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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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
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