Several years ago, now, Mike Taylor asked in the comments to this blog where someone who wanted to get into the Beach Boys should start. I never gave a proper answer.
In part, that’s because he was asking about albums, and the Beach Boys have very few albums one can recommend utterly unreservedly. Their earliest albums are hit singles plus filler tracks. Their later ones are democratic affairs with contributions by less-talented members given equal or even greater prominence. And oddly, given how distinctive a sound they had, many of their albums sound absolutely nothing like one another. The Spectoresque pop of Today! sounds nothing like the lo-fi blue-eyed soul of Wild Honey, which has nothing to do with the raspy Moog-driven outsider art that is The Beach Boys Love You, which is nothing like the Carpenters-style soft pop of Sunflower. This means that even the albums one *can* recommend aren’t great starting places — someone who hates Love You might love Sunflower, and vice versa.
So here, I’m going to talk about a few of the albums, but my first recommendation is that you get a hits collection. In particular, I recommend The Platinum Collection: Sounds of Summer Edition (not to be confused with The Platinum Collection or Sounds of Summer, two different Beach Boys hits collections. There have been a lot of Beach Boys hits collections…)
This collection currently goes for the *stupidly* low price of £13.70, and contains sixty tracks, of which around forty, by my reckoning, are classics. It covers the band’s whole career up to 1996’s remake of Fun Fun Fun with Status Quo, and in approximately chronological order. One could make the argument that this is all the Beach Boys anyone *really* needs — and while I’d disagree, it’s notable that, for example, when Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys played a sixty-song set at the Albert Hall a few months ago, there was something like a fifty-song overlap with this set.
But once you’ve bought that, where do you go from there?
The next stop, obviously, is Pet Sounds. Widely regarded the greatest album ever, my own view is that it is slightly overrated — but still a truly great album. Five songs from it (Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me, God Only Knows, Sloop John B, and Caroline, No) appear on the hits collection, but it works far better as a whole than the sum of its parts. It’s a strange album — musically, it takes the Spector formula but makes it more mature, more sophisticated, borrowing from Bacharach and exotica, but lyrically it is, if anything, even more adolescent in its concerns than Spector. But anyone who’s ever been a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in with the people around them will relate to it.
Smile, the album that was meant to come after Pet Sounds, was never quite finished in the 1960s, but can now be bought in two versions. Brian Wilson’s 2004 solo rerecording features Brian’s (much deteriorated) older voice, but is a completed, finished work. The Smile Sessions, available in single-CD, double-CD, and five-CD versions, is an attempt to reconstruct the album from what was recorded in the 1960s. The 2004 version has the edge as an album, but in any form songs like Heroes & Villains, Surf’s Up, Wonderful, and Good Vibrations are musical perfection. The album, in either form, is a beautiful, complex, piece of baroque-pop psychedelia, one that almost resists description.
Sunflower is not an album I particularly like, but it’s the fan choice (and the choice of some of the band members) for the best album the band did that wasn’t called Pet Sounds. It’s pretty, feather-soft pop — it shouldn’t surprise anyone who hears it to discover that the band’s touring keyboardist would go on to be the Captain in The Captain & Tenneile. But there are some real songwriting gems in there — This Whole World may be the best sub-two-minute pop song ever, and Forever has justly become regarded as a classic.
The Beach Boys Love You is about as far from Sunflower as it’s possible to get. It was made when Brian Wilson was coming out of one of his worst periods of mental illness, and both he and his brother Dennis had destroyed their voices. I’ve said this before, but the album sounds like what would happen if you got Jonathan Richman and Bach to collaborate on a set of songs, but then got Tom Waits to perform them with the only instrumentation being a Moog set on “fart noise” and a single snare drum. It was released in 1977, and other than Neil Young’s work at the time is the only intelligent response anyone from the 60s generation had to punk — despite the fact that the band were almost certainly completely unaware of punk’s existence.
And the final recommendation for beginners is Dennis Wilson’s solo album Pacific Ocean Blue, also from 1977, and with similar Tom Waits-style gruff vocals, but here performing songs that owe more to Bruce Springsteen — muscular, gospel-inflected, 70s rock with a tinge of the Spector wall of sound.
Those five albums, along with the hits collection, will give you some understanding of the sheer stylistic breadth of the band. No two of those albums sound anything alike, and it is entirely possible that you’ll fall in love with one of them while disliking, or even detesting, the others. So the advice for where to go from there depends very much on which albums you liked.
If you liked Pet Sounds: The Beach Boys Today!, which came out the previous year, is very much a dry run for Pet Sounds, with the same adolescent themes, complex chord sequences, and Spectoresque instrumentation. Summer Days… And Summer Nights! is also sonically similar, though weaker in terms of songwriting.
If you liked Smile: Smiley Smile, the album which came out in its place in 1967, takes the same musical ideas in a completely different, much stranger, but equally interesting direction. And Brian Wilson’s 2008 solo album That Lucky Old Sun is a similarly ambitious work, and a minor masterpiece.
If you liked Sunflower: Surf’s Up, the album that followed it, has a lot of the same sound to it. It’s a patchier album, and to my mind the high spots are higher, but the worst tracks are very rough. 1979’s LA (Light Album) is a very similar collection, which had a terrible reputation for a long time, but which is now being reevaluated.
If you liked Love You: Smiley Smile is similarly strange. Friends, from 1968, is a far lusher, more produced record, but with a similar childlike eccentricity.
And if you liked Pacific Ocean Blue, Carl & The Passions (So Tough) has a similar 70s rock feel, as does The Beach Boys In Concert (not to be confused with Beach Boys Concert — the one you want starts with the song Sail On Sailor).
And finally, what NOT to buy:
Anything recorded after 1980, other than some of Brian’s solo albums (and Al’s surprisingly listenable solo album from 2010), is at best patchy. Summer In Paradise may be the worst album ever put out by a major act, and the other 80s and 90s albums are pretty bad.
15 Big Ones and MIU Album are for fans only. Really not very good, but with a few tracks on each that make them worth owning for the devoted fan.
And the first five albums the band released — Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl, Little Deuce Coupe, and Shut Down vol 2 — are all far better than the 80s material, but usually consist of a couple of great singles, one or two really good album tracks, and a bunch of filler surf instrumentals, bad comedy tracks, and failed experiments. Given that they were recorded in an eighteen-month period, by a band who were mostly teenagers, they’re impressive, but don’t buy them unless and until you’ve become a completist.