Like most winter playlists, this started out as a selection of seasonally appropriate songs tailor–made for curling up by the fireplace, staring at snow-globes, and throwing snowballs at unsuspecting dogs. Songs like Muddy Waters’ “Cold Weather Blues,” John Legend and Kelly Clarkson’s rewrite of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and The Buoy’s Donner Party-inspired “Timothy.”
But two winters into a pandemic, with the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicting “a season of flip-flop conditions with notable polar coaster swings in temperatures,” where’s the fun in that? Instead, here are 10 seasonally inappropriate songs that will take you on a journey halfway around the sun, to a time when we’ll hopefully be able to look back and say it wasn’t such a bad winter after all.
1. “Dancin’ in the Streets” by Martha & The Vandellas
“Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?” sang Martha & the Vandellas back in 1964. “Summer’s here and the time is right, for dancin’ in the street.” Co-written by Marvin Gaye, the Motown trio’s best-known hit was released the same summer that the Civil Rights Act was passed. Years later, Martha Reeves would talk about growing up in a Detroit neighborhood where four policemen went around attacking black people for singing doo-wop on street corners. “The song is about love and feeling free enough to dance in the street,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about cars hitting you. You don’t have to worry about policemen coming and telling you can’t dance in the street.”
2. “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
Included alongside “Something” on The Beatles Abbey Road album, “Here Comes the Sun” finally proved that the quiet Beatle could write songs as memorable as Lennon and McCartney. Harrison wrote it at the end of a ‘long, cold, lonely winter,” while walking around Eric Clapton’s garden with an acoustic guitar. After endless meetings with accountants at Apple Corp headquarters, he said, it was a tremendous relief.
3. “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince:
Possibly the last time Will Smith got second billing, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” won a well-deserved Best Rap Performance Grammy 30 years ago. Built around an ARP synthesizer sample from Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness,” this celebration of food, fun and community has made it the feel-good hip-hop hit of backyard barbecues ever since. “It feels very special to have a song that surpasses time,” said Jeff in an interview two decades after its release. “Never in a million years did I expect this to be one of those songs that, every time it gets warm, it comes back up.”
4. “Fourth of July” by X
Okay, it’s not quite a barbeque song. And Dave Alvin’ lyrics aren’t altogether optimistic. But the chorus does have Mexican kids shooting fireworks and John Doe does sing the refrain “Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July” about a dozen times, which is a lot more fun to sing along with than “We’re desperate, get used to it.”
5. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly & The Family Stone
Two and a half minutes of the most sublime summertime soul in the known universe. So much so that I’ve had it on repeat for the past 20 minutes. No reason to stop now.
6. “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves
Katrina & The Waves’ weren’t technically one-hit wonders, at least not in their native England, but it’s their undeniably infectious “Walking on Sunshine” for which they’re most remembered. Originally released in 1983, the same year that Bananarama wrote the decidedly less optimistic “Cruel Summer,” a re-recorded version became a huge MTV hit two years later, and continues to rake in royalties to this day. “It’s just a piece of simple fun, an optimistic song,” said vocalist Katrina Leskanich, “despite us not being outstandingly cheery people.”
7. “Hot in Herre” by Nelly
It’s hot in here — or herre, apparently, if you’re from St. Louis — and Nelly wants you to take all your clothes off. Or so he says on the Neptunes-produced hit that Billboard critics named the Top Summer Song of the 2000s, praising it as “an ode to unbearable hotness marked by literal grunts.” Runners up included Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” Drake’s “One Dance,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” and Usher’s “U Remind Me”
8. “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley
Mike Campbell was reportedly annoyed when “The Boys of Summer,” which the Tom Petty guitarist co-wrote, was included in the “Yacht Rock” category on Jeopardy. Which must have really annoyed Don Henley, because pretty much everything annoys him, including Deadhead stickers on a Cadillac and the little voice inside his head saying don’t look back. The Ataris later covered the song and changed the line to “I saw a Black Flack sticker on a Cadillac.”
9. “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks
Speaking of yachts, this wistful tune finds Kinks bandleader Ray Davies offering words of comfort for those who are struggling through tough times: “The tax man’s taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home / Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon / And I can’t sail my yacht / He’s taken everything I got / All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.” The song, though obviously tongue-in-cheek, was subsequently covered by both Michael McDonald and Jimmy Buffet.
10. “Summer Nights” by Allen Toussaint
While Glen Campbell’s cover reached No. 1, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint’s hauntingly beautiful original is the one that will make you want to move to the South. It’s the perfect closer for pretty much any playlist, but especially this one.