Songs Of The Summer: How To Win The Season

Originally published on September 20, 2011 8:24 am

This week on The Record, we're looking at some of the songs that captured our attention (or held us hostage) this summer, and asking what they tell us about our standards, our anxieties and the places we want our music to take us when it's hot out. We made a Spotify playlist for as many of the songs we've been talking about as we could. Listen here.

Ann Powers spoke with David Greene on NPR's Morning Edition about summer songs — those tracks that, as she wrote last week, hit the perfect balance of fun cliches and light-hearted rhythm. They also often hit the top of the charts. But what do those summer songs do to draw us in?

On The Record we've written about three routes to summer song victory. There's writing an unavoidable pop hook, as LMFAO did with "Party Rock Anthem," and building the song as one would a flashy, souped-up convertible. Make the song unashamedly recognizable (Jacob calls it "dumb fun" that works when we have so much free time we're willing to fill it by playing a song with little redeeming value) and you'll have a hit any summer in the past decade.

There's another type of song that can take over playlists in the summer — one that's unexpectedly relevant. The unsettled tension of Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks" has matched with the confusing mood of the past few months — and it's not the first time. As Ann wrote last week, there's a surprising tradition of hit songs about murderous psychpaths, from Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" to Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

And then there's the sound of the summer: humid. Miguel's "Sure Thing" is all over urban radio, which makes sense, since it's the perfect song to catch without even trying on a sun-heated roof at the end of a long day. The track is layered up with harmonies and sonic embellishments (some sound like like crickets, others like voices through open windows) but Miguel's voicing is stretched out and sleepy. "Sure Thing" is of a piece with other minor key, slightly off-kilter slow jams from R&B singers like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean that dropped this spring and summer, but the saturated production pairs better with recent weather than those songs.

Still and all, a summer song is personal. It matters where you spent the past few months, with whom and what kind of memories got made. For the rest of the week we'll be posting the summer songs of musicians and music writers around the country and outside.

What have you been hearing this summer?

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We don't want to quite let go of summer without playing you a few summer hits - the songs that've been making it big this month and all throughout the season. This time of year, some songs just hit that perfect balance of fun cliches and lighthearted rhythm. It's exactly what you're asking for at this part of the year. Saying you can resist a song like that is like saying you hate popsicles. So let's take a look at what these summer songs do to draw us in.


LMFAO: Party rock, party rock, party rock.

GREENE: NPR music critic Ann Powers is here to talk about some of these summer tunes. So really, Ann, is this one of the biggest songs of the summer of 2011?

ANN POWERS: It's on every time you turn on the radio. It's charting all over the charts. "Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO is the song of the summer.


LMFAO: (Singing) Party rock is in the house tonight. Everybody just have a good time. And we gonna make you lose your mind. Everybody just have a good time.

POWERS: This song is a certain kind of summer song designed to sound great pouring out of a car radio. It's built kind of like, I don't know, like a souped-up convertible or something - so flashy, so instantly recognizable.

GREENE: It sounds like it's the kind of song that probably would've done pretty well any year.

POWERS: But the other kind of song that often hits us in the summer is one that's sort of surprisingly relevant. This summer the news has been so confusing. One minute we're hearing about the recession and political infighting and disaster. And the next minute we're trying to care about Kim Kardashian's wedding. This song somehow connects with that confusing mood. It's called "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People.


FOSTER THE PEOPLE: All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun. All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you'd better run, better run, faster than my bullet.

GREENE: What was that lyric? It's better run faster than my bullet?

POWERS: Yes. This song written by Mark Foster, the leader of the group Foster the People, is in the surprisingly strong tradition of hit songs about mass murder. But this song sounds like it's about chewing a piece of bubble gum. It sounds happy, and yet in there the lyrics are telling the story of a kid who's found a gun and is going wild.

GREENE: OK. So we talked about having just the right hook. We've talked about writing lyrics that kind of capture the mood of the summer. Is there just a song that is the sound of the summer? I mean, if you think of 2011, this is the sound that captures it?

POWERS: Well, there's one sound we always need in the summer. And that sound is sexy.


MIGUEL: (Singing) If you be the cash, I'll be the rubber band. You be the match, I will be your fuse. Boom. Painter, baby, you could be the muse. I'm the reporter, baby, you could be the news.

GREENE: I'm the reporter, baby, you could be the news.

POWERS: Use that line sometime, David. I bet it'll work.

GREENE: I'll try it - maybe.

POWERS: This song is by Miguel. R&B is in this interesting phase where minor keys and kind of nasal lyrics and sort of a disturbed quality is underneath the sexiness.

GREENE: And why does this scream summer?

POWERS: The other songs we've talked about today are really like driving songs, you know. But really at the end of a hundred degree 80 percent humidity day, you just want to lay back. And that's what this song does.

GREENE: Thank you, Ann.

POWERS: Thanks so much, David.


MIGUEL: (Singing) I could be the boom.

GREENE: And you can read more about songs of the summer at


MIGUEL: (Singing) The sun don't shine, I've got faith in you and I. Put you're pretty little...

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.