Ranked! The 21st century’s best (and worst) songs of the summer

Pop Music Critic

It happens every summer: One song, among an infinite jukebox of contenders, rises up to define the season, as heard over and over and over again at America’s theme parks and pool parties, skate nights and barbecues.

But what turns a simple pop jam into the “song of the summer”? History tells us the tune can zip (think “Call Me Maybe”) or swagger (“We Belong Together”); it can be comedic (“California Gurls”) or sentimental (“In My Feelings”). Beyond those specifics, though, what it must be is inescapable.


With Memorial Day approaching and a new competition underway, allow us to present the definitive 2000s summer songs power rankings.

We used Billboard’s statistics to determine each song of the summer since 2000 — and threw in Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s new duet as a top candidate for 2019. We then pitted all 20 against one another, measuring for quality (perfect to tragic) and for summery-ness (in terms of subject matter and/or sound), to find out which summer songs of the millennium were true classics and which mere seasonal flings. The results below are listed in order of preference — from our favorite summer song of the 21st century to our least favorite (sorry, Rob Thomas).

1. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” (2003)

The lead cut from Beyoncé’s debut solo album still ranks among her most delirious soul-funk jams, thanks to those percolating drums, a ripping Chi-Lites brass sample — and, of course, Beyoncé herself, whose live-wire vocal makes it easy to believe her when she insists, “You got me sprung and I don’t care who sees.” Jay-Z probably never felt luckier.

Summery-ness ranking: 1

2. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber, “Despacito (Remix)” (2017)

Already a hit in the Spanish-speaking world before Bieber jumped on it, “Despacito” finally broke through here with the addition of the teen dream’s creamy vocals. Two summers later, though, it’s the song’s light reggaeton groove that’s still echoing throughout American pop.

Summery-ness ranking: 6

3. Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, “California Gurls” (2010)

A Left Coast response to Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” “California Gurls” leans no less heavily on guide-book clichés, in this case regarding sand, palm trees and “skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle.” (Actually, that last one’s pretty good.) But credit Perry for having the wisdom to arrange a cameo by Snoop, who shows up and rhymes “bikinis” with “zucchinis.”

Summery-ness ranking: 2

4. Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, “Blurred Lines” (2013)

“What rhymes with ‘hug me’?” Thicke famously asked in this shameless funk come-on, and the answer he got was a whole lot less pleasurable than he’d anticipated: first claims that “Blurred Lines” was “kind of rapey,” as one critic put it, then a lawsuit from Marvin Gaye’s family, which convinced a jury that Thicke had ripped off Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

Summery-ness ranking: 12

5. Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together” (2005)

Carey’s big comeback single following the dicey “Glitter”/”Charmbracelet” years, “We Belong Together” dialed down the singer’s signature excess for a soulful lover’s plea that sounded designed to pour forth from the windows of somebody’s Honda Civic. Bonus points for the cute lift from — and the classy shout-out to — the great Bobby Womack.

Summery-ness ranking: 7

6. Drake featuring Wizkid and Kyla, “One Dance” (2016)

Breezy dancehall globalism from a Canadian superstar who understands the internet’s borderlessness as well as anyone.

Summery-ness ranking: 8

7. Drake, “In My Feelings” (2018)

One of Drake’s three No. 1 hits last year, along with “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” “In My Feelings” got there with help from a viral dance challenge that had Will Smith filming himself atop a bridge in Budapest. But the song with roots in New Orleans bounce music is also one of Drake’s loveliest (which doesn’t mean it’s not needy as hell).

Summery-ness ranking: 17

8. Usher, “Confessions Part II” (2004)

R&B as soap opera, in which Usher’s “chick on the side” — with whom he’s already admitted to strolling “hand in hand in the Beverly Center” (!) — calls him bearing most unwelcome news: She’s “three months pregnant and she’s keeping it.”

Summery-ness ranking: 18

9. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (2012)

Jepsen came out of nowhere (Canada) to burrow deep into our heads with this insistent pop number, which pulls off a neat emotional trick: While the music is charging full steam ahead, the singer is worrying that she might be coming on too strong with a guy she just met. “Call me,” she tells him — “maybe.”

Summery-ness ranking: 10

10. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (2008)

Given that she jokes around these days with Lionel Richie on “American Idol,” it’s weird to remember that Perry spent the summer of 2008 entertaining mall punks on the Warped Tour. Listen again to her breakout hit, though, and you can easily imagine the emo road not taken.

Summery-ness ranking: 11

11. Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, “I Don’t Care” (2019)

A party song about hating parties, Jed Shieber’s vaguely tropical bro-down exploits current pop’s misanthropic streak while resting easy in the knowledge that millions of radio listeners don’t pay attention to the words.

Summery-ness ranking: 3

12. Nelly, “Hot in Herre” (2002)

Our narrator begins in medias res — “I was like, ‘Good gracious’ / Ass is bodacious” — then cruises the club via the scenic route as the Neptunes’ go-go-inspired beat sets Vokal tank tops flying.

Summery-ness ranking: 4

13. Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (2009)

An actual couplet from this gloriously stupid party song: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday / Friday, Saturday, Saturday to Sunday.” After years of earnest coffeehouse rapping, and his buds were ready to fill their cups with something fizzier, and for the 14 weeks this tune spent at No. 1, America drank right alongside them. L’chaim!

Summery-ness ranking: 9

14. Rihanna featuring Jay-Z, “Umbrella” (2007)

Almost certainly the rainiest summer song of all time, “Umbrella” nonetheless found Rihanna at her sunniest as she rhymed “always be your friend” with “stick it out till the end.”

Summery-ness ranking: 16

15. Usher, “U Remind Me” (2001)

As polished as Usher’s post-MJ dance moves, “U Remind Me” used its smooth surfaces to soften a brutal message: I’m dumping you because you look too much like my ex.

Summery-ness ranking: 13

16. LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock, “Party Rock Anthem” (2011)

The only 2000s summer hit dumber than “I Gotta Feeling” — and surely the only hit ever by an uncle-and-nephew duo — LMFAO’s stadium-rave throw-down wasn’t created just so Alvin and the Chipmunks could cover it a few months later in “Chipwrecked.” But one suspects that’s not not what made it happen.

Summery-ness ranking: 15

17. Omi, “Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)” (2015)

When it displaced Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” atop the Hot 100, Omi’s airy electro-reggae ditty became the first song by a Jamaican artist to hit No. 1 in nearly a decade. But what made “Cheerleader’s” ascent even more remarkable was its proudly uncool lyric about the value of monogamy. “Mama loves you too,” Omi tells his lady. “She thinks I made the right selection.”

Summery-ness ranking: 5

18. Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland, “Promiscuous” (2006)

She emerged as a wide-eyed world-music evangelist, and these days she pals around with hipsters like Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. But in between, Furtado recruited Timbaland for this flirty robo-funk duet in which every line comes with a wink: “Roses are red, some diamonds are blue,” Furtado sings, “Chivalry is dead, but you’re still kind of cute.”

Summery-ness ranking: 19

19. Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy” (2014)

Who dat? Who dat? It was I-G-G-Y, of course, the white rapper we loved for a summer before deciding to hate her instead. Five years after “Fancy” set her on a path to villainhood, Azalea’s egregious blaccent can only make you cringe. Beat still slaps, though.

Summery-ness ranking: 14

20. Matchbox Twenty, “Bent” (2000)

A relic from that now-distant era when a rock song could top the Hot 100, the very moody “Bent” suggests that singer Rob Thomas was determined not to be seen as soft following the previous year’s “Smooth” with Santana. But who wants a tough guy at the pool party?

Summery-ness ranking: 20

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Twitter: @mikaelwood