Roll down your windows. Turn that radio up a notch or two past your comfort zone. Feel the sun’s kiss upon your face as you rest your elbow on the window frame. Hopefully a cool breeze cuts through the open canyons of your vehicle. Mute your phone. Breath deep and drive. Drive with no specific destination in mind and without a time’s pressure breathing down your neck. What do you hear?
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. ZZ Top. Shania Twain. The Jayhawks. Don Henley. Yeah, they’re all pretty dang good regardless of the weather or the season. But there’s no denying that they sound and feel just a smudge better during the summer.
“American Girl,” “You Win My Love” and “Boys of Summer” demand a window down and a pair of cheap sunglasses on. It’s drives out on the outskirts of town around dusk. BBQs, cookouts and freshly cut watermelon. Fire pits and checkered tablecloths. It’s warm evenings and pale mornings.
Some albums and artists feel like all these things. Some are sunny and bright. Others, they capture that late night breeze on a moonlit night. You naturally just go and find that album.
So what is that album? What album is it that gives you chills and captures your version of summer? What’s your all-time favorite go-to summer record? — Thomas Mooney
Thomas’ Pick: The Kentucky Headhunters, Pickin’ On Nashville
Of all the seasons, I believe summer lends itself to songs of nostalgia more so than the others. I think it’s because the days are longer. Sunrises and sunsets take forever. A lot of that has to do with being a kid without the worries of school, homework and the like. For most of us, the only pressure found during the summer months was knowing that it’d eventually end. As I was building the list of summer albums, I realized most were from my childhood — Out With a Bang by David Lee Murphy, Come On Over by Shania Twain and Guitar Town by Steve Earle were all heavy contenders. Essentially, they’re all albums found in my parents’ CD collection.
The album that I kept coming back to time and again was The Kentucky Headhunters’ Pickin’ On Nashville though. As strange as it sounds, I remember listening to album at five or six and thinking it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. I’d never felt quite a rush as when the drums come kicking in on the opening track of “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.” All these years later, it still feels the same. It’s a buzz. A euphoric high. Part of Pickin’ On Nashville’s magic is how “not country” it is. No one was there telling them to pump the breaks.
That’s why “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” “Dumas Walker,” “Ragtop” and “High Steppin’ Daddy” continually thunder on. That dynamic pop in the drums is the driving force. The dual electric guitars are unequivocally rock & roll, but they have just the slightest twang accents. Still, as high energy as they are, they pulled back on “Rock & Roll Angel,” “Smooth,” and the criminally underrated “Some Folks Like to Steal.” That’s really where lead vocalist Ricky Lee Phelps shined brightest. It was calm, cool and collected. In some ways, he was almost unassuming as a frontman. It was as though they picked him out of the crowd. It also feels like the majority of these songs live in the summer. These are late summer nights. You hear the droning of cicadas in between songs coming on the radio. It’s the extended weekend of the year. You’re counting down the days knowing they aren’t going to last. But maybe, the slaw burger, fries and bottle of Ski will hold you over one more time.
Rachel’s Pick: Two Cow Garage, Brand New Flag
Summer is not my favorite season. As a redhead, outdoor activities and beaches in particular are just not my friend. As a New Yorker, summer means speedwalking through sticky streets to wait for twenty minutes on swampy subway platforms, only to find yourself in the train car with the broken AC. As a person who feels most themself while wearing men’s clothes, summer is, for whatever reason, the time I experience street harassment most frequently.
But the one good thing about the summer is that it’s when most of my favorite bands find their way here. For me, summer is all about surviving the day so I can spend the night in a basement bar in community with the people who make my heart sing.
So I’m nominating Two Cow Garage’s 2016 album Brand New Flag as my album of the summer. “Scrappy” doesn’t do enough justice to the Columbus, Ohio-based alt-country band. Founding members Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney have toughed out the Almost Famous life for over a decade. They started out as sardonic twangers in the vein of The Old 97s and have counted the likes of Lucero, American Aquarium, John Moreland, and Lydia Loveless as tourmates. Their last album, 2013’s The Death of the Self-Preservation Society, saw the band take a deep dive into punk. Brand New Flag brings back some of the warmth of the earlier albums, particularly as the band fine-tuned four-part harmonies with drummer David Murphy and Nashville’s Todd Farrell, Jr (of the Benchmarks).
As with their previous albums, Brand New Flag came out at exactly the right time for me. Released just weeks before the 2016 election, the songs had been brewing for a number of years. Like Self-Preservation society, the album contains blunt protest songs that waste no time getting to the point. What’s different this time around is the way Schnabel connects his deeply personal — and deeply cutting — songwriting to the larger social forces around us all. Sweeney’s songs soften the blows with his trademark common sense but don’t release the throttle on the album’s pedal-to-the-metal energy. “This Little Light” is a song I turn to when I need to rebuild my sense of dignity and self-worth. But the one I’ll feature here is “Let the Boys Be Girls,” which I heard for the first time around 2014. It means a lot to see a band of straight white guys from the Midwest vocally supporting the LGBTQ+ community — especially ones I feel so connected to. Overall, though, the song is about allowing everyone to embrace their true selves and reject the toxic messaging we receive as young people.
Bobby’s Pick: Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel
To paraphrase the Supreme Court’s description of pornography, summertime albums are hard to define yet easy to identify. A great example of this is Gram Parsons‘ 1974 record Grievous Angel. By no means does it pander to vacationers like the early Beach Boys, nor is it as one with nature as other Laurel Canyon alum’s sonic equivalents of peyote trips gone wrong. Yet Parsons’ last musical testament and Emmylou Harris’ first display of her angelic aura sounds more pertinent when it’s blasting louder than your air conditioner and box fan.
It opens with “Return of the Grievous Angel,” the ideal psychedelic country travelogue for your next lengthy road trip. If you’re not looking to blare the album start-to-finish, blend Parsons and Harris’ other pop-friendly duets — “Love Hurts” and “Hearts on Fire” — with an equal helping of fellow seasonal favorite Ricky Nelson.
The more rocking “Ooh Las Vegas” set a high bar that was cleared in 2017 by Nikki Lane’s like-minded “Jackpot,” in case you want another box wine and government cheese pairing for the ears. When the album is played in full, Parsons and Harris speed through Sin City after loafing in the mountains—represented by his cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead”—and before “In My Hours of Darkness,” a slow-burner to commemorate a rock and country idol’s passing.
Plus, Parsons’ coolness transcends specific music fandoms. No one willing to get lost in the great music of the ‘70s, whether they dig punk, metal or Kidz Bop, will allow any pre-disposed thoughts on country music to sully a good time.
Jeremy’s Pick: Shania Twain, Come On Over
Is it cheating to say one of the best-selling albums of all time is also your go-to summer album? Well whatever, I don’t care. Come On Over by Shania Twain is hands down one of the best summer albums out there. And I’d feel the same way even if it was a commercial flop. Of course, it wasn’t a flop — it’s among the best-selling albums all time, in all areas of the format. Her third album released in 1997, it’s still the best-selling album by a Canadian all-time.
Bobbie Jean’s Pick: Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
Olivia’s Pick: John Prine, Sweet Revenge
In summer, time seems skewed. The months are fleeting while some days drag on so long it feels like they’ll never end. The world slows down to a simmer; having nowhere to be can make you wish you were everywhere else all at once. That’s why Sweet Revenge by John Prine is my go-to summertime album.
Prine’s signature irony captures the aimlessness of summer. It’s an album I frequented in adolescence while circling back roads in humid, rural Mississippi with lots of time to think. “Mexican Home” most accurately portrays that feeling with lyrics “heat lightning burned the sky like alcohol / I sat on the porch without my shoes.” The album evokes the suspension of time into a sticky, citronella haze on a Southern summer night.
From the title track that starts the album off with a bang saying “the radio has learned all of my favorite tunes” to the cascading finale, a cover of Merle Travis’s “Nine Pound Hammer,” this album is nowhere short on calls to roll your window down. But it also scatters in reflective tracks like “Blue Umbrella” that pull at the heartstrings of the lonely summer blues that come and go like the season itself.