Choosing a list like this proved to be quite daunting. I didn’t want to go to the obvious route and include an album by The Beach Boys or one with direct references to summer. I was looking for albums with an overall feeling of summer – whether it be laid-back or general feelings of heat and exhaustion.
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” – The Byrds
For all intents and purposes alt-country starts here. It’s well-known The Byrds had already dabbled in country music prior to Sweetheart and helped usher in folk-rock. Led by Gram Parsons their country leanings now sounded authentic with a song selection included two originals mixed traditional C&W songs and covers of Dylan, Merle Haggard and the Carter Family tunes. It’s the perfect album for lazy days out in the sun with a cold beer in hand. Its easy and laid-back, but exciting enough not to induce a sleep which could cause an un-wanted sunburn.
“Victim of Love” – Charles Bradley
The first time I heard Bradley’s version of “Heart of Gold”(off of No Time for Dreaming) , I was convinced I had missed out on a gem from 1973. So I decided to check out his latest album, Victim of Love. Victim of Love is classicist Soul at its best: tight drums, thick bass-lines, heavenly background vocals, and full-throated singing. Bradley commands Victim of Love with his booming voice, but his stellar band is the ace in the hole. Victim of Love is the type of album you put on when you want everyone to be in a good mood. If they’re not in one when this is on, you probably don’t want them around anyway.
“It’s Too Late to Stop Now” – Van Morrison
For a long time, this my “go-to” album during the summer. If I couldn’t think of anything else to listen to, I figured It’s Too Late To Stop Now would make me feel good. Morrison’s patented “Celtic Soul” is never better than it is here. Backed by a 17-piece band, Morrison delivers beautiful renditions of such classics as “Into the Mystic” and “Caravan”. But it’s the 10-minute version of “Cypress Avenue” that is truly mind-blowing and transcendent complete with several false stops.
“Phrenology” – The Roots
Perhaps I only included this one for nostalgic reasons – I first listened to it the summer between my junior and senior years in college. Most Roots albums are dark – and this one has its moments as well – but the band’s delivery on the songs sound lighter and more retro here than other efforts. The heavy bass of “Rock You” feels like a sweaty night in the city. The circular guitar riff that propels “The Seed” plays like something out of ’70s. And if you don’t believe that ?uestlove is a fucking machine – which you should – check out his beat on “Rolling With Heat”.
“The Harder They Come” (Soundtrack) – Jimmy Cliff
For my money, this is the reggae album. It’s got songs from Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytalls and Desmond Decker and they’re all classics. “The Harder They Come” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” are perhaps the most well-known, but check out the Maytalls’ honey-dripping harmonies on “Sweet and Dandy” and the Slickers groove on “Johnny Too Bad”. The Harder They Come was another one of my “go-to” albums for the summer.
“Sticky Fingers” – The Rolling Stones
This album could make the cut solely for the Latin-infused coda that ends “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – perhaps Mick Taylor’s finest moment on record with the Stones – but the rest of the album plays like a sweat on your forehead that you just can’t shake. Its in the blues rave-up of “Bitch”, the country of “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers” and the late night come-down of “Moonlight Mile”. And then of course, there’s “Brown Sugar” which exudes steamy summer sex with its immortal riff and not so subtle lyrics.
“1999” – Prince
“Little Red Corvette” is the ultimate summer hook-up song. Prince has lots of great songs about the act, but this one is the best. The title track might be the end of the world, but being Prince he decided to turn into a party. It’s as if Bob Dylan decided that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” would be better off with some grooves. “The Minneapolis Sound” is perfected on this record on such songs as “D.M.S.R.” and “Lady Cab Driver”.
“Z”- My Morning Jacket
The secret to “Z” is the open space. Its a very full sounding record, but MMJ were smart enough to let the songs breathe and create the ambiance of a cool summer night. Jim James’ proves himself to be one of rock’s most versatile vocalists on this one. He can be soft and crooning as evident in the slow burn of “Dondante” and powerful and tuneful on “Anytime”. But it’s the psychedelic soul of “Into the Woods” where both he and the band create something that sounds so familiar yet is also fresh and original.
“The Basement Tapes” – Bob Dylan & The Band
The Basement Tapes might be the ultimate summer record. Like a good summer night, its full of hilarious moments and captures the sound of friends coming together. Due to the nature of the recordings, no song is ever forced. Most of the songs are fully formed – others are mere sketches (“Apple Suckling Tree” for instance), but they’re all brilliant. As Dylan sings in “Odds and Ends”, “you know what I’m saying and you know what I mean.”
“By the Way” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
I miss John Frusciante as a Chili Pepper. Does anyone doubt that they made their best records with him? By the Way finds the group mostly abandoning their rap/funk hybrid, and it’s all the better for it. Frusciante is the mastermind behind this surf-pop inspired record. With a few exceptions, the band never really rocks out, instead opting for laid-back grooves and tasty guitar playing from Frusciante.
“Chronicle” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
This one is technically cheating, since it’s not really an album. But I’m including it because 1.) this is the only CCR record you need and 2.) these songs were meant to be blasted from open windows during the summer. Like The Band, CCR was a kick in the face to other bands in the late ’60s with their down-home sound. Rock n’ roll rarely gets better than it does on Chronicle.