Their surfer aesthetic was key to the Beach Boy’s early image, with their debut single, Surfin’, being released in the last quarter of 1961, and Surfin’ Safari, first debut album, a year later. Surfin’ USA (1963), the band’s second album, saw Brian introduce the ground-breaking double-track vocal effect, and it peaked at number two on the Billboard charts. Touring Internationally meant that the US the band left behind was very different to the one they returned to, in which The British Invasion and Beatlemania were in full effect. Luckily, the success of I Get Around showed the band were able to compete with their British counterparts like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.. By 1965 Brian Wilson withdrew from live appearances, to focus on songwriting and production, he was replaced by Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston. The Beach Boys Today! (1965), the band’s eighth album (in just four years!), marked a step away from the band’s previous surf/youth image, featuring deeper and more mature themes.
In 1966 the band released Pet Sounds, often seen as their magnum opus, an album which is famous for its unconventional instruments (including barking dogs, water jugs and silverware) and rich blend of influences. The album peaked at number two in the UK, making them the highest selling band in the final quarter of 1966. The album is often considered a Brian Wilson solo album, with his revolutionary production techniques and psychedelic, countercultural rock style making it arguably one of the most influential albums of all time, even influencing The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The release of Good Vibrations in 1966 further highlighted the band’s extraordinary sound. It was during the recording of this track that Brian and Van Dyke Parks began work on the band’s next album SMiLE, a revolutionary concept album which never saw the light of day. Brian Wilson’s mental state, reliance on drugs, and pressure to be creative meant SMiLE would go on to become a legendary piece of unreleased music.
In 1968 Brian Wilson briefly sought psychological treatment, leaving the rest of the band to write and produce without him. This set a precedent for Sunflower (1970) which had writing contributions from all members of the band and saw Carl Wilson slowly take over as front-man. Although he returned as a strong force for 15 Big Ones (1976), as time went on, Brian began to appear less and less in public, and the Wilson brothers battled personal struggles throughout the 1970s, with the band even temporarily breaking up at one point. It wasn’t long until Brian became unable to usefully contribute to the project.
By 1983 things were so bad between Dennis Wilson and Mike Love that the two took out restraining orders against each other. The rest of the band begged Dennis to enter rehab, though he tragically drowned in the December of that year. Brian released his self-titled solo debut in 1988, which ironically coincided with the band reaching the top of the US singles chart for the first time in two decades. In 1997 Carl Wilson was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away a year later. His death saw the band go in different directions, with Love and Johnston continuing to perform under the Beach Boys name. The five surviving members reunited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds in 2006, and in 2011 a reunion tour and album was announced for the following year.
All of the above is a mere taste of the full Beach Boys story, a slice of rock history which will be discussed and analyzed for years to come. The band have a rabid fanbase, even today, thanks to their ground-breaking sound, with the songs on this list being just ten out of hundreds of other songs worthy of inclusion.
# 10 – I Get Around
Released in 1964, I Get Around, from All Summer Long was the band’s first song to reach number one in the US. It didn’t do quite so well in the UK, reaching just number seven, although this itself is nothing to be sniffed at as the band became the first non-British group to enter that chart for some time.
Typical of the band’s early “surf era”, the song’s lyrics lack any particular depth or nuance, simply being a fun ode to life as a Californian teenager, discussing cars, girls and the antics of the band’s friendship group. In contrast to the lyrics, the song’s instrumental is extremely deep, featuring fuzzy guitars which were a real revelation – it wouldn’t be until a few years later that Hendrix and Clapton would adopt the technique. The track’s stop and start elements work perfectly with the clap-like drum beat whilst Jardine’s deep twanging bass and the song’s joyous a cappella hook is surely responsible for its impressive longevity.
I Get Around is a great example of Brian Wilson’s complex production style – on first listen the track is irresistibly catchy and immediately pleasant but take the time to study the music and you’ll find a plethora of disparate elements all working together to create a surprisingly complicated soundscape.
Though the track is a positive force, it was not without its dark backstory – it was during the song’s recording that Brian finally decided that he’d had enough of his father-manager’s meddling and fired him. Luckily, despite this awkward familial drama I Get Around is still one of the most enjoyable Beach Boys songs.
# 9 – I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
As its title suggests, the first track from the seminal Pet Sounds, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times is a far cry from the care-free Californian pop of the band’s earlier work. Brian Wilson was anxious to push the boundaries of music, but his record label and bandmates did not share his passion and courage. Therefore, it’s not hard to read the song through an autobiographical lens, reflecting Wilson’s belief that he belonged in a different time.
This psychedelic rock track, with its lyrics discussing alienation and depression, contains some suitably unusual musical elements. The song opens with subtle guitar and harpsichord riffs, which are soon joined by an odd drum beat that sounds somehow like a horse galloping – perhaps a sly reference to Wilson’s wish to escape the constraints of the pop band. The beautiful instrumental is pained and yearning, exquisitely complemented by the band’s vocal additions, which paint a haunting and bleak picture when paired with the chorus’ hook. The theremin best illustrates this cold and otherworldly feeling during the song’s bridge – an alien sound most associated with horror films – which is believed to make its rock music debut on the track.
There can be no doubt that Brian Wilson was decades ahead of his time. Still, we should be thankful that he was born in this era, allowing him to create revolutionary tracks such as this, one of many Beach Boys songs making huge leaps for what could be considered popular music.
# 8 – It’s O.K.
15 Big Ones, released in 1976 was the band’s 20th album and was made up mostly of cover versions with a few original tracks thrown in. Having drifted away from the band, and not received a solo production credit since Pet Sounds ten years before, the album saw Brian return to production duties at the behest of the band.
Surprisingly, the rest of the band persuaded Brian not to produce something avant-garde or unusual, and It’s O.K. sounds about as close to the band’s original sound as would ever be possible after all the band had been through. The track is a feel-good affair, with references to sun, fun and summer. The instrumental features a delightful clap-beat to go with the upbeat lyrics, with what sounds like a country-inspired fiddle fizzing away in the background. Perhaps the song’s most noticeable feature is its heavy bass elements, which pervade the song, adding a certain harsh edginess to contrast the rest of the track’s peppy atmosphere. This bass edge also appears as a vocal element during the end of each of the chorus’ hooks, sounding rather out of place and incongruous, distancing the track just slightly from the relentless positivity of early Beach Boys songs.
Though some of the band members have expressed dissatisfaction with 15 Big Ones, It’s O.K. is a fascinating look into the band’s evolved sound, capturing the upbeat element that made the band famous whilst not ignoring the fact that things had become vastly different.
# 7 – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The opening track of Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” begins with a jangling and glittering intro, immediately setting a dreamy vibe for a song that focuses on a fantasy. Whilst previously Beach Boys songs have been a celebration of youth, this song bucks the trend and is instead made up of wishes for the protagonist and his love, to be older. As well as subverting expectations about the content of the band’s work, the song is very much a cheeky reference to being old enough to get married and sleep together. Back in the mid-60’s, pre-marital sex was heavily frowned upon, and the song is full of references to waiting and how much better things would be if the couple were old enough to properly be together. Fans at the time would absolutely have picked up on the meaning behind the song, which no doubt contributed to its popularity.
Typical of Brian Wilson, despite sounding simple, the song features an extraordinarily complicated instrumental, said to contain two drum kits, two accordions, three basses, two pianos and three guitars. While this complexity might not necessarily fully translate to the song’s jubilant sound, it serves as a display of Wilson’s obsessive attention to detail and his unparalleled ear for composition.
Brian Wilson re-used the title for his 1991 autobiography, suggesting that he has just as much affectionation for the brilliant track as the band’s hoards of fans do.
# 6 – Here Today
Another gem from Pet Sounds, “Here Today,” is an exciting and bombastic track, with a beautiful brass-heavy instrumental. Despite the luscious music, the lyrics of the track paint a rather bleak picture, with the band warning those in comfortable relationships that it will not last, even suggesting that the female subject of the song has previously cheated on one of the band members and will do so again.
Although the jaded lyrics don’t immediately seem to fit alongside the upbeat instrumental (the stunning backing vocals are brilliantly incongruous) the brass, with its pining scratchiness, works really well to demonstrate the darker side of love and relationships. The deepest brass note, which sounds intermittently throughout the song, sounds almost like an alarm – warning listeners that the course of love doesn’t always run smoothly. Similarly, the frantic guitar plucking at the beginning of the track’s instrumental bridge could easily represent the nagging feeling in the back of your head that your love is being unfaithful. This break also features clear references to J.S. Bach, an example of Brian Wilsons’s extraordinary musical knowledge.
The original recording of the track is thought to accidentally contain some studio chatter, which was removed for the song’s remaster at the request of Brian Wilson. It must have been hard for a perfectionist like Wilson to know his song contained an error like this, but of course, it did nothing to hinder the robust majesty of the track.
# 5 – Surfin’ USA
As we continue our top 10 Beach Boys songs list we step into the second half of this wonderful list of songs. Without a doubt the quintessential example of the “California Sound”, this high-energy surf-rock track is surely one of the most recognizable rock songs of all time, even being listed by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of five hundred songs that shaped rock and roll. Taken from a 1963 album of the same name, this is a joyous and boisterous track that manages to capture the chilled-out, sunny atmosphere of surf culture perfectly.
Using an instrumental written by Chuck Berry (allegedly without his consent), the song features a list of various surfing spots around the world (though mainly in California) and the band’s summer plans. Of course, even if you have absolutely no interest in surfing, the track is impossible to ignore, thanks to the band’s dazzling vocal harmonies. There is something truly remarkable about the sweet, varied, and effortlessly pitched harmonies on this and other Beach Boys songs, which make them a joy to listen to. You can hardly perceive that the lovely sounds you hear have been created solely by a human being’s voice.
That’s not to discredit the instrumental, of course, which also has lots to offer, most notably the light and harmonic guitar riffs and that impossibly optimistic keyboard of the bridge. Surfin’ USA fully captures 1960s Californian surf culture, yet there’s also something timeless about it: a positive and cheerful summer bop that still sounds fresh today.
# 4 – Wild Honey
Taken from the album of the same name, released in 1967, Wild Honey is an unusual song with some R&B references. As you might have noticed, the song’s title has obvious sexual connotations, making the track slightly riskier than other Beach Boys songs, with the lyrics using a number of blatant bee and honey related euphemisms.
Thankfully, the song’s instrumental is far more interesting than its predictable lyrics, with a theremin swirling throughout the song’s entirety, perhaps to represent a bee’s erratic flight path. Alongside this are some merry and infectious piano riffs, some fantastic bongos and a delightful, somewhat nervous tambourine. The wild organ of the bridge is really something to behold and works as the perfect foil to the cool and polished vibe of the rest of the song.
Carl Wilson sounds his very best on this track, delivering confident and impressive vocals with an audible swagger. Who would have thought a competent and sensual R&B singer lurked behind his rounded all-American features? The band became famous for their group harmonies, so having one member take center stage on tracks like this is a nice change. That’s not to say the harmonies aren’t present, but they’re very much a background element, their doo-wops chugging away alongside the lead vocals.
Wild Honey was an exciting and very cool addition to the Beach Boys canon, giving Carl the chance to really shine on lead vocals.
# 3 – God Only Knows
“God Only Knows” is one of the best-known tracks from the great Pet Sounds album. “God Only Knows” is a sweet and melodious love song, which sees the protagonist contemplate their eternal, undying love for their sweetheart. Despite the song’s oddly barbed opening line – which Brian Wilson himself was unsure about – this is a beautiful song that is surely impossible not to be moved by.
Fittingly, the song features a lush and divine soundscape full of genuinely lovely flourishes, making it an absolute pleasure to listen to. Of particular note are the gorgeously honeyed strings that pine away in the background and the jolly “clip-clop” percussion and joyful sleigh bells. The group’s vocal harmonies are as stunningly good as ever, swirling and soaring in ways that make you feel almost like floating.
The track is notable for being one of the first pop songs to feature god in the title, which was somewhat controversial and could have annoyed America’s more conservative radio stations. Brian Wilson claims the song’s recording session was a magical and ethereal experience, and this really comes across on the final track – it’s surely impossible to feel down when this warm and lovely song is playing.
Paul McCartney once listed God Only Knows as his favorite song, which should give you some idea of how extraordinary and exceptional this extraordinary track is.
# 2 – Surf’s Up
With a title like Surf’s Up, you might imagine this song to be from the band’s early California-inspired era, but in fact it was released in 1971 with the album of the same name. It could not be further away from the glorious throw-away pop of Surfin’ USA, featuring a complex and nuanced composition and lyrics that will take multiple listens to understand and appreciate fully.
In some ways you could view the song’s title as the band recognizing the definitive end of their long-abandoned surf-sound, reasserting once again that they are serious and talented musicians. This was allegedly inspired by a British gig where the crowd mocked their iconic striped outfits. The lyrics of the song, written by collaborator Van Dyke Parks, read almost like a poem, referencing classical works and discussing the idea that – though tragically impossible – the only way to escape the depression of adulthood is to return to the naivety of youth.
This is undoubtedly Brian Wilson’s finest instrumental, an ethereal and emotional piece, which is simultaneously depressing and uplifting thanks to its impossible beauty. The layers of sound, featuring guitar, piano, trumpets and glockenspiel seem almost to drown you in their dreamy bliss, fitting perfectly with the track’s title. When the song fades away at its end, like the tide slipping away, you can’t help but feel some sense of indescribable loss.
This otherworldly track is an eloquent and heartrending masterpiece, easily one of the band’s most beautiful creations.
# 1 – Good Vibrations
Whilst Surf’s Up is a melancholy magnum opus, even its brilliant moodiness can’t quite compare to the sheer pop perfection of “Good Vibrations.” The jewel in the crown of Pet Sounds, at the time this was the most expensive single ever produced and is thought to have been inspired by a story about the Wilson’s mother’s suggesting that her dog could pick up on unseen vibes which people were unknowingly giving out.
Interestingly the song was recorded in a modular fashion, with no grand end-result in mind. This no doubt explains the track’s disparate elements, its deep, dreamy keyboard-heavy verses which contrast the electro-theremin-infused doo-wop chorus, (with the song’s bridge being a combination of both flavors). The cello that underscores parts of the song is an absolutely genius addition, working with the alien-like theremin to create a subtly uncomfortable feeling which is hard to properly pinpoint – it’s as if the listener too is experiencing the vibrations described in the song. It’s always a smart technique to musically give the listener a taste of what the song is describing, but doing it in such a cunning and hard to detect way is a really clever touch.
The song has appeared on innumerable “greatest songs of all time” lists and even on first listen it’s easy to see why. This is simply extraordinary and unmissable, not just as a Beach Boys song, but as an important and historic piece of music.
Over their substantial career The Beach Boys have created an enviable discography, transforming themselves from happy-go-lucky boybanders into legitimately paradigm shifting musicians. The Beach Boys songs on this list offer just a peek into the band’s varied and multi-faceted sound. Everyone has their favorite track, but those on this list offer some highlights, acting as great entry points into the mystifying and ingenious world of The Beach Boys. Rock and pop music genuinely would not be the same without them.
Updated Nov 8, 2023
Top 10 Beach Boys Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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