Blame it on Brian Wilson’s breakdown, on their guest appearance on Full House to perform “Kokomo” or on self-proclaimed Beach Boys’ antichrist Mike Love, but The Beach Boys have lost more than their fair share of credibility as cornerstones of classic rock. For a slim window of time, they were one of the few American bands that could legitimately rival The Beatles. It’s hard to remember that now, amidst the legal battles over rights to the band’s name and the tidal waves of sloppily-curated studio session box sets, but for awhile—and, yes, even beyond the release of Pet Sounds—The Beach Boys were making albums that were strange and beautiful in equal measure. For those who are still skeptical, the following are eight of their best:
8) The Beach Boys Today!
If Pet Sounds is famous for being Brian’s “complete statement” to rival the thematic continuity of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, then the roots of that effort lie in The Beach Boys Today!. Side One is run-of-the-mill pop fodder laced with the surf guitar riffs familiar to the group’s early albums on songs like “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Help Me, Ronda,” a standout despite the unnecessary fake fadeouts and the brutal recording sessions it look to make it (hear the Wilson brothers’ father drunkenly berate them and sweet, sweet Al for almost 45 minutes as they try to record the song’s tricky harmonies here). But Side Two is where The Beach Boys Today! shines, on which Brian creates a suite of cohesive ballads that turn the band’s attention away from cars, girls and surf to focus on more introspective themes. Brian began to experiment with non-traditional pop music instrumentation, using French horns and additional pianos, basses and saxophones on confessional tracks like “She Knows Me Too Well” and “In the Back of My Mind” for a stunning departure from the band’s previous style.
7) Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
Of all The Beach Boys’ albums featuring exclamation marks, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is the strongest. Released in 1965, it was 23-year-old Brian Wilson’s ninth (ninth!) studio album and provided the platform for the complex harmonies and chord structures of overplayed/underappreciated pop standards like “California Girls” and a superior version of “Help Me, Rhonda” that he’d become famous for. It’s an album of high highs, like Brian’s nod to Phil Spector’s signature powerhouse sound on the gorgeous “Let Him Run Wild” as well as equivalent limbo-champion lows: Summer Days is a borderline surf-rock album (Capitol demanded he return to these themes after The Beach Boys Today! failed to sell as well as past records) with a song dedicated to Salt Lake City. The track “I’m So Bugged At My Ol’ Man” is so laughably bad that Brian cited his vocals as “Too Embarrassed” on the album.
6) The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
When it comes to recording original Christmas music, there are two camps: in one, attempts at new classics lead to gut-wrenching results like “The Christmas Shoes” and in the far more sparsely populated other, you have the rare-but-coveted “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” After being fired as studio pianist for the recording sessions for A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, Brian hired Four Freshman-arranger Dick Reynolds to arrange a 41-piece orchestral backing for his own 1964 holiday album. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album combines upbeat originals like “Little Saint Nick” with lush arrangements of traditional Christmas tearjerkers like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” for an album that taps into the bittersweetness and nostalgia of the season. Their skills as a harmony group are at their sharpest here, showcased on the a capella, ambitious album closer of “Auld Lang Syne,” on which “Denny” breaks the fourth wall and wishes the audience a merry Christmas directly.
5) Smiley Smile
Let’s just get one thing out of the way right now: Smiley Smile isn’t Smile, the much-mythologized magnum opus Brian meant to follow up Pet Sounds with. The album—Brian’s “teenage symphony to God”—was meant to be an auditory journey (read: trip) across America via Van Dyke Parks’ tongue-twisting lyrics and Brian’s soundscape vignettes of American life to, as Paste contributor Geoffrey Himes put it, “use the through-line of classical composition not to replace pop’s intimacy but to reinforce it, linking one personal moment to the next.” After 90 hours of tape and an estimated $50,000 spent on “Good Vibrations” alone, Smile was shelved, and The Beach Boys still owed Capitol a record. Enter Smiley Smile. The Beach Boys cranked out the diminutively-titled album in under two months to meet the record label’s deadline. It was met with critical confusion, and even Carl bemoaned it as “a bunt instead of a grandslam.” And it’s true: Not to mince words, but Smiley Smile is fucking weird, to the point where it’s almost … remarkable? It contains obvious Smile-era standouts like “Good Vibrations” and the poignant Western-themed “Heroes and Villains,” but those are nestled in among the stoner strangeness of lo-fi-produced songs like “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful.” “Vegetables” features the percussive rhythm of Paul McCartney chomping celery, and “She’s Going Bald” is a hilarious reminder that The Beach Boys were 100% dudes in their early 20s, Pet Sounds elegance be damned. As far as late ’60s time capsules go, Smiley Smile is a goofy exploration of the new musical freedom The Beach Boys had, even if nobody—including the band themselves—took it seriously.
4) Wild Honey
A Beach Boys attempt at an Stax-inspired album should have been, for all intents and purposes, a bona fide disaster, as there are very few things whiter than suburban boys in matching pinstripe shirts and ’50s-style crewcuts. Instead, 1967’s Wild Honey marks a return to music created in-house by The Beach Boys themselves (you know, kind of like an actual band) instead of the complex instrumentalist backings performed by the Wrecking Crew for Pet Sounds and Smile. Even though it’s the last album that features Brian as primary composer, it’s cherub-voiced Carl who took the lead on many songs and in many areas of production on the album. What Wild Honey lacks in musical complexity, it makes up for in personality on songs like the title track and “Darlin’.” Carl takes a questionable stab at a Stevie Wonder-vocal impression, covering “I Was Made to Love Her,” but for the most part, his lead vocals help his songs to resonate through clear pop hooks and infectious lightheartedness in ways that no song on any of Brian’s hyper-controlled albums ever could. Even Brian sounds like he’s having actual fun as lead on the deceptively innocent “I’d Love Just Once to See You” and “Here Comes the Night” (If you’ve got time to kill, and I do mean to just throw away into the abyss, listen to the disco-ified version of the latter, re-released in 1979 as an outrageous 11 minutes of excess).
Ask anybody who’s had to suffer through Beach Boys’ renditions of “Barbara Ann” or “Be True to Your School” on oldie’s radio and they can confirm that the early work of the group could easily cross the threshold from sugary into sickly sweet. In contrast, 1970’s Sunflower takes the group’s penchant for sun-soaked melody and applies it more gently on an album that exudes warmth through skilled, elegant production. Paste contributor Brian Chideste called The Beach Boys’ efforts on the album “in many respects, their Abbey Road—a lush production that signaled an end to the 1960s, the decade that gave them creative flight.” There are points when Sunflower is too decadent for its own good—”Tears in the Morning” oozes schmaltz, including a literal accordion solo when Bruce Johnston laments that his wife has left him for Europe—but the album also contains the the undeniably cool shoegazing precursor “All I Wanna Do” and the aching “Forever,” Dennis Wilson’s finest lead vocal contribution apart from his solo work on Pacific Ocean Blue.
2) Surf’s Up
In 1971, The Beach Boys’ released Surf’s Up, and despite the tongue-in-cheek title (spoiler: The Beach Boys enjoyed surfing about as much as Brian looks like he does in the “Brian’s back!”-themed SNL sketch where Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi physically force him into the ocean), it was the darkest album the band would ever record. The album cover depicts a nod to “End of the Trail,” a sculpture featuring a broken-down Native American man who, after coming to a sudden halt, is about to plummet over an unseen precipice—given Brian’s all-consuming nervous breakdown within the next two years, the imagery is all too portentous. Straight from the discordant chords that open the album on “Don’t Go Near the Water,” the album is miles from “Surfin’ Safari” as an early pioneer of prog rock. Carl’s alien and ethereal “Feel Flows” finally connected The Beach Boys to the counterculture more than the album’s Kent State shooting protest jam “Student Demonstration Time” ever could, and the organ-laden “A Day in the Life of a Tree” and the haunting “Til I Die” may just be Brian’s last great compositions. But the real standout is the album’s title track, a leftover from Smile. “Surf’s Up” is innovative, enigmatic and sublime evidence of the woulda/coulda/shoulda run for their money The Beach Boys almost gave the Beatles in 1967.
1) Pet Sounds
While there is admittedly nothing original left to say about Pet Sounds, anyone who says the 1966 album is overrated is, without exaggeration, lying to you and to themselves. In the early ’60s, The Beach Boys songs about summer and cars and girls marketed them as an idyllic portrait of the white (and whitewashed) picket fence version of the American Dream; in reality, Brian was an anxious young man with an abusive father. In Pet Sounds’s 36 minutes, Brian creates an album whose thematic arcs of growing up and disillusionment implode the happy-go-lucky narrative surrounding the band. The album opens with a tinkling 12-string guitar solo on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” when—crash!—in comes Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine with a drum smack to successfully eliminate whatever innocence you thought Pet Sounds could harbor a whopping seven seconds in. There’s no throwaway tracks on the album, even in its two instrumentals. Brian denies the inevitable end of a relationship on the too dreamy “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and experiments with a ghostly sounding Theremin on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (it’s use on Mad Men haunts me to this day). Pet Sounds is an album of upending expectations—“God Only Knows” is possibly the most moving love song ever written, and its opening line is “I may not always love you,” so come on—of the studios who wanted commercial hits, of the audiences who wrote The Beach Boys off as surf rock noise and of the critics who felt that rock music had to sound a certain way. Its coming-of-age themes are as universal as they are painfully personal, making Pet Sounds, without a doubt, “a complete statement.”