1. The Motels, “Suddenly Last Summer” (from Little Robbers)
Summers in Tennessee Williams plays generally aren’t very relaxing. In Martha Davis’ interpretation of the titular one-act play about murder and homosexual pimping, the narrator is trapped in her lurid memories of that fateful summer in Spain. “It keeps me standing still / It takes all of my will,” she sings over a restless bass riff, evoking the static haze of the girl facing a lobotomy for the images she can’t get out of her head. In 1983, when the song became a moody hit, radio listeners probably thought it was about an unforgettable summer romance. But anyone who’s seen the Gore Vidal/Joseph Mankiewicz film adaptation knows the New Orleans humidity that has Davis in its grip has everything to do with madness, and nothing to do with puppy love.
2. Fountains Of Wayne, “It Must Be Summer” (from Utopia Parkway)
There’s a flip side to that breezy summer crush that so many songs celebrate. Somewhere, a faithful boyfriend waits bereft while his best girl makes eyes at her own personal Danny Zuko. Adam Schlesinger channels that abandonment into a straight-ahead power-pop number that celebrates the season’s unique brand of despair with perversely happy call-and-response harmonies. He searches for his lover from her sister’s place at the Jersey Shore to her mother’s house on Long Island Sound, but she’s absconded to some alternate-reality beach he can’t find. The song really gets going in the thumping bridge, when the chorus joins Schlesinger’s wail: “And the sun is beating me senseless / I feel defenseless, like a dying lamb…” In a textbook case of reverse seasonal affective disorder, he ultimately concludes that it must be summer “’cause I can’t go on.”
3. Joni Mitchell, “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” (from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns)
Mitchell titled her follow-up album to the hit album Court And Spark after this moody sketch of upper-class ennui. Over burbling electric piano and jazzy percussion, Mitchell describes elegantly appointed manses, with their “roomful of Chippendale that nobody sits in,” and the elegantly appointed owners, who wear diamonds and gaze past their barbed-wire fences at the backyard pools and smoky barbecues down in the valley below, where people seem a lot livelier. “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” is the centerpiece song on an album about lavish, romantic places, and the people who mope there.
4. Palace Music, “Gulf Shores” (from Lost Blues And Other Songs)
Both a salute to and a warning about vacation inertia, the Will Oldham-penned “Gulf Shores” follows an anxious monologue, as a man wonders about his sister’s stubborn refusal to leave the beach, for reasons known only to her. A soft, almost martial drumbeat runs under dreamy slide guitars and Oldham’s nervous, quavering voice. “Why do you do this to yourself?” he mutters. “You have let the family down.” Soon, the singer suggests places they could go and things they could do. And still his sister lies there, motionless, as Oldham frets, “Even tanned, your skin seems white.”
5. Red House Painters, “Grace Cathedral Park” (from Red House Painters)
The opening song on Red House Painters’ self-titled 1993 album—popularly known as Rollercoaster, for its cover photo—uses images of amusement parks and lakeside frolicking to set up the contrast between an idealized past and the way things are now, on the verge of a breakup. Singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek delivers one of his trickiest vocal performances, sounding oddly chipper at the start, as the rhythm skips and the band creates a swooping folk-rock hurdy-gurdy sound. But by the time Kozelek is done cataloguing the “lost times of youth that I miss,” his voice strains a little. “I feel the coming on of the fading sun,” he laments, before turning his attention to a lover who’s had it with this man who can’t stop living in the past.
6. The Twilight Sad, “That Summer, At Home, I Had Become The Invisible Boy” (from Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters)
One of the most recent musical tales of a bummer summer, The Twilight Sad’s breakthrough single recalls what it’s like to be a funny-looking 14-year-old, even with what appears to be “a loving mother” and “a strong father-figure with a heart of gold.” Whether the song’s narrator is literally invisible or just kind of forgotten is moot. What matters is the way he sees through the façade of a happy home—even if it only appears phony to a sullen teen—and the way the music swells and falls like a rush of hormones and the onset of post-masturbation gloom.
7. Bananarama, “Cruel Summer” (from Bananarama)
Many Americans first heard “Cruel Summer”—a hit for British girl-group Bananarama—in the summer of 1984, when the song appeared in the first-day-of-school scene of the season’s box-office smash The Karate Kid. The tune never made it onto the film’s soundtrack, but “Cruel Summer” was released as a single soon after, and has since been indelibly scrawled onto our collective brainpan as a paean to summertime boredom, loneliness, heat, and heartache. It isn’t hard to hear why: Over a sultry bassline, the girls listlessly purr lyrics like “Too hot to handle, baby / Trying to smile / But the air is so heavy and dry.”
8. The Kinks, “Lazy Old Sun” (from Something Else)
If ever a song served as an analogue for oppressive summertime torpor, “Lazy Old Sun” is it. As if solar radiation were melting his very voice, Ray Davies slurs lines like “Lazy old sun / What have you done to summertime? / Hiding away behind all those misty thunderclouds” and “You are my one reality / When I’m dead and gone, your light will shine eternally.” Meanwhile, liquid slides, maracas, and equatorial trumpet dance oasis-like above a guitar track swamped in ambience and melancholy. 1967’s Something Else was by no means a thematically unified record like its follow-up, The Village Green Preservation Society, but when “Lazy Old Sun” is taken with fellow Something Else cuts like “End Of The Season,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Love Me Till The Sun Shines,” an entire mini-cycle of sun-tethered whimsy and heartsick introspection emerges.
9. RJD2 Featuring Copywrite, “June” (from Deadringer)
An uncharacteristically sober-minded Copywrite promises to “depress all within listening range” early on RJD2’s haunting, melancholy summer bummer “June.” After some throat-clearing about the drudgery of indie-rap semi-fame, he does just that with a harrowing account of his tortured relationship with a beloved but often absent father. The kicker comes in a final verse where Copywrite broods about the summer month that symbolizes both his own beginning and his father’s end: “It sucks to lose / It also sucks we had to share the month of June / I woulda shared eternal time before I left / Each month I celebrate my birth, I’m reminded of your death.”
10. The Beach Boys, “The Warmth Of The Sun” (from Shut Down, Volume 2)
The Beach Boys’ 1964 album Shut Down, Volume 2 kicks off with “Fun, Fun, Fun” and comes loaded with some of the girls/surf/cars tunes good-timery that first made the group famous. But it also features shades of the melancholy to come with the immortal “Don’t Worry Baby,” as well as this lesser-known heartbreaker in which Brian Wilson sings about a girl who’s gone away. He has some comfort in the warmth of the sun and the dreams of days gone by, but in spite of the heat, it sounds like cold comfort.
11. Stevie Wonder, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” (from Where I’m Coming From)
“You said there’d be warm love in springtime,” Stevie Wonder sings on this 1971 single co-written with his soon-to-be wife—and then ex-wife—Syreeta Wright. “That is when you started to be cold.” What’s sadder: That said lover left Stevie alone while the sun beat down, or that the title suggests that he knew all along she’d be leaving eventually?
12. Charley Patton, “Some Summer Day”
This song’s bummer value depends on how the lyrics are transcribed. Charley Patton was in the first rank of Depression-era Delta bluesmen, but the combination of 1920s microphones and a tendency to mumble makes figuring out what he’s saying an exercise in creative interpretation. One thing’s certain—”Some Summer Day” is about a girl abandoned by her boyfriend: “In the last of spring, one brown old day, oh when he left you, he’s gone to stay.” Then the story gets complicated. Some people say Patton then consoles the girl by singing “Sally don’t you worry, because he still has chance number three,” meaning it’s not too late to patch up their relationship. But it’s impossible to discount the darker interpretation that the man “went away” to prison for murder—possibly for killing his girlfriend—and Patton is actually expressing relief “now he’s gone, I don’t worry, because he’d kill again another day.” Unrepentant spree killers most definitely make summer less fun.