The Beach Boys’ 20 best songs not on ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Smile’
Talk to anyone with even a casual interest in pop music, and they'll probably tell you that The Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds is a masterpiece from start to finish. It influenced everyone from The Beatles to today's biggest indie rock stars, and it helped cement the art form of writing rock and pop music in an album-oriented format. Its legacy has long been cemented, and its influence only continues to expand. Talk to anyone with a slightly deeper interest in pop music, and they'll probably tell you that Smile -- the storied Pet Sounds followup that was nearly finished in 1967 but scrapped, and which then built up a cult following over the years as songs from the album gradually surfaced, and was then finally "completed" and released as The Smile Sessions in 2011 -- is also a masterpiece. Both Smile and Pet Sounds are 10/10s, and they're best listened to from start to finish. There's no filler on those albums, and both of them -- especially Smile -- work best as one whole piece of art. Both albums have hits (Pet Sounds has "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Gold Only Knows," and "Sloop John B"; Smile has "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains"), but the singles alone aren't fully indicative of what The Beach Boys were capable of at that point in their career.
Again, the legacies of those albums are widely known, but The Beach Boys put out so much good music beyond those two albums. They never achieved perfection on the level of Pet Sounds or Smile before or since, so sorting through the rest of their 25+ albums for more brilliance isn't always the easiest thing to do, but we've got together a list of the 20 best songs from their other albums that should make things a little easier.
Some of the songs on this list were huge hits, others are deep cuts that deserved more attention. Some come from the band's early surf rock/hot rod era. others come from their overlooked early '70s era. But all of them show off the songwriting talents of Brian Wilson (and in some cases, other Beach Boys members) nearly as well as the songs on Pet Sounds and Smile do. Just one disclaimer: the list excludes any songs intended for Smile, even if those songs were given official releases on other Beach Boys albums. (After Smile was scrapped, many of its songs were included and/or reworked for the band's 1967 lo-fi pop oddity Smiley Smile, and other abandoned Smile recordings ended up on other Beach Boys albums after that.)
Considering Brian Wilson recently finished up his tour cycle celebrating Pet Sounds' 50th anniversary and is now gearing up for a co-headlining tour with The Zombies where he'll focus on songs from underrated Beach Boys albums Friends and Surf's Up, what better time than now to dig into some of the band's best non-Pet Sounds songs? Read on for the list, ranked in order of greatness, and then listen to a playlist of all 20 songs below...
20. "Catch A Wave" (from Surfer Girl, 1963)
"Catch A Wave" is very much in the style of the band's early surf rock material, but it's one where you can already see the gears turning in Brian's mind to go beyond standard rock and roll chord progressions and melodies. The verses are mostly your standard surf rock fare, with major-key Chuck Berry guitar patterns and surfy doo-wop harmonies (with a few less expected flourishes like harp), but the song's gorgeous hook sees Brian messing with the formula, making unexpected chord changes and writing complex vocal harmonies that go beyond doo-wop and start predicting the stuff he'd write on Pet Sounds. It's just a short hook of a two-minute song, but it's enough to make "Catch A Wave" sound a little edgier and more forward-thinking than bigger hits like "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun Fun," and that -- plus it being less overplayed -- makes it more appealing to revisit today.
19. "California Saga" (from Holland, 1973)
Though Mike Love often pushed back against Brian's desire to expand The Beach Boys' music past lighthearted songs about cars, girls, and surfing, he was actually a driving force behind one of the band's most ambitious musical undertakings of the 1970s, one which Brian actually had little to do with. The last three tracks on Side A of 1973's Holland made up one larger piece called "California Saga," which was the band's closest thing to a song cycle since Smile and a still-underrated gem of '70s prog-pop. It opens with "Big Sur," a folk song written and sung by Mike Love that doesn't sound like much else in the band's discography. The concept of Americana was a major influence on the themes of Smile, but The Beach Boys never really sounded as much like Americana music as they did on "Big Sur," and they were pretty damn good at it too. The song flows directly into "The Beaks of Eagles," which opens with psychedelic flutes and a spoken-word reading of Robinson Jeffers' poem of the same name. It's some of the headiest sounding Beach Boys stuff of the post-Smile era, and it transitions seamlessly into some lighthearted folk pop and then back to the poem and then back to folk-pop again, before segueing into the saga's closer, "California." Brian shows up to sing the intro of this one, and then the band's trademark lush harmonies take over, and then Carl Wilson throws in some synth bass playing what sounds like an intentional callback to the bassline of their most iconic song with "California" in the title, "California Girls." It reminds me of how The Beatles threw part of "She Loves You" in at the end of "All You Need Is Love"; a way of saying, "look how far we've come."
18. "Please Let Me Wonder" (from Today!, 1965)
Side B of 1965's Today! is almost as legendary as Pet Sounds, and it's widely considered a major predecessor to that album. Side A of the album still had pop hits that remain associated with the first era of the band (like "Help Me, Ronda" and their cover of "Do You Wanna Dance?"), but side B was all ballads with lush orchestration from The Wrecking Crew that almost all had Brian's somber voice in the forefront. The song that kicks it all off is "Please Let Me Wonder," a pivotal song that recalls earlier ballads like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room" and and also predicts future ballads like "God Only Knows" and "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)." It's as tender as just about anything Brian's ever written, and the group's delicate harmonies wrap around you like an old sweater.
17. "She Knows Me Too Well" (from Today!, 1965)
"Please Let Me Wonder" is a key song on Today!, but the best and most ahead-of-its-time song is the highly personal "She Knows Me Too Well." Brian takes lead by himself in the verses, with the same sort of pacing and annunciation that would define his singing style on Pet Sounds (and that Panda Bear would build a career off of imitating), and he moves to his soaring falsetto in the chorus, as the rest of the band pillow his vocals with the same kind of harmony work that would make people fall in love with Pet Sounds and Smile. And lyrically, it saw Brian in much darker territory than his big fun-in-the-sun hits. It's a self-deprecating song where Brian basically calls himself out as a selfish, jealous lover, and admits he doesn't deserve to be with the person he's with -- not exactly what a casual Beach Boys fan would've expected in 1965. It could've fit right on Pet Sounds as is, and it remains impressive to think Brian wrote and recorded it over a year before that masterpiece of an album saw the light of day.
16. "The Warmth of the Sun" (from Shut Down Volume 2, 1964)
One of Brian's many great contributions to the development of pop music was his influential use of chord progressions that were atypical for pop music, and though he perfected it on Pet Sounds, he started developing it years earlier, like on "The Warmth of the Sun," one of the most significant ballads of the band's early era. (You can read more deeply about the song from a music theory perspective here.) The unique chord changes helped give the song an eerie vibe, which worked perfectly with the more melancholic lyrics, which -- despite being about a failed relationship on the surface -- were apparently inspired by the assassination of JFK. The deceptively cozy song title probably stopped "The Warmth of the Sun" from turning any heads amongst Beach Boys fans in 1964, but the underlying darkness helped make it a proto-Pet Sounds song that sounds a lot more timeless today than a lot of the band's other early '60s singles.
15. "Transcendental Meditation" (from Friends, 1968)
The Beatles and The Beach Boys were constantly influencing each other, and after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became The Beatles' spiritual advisor, members of The Beach Boys began embracing Yogi's Transcendental Meditation technique as well. Yogi's teachings were apparently a big influence on how The Beach Boys made their excellent 1968 album Friends, and one of the songs was a direct ode to the technique. Eastern music and spirituality were both major influences on Western psychedelia, so it's probably not surprising that "Transcendental Meditation" is one of The Beach Boys' most overtly psychedelic songs, both sonically and lyrically. It's a head trip of a song that sounds truly like nothing else The Beach Boys ever released before or since. It's not quite George Harrison's raga rock, especially because The Beach Boys had abandoned studios and studio musicians in favor of lo-fi home recordings at this point, but you can hear them doing their best to mimic the drone of a sitar and the melodies of Indian classical music with whatever limited resources they did have. The results remain thrilling.
14. "Surfin' Safari" (from Surfin' Safari, 1962)
Because The Beach Boys became so legendary for more complex, more "mature" material in the mid to late '60s, it's easy to overlook or write off their early years. But just as we probably wouldn't have even gotten Sgt. Pepper's if "Love Me Do" didn't bust open the doors five years earlier, we would not be talking about Pet Sounds without the impact of The Beach Boys' first Top 40 hit, "Surfin' Safari." You may take it for granted now, but if you can bring yourself back to the first time you ever heard it, it's not hard to remember what made this song such a blast. It opens with a single snare crack, and then the hook comes roaring right in. It can sound primitive now, but it must have been a revelation in 1962, and I still think it sounds like a jolt of adrenaline today. It's a pretty straightforward blend of the band's love of doo-wop, Chuck Berry, and surf music, but you have to establish the straightforward before you work on the experimental, or there'd be nothing to experiment with. And when punk emerged and tons of great bands started to go back to the basics and pull influence from early rock music, it was this era of The Beach Boys that was a huge factor in shaping the Ramones' sound. (Brian apparently never liked punk, but, interestingly enough, Mike Love returned the favor to the Ramones earlier this year.) The Beach Boys continued to score surfy hits like crazy up until the making of Pet Sounds, and though they struck gold a handful of other times, there's a charm that comes with the very first time they perfected the formula, and you can still hear it today.
13. "Let Him Run Wild" (from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)
Side B of Today! often gets all the credit for sewing the seeds for Pet Sounds, but Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which came out four months later, was just -- if not more -- crucial in the development of that now-classic album. That album birthed a lot of great songs, and "Let Him Run Wild" is the most proto-Pet Sounds of them all. It's got it all -- it starts out as a ballad, with the bouncy pianos, melodic basslines, and airy atmospheres that would help define Pet Sounds, and in the chorus it turns into the kind of Wrecking Crew-assisted wall of sound that Brian would build again and again on Pet Sounds and Smile. The contrast between the melancholic, minor-key verses and the upbeat major-key chorus is one Brian would revisit on his two masterpieces, and it's already in fine form on this song. Like the aforementioned "She Knows Me Too Well," Brian could've saved this one exactly as is for Pet Sounds, and no one would've considered it an outlier.
12. "Anna Lee, The Healer" (from Friends, 1968)
The Beach Boys often relied on ambitious arrangements and studio production techniques to achieve the perfect pop song, but songs like "Anna Lee, The Healer" proved they had it in them even without all that fancy stuff. The band's stunning harmonies are backed by little more than simplistic piano and basslines, and some very primitive percussion, and that's enough to make "Anna Lea, The Healer" one of the most truly gorgeous sounding songs in The Beach Boys' catalog. Some of the stuff produced during the band's lo-fi home recording era is a little too silly, even for Beach Boys fanatics, but there's nothing silly about "Anna Lee, The Healer." It's less musically complex without The Wrecking Crew and less lyrically profound without Tony Asher or Van Dyke Parks, but it otherwise sounds like something the band might have written during their creative peak. Like a lot of post-Smile songs, it's a bummer that gems like this one still go overlooked today.
11. "I Went To Sleep" (from 20/20, 1969)
1969's 20/20 is kind of a mixed bag, with tacked-on Smile leftovers, some covers, some cheese ("Do It Again"), and a Bruce Johnston-penned instrumental, but there are also some true gems like Brian and Carl Wilson's "I Went To Sleep." It's a psychedelic, atmospheric waltz with similarly stripped-down arrangements to the aforementioned "Anna Lee, The Healer," but overall an entirely different beast. The Beach Boys. were often at their best when they were at their darkest and most eerie, and this song is indeed eerie. The musical backdrop is as haunting as Brian, Carl, and Al Jardine's harmonies, which remain in the falsetto for the entirety of the song. It's over and done with in just over a minute and a half, and it's not even a fast song, yet it somehow feels complete.
10. "I Get Around" (from All Summer Long, 1964)
Before Brian went all in on his creative inclinations, he was finding ways to sneak them into songs that were still palatable for fans of the band's surf/hot rod material, like on the first Beach Boys number one hit, "I Get Around." It opens with a similar bang to "Surfin' Safari," but it only takes a few seconds to see how far The Beach Boys had come in just two years. The overlapping vocals and Brian's falsetto, the Wrecking Crew-aided wall of sound, the ever so slightly off-kilter chord progressions -- "I Get Around" had it all. The verses revert back to simpler hot rod rock, with Mike Love's trademark nasal sneer taking over for Brian's soaring falsetto, but even in the verses, Brian punctuates each line with whimsical arrangements from the producer's chair. "I Get Around" is one of the most brilliant clashes between the band's early days and the band's Pet Sounds/Smile era, but even if the inner-band tension was starting to build, the boys sound as natural as can be on this song.
9. "This Whole World" (from Sunflower, 1970)
The late '60s were a tough time for The Beach Boys, after they failed to release Smile and reverted to lo-fi home recordings that left no sizable impact compared to their previous albums (even if a lot of great music came out of those sessions). But they came into the '70s swinging with Sunflower, their most polished album since Pet Sounds and one of the best-received albums of their post-Pet Sounds career. And no song said "we're back!" like "This Whole World," an upbeat Brian-penned, Carl-fronted song that helped begin a bold new era of the band's harmony-laden sunshine pop. The early '70s were still a tougher time for The Beach Boys than their hitmaking '60s heyday, especially with Brian less involved than he used to be, but songs like "This Whole World" proved the band had much more in them than leftover Smile recordings. There's really nothing like early '70s Beach Boys; they developed a sound in that era that stuck proudly to Pet Sounds-style pop but also pushed forward, and rarely did they capture that in a single two-minute song the way they did on "This Whole World." It sounds as fruitful and alive as the first flowers to bloom in spring, and it's unmistakably the work of no other band while remaining distinctly different from The Beach Boys of Pet Sounds and Smile. The Beach Boys were a creative force in the early '70s, before 1974's Endless Summer compilation would immortalize the pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys as a nostalgia act in the eyes of the general public, and "This Whole World" helped kick that whole resurgence off.
8. "Wild Honey" (from Wild Honey, 1967)
After the aborted Smile, The Beach Boys turned a lot of that album's songs into lo-fi pop oddities for 1967's Smiley Smile, and later that same year they released Wild Honey, a similarly lo-fi oddball collection but with a noted Motown influence. The best song on that album -- and one of the band's best in general -- is its title track. It's the band's third song to use the electro-theremin that they first experimented with on Pet Sounds' "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" and perfected/popularized on "Good Vibrations," and there's just something about the electro-theremin that makes The Beach Boys sound even better than usual. The song's also got Carl Wilson pushing his voice to the limits and Bruce Johnston throwing in a garage rock-style organ solo; it's soulful and rockin' but still charming in that classic Beach Boys way. It's just a little bit outside of their comfort zone, but they manage to make it work wonders.
7. "Girl Don't Tell Me" (from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)
It's well-documented that The Beatles and The Beach Boys were constantly influencing each other in the '60s, and Brian has basically said that "Girl Don't Tell Me" was his attempt at writing his own "Ticket To Ride." The similarities are noticeable, but "Girl Don't Tell Me" is a force of its own, and not like much else in The Beach Boys' (or The Beatles') catalog. With its jangly acoustic guitar and breezy, stripped-back melodies, it pretty much invented the sound of the first two Shins albums and that's enough to count it as proto-indie pop. It's got the clean-cut look of the band's early years but in a more grown-up way. It's very mid '60s in the way that it's a clear progression from the band's more simplistic early work but far less complex than what was just around the corner (The Stones, The Kinks, the aforementioned Beatles, and other major rock bands were all at a similar crossroads around this time), but it's also truly timeless. It was an outlier in the band's discography when it came out, and it's still a song that feels like it could get released today.
6. "Surfer Girl" (from Surfer Girl, 1963)
"Surfer Girl" is the first Beach Boys song where Brian Wilson was credited as the sole songwriter and producer, and it's also arguably the first song that proves what he'd be capable of on Pet Sounds. With the group's pillowy harmonies as support, Brian took lead and delivered the kind of tender, lovelorn ballad he'd perfect with "God Only Knows" and "Caroline, No." It was still very early on in the band's career, and still clearly sticking to the surf theme, but it was clear from this song that The Beach Boys had a lot more in them than "Surfin' U.S.A." During the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey era, The Beach Boys recorded a very stoned-sounding live rendition of this song, and if you didn't know any better, you'd think it came out of the same songwriting sessions as Smile. The fact that it actually dates all the way back to 1963 and still fits in nicely with the band's adventurous psychedelic era proves just how ahead of its time this song really was.
5. "Sail On, Sailor" (from Holland, 1973)
Brian was often absent from The Beach Boys in the '70s due to health issues, but as legend has it, his Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks stopped by to check in on Brian at home during a time when Brian wasn't doing so well, and the pair ended up coming up with "Sail On, Sailor," one of the finest compositions of Brian's career. The song's full backstory is often debated, but what we know for sure is that a few different co-writers ended up contributing to it, '70s-era Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin ended up singing it, and it ended up as the opening track to Holland, an album Brian didn't otherwise contribute much to. Blondie Chaplin's soulful voice makes it sound noticeably different from most Beach Boys' songs, but the group's trademark harmonies are intact, and I don't think there's a songwriting team on earth besides Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks who would come up with the whimsical "Seldom stumble, never crumble..." bridge. It's a rare Wilson/Parks collaboration that wasn't written for Smile, and some parts (like that bridge) would have fit on Smile nicely, while others (like the soaring chorus) are totally different. Sometimes it veers a little too closely towards flimsy FM soft rock (it makes sense that Brian apparently offered the song to Three Dog Night), but as soon as you hear that euphoric hook, any possible cynicism about the song drifts away.
4. "Forever" (from Sunflower, 1970)
Brian Wilson is the true genius of The Beach Boys, but sometimes his brilliance rubbed off on his bandmates, like when his brother Dennis wrote "Forever." It's a romantic ballad in the vein of Brian's "God Only Knows" and "Caroline, No," and Brian himself praised it by saying it "has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard." Dennis penned a few other gems for The Beach Boys, and he released a very good solo album in 1977 (Pacific Ocean Blue), but "Forever" is his masterpiece. With the group's harmonies aiding him, it's a Beach Boys song through and through, as worthy as anything that his more prolific older brother wrote. The song got an added boost in fame when Uncle Jesse sang it on Full House (and, for whatever reason, re-recorded it with The Beach Boys for 1992's entirely inessential Summer In Paradise), but it otherwise remains one of their most overlooked moments of brilliance. Like most of Sunflower, "Forever" a return to more polished, more accessible music following the band's lo-fi late '60s era, and this song is the most absolutely gorgeous song the band had released since Pet Sounds. If Dennis Wilson was the George Harrison of The Beach Boys, this was his "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or his "Something," and it's a crime that this song is not nearly as iconic on a widespread level as those two songs are. It came at a rough time for The Beach Boys and it was written by an unexpected band member, but it otherwise had everything you'd ever want from this band.
3. "In My Room" (from Surfer Girl, 1963)
Surfer Girl's title track was the first time that Brian showed off the knack for balladry that would define Pet Sounds, but that album's "In My Room" -- which was released as a single just a few months after "Surfer Girl" -- quickly took it to another level. The lyrics were co-written with Gary Usher, which presumably helped the song sound a bit more mature than "Surfer Girl," as Brian's best lyrics usually came when he was working with a co-writer, and the introspective themes hinted at Pet Sounds far more strongly than any other Beach Boys song did at that point. To this day, even with all the advancements in pop music that The Beach Boys -- and tons of other bands -- made since, "In My Room" is haunting and powerful and timeless. It's the best ballad of the band's pre-Pet Sounds days, and it's as good as a lot of the ballads on that album too. It's simplistic, but it doesn't need to be complex. The song just goes straight for your heart every time.
2. "California Girls" (from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)
With Pet Sounds and Smile, Brian attempted making the perfect album, but at other points in his career, he attempted making the perfect song. The first time we saw Brian try to fit a masterpiece onto one side of a 45 was "I Get Around," and the time he finally did it was "Good Vibrations." In between, was "California Girls." Like "I Get Around," "California Girls" had enough early Beach Boys on the surface that radio listeners wouldn't be thrown for a curveball, but this time there was more than a hint of where Brian wanted to go next. All the makings of Pet Sounds were present on this song, which was apparently the first song he wrote under the influence of LSD. It opens with an instrumental as ambitious and delicate as anything on Pet Sounds, and then it transitions into a Mike Love-sung verse that sounds like the early hits at first, but when you listen more closely, you hear an instrumental backdrop as meticulously arranged as the masterpiece albums Brian would shortly go on to write. Like on a lot of Pet Sounds and Smile songs, the secret weapon is Hal Blaine's hypnotic drum patterns, and when he does that simple yet so satisfying fill, Brian's falsetto and the rest of the group's harmonies come soaring in, sounding as lush as they would on Pet Sounds and Smile. The only thing really keeping the song on the "early Beach Boys" side of things is the lyrics. But in terms of melody, arrangement, and production, "California Girls" was the true first moment that Brian exposed himself to the world as the pop genius we now know him as.
1. "'Til I Die" (from Surf's Up, 1971)
The very best Brian Wilson composition that wasn't written for Pet Sounds or Smile is also arguably the last truly great song Brian ever wrote. His music was always at its best when it was at its darkest, and "'Til I Die" was a rare song where Brian wrote bluntly about death. Composed entirely on his own, both musically and lyrically, the song was one of the most breathtaking pieces of music he had ever written, and it came at a very unexpected point in his career. Brian wasn't contributing to The Beach Boys as often in the early '70s as he was in the mid '60s, when he was almost always the core songwriter and producer for the group, but he had a few songs on each record and "'Til I Die" popped up as the penultimate track on 1971's Surf's Up, right before the closing title track (a leftover from Smile). "Surf's Up" is also among the very best Beach Boys songs ever written, but that came at a time when everything Brian touched turned to gold. Hearing it back to back with "'Til I Die" even further proves that Brian was able to strike gold one last time. If "In My Room" opened the doors to Brian's career as a master of somber, introspective ballads, then "'Til I Die" closed them, and the subject matter couldn't have been more appropriate. And matching the subject matter were some of the most haunting melodies and vocal harmonies Brian had ever written. Usually even the more melancholic Beach Boys songs sounded pretty, but this song sounds genuinely dark. It truly felt like another chapter of Brian's songwriting. The recently mentioned Dennis ballad "Forever" sounds like it could've been on Pet Sounds or Smile, but this song -- released just one year later -- definitely could not have been. It has a weary, tired vibe that was clearly not cut from the same youthful cloth as Brian's teenage symphony to god. On Smile, Brian needed to prove himself to the world as the greatest pop musician of his time. On "'Til I Die," he is waving farewell.
Listen to all 20 songs on Spotify: