The Beach Boys are my favorite band. I still can’t seem to give up the idea that the Beatles were the “greatest”. They never released a bad album, and were the prototype for all rock bands to follow. The Beatles were elite for a longer stretch of albums, but at his peak Brian Wilson topped them. The shining star of pop, Wilson achieved the highest levels possible in the realm of popular music. He wrote, arranged, and produced. The Beatles + George Martin wrapped into one. All following pop composers are compared to the incomparable standard of Brian Wilson, the true pop genius. Here’s my top ten Beach Boys LPs.
1. Pet Sounds (1966)
The single most important piece of art in my life. The greatest album ever, and it’s no contest. The worst song on this album would be the best song on 99% of other albums. It maintains its thematic center throughout, one which has touched me so consistently: youthful, romantic ideals confronted with the harsh realities of life. The bittersweet image of naive and innocent purity’s impending tarnishing. When I think of the album as an art form, I think of Pet Sounds. The consistency of its quality, the connected lyrical theme throughout, and the personal bond it shares with me makes Pet Sounds the perfect album.
2. Friends (1968)
Released at the height of hippie excess, this masterpiece went unnoticed. Bizarrely though, this album, while extremely pleasant and nonabrasive, is more psychedelic than anything David Crosby ever penned. I dare you to smoke some dro and not dig the hell out of the laid-back mellow grooves of Friends. Brian’s songs are uniformly remarkable: “Friends”, “Busy Doin’ Nothing” ,and the song I want played as I ascend to the pearly gates, “Passing By”. But the real marvel of Friends is the emergence of Dennis Wilson as a legitimate songwriter. “Little Bird” established the unlikely Denny (through some form of osmosis from his genius brother) as the songwriter who allowed the Beach Boys to continue at their high standards post-Brian at the helm.
3. Today! (1965)
Although Summer Days preceded Pet Sounds chronologically, Today! is its true creative precursor. The second side of this record is the perfect bridge to Pet Sounds. Featuring “Please Let Me Wonder”, “Kiss Me, Baby”, “She Knows Me Too Well”, and “In the Back of My Mind”, side two is a stunning display of the increasing mastery Brian was attaining. With Today!, Brian showed he was moving beyond the beach- and car-based early hits, and gave hints of where he was going. The first side is no slouch either as “Good to My Baby”, “Dance Dance Dance”, and “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” are all top notch. I particularly love Dennis’ vocals on “Do You Wanna Dance” ,which tops the original.
4. Wild Honey (1967)
After the dissolution of SMiLE (Which would be the second greatest album of all time had it been released) and the letdown known as Smiley Smile (which some people actually list as a favorite), the Beach Boys needed a quick fix. They delivered with an injection of soul into their classic formula. Predating Dylan and the Band’s return to the roots, they stripped the increasing orchestration of previous work and released this lost gem. “Aren’t You Glad”, “Let The Wind Blow”, and “I’d Love Just Once to See You” are phenomenal, but the show stopper is “Darlin’”, a song in the conversation for greatest pop single, remarkably not a huge hit. Carl’s vox dominate this album. His ragged blue eyed soul really puts it over the top.
5. Love You (1977)
When I first heard this album I thought it was a mistake. Surely this wasn’t the Beach Boys giving me gravely out-of-tune vocals, insipid lyrics, and an insidious synth bass throughout. But after a few listens it started to charm the hell out of me. Past the bizarre lyrics and production laid Brian’s most musically accomplished set in a decade. “The Night Was So Young” belongs up there with anything he wrote in the ‘70s. “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together”, “Let Us Go on This Way”, and “Airplane” are a true return to form. Dennis gargles razor blades to wonderful effect on “Mona”, “I’ll Bet He’s Nice”, and “I Wanna Pick You Up”.
6. Sunflower (1970)
A lot of Beach Boys poseurs reach for this album as the best behind Pet Sounds. It is a phenomenal record no doubt, but I don’t really get the fervor when it’s compared to something like Friends or Wild Honey. “Add Some Music”, “Tears in the Morning”, and “At My Window” are too saccharine and “Cool Cool Water” is a SMiLE leftover (and just as every other I prefer the original). But onto the masterpieces: “All I Wanna Do” is a perfect song. “This Whole World” rules and Dennis continues to shine with “Slip on Through”, “Got to Know the Woman”, and “Forever”. Even with an ever-reclusive Brian, the boys somehow managed to maintain standards.
7. Surf’s Up (1971)
Carl steals the show here. “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows” are his greatest songwriting contributions, with the latter being one of the band’s best songs. “Student Demonstration Time” is simply embarrassing. Jardine’s songs are slight. The showstopping Brian penned trilogy, along with Carl’s songs, are where this album earns its status. Again, I tend to feel weird listening to SMiLE songs outside its original context. So for that illogical reason I don’t inflate my opinion of an album for having a SMiLE classic, such as “Surf’s Up”. “A Day in the Life of a Tree” is really beautiful, though maligned by some. “‘Til I Die” is possibly the most sublime rumination on life and death.
8. Holland (1973)
The first album here that isn’t five-star classic status. The addition of the two South Africans really bothers me for some reason. Just dropping strangers into a musical institution doesn’t seem kosher. The lone remnants of Brian are two of the best songs: “Sail on, Sailor” and “Funky Pretty.” Mike Love miraculously penned the serene “Big Sur”, amidst the sometimes embarrassing California Saga (“The Beaks of Eagles”, I’m looking at you). Dennis’ “Only with You” is gorgeous, although I prefer his solo version. The best song on the album, however, is Carl’s tour de force known as “The Trader”.
9. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
A somewhat slight album, stuck between the majesty of Today! and Pet Sounds. Nevertheless, Summer Days contains some impressive work. “Let Him Run Wild”, “You’re So Good to Me”, and “Girl Don’t Tell Me” are some of the best non single album cuts of the earlier days. “Summer Means New Love” is the earliest of Brian’s classic instrumentals. And hey, it’s got one of the finest pop singles of all time on it in “California Girls”.
10. 20/20 (1969)
As high as it is (yes the tenth best Beach Boys album is a prestigious honor) on the strength of the back-to-the-basics single “Do It Again”, featuring Mike Love at his most nasal, 20/20 also features two gorgeous pleasantries: “I Went to Sleep” and “Time to Get Alone”. Both written in 3/4 waltz time, these songs define the Beach Boys to me. Gorgeously low-key, these classics arrive for a minute only to leave you wanting more.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.