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The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys Album Reviews

As a casual music listener it’s easy to hear The Beach Boys’ sun-drenched hits, and conclude that the Beach Boys were all beaches, girls and cars, and no substance. But the group was led by Brian Wilson, one of the most talented musicians from his era, with an ear for sophisticated chord progressions, studio arrangements, and vocal harmonies. Working in isolation without musical support, deaf in one ear, domineered by his father, and strait-jacketed by a bubble gum pop image and a record company that expected three or four albums a year, Wilson overcame all of these obstacles to create some of the most transcendent music of his generation.

While the group’s image as Californian surf and party was a hindrance to Brian’s ambitions, their complex harmonies were always a huge asset to his record making, especially cousin Mike Love’s bass voice and his own gospel infected tenor and gorgeous falsetto. His brothers Dennis and Carl and friend Al Jardine are also capable singers, each bringing their distinctive styles to their leads; Carl in particular had a gorgeous soulful tenor, and he’s the strongest individual singer of the group. Bruce Johnston came on board to replace Brian in the touring band in the mid sixties.

The group’s rightfully acknowledged peak is 1966’s Pet Sounds, and there’s a sense of the group’s early records building up to this high point. Brian was disappointed when Pet Sounds sold fewer copies than its quickly tossed off predecessor Party!, but set off to make an even more ambitious followup entitled Smile. Collaborating with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson planned an album incorporating an Americana theme and an elements suite, with complex melodies, arrangements and orchestration. Faced with opposition from band members (especially Mike Love who wanted the group to return to their earlier surfing material), a mental fragility exacerbated by drug use, paranoia when a local building burned down on the same day that he recorded the fire element of his suite, and devastated when The Beatles released Sgt Peppers, Wilson abandoned the project, and while he’s produced some worthwhile music since, he’s never again been the confident maestro that he was in his 1965-1966 heyday.

His decline allowed other members of the group to share the spotlight, and it made their post Smile albums a fascinating mess. Mike Love gets a lot of bad press, but I think it’s mostly justified. His crass lyrical ideas impede the group’s early albums, even if they are sometimes an important part of the early group’s identity, while he later stifled the group’s creative ideas and his songwriting contributions were often hackneyed. The group’s albums can be frustrating – there are great songs scattered throughout their albums up to 1973, and even deeper in, but you sometimes have to sit through some dross on their lesser albums. With Brian not usually a lyricist, he’s often dependent on Mike Love or on an outsider like Van Dyke Parks or Tony Asher.

There are at least four distinct phases of the group:
1961-64: The Beach Boys’ early albums are spotty but often charming.
1965-66: Brian Wilson was at the peak of his powers, and Today!, Pet Sounds, and the Smile material are generally acknowledged as the group’s high points.
1967-73: With Wilson no longer able to contribute material consistently, the group became more democratic and less polished. Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Bruce Johnston all emerged as songwriters, and there’s a lot of good material scattered on these albums.
1974 onwards: the success of the compilation Endless Summer made The Beach Boys primarily into a nostalgia act, even though there are still interesting studio recordings, particularly 1977’s Love You. At some point Mike Love took the group over altogether, and he and Bruce Johnston now tour as The Beach Boys.

At this point, I’ve skipped over the group’s first two albums – I generally think that most early sixties rock albums aren’t that strong, so I’m not that worried about them. I’ve also skipped over the live albums, Christmas albums, and 1965’s Party, which is effectively a covers album. I’ve only covered up to 1973’s Holland at this point, but I’d like to come back and cover select later stuff including solo albums from Brian and Dennis.

Ten Favourite Beach Boys Songs

‘Til I Die
Surf’s Up
Good Vibrations
California Girls
The Warmth of the Sun
Long Promised Road
Caroline No
God Only Knows
Kiss Me Baby
Darlin’

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Beach Boys Surfer Girl

Surfer Girl – The Beach Boys

1963, 6.5/10. By the time of The Beach Boys’ third album, Brian Wilson had taken over as the group’s producer and main writer.

Beach Boys Little Deuce Coupe

Little Deuce Coupe – The Beach Boys

1963, 4.5/10. The Beach Boys recycled four songs from previous albums and quickly recording eight new ones to create a hastily constructed car-themed album.

The Beach Boys Shut Down Volume 2

Shut Down Volume 2 – The Beach Boys

1964, 6/10. As the real followup to Surfer Girl, Shut Down Volume 2 is a wildly uneven effort, but with some of The Beach Boys’ best ever songs.

The Beach Boys All Summer Long

All Summer Long – The Beach Boys

1964, 7.5/10. All Summer Long is the first Beach Boys album that feels somewhat complete; it’s still only 25 minutes long, but there’s lots of substantial material.

The Beach Boys Today!

The Beach Boys Today! – The Beach Boys

1965, 9/10. Today! is often regarded as The Beach Boys’ first masterpiece; it’s full of signs of Brian Wilson’s genius, especially its flawless second side.

The Beach Boys Summer Days and Summer Nights

Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!) – The Beach Boys

1965, 7/10. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!) is the quintessential Beach Boys album; summer drenched, even as Brian Wilson’s genius is compromised.

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

1966, 10/10. Pet Sounds has a mysterious beauty that places it above criticism, filled with beautiful introspection and musical sophistication.

The Beach Boys Smile Sessions

The Smile Sessions – The Beach Boys

2011, 9/10. Brian Wilson famously aborted the Smile album, and it was never released, other than the huge advance single ‘Good Vibrations’.

The Beach Boys Smiley Smile

Smiley Smile – The Beach Boys

1967, 6.5/10. The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile is a waste of potential, despite how bizarrely charming it is in places.

The Beach Boys Wild Honey

Wild Honey – The Beach Boys

1967, 7.5/10. The acoustic pop and white soul of Wild Honey is one of The Beach Boys’ least characteristic albums, but it’s very enjoyable.

The Beach Boys Friends

Friends – The Beach Boys

1968, 6/10. Friends does have continuity and a quaint charm to recommend it, but it’s largely unsatisfying.

The Beach Boys 20 20

20/20 – The Beach Boys

1969, 7/10. Album is possibly too generous a term for this haphazard collection of Beach Boys leftovers.

Beach Boys Sunflower

Sunflower – The Beach Boys

1970, 8/10. It’s not the Beach Boys’ most profound statement, but Sunflower is always heart warming and pleasurable.

Beach Boys Surf's Up

Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys

1971, 8/10. Surf’s Up may be frustratingly inconsistent, but its best songs are amazing.

Beach Boys Carl and the Passions So Tough

Carl and the Passions – The Beach Boys

1972, 5.5/10. Carl and the Passions pulls in a lot of directions over its 34 minute running time and feels thin and disparate.

Beach Boys Holland

Holland – The Beach Boys

1973, 7.5/10. Holland is a surprisingly strong last gasp effort from The Beach Boys, and it marks the end of an era.

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