The Beach Boys emerged from Hawthorne California, with Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, along with their cousin Mike Love. Their first top ten hit was ‘Surfin’ USA’, derived from Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, but the group’s ornate harmonies oozed with musicality. Brian Wilson soon developed into an outstanding composer and producer, culminating in 1966’s acclaimed Pet Sounds.
The pressure of success affected Wilson, and his output after the legendary Smile album was abandoned became more sporadic. Other members of the band, particularly Dennis and Carl Wilson, stepped up creatively, while Wilson still enjoyed sporadic bursts of genius. The Beach Boys’ discography is inconsistent as a result, but that’s part of its charm.
I give a no ‘Kokomo’ guarantee on this list. With a huge catalogue, plenty of classics are missing – there was no room for ‘Fun Fun Fun’, ‘Sail on Sailor’, ‘All This Is That’, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, or ‘Heroes and Villains’.
10 Best Beach Boys Songs
from Wild Honey, 1967
1967’s Wild Honey emphasised a blue-eyed soul aspect to the band, with Carl Wilson on lead vocals. An embryonic version of the song had emerged back in 1963, then titled ‘Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby’. The song was retitled ‘Darlin” for Brian Wilson’s friend Danny Hutton, who would go on to success with Three Dog Night.
#9 Kiss Me, Baby
from Today!, 1965
Brian Wilson had quit touring at this point – he was initially replaced by Glen Campbell – allowing him to concentrate on composition and production. The second side of Today! is a dry run for the more acclaimed Pet Sounds – full of gorgeously orchestrated ballads. There’s a clutch of great songs – their cover of the doo-wop song ‘I’m So Young’ and Dennis Wilson’s wobbly vocal on ‘In The Back Of My Mind’. My favourite is ‘Kiss Me, Baby’ which uses the contrast between Brian’s falsetto and Mike Love’s bass.
#8 God Only Knows
from Pet Sounds, 1966
‘Gold Only Knows’ is a beautiful love song, although the opening line (“I may not always love you”) rules it out for weddings. The coda is lovely, as Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, and Carl Wilson trade lines, while Carl’s voice is gorgeous on lead. Paul McCartney later proclaimed it “the greatest song ever written”.
#7 Caroline, No
from Pet Sounds, 1966
The closing song of Pet Sounds was released as a Brian Wilson solo single, as he’s the only Beach Boy to appear on it. There are no harmony vocals, just Wilson’s heartrending lead. Bruce Johnston said that the song was “directly about Brian himself and the death of a quality within him that was so vital. His innocence. He knows it too.”
#6 Long Promised Road
from Surf’s Up, 1971
The other Beach Boys came to the fore in the post-Smile era, as Brian Wilson struggled with his health. Carl Wilson wrote this song with DJ Jack Rieley, who later said: “Carl and I were experimenting with chemicals, and it enhanced that song.” Brian described it as a pioneer-type song, and it updates The Beach Boys’ sound for the 1970s. Carl played most of the instruments, including the tough-sounding guitar, but it still uses The Beach Boys’ trademark harmonies in the chorus. There’s a beautiful middle eight, where the arrangement eases up to spotlight Carl’s gorgeous vocals.
#5 The Warmth of the Sun
from Shut Down Volume 2, 1964
This melancholy ballad was written the same day as Brian Wilson broke up with his first serious girlfriend and JFK was assassinated. Given the circumstances, there’s no surprise it’s heartbreaking – “The love of my life/She left me one day/I cried when she said/”I don’t feel the same way””.
#4 California Girls
from Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), 1965
Introducing the song live in 1986, Wilson said “I was just sitting in my apartment wondering how to write a song about girls because I love girls. I mean, everybody loves girls”. He also noted that “this needs some kind of an introduction that would be a total departure of how the song sounds and yet would somehow lead into the melody” – he succeeded, as it’s the amazing introduction that’s the song’s most startling feature.
#3 Good Vibrations
from Smiley Smile, 1967
When Brian Wilson abandoned Smile, he had already unleashed the single ‘Good Vibrations’. While the album Smiley Smile was famously (and accurately) described by Carl Wilson as a “bunt rather than a grand slam”, the single was a tour de force. It incorporated unusual textures for a rock record – cellos playing triplets, as well as a theremin.
#2 Surf’s Up
from Surf’s Up, 1971
While the Smile record was abandoned and not officially released until Brian Wilson’s solo reconstruction in 2004, most of its highlights dripped out over the late 1960s and early 1970s. These songs were often the highlights from their records – for instance ‘Our Prayer’ and ‘Cabinessence’ shored up the uneven 20/20. Wilson had performed ‘Surf’s Up’ solo on piano on Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, a 1967 documentary hosted by Leonard Bernstein that highlighted the growing sophistication of popular music. Wilson wrote ‘Surf’s Up’ with lyricist Van Dyke Parks – Parks’ impressionistic lyrics proved too much for Mike Love, who demanded an explanation of the words.
#1 ‘Til I Die
from Surf’s Up, 1971
Brian Wilson was suffering from an existential crisis when he wrote ‘Til I Die’. He’d instructed his gardener to dig a grave in his backyard, and threatened to drive his car off the Santa Monica pier. It’s reflected in the song, an exquisite piece of helplessness. It features a rare Brian Wilson lyric – he usually worked with a co-writer, and it’s one of his last great songs – most of Wilson’s other post-Pet Sounds highlights like ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Our Prayer’ were taken from the Smile sessions.
Did I miss out your favourite Beach Boys song?
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I wouldn’t call myself a Beach Boys fan as such and other than having mentioned “Surfin’ USA” in my 150 Indispensable Oldies series, will likely never post about them. That said, having had their songs in my head for so many years, I’m pretty well qualified to jot down a list. Interestingly, I have ten and no more. (I’ll leave “Kokomo” off just for you but I like it.) Here’s my ten. (One’s a cover)
10. Fun Fun Fun
9. California Girls
8. Help Me, Ronda
7. I Get Around
6. Barbara Ann
5. Wouldn’t it Be Nice
4. Surfer Girl
3. God Only Knows
2. Good Vibrations
1. Don’t Worry Baby
Interestingly, there’s an early version of ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ titled ‘Help Me, Ronda’. But I assume you mean the more famous and more refined version. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ would have been my #11 I think, and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ is a classic that I couldn’t fit.
Actually I did. I found that title on an old album. I wondered. I have to admit I’ve never heard – or even heard of – most of your choices.
It’s certainly unusual to release a song, then a few months later release an improved version. They were making three albums a year at that point – a lot of pressure just to crank stuff out.
Not a weak song on the list. I prefer Don’t Worry Baby, In My Room, Only With You, Leaving This Town and Sail on Sailor to Kiss me, Baby and The warmth of the Sun. I think that Wouldn’t it Be Nice and Heroes and Villains are masterpieces that deserve to be on any BB top ten list. Surf’s Up has been on my list of favourite songs of all time since the album was released. The Cali beach songs were fun, but nothing more. The ballads amongst the car and surfin’ songs are often affecting. I love Pet Sounds but have thought that it has always been a trifle over-rated. Brian’s Smile is almost as good as the hype. My fav LPs were Surf’s Up and Holland. The Beach Boys usually managed to include a song or two, or interludes, that detracted from my total absorption. I like but don’t love the group.
Most of their albums are pretty patchy – releasing them as twofers on CD was a good move, as you got a bargain despite the short running time and filler tracks.
I’ve never been super keen on Leaving This Town – doesn’t quite work as a Beach Boys song for me.
1. Sail On Sailor
2. In My Room
3. I Get Around
4. Do It Again
5. Sloop John B
6. Good Vibrations
8. Good Timing
9. Fun Fun Fun
10. Surfer Girl
Don’t Worry Baby
Help Me Rhonda
Little Saint Nick
I Can Hear Music
Little Deuce Coupe
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Those are all good choices – ‘In My Room’ would have been good to fit it, and ‘Good Timin” is a very strong late-career song.
I didn’t know that about Danny Hutton and Darlin’. That is so cool because I love Three Dog Night.
I only learned it when writing the article.
Nice list, Graham, and several tunes I had not known. Looks like “Surf’s Up” is an album you dig. I’ve certainly heard other people mention it as well as a favorite. I’m not very familiar with the record and plan to take a closer look.
I guess if I had to pick an all-time favorite, it would be “Good Vibrations.” I’ve also warmed to “God Only Knows”, so that would be in top 10 as well. The harmony singing on this tune is amazing. That being said, I still don’t quite get the fuzz so many folks make about “Pet Sounds.” Though I certainly don’t mind it inspired The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, which I find far better. 🙂
Perhaps ironically, I also like many of The Beach Boys’ early surf songs, even though I’ve said that musically they pretty all sound the same. But, as you know, I dig harmony singing and in that aspect, these songs are great – as long as you don’t listen to too many in a row!
Surf’s Up is incredibly inconsistent – ‘Feel Flows’ is another very good Carl song I couldn’t fit on the list, but there are some terrible songs like Mike Love’s ‘Student Demonstration Time’ and ‘Take Good Care of Your Feet’.
The Beach Boys had so many great songs to choose from. My Top 10 would be:
1. Good Vibrations
2. God Only Knows
3. In My Room
4. California Girls
5. I Get Around
6. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
7. Don’t Worry Baby
8. Help Me, Rhonda
9. Sloop John B
10. Surfin’ USA
Nothing past 1966 on your list – they weren’t really the same after Brian Wilson’s struggles, but they did have some worthwhile stuff.
Great list Graham. This is a daunting task…
One you mentioned in the start is going to be one my draft songs… Their early fast Chuck Berry songs are enjoyable but I couldn’t go there. I need to listen to more past Smiley Smile so my list is based on that limitation except Surfs Up…but here you go.
Don’t Worry Baby
God Only Knows
I Get Around
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Sloop John B
In My Room
Heroes and Villains
I look forward to your draft post. All those songs are great. As album artists they were probably better from 1970-1973 than any other era outside Brian’s 1965-1966 peak – still inconsistent but lots of great songs. It’s a shame Carl wasn’t more prolific.
I need to check out more from that time period. Carl was my favorite singer of them all. Just singing God Only Knows would probably put him on my list.
The singing is gorgeous on that closing tag with Carl and Bruce Johnston, and Brian doing his falsetto.
I just adore God Only Knows. Paul McCartney was always generous in his praise for the Beach Boys. It’s interesting that some of their greatest hits are amiss here. But like you said I guess we can’t squeeze in all their classics.
Yup, they have way more than 10 big radio hits – most of the double LP Endless Summer for starters. Plus some of my favourite Beach Boys material is introspective stuff that’s not very radio friendly.
Hahaha! No Kokomo?!
No Kokomo! It does have some redeeming features, especially the Carl Wilson sung bridge, but it’s too schlocky overall.
Schlock is a great word and quite apt here. However, I won’t lie. I did love the track back in the day, though I might’ve been twelve at the time… Aruba, Jamaica, ooo, I wanna take ya… LOL.
Amazing. That’s definitely how it went.
1. Don’t Worry Baby
2. Lady Lynda
3. When I Grow Up To Be A Man
4. Fun Fun Fun
5. Disney Girls
6. Surfin’ USA
8. Break Away
9. I Can Hear Music
10. Do You Wnna Dance
I Can Hear Music is one of my favorites too but it’s not a favorite of Beach Boys fans.. They usually say something about it wasn’t written by them. As if that makes it not good. Like it could only be good if you wrote it yourself. I’d rather hear someone singing a good song that they didn’t write than a crappy song that they did write. Ha ha
Exactly – compare a great song like I Can Hear Music with Vegetables or She’s Goin’ Bald!
Not much crossover on our lists! Lady Lynda is cheesy but also one of my favourite Beach Boy group vocals – they’re so soft and lush on that song.
Excellent selection! They have so many great songs that is a real challenge to chose 10. But your list is awesome. We can consider Forever (not a Brian Wilson song), Break Away, She Knows Me Too Well, almost all Pet Sounds songs … this is a group that deserves a 30 great songs status.
Yup, Forever is a great one – would have been good to get some Dennis in there, and that’s probably his best.
Good on ya for compiling a sensible list! I couldn’t keep it to just ten.
It takes me long enough to do the writeups for 10 songs…
I can only imagine. These days, with the attention span of a goldfish, I only post about a paragraph per day, so more is always gonna impress me.
I know Lady Lynda is nothing to do with the Wilsons, but it is just such a beautiful creation – a truly great love song.
I love the vocal tags at the end – kind of reminiscent of the ones on God Only Knows.
I updated the link to your site’s new URL. Do you have some way of redirecting the old domain to the new domain?
Yeah I know. I tried to go to his site the other day and nothing happened. But I thought I was the problem cuz I always have trouble there
Thanks for changing the link, Graham. The old site/domain no longer exists. As long as you use this URL you should be able to get in –
I don’t listen to them really, but I’m finding similarities between today’s Indy rock hits and older music.
One of the biggest songs of the year is the Neighborhood’s “stargazing”. Which is obviously Beach Boys!
And listen to cage the elephant’s “Cold cold cold” cad see if it doesn’t remind you of a certain UK band.
What Beach Boys song do you connect Stargazing with? It mostly sounds like The 1975 to me.
This is part of a bigger hobby I’m onto.
The chorus from “Stargazing” is definitely a generic Beach Boys nod (or Jan and Dean maybe). Hopefully it’s intentional, but I don’t care to guess anymore either way.
The 1975”borrowed” from Belinda Carlisle so maybe this is just paying it forward.
The Rolling Stones sued the Verve but not Cage the Elephant (that I know of).
Play the new Lorde single beside George Michael’s “Faith” for a laugh.
The new Lorde song is called “Solar Power”. YouTube it, and see if I’m crazy
The one thats stuck in my head is Barbara Ann
It’s definitely one of those songs, like Aretha’s Franklin’s ‘Respect’, where the cover is the definitive version.
Just discovered this site. I’m a sucker for these kind of lists because they always rile me by getting it wrong.
So imagine my amazement to find a near perfect top 10, with an absolutely perfect top 2. As I scrolled down, I knew Surf’s Up had to be up there, but although I dared to hope for Til I Die, I never really believed it. Kudos for getting Darlin in there as well.
Great choices! I would have found space for Don’t Worry Baby, but it’s really nitpicking.
Thank you! I would have liked to squeeze Don’t Worry Baby in but it didn’t quite fit. From memory I think it’s the first great introspective Brian Wilson song, but some of the later ones are even better.
Not sure it’s all that introspective really – the lyrics are pretty awful which is the main black mark against it, they are mostly about cars unfortunately. It’s just a sublime melody.
Thank you for replying!
Sidewalkserferboy, you, and I need to form an appreciation society and spread the word about “Til I Die.” This is not only my #1 Beach Boys song, it’s my #2 desert isle song (https://peterkurtz.com/2021/02/11/top-10-desert-isle-songs/). Simple but lovely lyric, and the music is transcendent. It came out after the group’s heyday and never gets played on the radio, but what a gem.
More than almost every other Beach Boys song, it’s kind of like a glimpse into Brian Wilson’s soul.