With the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy being released in theaters this week (June 5, 2015) I’ve been listening to a lot of The Beach Boys as of late in anticipation. They have always been one of my all time favorite bands and I can’t think of a single time when one of their songs weren’t part of the soundtrack of my life growing up. To vividly remembering Surfin’ Safari on my parent’s stereo on the way to my first day of school, painstakingly trying to figure out the time signatures of Here Today bass guitar at 3am, to piecing together demos and outtakes of Pet Sounds on a certain file sharing service when I first became addicted to the internet.
With over 50 years of history, albums, and hit songs embedded into pop culture history, I had no idea compiling a list narrowed down to merely ten songs would be such a daunting task, but after several revisions, I think I have it down pat, well as of the last draft anyway. I would also like to point out that this list happens to be my favorite songs and in no way shape or form represents what the band is or has done for music and culture. It deeply depresses me to think of someone who has hasn’t had the pleasure to truly listen to The Beach Boys but if you are one of the sad individuals who haven’t, I recommend the 2003 greatest hits compilation The Beach Boys: The Sound Of Summer. I’m generally not a big fan of greatest hits collections but this career spanning compilation acts as a great introduction to the band and gives a great sampling of what they were capable of. However, I personally think the best way to fully appreciate them is by starting at their first record and listening to the rest of the discography in chronological order. Anyway, on with my list!
10. Caroline, No (1966). The closer for the famous Pet Sounds album is a heartbreaking contrast to the album opener Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Although the lyrics may be a bit melodramatic but has any other song about lost innocence or crushed expectations ever been so beautiful? Pet Sounds is an amazing record that explores the nature of celebrating young love, heartbreak, and moving on and this is such a fitting end to that journey, I can’t think of any other way of ending it than the sounds of a train reaching it’s final destination and the welcoming bark of Brian’s very own dogs. Beautiful track from one of my favorite albums.
9. Wendy (1964). On the outside Wendy comes off as a run-of-the-mill mopey teenager songs about a cheating girlfriend or unrequited love, but what makes it one of my favorites from The Beach Boys is the arrangement. There is so many modulating chord changes in the vocals and instruments it blows my mind that it comes from 1964 and from the mind of a self taught musician. There are producers with decades of experience under their belts these days that haven’t come close to the genius of this song’s production. I also love how aggressive and driving the bass guitar is for a ballad.
8. Please Let Me Wonder (1965). It’s been said that this was the first song Brian Wilson wrote under the influence of marijuana. Music wise, it sounds like the grown up version of Don’t Worry Baby exchanging drag racing references with grown up uncertainty. To me it’s a great companion piece to When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) and maybe even God Only Knows. Awesome track.
7. Heroes And Villains (1967). It was their follow up to Good Vibrations and intended to be a gateway into the ill-fated SMiLE project. Although greeted with moderate success, the reviews were mixed. Not too many people got it including members of the band. Jimi Hendrix was once said to him it sounded like “psychedelic barbershop quartet” and that’s a pretty good description. It’s weird and surreal but still masterful and proves how strange Brian Wilson’s mind worked when it came to arrangements.
6. Darlin’ (1967). This is about as close as to R&B or Motown as The Beach Boys ever got. There is a certain low-fi quality to the production of this song that I always found interesting. It was released during a time when the band’s days of topping the charts began to fade and not an often remembered hit. I wish they would have flirted with this style a little more. I also love the confidence in Carl’s lead vocals. It might be a strange choice, but it’s still pop brilliance.
5. I Can Hear Music (1969). While it’s not technically a Beach Boys song, I can’t think of any other cover song that trumps the original like this one does. Originally written by Phil Spector and Ellie Greenwich and recorded by The Ronnettes in 1966, this one one instance when Carl Wilson gets to stand on his own a producer and arranger in his own right. Brian Wilson isn’t featured at all. No vocals, and no production. In fact, he wasn’t even present during the recording session. It’s a song that always makes me wish it was longer.
4. When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) (1965). While Roger Daltry of The Who claimed he’d rather die before he got old. Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s vocal narrative in this song, looks ahead in wonder and sentiment. It’s the child-like naivety that makes this remarkable. We’re listening to a group of guys in their early twenties singing about what the near feature hold for them, but instead of disdain or a longing to stay a teenager, it’s strangely optimistic almost like they know as well as we do that growing up isn’t all fun and games like adolescence is.
3. Good Vibrations (1966). The crowning achievement in pop song experimentation, Brian Wilson called this song a ‘pocket symphony’. Recorded piece by piece over the course of a year, no one by Brian knew exactly what it was meant to sound like until the mixing process began. Countless vocal tracks, instrument arrangements and production, many believed that Brian was on the verge of a nervous breakdown but when the track was finished, everyone agreed that they were a part of something special. On paper Good Vibrations shouldn’t work at all. The hook is all over the place, the verses are off tempo, the drum pattern is not the back beat of the song, and there’s a Theremin in it. The song is completely nuts but the chaos makes perfect sense upon listening. It’s genius put to music.
2. God Only Knows (1966). It would be hard to describe what would some call one of the greatest songs ever written. God Only Knows would be a solid contender. As many times as I’ve listened to this song, I still get goosebumps almost every single time I hear the opening 30 seconds of this song. The production is so lush and livid it makes me sad to think that not many artists have achieved the perfection this song has. Upon deeper inspection, the lyrics are bittersweet. the opening line I may not always love you…. paints an all too real picture that sometimes no matter how passionate a couple can be, the future is always up in the air. Pair that statement with the rest of the Pet Sounds record and you’ll understand the genius that Brian Wilson truly is.
1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (1966). If had to name the greatest pop song in music history, I would be hard pressed to find one better than Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Everything from vocal arrangement, mixing, production, subject matter, is at pristine levels. As much music I’ve listened to in my years, I’ve yet to find anything that comes close to this perfection. It’s everything pop music is about rolled into one simple song. I love how the lyrics come off as sweet and innocent, singing about the simplicity of falling in love and relationships but with sad, and sometimes bleak perceptions of being explored on Pet Sounds we know that this song is meant to be told through the narrative of a naive teenager who hasn’t dealt with the pain of being heartbroken yet. Even as upbeat and bright, there is still a dark sense of disappointment looming in the distance. Pop perfection and one of my all time favorite songs.