What distinguishes a song of the summer from “the” song of the summer is one seemingly arbitrary charts detail – that the song must be the top-charting single between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And yet, the song-of-the-summer race has spiraled into an actual season-long event, by will of the internet forces obsessed with naming things “the best.”
Summer is already the most nostalgic season of the year, and assigning the season an official theme song – no matter how arbitrary the criteria – gives listeners a way to mark the passage of time in the form of goofy pop songs.
Sometimes, the process is triumphant, like the life-affirming rise of “Despacito” last year, a worldwide hit that piggybacked off its Justin Bieber feature to make Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee the first Latino artists to score a No. 1 single since the “Macarena.” Yet for every “Despacito,” there’s a song like 2011's “Party Rock Anthem” – fun-yet-cringeworthy hits that inexplicably became the biggest songs in the country.
2018’s official song of the summer won’t be anointed until September, but with July halfway through, now’s the time to look at the contenders as they stand now, according to Billboard’s summer songs chart, and rank them worst to best.
10. "Girls Like You" – Maroon 5 feat. Cardi B
These days, Maroon 5 is less a band than a sentient “Chill Pop Hits!” Spotify playlist. Their last album “Red Pill Blues” was full of immaculately produced, utterly soulless radio hits, often featuring guest artists that either redeem the song’s entire existence (“What Lovers Do” with SZA), or sink to the band's level for their cringeworthy verses (Kendrick Lamar on “I Don’t Wanna Know”). “Girls Like You” falls in the latter category, with Cardi B contributing an inexplicable verse meant to bolster the track’s tepid female-empowerment messaging. It doesn’t.
9. "Meant To Be" – Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line
"Meant To Be" came out all the way back in October 2017, making Bebe Rexha’s country-pop breakthrough single less a season-defining song and more a hit track that the charts just can't quit. It’s not necessarily a bad song, just a faceless one. And while Rexha’s collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, a country band responsible for quite a few pop-radio crossover hits, may come to define the fluid relationship between their two genres in 2018, it certainly won’t define the summer.
8. "Lucid Dreams" – Juice WRLD
Emo rap is officially a movement that has seen names like Lil Uzi Vert and the late XXXTentacion rising from Soundcloud to the top of the Billboard charts with melodic hip-hop productions about death and suffering. Juice WRLD belongs to the generation of artists who grew up listening to Hot Topic-era alternative rock alongside the moody wave of hip-hop that followed Kanye West’s groundbreaking “808s & Heartbreak.” “Lucid Dreams” should go in a time capsule alongside Uzi’s “XO Tour Llif3” to show future generations just how in their feelings young rappers were in 2017-2018. “Lucid Dreams” is far too anguished to be the song of the summer, but for the track's target audience, that's its entire appeal.
7. "Psycho" – Post Malone feat. Ty Dolla $ign
What elevates “Psycho” above any other dead-eyed Post Malone song is the presence of Ty Dolla $ign, one of hip-hop’s most reliable featured artists, who adds “Psycho” to the list of tracks he breathed life into this year, along with Drake’s “Jaded” and a handful of songs on Kanye West’s “Ye.” Yet rather than transforming the track, Ty is a gracious guest, modulating his energy to Post Malone’s level – which is to say, barely possessing a pulse. Like his previous No. 1 track “Rockstar,” “Psycho” embodies the late nights that are often the subjects of Post’s songs: repetitive, empty and numbed-out to oblivion.
6. "The Middle" – Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey
Maren Morris has become one of Nashville’s most celebrated young stars for the thoughtful ways she’s pushed country music into pop realms on her solo releases. Yet “The Middle” aims for much cheaper thrills, uniting Morris with EDM hitmaker Zedd for a mindlessly infectious single that has unsurprisingly stuck around on the charts for months. There’s plenty in Morris’ catalog to satisfy fans seeking a more nuanced listening experience, but when it comes to big, dumb pop hits, we can do worse than “The Middle.”
5. “God's Plan” – Drake
The rapper’s first of three solo No. 1 tracks he’s landed this year, “God’s Plan” arrived in January, months before the arrival of his new album “Scorpion” and its pair of chart-topping hits, “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings.” Only one of these three songs – more on that later – rank among his career-best singles, and it’s not the phoned-in “God’s Plan," with vocals that Drake could've recorded in his sleep. Nevertheless, its summery production sounds better now than it did in the winter, an argument for the song’s staying power on the charts this year. And even when the rapper phones in his verses, he can still manage memorable lines like the song’s now-infamous “I only love my bed and my mama, I’m sorry.”
4. "No Tears Left To Cry" – Ariana Grande
Grande has spent the summer teasing fans with gradual song releases from her new album “Sweetener,” and yet, the album’s first single “No Tears Left To Cry” is still its best, with its '90s house-lite beat and Grande’s fragile-as-glass vocals. Are her lyrics still completely unintelligible? Yes, as always. But are they still fun to sing along to? Of course they are. It’d be nice to hear another song from “Sweetener” that can rival “No Tears Left To Cry,” especially after her run of killer singles that followed her previous album “Dangerous Woman.” But “No Tears Left To Cry” is already an era-defining release for Grande, marking her triumphant comeback after her traumatic 2017, elevating the track to something more compelling than your average summertime single.
3. "Boo'd Up" – Ella Mai
The undisputed breakout artist of summer 2018 is Ella Mai, whose "Boo’d Up" has divided listeners’ opinions, inspired a series of remixes and cemented itself on heavy radio rotation for months to come. There’s a love-it-or-hate-it element about Mai’s earnest vocals and the track’s near-wordless chorus, which can sound either like the pulses of new love or total gibberish, depending on the listener’s degree of cynicism. Yet stop rolling your eyes to “Boo’d Up” and start singing along, and it reveals itself as one of the year’s defining hits. Besides, aren’t young, dumb love songs what summertime listening is all about?
2. "I Like It" – Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin
Cardi B has only grown more confident in her hitmaking skills since her bossy “Bodak Yellow” owned the second half of 2017. For her attempt at a summertime hit, she’s taking a page from the “Despacito” playbook with her bilingual banger “I Like It,” smartly recruiting J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two artists who are increasingly familiar to English-speaking listeners, and nodding to history with a sample of Tito Nieves’ “I Like It Like That.” Cardi couldn’t have chosen a more celebratory track to extend her win streak, and it will be remembered as one of this summer’s best.
1. "Nice for What" – Drake
There are plenty of reasons to be tired of Drake at this point, a rapper who has owned his share of previous summers with strategically timed singles, who’s dominated airplay for the majority of 2018 and tired us all out with his personal dramas, and whose latest play at attention – the viral #InMyFeelings challenge – only does more to fray our nerves. That’s too bad, because “Nice for What” is not only leading the songs-of-summer charts but also deserves its No. 1 spot.
Much of the credit goes to the song’s irresistible flip of a Lauryn Hill sample into New Orleans bounce, with Big Freedia serving as the genre’s mainstream ambassador as she barks over the beat. The track is Drake’s version of a working-girl anthem, which would be annoyingly manipulative if it wasn’t so addictive.
So, in a pop-music year that will likely be defined by Drake’s tiring antics and record-breaking streaming numbers, his song-of-the-summer title is a reminder of magnetic qualities that helped him reach the pinnacle of rap in the first place.