New documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road was released last week, and the film’s soundtrack is out this Friday (11/26). It features “Right Where I Belong,” which is a collaboration between Brian and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James that’s as nostalgic as a Pacific sunset. Listen via Rolling Stone below.
“In my heart and soul Brian Wilson’s music has always held a place of such divine importance,” Jim James says. “It has always been there with me in celebrating life’s greatest triumphs and has also sustained me through some of my darkest hours. His spirit and life story have taught us all to never give up and to always listen to and honor the spirit of each of our own unique creative souls. So it was truly such an honor to create and collaborate with Brian on brand new music for this incredible upcoming film about his life.”
Brian adds, “I was thrilled when Brent and Jason asked me to compose a song for the film, I enjoyed working on the song with Jim, he was the perfect collaborator.”
We talked to Brian about the film and his new album At My Piano and you can read that here.
Pick up classic Beach Boys albums on vinyl in the BV shop.
Beach Boys Albums Ranked
28. Summer in Paradise (1992)
27. Still Cruisin’ (1989)
26. 15 Big Ones (1976)
25. M.I.U. Album (1978)
24. L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
23. The Beach Boys (1985)
22. Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972)
21. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)
20. Keepin’ the Summer Alive (1980)
19. That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)
18. Surfin’ USA (1963)
17. Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
16. Love You (1977)
15. Surfin’ Safari (1962)
14. 20/20 (1969)
13. Holland (1973)
12. Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
11. All Summer Long (1964)
10. Surfer Girl (1963)
9. Today! (1965)
8. Wild Honey (1967)
7. Sunflower (1970)
6. Surf’s Up (1972)
5. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
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.
Update (6/24/20): Brian himself says, "Pet Sounds is by far my very best album, though my favorite is Friends."
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.