I have discovered that my routines and tastes are seldom dictated by season. My girlfriend asked me recently what my favorite summer food was, of course thinking in terms of bar and grille food that people love to make during summer cookouts. But burgers, hot dogs, wings, cheese sticks, and other greasy gastrointestinal nightmares are the bulk of my diet year round (and my rapid consumption of such food is the reason I will inevitably join the 27 Club).
Music is the exception to my season-ambivalent taste. My music interests skew toward pop in general, but the summer is when I find myself replaying the same ten or so records repeatedly, screaming along to them and dancing incessantly in my car – much to the chagrin of my neighbors and passengers. Summer is a time for unabashed joy, and listening to energetic music is the best way to achieve the bliss that summer requires. Narrowing my favorite summer records down to four was a painstaking task completed with the spillage of blood, sweat, and tears by the gallons. But injuries aside, below are my four favorite records to annoy my neighbors with as a blast them down the street with the windows down.
You Get What You Give – Zac Brown Band (2010)
Zac Brown Band shot to fame in 2008 by pandering to country music’s worst tendencies with their torpid single “Chicken Fried,” a glorified listicle of all the things mindless country songs must bow to: fried chicken, cold beer, jeans, pecan pie, what have you. I would normally take this song as a warning that ZBB was only interested in appeasing the mainstream country music fanbase but their first album The Foundation – from which “Chicken Fried” cursed the land – had astounding promise. Songs like “Where the Boat Leaves From” and “Jolene” showed that they had influences ranging from reggae to blues ballads. While The Foundation was more often cliche than not, it had some gems.
Thankfully, Zac Brown Band used their massive platform in 2010 to create a genuinely unique record that country radio was not prepared for. At its absolute worst, You Get What You Get What You Give is boring: “I Play the Road” and “Colder Weather” are fine songs, but fall too close to feigned schmaltz. The rest of the record, though, is Zac Brown Band doubling down on their love for beach bum reggae and stadium rock, almost eschewing their ties to country music. “Knee Deep,” one of the band’s many odes to the breezy ocean shore, opens with a deceptively complicated to play (but easy to listen to) lick that opens the doors for Brown’s sultry voice to remind us why sitting in a chair, mind still and effort nonexistent, is a good thing to do from time to time.
Just as easily as they uplift relaxation through soothing reggae, they show their rock chops in “Quiet Your Mind,” the band’s best song to date that would animate a packed-arena crowd like few other country acts would. “Quiet Your Mind,” despite its pounding electric slide guitar, is embedded with the same message that the whole album, musically and lyrically, carries: just take a breather. You Get What You Give is a testament to the power of rest. And even though the majority of the songs are remarkably bouncy, they make you calm and peaceful because the band is constantly reminding you to forget your stress. It is the perfect summer album because it is the embodiment of vacation: replenishment through activity.
Summerteeth – Wilco (1999)
In an interview promoting Summerteeth, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy said pop music could be “subversive in some ways,” because it allows one to embed dense ideas that may be off-putting to a listener on their own within happy-go-lucky tunes. Pop can be used as a massive bait-and-switch, because “people would be humming [the song] for a year or maybe a week… before they fully get what the lyrics are about.”
If Summerteeth was conceived as the Thinking Man’s Pop Record by Tweedy, the project deftly succeeds. Summerteeth, lyrically, is one of the more frightening records I have ever listened to. It is a contemplation on the aggression that romantic relationships, if kept off-guard, can easily drift towards. “She’s a Jar,” a song indebted to the easy listening styles of Bob Dylan, presents itself as a “Hey There Delilah” song written by and for wistful college lovers – that is until it takes a dark turn toward being a song on domestic violence. But the shift is so easy to miss once locked into the music’s trance. Such musical skill, though on subjects often less brutal, is used throughout the whole album. It demands multiple listens because it easily sneaks its poetic ruminations past you through its relentless sonic joy.
Of course, the album isn’t all masked gloom and doom. “Via Chicago,” the album’s darkest song, marks an important shift: if all the songs up to and including “Via Chicago” are about how relationships crumble, all the songs after “Via Chicago” are about picking the pieces back up. Summerteeth is a very hopeful album, even if it takes time to get to its optimistic side. But the road there is seamless, and the kineticism of songs like “A Shot in the Arm” and “I’m Always in Love” make for some of the most summertime driving songs out there. They are reminiscent of Wilco’s alt-rock contemporaries Weezer and Coldplay, except Wilco’s ambience is coded with enough technical skill to keep it from sounding like plodding anesthesia (sorry not sorry Coldplay fans). Summerteeth is a purposefully deceptive record, but even at its bleakest Wilco manages to make it an obvious album to turn on when the sun is out and the grills are on.
Malibu – Anderson .Paak (2016)
I doubt Anderson .Paak is a huge Wilco stan, but Malibu follows a very similar philosophy of putting unapologetically confrontational subjects in a blindingly sunny setting. .Paak is a bit more direct with his intent, using the mid-tempo opening track “The Bird,” to establish his character. He grew up in a fatherless house with a gambling addicted mother, with the only luxury of his poverty-stricken youth being love. The rest of the album tracks one relationship and the ways in which .Paak’s arrogance, sexism, and proclivity for cheating ruin his romance. Concept albums seldom work, but .Paak manages to make this single-story LP deeply impactful.
While it is the best written album on this list, the true reason to turn on Malibu is to be transported to the city itself. .Paak combines influences as diverse as The Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder to create an R&B album drenched in the sweat of a surfer. Several audio clips from various documentaries about the thrill of surfing punctuate songs, and the music itself carries listeners over waves with its endless breeziness. Malibu is always groovy but never pounding. “Parking Lot” almost makes you smell the salty Atlantic, overlaying a windy synthesizer over the funky pace of his drums. “Put Me Thru” and “Am I Wrong” are the most danceable tracks (and you certainly will dance), and both display the wave-like range of .Paak’s voice: he can shift effortlessly from pit-patter rapping to skillful harmonies that rival any church choir. If Zac Brown is sitting on the shore drinking a beer, Anderson .Paak is riding the ocean blue in front of him.
Recreational Love - The Bird and the Bee (2015)
I am an English major and a regular writer here at Funkhouser, so I generally have a relentless urge to read into everything I consume, from books to movies to music. Even in this list that is supposedly about the best albums to blast in your car mindlessly, I have dived deep into the waters of interpretation. It is an uncontrollable tendency.
With that said, I have no clue what The Bird and the Bee’s Recreational Love is about. And frankly, I don’t care on bit. For me to like a song, it only has to accomplish one of two things: make me feel something emotionally, or make me dance. Thankfully, given my criteria, Recreational Love’s one and only goal is to make people dance. And it succeeds with flying colors.
An unofficial genre of music exists in my mind called “Department Store Pop.” Department Store Pop is the music you hear in American Eagle or Aeropostle. Its electronic beats and simple melodies sound so pastel and bright that you think you will go insane from how hard it is trying to make you happy. Recreational Love is Department Store Pop as made by geniuses. “Young and Dumb” begins with the synthetic bops of the Nintendo Wii’s homepage music set against a typical bass-clap drumbeat. But where most Department Store Pop would take these components and maximize them to the brightest setting, Greg Kirsten (the man behind the beats, who has produced music for the biggest names in music, from Sia to Adele to Paul fucking McCartney) keeps “Young and Dumb” remarkably minimalist. Even Inara George, a relentlessly talent vocalist, keeps her performances smooth and low. It has just enough to compel involuntary dancing, and that’s all it needs. Recreational Love keeps this minimalism intact throughout its brief 35 minute runtime. Songs like “Los Angeles” and “Runaway” bring the cheeriness of 80s pop to a modern setting while shunning the overwhelming indulgence of 80s music. It is the happiest album I have heard, and to play it in the beaming sun of summer is to create the ideal marriage between sound and season.
Honorable Mentions (As Picked By Twitter)
I asked Twitter followers what albums they blasted in the summer. Recommendations by my very tasteful followers include:
– Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (you may have heard of them)
– Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper
– Cosmos Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival
– Life and Times by Jim Croce
– High as Hope by Florence and the Machine
For more of Adrian’s excited rambling on songs of the summer, follow his radiant Twitter feed @APBryant32.