Music

The 12 Best Brian Wilson Songs

Scott Interrante
Photo: Press (via Wilson's official site)

In addition to his recent album, No Pier Pressure, Brian Wilson is about to have a biopic about him released in theaters. The 12 songs below also form a vivid portrait of his life as a pop genius.

Few songwriters have had a career as long and successful as Brian Wilson. Since the early ’60s, Wilson has penned some of the most iconic and influential American pop music of the past century. Although his life is marked by tragedy and trauma, his legacy runs deep in popular culture. With the upcoming release of Love And Mercy, a biopic starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson at different points in his life, and the recent release of his 11th solo album No Pier Pressure, it feels like a good time to look back at his 50-plus year career and celebrate some of his best work. From massive hits to obscure, experimental pop compositions, Wilson’s music is always thoughtful, idiosyncratic, and as thrilling today as it was in the ’60s.

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 rerecorded 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.

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