courtesy of Def Jam
Rihanna in the video for "Umbrella" — the summer jam of the decade.
This past decade has seen the return of the single. Not since the 1950s and '60s have singles been so important to musicians' careers ... or so often accounted for the bulk of their sales. No phenomenon illustrates this more clearly than the wondrous, illogical beast known as The Summer Jam.
In 2008, the battle to rule the summer was typical — a knock-down, drag-out between hip hop (Young Jeezy's "Put On"), something that sounded new (M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes") and soulful pop (Estelle's "American Boy").
There are some common threads among those songs: They sound good loud, even out of a passing truck; they're sexy; they either are hip-hop or they use elements of hip-hop, arguably the most popular music of our time. And those singles sold better than the albums they came from.
Singles sales weren't even counted by Nielsen SoundScan in 2000, they were so negligible. Remember, they were on CDs, cassettes or vinyl back then. The launch of the iPod and iTunes the following year began to change that. In 2004, Nielsen began recording digital sales. And by 2006, digital singles outsold physical CDs.
Sales, commercial airplay and release dates matter, but ultimately we the people decide what becomes a summer jam. It's an agreement, really — a handshake between millions of people.
If the lady who sells you iced coffee every morning sings along with it on the radio, if you're dancing to it even if it's 110 degrees out and the breeze died hours ago, if you walk in on a group of strangers singing it a cappella and they pass you the invisible mic when they hit the second verse, then that's the summer jam.
Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" was played by so many people so many times, an argument could be made that it was the summer jam of both 2001 and 2002.
Some years, the summer jam is obvious. In 2007, Rihanna's "Umbrella" cooly destroyed all comers and sold over 300,000 downloads.
Your song of the summer can depend on where you live. If you spent time in Washington, D.C., in 2004, you heard Rare Essence's go-go cover of Ashlee Simpson's "Pieces of Me" even more than you heard Usher. And just this past summer, a group called Bin Laden Blowin Up was deemed most likely to he heard at a barbecue in Chicago.
Who knows what the summer jam will be in 2010? It could already be written. It could be sung by somebody we haven't even heard yet. Whoever really wants to take the heavyweight belt, though, ought to aim for the best song that can possibly be made — and just forget about an album.