For some bands, it’s fun to argue what their best album is. Do you prefer Abbey Road, Revolver, or Sgt. Peppers? Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie? But other bands have a canonical best album that’s hard to debate against – does anyone not choose Straight Outta Compton or The Stone Roses as the best albums from their respective bands?
Despite a vast catalogue of 29 studio albums (plus a few legendary discontinued records) and a ton of hit singles, there’s a critical consensus that 1966’s Pet Sounds is The Beach Boys‘ best record, a highly personal work from Brian Wilson that captures him at the peak of his composing teenage symphonies to God. I’m not going to argue with the consensus, but The Beach Boys have many other worthwhile albums in their catalogue. Here are ten of my favourites from California’s Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston:
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!)
Often the mark of a good Beach Boys album is how much of it is contributed by the Wilsons, as opposed to the less talented members. There’s plenty of Brian Wilson genius on Summer Days – the singles ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘California Girls’ are terrific, while there are also strong album cuts like ‘Let Him Run Wild’ and the Carl Wilson showcase ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’, but it’s offset by Mike Love’s crassness on cuts like ‘Salt Lake City’ and ‘Amusement Parks U.S.A.’.
The Beach Boys Love You
Love You was initially intended as a solo debut for Brian Wilson, who provides most of the songs, instrumentation, and lead vocals. It’s an oddity in The Beach Boys’ catalogue – largely played by Wilson on synthesisers, it sounds off the cuff where most Beach Boys records are pristine and lovingly arranged. But it’s a fascinating insight into Wilson’s state of mind in the late 1970s, oscillating between childlike playfulness and devastating insightfulness.
After the underwhelming Carl and the Passions, The Beach Boys attempted to focus Brian Wilson by recording in the Netherlands. Wilson was still troubled, listening obsessively to Randy Newman’s Sail Away during the trip, but he was functional enough to contribute the opener ‘Sail On Sailor’. Carl provides the historical epic ‘The Trader’, and even Mike Love contributes the likeable ‘Big Sur’. It was the last satisfying group effort from The Beach Boys before the success of the Endless Summer compilation turned them into an oldies act.
The Beach Boys recorded the relatively straightforward Wild Honey at the height of psychedelia. It must have made them look anachronistic when The Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, but it holds up well, with the group handling most of the instruments themselves and Carl recording terrific lead vocals on songs like ‘Darlin” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’.
All Summer Long
At only 25 minutes long, and containing filler like studio banter and an unremarkable guitar solo on ‘Carl’s Big Chance’, All Summer Long is a remnant of the era before the pop LP was considered the genre’s most important artifact. But there’s a lot of great material on All Summer Long– ‘I Get Around’ was the deserved hit single, but there are also terrific album tracks like ‘Girls On The Beach’ and ‘We’ll Run Away’.
It might be cheating including an unreleased, but widely bootlegged, album in this list, but Adult/Child is a fascinating part of the Beach Boys story. Brian Wilson launched into recording Adult/Child just five days after completing Love You, but instead of using synthesisers, he often utilised big band arrangements, reminiscent of Sinatra. The record company rejected it for being too strange, but it’s no stranger than Love You, and it feels more like a group effort, with lead vocals from all five Beach Boys.
Surf’s Up is a decidedly two paced record. You get divine music from the angels, like the beautiful title track (a Smile leftover), Brian’s ‘Til I Die’, and two of Carl’s best Beach Boys songs, ‘Feel Flows’ and ‘Long Promised Road’. But you also have to sit through atrocities like ‘Take Good Care Of Your Feet’ and Love’s doomed attempt at relevance on ‘Student Demonstration Time’.
The Beach Boys refocused at the beginning of the 1970s, after signing to Reprise Records. Sunflower went through a troubled genesis – there were enough leftover songs from the aborted attempts to form a bootleg named Landlocked. But the results were strong, a collaborative album with songs from Brian, Dennis, and Bruce Johnston, with Dennis Wilson’s tender ‘Forever’ perhaps the best known track.
The Smile Sessions
#2, recorded 1965-1971, released 2011
Smile was Brian Wilson’s ambitious followup to Pet Sounds, but it was beset with difficulties – Wilson became laden with addiction, superstition, and pressure from band mates, and was unable to complete the project, despite the massive success of single ‘Good Vibrations’. While many of the key songs turned up on later Beach Boys albums, and it was widely bootlegged, it wasn’t until Wilson’s 2004 re-recording of the project that there was a template for an official version, and it’s often spellbinding.
Side one of Today! is filled with pleasant songs, including ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ and ‘When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)’. It’s the second side that’s truly spellbinding, a mini-suite that’s like an overlooked younger sibling of Pet Sounds, with great tunes like ‘Kiss Me Baby’, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, and the doo-wop of ‘I’m So Young’, a stunning statement from a young Brian Wilson.
Did I leave out your favourite Beach Boys album? Was I too harsh on Mike Love? Let me know!