My listening habits tend to reflect the seasons. The winter months, for example, bring out my taste for the more dramatic musical strains – something lyrically heavy that conjures darker hues reflective of the fall, or perhaps the frigid white of winter. (“Snow-Borne Sorrow,” an album by David Sylvian project Nine Horses, is my favorite album to listen to each January.)
Summer demands a soundtrack that celebrates its redemptive spirit. Following the spring, with its suggestion of rebirth and regeneration, the brief window of immaculate weather we are afforded around here is something to be cherished, and we need to honor it with the appropriate music.
Which means, I don’t care how much you love death metal or the deepest of dark industrial musics – if you crank that stuff up on an afternoon that reeks of hope and possibility, your garden just might die on you. To everything there is a season, after all.
No, summer is the time for music that lets the light in. For me, this often means lots of reggae, right off the bat. I usually commence my yearly reggae jag in early May. Toots & the Maytals, certainly, and pretty much anything recorded at Studio One in Jamaica will work, but Bob Marley & the Wailers take the cake. There’s something about Marley’s voice, the way the Wailers rhythm section of brothers Aston and Carly Barrett sets up a rock-solid foundation for that voice, the sunny and simple chord progressions, and the defiantly uplifting nature of most of the lyrics that I find life-affirming.
Reggae is not the whole story of summer, though. Classic funk and R&B can often do the trick, too. And let’s face facts – jam bands, the truly great ones, craft a form of music that seems tailor-made for sunny days, high hopes, lazy contentment and guitar solos employing tons of auto-wah.
Following is a list of some of my summer essentials. I favor listening to the whole album, soup to nuts, but this is the age of the playlist, so cherry-picking favorites and creating a unique running order works in a pinch.
Bob Marley & the Wailers: “Exodus” and “Kaya.”
From the first seconds of album-opener “Natural Mystic,” through the final glorious refrain of “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Exodus” simply screams summer. Part of the album’s magic lies in its defiant nature. Yes, the groves drip with sunshine, but there is the underlying sense that the narrator (Marley) knows that all things will and must pass, making the demand to enjoy the moment implicit in the music that much more powerful.
“Kaya” is similar, but a bit less profound, perhaps. It’s a beautiful and breezy collection, the aural equivalent of sitting near a serene body of water just as the sun begins its descent, a hearty rum punch within arm’s reach, and loved ones even closer.
This is perhaps the perfect Santana album, a mixture of live performance tracks and studio cuts that runs the gamut from Latin pop to R&B, funk to rock, jazz fusion to Afro-Cuban percussion romps. There’s even a sublime cover of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” for good measure.
Passionate, pure and poetic stuff. Listening to “Moonflower” at the right volume and under the right circumstances will make you believe the summer will never end.
The Grateful Dead: “American Beauty,” anything from the spring 1990 tour, “Wake of the Flood,” “Mars Hotel.”
If there is a better summer song than the Dead’s “Ripple,” I have not heard it. In fact, “American Beauty” is an absolute sunlight stunner from start to finish. Even people who don’t like the Dead admit to loving this album.
The Dead’s spring ’90 tour, all those many years after “American Beauty” was released, was redolent of hope, too. It would prove to be the last time the band was consistently great from night to night during Jerry Garcia’s lifetime. It was certainly an exuberant string of dates, and you can hear as much easily if you check out “So Glad You Made It,” an encapsulated selection of highlights from the spring ’90 tour that kicks off with an incredibly spirited take on Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll.” Indeed.
If you are concoting a playlist, you should include “Here Comes Sunshine” from “Wake of the Flood,” and “Scarlet Begonias” from the “Mars Hotel” album. Grab a “Sugar Magnolia/Sunshine Daydream Jam” while you’re at it.
Miles Davis: “On the Corner,” “Tutu.”
“On the Corner” is commonly held to be a dark, dense and forbidding sonic onslaught that suggests running for your life through an urban dystopia. I get that. But I also hear something primal in a positive manner - like the earth pushing something forward out of its own soil and into the world. It’s dizzyingly powerful stuff, and it sounds fantastic when it comes blasting through the windows and out onto the back porch as the clock strikes happy hour on a sunny Saturday.
“Tutu” is considered light Davis fare by some, but the Miles/Marcus Miller collaboration is melodically succinct, soulful, and in its manner, joyful.
The Beach Boys: “Endless Summer.”
The Allman Brothers Band: “Eat A Peach.”
If “Melissa,” “Mountain Jam” and “Blue Sky” can’t manage to put you in a good mood, you might want to seek professional help.
The Flaming Lips: “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
The psychedelic side of summer. This one should not under any circumstances be chopped up and cherry-picked for a playlist. Just let it play, from beginning to end.
Phish: “A Live One.”
This is optimistic music. You might substitute your own favorite live recording circa 1994 or ’95, but “A Live One” fulfills my needs nine times out of 10.
There are many more albums and songs that seem tailor-made for the brief span of time between Memorial Day and Labor Day. (Everyone should listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls In their Summer Clothes” at least once during that time period, for instance.) I only mean to suggest a few of them. And I’d love to hear some of your own favorites, so drop me a line.