Beach Boys Albums Ranked Worst to Best
The Beach Boys are unquestionably one of America’s biggest legacy bands, but music nerds of a certain variety know they’re also way more than that. They weren’t just a fun-in-the-sun band that churned out hits in the early ’60s and lived off of them for the rest of their career; they were a challenging pop band who broke boundaries and released music that still sounds vital today. Forget Beatles vs Stones; when it comes to all-time groundbreaking pop, it’s Beatles vs Beach Boys.
Pet Sounds is their obvious classic, and it turns 50 this May. The band’s mastermind Brian Wilson is playing the album in full on a tour this year that hits Red Bank in NJ, Levitation fest in Austin, Primavera Sound in Spain, and many more spots. Update: Brian added a Pet Sounds show at Brooklyn’s Northside festival, and the band is reissuing the album.
The great and storied (and eventually released) Smile was supposed to follow that, but was aborted after Mike Love’s objection to it and the label’s demand for a deadline. Brian’s mental health also got in the way.
Their power was in more than just those two albums though. There are hardly any Beach Boys albums that don’t have at least one worthy song, and as far as this list is concerned, they’ve got 28 albums. (We’re counting Smile and not counting Stars and Stripes Vol. 1, as it’s just re-recordings of older songs. No compilations, live albums or strictly-covers albums either.)
Even by The Beatles’ breakup, The Beach Boys had released more, and they’ve currently put out more than The Rolling Stones. They were an unfuckwithable force in pop music into the early ’70s, and a few moments of greatness even existed after that. With this list, we attempt to rank the discography of one of pop’s greatest bands from worst to best. Let us know how you agree or disagree in the comments, and read on…
28. Summer In Paradise (1992)
This is the only Beach Boys album with no redeeming qualities. It’s not coincidentally the only album without Brian Wilson, and it’s also the one where they actually allowed Full House‘s John Stamos to sing. The music sounds like a parody of The Beach Boys with dated early ’90s production. Avoid at all costs.
27. Still Cruisin’ (1989)
This just beats Summer In Paradise for having “Kokomo.” Of course that song is also not written by Brian Wilson and sounds like a Beach Boys parody (though at least it was co-written by the great John Phillips and Scott McKenzie), but it’s also undoubtedly the most memorable Beach Boys song of the ’80s. And for good reason. You probably agree as much as I do how much of an embarrassment it is to their prime era, but 27 years later it’s still a catchy song and a fan favorite in their live sets. And as much as I wish it wasn’t true, the song bests the album’s only Brian Wilson contribution, “In My Car.” Considering the rest of the album is old songs, a cover of “Wipe Out,” and throwaways, “Kokomo” is oddly its saving grace.
26. 15 Big Ones (1976)
It wasn’t really necessary for The Beach Boys to put out an album largely made up of early rock ‘n’ roll covers in the mid-’70s, but given that covers have at times been essential parts of their albums, it wasn’t entirely out of character. It’s not a great album, but it has some solid moments. Strangely enough, the star of the album is kind of Mike Love. The Love-fronted cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” is fairly in line with early Beach Boys, and the lush, Love-penned “Everyone’s In Love With You” is the album’s prettiest original. The Brian-penned, Al Jardine-sung “T M Song” isn’t half bad, and those classic Beach Boys harmonies are still usually on point. Mostly though, the throwaways outweigh the good moments.
25. M.I.U. Album (1978)
The Beach Boys were still struggling to come out with good stuff in the late ’70s, but M.I.U. Album is at least better than a covers album. Some classic Brian comes through on his co-written (and Mike Love-sung) “Belles of Paris,” and “My Diane” comes close to his trademark melancholy. Dennis Wilson’s voice on that one was mostly shot by then, sadly, but the harmonies make up for it. Opener “She’s Got Rhythm” isn’t particularly great and it’s certainly dated, but Brian’s falsetto remains angelic.
24. L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
This one is basically interchangeable with M.I.U. Album, but it gets one slot higher for a couple reasons. One: Brian’s opening track with his brother Carl (which Carl sings), “Good Timin’,” actually manages to sound like classic Beach Boys. Two: It has an 11-minute disco remake of “Here Comes the Night” from 1967’s Wild Honey. Say that out loud once again. They took this ’60s song and added vocoder vocals, a funky bassline, and extended jams that aren’t a thousand miles away from James Murphy’s collaborations with Arcade Fire (maybe it’s not a coincidence that those collaborations yielded a song called “Here Comes the Night Time”). It’s a little more incredible that it exists than how it actually sounds, but still. This song is wild. As an added bonus, “Baby Blue” ain’t too shabby of a Dennis Wilson ballad.
23. The Beach Boys (1985)
I said in the intro that there are hardly any Beach Boys albums that don’t have at least one worthy song. I’ve mentioned a few highlights on the previous albums, but starting here, every album has a handful of worthwhile tracks. Brian wrote or co-wrote three songs on this one, and horribly dated production aside, you can still hear some of his magic. All three of Brian’s contributions have melodic changes that ever so slightly hint at his better days, and even the songs that aren’t penned by him have those Beach Boys harmonies that still no other band has been able to master. It didn’t produce any real Beach Boys staples and it didn’t break any of the ground that their best releases did, but it’s too straight-up enjoyable to fully hate. Especially given the sort of ’80s pop revival that goes on today, these songs could be very fashionable right now with a little tweaking. Dev Hynes would probably love to write a song like “Crack At Your Love.”
22. Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972)
This is the followup to their last truly excellent album, and the first to feature Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Blondie’s contributions would improve significantly on the next album, Holland (more on that one in a bit), but here his harder rock tendencies feel out of place and often hold the band back. Brian doesn’t take lead on any songs and only contributes a bit of songwriting (including the highlight “Marcella”), but the real star on this album is Dennis. His ballads “Make It Good” and “Cuddle Up” are as good as most anything he’s written.
21. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)
One of Brian’s favorite albums of all time is the immortal holiday album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector by his hero Phil Spector, so it’s no surprise that he’d make a holiday album of his own. And opener “Little Saint Neck” is as enduring as anything on Phil’s album. Brian takes a few songs that Phil also did on his album, including “White Christmas,” which he gives a breathtaking performance of. The unbeatable mid-’60s harmonies of The Beach Boys are in full effect on this album, and even if you may only play this stuff at one specific time in the year, it’s still worth coming back to over half a century later.
20. Keepin’ the Summer Alive (1980)
The band sort of hit a weird stroke of genius with 1980’s Keepin’ the Summer Alive. They were just coming off two mediocre ’70s albums, they hadn’t yet adopted comically-’80s production, and they managed to churn out these songs that were highly spirited and don’t exactly sound like any other album in their catalog. The title track is downright fun, and not in the way that their early songs were, and Brian’s songwriting contributions feel less awkward than they had on the last two albums. My first time hearing this album was when a friend in college handed it to me and said, “Everyone told me The Beach Boys were washed up by the ’80s, they said don’t bother with Keepin’ the Summer Alive. But I did. It’s awesome.” He was not wrong.
19. That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)
The Beach Boys’ most recent album and their first in 20 years proved to be a pretty major success. All but one song was co-written by Brian, and he mostly tapped into the kind of sunshine pop that made up their most essential releases. This shouldn’t be too surprising; by this point Pet Sounds was a certified all-time classic and even Smile had finally been released and cherished by the public. Their harmonies still sound untouchable, and 50 years into their career they prove that none of the copycats can do it quite like The Beach Boys do it. They played some of these songs on their 50th anniversary tour and they fit right in next to the ’60s classics. That’s pretty amazing for any band that far into their career, let alone one with the massive roadbumps this band had.
18. Surfin’ USA (1963)
This is the lowest-ranking of the (non-holiday) early albums. Not because it doesn’t have any definite classics (it has two: the title track and “Shut Down”), but just because it doesn’t have any major milestones for the band and most of the others do. Five of its tracks are instrumental, three of which are covers, and there isn’t much besides the singles that’s still worth playing today. One exception, however, is Brian’s early ballad “Lonely Sea” that had major hints of what he would soon achieve.
17. Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
This one was neck and neck with Surfin’ USA, but it gets the edge for a few reasons. It shares “Shut Down” with that album (and “409” with the debut), so taking repeats out of the equation it has two classic singles to Surfin’ USA‘s one (“Little Deuce Coupe” and “Be True to Your School”). It’s also got two brilliant Brian ballads (“Ballad of Ole’ Betsy” and “Spirit of America”), which again, are often the most rewarding parts of these early albums. When you hear the early stuff at first, you may just hear flimsy pop songs, but when you’re listening with Pet Sounds and Smile in mind, it’s often the ballads that reveal the blueprints for those albums.
16. Love You (1977)
Admittedly, I like Love You more in concept than in actuality, but the story behind it and the weirdness of its existence keep it interesting. After Brian had retreated from much of the band’s writing and recording, he took most of Love You on by himself (it was originally intended to be a solo album). It hearkened back in spirit to Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” but it was recorded largely with synthesizers before that approach became commonplace. Theoretically, Love You is what Animal Collective and Panda Bear have spent the last nine years doing (though in reality, they’ve bested this album a few times). It’s a total outlier in the band’s catalog, a highly underrated album of the late ’70s, and a rare moment where Brian took control of songwriting during that era. It’s the first must-hear album on this list.
15. Surfin’ Safari (1962)
This is where it all started. Like with The Beatles, once you’ve explored their more adventurous material, you start to realize they were showing hints of brilliance from the beginning. This is clear from the first two seconds you throw on this record. The verses in the opening title track may be standard rock ‘n’ roll, but the intro/chorus already shows Brian’s ability to craft atypical melodies and complex harmonies. And also like The Beatles, these early albums aren’t just curios for superfans. The simpler songs are fun and enjoyable in their own right. Just like sometimes you’d rather hear “I Saw Her Standing There” than “Strawberry Fields Forever,” sometimes you’re just in the mood for “Surfin’ Safari,” “409” or “Surfin’,” all of which appear here. They also do Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” six years before Blue Cheer did and eight years before The Who did. (The Who’s version is probably the best, but this one has its merits too.) There are some major throwaways, like there’s no real reason to revisit their take on the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” Also Brian hadn’t developed his falsetto yet and Mike Love sings lead on most of the songs, two things that would have to change for the band to reach their greatest potential. Nevertheless, Surfin’ Safari had them coming out of the gate strong.
14. 20/20 (1969)
This one has an uneven and often disappointing side A, but side B is almost flawless. Side A kicks off with “Do It Again,” an obvious throwback to their early days in sound and song title, which felt like a major regression coming right after the band’s most creative period. Brian co-wrote it with Mike Love, and it’s always seemed like the moment Brian finally gave in to Mike’s three-year-long pleas to return to this sound. Side A also has the hard rocking “All I Want to Do,” a sound that’s never suited them well, and Bruce Johnston’s pretty but mostly-unnecessary instrumental “The Nearest Faraway Place.” At least those are balanced out by Dennis’ quality ballad “Be with Me” and a fine Carl-sung version of The Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music” (honoring the band’s Phil Spector influence once again). Side B begins with a cover of blues legend Lead Belly, and only gets better from there. The psychedelic waltz “I Went to Sleep” is up there with Brian’s best work and “Time to Get Alone” isn’t far behind. (They were also both reportedly written before the 20/20 sessions, which is not surprising.) Then comes Dennis’ masterful “Never Learn Not to Love,” which was based on a song given to him by his then-friend Charles Manson (despite Manson being a truly horrific person, it is difficult to deny his musical talent). And they’re less necessary in this context now that The Smile Sessions exist, but the album closes with two of the very best songs from the then-abandoned Smile, “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence.”
13. Holland (1973)
After Blondie Chaplin struggled to fit in with the band’s sound on Carl and the Passions – “So Tough,” he ends up being the strongest part of Holland. Blondie takes lead vocals on opener “Sail On, Sailor,” a song Brian had written with Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks that was given to the other band members (and a few co-writers) to finish. It’s the album’s best song, and remains their most memorable ’70s single. Some of the Wilson/Parks song cycles also must have rubbed off on Mike Love and Al Jardine, who offer the three-part “California Saga,” one of Love’s finest moments in the band. There isn’t much contribution from Brian on this one, but all the members are on their A game and it’s really a progressive record. There are no throwaways or silly covers or needless instrumentals, and no throwbacks to their early days or misguided hard rock songs. It may have been unable to compete with The Dark Side of the Moon or Quadrophenia or Houses of the Holy when it came out, but today it sounds like a gem of that era.
12. Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
Like most of the early albums, this one is still a mix of filler, covers, instrumentals and undeniable hits, but the hits on this one really hit. You may be sick of hearing “Fun, Fun, Fun,” but there’s a reason you know every word to it and there’s a reason this 50+ year old song wins over generation after generation. It’s pure pop magic. “Don’t Worry Baby” is just about as magical, and the Brian-sung cover of Frankie Lymon’s 1956 single “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” is a fine version. As far as stepping stones to Pet Sounds are concerned, the most important moment of this album is “The Warmth of the Sun.” It’s one of Brian’s early melancholic ballads where he and his falsetto are the stars, and it’s one of the first examples of him toying with the standard rock chord progressions.
11. All Summer Long (1964)
“The Warmth of the Sun” may have hinted at the balladry of Pet Sounds, but the first time we hear Brian attempting the multi-layered complex pop is “I Get Around.” It was All Summer Long‘s lead single, opening track, and The Beach Boys’ first U.S. #1 song. The song sounded enough like a fun-in-the-sun pop song to fit in with stuff like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Surfin’ USA,” but Brian knew it was so much more. The way he brings in the overlapping vocal harmonies in the intro was some of his most complex work to date. And though he had worked with members of The Wrecking Crew before (the group of session musicians who Phil Spector also worked with), this was the first time he teamed with them to give The Beach Boys his own spin on Spector’s Wall of Sound. If you’re making a list of milestones leading up to Pet Sounds, this song is a major one. The album’s title track, “Wendy,” and “Don’t Back Down” are three more stone cold classics of the early era; and “We’ll Run Away” and “Girls on the Beach” are two more of Brian’s excellent falsetto-led ballads. Both of them show how essential the group’s lush harmonies would be to those types of songs in their psychedelic period.
10. Surfer Girl (1963)
As important as “I Get Around” is to the development of Pet Sounds and Smile, the best album of the band’s early period is their third album, Surfer Girl. Most importantly, it’s the first album where Brian was the album’s sole producer, which would be one of his most crucial roles a few years later. “Lonely Sea” on Surfin’ U.S.A. hinted at it, but Brian’s first truly great ballads are on this album. The opening title track was the most gorgeous song he had written yet. (And if you’ve never checked out the version from the 1967 bootleg Lei’d in Hawaii, you should. They strip it down and make it hazy enough to fit in on Smiley Smile.) But the album’s best song and the best song of the early era in general, is “In My Room.” The first time we realize Brian excels as a personal songwriter is here. Add in the production flourishes of Pet Sounds, and it’d fit right in on that album. It’s a perfect song. “Catch A Wave” is another of their better surf pop songs, and “Surfer Moon” and “Your Summer Dream” are both great showcases for Brian’s talent as an individual. It’s an early album so there are still a few skippable tracks, but the highs are very high.
9. Today! (1965)
This is the first Beach Boys album that I no longer consider the “early era,” though it’s not yet the psychedelic era or the peak of their creativity either. It came out three months after Beatles for Sale, which was The Beatles’ first album after Bob Dylan had introduced them to pot. The transition that album makes is undeniable, and likewise Today! is Brian’s first album after being introduced to pot and it’s the first one that you can’t call surf pop. Side A still has a foot in the earlier material and contains two of that era’s best songs: their cover of the Bobby Freeman-penned “Do You Wanna Dance?” and their first version of “Help Me, Ronda.” But otherwise this album comes in at #9 on this list for side B. All of the songs (not counting the final jokey spoken word track) are ballads, fleshed out more than ever by The Wrecking Crew who at this point are as important to the band’s sound as Brian himself. Brian sings lead on four of them (Dennis takes the fifth), and he’s really diving into the introspective lyrical approach that would define Pet Sounds. Brian wasn’t quite ready to write his masterpiece yet, but you can hear on side B of Today! how close he was.
8. Wild Honey (1967)
Wild Honey was released just two months after Smiley Smile, the scrapped-together home recordings of songs from the aborted Smile album, and this one was done in a similar way. The band were no longer using studio musicians, Brian stepped down from his role as producer, and they abandoned the extreme advances in production they had made on Pet Sounds for rougher recordings in Brian’s home studio. It certainly wasn’t a commercial success, and hardly any songs from it became staples in live sets or on greatest hits albums, but it remains a thrilling part of their late ’60s psychedelic era. The opening title track brings back the theremin they used on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and most famously on “Good Vibrations,” giving it an edge that feels distinctly Beach Boys. A lot of the songs — “Aren’t You Glad,” “Country Air,” “I’d Love Just Once to See You,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Let the Wind Blow” — are the kind of quirky lo-fi-ish pop songs that made Smiley Smile so intriguing, and this often feels like a companion to that album. (It makes sense that the reissue was packaged that way.) The only actual connection to Smile though is “Mama Says,” which is a reworked part of “Vega-Tables.” Sometimes I actually prefer this weird a cappella version.
7. Sunflower (1970)
After the 1960s ended, The Beach Boys had another creative boost. They weren’t doing weird lo-fi recordings anymore, and they successfully moved past the indecisive 20/20 to write another classic album. An early highlight is Brian’s “This Whole World” that sounded more spirited that he had in a while, and he and Carl sound great singing it together. “Deirdre,” “All I Wanna Do,” and “Our Sweet Love” have remnants of the psychedelic era, and they’re three of the band’s most gorgeous ’70s songs. They also managed to tack on a Smile leftover that never made it on the eventual Smile tracklist, “Cool, Cool Water.” Dennis’ songwriting contributions were becoming more and more important to the band, and it’s actually he who wrote the album’s best song: “Forever.” He must have hung around his brother enough that he picked up a trick or two, because this is the same kind of intimate beauty Brian perfected on “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No.” Sometimes “Brian Wilson” and “The Beach Boys” begin to feel synonymous, but Dennis wrote enough great songs in their career to make up an album of their own. He’s The Beach Boys’ George Harrison in a way. (And actually, he did make an album of his own: 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue, which may be the best Beach Boys offshoot album.)
6. Surf’s Up (1972)
Before The Smile Sessions came out, the most essential part of this album was its title track, a leftover from Smile that would’ve been the album’s best song behind “Good Vibrations.” Even with that song aside, this is one of their best-sounding and most interesting albums. It’s not as fleshed out as the Wrecking Crew days, but the production’s warm and bright, and the songwriting is exclusively back to forward-thinking pop. Pet Sounds was a product of its era — the influence of The Beatles was felt. But in 1972, The Beach Boys had evolved their pop in a way their contemporaries were doing nothing like. It was their first album in a while to feel like a complete statement (only “Student Demonstration Time,” based on a Leiber/Stoller song from 1954 and re-worked by Mike Love, is out of place and skippable), but its finest moment by a long shot is “Til I Die.” It’s possibly the last song Brian ever recorded on the level of Pet Sounds and Smile. It’s lush, melancholic, personal, full of overlapping harmonies; all the things that made him great.
5. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
People like to say that although Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is the technical predecessor to Pet Sounds, Today! is the true predecessor. I actually disagree. Side B of Today! is undeniable in the development of Pet Sounds, but in different ways Summer Days came closer. (It also has the superior version of “Help Me, Rhonda.”) It came out a month before The Beatles’ Help!, and both of those albums feel similar. They’re both the last album by each band to contain any resemblance to their early material, and both followed by what’s largely considered each band’s first 10/10 classic. Summer Days‘ most obvious achievement is “California Girls,” which is sort of the significantly better sequel to “I Get Around.” Like that song, it’s still fair to call it surf pop, but other than Mike Love’s nasally vocals and the lyrics, this is much closer to the heavily-arranged pop of Pet Sounds. Brian conducting The Wrecking Crew on this one was his greatest musical achievement to date (Hal Blaine’s drumming and the song’s intro are major highlights), and the harmonies in the chorus are transcendental. The Brian-sung, Wall of Sound-inspired “Let Him Run Wild” could fit on Pet Sounds without changing it at all. “You’re So Good to Me” is close too and the a cappella closer “And Your Dreams Come True” is the most psychedelic the band’s harmonies had sounded at that point. “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” is a fascinating one because it kind of sounds like Mike Love fighting to make it “Fun, Fun, Fun” over Brian’s increasingly darker arrangements. The one cover here is of a Phil Spector song, which is a fitting tribute to his hero who he’d eclipse on his next album. And then there’s the great “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” which basically predicts The Shins’ first two albums. It doesn’t have the cohesion of Pet Sounds or side B of Today!, but it’s a collection of some the band’s finest material.
4. Friends (1968)
If there’s a most underrated Beach Boys album, it’s gotta be Friends. It wasn’t popular like their early material, and it wasn’t a critical darling like Pet Sounds either. But it’s really just about as good. If Smile had come out and gained success and competed with Sgt. Pepper’s, maybe Friends would be talked about in the same breath as White Album. But the way things played out, you’ll hardly hear it mentioned in the same breath as The Notorious Byrd Brothers. It’s still up the stripped-down, lo-fi alley of Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, but it’s prettier and less quirky. Brian’s unique vision of pop music and the band’s unparalleled harmonies are as intact here as they are on Pet Sounds and Smile, and there’s truly no skippable track. The harmonies on “Anna Lee, The Healer” are some of the most gorgeous of the band’s career. They’re so full-sounding that you forget they’re only backed by piano, a bass, and the tiniest bit of hand drumming. Mike Love had just gotten back from a trip to India to study Transcendental Meditation with The Beatles and Donovan, so even he was on board with the ’60s counter-culture stuff this time. The closing track is actually named “Transcendental Meditation,” it’s one of the band’s most outwardly psychedelic songs ever, and Mike Love even helped write it. This is the first one where Dennis was a key songwriter too, and his contributions (“Little Bird” and “Be Still”) are both up there with Brian’s. The one-two of opening tracks “Meant for You” into “Friends” is as good an album introduction as any, and this album’s genre experiments are successful too. “Busy Doin’ Nothin'” toys with bossa nova, while the instrumental “Diamond Head” incorporates Hawaiian music. It’s not an album with Brian in the conductor’s booth, but it’s definitely the one where they clicked most as a band.
3. Smiley Smile (1967)
On most days I’ll actually tell you that Smiley Smile is my personal favorite Beach Boys album, but for the purpose of this list there’s no way I can deny that the two that follow absolutely belong there. Like many Beach Boys obsessives, I’ve wished that Smile would’ve come out in 1967 and wondered how the history of pop music would’ve changed because of it. Would it have topped Sgt. Pepper’s? (My opinion: Yes.) Would that have caused The Beatles to react the way they reacted to Pet Sounds, causing them to write an entirely different album than White Album? Would it finally be Beatles vs Beach Boys and not Beatles vs Stones? Would The Beatles have been the ones to give up after hearing how good Smile was? Would Abbey Road have never come out???? WOULD THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT EVEN EXIST???
I think about those things and I often wish I didn’t have to think about those things, because Smile deserved to come out in 1967. I wish Mike Love wasn’t resisting it, I wish the label wasn’t rushing Brian to put something out, and I wish he didn’t have the mental health issues that prevented him from finishing his own work. But sometimes I’m also happy that Smile was aborted, because it resulted in Smiley Smile, one of the strangest and absolute greatest albums of the strange and absolutely great 1960s. Most of the album was material written for Smile, which would’ve been Brian’s grandest and most ambitious statement to date, instead turned into minimal lo-fi recordings in his home studio. Where “Vega-Tables” had countless musicians on the Smile version, here it was backed by little more than a 2-note bassline. (And, famously, the percussion was Paul McCartney chewing celery.) “Little Pad,” one of the songs that wasn’t written for Smile, has the band laughing while they’re singing. “She’s Goin’ Bald,” based on a Smile track that never made it on the eventual tracklist, has the band pitching up their voices until they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. What band as famous as them in the ’60s was doing this? What band even would do this? It’s obvious why it flopped as a followup to Pet Sounds, but it’s an endlessly fascinating album that we’re lucky exists. It’s easy to draw direct lines from this to the lo-fi indie scene of the ’90s, or like, Pinkerton. If an album was ever ahead of its time, this one is.
Now that Smile is here, another good thing about this album’s existence is that we get both options. And while Smile is absolutely the album it was always talked up to be, I prefer some of the Smiley Smile versions of these songs. This quirky version of “Vegetables” has always suited the lyrics better. And I’ll actually take the more minimal, haunting Smiley Smile version of “Wind Chimes” over the way Brian first intended it. Pet Sounds and Smile are no doubt classics of psychedelic pop, but they’ve never actually sounded as druggy as this album does. If you’re trying to convince a newcomer that the Beach Boys had an edge, sometimes you can’t even put on “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” because people know those songs and never thought about them as psych-pop. But put on the Smiley Smile version of “Wonderful” or “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter” and they might say, “That’s The Beach Boys?” It’s amazing that almost 50 years into this album’s existence, it’s still that shocking.
2. Pet Sounds (1966)
There’s really not much left to say about Pet Sounds that hasn’t been said. You can listen to the album hundreds of times and you’ll still be bewildered trying to figure out how Brian put this thing together. He’s literally got over 50 musicians playing on the album, and he envisioned such a specific sound in his head that, as the story goes, he would stop the recording for something as subtle as a drum hit not coming out the way he pictured it. Then he topped it off with The Beach Boys’ intricate vocal harmonies and his most personal songwriting to date (with lyrical assistance from Tony Asher). It’s a songwriting and recording process that still sounds nearly impossible to pull off today, and I’m not sure another pop album ever came together quite like this one. Complexity isn’t enough to create great pop music though; the real impressive part is that, with a process like this, everything sounds so good. You can pick apart the subtleties all day, or you can just sit back and take the album in. Both are endlessly enjoyable.
Unlike any prior album, the one cover here (Brian’s arrangement of the traditional “Sloop John B”) isn’t filler or left in there as an ode to his influences. He makes it a necessary part of the album. Both instrumentals (“Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and the title track) also only add to the flow of the record, rather than taking anything from it. Brian sings lead or co-lead on almost every song this time, and it’s clearer than ever that it’s also the sound of his voice — not just his songwriting and production — that made The Beach Boys so special. On the one song that always seemed too personal to give to someone else, “God Only Knows,” his brother Carl still handles it as beautifully as Brian would have. (A Brian-sung version appeared on 1997’s The Pet Sounds Sessions. Of course it’s great, but it doesn’t best the Carl version.) And if there was ever a song to talk about Brian’s way with atypical chord changes, it’s “God Only Knows.” Look at the sheet music for that and it looks like it’s going to sound more like a jazz song than pop, yet Brian makes these unpredictable progressions sound gorgeous. It’s no surprise Paul McCartney calls it his favorite song of all time.
And speaking of, The Beach Boys’ race with The Beatles was never more clearly in effect than on this album. Its approach was directly inspired by The Beatles making a cohesive album with Rubber Soul, rather than just a collection of songs, and Pet Sounds was in turn a direct inspiration on Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s still exciting to think of a time when the biggest rock bands in the world were in mutual admiration of each other yet constantly competing. (This still happens in rap though.) It was a time when if you were still sounding like 1965 in 1966, you had fallen behind. It’s no wonder so much creativity came from that short era. Between The Beatles and The Beach Boys, it wasn’t just songwriting either. Their advances in production quality were unparalleled at that time, and for this type of music, it never really got much better. It’s a huge part of what makes records like Pet Sounds so timeless. Even other great psychedelic pop albums from 1966 like Love’s Da Capo and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman are inseparable from their ’60s production. Pet Sounds could believably have come out today.
1. Smile (1967/2011)
If I had made this list any earlier than 2011, it might have felt wrong to include Smile. If you were a fan up until that year, you had probably encountered some version of the album. Maybe you assembled all the tracks that made it onto later albums and compilations and bootlegs and put the album together the way you thought it might have come out. Maybe you picked up someone else’s version, like Mok’s. There was the 2004 re-recording of the album, Brian Wilson Presents Smile, so you had an idea for how brilliant this thing was, but it still didn’t compare to the possibility of hearing it with Brian’s ’60s-era vocals, The Beach Boys’ harmonies, and The Wrecking Crew. The 2011 release of The Smile Sessions finally gave us the 1967 recordings, assembled mostly according to the BWPS tracklist (with input by Brian), and it’s probably about 90-something percent done compared to the way Brian envisioned it at the time. Considering his perfectionism was hitting insane levels at that time, this is a more-than-acceptable version of the album.
Still, the possibilities did, and in some ways still do, remain endless. If Smile came out in 1967, would “Good Vibrations” have turned into an eight-minute song? Or a 15-minute one? Going by the song getting a full disc of outtakes, that doesn’t sound impossible. And would it really have ended up as the last track on the album? Either way, the album as we know it is as amazing as it was always hyped to be. It took what Brian had achieved on Pet Sounds to wildly new levels, it topped anything The Beatles had done, and it quite possibly would have been the greatest album of the 1960s if it had come out then.
Pet Sounds is a perfect album of pop songs, any of which exist as perfect pop songs on their own. But working with Van Dyke Parks, Brian crafted Smile as a song cycle where countless segments were recorded separately (enough to fill five discs on the box set version of The Smile Sessions), intended to be pieced together as one massive statement. (As you may know, Van Dyke Parks put out his own similarly-minded album that same year, simply titled Song Cycle.) Where songs exist that could be considered covers, like Dennis’ haunting medley of “You Are My Sunshine” and “The Old Master Painter” or the segment of doo wop song “Gee,” they’re working within the storyline of the album. The same is true for the instrumentals and the a cappella songs. A few absolute classic pop songs appear — “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up,” and of course “Good Vibrations” — but even those take on a larger life within the context of the album. What is “Heroes and Villains” without “Our Prayer” and “Gee” leading into it? Or “Surf’s Up” without “Child Is Father of The Man”? And “Good Vibrations” manages to sound even more epic coming right out of “Love to Say Dada.” (“Good Vibrations” is, by the way, the greatest pop song of all time. Some people may disagree, but those people are wrong.)
Like I was getting at above when talking about Smiley Smile, after hearing so many hypothetical versions of this album for years before getting this one, some things about it will always disappoint. Whether they’re truly superior or I was just too used to them, I’ll still take certain Smiley Smile and bootleg versions over the ones here. And Brian’s solo piano version of “Surf’s Up” bests the full-band one. That doesn’t actually take away from the album though. Those versions still exist and they’re still great to listen to, but no bootleg could sequence and transition these songs the way Brian could and eventually did. Even if it wouldn’t have been exactly like this in the ’60s. It’s still tragic that Brian’s internal demons and the album’s external enemies prevented it from being released then. But maybe it needed to be this way. Maybe Smile was truly ahead of its time, and it needed to sit in the vaults, slowly become a legend, and finally get a release over 40 years later. Or maybe I’m just buying too much into good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll myth-making. Either way, it’s expertly executed ambition from an artist who’s truly a pop genius.