6. “Surf’s Up” – 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 seeming 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” – 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 masculine anxiety seen in many ’60s Beach Boys tracks which 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” – 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 in “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” – 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 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” – 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 that anyone reading this is unfamiliar with “God Only Knows”, it’s the kind of perfect pop song that continues to reveal new layers to appreciate with 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)” – 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 was originally published on 20 May 2015.