The Beach Boys are a hard band to get into. When Mike Taylor asked a while back in the comments to one of my posts which Beach Boys albums someone should try, I actually drew a blank. This is because the Beach Boys rarely made consistently good albums. They started their career when singles, not albums, were the important thing, made one big Album As Statement (Pet Sounds), and fell apart before what would have been their second (Smile).
The band’s work after that, from 1967-74, contains some of the best music ever recorded, but also some of the worst, because they were operating as a democracy. Brian Wilson, the songwriting and production genius responsible for their best music, became less and less interested, and the rest of the band tried to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, while Brian’s brother Dennis turned out to be a great songwriter/producer, and their brother Carl was pretty decent, the other band members really weren’t up to much. (They occasionally hit on something listenable, but more by accident than design).
So this means that for one reason or another, all the Beach Boys’ actual albums are patchy, and you have to do a certain amount of digging in order to find the good stuff.
So where does a beginner start?
First, you’ll probably want the hits. If so, the best of the many, many compilations available is one released in 2003, Sounds Of Summer. Amazon US currently have an offer on to get this with a free T-shirt for $20, incidentally. It’s a 30-track collection, with every track being a top 40 US hit. It contains most of the hits you’ll know (I Get Around, Help Me Rhonda, California Girls and so on), and at least some of these hits are also among the band’s best work – In My Room, Don’t Worry Baby, God Only Knows, Heroes & Villains, Wild Honey and Good Vibrations are great records by any standard.
But after this, you’ll want to get into the band’s artier side. There are various compilations that are meant to introduce this, but all are flawed in one way or another. The best thing to do is dive in at the deep end. The box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys can be picked up dirt cheap – if you’re OK with MP3s, in fact, you can buy the entire 5-CD, 130-track box set for twenty-one quid from Amazon, which may well be the best deal in the world.
That box set contains all the hits, most of the better album tracks, a half-hour-long selection of the best music from the Smile sessions, most of Pet Sounds, and the handful of decent tracks from the post-1977 albums. It’s not perfect – every Beach Boys fan will have their own list of a dozen or so songs that should be on there – but everyone will agree that what *is* on there is mostly essential, and everyone will differ as to those other dozen songs.
If you don’t want to go for the box set, or if you’ve already got it and still want more, the next step is the compilation Endless Harmony. This is a rarities collection put together as the soundtrack for a documentary on the band, and it says something about the perversity of the band that they would leave some of their best music unreleased.
After this, you want two essential solo albums – Brian Wilson Presents Smile (a reconstruction of a finished Smile album, newly performed by Wilson and his backing band) and Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue (get the two-CD deluxe version of this – it’s well worth it).
After you’ve heard all that, you’ll know whether you want to investigate any further or not. You’ll have an idea of the shape of the band’s career and which albums you should pick up. You’ll know if you want the full Smile Sessions box set, or if Brian Wilson’s version is enough for you. You’ll know if you want to hear more of the R&B-flavoured mid-70s stuff or the whimsical soft-psych late-60s.
One piece of warning, though – the Beach Boys’ albums are available on CD as two-albums-on-one-CD packages. Mostly this is OK, but in the late-70s the bands highs and lows were higher and lower than before. The Beach Boys Love You is one of the greatest albums the band ever did, but it’s paired with the frankly feeble 15 Big Ones. LA (Light Album), the last listenable album the band released, is paired with MIU, an album which is torture to sit through. And don’t buy anything (other than Brian Wilson solo albums) from 1980 on. Those albums (Keepin’ The Summer Alive, The Beach Boys, Still Cruisin’, Summer In Paradise and Stars & Stripes Vol 1) range from soulless competence (The Beach Boys, with its drum machines and Culture Club covers) to soulless incompetence (Summer In Paradise, a good argument that all sound recording and reproduction equipment in the universe should be destroyed, and everyone deafened, just in case they might accidentally hear the song Summer Of Love).
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.