Now that Memorial Day is officially in the rearview, and even though speculation began months ago, the conversation (and let’s be honest, competition) over what will be the official song of the summer of 2015 can truly begin. In ascending to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, Taylor Swift has already made a strong case for “Bad Blood” as a contender, though it’s honestly probably too negative a tune to score a season’s worth of driving to the beach and drinking at barbecues.
Whatever ends up becoming the definitive anthem of the next few months will join a sacred fraternity of artists and songs that live on even after the sunburn fades. So here is a definitive ranking of the last 20 years of songs of summer, ranked from best to least-best.
Rihanna feat. Jay Z, “Umbrella” (2007)
It’s ironic that the best summer song of the past two decades invokes so much rain imagery, but “Umbrella” does everything a summer song should do: it’s got a hook that is simple enough to sing along to, it’s sticky without being annoying, and hits just hard enough in the chorus to underscore fireworks displays and walk-off home runs. It’s summer personified, distilled into four glorious minutes of sound.
Beyoncé, “Crazy In Love” (2003)
“Crazy In Love” is only about a tenth of a step behind “Umbrella,” only losing points because “Crazy In Love” is slightly too manic for a chilled-out tanning session. But otherwise, it’s more flawless than “***Flawless.”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (2012)
The most unlikely phenmenon of 2012 remains an absolutely incredible jam: The strings still soar, Jepsen’s breezy melody still sticks, and the lyric “call me maybe” is still a charmingly quirky turn of phrase. Despite the unheralded greatness of “I Really Like You,” “Call Me Maybe” will always be Jepsen’s Citizen Kane.
Destiny’s Child, “Bootylicious” (2001)
Are there any words to “Bootylicious” besides “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly”? With jam this huge, does it really matter?
Nelly, “Hot In Herre” (2002)
A personal favorite, this also gets bonus points for centering its hook around stripping because it’s too damn hot, which is likely to lead to skinnydipping—perhaps the greatest of summer activities.
TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)
Artistically speaking, this is actually the most accomplished song on this list. TLC was able to marry a slinky groove to some blissful harmonies and tight storytelling. But though that third element is great, it also holds the song back. After all, is there anything less festive than T-Boz describing a dude dying of AIDS? It’s great food for thought, but isn’t particularly conducive to swigging Lime-A-Ritas.
Katy Perry, “California Gurls” (2010)
This song is awesome, but is it a little too awesome? “California Gurls” was obviously designed in a lab to be the song of the summer, and there’s something mildly unsettling about how craven that is. Still, it gets credit for an undeniably season-appropriate groove and a charmingly goofy guest verse by Snoop Dogg.
Usher feat. Ludacris & Lil Jon, “Yeah!” (2004)
“Yeah!” is still a crazy bonkers banger, but its claustrophbic production makes it feel a little too hot for the warm summer months. Even though I’ll listen to it forever, there’s also an understantable fatigue associated with Lil Jon’s maniacal shouting.
Brandy & Monica, “The Boy Is Mine” (1998)
Another basically perfect pop song that just doesn’t quite feel like the kind of tune you crank up on the way to the shore. Props to producers Rodney Jerkins and Dallas Austin for that criminally slinky groove.
Robin Thicke feat. Pharrell & T.I., “Blurred Lines” (2013)
Robin Thicke’s narrative isn’t getting any less sad, and between the embarrassing commercial performance of his Blurred Lines follow-up album and the humiliating court case that forced him to give some of his “Blurred Lines” dough to Marvin Gaye’s estate, it’s going to hurt the legacy of this song over time. It shouldn’t, though. Try to listen to it in a vacuum—or better yet, as an instrumental—and dare not get sucked into its chilled-out vibe.
Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy” (2006)
“Crazy” remains a delightfully weird burst of sideways genius care of Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse, but it has to sit in the middle of this list because it never actually made it to the top of the Hot 100. It peaked at number two, boxed out by Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” (which probably wasn’t even Nelly Furtado’s song of summer).
Hanson, “MMMBop” (1997)
Too polarizing to be transcendent, which is why it can’t sit any higher than this. It’s still mildly amazing that “MMMBop” was produced by the Dust Brothers, the same dudes who helmed Beck’s Odelay and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Then again, the engineer on “Call Me Maybe” also worked on this.
Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, “Fancy” (2014)
“Fancy” should probably be a little higher based on the hashtaggable hook alone, but we’re only a year removed from its peak. Plus, the superior Iggy Azalea-based song from the summer of 2014 remains Ariana Grande’s “Problem.”
Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl” (2005)
Sort of annoying, though it did help everybody remember how to spell “bananas.”
‘NSYNC, “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000)
Of all the songs that Justin Timberlake has been associated with, I’m not even sure this cracks the top 20.
The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (2009)
LMFAO, “Party Rock Anthem” (2011)
Smash Mouth, “All Star” (1999)
I’m going to have to ask you to leave.
Los Del Rio, “Macarena” (1996)
If you don’t have PTSD-related symptoms whenever you heard “Macarena,” you probably didn’t go to enough bar mitzvahs in the summer of ’96.