Summer means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about avoiding work and enjoying barbecues. For others, it’s all about avoiding the heat and enjoying the water. And for a select few, it’s all about avoiding deadly projectiles while enjoying backyard games of Jarts.
But no matter what you’re up to this (or any) summer, you need a soundtrack.
The 12 albums on this list of the best summer albums of all time vary in the amount they’re actually about summer. (A few are really more about Southern California than anything else, but hey, it’s basically always summer there.) Just trust us — all of these records are ideal for beating the heat by rolling down the windows and turning up the volume.
Best Album For Sleeping Under The Stars (In Your Car)
AC/DC / Back in Black ($7 and up @ Amazon.com) | 1980
When frontman Bon Scott died in February of 1980 of alcohol poisoning — he choked on his own vomit after passing out in a parked car — his bandmates were understandably devastated. But then the plucky Australians found Brian Johnson, who happened to be the one person in the universe who could emulate Scott’s dentist-drill voice. They released this hastily put-together album in July of 1980 and kicked off the first of 30 summers (so far) that Back In Black — it’s sold 49 million copies and counting — would make totally kick-ass.
Summeriest Song: “You Shook Me All Night Long”
Dr. Dre | The Chronic ($10 @ Amazon.com) | 1992
Even though it’s laaaaaid-back, this solo debut from the N.W.A. mastermind was just as hard-edged as Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet — but thanks to its SoCal roots, it’s just a tad more summery. The east-coast/west-coast divide started to get ugly not long after The Chronic was released, but for a minute there, the difference between the two was as simple as an infusion of classic ’70s soul samples and a a few cubic acres of medicinal-grade weed.
Summeriest Song: “Let Me Ride”
Best Summer Album Obligated To Be On a List of Best Summer Albums
The Beach Boys | All Summer Long | 1966
The very concept of a “summer album” was pretty much invented by the Beach Boys, and this collection of beach-blanket bingoism is their best example. Of course, the band also pretty much invented the concept of the epic rock-band meltdown as members started suffering unfortunate bouts of madness, drug abuse, and drowning. (Speaking of which, you’d score music-geek cred with Dennis Wilson’s 1977 lost classic Pacific Ocean Blue, the melancholy yang to All Summer Long‘s bouncy yin.)
Summeriest Songs: “Girls on the Beach,” “I Get Around”
Best Album For People Who Wish Bruce Springsteen Made More Drug References
The Hold Steady | Boys and Girls in America ($7 @ Amazon.com) | (2006)
Okay, pretty much every song frontman Craig Finn has written is a meditation on the honored summer pastimes of getting wasted and hooking up near a body of water. But his band’s third album raises the bar with the seasonally appropriate “Chillout Tent,” which celebrates the less honored pastime of taking waaaay too many drugs at a music festival. And then hooking up.
Summeriest Song: “Massive Nights”
Best Album For Getting F’d Up in 110-Degree Heat
Queens of the Stone Age | Rated R ($10 and up @ Amazon.com) | (2000)
The band’s debut album — the band is basically made up entirely of Josh Homme — helped define a genre so completely that it became alternately known as “desert rock” (since Homme is a native of Palm Desert, California) and “stoner rock” (since … well, ask Homme). But the true breakthrough came on this sophomore album thanks to the snarling opening track “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” whose verses consisted solely of the words, “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol,” followed by the chorus, “C-c-c-c-cocaine.” It made Homme the easiest man in rock to buy birthday presents for.
Summeriest Song: “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”
Best Pool Party Soundtrack…If You Only Had a Pool
Beastie Boys | Paul’s Boutique ($12 and up @ Amazon.com) | 1989
Following the ridiculous success of Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys truly were, as they boasted, always on vacation. So when it came time to work on the follow-up, they rented a house in the Hollywood Hills that included a bedroom whose window faced out onto the pool. Stocked with stranger-than-fiction war stories of hooliganism, the entire album is the sound of three New York kids having so much illicit fun in the sun that they’ve been tending to the hangover ever since.
Summeriest Song: “Hey Ladies”
Best Album For City Folk Pretending They’re Country Folk
Lucinda Williams | Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ($5 and up @ Amazon.com) | (1998)
When you’re choking on exhaust in rush-hour traffic, playing this album is a great way to imagine you’re drinking beer on a quiet porch miles away from anyone else. Those kinds of simple pleasures are made all the more appealing because they’re brought to life by the weary but wizened Williams, who, quite honestly, would just as likely pull a shotgun on you as offer you one of her beers if you drove up her road uninvited.
Summeriest Song: “Can’t Let Go”
Best Album For Picking Up Chicks In Your Trans Am
Van Halen | Van Halen ($12 and up @ Amazon.com) | 1978
Even the weakest tracks on this debut (“Feel Your Love Tonight,” “Little Dreamer”) would be standouts on any other hard-rock album of this, or any other, era. Eddie’s pyrotechnics, Dave’s ringmaster bluster, Alex’s relentless drumming, and moreover — yes, moreover — Mike’s background vocals all add up to create an album so carefree and id-driven that it can make Minnesota in January feel like Pasadena in July.
Summeriest Song: “Ice Cream Man”
Best Album For Passing Out On a Beach
Girls | Album ($8 @ Amazon.com) | 2009
Frontman Christopher Owens sings like Roy Orbison during allergy season and looks like Laura Dern, but as one part of the duo Girls, he’s half responsible for last year’s best debut album. It’s a strung-out masterpiece that blends plaintive crooning with ’60s-style pop haze and answers the eternal question, “What would the soundtrack sound like if David Lynch made a surf movie?”
Summeriest Song: “Summertime”
Best Album For Battling Big-City Heat Waves
Stevie Wonder | Songs In the Key of Life ($13 @ Amazon.com) | 1976
Widely considered one of the greatest R&B/pop albums of all time — where would Coolio be if not for “Pastime Paradise?” — Songs mercifully predates Wonder’s post-disco treacle like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Even a song called “Ordinary Pain” sounds happy, while the instrumental “Easy Going Evening” is as advertised. Unintentional summer-related coincidence: Lollapalooza is another term for an “all day sucker,” which is one of the bonus tracks on this album.
Summeriest song: “Summer Soft”
Best Album For Proving Even Jaded Hipsters Love Summer
Pavement |Slanted and Enchanted ($9 @ Amazon.com) | 1992
One could argue that Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the second album from these indie heroes, had a more sun-baked, skateboarding-after-sunset vibe. But it was this debut album that led off with “Summer Babe,” precisely the sort of instantly iconic anthem that these ambivalent curmudgeons would never admit to wanting to write.
Summeriest Song: “Summer Babe”
Best Album For Getting Stoned In Your Parents’ Basement in 1975
Big Star | #1 Record/Radio City ($9.50 @ Amazon.com)| 1972/1974
It’s borderline criminal that it took the death of frontman Alex Chilton this past March to cement his status as a master of the kind of power pop summer nights are both suited for and the subject matter of. The first two of the three albums his Memphis band made—generally packaged now as a double album—plays like a greatest-hits set. “In the Street” nails no-good teen ennui so perfectly that the makers of That ’70s Show swiped it for their theme song, while the comedown “Watch the Sunrise” makes you want to stay up until six in the morning just on principle.