The Beach Boys are a prime example of how innocuous pop culture can be used to ferment and distribute ambitious, strange ideas on an international scale. Though they started off as nothing more than a fun-loving cash grab based around California’s sought-after beach culture, the artistic coming-of-age of the band’s lead songwriter Brian Wilson brought the Beach Boys to ambitious new places that put them in indirect competition with the likes of The Beatles while transforming what pop music could be forever. These are 10 songs that show the best of what The Beach Boys had to offer.
1. “All Summer Long”
Despite their maturation in the late ’60s, most people still think of summer fun when they think of the Beach Boys, and “All Summer Long” is perhaps the peak of that innocent version of The Beach Boys — a two-minute ode to a summer romance, the tiny details that make it all worthwhile, including “t-shirts, cutoffs and a pair of thongs,” plus the briefly bittersweet note that creeps in when the boys sing “Won’t be long till summertime is through.” The fun is palpable and the vocal harmonies are irresistible, but that nod to the impending loss of innocence and sunshine signals that there’s something more when it comes to The Beach Boys.
2. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
Speaking of the loss of innocence, The Beach Boys used one of the standout tracks on their underrated album Today! to immortalize the questions of a young man looking forward to his future and wondering how time might change him. The vocal harmonies and lyrical touches, from the age count (“22…23″) in the choruses to the wistful refrain “Won’t last forever” toward the end, pile up to create an increasingly infectious tune that manages to pull on the heartstrings for their honest look at the reality and difficulty of aging and adulthood, kept light with the sunny vocals and childlike harpsichord.
3. “Barbara Ann”
The Beach Boys knew how to be fun without becoming cloying in their early days, and the most inexplicable fun of their long career is contained on the loose concept album Beach Boys’ Party!, which uses the pretext of a live house party performance by the band to give the members an excuse to improvise and goof around through a series of covers and original compositions that ends with this corker of a singalong. The messiness of the whole song only adds to the catchy fun, as the Beach Boys still seem to invite listeners to clap and sing along with them, despite the 50 intervening years since its recording.
4. “California Girls”
Another sunny early Beach Boys single whose simplicity turns out to be a boon rather than a hindrance. “California Girls” is nothing more than a love letter to the women of the band’s home state, plus an inventory of what women are like elsewhere in the country, but the music is filled with the sort of sophistication few would expect from The Beach Boys. It’s easy to overlook when you’re swept up by the goofy vocals and strong melody, but pay attention to the orchestral introduction and the multi-layered wall of sound that seems to lift the entire song up a notch.
5. “God Only Knows”
The sunny side of the Beach Boys went mostly out the window for Pet Sounds, an album of intensely layered studio composed ballads that Brian Wilson mostly developed on his own with a collection of studio musicians while the other band members were touring. Of all the fascinating ballads, “God Only Knows” ranks as the most achingly beautiful, boasting the sort of melody and lyrics that feel as though they’ve existed forever and will continue to do so, spiced up with oddball instrumental touches that never distract from the familiar central message of enduring love that rarely sounds quite so powerful.
6. “Good Vibrations”
Pet Sounds was a commercial flop for The Beach Boys, but Brian Wilson made up for it by penning his band’s greatest single shortly afterwards. “Good Vibrations” combines the obsessive complexity of Pet Sounds with the nostalgia-tinged sun and fun sounds of earlier Beach Boys recordings. The result is an all-around triumph of a song that boasts multiple changes, alternating between transcendental balladry and infectious pop harmonies, and stands as one of the greatest achievements in pop music within a single song.
7. “Heroes and Villains”
Smile was supposed to be the masterpiece to trump the Beach Boys’ previous masterpiece Pet Sounds, but Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown kept him from completing the album as intended. A few of the unfinished tracks were shoved onto the rushed rehash Smiley Smile, though some of them, like “Heroes and Villains,” already sounded plenty complete. Built around a chorus that sounds like a warped nursery rhyme ditty, the song shifts again and again in its short runtime, as the lead vocal track is surrounded by dozens of backup ones, giving the eerie impression of Wilson’s mental struggles and making a strong song that much more endlessly fascinating.
8. “All I Wanna Do”
The Beach Boys early surf-centric material can sound dated, but so much of their best work sounds twice as visionary today as it did upon its release. Such is the case with this sleepy standout from their album Sunflower. The dazed love ballad has a typically strong vocal melody complimented by some subtly deployed backing vocals, but the true star is the hazy atmosphere of the song that sounds like the inspiration for dozens if not hundreds of shoegaze and indie bands who still can’t manage to equal the brilliance of The Beach Boys at their best.
“Cabinessence” is just weird enough that knowledgeable listeners will have no trouble recognizing it as a scrapped song from the scrapped album Smile. It survived on the later album 20/20 as one of the album’s most memorable and inexplicable recordings, with lyrics that reference American range life and a dozen other topics that don’t clearly relate. The song is as interesting as, say, “Good Vibrations,” and though it doesn’t boast the same infectious chorus, “Cabinessence” is epic in scope and intimate in production, so complex it’s like a secret code still waiting to be cracked.
10. “Surf’s Up”
Despite what the name might suggest, this isn’t one of The Beach Boys’ famous sun-and-fun anthems, but instead another Smile holdover that gives us a glimpse at the insane scope and ambition of that album that never was. The uplifting lyrics refer to a spiritual awakening matched by the mystery of the instrumentation that manages to sound both spare and intricate at the same time. The drama, depth, and emotion of both lyrics and music shines through even when one doesn’t quite have a strong grasp on the song’s content.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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