn’t write, which being how I adore Peter Gabriel is very high praise. The track was originally on last fall’s Farewell, Starlite!, but has seen a resurgence thanks to its remix and video featuring Chance the Rapper. Chance’s actual verse doesn’t add much to the music, but his presence doing the choreographed dancing in the video is essential to the song’s feel-good nature and it breaking out.
Future – “Mask Off (feat. Kendrick Lamar)”
“Mask Off” is the third biggest rap single of the year, behind only Kendrick Lamar and Migos, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s instantly memorable, and the flute sample in particular by mega-hot producer Metro Boomin is genius. I’ve never been much of a Future fan before and even I love this song. Not to mention Kendrick’s verse on the remix is straight fire, 2017’s best feature so far, and should cement “Mask Off” on the charts all summer long.
Selena Gomez – “Bad Liar”
“Bad Liar” is the best thing Selena Gomez has ever done, pure and simple. The bassline lifted from Talking Head’s 1977 hit “Psycho Killer” is an inspired choice and elevates Gomez to a creative plane she’s never reached before. Even little things, like the way her voice swells in the bridge or simply her pronunciation in the chorus, all find ways to stand out. The release of her video has it at a new peak this week (No. 20), so there remains time and hope for a major breakout.
HAIM – “Want You Back”
“Want You Back” is the lead track from HAIM’s sophomore album Something to Tell You, finally set for release next month after a two-year writing session. It’s not as good as the singles from their master class debut, and a little on the repetitive side, but it’s a grower and very catchy. HAIM has been on the cusp of exploding into the mainstream for a while now, and while “Want You Back” is likely not going to be what gets them over the hump, it’s great to have the sisters back all the same.
Calvin Harris – “Slide (feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)”
“Slide” is the popular Song of the Summer pick of the music blogs and without question is one of the year’s best songs. I’ve always found Frank Ocean to be most effective when he’s got a groove or a hook he can get behind, and on “Slide” he has both. Meanwhile, Calvin Harris has reinvented himself as a producer, trading EDM for Funk Wav Bounces, and it’s taken his work into new and exciting places. Throw in one of the better guest appearances from the ubiquitous Migos and you have three minutes and 50 seconds of pop bliss.
Imagine Dragons – “Believer”
“Believer” sees Imagine Dragons getting back to what they do best, which is create arena-ready choruses for the pop-alternative crowd. Their second album was a miss on that front, as none of its singles made a lasting impact, perhaps the case of the band hitting the sophomore slump. “Believer,” though, has caught on in a huge way, and thanks to some media placement has already crowned the Alternative and Rock charts and reached a new high (No. 11) on the Hot 100 this week. With no new music from Twenty One Pilots this summer, Imagine Dragons should have little problem being the designated “rock band” to get mainstream play.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut to the Feeling”
In my alternate music timeline, Carly Rae Jepsen is the biggest pop queen on the planet. She makes some of the most euphoric songs in music and produced her first modern classic in 2015 with E•MO•TION. “Cut to the Feeling” continues the trend with an absolute monster of a chorus and is easily one of the songs I’ve enjoyed most all year. The real shock, besides her continued relative lack of mainstream support, is how it was allegedly another of her many B-sides from the E•MO•TION sessions and is now only getting released as part of the soundtrack to the animated movie Leap! To have something so good sitting around in your back pocket is truly astonishing.
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
Kendrick Lamar has straight owned 2017. DAMN. is both the top-selling and best overall album of the year, and “HUMBLE.” is the most successful song he’s ever had. In fact, you could pencil almost any song from DAMN. on a summer playlist and it would work. “HUMBLE.” might be overly simplistic, but Mike Will Made It’s stellar production is on point, centered around the catchiest piano riff since Kanye’s “Runaway,” while the video is the most iconic thing released this year. Plus, as someone who was at the track’s first non-Coachella performance, it absolutely rips live. So “HUMBLE.” gets the nod.
Lil Uzi Vert – “XO TOUR Llif3”
I’m still on the fence that Lil Uzi Vert, or any of his mumble rap contemporaries for that matter, is actually good, or that any of them warrant dominating the charts like they have been. But “XO TOUR Llif3” is a legitimately good song, so maybe I’m warming up to it. You also have to give props to anyone who can propel a song with a chorus of “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead” into the top 10.
Dua Lipa – “Lost in Your Light (feat. Miguel)”
Dua Lipa is a rising pop singer from the U.K. who just released her debut full-length. She’s already had a few hits across the pond, where her album opened at No. 5, but hasn’t made much of an indent stateside yet. In an ideal scenario, “Lost in Your Light” would be that song, in no small part because it’s a duet with Miguel, who I consider to be the most exciting singer in music currently. Miguel’s features are always fun and their styles mesh well together, resulting in one of the sexier songs you’ll hear this year.
Lorde – “Green Light”
“Green Light” is arguably the most underperforming non-Katy Perry single this year, which is surprising for a number of reasons. Lorde was crowned magazine cover story “it” girl and festival headliner for this album cycle, and has had about as much coverage as anyone this year. But “Green Light” failed to catch on, either on the Hot 100 (No. 19 peak) or even her Alternative home base (No. 9 peak, now out of the top 40 entirely), which had earlier helped launch “Royals.” It’s a shame, too, because “Green Light” is rousing in its nontraditional structure, but perhaps too weird for a mass audience. After Melodrama debuted at No. 1 this week, it will be interesting to see if any of her follow-up singles fare better.
Bruno Mars – “That’s What I Like”
Despite the consistent sales numbers 24K Magic has put up, it’s still probably an underappreciated and somewhat under-the-radar album, or at least for someone of Bruno Mars’ stature. Thankfully, “That’s What I Like” has been dominating the charts for the last several months, and if it weren’t for Song of the Summer favorite “Despacito” would have reached No. 1 already. Alas, it is instead likely to go down as this summer’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” which was blocked by “One Dance” last year. But it’s another gold-plated hit to add to Mars’ impressive resume all the same.
Muse – “Dig Down”
Once again using bass warbles as a backbone, “Dig Down” plays like a sequel of sorts to “Madness,” Muse’s smash that ruled Alternative for a record 19 weeks back in 2012 and 2013. Its message of perseverance, and lines like “When God decides to look the other way and a clown takes the throne,” are applicable to either side of the Atlantic and resonate strongly in today’s fraught climate. And the part when the band opens up in the latter half, backed by an army of “whoa-ohs,” comes stadium ready.
Paramore – “Hard Times”
Like Lorde, Paramore’s latest has also been a commercial disappointment. The album hasn’t sold well, topping out at No. 6 in May and out of the top 100 already, while lead single “Hard Times” has come nowhere close to replicating the success of “Still Into You” or “Ain’t It Fun” from their last record. It hasn’t even been able to crack the top 10 at Alternative, which is not a positive sign. “Hard Times” is one of the strongest cuts on the album, and after hearing it once the melody will stay caught in your head, but it appears the masses aren’t onboard with Paramore’s ‘80s makeover, at least not so far.
Portugal. The Man – “Feel It Still”
Portugal. The Man used to be a pretty weird, idiosyncratic band, who released six albums in six years to start their career, but their quirks have gradually been sanded down over time. Their latest album, and first in four years, finds the Alaskan natives in full mainstream mode now, embracing the retro pop vibes made popular by Fitz and the Tantrums and Danger Mouse, who also shows up as a producer again. “Feel It Still” has turned into a huge triumph as a result (No. 1 at Alternative and Adult Alternative), the biggest of their career by far and one with plenty of crossover potential, as its jump into the Hot 100 this week suggests. It’s a really fun, likeable song, so good for them.
PVRIS – “What’s Wrong”
If “What’s Wrong” is any indication, PVRIS is poised for a breakout year. It’s the best song the group has recorded in its short career thus far, a delicious slice of dark pop reminiscent of a more aggressive CHVRCHES or Phantogram and with an arena-ready chorus. (“Don’t need a metaphor for you to know I’m miserable” is a killer of a line.) The band is opening for Muse and Thirty Seconds to Mars this summer in advance of their second album All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, out early August. Expect to hear a lot more about the trio in the coming months.
Royal Blood – “Lights Out”
Royal Blood is one of the most successful bands to come out of the U.K. in recent years and little steam is lost on their recently released sophomore effort How Did We Get So Dark? Lead single “Lights Out” is a perfect example of what the duo does best, which is create driving rockers with no shortage of hooks, and the creepy video is one of the coolest of the year. Welcome back, lads.
Run the Jewels – “Legend Has It”
A late entry to the summer field, “Legend Has It” originally came out on Run the Jewels 3, released the last week of 2016. But thanks to prime placement in the Black Panther trailer, which took the internet by storm with 89 million views in its first 24 hours, the song is experiencing an added swell of attention. The track finds Killer Mike and El-P effortlessly exchanging barbs back and forth before building to its instrumental chorus centerpiece, and is well worth seeking out if missed the first time around.
Ed Sheeran – “Galway Girl”
“Shape of You” is the obvious Song of the Summer candidate from Ed Sheeran, which has been in the top 5 for months now, followed by second single “Castle on the Hill,” which has been climbing up the tally lately and looks destined to join soon. But I’m going with “Galway Girl” instead, Sheeran’s mash-up of his hop-hop style and Celtic music. It’s a unique spin on the genres, certainly to American audiences, and is a simple, infectious tune. It’s been a big hit overseas, to no surprise (No. 1 in Ireland, No. 2 in the U.K.), but hasn’t officially been released as a single in the States. It will be interesting to see how it does if they decide to give it a push late summer/early fall here, because I think it warrants one, but we shall see.
Spoon – “Can I Sit Next to You”
Spoon is one of the most consistently good bands of the last 25 years, and this spring’s Hot Thoughts did nothing to dispel that notion. The album, their ninth, sees the band working in more of a synth-pop field this time, a nice wrinkle from veterans this late in a career. Second single “Can I Sit Next to You” has a groove so strong it will create involuntary toe tapping, reinforced by frontman Britt Daniel’s swagger that suggests he has no time or use for question marks.
Vince Staples – “Big Fish”
“Big Fish” is the second single from Vince Staples’ strong second full-length Big Fish Theory, out last Friday and set to be one of the most acclaimed and discussed rap albums of the year. The song is easily Staples’ most accessible single he’s ever released, with a simple, if slightly repetitive, hook sung by Juicy J. The verses still contain Staples dark wit and observations, though, undercutting the cool party vibes an outside listener might have expected from a lesser talent.
Chris Stapleton – “Either Way”
No summer is free from a little heartbreak, and Chris Stapleton’s “Either Way” is the most emotive song I’ve heard this year. Over a sparsely picked acoustic guitar, Stapleton sings his heart out about a relationship that’s lost all sense of love, whether it continues or not. He’s become one of the most interesting artists out right now, a country superstar that’s received little support from country radio and armed with a voice to die for, and “Either Way” is a poignant reminder why.
Hailee Steinfeld – “Most Girls”
Last year not only showcased why Hailee Steinfeld is one of the most talented young actors with The Edge of Seventeen, it also strengthened her all-around credentials as a bona fide pop star. “Starving,” her collaboration with Zedd, reached No. 12 on the Hot 100, proving the ease of her ability to switch between mediums. Her follow-up “Most Girls” is equally as catchy and comes with a positive message of female empowerment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t enjoyed nearly the same amount of success, only reaching No. 75, but is not to be slept on.
Harry Styles – “Sign of the Times”
Harry Styles could have gone in any number of directions on his first solo album but decided to go down the path least taken in modern pop times—‘70s rock star. On it, guitars are front and center and his ambitions are rooted in trends nearly 50 years old. The aesthetic is an admirable effort, especially on the epic “Sign of the Times,” which draws from David Bowie and Queen and is nearly impossible to shake after a single listen. His overall songwriting skills still have some developing to do, but it’s an impressive beginning to what should be a very successful and long solo career.
The Weeknd – “Secrets”
“Secrets” is the Weeknd’s late addition into the Song of the Summer foray, and it’s a wise pick from the R&B superstar. The cut is one of the strongest from last year’s Starboy with a chorus built around two 1983 selections, the Romantics’ hit “Talking in Your Sleep” and Tears for Fears’ “Pale Shelter.” It’s modern 1980s goodness at its best, and sure to become another success for the Weeknd.
Weezer – “Feels Like Summer”
“Feels Like Summer” is exactly what I want from late period Weezer at this point, which is solid pop rock that’s not excessively corny. “Summer” is more on the pop side than Weezer’s last effort, the return-to-form guitar basics White Album, and they pull the shift off better than anything they’ve done like it in years, Rivers’s falsettos in the chorus especially. The song’s title is not subtle in what it’s going for, but since it does make you want to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down and the music up, I’ll allow it. And, uncoincidentally, it’s a fitting note to end on.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist