Song of summer the year you graduated from high school
From doo-wop to disco and rock to rap, you can learn a great deal about the history of music from the songs of summer from the last 63 years. Throughout the decades, pop music has evolved through different genres, stars have risen and fallen, and new technology has led to radically different-sounding hits. Many songs of the summer share similar sounds, though: bright lyrical content, upbeat tempos, and warm instrumentals.
Of course, there's no national body that crowns the song of the summer. Stacker based this roundup on Billboard’s analysis of past years’ charts from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Awarding 100 points to a song that charted at #1 for a week, and one point to a song that charted at #100, Billboard generated the following songs of the summer and their runners-up.
The list begins with one of three non-English entries and the most classical-inspired piece on the list and moves from there to rock ‘n' roll, Motown, classic rock, and folk-rock, all before hitting the ‘80s. As synths began to replace screeching electric guitars, pop stars like Madonna and Mariah Carey rose to prominence. The era of electropop had begun.
Then, in the mid-’90s, a shift began—the effects of which are still manipulating the charts to this day. Hip-hop had arrived in the nationwide consciousness, bringing new techniques like sampling and rapping to pop music. There isn't a more jarring transition on this list than going straight from Bryan Adams to Sir Mix-A-Lot. Though more traditional pop songs have found their way to the summer charts, the hip-hop takeover is still underway with the supremacy of artists like Drake, Lil Nas X, and DaBaby, who have topped the list in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively.
Perhaps the next wave to take over the charts will come from another underground movement, and displace hip-hop the same way it displaced traditional pop itself. Maybe the future of music lies not in strict genres, but a blend of many elements. In any case, read on to remember which song was blasting out of car windows the year you finished high school, and don't forget to check out our curated playlist of all the winners.
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1958: 'Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volaré)'
- #1: "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volaré)" by Domenico Modugno
- #2: "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson
- #3: "Patricia" by Perez Prado And His Orchestra
One of three non-English hits on our list, this classical-inspired song's simple chorus of “Fly! Sing!” sounds much better in Italian than English. Covered by everyone from Dean Martin to David Bowie, "Volaré" was originally an entry in the Eurovision song contest.
1959: 'Lonely Boy'
- #1: "Lonely Boy" by Paul Anka
- #2: "The Battle Of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton
- #3: "A Big Hunk O' Love" by Elvis Presley With The Jordanaires
“I've got everything / You could think of / But all I want / Is someone to love,” goes the straightforward verse of this 2.5-minute hit summer song from 1959. Anka sang the song in the film “Girls Town,” which was featured on an episode of the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
1960: 'I'm Sorry'
- #1: "I'm Sorry" by Brenda Lee
- #2: "It's Now Or Never" by Elvis Presley With The Jordanaires
- #3: "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" by Connie Francis
Brenda Lee performed “I'm Sorry” at just 15 years old and it went on to hit #1 on the Billboard chart. Lately, it's had a bit of a modern renaissance with appearances in Beyonce's 2016 “Formation World Tour” concert movie and in the Netflix show “The End of the F***ing World.”
1961: 'Tossin' and Turnin''
- #1: "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis
- #2: "Quarter to Three" by U.S. Bonds
- #3: "The Boll Weevil" by Brook Benton
Maybe you don't remember “Girls Town” (mentioned on slide #3), but you've probably heard of “Animal House,” the frat movie that launched a genre of gross-out comedies. “Tossin' and Turnin'” was featured on the soundtrack, though it had a successful Billboard run on its own back in ‘61. It's been covered since by such musicians as The Supremes and Joan Jett.
1962: 'Roses Are Red (My Love)'
- #1: "Roses Are Red (My Love)" by Bobby Vinton
- #2: "I Can't Stop Loving You" by Ray Charles
- #3: "The Stripper" by David Rose And His Orchestra
One musician's trash is another singer's treasure; at least, that's how Bobby Vinton found “Roses Are Red,” which was tossed in a pile of rejects at Epic Records. Another 2.5-minute ditty, the song evokes the sounds of the time, now considered “oldies.”
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1963: 'Fingertips - Pt. 2'
- #1: "Fingertips - Pt. 2" by Little Stevie Wonder
- #2: "Surf City" by Jan & Dean
- #3: "Easier Said Than Done" by The Essex
The last song had a much more laidback tempo; “Fingertips” blasts off immediately with “Little Stevie” imploring the crowd to clap their hands amid brass horns blaring and harmonica solos. Listen closely and you can hear Marvin Gaye on drums, years before he became a superstar.
1964: 'Where Did Our Love Go'
- #1: "Where Did Our Love Go" by The Supremes
- #2: "I Get Around" by The Beach Boys
- #3: "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin
If Stevie wasn't enough of a clue, the influence of Motown in American pop music had begun by the early '60s. With big hair and bigger grooves, “Where Did Our Love Go” was one of several Supremes hits to go #1. At first, they doubted the song because it lacked a catchy hook, but Diana Ross' powerful lead vocals led it to the history books.
1965: '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'
- #1: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones
- #2: "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" by Four Tops
- #3: "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher
In the mid-'60s, the ghost of Paul Revere turned in his grave as the British Invasion began. “Satisfaction” landed the Rolling Stones their first #1 in the U.S., making the ditty the song of the summer. Curiously, The Beatles are absent from this list entirely.
1966: 'Wild Thing'
- #1: "Wild Thing" by The Troggs
- #2: "Summer In the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful
- #3: "Lil' Red Riding Hood" by Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs
Continuing on with the British invasion is “Wild Thing,” a straightforward song about passionate love. Composed in just a few minutes according to legend, the song would eventually become an instant emblem of mid-60s rock. Notable covers include one by Jimi Hendrix, who lit his guitar on fire after a live performance. The parody cover by Kit Harington, better known as Jon Snow on “Game of Thrones,” and Coldplay, though, didn't do much for its reputation.
1967: 'Light My Fire'
- #1: "Light My Fire" by The Doors
- #2: "Windy" by The Association
- #3: "Can't Take My Eyes off You" by Frankie Valli
Don't give the British all the credit, though; Americans eventually caught on to the style: With its jazzy drums and catchy electric piano riffs, “Light My Fire” catapulted Jim Morrison and The Doors to stardom in the United States, with a subsequent cover version by Puerto Rican artist José Feliciano bringing it even higher.
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