There has never been a more culturally important band whose legacy extends far beyond the restraints of just rock and roll than that of The Beach Boys; quite an unoriginal statement, I know, but let me elaborate in my own kind of fanatical fashion. Yes, I know that everything I’m about to elucidate is nothing that hasn’t already been written about them for the past fifty years, but I’ve been quite ecstatic to write about this band and their inspirational music for a good while now. The reason being is that ever since I was much younger, I always looked at them as nostalgic; I can remember hearing their surf rock hits on the radio from time to time and it just made you feel relaxed and up for a bit of fun in the sun.
It wasn’t until I got much older that I decided to listen to their magnum opus Pet Sounds for the first time, and, man, did it blow me away; it was so wildly ahead of its time in its arrangements, melodies, harmonies, conceptual lyrics about coming of age, and its unorthodox production techniques, all thanks to the genius of Brian Wilson; I mean, Wilson pretty much composed and produced all of the music for Pet Sounds by himself…all Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Al Jardine did was lay down their vocal parts. The music is so beautiful and, at times, quite artsy, but most importantly, it’s an album so timeless that it sounds as organic today as it did in 1966; this may or may not be the greatest album of all time, but it’s most definitely the greatest pop album ever recorded.
What I’m trying to say is that my childhood reception of The Beach Boys as just some oldie goldie pop act who raved about surfing, chasing girls, and hot rods was soon buried once I became an adult and started taking notice of their long-lasting influence on popular music with albums like Pet Sounds, the Smile sessions, Smiley Smile, Surf’s Up, Sunflower, Wild Honey, Friends, and The Beach Boys Love You; The Beach Boys were pretty much leaving their print on psychedelic music, art rock, avant-pop, progressive rock, lo-fi music, bedroom pop, indie rock, shoegazing/dream pop/chillwave (I’ll discuss more on that later on in our list.), chamber pop, synth-pop, and experimental rock, among other sub-genres.
That’s why The Beach Boys are one of my favorite bands; most importantly though, that’s why Brian Wilson, the heart and soul of the band, and creative force behind their sound, is a major influence on me as a musician. And this isn’t me discounting the sheer magic of the rest of the bandmates. Mike Love and Al Jardine contribute greatly to their signature harmonizing, while Brian’s brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson further prove that an immense talent ran in their family; in fact, I believe Dennis Wilson, like George Harrison of The Beatles, was the true unsung hero of the group, writing many of their best songs…plus, he was the only one who really surfed, exuding that carefree and laid back attitude their earlier records suggested. Plus, it should also be noted that his 1977 debut Pacific Ocean Blue is a true underrated classic that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of their best albums.
So for this top 10 Beach Boys albums list, I wanted to pick out a handful of records in their lengthy discography that I truly think are their very best works and indicative of what makes them quite possibly the greatest American rock and roll band of all time; that’s quite a statement, I know, but seriously, name me one band from the states who has released a true work of art as monumental as the hit single “Good Vibrations.”
10.) The Beach Boys Love You
For the top 10 position I chose to include their 1977 album The Beach Boys Love You; the reason being is that it was the last truly great record they ever did, and one where they had begun utilizing synthesizers, thanks to Brian Wilson. Originally conceived as a solo effort while Brian was in rehab for his mental decline and drug abuse, Love You soon morphed into a group project for the rest of the band.
Many people hold this one in high regard as not only one of their most underrated albums of their post-Pet Sounds career, but as a highly influential precursor to the whole synth-pop/new wave sound of the 1980’s; there’s also kind of a punk attitude to the album as well, given that it was released around the time when punk rock exploded onto the music scene.
This is an oddity in their discography that was ahead of the curve in its brash experimentation and nothing like the sweet, innocent surfer sounds of the band’s early period.
9.) Surfin’ U.S.A.
Speaking of surfer sounds, here’s a wonderful slice of early 60’s nostalgia right here; I wouldn’t know about living during that epoch and experiencing this kind of music, since I wasn’t born until 30 years after this album’s release, but I’d like to think that I was experiencing it in a past life. This is a quintessential beach album; something to throw on during a summer afternoon while you’re lolling in the company of a blanket of sand and ocean tides.
This was The Beach Boys’ first great album, elevated by their immortal vocal harmonization and knack for killer surf rock rhythms; they even pay tribute to the legendary Dick Dale by doing a rendition of his version of “Misirlou.” And of course, you can’t forget their classic hits “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Shut Down.” This was also the point where Brian Wilson began taking the reigns as the group’s primary producer
I know I stated earlier that The Beach Boys Love You was one of their most underrated albums, but after listening to 1973’s Holland again, I do believe that this one is their most overlooked; in my opinion, it’s their forgotten classic, and one that most likely inspired the sub-genre “yacht rock,” a sound that would be closely associated with artists like Christopher Cross, Steely Dan, Toto, and The Doobie Brothers.
The big hit on here is the great track “Sail On, Sailor,” a song mainly written by Brian Wilson’s friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks and sung by South African musician Blondie Chaplin who was previously in The Flames. But then you’ve got other highlights like the ten minute “California Saga” suite, as well as Carl Wilson’s beautiful “The Trader,” making Holland worthy of the number 8 slot for just those songs alone.
7.) All Summer Long
This was the last Beach Boys album that featured their fervent love for surf and beach culture, and man is it a good one. You all probably know the big hit off here, “I Get Around,” but there’s also the incredibly catchy title track, as well as the infectious motorcycle rocker “Little Honda” and the exhilarating ditty “Don’t Back Down,” the last surf-related song they’d record until 1968’s “Do It Again.”
All Summer Long saw the group officially closing the curtain on their California surfer image in favor of more intricate vocal harmonies and tighter songwriting which would open the door for even more ambitious ideas for the subsequent classics that would soon follow.
6.) The Beach Boys Today!
And this is the moment The Beach Boys finally shed their surfer image and became great performers who were capable of writing more introspective songs with more detailed instrumentation. Brian Wilson had garnered enough experience working in the studio to the point where he would finally steer the band into a more artistic direction, and Today! was that kind of musical statement; this would be one of the earlier rock records to explore the album as more of a creative format, much like what Rubber Soul by The Beatles did the same year.
Brian Wilson’s lyricism, especially on the balladry of side two, displayed a more adult theme when it came to the subject matter of love and individual expression of one’s own repressed feelings. Amid these orchestrated arrangements, Brian was able to forge a dynamic of relatability to The Beach Boys’ newfound musical maturity that set them on the path for greatness within the next year.
5.) Smiley Smile
After the collapse of the now-mythical Smile sessions, Brian Wilson constructed his own built-in studio at his house and the band recorded a trilogy of lo-fi albums; Smiley Smile being the first one. This little fragmented collection of experimental pop songs is a highly noteworthy work in their catalog that inspired droves of indie rock musicians; people like R. Steve Moore, Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco, Clairo, Kurt Vile, PJ Harvey, and Perfume Genius owe a lot to this album’s DIY aesthetic.
Aside from their weird psychedelic single “Heroes and Villains” and crowning achievement “Good Vibrations,“ which were originally intended for Smile, there’s also a conglomeration of atypical recordings that are downright bizarre at times, yet indicative of the trippy sensibilities of the day; stuff like “Vegetables,” “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony),” “She’s Goin’ Bald,” and “Wind Chimes” still seem incredibly avant-garde today as they did back in 1967.
Smiley Smile, along with Wild Honey, and Friends, displays the wonderfully strange genius of Brian Wilson and his predilection for producing music his own way; he pretty much created bedroom pop with these albums. These lo-fi recordings inspired, and continue to inspire, millions of up-and-coming artists to produce their own music within the safe confinements of their home.
Between this one and Surf’s Up, I had a somewhat onerous time figuring out which one was the better of the two; in the end, I chose to put Sunflower at number 4, but it’s such an incredible album that that number means nothing. Honestly, if I made this list based on my own personal love for each record, this one would probably number 2. This is such an awesome album, because it sounds more like an indie pop album than just rock and roll.
And speaking of indie pop, let me explain what I said in the introduction about The Beach Boys influencing shoegazing music. There is a song on here called “All I Wanna Do” that shares all of the same attributes: ethereal vocals and lush guitar melodies coupled with walls of effects-driven distortion. This is definitely a song that Slowdive, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine or Beach House would have recorded, and that’s why The Beach Boys are so damn great.
Of course, there are other classic songs on here like the incredible “Forever” that was written and performed by Dennis Wilson, “It’s About Time,” “Deidre,” “Tears in the Morning,” “Our Sweet Love,” and “Cool, Cool Water.” Don’t sleep on the underappreciated brilliance that is Sunflower, people.
3.) Surf’s Up
For some reason, The Beach Boys’ albums post-Pet Sounds were just not as respected then as they are now; their lo-fi trilogy, along with Sunflower, were commercial failures, and the band was seen as “unhip” during the counterculture movement of the late 60’s/early 70’s. To help curb this decline in relevance, they hired Jack Rieley as their new manager, who not only encouraged Brian Wilson to finish the recording of his song “Surf’s Up” that was gaining attention in the underground press, but also encouraged the entire band to write more socially conscious music.
The result? Hands down their best record since Pet Sounds. Every track on here is fantastic. You’ve got songs like “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree” which are about environmental issues pertaining to water and air pollution; the former being an ostensible spin on their earlier beach image, while the latter is just flat-out dispiriting with its dissonant piano drones and Jack Rieley’s melancholic vocals. But then you’ve got the bluesy rocker “Student Demonstration Time,” which Mike Love was inspired to write after reading about the Ken State Shootings where four unarmed college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard for protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. And finally, there’s the Carl Wilson classic “Feel Flows;” this track is top tier Beach Boys, in my opinion.
Honestly though, this is a perfect album; not on the same level as the number one album on this list…but it is close.
2.) Smile Sessions
There are few albums in popular music history that have developed their own mythos quite like Smile. After the critical acclaim of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson wanted to create something even bigger, better, and more complex than that one. So he met up with singer, lyricist, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks, where they set out to construct an album rooted in Americana, sound collages, cowboy songs, doo-wop, choral music, Disney-esque orchestras, the avant-garde, field recordings, impressionistic psyche folk, progressive pop, musique concrete, cartoons, noise, and classical, with aberrant instrumentation ranging from the application of extended technique with pianos, upright basses, keyboards, woodwind, string and brass sections, as well as even Tibetan horns, toy train whistles, tubas, duck decoys, banjos, keychains, the sound of chewed celery, and countless other strange noises; I mean, Brian Wilson was so heavily immersed in this album’s prodigious and utterly outlandish scope that he somehow “almost” created a piece of art that was a hodgepodge of the past, present, and future of modern music.
But the completion of Smile would soon come crashing down through a culmination of Brian’s addiction to LSD and hash which led to his mental decay, heavy tension between the other bandmates, Carl Wilson’s arrest for draft evasion, and the band’s lawsuit with Capitol Records over royalties, among other things. Soon all that was left of Smile were but a vast collection of songs which included “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” and the original version of “Surf’s Up.” All of these unreleased tracks would stay locked in a vault until 2011 when the entire boxset of the Smile sessions was finally released; the first disc, which features 19 songs in total, was supposed to be a summation of how the original flow and concept of the album was to be intended. And of course, the other several discs featured different outtakes and variations of songs. It should also be noted that Brian Wilson finally re-recorded the entirety of Smile in 2004 with Van Dyke Parks titled Brian Wilson Presents Smile, finally concluding his creative vision that took over 40 years.
With this compilation, however, we get a beautifully messy time capsule of how this esoteric album “would have” sounded like originally, and I know compilations should be off limits in these lists, but the legendary status of Smile just can’t be overlooked.
1.) Pet Sounds
Here it is: The greatest pop album ever recorded. The album that inspired The Beatles to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album that established the moniker “Brian Wilson is a genius.” An album that Brian produced and arranged all by himself. I love this album with every fiber of my intrinsic being; it’s an album I’d take to a desert island with me if I had to choose ten. Pet Sounds is every possible thing you could ever want in an album; it’s lush, it’s grand, it’s beautiful, it’s optimistic, it’s pessimistic, and it’s an album that lifts your spirits and then turns around and crushes them.
Many will agree that artists like The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa were forward-thinking innovators of rock and popular music, but Brian Wilson also belongs in that pantheon. He strived to create the “greatest album ever recorded” with Pet Sounds and to usurp a band like The Beatles from their prestigious throne, and honestly, he probably could have for a time; as for the whole “greatest album ever recorded” argument, it’s a slight possibility.
Pet Sounds is a futuristic record not inhibited by just one genre; it’s baroque pop, experimental rock, art rock, proto-progressive rock, classical, chamber pop, psychedelic pop, and just straight up avant-garde pop. Even some of the instruments used on here were completely unheard for 1966, such as the glockenspiel, ukulele, accordion, bongos, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, and trombone; hell, there are even barking dogs on here. Plus, this was the first rock album to feature a theremin on the poignant track “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times;” Brian would go on to use it more famously in “Good Vibrations.”
You just can’t go wrong with this record; every song from start to finish is nothing short of transcendental wonderment. Really though, if you had to choose just one song on this album to further reinforce the sheer magnitude of The Beach Boys’ greatness, it would have to be “God Only Knows;” those exquisite chord changes alongside the inclusion of harpsichord, French horn, accordions, sleigh bells, viola, and cello, on top of the powerful message within the lyrics, makes this one of the greatest songs ever conceived.
Some like to compare Pet Sounds to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as to which one is truly the better album, and while The Beatles are my favorite band, Pet Sounds is light years ahead of Sgt. Pepper’s. This isn’t simply music: this is art of the upmost divinity that touches and inspires generations.