When the Beach Boys’ recording career got started in 1962, the long player album, as opposed to the single, was still gaining clout as an artistic medium. The upshot is that their full-length releases run the gamut from somewhat lacking to genuine masterpieces. By 1968, they’d already issued three Best Of compilations. But the early albums are sometimes just as accomplished for what they are – care-free, exuberant and expertly crafted slices of ‘youth craze’ pop and rock ‘n roll – as the later critically lauded albums. They offered a distillation of west-coast youth culture that appealed to national and international audiences (Dennis Wilson, famously, was the only member of the group who actually surfed). The non-single material on the early albums provides an enlightening link between these two modes and eras of songwriting.
Spurred on by the pop perfection being achieved by the likes of the Ronettes, as well as the contemporary British Invasion sounds that were changing every month, chief songwriter Brian Wilson doggedly pursued more and more complex harmonies, structures, and productions in the mid-‘60s, often at the expense of his own well-being. In later years, the band’s other members stepped in, developing as talented composers in their own right (the shining example of which is Dennis’s outstanding 1977 solo effort Pacific Ocean Blue).
Here, then, is some advice for weeding through the Beach Boys’ 29 original studio albums and getting beyond Endless Summer. These ten LPs illustrate the substantial and truly bizarre evolution and innovations of “America’s premiere surfing group” as well as the narrative arc of Brian Wilson as tortured genius.
Surfer Girl (1963)
The Boys’ third album is their first that’s essential for non-completists. You get the hits “Catch a Wave” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” which are offset by ballads like the title track and the presciently introspective “In My Room.” Brian Wilson first took over production duties on Surfer Girl. It was also their first truly iconic Capitol sleeve.
All Summer Long (1964)
“I Get Around” opens the album, which should seal the deal. On their first Number One single, three years into their career, the band somehow already exude nostalgia while still sounding newly energized and on the verge of even greater things. The LP also features the classics “Little Honda,” “Don’t Back Down” and a cover of the Mystics doo-wop standard “Hushabye.”
Beach Boys Today (1965)
A lot hinges on the year 1965 in Beach Boys lore. “Today” saw the band attempting to part ways with the surf and purely teenage anthems, as well as with their troublesome manager Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis and Carl. This transition would take a few albums to fully realize - for the time being Brian was stuck with a bout of nervous exhaustion and a weed habit. The first of the year’s LPs featured the chart-topping, if conservative, “Help Me Rhonda.” Elsewhere, “Kiss Me Baby” acts as an intoxicating, lush swan song to Act I of the Beach Boys.
Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)(1965)
Brian Wilson’s obsession with Phil Spector’s writing and production increasingly rears its head here, most explicitly with a cover of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” The group also riffs on the Dylan-inspired records the Beatles were recording at the time with “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” And then there’s the album’s new smash single, the acid-flavored, future-seeing “California Girls.” The set also features “Let Him Run Wild,” one of the best pre-Pet Sounds album cuts and not to be missed.
Is it the greatest pop album of all time? God Only Knows. This is the point where the litany of car and surfing songs disappear, the progressive arrangements and productions hinted at over the last few albums are sharpened, and the scope of the compositions is expanded drastically. In short, everything comes together for a dozen perfect songs that wallow in a cosmic degree of longing, fear and regret. Even the ostensibly “up” singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B” are depressing, but not as depressing or brilliant as other selections like “I Know There’s an Answer” or “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).”
Libraries have been written about the abandoned Smile sessions, and the resultant compromise release Smiley Smile. However this does nothing to alter how bizarre and intriguing of a follow-up to Pet Sounds this record is. One minute you get exquisite triumphs like “Wonderful,” with its weaving and inventive melody. The next you get what sounds like Brian Wilson inventing Muppet Show numbers / Animal Collective. But if you want a warts-and-all recreation of the Beach Boys story as it actually happened, rather than as it was reissued/rerecorded, this is essential nonetheless. Oh and there’s some song called “Good Vibrations” on this too.
With Brian Wilson frequently absent battling addiction and other chronic psychiatric issues, the rest of of the group were left to cobble together their 20th release, partially from old scraps. The results are better than you might expect. The album concludes with two Smile sessions leftovers/highlights, the breathtaking a cappella “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence,” as well as Dennis Wilson’s rework of the Charles Manson -penned song “Cease to Exist” (as “Never Learn Not to Love”).
Sunflower contains a strange array of styles and threatens to make the case that the Boys had grown up too much. “Got to Know the Woman” is a fairly ill-advised attempt at (very) blue eyed soul. But then there are simple, gorgeous songs like “Forever.” On “All I Wanna Do,” the Boys sound like they’ve been left out in the sun too long, and their classic formula gets a hazy, woozy treatment that still stands up.
Surf’s Up (1971)
The ironically titled Surf’s Up has eclipsed, for some, even Pet Sounds in terms of sheer beauty and emotion. Not that it’s anywhere as consistent as that album – Surf’s Up includes the abominable but loveable “Student Demonstration Time,” for instance. On the other hand, “Feel Flows” is immortal, while the hymn-like “’Til I Die” is nearly as evocative as “Our Prayer.” “A Day in the Life of a Tree” – a sort of ecological “La Vie en Rose” – is as precious as the title suggests, but a touching culmination of one strain of Pet Sounds / Smile -era writing. The title track, though, is the biggest attraction here. With idiosyncratic lyricist Van Dyke Parks assisting, it boasts obsessive internal rhyming worthy of Rakim, and a coda that’s sublime, creepy and hokey all at once. Begun in 1966 as part of Smile, which would finally be released forty plus years later, it was retooled for inclusion here. If the popular imagination was fair, this dirge would rival the Manson murders for closing the door on the “the ‘60s”.
This one is a bit of a grower. At this point, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin all take centre stage, with Brian Wilson’s writing and vocal contributions merely filling in gaps. The centerpiece is a high concept suite that’s as ambitious as a David Axelrod record – Part Two of the trilogy is called “California: The Beaks of Eagles” and draws on the poetry of fellow Californian environmentalist Robinson Jeffers. Otherwise, Holland is full of subdued, unassuming songs that stick with you.