The Beach Boys’ discography is so massive, yet so often overlooked. By 1969, the band had released an album entitled 20/20 to commemorate the release of their 20th album (including greatest hits packages; it was only their 15th studio album). In the early 2000s, when I was blossoming ever-so-gently into a raging Beach Boys fanatic, I devoured those twofer CDs like candy on Christmas morning (my family’s traditional meal–you only live once, or so I’ve been promised). It can be a daunting task to undertake the band’s catalog as one migrates from the casual, greatest hits fan into the abyss of gimme all your tracking sessions, Brian. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the band fell from the grace and favor of the record-buying (and listening) public at large, leaving so many gems buried.
With so many tunes to choose from, I developed a very basic criteria for what could be included on this list: you shouldn’t be able to find the song on The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: 20 Good Vibrations or The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 2: 20 More Good Vibrations or Pet Sounds. (There is one exception on this list…but this is my blog, I can break my own rules.) No “In My Room.” No “Warmth of the Sun.” No “I’m Waiting for the Day” (take six). While those songs may not be instantly recognizable to many, I consider that Beach Boys for babies, and I am the Nanny in the white-and-green striped tights with killer purple sneakers kicking you outta the nursery. Let’s go.
1. “The Lonely Sea,” Surfin’ USA, 1963
Watch Brian sing this track in a film you would only watch if you are an obsessive Beach Boys fan–Girls on the Beach. Not that I obsessively waited for this film to be on TV so I could record it or anything…
Pet Sounds doesn’t exactly have the corner on soul-wrenching tunes in the Beach Boys’ catalog. Take this track from the Beach Boys’ second album as a case in point. Stunning. Haunting. Beautiful. Written and sung by a 20-year-old Brian Wilson. Yeah, he earned the right to stay in bed for three years.
2. “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” Little Deuce Coupe, 1963
Talk about a jam. Dennis is trying so hard on this song, and I love it. Most of my car knowledge comes from Beach Boys lyrics, but I have no idea what 80% of the lyrics of this song even mean. “The wildest short around is my cherry, cherry coupe.” What??? “Door handles are off, but you know I’ll never miss ’em/They open when I want with the cellunoid system.” (Yeah, Mike Love’s nasal tones call it a “cellunoid” system. I know.) Sounds awesome, but I really have no idea.
(Side note: Little Deuce Coupe, a collection of “hot rod” songs, is considered an early example of a concept album. But what is more amazing is that it was released a mere month after Surfer Girl. The band released three–!!!!!–albums in 1963 alone. Is it any wonder why Brian suffered a nervous breakdown?)
3. “Girls on the Beach,” All Summer Long, 1964
I include this song as an example of how even early Beach Boys’ songs that dealt with “summer and fun and summer and summer and fun and cars” that weren’t particularly thought-provoking or inspiring were still harmonically breath-taking. Also, Dennis gets a little vocal solo, so there’s that.
4. “The Lord’s Prayer,” The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, 1964
I first heard The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album by repeatedly checking out the cassette tape from the local library year-round. This track was tacked on the end of side two (I think), and I was so disappointed when I purchased the original album on vinyl and it wasn’t included. I was even more disappointed when it also was not to be found on Ultimate Christmas. It was originally found on the flip side of “Little Saint Nick.” What other band could so seamlessly pair a tune about Santa’s hot rod with such a heartfelt, gorgeous rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer”?
5. “Good to My Baby,” Today!, 1965
In a word: TUNE. On the surface, it’s just a good little rock ‘n’ roll song. Take away the vocals (as the above video does), and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of Brian’s music. So much of The Beach Boys’ music is like that: effortless on the surface, its sonic complexity easily overlooked. It’s how we separate the Mike Loves from the Brian Wilsons.
6. “Please Let Me Wonder,” Today!, 1965
Today! is such a great album. While the first side is full of upbeat, infectious rock ‘n’ roll numbers, “Please Let Me Wonder” opens the introspective second side. It’s one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, and it features one of Brian’s most beautiful, sweetest vocals.
7. “Kiss Me Baby,” Today!, 1965
Kiss a little bit, fight a light, kiss a little bit, woah baby…
Oh my gosh, words can’t even do justice to the beauty of this song. Even Mike doesn’t mess it up. Enjoy the acapella version in the video posted above.
8. “Girl, Don’t Tell Me,” Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965
Dripping with the Beatles’ influence (most obviously “Ticket to Ride”), this is a great little tune, far superior to its A-Side (Ba-ba-ba-BARF-Barabra Ann…no, it’s a good song for what it is, really) and featuring a rare (at that time) lead vocal from Carl Wilson.
9. “Surf’s Up,” The SMiLE Sessions, 1967
None of the versions of this song found on the five-disc SMiLE Sessions come close to the simple beauty of Brian’s television performance. The narrator of the program observed: “Here is a new song—too complex to get all of the first time around. It could come only out of the frontman that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.'” He goes on to describe the song as “poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity…a symbol of change” in the world of pop music. Eyes closed, Brian’s heartfelt delivery is unparalleled. How different the world of pop music might have been had this song and the rest of SMiLE had seen the light of day.
10. “Let the Wind Blow,” Wild Honey, 1967
“Let the Wind Blow” is a somber ballad comparing love to nature, with the singer urgently pleading that, as elements of nature, his love might be a part of his life forever.
11. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” Friends, 1968
A chill song in which Brian sings directions to his house and describes what keeps him busy while he waits for you to finally show up (and wow, is he busy). Once you do finally arrive, you’ll find him “in my house somewhere, keepin’ busy.” Has to be in my top ten Beach Boys songs, ever. I’ve been singin’ it at least three times in a row every night before going to bed for the past few days.
12. “All I Wanna Do,” Sunflower, 1970
This is another chill song, and I have to award credit to Mike Love for not pulling deep bass or nasal tones and inducing vomit like he usually does. He actually sings, and his vocal tone suits the ambiance of the song. I always see Mike practicing meditation when I hear this song, though. I think there may be a clip of that in Endless Harmony or some other Beach Boys documentary. Oh well, I just have to close my eyes harder, I guess. (“Tony and I think that if you close your eyes you can see a place or something that’s happening. It’s like being blind but because you’re blind you can see more. Don’t you think it’s a spiritual kind of thing?” “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I closed my eyes. Didn’t see a thing.” Can’t stop, won’t stop.) Still, a good song.
13. “Forever,” Sunflower, 1970
So I’m going away, mmmm, but not forever…
Quite simply one of the most beautiful and romantic songs ever written. Some might even call it a “rock ‘n’ roll prayer.” I hope you’ve never had to listen to John Stamos sing this song; it’s a gross offense to sugar and spice and all things nice–especially a genuinely soulful singer, Dennis Wilson. It’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking to see how Brian watches the video montage of his younger brother with pride and sadness. Give that man a hug–or a kiss on the head like his little brother once did.
14. “Feel Flows,” Surf’s Up, 1971
When Brian retreated into a cocoon of drugs and isolation, Carl stepped in and became the de facto leader. He was the beating heart of that band and, sadly, with his death, the Beach Boys became the fractured band we have today. “Feel Flows” (along with so many others of this period, including “Long Promised Road” also from Surf’s Up) is a fine example of Carl’s blossoming songwriting and production skills. It’s a jam.
15. “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” Surf’s Up, 1971
Sounding more like The Beatles than The Beach Boys, Al (yep, little Al Jardine) woefully sings about job-hunting. But in a haunting, trippy way. But I’ll be coming home tonight/And everything will be alright/And we’ll be looking at tomorrow…You go, Al.
16. “‘Til I Die,” Surf’s Up, 1971
“I’m a cork on the ocean,” are the opening lines to “‘Til I Die,” which Mike Love once annoyingly described as “the last great Brian Wilson track.” (He probably also screamed that this song was NOT BEACH BOYS FUN! It’s a special brand of fun, you know.) That opening image perfectly encompasses Brian’s despair. It’s such a beautifully depressing song. “I’m a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away,” Brian concedes. Yet, amazingly, he ultimately triumphed. What a guy.
Sometimes I just lay in bed and sing this song. That’s not a red flag or anything.
17. “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” The Beach Boys’ Love You, 1977
Oh, this song. (Oh, this album.) All three brothers share the vocal responsibilities, with Brian and Dennis splitting each verse and Carl singing the bridge (oh-oh-oh man). The Moog synthesizer abounds amidst this aural paradise, lending it a quirky edge. Brian loves this song and so do I.
Well, that’s a good start. What’d I miss?
See you tomorrow, Hal!
P.S. In the spirit of Christmas, let me implore you to be a Brian Wilson in a world full of Mike Loves.
P.S.S. The appropriate response when Mike Love asks if you like his beret or just opens his mouth in general: