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From Simply Red to Aaliyah: a look back at R&B songs of summer

Amanda Parris
Listen to Marvin's Room, July 14th 2017

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


In this week’s episode of Marvin’s Room, we’re looking back at R&B songs of past summers.

The song of the summer is a hotly contested title. Artists strategically drop new music in the hopes of winning your attention to become the song that dominates the season. The title doesn’t necessarily secure awards or guarantee a particular paycheque, but it does have the priceless benefit of connecting your memories of a summer with a very specific soundtrack. So years down the road, when you hear that song come on the radio, it arrives with waves of nostalgia.

For today’s episode we are going on a trek through history with a deep dive into R&B songs of summers past, and checking out some of the contenders for this year’s title.

Earth, Wind & Fire feat. the Emotions, 'Boogie Wonderland'

"Boogie Wonderland" was rumoured to be inspired by the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The film stars Diane Keaton as a schoolteacher on the verge of self-destruction. She only finds joy by going to the club every night, where she dances away her sadness. It is that heaviness that inspires the following lyrics: ''Midnight creeps so slowly into the hearts of men who need more than they get/ daylight deals a bad hand to a woman who’s laid too many bets/ the mirror looks you in the face and says ‘uh-uh baby, it don’t work’/ you say your prayers, then you don’t care, you dance to shake the hurt.'' It's one of those summer songs that leaves you either philosophizing on its gloom or just boogy-ing to its groove.

Simply Red, 'Holding Back the Years'

Sometimes the song of summer isn’t the one that makes you dance but rather, it’s the one that leaves you introspective and reflective. That’s what happened in the mid-'80s when British soul band Simply Red released the song “Holding Back the Years.” Written by lead singer Mick Hucknall when he was a teenager, the song was reportedly inspired by the moment his mother left the family. The melancholy that flows through it hits a chord that is truly timeless.

Aaliyah, 'Back & Forth'

Being the artist who makes the song of summer must be an amazing feeling; it means that you made the song that gets blasted from car windows and apartment blocks. It’s the song that gets pulled up at neighbourhood barbecues and by DJs in nightclubs. Now imagine that you made the song of summer at age 15. That’s what happened in the early '90s to a 15-year-old singer from Detroit, Mich., named Aaliyah. “Back & Forth” was her debut single and it introduced the world to a young woman destined to be a star.

Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112, 'I’ll Be Missing You'

According to Billboard, the all-time biggest song of the summer is also one of the saddest songs of all time. “I’ll be Missing You” was written after the death of the Notorious B.I.G. and it became the soundtrack for a generation in mourning. Topping the charts in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Ireland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Poland, it is one of the most successful songs of all time.

DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller, 'Wild Thoughts'

This song is my lead contender for R&B song of summer 2017. Many of us continue to quesiton what it is that DJ Khaled actually does, but that question is put on pause while we enjoy his undeniable curatorial talents. He brings the right ingredients together — Rihanna, Bryson Tiller and this Carlos Santana sample — fuses them and places them on a platform for us all to enjoy.

The Marvin's Room playlist for July 14, 2017

  1. Earth, Wind & Fire, "Boogie Wonderland"
  2. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
  3. Drake, "Signs"
  4. Aaliyah, "Back & Forth"
  5. Leila Dey, "Fine By Me"
  6. Simply Red, "Holding Back the Years"
  7. Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112, "I’ll Be Missing You"
  8. Drake feat. Sampha, "4422"
  9. dvsn, "Don’t Choose"
  10. Kali Uchis feat. Jorja Smith, "Tyrant"
  11. Daniel Caesar, "We Find Love"
  12. Tamera Russell, "Inside Voice"