It’s that time of the year again. The days are warmer, the nights are shorter, we long to spend our holidays reading a great page-turner on the beach — and we’re listening again to some of the ubiquitous songs of the summer.
But since things haven’t been exactly normal lately, Ask’s team of writers and editors gathered around a virtual roundtable to talk specifically about this summer’s musical themes. Is there as clear a winner as in years past? Do songs of the summer even exist if we’re not dancing to them at nightclubs? What exactly is a song of the summer, anyway?
Here are some of the main takeaways from our Zoom chat.
What Constitutes a Song of the Summer?
Ask’s resident music expert and Social Media Editor Bryn Rich has a clear idea of what a song of the summer is. “It doesn’t matter what you’re into or what you listen to, it’s the song that’s just unavoidable,” he says. “Think ‘Call Me Maybe,’ ‘Old Town Road,’ ‘I Gotta Feeling.’ Whether you want to know it or not, you will hear it in every Uber you take and every 7-Eleven you walk into.”
Ask’s Writer Eric Mueller has a similar notion of what constitutes a summertime anthem. “To me, a song of the summer is linked to fate. For a song to become the ‘song of the summer,’ it must be so ubiquitous that you hear it everywhere, especially when you’re traveling and only have a rental car’s radio and you notice that you hear a certain song no matter where you are. I think of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella,’ or Rihanna in general when I think of what the cookie-cutter for a perfect song of the summer is.”
But Ask Media Group’s Senior Managing Editor Michael Kasian-Morin doesn’t necessarily agree. For once, with the pandemic, we’re not taking that many Ubers, going to the store that often, renting cars or heading to dance clubs. But also, with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, the musical experience and what those services’ algorithms recommend can become very customized. “The concept of top 40 or song of the summer has become more personal and circumstantial for what your interests are, what you like to do and what gets you motivated,” says Michael. “It’s become more personal and you don’t have to necessarily rely on radio to discover things that you enjoy.”
“Spotify’s algorithm certainly helps point me in the right direction at times or in directions I didn’t expect,” agrees Editor Kate Bove. She also has somewhat of a broad definition of what a song of the summer is supposed to be: good driving music. “Anything I can listen to and enjoy on a drive feels like an appropriate song of the summer. And it could be downtempo music too and get in your feelings a little bit. Good driving music to me has that nostalgic, long, unending summer days [feeling]. We’re not still, we’re just, like, moving forward.”
Ask’s Editor Hannah Riley also has more of an experiential approach to the whole “song of the summer” concept, especially because she doesn’t seek the Top 40 charts. “I don’t know what it is for the general population,” says Hannah. But she still has thoughts about what makes a summer song. “The way you can look at songs of the summer is like how people describe summer itself: sunny, bright, upbeat and relaxing for daytime. But nighttime is sultrier, smokey and beguiling.”
“A song of the summer can put you in a place where you want to be (a beach, a nightclub, with someone special) or it can encompass the here and now. The best songs of the summer do both,” adds Eric.
You can get a pretty general idea of what the mainstream sounds of the summer of 2021 are by heading to Spotify’s Charts, Apple Music’s Charts or Billboard’s Charts. You’ll see that some of the artists making waves right now on a global level are Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa, BTS, Justin Bieber, Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Ed Sheeran and Bad Bunny.
But the song of the summer isn’t something you’re supposedly seeking but encountering even if you don’t want to. “In a year where we’re not in 7-Elevens and Ubers that much, is it songs on TikTok? Is there where we’re encountering these singles? Since we’re not out and living in the real world?” says Bryn.
TikTok is the place that Kate associates with Doja Cat’s songs. But besides social media platforms and their viral themes, Eric has other methods of discovering what’s cool when it comes to music. He relies on TV shows — he’s a fan of everything on Insecure’s soundtrack, for instance — and because he hasn’t been going out that much, he also listens to some old-school FM radio and recommends Pulse Radio. “It’s Pride-themed, which I like. I feel a lot of pop music in general, I used to hear at queer spaces and gay bars because it’s so celebrated there.”
And now that we’ve established what makes for the perfect summer sound and given a few suggestions on how to find it, let’s see what’s been on Ask’s playlists these past few weeks.
Ask’s Favorite Songs of the Summer in 2021
Kate Bove, Editor
lately I feel EVERYTHING by Willow
Kate’s choice of listening material this summer is Willow’s new album. “‘transparent soul’ with Travis Barker is really good. Avril Lavigne is on another one of the tracks. So I feel it has sort of that era vibe but very updated to 2021,” she says. Editor Hannah Riley agrees with her, calling the album “very nostalgic.”
Michael Kasian-Morin, Senior Managing Editor
Samurai by Beny JR and El Guincho
“That’s the perfect driving-in-the-car album,” says Michael. “Samurai, it’s simply phenomenal and it makes me feel like I’m in the future when I’m driving in the car… even when I’m stuck in traffic. And that’s what I want to listen to. ‘Combo la L’ specifically is top-notch song-of-the-summer material.”
“F*ck Him All Night” by Azealia Banks
“When I’m on a sweaty, foggy dance floor at 3AM I want to hear Azealia Banks’ new song [F*ck Him All Night],” says Michael.
“Get Low” by Glüme
This is Michael’s favorite song to amplify his summer behavior if he’s strutting through Walgreens in his short shorts. This song is also Hannah’s song of the summer of choice. “It has everything,” she says. “It’s very smoky and textured and synth-heavy. It’s just perfect.”
“Afrique Victime” by Mdou Moctar
“If I want to pretend I’m in an amphitheater rock concert — because I’m still not going to those — I would listen to Mdou Moctar’s ‘Afrique Victime.’ These are certain kinds of tracks that I only want to hear when I’m trying to do things in the summertime,” Michael adds.
Eric Mueller, Writer
“MONTERO” by Lil Nas X
“I feel like ‘MONTERO’ really kicked off Pride season,” says Eric. “It was one of the few music videos that people actually watched. It’s strange to think that videos aren’t the norm anymore, but Lil Nas X’s explicit queerness helped bring the song to life. The beat is so agreeable that I wouldn’t mind hearing it in the background literally anywhere, which is great since the song is everywhere still. The title of the song also invokes Call Me by Your Name, a movie about a summer romance. Perfect for the time.”
“Physical” by Dua Lipa
“Dua Lipa appears to be filling the Rihanna-sized hole in our hearts during her hiatus,” says Eric. “‘Physical’ is so high energy that it just makes me want to go outside and get moving.”
“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd
According to Eric, this theme does a good job at capturing a more reserved take on a summer song. “High-energy songs always steal the show in summer, but at some point, the party ends and you need to process that. ‘Save Your Tears’ creates space for that. Plus it’s great to drive to,” he says.
“Without You” by The Kid LAROI
“I don’t know who Kid LAROI is but this song, it’s everywhere,” admits Eric. “The acoustic vibes make it great when you’re outdoors after sunset.”
“Itty Bitty Piggy” by Nicki Minaj
“This is more of an honorable mention. Nicki Minaj had never released this song formally, but it was on mixtapes and her Myspace for a long time when she was first starting out,” explains Eric. “As an earlier fan of hers, it was such a treat when she ‘dropped’ the single on Instagram Live and I wondered, ‘Could a 2007 Myspace song become the song of summer 2021?’ This was also before Delta and Lambda variant cases rose and everyone was expecting to have a wild summer. Still, I’ve listened to it on Spotify more times than I should have.”
Patricia Puentes, Senior Writer
“Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa
I discovered this one thanks to my Barre instructor. She’s included it in some of the classes’ playlists. It’s so catchy and has a great beat, so I added it to my 2021 running playlist. I love songs that keep me engaged when I work out.
“Milionària” by Rosalía
This one is two summers old but I discovered it this year. My sister played it for me when we were driving through the Mediterranean coast south of Barcelona. It’s a very danceable theme and Rosalía sings in Catalan, which isn’t that common since most of her themes are in Spanish.
Bryn Rich, Social Media Editor
“Butter” by BTS
This theme was the first one that came to Bryn’s mind when he thought about the song of the summer of 2021. “They’re sort of omnipresent,” Bryn says about K-pop band BTS. “They’ve gotten the McDonald’s meal. They’re at every award show. They’re doing the Samsung ads. That song broke Spotify’s first-day streaming record. It had 20 million streams in the first 24 hours it was out.”
“Bad Habits” by Ed Sheeran
Even though Ed Sheeran is not really Bryn’s thing, he feels his comeback has met expectations in a way maybe Lorde or Billie Eilish’s didn’t. “Ed Sheeran is back and he’s dressed like a glittery vampire and it kind of sounds like The Weeknd, for some reason. But it’s big and shiny and catchy. I think we could all use a little bit of that right now,” says Bryn.
“Levitating” by Dua Lipa
This Dua Lipa theme has been on the charts for 42 weeks and it’s still going strong. “It came out as a single last fall and is hanging out in the top five,” says Bryn. “And it’s also just a great song.”
“Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast
“If there was any justice, ‘Be Sweet’ by Japanese breakfast would be the number-one song in every country in the world,” says Bryn. Not for nothing, Japanese Breakfast’s latest album, Jubilee, is his favorite this year and made it to his selection of the best music of the year so far. And if that’s not enough recommendation — and it should be — “Be Sweet” is also one of the themes of the summer for Kate.
But with three different songs on this list, it looks like Dua Lipa has made Ask’s summer of 2021 a bit better.