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The Best and Worst Songs of Summer

Hot town, New York has been this week. Walking around, feeling half-dead, I’ve found myself singing the great old Lovin’ Spoonful paean to urban torpor and release, “Summer in the City,” to myself. It’s remarkably durable for a song about the summer, a season that has inspired more dumb, junky songs than any other time of year. Doubtful? I submit just a few titles from the hit lists of summers past: Nat King Cole’s “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,” Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s “Summer Nights.” What’s most unusual and resonant about “Summer in the City” is its blunt evocation of the hellishness of a week like the past one—in the opening verse, that is, until night falls in the narrative and the city become a different world of cool cats dancing all night. (The song was co-composed in 1966 by John Sebastian, the principal singer and songwriter for the band, and its bassist, Steve Boone, from an idea contributed by Sebastian’s brother Mark. The Wikipedia entry is mistaken.) Not long after the release of “Summer in the City,” pop music itself became a different world, and dancing cats and kittens turned to the prototypal funk of bands like Sly and the Family Stone, who in 1969 released the all-time most blissful song of the parching season, “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” If “Summer in the City” captures the benumbing oppression of the season, “Hot Fun” provides its escape. Sly and the band performed the tune a few months after it was released, on a doomed 45-minute pop-music TV show called The Music Scene, slyly (sorry) slipping in some of the band’s funky civil-rights statement, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” along with the finale of “Higher.” Properly revered today as one of the fathers of funk, Sly knew exactly what he was doing. He had studied Walter Piston and conceived of his early music, including the songs performed on this video, in orchestral terms. To grasp this music’s quality, its elegance and veracity, consider, by contrast, ABBA’s “Summer Night City,” which what may be the all-time worst song of this musically dubious season.