Songs of summer are supposed to be romantic and carefree, offering us a lighthearted distraction from the real world, at least for the season. There are some of those escapist songs here, in my playlist of 2020 releases — pop songs about simple pleasures, seasonal romance, and the comfort of childhood memories.
But this is a summer like no other, as the world contends with a pandemic and people take to the streets to protest racial injustice. So there are also songs here that, coupled with anger and sorrow, sing of resilience, determination, and joy.
They all do what pop music does best: Make us feel alive in the here and now. And they’ll bring us back to this moment in time when we hear them in years down the road, like a Jason Isbell “Dreamsicle” from a summer that’s faded into the past.
Programming note: The songs are not ranked in order of best to worst, even though Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” which kicks it off, is pretty great. It’s organized as a playlist, intended to be listened to in order. Hit the shuffle button if you must, but you’ll be defying me if you do.
Anderson .Paak feat. Jay Rock, “Lockdown.” Anderson .Paak’s easygoing, in-the-pocket funk is made for hazy summer days. This hushed, contemplative song speaks up against a world where “they throw away Black lives like paper towels.” Take note: The superb Jay Rock verse is included only in the video, not on Spotify.
Sault feat. Michael Kiwanuka, “Bow.” Ugandan-British vocalist Kiwanuka rides a West African groove on this standout from Sault’s Untitled (Black Is), a contender for album of the summer, if not the year.
Beyoncé, “Black Parade.” “Curtis Mayfield on the speaker / Lil’ Malcolm, Martin mixed with mama Tina,” Beyoncé sings on this proud celebration of Black culture, backing up protesters and speaking out in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
H.E.R., “I Can’t Breathe.” “If we all agree that we’re equal as people, then why can’t we see what is evil?” Genre-splicing singer Gabriella Wilson asks that good question on this quietly powerful protest song.
The Chicks, “March March.” The pop-country trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks announced their name change with this single from Gaslighter, their Jack Antonoff-produced comeback, due July 17. Natalie Maines sings about gun violence, LGBTQ rights, and climate change, and asks: “Who’s comin’ with me?”
Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird.” Country star Lambert released an acoustic version of this sweet gem about coming to terms with growing older from her 2019 album, Wildcard, and as usual it outclasses its competition on country radio.
John Prine, “I Remember Everything.” A solo acoustic love song released at the conclusion of last month’s star-studded Picture Show livestream tribute to the songwriting giant who died from COVID-19 complications in April. A heartbreaker.
Bob Dylan, “Black Rider.” “The road that you’re on, same road that you know,” Dylan sings on this haunted track from Rough & Rowdy Ways. “Just not the same as it was a minute ago.” If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world can irrevocably change in an instant.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “Dreamsicle.” An expertly evoked teenage memory, “a dreamsicle on a summer night.” You can almost see the fireflies swirling. From Isbell’s superb Reunions.
Harry Styles, “Watermelon Sugar.” The former One Direction heartthrob with a deep affection for 1970s pop-rock saved this tasty morsel from last year’s Fine Line for when the weather got hot and sticky.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Summer Love.” It’s been eight years since Jepsen ruled the summer with “Call Me Maybe.” Since then she’s remade herself as a thinking woman’s alt-pop star. “Summer Love” comes from Dedicated Side B, her impressive album of songs that didn’t make it onto last year’s Dedicated.
Naeem, “Stone Harbor.” The most full-fledged pop song on Startisha, the new album by the artist formerly known as Spank Rock. Named for the Jersey beach town where it was composed.
The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights.” Canadian love man Abel Tesfaye is caught up in his feelings as always, and he expresses his angst here with an abundance of 1980s synth-pop energy on this track from After Hours.
Shamir, “On My Own.” Philadelphia indie songwriter Shamir, whom Billboard named LGBTQ artist of the month for July, has penned an ode to self-worth that embraces mainstream pop as he hasn’t since 2015′s breakout Ratchet.
Haim, “The Steps.” Sisters Alana, Este, and Danielle Haim loosen up to winning effect on their new Women in Music Pt. III, and this guitar-driven track catches them at their most engaging.
Dougie Poole, “Los Angeles.” Cosmic country from the Brooklyn cowboy’s winning Freelancer’s Blues about deciding to stay put on the East Coast. Not to be confused with Haim’s not-as-good song of the same name.
The Beths, “Out of Sight.” Another irresistibly catchy winner from the New Zealand indie pop band fronted by Elizabeth Stokes, from Jump Rope Gazers, due July 10.
2nd Grade, “My Bike.” “When I’m on my bike, I can do the things I like,” Peter Gill of the Philadelphia power-pop band 2nd Grade sings on the band’s album Hit to Hit. “It’s takes me to the record store downtown.” What could be better?
Bad Bunny, “Yo Perreo Solo.” A worthy celebration of self-sufficiency in quarantine time, in the tradition of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” The English translation of the Latin trap and reggaeton star’s hit: “I twerk alone.”
DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch, “Rockstar.” There’s nothing politically pointed about the original “Rockstar,” a declaration of a pop-music truism: Rap stars are today’s rock stars. But the song that tops the Billboard Hot 100 was transformed on the BET Awards with a powerful new Black Lives Matter intro.
Run the Jewels feat. Greg Nice and DJ Premier, “Ooh La La.” Perhaps the catchiest of the industrial-force jams on Killer Mike and El-P’s powerful RTJ4. Extra points for Brian and Melissa Beletric’s video, in which the band and Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha dance on capitalism’s grave.
Public Enemy, “State of the Union (STFU).” Chuck D. and Flavor Flav are back in action on this anti-Donald Trump tirade, which connects back to — without quite matching — the brilliance of the band in its prime.
Bob Mould, “American Crisis.” On this bitter salvo, Husker Du founder Mould is in a righteous punk-rock rage about all manner of things that have gone wrong.
Meek Mill, “Otherside of America.” The Philadelphia rapper recorded this before the Black Lives Matter protests, but it’s a well-timed missive from the street, complete with cameos from Donald Trump and Michael Smerconish.
Kanye West feat. Travis Scott, “Wash Us in the Blood.” Teaming with Scott and with assistance from Dr. Dre, “Wash Us in the Blood” aims to make West relevant again in these times of pandemic and protest, adapting his gospel-rap aesthetic. Not an unqualified success, but it does raise expectations for the forthcoming God’s Country.
Pink Sweat$, “Not Alright.” Philly songwriter David Bowden — whose stage name matches his preferred attire — shifts from his romantic persona on this song from The Prelude, an EP due on July 17. “Not Alright” is “about the wide range of feelings you experience being Black in America,” he told Hypebeast. Added gravitas does his music good.
Keedron Bryant, “I Just Wanna Live.” Bryant is the 12-year-old gospel singer from Florida whose searing a cappella performance of this song by his mother, Johnetta, went viral one day after George Floyd was killed in police custody. On Juneteenth, Warner Bros. announced that it had signed Bryant and that all proceeds from “I Just Wanna Live” will go to the NAACP.