The keenly observant reader of A Closer Listen will have noticed that we tend to focus on one season above the rest. Our Best Winter Albums of All Time features are among the most viewed in our history, so we thought, in our tenth anniversary year, to finally leap on the bandwagon and write a list for Summer.
We’ve covered summer before on the site, but usually by offering a list of songs rather than albums. Is summer a season that is represented best by a single melody or moment? If you think of ‘summer’ books or films, it’s easy to go down the airport thriller or blockbuster event movie route; enjoyable but not overly taxing. There’s usually a standout song of the summer, be it “Macarena” or “Umbrella,” and people go to festivals for the total sensory experience. Teasing out a full-length record that captures the season is a little trickier. Often, they don’t sync up with the warm days and short nights until later.
Summer music carries a broad remit. It can capture long sunsets over the Mediterranean, hitting the beach for a game of volleyball, sleeping with the windows wide open to let in the sounds of nature. If it was music that carries a feeling of the sun, sand, and sophisticated barbecues, then we considered it. There’s a strong nostalgic feel to many of the selections on the list. The majority of choices pre-date the life of A Closer Listen. It is possible that the summer albums we cover in future will deal with a collapsing ecosystem, where the parched land cries for water and forests burn.
A couple of honourable mentions before we proceed. A couple of writers mentioned Izabela Dłużyk’s Soundscapes Of Summer. However, your enjoyment of it is dependent on your feeling toward field recordings. Unless the hay fever has really struck you, open your windows and let the sound of nature in your vicinity provide a local soundscape, otherwise save until it is out of season.
“Summer” by Pub was first released in 2000, but gets rediscovered every few years when a new generation surrenders to its sublime, dubby, world. It is an epic journey, bathed in warm ambience – and if you include the B-side is longer than some of the albums reviewed here. But it is best as a stand-alone track. Download it and put it in your summer playlist today.
Finally, some suggestions for more vocal based albums that you might wish to consider:
• The Beginning Stages Of… by The Polyphonic Spree
• Aerial by Kate Bush (particularly the second disc, A Sky Of Honey)
• Jurassic 5 by Jurassic 5
But for now, grab a cold one and enjoy our list of The 25 Best Summer Albums of All Time!
25) Lullatone ~ Summer Songs (Lullatone, 2013)
The first release in a sequence of season-themed EPs by the prolific Lullatone, Summer Songs takes us on a playful excursion to the seaside. It is, like many days at the beach, a lot of fun: the duo have a way with a catchy melody accompanied by a jaunty arrangement. These are tunes to whistle or hum along to, and in the case of “Splitting A Banana Split,” sing along with – they are full of little earworms that will soon bury their way into your subconscious. Summer Songs isn’t overindulgent: at just over twenty minutes duration, you can enjoy the sweetness without suffering an ice cream headache.
24) Azymuth ~ Light As A Feather (Milestone, 1979)
Funky beach party music with a twist of Fusion, Light As A Feather sounds as fresh as a daisy over 40 years since its arrival. The trio of José Roberto Beltrami (keyboards), Alex Malheiros (bass), and Mamão (drums) avoid showing off their chops and overplaying these songs. They had a fresh take on Brazilian music; still utilising the samba rhythm but using it as a taking-off point rather than the focus. There is a joyous feeling throughout the disco-inspired “Jazz Carnival” – this will propel you from an unwitting foot tap to dancing around in a state of bliss
23) Coco, Steel And Lovebomb ~ It! (Warp, 1994)
An album that catches both label and artist at a crossroads. Warp were leaving their ‘bleepy’ routes behind and embracing the sound of Artificial Intelligence. Chris Coco was shifting from the house music of his group’s early singles and embracing ambient electronica. It! is the amalgamation of all those influences: part travelogue, part banger. It is an aural postcard from a memorable vacation – soundtracking train journeys across Europe with a massive party at the destination. And nothing sums up the season more than the refrain: ‘Rain… feels good… in the summer.’
22) Lonnie Liston Smith ~ Expansions (Flying Dutchman, 1975)
We could have picked any of the albums Lonnie Liston Smith recorded, with The Cosmic Echoes, between 1973 and ‘76. The consistency remains high throughout, the music drawing on the sinewy funk of electric-era Miles Davis and the spiritual jazz of Pharoah Sanders – it helps that Smith played keyboards with both. We’ve gone for Expansions, not least because it includes a break-out hit in the shape of the title track. There’s a balance struck between songs (“Peace”) and the more far-out cosmic explorations (“Desert Nights”). “Summer Days” sits somewhere between, a taut Latin groove that welcomes dancing and improvisation.
21) Library Tapes ~ Sun Peeking Through (Auetic, 2012)
You wake up in a strange place. What happened last night? You vaguely remember laughing and dancing, and maybe drinking. Now you slowly adjust to your surroundings. You slept on a floor in a strange house, and now the morning sunlight illuminates the space through a window. It was one of those unforgettable nights that you can’t remember. Don’t worry; Library Tapes have got you covered. Listen to the soft piano and string arrangements of Sun Peeking Through and let your brain relax and reboot itself. It’s not just an album to cure hangovers, but this is a soothing, healing collection of brief meditative pieces that work wonders
20) Guitar ~ Sunkissed (Morr Music, 2002)
Guitar’s debut album is part shoegaze, part trip-hop. The combination of a loping shuffle beat with the hazy, effects-laden eponymous instrument creates its very own microclimate where it is always summer. The warm and fuzzy feeling is enhanced by the vocalists: Ayako Akashiba and Regina Janssen float over the arrangements, full of soft sentiments and weightless whispers. The music is down to Michael Lückner: he’s heard a lot of shoegaze bands but follows his own path towards a dreamier, poppier conclusion. As the album and song titles suggest, Sunkissed is a record focused on one season: that of the sun, the sea, and the honeybee.
19) Nightmares On Wax ~ Carboot Soul (Warp, 1999)
It is fascinating to see how NoW evolved via their (re-titled) versions of “Summer In The City” on their early albums. The first time out, it was just sampled. For the third record, and with a bit of recording budget, George Evelyn and Robin Taylor-Firth created the sumptuously layered, string-laden “Les Nuits,” a staple of the chill-out compilation CD. Carboot Soul is well-named, drawing on those (at the time) unfashionable 70s funk and soul albums that were staples of car boot sales. The result is chilled and funky by turns, gliding along on some seriously groovy basslines courtesy of Hamlet Luton.
18) Frederick Delius ~ Orchestral Works (EMI, 1994)
It’s reasonable to assume that Frederick Delius took a lot of inspiration from the seasons when composing his works. This two-disc set (more recently split into separate volumes) has three pieces with ‘Summer’ in the title, and the other seasons are referred to on numerous compositions. To the best of our knowledge, a seasonal stroll through Delius’s work does not exist, so we have picked the next best thing: a sympathetic overview of his work, bookended by two of his greatest pieces: the folksong fantasia “Brigg Fair” swoops in, full of promise, and, at the last, “Song Of Summer” defiantly stares out to sea.
17) Caribou ~ Swim (City Slang / Merge Records, 2010)
It was a close call between this album and Andorra, although we could have gone with pretty much any of Dan Snaith’s catalogue. As Caribou and Daphni, he brings positive vibes whether he’s making hazy psychedelic shoegazey tracks or addictive house bangers. You’re rarely that far away from an uplifting moment when the sun breaks through the clouds and bathes everything and everybody in a warm glow. Swim is arguably the best example of Snaith balancing song-writing, texture and beats. Even though the lyrics tell of misery and loss, the bass gets you out of the chair, and you’ll want to surrender to the euphoria.
16) Augustus Pablo ~ Ital Dub (Starapple, 1974)
King of the melodica Augustus Pablo meets King Tubby (credited on the cover as ‘dub master’) once again on Ital Dub. You may be familiar with their collaboration “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, ” also released as a single in 1974. This album further explores that style, relaxed, sunny dub music with an uncredited rhythm section keeping the bottom end tight while Pablo breezes along with his melodica. King Tubby keeps the mix spacey, without too many obvious studio tricks. It’s ideal for chilling to, on a warm summer afternoon (whatever your method of relaxation may include). Be warned: there are numerous bad pressings of this LP, so look out for an original Trojan edition.
15) The Gentle People ~ Simply Faboo (Rephlex, 1999)
The only space age international jet set loungecore group signed to the Aphex Twin’s record label, The Gentle People made two albums and a couple of singles and then sadly faded from view as fashions changed. This is a real shame as both albums have easily out-lasted the exotica fad. We’ve gone for the second album, a giddy rush of sophisticated pop in the first half. The closing sequence is a seamless subaquatic and sun-dappled ambience: light and breathy. The centrepiece is the Karen Carpenter tribute “Superstar,” genuinely one of the saddest songs ever committed to tape.
14) Harmonia ~ Deluxe (Brain, 1975)
Deluxe will probably feel familiar even if you’ve never heard this record before. The sounds that Neu! and Cluster created here have echoed down the decades, influencing and inspiring countless musicians. The combination of Michael Rother (of Neu!) with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius (of Cluster) as Harmonia is, arguably, the apex of electronic kosmische music. Here, they add Mani Neumeier of Guru Guru on drums to provide propulsive rhythms on a couple of tracks that contrast with the airy ambient pieces elsewhere. We end up with a dream of a record, created under a sunshade one summer in the German countryside.
13) The KLF ~ Chill Out (KLF Communications, 1990)
A seamless 44-minute travelogue that journeys across a mythical American landscape, incorporating all manner of evocative samples from trains and birdsong to Elvis and Acker Bilk. Of course, this being the KLF, and better remembered nowadays for their pranks and stunts, they provide a misdirect with the cover – a very English scene of sheep by a dry stone wall. Here, though, the duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty – who was also an early member of The Orb – mix this as live and play it straight. It fits right in with pulling an all-nighter, partying in a field somewhere, and then finding yourself alone again with the dawn coming up
12) Claude Debussy ~ Orchestral Music (Decca, 1993)
We’ve chosen a collection that features Debussy’s three finest orchestral suites – Images, La Mer, and Nocturnes – alongside the sumptuous tone-poem “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune.” These four pieces will appear in one version or another on many Debussy discs, but this double CD helpfully puts them all together. This is music that shimmers, evoking the haze of a hot summer day, whether you are gazing out to the ocean’s horizon or relaxing in the heat of a Spanish afternoon. It is as revolutionary to classical music as Claude Monet was to painting: Debussy composed a wealth of piano music too, but stick with the orchestral works for those long summer evenings.
11) Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté ~ In The Heart Of The Moon (World Circuit, 2005)
The kora sounds like water running over rocks, a lilting melodic rhythm that seems to improve any other instrument it accompanies. Here it is in the hands of master musician Toumani Diabaté, and he plays alongside legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Recorded live in a conference room at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako, these Malian musicians spent three afternoons suggesting a few notes here and there before improvising the songs on this album. It’s as fresh sounding now as it must have been in 2004, gazing out over the city and soaking in the atmosphere. It’s food for the soul.
10) Rameses III ~ I Could Not Love You More (Type, 2009)
Nearly an hour of utterly gorgeous ambient music bathed in a warm, golden glow. This is for those melancholic twilight hours when it’s too hot to sleep and the mind still races. Go for a walk, or sit quietly, and play this album. It is perfect for both the end and beginning of those long summer days, and for several of us at A Closer Listen, it has been a comfort blanket in audio form since its release over a decade ago. It was the final album from Rameses III, and it’s some way to bow out – they left us at their zenith.
9) Human Pyramids ~ Planet Shhh! (Oxide Tones, 2014)
There’s a lot of joy on this album. You may be overwhelmed by the giddy optimism on display here. The nearest comparison we can come up with is The Polyphonic Spree – although Human Pyramids avoid the revival tent fervour you sometimes get from the Spree. That’s probably because the Pyramids are Scottish, not Texan, and only sing on one track here. If you’re looking to shake off the week and head out to the beach, the fells, or the wilderness early on a sunny Saturday morning, with a song in your heart and a smile on your face, this is the record for you.
8) Ultramarine ~ Every Man And Woman Is A Star (Brainiak, 1991)
For their second album, Ultramarine took their inspiration from words uttered by their friend Dewey one late summer evening in Sweetleaf County, Arkansas. The result was one of the first ambient techno albums that proved perfect for those warm, lazy evenings – it pretty much defined a sound that was much-imitated for the next couple of decades. It is a beguiling mix of electronica, samples, and pastoral acoustic instruments that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. This situation has not been helped by its multiple changes of label and artwork. We prefer the 1992 Rough Trade issue, but it is worth hearing in any version – this is a gem
7) Brian Eno ~ Another Green World (Island, 1975)
Recorded in July and August 1975, Another Green World is the perfect primer for understanding Eno’s work. There’s the assembly of art rock’s biggest names at the time (Fripp, Cale, Collins), the development of the Oblique Strategies cards, and Eno using the studio like it was an instrument itself. There’s a multitude of possible futures contained within: pop songs, ambient pieces, and music for films. Although AGW can be appreciated all year round, it feels most apt listening to it during a hot summer, demonstrating Eno’s foresight as 1976 saw the UK temperature hit previously unregistered heights. The ‘cool August moon’ was something that everybody looked forward to that year.
6) Colleen ~ The Golden Morning Breaks (Leaf, 2005)
One of the less-explored avenues of picking Summer albums is that should your emotions get the better of you, there is an easy explanation. If, for example, you find your eyes getting damp while bathing in the warm tones of The Golden Morning Breaks, you can blame it on hayfever. We don’t condone suppressing your emotions at A Closer Listen, but it might be easier than crying out ‘but… it’s just so beautiful!’ Then again, maybe just admit that Colleen has touched you where few other ambient or classical musicians go. This album is as lovely as the perfect summer morning.
5) The Avalanches ~ Since I Left You (Modular, 2000)
‘Get a drink, have a good time now. Welcome to paradise…’ It’s the perfect scene-setting statement of intent. The oft-repeated nugget is that The Avalanches estimate they used 3,500 samples to create this record, although nobody would be that bothered if the result didn’t sound this good. It’s like a well-paced DJ mix, occasionally throwing in a familiar hook and slowing the tempo around “Tonight” for recovery. Since I Left You is a sheer delight; it’s fun and funny, and you’ll keep discovering new things. Don’t argue over a playlist for your party, just stick this ‘summer sound record’ on.
4) Can ~ Future Days (United Artists Records, 1973)
‘It was summer. It was warm, sun was shining, studio door was open,” remembers Irmin Schmidt of Future Days. ‘You hear it on the record… the sunniest we ever did.” The five members of Can had been on their holidays before recording the album, and the opportunity to take a break from the tour/album/tour cycle was revitalising. A group who seemed to play at an almost telepathic level already made the three extended tracks (plus the concise pop of “Moonshake”) sound effortless. Weightless, even. It’s an album that captures the endless ocean vistas, from a band at its creative peak.
3) Miles Davis ~ Sketches Of Spain (Columbia, 1960)
It is best known for Gil Evans’ arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, but there’s more to Sketches Of Spain than one track. In the third Davis / Evans collaboration, the lead track is where jazz improvisation meets classical composition, when a brisk November day in New York transports the musicians and the listener to the balmy warmth of the gardens in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. It’s ideal for sticking on the headphones and enjoying an audio travelogue during a warm summer’s day. Outside of the Concierto, there’s a world of wonder, full of playful miniatures and emotive orchestral playing – to paraphrase Miles in his autobiography, it’s not about the perfect performance, but it’s about capturing the feeling. Sketches Of Spain manages to balance the line beautifully.
2) Fennesz ~ Endless Summer (Mego, 2001)
How to describe this album? It’s glitchy, but not that glitchy. It’s accessible, but not that accessible. It’s forward-thinking, yet it is rooted in nostalgia. It’s the sound of electronic circuitry pushed to its limit, yet there’s also the softness of an acoustic guitar. Its namesake is a Beach Boys album, or maybe a surfing documentary, but it doesn’t fold under those references. What we experience with Endless Summer is a sense of longing – maybe for summers long since passed, maybe for the one just going. There’s a cooler wind blowing at those beach fires, as we wrap up just a little earlier in the evening. There’s also looking back fondly to older pop songs, hearing “God Only Knows” shimmering through the transistor radio. Fennesz writes delicate and fragile melodies and then contrasts them with bursts of noise – it’s where the machines become human. It’s rarely sounded more sublime than on Endless Summer.
1) Virginia Astley ~ From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (Rough Trade / Happy Valley, 1983)
‘English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere…’ For some reason, the opening lines of Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End make us think of Virginia Astley’s solo debut. Perhaps there’s a certain English eccentricity that unites them or a timeless nature of their work. Not ‘timeless’… out of time is a more accurate view. From Gardens Where We Feel Secure arrived in 1983, but it could easily have come out last week or have been a rediscovered manuscript from the 1920s.
Except From Gardens… does have specific provenance, with each piece having a time and place noted. We know, therefore, that the accompanying field recordings were made near the River Thames in Oxfordshire in April – June 1982, often on Sundays. These recordings provide a pastoral background for Astley’s piano and woodwind compositions. From Gardens Where We Feel Secure is a portrait of a few perfect childhood memories, revisited during one long, lazy summer day. Thankfully, since we first mentioned the album in 2020 (our choices for comforting listens), Virginia Astley has made the album available on Bandcamp. There are few records more complete, more perfect than this.