Oh yeah. It's getting hot, the Hawaiian shirts are out of storage, there's a new Red Bull out that might be good or bad. Summer's here, baby! And I'm sharing my stable of timeless summertime touchstones—records perfect for kicking it by the pool, driving to the beach, taking a day hike (please don't be one of those guys with the bluetooth speaker hanging off your backpack), or sitting at the computer with the AC on.
Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
This album is part of an esteemed canon of foundational works in my music taste, which means it was one of the albums I had a full-length YouTube upload of saved to my phone in high school. It doesn't sound all that groundbreaking now, and maybe it wasn't in 2009, when I was barely paying attention. But it captures an absolutely crystalline vibe nothing else has ever done so well. The opening primer (AM) into the first full track Deadbeat Summer feels like jumping into your friend's pool knowing and not caring that it's gonna wash off the sunscreen you spent twenty minutes applying. You can worry about that, and everything else, later. It's time to float—in the carefully dad-adjusted 7.2 pH water, and in the soft fuzz and psyched-out textures of Psychic Chasms, which combines dreamy compositions and production with themes of letting go and cutting loose. An annual late-May tradition since tenth grade.
DESKPOP x Galaxy Swim Team – SUMMER SOLSTICE
DESKPOP / 2016
I see a lot of nostalgia posts about the summer of 2016 specifically being really good, for whatever reason. Maybe it was just the peak couple months of Soundcloud culture, maybe it was the summer after high school for folks my age; maybe it was just the last summer people remember before everything sucked all the time. I think the summer of 2016 was good largely because I had this compilation blasting all the time. It's an incredible stack of digital fusion & proto-hyperpop tunes from before those were named genres. The opening track is a soundfont-blasted pop ballad about the plot of Super Mario Sunshine and it's uphill from there, soaring through the cyberfunk atmosphere of astroskeleton's ocean park and FLOOR BABA's (hugely underrated) SUNRAIN TRAMPOLINE before entering the third act with chalkboards' adorable sweet tea lemonade. Every song on this comp is a master study of the Summer Vibe examined from a different angle—sylcmyk's baroque SNES maximalism, Noah Hafford's instant-classic prom-pop, leon's chilled-out Ghibli-trap (I am running low on descriptors). SUMMER SOLSTICE is essential.
TWRP – Return to Wherever
I really like TWRP, and over the course of their more recent releases I have been pleased to see them pivot away from the original wacky gimmick and toward showcasing their extremely real musical talent in a more genuine way. Return to Wherever sits on that boundary. It's framed by a silly concept and a lot of the lyrics are kind of goofy, but it's also not afraid to absolutely shred. Take Typhoon Turnpike, an instrumental track that sounds like a (delicious, frozen, blended) cocktail of Masayoshi Takanaka, modern synth-cheese, Brazilian pop, and MarioKart (the latter so much so that someone covered it using N64 instruments). It's simply perfect. Shades of these influences cover the whole record in different ways: Cosmic Tides brings a more new-age synthesized meditation; goofball pump-up anthem Hidden Potential probably owes its intense positivity and slap bass to '80s workout rock. The finisher All Night Forever is probably one of their best, equally heartfelt and bangin'. This record is good times in a bottle.
Slime Girls – Vacation Wasteland
Yetee Records / 2012
The definitive summertime chiptune album, simple in its construction but beautifully complex in its impact. Vacation Wasteland combines Game Boy waves and sound with a light touch of analog guitar and drums just often enough to keep it interesting, and invites you on a journey that feels like a hot day on the curb outside the convenience store. To me this is kind of the Vanilla Coke of summer albums: I don't always remember it's there, but when I spot it I immediately pound the whole thing and wonder how I could've forgotten.
Jeff Lorber – In the Heat of the Night
A friend of mine refers to a certain variety of shredding-focused funk-fusion as "powercheese." This record is a fondue fountain, baby. It's packed with face-scrunching solos, delightfully primitive synth sounds, and yacht-party fluff lyrics that mostly serve as dressing on the foundation of Smooth Jams. It's both a really solid jazz-fusion album and a charming enough cheeseball that you can let your friends think you like it semi-ironically. I know I cited it already but Blast Off literally might use some of the same synth patches as the Super MarioKart soundtrack (citation needed). If you listen to "future funk" or its associated post-vaporwave genres you will hear samples you recognize on this album and you will realize that their original form is better. An ideal record for pulling some embarrassing dance moves at the barbecue.
Masayoshi Takanaka – An
Citypop is the sound of summer. I don't make the rules. And while of course there's an incredible wealth of fantastic music from Japan from roughly this era, you gotta respect the king (& possibly the Rockingest Dude of all time). Frankly his entire catalog is killer, and I don't even think I could pick a definitive Favorite Takanaka Album—this one is featured here because I think it's a good gateway, and because I listened to SEXY DANCE one thousand times last summer. Basslines you'll wake up thinking about months from now support immaculate guitar work in both the rhythm and flair sections; the whole package is wrapped in a sort of misty warmth (maybe it's the old-school mastering?) that helps to perennialize the Summer Vibe even on a record approaching 50 years old like a bug trapped in amber with tiny sunglasses on. Just shuffle this guy's whole body of work next time you're enjoying some sunshine.
Walter Wanderley – Rain Forest
Verve / 1966
As I gradually (and, I hope, gracefully) morph into an old guy (I'm 24 and being crazy), I find that I am drawn to a certain classic Old Guy set of aesthetic tastes, and when the weather's warm this includes "tiki" stuff. I love a vintage Hawaiian shirt. I love a slushy rum drink with a big tuft of mint stuck in it. And I love this record, which embodies the late-midcentury energy of tiki culture: something removed from its original context and diluted to offer dorky uncles just the right level of exotic escapism. I guess "quaint" is a decent adjective—the fact that the best image I could find of this cover has a five-dollar used-store tag on it should give you a pretty good idea. Rain Forest is what your mind hears when I say "elevator music:" low-energy, backgroundy bossa-nova jazz that diffuses into any room agreeably and invisibly. Longtime Jack Content Fanatics might recognize it as the score to a cooking video I made many years ago when my hair looked really bad. But it's just as comfortable under actual inspection as it is being "easy listening;" there's no doubt that Wanderley is talented with his instrument, and the accompaniment puts in the work. Recommended for a night with the blender out and the novelty Dollar Tree pineapple cups full of slush.
Video Age – Pop Therapy
Winspear / 2018
I'm a kind of reserved (thing I found out you can call "socially anxious" instead) guy. It takes a while for me to reach a level of trust with someone where I'll sing in the car with them. And I seldom dance, as a personality trait. But Video Age manages to juice both these things out of me in almost any context. There's something really special about their goofy, sunny-side synthpop style. Even the songs that are about longing and heartbreak when you pay close attention come with shimmy-inducing keyboard solos. It's not frivolous enough in its use of a retro-washed sound to be "synthwave." It's not technical enough to be "nu-disco." It's just excellent slow-pop music with a little vintage flair. Recommended for a long drive to the really good thrift store two towns over.
Engelwood – Nautical Nonsense
I know I took a potshot at "future funk" like three pages ago. That was sort of an older-brother noogie: deep down I think future funk is fun and good. This record actually very nearly landed on my favorites of 2022 list thanks to the massive rotation it was on last summer. As happens to me frequently, a Bandcamp review sums it up better than I could: user nluken writes, "The concept here isn't super complex: take a bright sample, a funky baseline, a house beat, and throw it together. These simple ingredients go a long way." They're right! Every aspect of Nautical Nonsense is just unpretentiously having a fun time: the title, the beats, the disco samples, the little Eizin Suzuki confetti streamers on the cover. It's the musical version of a soft-serve cone from the drive-in. You'll ruin it for yourself if you think about the last time they cleaned the machine, dude. Just relax and enjoy. Recommended for dumping in its entirety onto a playlist for a party you keep talking about planning and gradually condede that what you really cared about was the playlist.
Taeko Ohnuki – Sunshower
Citypop is the sound of summer!! I wanted to include one more vintage Japanese album to show a different side of the genre from Takanaka's all-out funk-fusion, which isn't to say this record doesn't also shred in some places, but it comes down on the airy and dreamy side moreso, with light-touch jazzy percussion and some iconic flute work on the A side. Ohnuki's vocal performance is gorgeous as well, of course. There's something beautifully open-ended about listening to music in a language you don't understand; being dropped into a sea of pure sounds and melodies unfettered by themes and untouched by the analytical nodes of your brain. And there might be no better sea of pure sounds than Sunshower for a summer afternoon when Nice Vibes are in demand. Timelessly tight production elevates some exceptional light-rock jazz-fusion playing into a true classic.
Jerry Paper – Fuzzy Logic
The Summer Vibe isn't high-energy all the time. It's also about, say, walking to the gas station for a snack at one in the morning and reflecting on whether you deserve or can handle the freedom from responsibility that your ability to make this trip at this time represents. Next time that's you, throw on Fuzzy Logic, a beautiful and comforting record of anxieties being aired out and subsequently self-soothed. There are no solutions offered here, but there is a rare catharsis in just hearing what you're feeling out loud in such an earnest way. "What am I supposed to do? / Someone please just tell me," demand the lyrics of Reprogram Ourselves point-blank. The sonic texture mirrors the emotional weariness: warm analog synthesizer patches and simple, familiar drum machine patterns blend into a soundscape that goes down like a long sip of slurpee on a humid midnight. This record has been with me through many summers both good and bad—it's a comfort when things are rough but still a nice vibe when they're okay.