Summer officially doesn't begin until June 21, but most people consider the Memorial Day holiday a start to the outdoor season. Like baseball and barbecues, the summer song is an annual summer tradition. Prognosticators are already debating hits from Drake, Cardi B, and Kyle, among others, to see who should don the summer pop crown. Here, however, we look at artists who crafted full albums that complement a summer diet – that is, they're relatively easy to digest. Since surveying the entirety of pop history would result in an overwhelming list (and still include quite a few Beach Boys works), we've limited ourselves to records released in the past five years. Without further delay, these are five modern albums that should be future summer classics.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
This list begins with what just may be the most vibrant album issued in the first half of 2018. Janelle Monáe's third proper studio effort is many things – a political statement, a celebration of women, and a collection of empowering anthems. It also serves as a Rome-is-burning dance-pop party. But this is a party with a message, as the songs nod to the marginalized and the disenfranchised while seeking to lift them up with genre-hopping R&B and electronic-infused funk. A song such as "Screwed" alludes to Prince's light-stepping guitar playing and "Vogue"-era Madonna, all while spinning a sexually charged message of stripping power from the powerful. "Crazy Classic Life" comes on as an invitingly glossy statement of independence while "Django Jane" leans more hip-hop in its inspiring, women-to-the-front memorandum. Monáe not only has important things to say, but aims to throw an all-inclusive revelry while doing so.
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
In a just world, Kacey Musgraves' "High Horse" would be 2018's song of the summer. The tune, found on her third solo effort and recently released Golden Hour, sees the artist stepping beyond her country/Americana roots. Constructed with long-standing Nashville producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, the track feels a little like what would happen if Daft Punk relocated to Music City. While still more rootsy than dancey, thanks largely to Musgraves' grounded vocals, it's the sort of song that effortlessly glides out of the stereo. It's also fun, despite its kiss-off message. "Why don't you giddy up, giddy up," Musgraves sings, a phrase that should have inspired a new line dance by now. The rest of the album, while slightly more restrained, proves equally joyful, as Musgraves brings spacey production flourishes to earnest tunes that often look for the good in difficult situations all the while leaving room for porch-lit reflection.
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
Southern California has given us many sun-scorched albums for summer listening. There's the Laurel Canyon folk of the exquisite Linda Ronstadt and Tom Petty's lush, classic-rock-inspired Full Moon Fever. Jenny Lewis owes a debt to both artists, as well as Fleetwood Mac. Her 2014 effort, The Voyager, delivers prettiness with a side of bitterness. And maybe even a hint of bluesiness and mysticism, as evidenced by the roadside infatuation of a song such as "Late Bloomer." Largely, however, it's an album about pulling through, and ideal for our alternately romantic and melancholic summer nights. "She's Not Me," with its light orchestral touches, graceful harmonies, and disruptive guitar, ultimately functions as a bold statement about brushing off someone else's judgements. "The New You" seems downright hopeful with its jangly guitars while "Aloha & the Three Johns," with a bubbly island undercurrent, arrives as a pop-rock rush that, while not about a short-lived summer fling, feels like it could be.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
Sometimes an old-fashioned barbecue just needs some old-fashioned rock n' roll – or, in the case of the Alabama Shakes, some new old-fashioned rock n' roll. The band came out blistering on its 2012 debut Boys & Girls, with the act tirelessly working to create a retro roar to match the furiousness of singer Brittany Howard. 2015's Sound & Color dials things down a bit, yet still frames songs around Howard's scratched-up blues-funk howl. In turn, the group's Southern-leaning rock found more nuance and at times, can shake like an old James Brown song or ride a Booker T and the MG's groove. Guitars share equal space with the keyboard, giving the album a slight psychedelic tilt and making space for the rhythm section to strut. All told, it feels like a mixtape decades in the making.
Spoon, Hot Thoughts
Austin, Texas-based Spoon has already perfected the art of minimalism. The group's sharp, pointed melodies are often more about peeling things back than creating new layers. Last year's Hot Thoughts doesn't reinvent the band's formula but hones it. The melodies are crisper, the keyboard a bit brighter, and the rhythms more intent on creating a groove. While not a dance record by any means, it doubles as an indie-rock set to which one can dance. See the brushed, stomping rhythms of "Do I Have to Talk You into It" or disco blur that permeates "Shotgun." The urgent guitars and topical message of "Tear it Down" are tempered with a keyboard that feels airlifted from a gospel song and the stop-and-start beat of "Can I Sit Next to You" is built for hand-claps. Even the raspy vocals of Britt Daniel can't distract from the album's feel-good vibe.
Photo credit: Kelly Christine Sutton, Universal Music Group Nashville