There’s something endearing about the handmade quality of a custom-made cassette. It’s not enough to just burn a bunch of MP3s to a blank disc – there’s no personality in that: Not only does an honest-to-God mix tape require you to sequence and time the songs just so, but you have to play out the whole track list while you’re transferring it to the tape. It’s a labor of love.
So I’ve decided to make my own mix tape, long enough in two parts to fit on an hourlong cassette, to soundtrack the summer. It’d be too easy to find songs with “sunshine” or “summer” in the titles – no, I’ve collected 16 songs that evoke the summer months, the tunes that instantly transport me to June or July whenever I hear them.
Put it in your tape deck, roll down the car windows and drive until you run out of road.
1. “Since I Left You” – The Avalanches. The Australian electronic group the Avalanches have only released one album, 2000’s “Since I Left You,” and it remains the perfect musical accompaniment to a summer day. This opening track, built on a sample from the Main Attraction’s “Everyday,” mixes flamenco guitar, flutes, strings and swirling synths to evoke a tropical paradise where every day’s a party.
2. “Honey Bunny” – Girls. Although released in 2011, this pop gem from the sadly defunct San Francisco band Girls sounds almost like a lost Beach Boys track. The ringing guitars, the propulsive surf rock drums, the sweet vocal harmonies, the bridge that decelerates into a 30-second slow dance before picking back up again – it’s enough to make Brian Wilson weep.
3. “Alright” – Supergrass. Supergrass’ debut album, “I Should Coco,” is a ’90s Britpop classic, and this is easily its most famous track. It’s been used in film soundtracks and on TV commercials, but it retains its original sense of cheeky anarchy, of teenage hoodlums cutting summer school to smoke, drink and crash their cars.
4. “Bumper” – Cults. They might be a one-trick pony, but New York pop duo Cults executes that one trick very well. Short, sweet and a little slight, “Bumper” effortlessly captures the sound of Phil Spector’s girl groups of the early ’60s, gliding by with a plinking piano hook, reverb-heavy vocals and a hell of a hook.
5. “Heavy Metal Drummer” – Wilco. One of the more wistful tracks from Wilco’s 2002 masterpiece “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” frontman Jeff Tweedy pines for the summertime metal concerts of his youth, when the bands wore “shiny, shiny pants” and played nothing but KISS covers. It’s an unexpected ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy, mournful record.
6. “Cut Your Hair” – Pavement. The closest to a hit indie rock gods Pavement ever had, “Cut Your Hair” is a quintessential ’90s single, immediately appealing and catchy but still rough around the edges. The lyrics are mostly nonsensical, but Stephen Malkmus paints a sketchy picture of the frustrating dynamic of a band in turmoil, perhaps the same one Tweedy waxes rhapsodic about in “Heavy Metal Drummer.”
1. “Drunk Girls” – LCD Soundsystem. LCD Soundsystem’s blend of disco, soul and electronica is ideal for a sweaty late summer dance party. This song, from their final album “This Is Happening,” conjures images of one of those parties getting way out of hand: Everyone’s too impaired to make good decisions, someone’s locked themselves in the bathroom, the neighbors have called the cops, and yet, the music plays on.
2. “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You” – Black Kids. With an edgy name and a penchant for ungainly song titles, Florida’s Black Kids specialize in anthemic earworms and yet only gained a pop following in the U.K. “I’m Not Gonna…” is the best kind of bubblegum – the verses are as catchy as the chorus, and it’s impossible not to sing along to.
3. “The Good Life” – Weezer. Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics are the stuff of embarrassing diary entries, but his melodies are straight-up pop gold. This song, one of the highlights from their seminal album “Pinkerton,” is punchy, brash and messy in the best way, the kind of song that slows down near the end just so it can speed up again even faster than before.
4. “I’m a Pretender” – The Exploding Hearts. The Hearts’ only album, 2003’s “Guitar Romantic,” is so good it could almost pass as a greatest hits compilation – you could replace “I’m a Pretender” with any of its 10 hooky songs. Shortly after the record’s release, three of the four members died in a car crash, but it remains one of the best (and sadly unheralded) throwbacks to the exuberant pop-punk of the ’70s.
5. “Velouria” – Pixies. The Pixies are one of my go-to summer bands: Whether it’s their surf rock inflections or their frequent allusions to beaches and surfers, they’re a shoo-in for this kind of list. I could have put any of their songs on here, but I’ll go with this gem from their overlooked 1990 album “Bossanova” – it’s bright and shiny, with a snarling intensity bubbling just below the surface.
6. “A.M. 180” – Grandaddy. The entirety of “Under the Western Freeway,” Grandaddy’s 1997 sophomore album, plays out like the slowly fading light of a long summer day. Constructed around one of indie rock’s catchiest synth lines, this song seems to be the perfect closer: It’s only three minutes long, and yet it feels like an epic.
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