Music

The 12 Best Brian Wilson Songs

Photo: Takahiro Kyono / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

From massive hits to obscure, experimental pop compositions, Brian Wilson's music is always thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and as thrilling today as it was in the 1960s.

12. “Surf City" from Surf City and Other Swingin' Cities (1963)

Written by Brian Wilson and Jan Berry

The Beach Boys were the first band to give a major voice to surf music, helping spread the surf craze nationally with songs like "Surfin'", "Surfin' Safari", and "Surfin' USA". But the first surf song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart -- though written by Wilson -- was released by Jan & Dean. The song was also Wilson's first time topping the charts, causing some friction within the Beach Boys over him giving away what could have been their first number one.

Though Jan & Dean brought a bit more star power to the recording, the song is Wilson through-and-through. It opens with a vocal hook of "Two girls for every boy" with an unusual chord progression outside of the main key, a trick Wilson continued to employ throughout the first few years of the Beach Boys' career on songs like "Catch A Wave" and "Hawaii". And, of course, the vocals throughout, with call and response harmonies and Wilson's signature falsetto counterpoint in the chorus, are distinctly Beach Boys in style. "Surf City" is not the most interesting song in Wilson's catalog, but it's the strongest of his early surf songs, and as his first number one, it maintains a special place in his songwriting legacy.

11. “Darlin'" from Wild Honey (1967)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

"Darlin'" was almost another song that got away from the Beach Boys. After the collapse of SMiLE and Wilson's decreasing mental stability, the Beach Boys were falling out of relevancy in 1967 as the Beatles passed them by as pop innovators and newer, hipper, sounds were coming into the mainstream. At the time, Wilson started working with a new group called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night; he wrote and produced a song of theirs titled "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby". But when Mike Love and the other Beach Boys heard the recording, they convinced Wilson to give them the song instead. With new lyrics and a revamped song structure, "Darlin'" was recorded for their Wild Honey album and became a modest hit for the group.

Dubious origins aside, it's one of Wilson's strongest works for the late '60s. It embraces a horn-driven Motown soul sound, which works surprisingly well for the group's vocal harmony style. Carl Wilson's voice has the right kind of energy to make the lyrics come alive and Wilson's arrangement ensures that even with the new direction, "Darlin'" still sounds like a Beach Boys track. Most importantly, though, the melody remains one of Wilson's most elegant to date.

10. “Don't Let Her Know She's an Angel" from Sweet Insanity/Gettin' In Over My Head (1991)/(2004)

Written by Brian Wilson

"Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel" was originally recorded for Sweet Insanity, an album Wilson was working on in 1991 until the tapes were allegedly stolen. Five of the songs, including "Don't Let Her Know", were later re-recorded for Wilson's 2004 album Gettin' In Over My Head. In his spotty post-Beach Boys solo career, the song stands out as a moment of true brilliance. It has all the harmonic complexity, melodic beauty, and deeply-personal vulnerability that makes Wilson's writing so special.

The Sweet Insanity version is filled with dense synth arrangements and programmed drums, an unusual but welcome aesthetic for Wilson. The officially released version returns the song to the chamber-pop style that is more familiar for Wilson, with lush strings and flutes accentuating his intricate web of vocals. He sings about feeling insecure in the beginning of a relationship. The dramatic and passionate music captures his intense emotions and anxieties. As a late-career gem, "Don't Let Her Know She's an Angel" stands out as one of Wilson's most sophisticated songs.

9. “Isn't It Time" from That's Why God Made the Radio (2012)

Written by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas, Larry Millas, and Jim Peterik

To coincide with the group's 50th anniversary, the Beach Boys reunited for their first album of new material since 1992's Summer In Paradise. It was also the first time Wilson had worked with the group since 1988's Still Cruising, and the first time original member David Marks had appeared on a Beach Boys album since 1963's Little Deuce Coupe.

The album is a mixed bag, with most of the songs feeling stale and overstuffed, but a few tracks shine through. "Isn't It Time" has an exciting vitality that makes it one of Wilson's most memorable late-career tracks.

Driven by pounding piano and ukulele chords grooving with syncopated drums and handclaps, "Isn't It Time" reminisces on the past and asks, "Isn't it time we get ready again? / Isn't it time we go steady again?" Much like their 1968 nostalgia-baiting single "Do It Again", "Isn't It Time" pushes the group forward in an exciting way by looking backwards. The lead vocal is split between Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and Mike Love, giving the song a communal spirit and reminding us how powerful their voices are when combined together.

8. “The Little Girl I Once Knew" (1965)

Written by Brian Wilson

Though "The Little Girl I Once Knew" was a decent hit in its time, its status as a standalone single not included on an original Beach Boys album may account for its fading legacy. This is tragic, because it's the perfect transition track from early Beach Boys to Pet Sounds-era experimentation. Like many of the songs on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), "The Little Girl I Once Knew" mixes an up-tempo summer sensibility with unusual arrangements and harmonies. Most notably, there is a two-measure pause before each chorus, occupied only by the ringing out of a single vibraphone note. The pause makes the track distinct, and it prevented many radio stations from embracing it, fearing the few seconds of dead air during their broadcasts.

The lyrics of the song may have held it back from being as universally appealing as the similar-sounding "California Girls", too. Whereas "California Girls" has its problems with objectification, it still comes across as inclusive and jubilant. "The Little Girl I Once Knew" feels more predatory in its excitement for a young girl who's growing up before your eyes. Still, the intricate arrangement, powerful layers of vocals, and distinctive pre-chorus pause make it a strong stand-out song.

7. “Good Vibrations" from SMiLE/Smiley Smile (1966)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

"Good Vibrations" was recorded in 21 recording sessions over seven months in four different recording studios, costing up to $75,000. This made it not only the most expensive single recorded to date, but also the most ambitious. Wilson's approach to the song, composing small sections that would later be assembled together in a sort of collage, proved to be effective for "Good Vibrations".

The song was dubbed a "pocket symphony" by publicist Derek Taylor for its contrasting "movements". Though this compositional process would eventually be the downfall of Wilson's failed masterpiece SMiLE, "Good Vibrations" continues to be one of the most beloved songs of the '60s, in spite of -- or because of, depending on who you ask -- its bizarre structure.

With a theremin hook, prominent cellos, and a bass harmonica, "Good Vibration" is one of Wilson's most distinct sounding productions. Its influence on the ensuing psychedelic and progressive rock movements can't be overstated, but its legacy as a pop hit is impressive as well. "Good Vibrations" changed the way a pop record could be made, the way a pop record could sound, and the lyrics a pop record could have. For a band remembered most for fun-in-the-sun surf and car songs, "Good Vibrations" serves as a reminder that the Beach Boys were also one of the most innovative and boundary-pushing groups of their day.

6. “Surf's Up" from SMiLE/Surf's Up (1967)/(1971)

Written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

Even more than “Good Vibrations", “Surf's Up" was designed to be the true centerpiece of SMiLE. In some respects, it is the album's most straightforward song. “Surf's Up" is elaborate and multi-sectioned, but not filled with eccentric arrangements or sudden shifts in aesthetic. It can easily be reduced to just vocals and piano, as it was presented on Leonard Bernstein's TV special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.

Stripped to its essentials, it's still an elegant, sophisticated piece of pop perfection. Van Dyke Parks's lyrics are cryptic and beautiful. They flow out of Wilson's ethereal melody in a seemingly stream of consciousness fashion. Obtuse and expressionistic, they explore ideas of faith, spirituality, and enlightenment. Wilson's music perfectly captures both the confessional quality and the postmodern imagery of Parks's poetry. His warm chords and ornate melodies recall contemporary art music more than pop. "Surf's Up" may not be Wilson's most accessible song, but in many ways it's his most beautiful.

5. “Don't Worry Baby" from Shut Down Vol. 2 (1964)

Written by Brian Wilson and Roger Christian

The early Beach Boys recordings were notable for their mixing of Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll with the tight jazz vocal harmonies of the Four Freshman. But when Wilson began incorporating Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production, it set the group on their path to the studio experimentation of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. "Don't Worry Baby" is one of the earliest examples of Spector's influence on Wilson, as the latter intended it to be a spiritual sequel to the producer's hit with the Ronettes, "Be My Baby". Alhough "Don't Worry Baby" may never be as iconic as "Be My Baby", it remains one of the Beach Boys' more beautiful and masterful songs.

Lyrically, the tune betrays a masculine anxiety seen in many '60s Beach Boys tracks that is particularly interesting. Before the start of the song, the narrator has challenged another man to a dangerous drag race because of his male pride, but he now seeks comfort in his girlfriend's embrace. As the song shifts keys from E major to F-sharp major for the chorus, the perspective shifts to his girlfriend as she tells him, "Don't worry, baby / Everything will be alright." With lush strings, loud drums, and stacks of harmonies, Wilson manages to take the Spector sound and begin to make it his own on "Don't Worry Baby".

4. “Please Let Me Wonder" from The Beach Boys Today! (1965)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

By the time Wilson was working on The Beach Boys Today!, he had fully developed his studio techniques and arranging style to what we'd see the following year on Pet Sounds. "Please Let Me Wonder" is the most shining example of the kind of sound that would follow. As the story goes, it was the first song Wilson composed under the influence of marijuana, and the expansive sound goes along with his shifting personal and musical perspective.

Much like "Don't Worry Baby", Wilson embraces his insecurities on "Please Let Me Wonder". His character begs the girl he loves not to tell him how she feels: "Please let me wonder," he sings, "If I've been the one you love / If I'm who you're dreaming of." The song contains some of his most dense and powerful vocal arrangements, as well as a lush palette of instrumental color created by layers of guitars, organs, and punctuations by a vibraphone. "Please Let Me Wonder" not only creates the template for the introspective songs of Pet Sounds, but stands on its own as one of Wilson's most personal and affecting ballads.

3. “The Warmth of the Sun" from Shut Down Vol. 2 (1964)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

There's some debate over exactly when "The Warmth of the Sun" was written. It may have been right before, right after, or even during John F. Kennedy's assassination. The truth of its origin aside though, the song carries a spiritual connection to the tragedy, even if the lyrics do not directly address the event. Rather, Mike Love's powerful words describe finding an inner strength in times of heartbreak. The lyrics are emotionally resonant and strongly inspirational, in addition to being more elegant and poetic than Love's lyrics tended to be for the group.

Matched with Wilson's music, the song is as great as a lovelorn ballad can be. The unusual chords, shifting keys from C major to E-flat major to C minor to A major and finally back to C major to cycle through again, capture the longing of the words Wilson sings. His melody balances the frailty of his soaring falsetto with the steadfast optimism of the "warmth of the sun" within him. Many of Wilson's early songs are remarkable for their wild complexity underneath a sheen of catchy, simple pop and "The Warmth of the Sun" is perhaps the preeminent example of this dichotomy. To a casual listener, the song goes down as smooth as any other early-'60s pop ballad, but the layers of expressive chords and intricate vocals underneath add a richness to "The Warmth of the Sun" that only Wilson can achieve.

2. “God Only Knows" from Pet Sounds (1966)

Written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

It would be easy to populate this entire list with songs from Pet Sounds, but for the sake of variety, "God Only Knows" serves as a perfect encapsulation of all the beauty, experimentation, and melodic charm of the album. While it's unlikely than anyone reading this is unfamiliar with "God Only Knows", it's the kind of perfect pop songs that continues to reveal new layers to appreciate on each listen.

"God Only Knows" marks the epitome of Wilson's harmonic brilliance. The verses constantly shift tonal center, always moving forward but never feeling settled. Even when the chorus comes in, the chords keep moving and leave the entire song's key ambiguous. This longing quality is matched by Tony Asher's beautiful words. The lyrics are able to capture honestly the complex and conflicting emotions associated with love. The choice to start a love song with "I may not always love you", is a bold one, but its frankness makes the song more memorable and emotionally resonant. As the vocals circle around a three-part counterpoint in the final chorus, the sentiment is left unsettled in the same way as the music. The track fades away, leaving the impression that the circle of three chords and three vocal parts will continue into infinity.

1. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" from The Beach Boys Today! (1965)

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love

“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" might not be the first song to come to mind when compiling a list of Wilson's songs. It might not even be in the first ten or 20. But the song stands out as his most interesting and impressive work. Released as the first single on The Beach Boys Today!, “When I Grow Up" captures the transition from early to mid-career Beach Boys, looking forward musically the same way its lyrics focus on the narrator's future. The composition is centered around a dissonant five-note chord sung as the main vocal hook which embodies the anxiety the narrator feels as he worries about what he'll be like “when I grow up to be a man."

While many of Wilson's early songs contained difficult and adventurous musical ideas, they were often subtle and made to sound elegant and smooth. “When I Grow Up" is the first instance where the music sounds deliberately difficult. Music theorist Philip Lambert wrote about the chord the vocals hit in the hook, “What is that chord and what is it doing at the beginning of a pop song?" But with lyrics that express deep-seated anxieties about growing up, pursuing your passion, and what it means to be a man in the '60s, the dissonance of the chord -- and the instability it brings the song -- fits perfectly.

Still, “When I Grow Up" is massively catchy and even fun -- if you can ignore its lyrics. That dichotomy between innovative art and heartfelt, sunshine-y fun is what makes Wilson's music so special.

* * *

This article originally published on 20 May 2015.


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