Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Olivia Rodrigo and Bad Bunny
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It’s officially summer—and a weird one at that. While many Americans are enjoying a return to big group gatherings (weddings! Block parties! Live music!), others are still hesitant to jump back in with the specter of COVID-19 not fully in the rearview. Through this uneasy reentry weaves our summer soundscape: the teen angst of Olivia Rodrigo, the lazy sweetness of Justin Bieber and “Peaches,” the disco and soul vibes of Dua Lipa and Silk Sonic. Here’s how we think the annual song of the summer debate could—and should—play out as these hot months unfold.

What do the charts say?

Raisa Bruner: It depends what chart you look at, of course, but Olivia Rodrigo’s pop-punk hit “Good 4 U” was sitting pretty on both Spotify’s global charts and and Billboard’s Hot 100 as the respective number one and number two in mid-June, making that anthemic send-off song a bona fide summer hit. After that, it gets a little more complicated: BTS’ slick, retro English-language bop “Butter” was basically crafted just for this—one of the lines is “hot like summer,” in case it wasn’t already on-the-nose enough. That, and the support of fans, have meant the strategy is working, with “Butter” topping the Billboard charts and edging out Rodrigo. (It’s not quite as high on streaming, but it may yet climb and secure the crown.) Other contenders: Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” remains in a solid position on the charts, despite having been released more than six months ago, as does Justin Bieber’s “Peaches.”

Read more: How Olivia Rodrigo Became America’s Biggest New Pop Star

Judy Berman: “Good 4 U” is going to sound great blasting from the stereo systems of cars full of girls who just got their driver’s licenses. Even if it drops out of the top spot, I can see it hanging out in the top 10 for months. If I had to place a bet, that’s where I’d put my money. (Personally, as a “geriatric millennial” who has seen the Breeders live more than once, I would like to see Rodrigo’s ’90s-indie pastiche “Brutal” get more play.) I also feel like there’s room for Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” in this conversation. It is a pretty silly song, but it’s creeping up on Olivia in the Spotify charts. I certainly have a higher tolerance for lovelorn goofiness when temperatures hit 80. Then again, maybe I’m just desperate for a new SZA album and am feasting on any crumbs she has to offer.

Andrew R. Chow: I prefer the “Good 4 U”/”Misery Business” mashup! At any rate, I’m not counting out Bad Bunny, either. The Puerto Rican superstar’s latest song “Yonaguni” has racked up a casual 114 million YouTube views and 110 million Spotify streams in the last two weeks alone, and has served as the soundtrack to 500,000 TikTok videos. The song plays to all of Bad Bunny’s melodic strengths, although its moodiness might prevent it from being his biggest club smash—it’s more of a contemplate-love-while-scuba-diving type of vibe. Bunny also sounds great singing in Japanese—and that decision, whether driven by artistic or commercial reasons, could help the song find a lasting audience in the island nation that is the second largest music market in the world behind the U.S., according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

Cady Lang: It’s easy to see just why “Good 4 U” is topping both the Hot 100 and streaming charts right now—it’s angsty fun in the best way, giving you big Gen Z Hayley Williams energy and the perfect chorus to be scream-sung at many karaoke sessions to come. That being said, I’m also banking on Doja Cat and SZA’s effortlessly enjoyable “Kiss Me More” to have some major pull for this year’s song of the summer. We already know that our problematic fave Doja is both queen of the charts and the Internet. This distinction has been confirmed yet again with “Kiss Me More,” which features soundbites made for TikTok challenges (I’ve counted three different ones so far) and, coupled with SZA’s ethereal angel energy and a genius interpolation of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” feels like the electric, thrilling promise of a summer flirtation.

Kat Moon: Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” definitely shouldn’t be written off in this conversation. The track hasn’t left the top 10 of Billboard Hot 100 since it entered the chart in April, and it’s not hard to guess why. At that eventual return to the dance floor, what’s more fitting to groove to than a slinky and smooth R&B-infused pop number? Doja Cat and SZA’s satiny voices, along with the silly, yes, but sultry lyrics, create the perfect mood for sensually swaying to the beat. It’s unlikely for the track to fall out of the top spots of the Billboard or Spotify Top 50 charts anytime soon, especially as it will surely get another boost when Doja Cat’s album Planet Her—on which “Kiss Me More” is a lead single—drops on June 25.

What do our hearts say?

ARC: Country songs can take a while to reach a critical mass, which is why I remain optimistic that 2021 will be the summer of Carly Pearce’s “Next Girl.” The song was released last September and has taken the long way around up the Country Airplay charts, currently cresting at #18 this week. If you heard the song at a crowded bar, you might mistake it for an airy faux-feminist ditty. But over the charming snare shuffle, Pearce weaves an epic tale of heartbreak at the hands of a 21st-century Lothario; it starts with a magical meet-cute and ends with a crushing ghosting, which she recounts to his next potential victim over a soaring, seething bridge: “He’ll make you think it’s love/ But I promise you, it’s nooooooot.” Alongside “Good 4 U,” it’s one of the best uptempo breakup songs in recent memory.

RB: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X’s sinuous, flamenco-inflected offering from earlier this winter, has been stuck in my head since it was first released. There is something wonderfully propulsive about the hand-clap beat and the guitar melody. But when I heard Jessie J’s “I Want Love” for the first time in June, I was immediately sold; if there’s any justice in the world, I’d like this big-voiced disco song to be heard everywhere all summer long. It’s like ABBA on steroids, with an “Eye of the Tiger”-style riff undergirding it for good measure, and I can’t get enough.

Read More: Lil Nas X on ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, LGBTQ Representation and the Influence of FKA Twigs

JB: Love “Montero.” Love the steady stream of singles from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. But without even realizing it, I stumbled into a psych-rock phase when the warmer weather hit in May. I’ve had two songs in particular on repeat. The title track from Painted Shrines’ debut album Heaven and Holy has a wonderful psych-meets-surf-meets-garage-rock bounciness that transports me to a beach party at sunset, with a freshly lit bonfire and a watercolor sky. (If you know Woods, the two acts share a member in Jeremy Earl, and the sounds are pretty similar as well.) I’m also hooked on “Esmerim Güzelim” by the Amsterdam-based, Turkish-psych-inspired Anatolian act Altin Gün—a love song so smooth and slinky it’s practically liquid, with a chorus that will make you want to learn Turkish. In case these tracks sound inaccessible, let me be clear: they are not! Both of these songs are earworms that might’ve been top 10 hits in a different place or time.

CL: The vaccine is now (mostly) readily available, the temperatures are going up, and the song that we all need right now is the City Girls’ “Twerkulator,” which made its long-awaited debut this May, just in time for “shot girl summer.” While the song went viral last year after the Miami rap duo’s 2020 album City on Lock was leaked, there were sample clearance issues—the track prominently features Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s iconic “Planet Rock” and Cajmere’s “Coffee Pot (It’s Time for the Perculator)”— that prevented the song from being released with the album. The samples were worth the wait, however, giving us a high-energy, braggadocious dance track with throwback energy that I’d like to hear at every party this summer. Another song with throwback party vibes that has been on rotation for me is Saweetie’s “Sweat Check,” an upbeat track from her EP Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1 that sounds like easy and breezy old school West Coast rap, which for me, is exactly what summer should sound like.

KM: Silk Sonic left a searing impression when the superduo performed the ‘70s-inspired “Leave the Door Open” at the Grammys. It was a stage to remember: Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, dressed in retro fashion, cooed and crooned against a backdrop of twinkling lights reminiscent of the night sky. And whereas many of us initially enjoyed this performance in solitude, we now have the opportunity to collectively sing along to the smooth melodies in public spaces and perhaps even under an IRL night sky. Silk Sonic has not yet announced a release date for its debut album An Evening with Silk Sonic, but until then, I’ll be jamming to “Leave the Door Open.” Another track I will play on repeat in the months to come: K-pop group TWICE’s “Alcohol-Free,” which is a refreshing and delightful ode to summer. The song’s music video shows the nine members dancing by the beach next to a bar boasting a vibrant assortment of drinks. “Mojito with lime, sweet mimosa, pina colada,” member Momo sings in the chorus. I will be dreaming of a seaside vacation—and the tangy refreshment to go with it—as I listen to this breezy bossa nova-styled number.

What’s different about this summer?

JB: Since we’re in this weird liminal phase between lockdown and full-on, packed-movie-theater, sweaty-dance-floor normalcy, I think we’re going to see a lot of cautiously hedonistic outdoor partying this summer. Pools. Beaches. Parks. Cookouts. Open-air concerts and open-air intoxication. For music, after a 2020 that gave us one indelible banger (“WAP”) and a lot of quieter, more niche stuff, that will probably mean a return to upbeat, crowd-pleasing, sing-along jams. Whatever the song of the summer turns out to be, we’re sure to hear a lot of it, because so much of our recreation is going to happen in public places. I don’t think it’s been done yet, but any artist who can capture the mood of liberation that comes with reopening—something like Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” or “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper—is going to clean up.

KM: Unlike past years, the emotions connected to our re-entry to the world will likely play a huge role in determining the song of the summer on an individual level. At that first return to the bar, the rooftop party or, in due time, the concert with live music, there’s bound to be a particular sentiment tied to the songs heard in community. For me, it was at my first visit back to karaoke in the U.S. that Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” shot up the ranks. While I favor “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U” out of the artist’s singles dropped ahead of Sour’s release, “Driver’s License” took on special meaning when my friends and I, along with a handful of people I had met for the first time that night, belted to the song’s bridge in unison. Now, the thrill and joy of singing with abandon alongside others—an experience I missed too dearly in 2020—will always flash in my mind when Rodrigo’s viral debut single plays.

RB: While many Americans are returning to a “normal” life of sorts—and clubs and bars and parties are back, with New York City even rescinding all restrictions as of June 15—I’m living a slightly different existence, spending my summer in a small town in Idaho. Nightlife consists of three bars. One of them hosts local bands, usually country music, on weekend nights. The other has a jukebox, and the evening’s soundtrack is purely dependent on the whims of the patrons. The only reliable music radio station I can get here is the alt-rock channel, which plays a mix of Twenty One Pilots and Blink-182 from the early 2000s.

Because I’m not being exposed to the urban experience and mainstream music consumption, in this small bubble certain songs rise up as unlikely ubiquitous choices: for instance, I’ve noticed that electronic artist Big Wild’s “6’s to 9’s” featuring Rationale gets the people going, whether it’s played on the jukebox at midnight or sung by a campfire with an acoustic guitar. That’s what’s different about this summer in general, I think: we are each having such distinct experiences, depending on our comfort with crowds and our locations and access to normalcy, and perhaps we are more likely than ever before to veer away from whatever is considered officially “popular.” I’ve been going to local outdoor concerts and swing dancing to bluegrass and folk, and while I don’t know many of the songs, the feeling they capture is all I need from my summer of music.

And the winner is…

“Good 4 U” has a good shot; “Kiss Me More” is hot on its heels. But ultimately the song of the summer is—and should be—a personal choice, a tune to timestamp a few months and bring back waves of nostalgia in future. We’re just grateful for the musical optimism that’s thick in the air.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com and Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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